ZEPHYRA LOOKED UP FROM HER DESK AT THE sound of a light tapping on her door. “Come in, love,” she said, knowing by the sound of it that it would be Medea.
Sure enough, she pushed the door open to peer into the room. “Am I disturbing you?”
“No, baby. I was just straightening up a bit.”
Medea arched one brow at that. Zephyra couldn’t blame her. She was, after all, horrifyingly tidy on her worst day. But it was a ner vous habit she had. Whenever things were confusing, she had a compulsive need to clean what she could.
“How’s our guest?” she asked, trying to distract her daughter from that bold scrutiny.
“Eyeing a couple of the priestesses for dinner. I’ve already warned him that they’re off the menu even though he thinks they’d be quite tasty.”
“Good. I don’t want to fight Artemis on that.”
Medea entered the room and closed the door. “You still love him, don’t you?”
“Love who?” she asked, trying to make light of the question. “Davyn? I don’t even know him. The only thing I love about him is his absence.”
She hated how pointed Medea could be at times. “I don’t love him, either,” she said dismissively. “I can barely stand his presence.”
“And yet you light up every time he looks at you.”
Zephyra put a stack of papers into the garbage can. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
Medea stopped her as she started for her desk again. “I know you, Matera. You’ve always been very calculated and cold. For centuries I’ve worried that my stupidity had killed something inside you.”
She frowned at her daughter. “What stupidity?”
“Living with the humans. Being naive enough to think that so long as we didn’t harm them, they wouldn’t harm us. I still remember what you said to me a few weeks before they attacked us. ‘You can’t tame a wolf and expect it to lie before your hearth in harmony. Sooner or later, the nature of the beast sets in and it does what its instincts tell it—it kills.’ I thought then that you were talking about us, but you weren’t. And after we were attacked—after you were almost killed trying to save me—something inside you died. That piece of sympathy for others. The ability to have mercy.”
It was true. Any belief she’d had in the world, in kindness or so-called humanity, had died alongside her grandson.
Five years old . . . no monster. Just a child, screaming for his parents to save him. For his grandmother to make them stop hurting him. She’d done her best to protect them all and the sad truth was her best hadn’t been good enough. They’d dragged him down and clubbed him to death.
Her baby’s baby.
“Life is hard,” she said with a calmness she didn’t really feel. She’d known it even before then. As the daughter of a fisherman, she’d been raised with hunger and poverty gnawing at her belly and dignity while her father had tried to eke out a living from the sea. His failure to do so had caused him to turn on his own family. It’d turned him into a bitter drunk who blamed them for his own failings. Blamed them for the fact that he’d had them and that they depended on him for their support. He’d hated them all and he’d never failed to show them that.
In all her life, she’d never known respect or kindness until a lean, handsome boy had stopped her on the docks.
Even now she could see the sun highlighted in his blond hair. See the admiration in those beautiful blue eyes as he’d looked at her. He’d been wrapped in the purple chiton of a nobleman that set off his young warrior’s body that was already showing the promise of the man he’d grow into.
Thinking he intended to accost her as many others had before him, including her own drunken father, she’d kneed him in the groin and run.
He’d chased her down only to apologize for scaring her.
Apologize. The son of a god to a common fishmonger dressed in rags. It’d been love at first sentence. Then when he’d taken his own cloak off to shield her from the stern sea breeze, she’d melted on the spot.
There for the briefest of times, she’d felt loved and cherished. She’d felt worth something more than dirt beneath other people’s feet.
Until Apollo had come in condemning their relationship on the grounds that she was garbage, unworthy of a demigod, and Stryker had sheepishly obeyed his father’s orders to leave her.
Anger tore through her from the memory.
“I don’t believe in fairy tales,” Zephyra told her daughter.
“Yet you raised me on those stories.”
Because she’d wanted her child to be a better person than she was. She hadn’t wanted to kill Medea’s innocence the way her own had been slaughtered.
“I love you, child,” she whispered. “In all my life, you are the only thing that has brought me unending joy. You are the only one I would die to protect. I don’t love your father. I’m not capable of it anymore.”
Medea inclined her head to her. “As you say, Mum. But I still see the light that comes on the moment he enters the room.” She started to leave, then paused. “For the record, if by some miracle I could have Evander back in my life, I wouldn’t push him away. I’d hold him close for the rest of eternity.”
“He didn’t abandon you when you were a fourteen-year-old girl pregnant with his child.”
“True, but Evander wasn’t a fourteen-year-old boy whose father had the power to kill us both with a single thought.”
Zephyra didn’t speak as Medea left her alone. It was true. Stryker had only been a boy himself and he had left her quite a bit of money to care for herself and the baby, but the shattered pieces of her heart refused to rationalize his behavior.
He should have fought for what he loved.
Except for Jared, and as she stood there she realized why she took so much joy in torturing him. He’d betrayed his own family, too. His fellow soldiers. When they had needed to band together, to fight for their survival, he’d been the one to hand them over to their enemies for slaughter.
She would forever hate him for that. Just as she would hate Stryker for his abandonment.
Sighing, she turned to reor ga nize the desk that she’d just or ga nized a few minutes ago. She’d only taken a step when a light flashed.
It was Stryker.
Damn if Medea wasn’t right. Her heartbeat picked up at the way he looked standing there. One lock of his black hair fell into his eyes. His features were steeled and perfect, and dusted by just the tiniest bit of whis kers. Nothing would give her more satisfaction than running her tongue down the line of his jaw and letting that shadow prick at her skin.
Anger ripped through her at the thought and the way her body betrayed the hatred she wanted to feel toward him. “What do you want?”
Stryker barely caught himself before the word “you” popped out of his mouth. It was what he wanted.
His cock hardened painfully. That was the most difficult part about being around her. All he had to do was smell the slightest whiff of her lavender and valerian scent and he was rife with need.
Forcing himself to move on, he cleared his throat. “I need you and Medea to return with me to Kalosis.”
“Do you really think that’s safer than here?”
“Since there’s an army of Charonte down there and a pissed-off goddess wanting blood, yes. Unless you know something about Artemis’s buried maternal instincts that I don’t. But honestly, I can’t see her rising to your defense any more than she’d rise to mine.”
She glared at him. “I want you to know that I’m only agreeing to this to keep Medea safe. Otherwise I’d tell you to stick it where the sun doesn’t shine.”
He gave her a wry grin. “Sweetie, I’m sticking you both where the sun doesn’t shine. Unlike here, there’s no daylight in Kalosis. Ever.”
“You’re not funny.”
“Really? I find myself quite entertaining.”
Stryker didn’t comment anymore as she stepped around him to gather a few items, including makeup and lotion. A foreign tug went through him as he remembered the way she used to meticulously apply both in the morning. He’d lie in bed while she smeared the lotion on her face, then used kohl to line her eyes and a balm of henna on her lips.
There’d been nothing more pleasing to watch. It was so womanly and sweet.
“What are you staring at?” she snapped at him.
“Nothing.” His voice was more curt than he meant for it to be, but he had no intention of letting her know just how tender his emotions were where she was concerned. It would give her a power over him that she didn’t need to know about.
Once she had her things gathered, he took them from her. At first she started to snatch them back. Then, without a word, she relented.
“I’ll get Medea.”
“Is Davyn still in her room?”
She headed for the door. “He was walking around the grounds earlier, so I’m not sure.”
He followed her down the hallway to Medea’s room and then froze as he found the two of them playing chess at her table that was set next to the window. Davyn’s face was bruised and swollen from his attack, but otherwise he appeared to be back in business.
Zephyra put her hands on her hips. “Should I be concerned that the two of you appear so cozy in here?”
Medea studied the board. “Relax, Mum. He’s actually nice for a Daimon.”
Zephyra cast an arch stare at Stryker. “I think you should have a word with your man.”
“He’s alone in your daughter’s bedroom with her.”
“For now . . .”
Stryker laughed. “Relax, Phyra. I’d be more concerned if he were in here with my son than with my daughter. The biggest threat he poses is he might want to borrow her shoes.”
Her lips formed a silent
Davyn laughed as he moved his bishop. “You don’t have to worry about that, either, since she has the tiniest feet I’ve ever seen on a woman. Besides, just because I prefer men doesn’t mean I want to be a woman. Trust me.”
Zephyra clapped her hands together commandingly. “All right, I need the two of you up. Medea, gather your things. We’re going to stay with your father for a bit.”
She was aghast at Zephyra’s declaration. “Why?” she asked Stryker.
He bristled under her tone. “I’m your father. You don’t question me.”
She shot to her feet.
Zephyra sighed aloud. “Medea, stop your anger and do as he says.” She turned to face Stryker with an evil glare. “And you need to remember that she’s the daughter you’ve never met. Not one of your soldiers to be ordered about.”
Davyn rose more slowly. “If it makes you feel better, Medea, his tone was much nicer when he barked at you than when he barks at us.”
Stryker cut a murderous look in his direction. “You need to stay out of this.”
“Yes, my lord.”
Medea paused by her mother’s side. “I don’t see why we have to run from demons.”
“Not demons, love. War. And we’re not running. We’re strategically taking the high ground so that we can hold him off until we find his weakness. Now get your things.”
NICK JUMPED AS HE WALKED PAST A MIRROR and caught sight of himself. “Holy shit,” he breathed. His skin was blood red and covered with ancient black symbols. But it was his face that held him paralyzed.
His hair was black, streaked with red that came down into his face. Black lines cut across both his eyes and down his cheeks. His ebony eyes flashed red.
Stunned, he looked down to see his arms and hands were also red marked by black.
“What the hell is going on?”
“It’s your true form.”
He turned to see Menyara, only he didn’t see the older woman who’d raised him. Now she was taller than him and looked to be in her early twenties. She was dressed in a black halter top with tight black pants, her long hair swept up into a stylized ponytail.
“Who are you? Really?”
Menyara tossed him one of the two staves she held. “I’ve been known by many names over the centuries. But you would know me best by Ma’at.”
Nick’s heart skipped as he remembered the Egyptian goddess. She was the one who upheld the order of the universe. Goddess of justice and truth. Menyara had given him a statue of her on his seventh birthday.
Bitter anger swept though him. “For a goddess of truth, you’ve lied your ass off to me.”
Menyara smiled. “Not lied, sweetie. I merely withheld a few facts from you and your mother. If it makes you feel better, I’m the reason Cherise was never suspicious of your Dark-Hunters. I kept her carefully shielded from all the paranormal events in her life. Just as I tried to do with you. But fate is a bitch who won’t be denied. You were meant to ascend to your powers and not even mine could keep you sheltered forever.”
“I would say thanks for keeping my mother blind to my extracurricular activities, but that’s part of what got her killed.” He tested the weight of the staff. “What am I supposed to do with this?”
She brought hers down across his face, forcing him to block the stroke with his staff. “You have to learn to fight.”
“I was born fighting.” This time, he barely countered her move before she hit his head.
“People, but not the powers who will come for you now.” She swung at him again.
Nick blocked and twisted the staff from her grip. He smiled proudly as he disarmed her. “Told you. I’m the best there ever was.”
She snorted at his arrogance. “And I’m a goddess of truth, not of war. Beating me shows you can defeat an old woman. Nothing more. Don’t get cocky.”
Nick curled his lip. “You know, if you were going to shield me and my mother, you should have shielded us from poverty.” Pain ripped through him as he remembered the defeated look on his mother’s face every time she brushed her hand through his hair, then took the stage to strip her clothes off so that she could feed him. She’d once told him that the only reason she took him to work with her was to remind her why she had to do what she did. Otherwise she would have run for the door.
Guilt ate at him. It always had. He’d ruined his mother’s life, and then his own stupidity had ended it.
Menyara held her hand up and snatched the staff from his tight grip. She shoved him back into the wall with one end of it. He grimaced in pain as she dug the tip into his chest.
“That poverty is what made you human, boy. Without it or your mother, you would be exactly as your father.”
She opened her mouth to speak, then froze.
An instant later, a blinding light flashed through the room. Nick hissed as it cut across him, burning his skin.
Something ferocious slammed into him, lifting him up from the floor and pinning him to the ceiling. He tried to push himself away, but he felt like a roach under someone’s foot as they pressed it against the floor.
Suddenly he hit the ground.
Menyara ran to him as he groaned in pain. His ears buzzing, he tried to focus. Every part of him hurt.
Until he looked up.
There across the room was Acheron, and he was fighting a man who bore the same stylized patterns on his skin that Nick had. Only where Nick’s were red this man’s symbols were black and where his were black the man’s were red.
“Stay out of this, Atlantean,” the demon thing snarled.
Acheron caught the blast sent toward him with his hand. “Menyara, get Nick out of here. Now!”
Before Nick could protest, she wrapped herself around him and everything went black.
JARED CURSED AS THEY VANISHED. “WHAT ARE you doing?”
“I told you. I am honor-bound to keep him safe and so I will protect him with my life.”
“Are you insane?”
Ash took a step back as the Sephiroth stopped fighting him. “I’m an Atlantean god, Jared. I swore to his mother that no one would ever harm him. You know what that means.”
Jared stepped back, too, as he calmed. His skin immediately returned to its human appearance. “So when I kill him, you die, too. Are you out of your freakin’ mind? Why would you do that?”
“Because I thought he was human and I owed his mother that promise.”
“And now you know the truth. You are a Chthonian, charged with maintaining the balance of the universe. The Malachai must die.”
Ash shook his head. “The order of the universe is for him to live so long as you do.”
Jared laughed. “You don’t get it, do you? I want to die, Acheron. If I kill him, I will go with him.” He shoved Ash back, then disappeared.
Ash cursed as he realized he had no way to track him.
Jared didn’t respond.
Ash let out an aggravated breath. Jared was right, Ash was charged with keeping the order of the universe. And no one was going to stop him from carry ing out his duties.
“Savitar?” he whispered, summoning him.
Savitar appeared as an apparition beside him. “What, grom?”
“You knew about Nick, didn’t you?”
Savitar averted his gaze, affirming Ash’s suspicion.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Ash asked.
“I won’t tamper with fate. You know that. But, yeah, when you asked me to train Nick and I saw him for the first time, I knew what he was. It’s why I didn’t train him. Had I started, it would have unlocked his powers. His shield was solid so long as he wasn’t struck by those of us who draw our powers from the Source.”
Ash frowned at the news. “Then why didn’t his powers unlock the night I fought him?”
“I don’t know. Probably had something to do with the fact that your powers are mixed. Or it could be something as simple as you two were close friends, and even though you fought, you wouldn’t have really killed him. Even at your angriest, you were never a real threat to him. He didn’t need his powers to protect himself from you.”
“And yet I’m the reason he died.”
“No, Nick is the reason he died. He pulled the trigger.”
How simple Savitar made it sound, but it didn’t change the one single truth of that night. “Because I cursed him to it.”
Savitar gave him a droll stare. “Be glad I’m not physically there or I’d slap you upside the head. You know how free will works, so stop the whining and get off the cross. Someone needs the wood.”
Ash wasn’t amused and he wasn’t a martyr crying over inconsequential crap. There was no denying that he’d been the one to set all of this into motion. But past regrets weren’t solving the current problem. “How do I stop Jared?”
“You can’t. Only his master can rein him in.”
“And if she won’t?”
“We’re all screwed.”
STRYKER HATED HOW MUCH HE LOVED SEEING Zephyra’s belongings mixed in with his. Her hairbrush, her lotions. Her perfume. He picked the latter up so that he could smell it.
“What are you doing?”
He put the small glass container down immediately. “Nothing.”
“It wasn’t nothing. You were mooning over my things, weren’t you?”
He arched one brow at her choice of words. ” ‘Mooning’? What kind of archaic term is that?”
She returned his stare with one of her own. “You’re not going to distract me that easily. You were pining for me just now.”
He took a step toward her and eyed her suspiciously, yet she showed no emotion whatsoever. If only he could train his men to be this effective . . . “Is that what you want me to say? You already know how much I missed you.”
She narrowed her eyes. “But I want to hear you say it.”
She leaned against him and gave him a glance that was part malice, part joy, and part teasing. “Because I want to see how much my absence has tortured you.”
He started to leave, but he couldn’t make his body obey him. He couldn’t. Instead, he found the one simple truth leaving his lips. “I’ve missed you.”
Zephyra wanted to slap him for those words. She wanted to beat him until the hurt inside her stopped aching. But she knew the truth. There wasn’t enough abuse in the world to erase the damage he’d wrought. “Do you think that fixes anything?”
“It fixes nothing.” His tone was brittle. “But while you stand there, hating me, think of it from my point of view. I’m the one who fucked up, and that’s the reality and knowledge I’ve had to live with every single day of my life. You were my one true heart. My other half and
She sank her hand in his hair and wrenched it until he grimaced. Unable to cope with all the tangled emotions roiling through her, she jerked him close and kissed him fiercely.
Stryker breathed her in as her tongue danced with his and he tasted her fully. In all his life, she was the only thing that he’d ever really craved. Needing to be as close to her as possible, he scooped her up in his arms and carried her to the bed.
She only broke from his kiss long enough to pull his shirt over his head. Unable to bear another second without her, he used his powers to strip their clothes off completely.
She pulled back with arched brows. “That’s a handy power you have there,” she breathed against his lips.
Before he could respond, she rolled him over on the mattress, nipping at his chin with her fangs. Stryker growled at how good she felt. Holding her, he traveled back to the days when he’d been nothing more than a young prince. The world had been new and fresh. There had been no hatred in his heart. No loneliness.
In her arms, he’d always been able to see into forever.
Now she attacked him with the same fervor he felt looking at her. Closing his eyes, he savored her naked skin against his. Her hands clutching his body tight. Even though he was damned and lost, this was heaven and she was his angel.
Zephyra pressed her cheek against his as she tugged at his earlobe with her teeth. His whiskers scraped her skin, raising chills on her body. He smelled of male and spicy aftershave that blended well with her own scent. For years after he’d left, she’d kept his tunic and held it in the wee hours of the night, aching for his return.
In a fit of anger over Apollo’s curse, she’d burned it. But now that she was with Stryker again, she wanted to forgive him everything. To go back in time and keep him by her side.
If only she could.
“I need you inside me,” she whispered. Their play could come later. Right now she wanted to be as close to him as was possible.
He answered her with one low groan as he slid himself into her body to accommodate her request.
She cried out in pleasure as she ground herself against his hips, needing to be a part of him. She’d forgotten just how good it felt to be with a man, especially one so skilled. His every thrust, every lick, set her on fire until she wanted to scream in bliss.
Stryker rolled with her, planting her in the center of the bed as he moved even faster and harder against her. His silvery gaze locked with hers, and there in the dim light the exposed vulnerability inside him made her breath catch. The arrogance of his youth was gone, and the pain inside the man tore her apart. So much had happened to both of them since that day in Agapa’s temple when they’d bound themselves as husband and wife.
Once again, she saw the tall, uncertain youth who’d laid the dagger’s blade to his hand as he cut himself. “With my blood, my heart, my soul, I swear to dedicate my life to yours. Wherever I am, you shall be with me in my thoughts forever. This I vow before your gods and mine. We are now united and only death will divide us.” Then he’d leaned forward and whispered in her ear, “Even then I shall find a way to be by your side. You and me, Phyra. For all eternity.”
A tear slid from the corner of her eye as that memory burned her. She’d believed in him.
She swallowed as he stopped moving and looked down at her.
“Am I hurting you?”
A sob caught in her throat. “You tore my heart out, you bastard. You made me believe in you when I believed in no one except me.”
Stryker sucked his breath in at those words that shredded his soul. “All I ever wanted to be was the man you saw me as. I wish to the gods that I could undo what I did. That I’d stayed and died by your side as I should have. But I can’t undo the past. I can’t undo the hurt. I know it’s no consolation, but I promise you it was no easier on me.” His gaze seared her. “I’ve never in my life apologized for anything. I’ve never begged anyone for anything. But I am sorry for what I did and I would gladly go down on my knees if you could forgive me for it.”
She pushed him away, then rolled to sit up. “I don’t know how to forgive anymore.”
Stryker winced as those words tore through him. He deserved nothing more than her scorn. But he couldn’t let it go at that. His heart broken, he moved so that he could gently unbraid her hair. The silken strands teased at his flesh as he remembered her brushing it every night before she’d joined him in bed.
Zephyra clutched her fists into the cover as his tenderness touched her deeply. She didn’t want to forgive him, but his words and sincerity weakened her. Looking at him over her shoulder, she melted even more. This was a man renowned for his cruelty and savagery. He hesitated at nothing.
Yet he brushed his hand through her hair as if afraid of hurting her.
How could she hate someone who loved her so much? Hate the man who’d given her the most precious thing in her life?
“This doesn’t mean I like you,” she growled before she pushed him back and straddled his hips.
Stryker smiled as Zephyra leaned over him and sank her fangs into his neck to feed. He would gladly let her bleed him dry if it meant he could hold her like this as he died. His head swam with the scent of her, the sensation of her breasts pressing against his chest while the small hairs at the juncture of her thighs rubbed against his hip.
Leaning his head down, he inhaled the valerian even as she nipped him painfully. This was paradise.
He brushed his hand down her arm until he laced his fingers with hers. Lifting her hand, he placed a kiss on her palm before he sank his fangs into her wrist.
She jerked ever so slightly, but she didn’t pull away. Stryker growled at the sweet taste of her. And as he drank, he felt her powers merging with his. Until now, he’d had no idea just how much demonic energy she held.
He tensed at that realization. She’d let him win. A slow smile curled his lips, but he didn’t speak. He didn’t want to anger her again. Not when they were like this.
She pulled back to stare down at him. He released her hand as her hair teased his chest. Truly there was no more beautiful sight than her rising above him while her bare breasts brushed against him.
Zephyra was caught by the handsomeness of Stryker. The power of him. Now she knew the truth. He had restrained himself in their fight. He could have seriously hurt her and yet he hadn’t.
If only she could trust him again.
Did she dare?
He lifted himself up so that he could gently suckle her breast. Cupping his head against her, she shivered at the sensation of his hot tongue sweeping over her. He lifted her effortlessly and set her down on him. She sucked her breath in sharply at the sensation of his body inside hers.
She lifted his chin up so that she could taste his lips again while she moved ever so slowly against him. How she delighted in the way he felt. In the sensation of his breath mingling with hers.
Stryker couldn’t even think straight as his body cried out in pleasure. It took every piece of his control not to come from the sheer joy of being with her. He dug his nails into his palm in an effort to keep himself in check. But it was hard.
This was the only woman he’d ever loved.
A whisper of a smile curved his lips as he fingered her ear. There was one spot. . . .
Dipping his head, he swept his tongue behind her ear, down to the lobe.
She sucked her breath in sharply as chills spread over her, drawing her nipples tight.
“You’re still so sensitive.”
She gave him a heated look. “And what about you?”
“I’ve never been sensitive.”
“Uh-huh.” She swept her hands under his arms and down his ribs, making him jump. She groaned as it caused him to go even deeper inside her.
Laughing, Stryker pushed her back against the bed. Zephyra arched her back, bringing him in even deeper. He quickened his strokes until she couldn’t stand it anymore. She came in a bright flash of sensations that exploded through her. Crying out, she wrapped herself around him and held him close as her body pulsed.
Stryker growled as he joined her in release. He held her close as his body shook and his toes curled.
She was delicious and he wanted to spend the rest of his life entwined with her naked in his bed.
He pulled back with an arrogant taunt. “So tell me, love . . . are you disappointed?”
She crinkled her nose. “Hmm, well, all things considered, I suppose there is a term for it.”
“And that is?”
He snorted at her bad pun. “The night is still young. I have many more hours left to savor you, and I assure you when I’m done ‘poor’ is the last word that will come to your mind.”
She put on a haughty front, unwilling to let him know exactly how pleased she was with him. “Well, if you wish to embarrass yourself again, who am I to stop you?”
He tsked at her. “You’re so evil.” He reached around her to pull back the covers so that he could tuck her into his bed.
“You were serious about continuing?” she asked.
“Absolutely. I have a few centuries to make up for.”
She started to respond, but before she could there was a knock on his door.
He made sure she was covered completely, then he barked, “Come in.”
It was Davyn. He took one step into the room, then paused as he saw Stryker naked while she was beside him. He quickly averted his gaze. “My lord, I wanted to report that we’re having another bit of a problem.”
“And that is?”
“We can’t feed.”
Stryker exchanged a frown with her before he addressed Davyn. “What do you mean?”
“War and the demons have us locked in. If any Daimon leaves here to feed, they either kill him or convert him. We’re trapped.”
Stryker let out a foul curse. “How long until you need to feed again?”
“I fed last night, so I’m good for a few weeks. And you, sir?”
He glanced at Zephyra.
She went cold as she understood that look. “I’ve taken blood from you twice. . . .”
He nodded. “I’ll be good for a couple of days.”
She swallowed in fear of his dry tone as a sense of dread went through her. “How many?”
And then he’d be dead.