"Well," Astrid said, her tone every bit as sarcastic as his, "I hope you have a map. I've never been there before."
"Trust me, I know it like the back of my hand. Been living there most of my life."
Unsure if she should laugh or groan, Astrid held fast to the tank before her as Zarek pushed the snowmachine to the limits. It vibrated so badly that she half-expected it to disintegrate underneath them.
"Cap'n," she said in her best Scotty accent. "I don't think she'll hold. The warp engines can't take any more. It's going to blow apart."
If she didn't know better, she'd swear she actually heard a rumble of laughter from Zarek.
"She'll hold," he said, his deep, penetrating voice in her right ear. It gave her chills that had nothing to do with the freezing temperature.
"I think I may be grateful for my blindness, after all," she said. "Something tells me that if I could see the reckless speed you're driving at, I would probably have a stroke."
She rolled her eyes at his ready agreement. "You have no idea how to comfort anyone, do you?"
"In case you haven't noticed, princess, social skills aren't my forte. Hell, you're lucky I'm housebroke."
Oh, he was an evil one.
But there was something almost charming about his caustic retorts. They were angry and biting, but seldom mean-spirited, and now that she had seen the real Zarek, the one he kept hidden from everyone, she knew those barbs for what they were.
They were sent out to keep everyone away from him. If you let no one into your heart, then you never had to be hurt by betrayal.
She didn't know how he stood living like that. In constant pain and loneliness. Letting hatred guide everything he did or said.
Zarek was a harsh man filled with more venom than the nine-headed Hydra. But even the Hydra had eventually met its match.
Tonight, Zarek had met his and it wasn't Thanatos.
Astrid wasn't going to give up on him.
They rode until her ears buzzed and her body was cold all the way to her bones. She wondered if she'd ever again be able to thaw out.
Zarek, who seemed oblivious to the freezing weather, continually zigzagged their course, as if trying to keep Thanatos from following them.
Just when she was sure that the concept that immortals couldn't die of frostbite was a myth, Zarek finally stopped.
He turned off the engine.
The sudden silence was deafening. Oppressive.
She waited for Zarek to get up and help her off the snow-machine, but all he did was tug the helmet off her head. He pitched it away with a curse.
She heard it hit the ground, then silence returned and was broken only by their breathing.
Zarek's rage reached out to her like a tangible menace. It was vibrant and frightening.
Part of him wanted to hurt her, she could sense it, but underneath that she felt his pain.
"Who are you?" Zarek's voice was demanding and every bit as cold as the arctic winter. He kept his arms around her and his voice was right in her ear.
"I told you."
"You lied to me, princess," he growled. "I might not be able to read minds, but I know you're not what you appear. Human women don't have Katagaria companions. I want to know who you really are and why you were dicking around in my dreams."
She was shaking from nervousness. What would he do with her now?
Would he leave her for Thanatos?
She was scared to tell him the truth, and yet lies weren't something she practiced unless she had to.
He had a right to be angry at her. Not that she had lied to him; she'd only neglected to tell him a few things. Things such as her real purpose, why she had helped him, and the fact that the wolf he hated could become a man...
Well, she had lied about Sasha being dead, but Sasha had deserved it.
And she had drugged him.
Yeah, okay, so she wasn't up for Miss Congeniality this year, but then, neither was Zarek.
Especially not in his current mood.
Zarek's warm breath fell against her exposed cheek. "What are you?" he repeated.
Astrid decided the time for deceit was over. He deserved to know the truth, and since Artemis had already broken the agreement and sent in Thanatos, what was the point of shielding the goddess any further?
"I'm a nymph."
"I hope you just left an important syllable off that word, princess."
"Excuse me?" It took a second for her to understand what he meant. When she did her face flamed. "I am not a nympho! I'm a nymph. Nymph. No o!"
He didn't move or speak for several minutes.
Zarek let out his breath slowly as he considered the woman in front of him and tried for once to rein in his fury.
A friggin' nymph. He should have known it was something like that.
Oh, yeah, right. Like the idea of a Greek nymph in Alaska was something that should have occurred to him. Her kind usually hung around beaches, oceans, and forests or stayed on Olympus.
They didn't pop in during a blizzard and drag a wounded Dark-Hunter into their homes.
His stomach shrank as the reason for her presence slammed into him.
Someone had sent her here.
He gripped the handlebars fiercely, unwilling to let go for fear of what he might do to her. "What kind of nymph are you, princess?"
"Justice," she said quietly. "I serve Themis and I was sent here to judge you."
"Judge me?" He let out an extremely disgusted sound. "Oh, you're un-friggin-believable."
Zarek had never wanted to hurt anyone so much in his life. Getting up from the snowmachine before he yielded to his temper, he put space between them.
Was this his luck or what?
He'd finally found someone whom he thought didn't judge him and she really was a judge whose sole purpose was to pass judgment on him and the way he lived.
Oh, yeah, he really knew how to pick them.
The gods were still laughing at him. Mocking him.
All of them.
Enraged, he paced around the snowmachine so that he could watch her sitting on the seat, looking all prim and proper with her hands folded in her lap and her head down.
How dare she screw with him like this! Who did she think she was?
He was tired of people messing with him. Tired of games and of lies.
A judge. Acheron had sent in a judge before they killed him. Ooo, Zarek was just tickled pink by the consideration.
Maybe he should be flattered that they even gave him a pretense of impartiality. It was a hell of a lot more than he'd gotten as an accused slave.
"This was all just a game to you, wasn't it, princess? 'Come, Zarek, sit on my lap. Tell me why you won't behave.'" His vision turned dark. Deadly. "Fuck you, lady, and fuck them."
Her head snapped up. "Zarek, please!"
"So what, you decided Acheron was right? I'm psychotic, so send in your dogs to kill me?"
She got up and turned to where she heard his voice coming from. "No. Thanatos wasn't supposed to be sent in after you. As for Acheron, he would never convict you. If not for him, you'd be dead now. He bartered who knows what with Artemis so that I could come to you and find a way to save your life."
He snorted. "Yeah, right."
"It's the truth, Zarek," she said, her voice sincere. "Deny it all you want to, but it doesn't change the fact that we are on your side."
He raked her with a repugnant glare he only wished she could see to appreciate. "I ought to leave you here to freeze to death. Oh, wait, you're an immortal nymph. You can't die."
She lifted her chin and stood as if braced to take on his worst. "You can leave me if you want to. But the man I have come to know isn't so callous or cruel. He would never leave someone to die."
He ground his teeth. "You know nothing about me."
Astrid left the snowmachine. Walking slowly, she reached out with her hand, wanting physical contact with him. She needed it, and something told her he did, too. "I've been inside you, Zarek. I know what no one else does."
"So what? Is that supposed to make me all warm and cuddly for you? Look, the little princess stole into my dreams to save me. Ooo, I'm so touched. Should I cry now?"
She grabbed his arm.
His muscles, like him, were tense and hard. Fierce. "Stop it!"
She reached up to touch his ice-cold cheeks with both of her hands. They were chafed from the ride, and yet they still managed to warm her icy fingers.
Half-expecting him to pull away, she was amazed when he didn't. He stood there like a statue. Unmoving. Cold. Inflexible.
Astrid swallowed, wishing for a way to make him understand. Wishing for a way she could reach him so that he would stop being so self-destructive.
Why wouldn't he see the truth?
Zarek couldn't breathe as she cupped his face in her warm hands. She was so beautiful, with tiny sparkling snow-flakes on her eyelashes and blonde hair. He saw the pain on her face, the softness.
She seemed to want to help him and yet he couldn't make himself believe that.
People were always self-serving. All of them.
She was no exception.
And yet, he wanted to believe in her.
He did want to cry.
What had she done to him?
For a brief time in his dreams he had begun to think that maybe he wasn't so bad. That he deserved some kind of happiness.
Gods, he was such a fool.
How could he have been so stupid and trusting? He knew better.
Trust was only a weapon that was used to kill people.
It had no place in his world.
Astrid stroked his cheeks with her thumbs. "I don't want you to die, Zarek."
"Here's the kicker, princess. I do."
Tears filled her eyes and melted the snowflakes on her lashes. "I don't believe you. Thanatos would have gladly given you that wish and yet you fought him. Why?"
She closed her eyes as if frustrated with him. Her grip tightened on his face, then to his complete shock, she burst out laughing. "You really can't help it, can you?"
He was completely baffled by her reaction. "Help what?"
"Being an asshole," she said, her voice broken by laughter.
As she continued to laugh, he stared at her in disbelief. No one had dared laugh at him before. At least not since the day he'd died.
Then she did the most unexpected thing of all. She walked into his arms and hugged him. Her laughter brought her body into contact with his, setting fire to him.
It reminded him so much of his dream...
She wrapped her arms around his neck and held him close.
No one had ever held him like this. He didn't know if he should embrace her or shove her away.
In the end, he found himself placing his arms awkwardly around her. She felt just as she had in his dream. Every bit as wonderful.
He hated that most of all.
She gave him a tight squeeze. "I'm so glad Acheron sent me to you."
"Because I like you, Zarek, and I think anyone other than me would have killed you by now."
Even more suspicious of her than before, he released her and stepped back. "Why do you care what happens to me? You've been inside me; tell me honestly I didn't scare you."
She sighed. "Honestly, yes. You do scare me, but by the same token, I've seen goodness in you, too."
"And the village I showed you in my dreams? The one I destroyed."
She furrowed her brow. "It was broken and fragmented. It didn't feel like a memory to me, it felt like something else."
"I don't know. I think there's more to what happened than you recall."
He shook his head. How could she have faith in him when he didn't have any in himself? "You really are blind, aren't you?"
"No. I see you, Zarek. In a way I think no one ever has before."
"I assure you, princess, if you saw the real me, you'd run for cover," he scoffed.
"Only if I knew you'd be waiting under that cover for me."
He was floored by what she said.
She didn't mean it.
It was another game. Another test.
No one had ever wanted him. Not his mother, not his father. Not his owners. He didn't even want to be with himself.
So how could she?
Zarek paused as he felt a psychic tremor run through him. "Thanatos is coming."
Her eyes widened in fear. "Are you sure?"
He pulled her toward the snowmachine. It would be dawn before long.
He would be trapped, but Thanatos...
The Daimon would be able to walk in daylight.
Zarek wrapped his arms around Astrid. He should leave her here for what she'd done to him, hand her over to Thanatos to see if she would buy him more time to escape. Yet he had this crazy idea of protecting her.
No, it wasn't an idea. It was a yearning he had to keep her safe.
Resigned to his stupidity, he started the snowmachine and headed it toward his property.
Astrid took a deep breath as they resumed their trip. She had violated more rules than she cared to think about.
And yet as she felt Zarek surrounding her, she knew it was worth it. She had to save him.
No matter what it took.
She'd never felt so determined. Or more sure of herself. He gave her a confidence and strength she had never known.
He needed her. In spite of what he said or even thought. He needed her in a way that was painful.
The man had no one else in the world. And for some reason she couldn't understand, she wanted to be the one person he relied on. The one person who could tame him.
He drove them for almost an hour before they stopped again.
"Where are we?" she asked as he climbed off the snowmachine.
"Is it safe?"
"Not a bit. And it looks like all hell broke loose here."
Zarek stood in stunned disbelief as he looked around. There was still blood on the snow, but from whom, he couldn't tell.
The sight tore through him as reality came crashing home.
A Dark-Hunter had died here.
His kind didn't die often and he felt a peculiar ache for the man who had died tonight. It wasn't right.
It wasn't fair.
If anyone should have paid that price, it should have been him. He should have been here to confront Thanatos.
The thought of an innocent man being turned into a Shade made him want Artemis's blood.
And where the hell was Acheron? For someone who was supposedly willing to put his ass on the line for the Dark-Hunters, the Atlantean was amazingly absent.
Curling his lip, he went back to the snowmachine.
"C'mon," he said. "We have a lot to do."
He walked off and left her to find her own way.
"I need your help, Zarek. I need you to tell me where things are so I don't walk into anything."
It was on the tip of his tongue to remind her of the fact that she'd claimed she could watch after herself. Then his memories surged and he remembered what it was like to only see shadows.
To walk into things because he couldn't see them.
He didn't want to touch her anymore.
He hated the very thought of it because every time he felt her, he craved more of her.
Against his will, he found himself taking her hand into his. "C'mon, princess."
Astrid bit back her smile. His tone was harsh and yet she felt a small victory inside her heart. Not to mention the fact that he had stopped using "princess" as an insult. She didn't think he even realized that now when he called her that, his voice softened ever so slightly.
Sometime during their dreams, the insult he'd used to keep her at a distance had become an endearment.
Zarek led her into his cabin.
"Stand here," he said, placing her to the left just inside the doorway.
She heard him rustling around to her right. While he was busy, she brushed her hand against the wall to feel her way over to him. What she found there surprised her.
Frowning, she ran her hand over the deep dips and planes of the wall. It was an incredible tactile sensation. Intricate. Complex. But what she touched was so large that she couldn't quite understand what it represented.
As she followed the design with her hand she realized it covered the entire wall.
"What is this?" she asked.
"A beach scene," he said distractedly.
She arched a brow. "A beach scene is carved into your wall?"
"I get bored, okay?" he snapped. "So I carve things. Sometimes in the summer, I run out of wood and I carve the walls and shelves."
Just like the wolf he'd sculpted in her house.
Astrid stumbled over something as she reached for the next wall. Several things fell, scattering over her feet.
Zarek cursed. "I thought I told you to stay put."
"I'm sorry." She bent down to pick the things up to find that they were carved wooden animals.
There seemed to be dozens of them.
She was stunned by the intricacy of each piece as she ran her fingers over them, picking them up from the floor. "Did you do all these?"
He didn't answer as he snatched them up and piled them back.
"Zarek," she said, her tone stern, "talk to me."
"And say what? Yes, I carved the damned things. I usually do three or four of them a night. So what?"
"Then there should be more of them. Where are the others?"
"I don't know," he said, his voice a little less hostile. "I take some into town and give them away and the rest I burn whenever the generators go out."
"Don't they mean anything to you?"
"No. Nothing means shit to me."
Zarek paused as he looked at her kneeling beside him. Her cheeks were chafed, the skin no longer soft and protected as it had been when he first awoke in her cabin. She stared over his shoulder, but he knew it was because she wasn't quite sure where he was.
Her lips were slightly parted, her hair mussed.
In his mind he could see her in his arms, feel her skin sliding against his. And in that moment, he made a startling discovery.
He did care about something.
Even though she had lied to him and tricked him, he didn't want her hurt. He didn't want to see her delicate skin damaged by the extreme weather.
She should be sheltered from such harshness.
How he hated himself for that weakness.
"No, princess," he whispered, the lie catching in his throat. "I don't care about anything."
She reached out then so that she could touch his face. "Is that lie for your benefit or mine?"
"Who says it's a lie?"
"I do, Zarek. For a man who doesn't care, you've made a great effort to make sure I'm safe." She smiled at him. "I do know you, Prince Charming. I really do see what's inside you."
She shook her head. "I'm not nearly as blind as you are."
Then she did the most unexpected thing of all. She leaned forward and captured his lips with hers.
Something inside him shattered at the contact, at the sensation of her moist, sweet lips. Of her tongue sweeping against his.
This wasn't a dream.
This was real.
And it was wonderful. As good as she had tasted before, it was so much better now.
He crushed her to him, taking control of the kiss. He wanted to devour her. To take her right now on the floor until his hard-on was spent and sated.
But if his dreams were any indication, it would take more than a single act of sex to ease the fire in his groin.
He could love this woman all night long and still be begging for more when the morning came.
Astrid couldn't breathe from the fierceness of his kiss. The heat of his body set fire to her own.
He was truly wild, her warrior.
He slid his cool hand under her shirt until he could cup her breast. She shivered as his fingers pushed the lace of her bra aside so that he could run his palm against her swollen nipple.
She'd never allowed anyone to handle her like this. But then, she'd done a lot of things with him that she had never done before.
All her life, she'd been circumspect and proper. The kind of woman who lived by the rules and who never sought to break or even bend them.
Zarek freed something within her. Something wild and wonderful.
He pulled back from her lips as his hand moved lower, over her belly, down toward her waistband.
She trembled as he unbuttoned her pants, then slid her zipper down. In their dream, there was still some protection of it not being real. Of everything being a dream.
Tonight that barrier was gone. Once he touched her in this realm, there was no going back.
What the heck? There was no going back for her anyway. She would never be the same.
"Would you let me screw you on my floor, princess?" he asked, his voice ragged and deep with hunger.
"No, Zarek," she breathed. "But you can make love to me anywhere you want to."
She took his hand in hers and slid it down her pants, into her cotton panties.
Zarek's breathing was ragged as she opened her legs in invitation. He stared at her lying on his floor. Her crumpled shirt was pulled up, showing off her rounded stomach while his hand was stark against the light pink cotton of her underwear. Tiny tufts of her hair peeked out from under the waistband as he massaged her mound gently.
She unzipped his pants, spilling his erection out. He couldn't move as she took him into her warm hands.
His body on fire, he slid his hand down through the moist curls at the juncture of her thighs so that he could touch her intimately while she stroked him.
She was so wet already, her nether lips swollen, begging for more. Her hands massaged him, causing him to harden to the point of pain.
He slid his fingers over her cleft, delighting in the sound of her murmured pleasure.
He dipped his head to her breast, to toy with her nipple. He sucked and teased, taking his time tasting her.
Wanting more of her, he went to slide his fingers into her, only to touch something that stunned him. Something that hadn't been there in the dream.
He went cold.
Pulling back, he frowned as he felt her hymen under his probing fingers. "You're a virgin?"
He cursed and moved away from her.
"You're a virgin," he repeated. "How the hell can you be a virgin?"
"Easy. I've never slept with a man before."
"But my dreams..."
"Those were dreams, Zarek. That wasn't really my body."
His vision turned dark. Unwarranted jealousy gnawed at him. His little nymph had found one hell of a loophole. "So how many men have you fucked in their sleep?"
"You bastard!" she snapped, rising up into a sitting position on the floor. "If I could find your face, I would slap you format!"
Angry, she straightened her clothes and moved away from him. Her cheeks were flushed, her hands trembling, as she continued to curse both of them under her breath.
It was then he knew.
She wouldn't be this angry at them if she were guilty of what he'd said.
She'd never been with another man.
That knowledge floored him.
He couldn't begin to understand why she would offer him something she hadn't offered to anyone else.
It didn't make sense in his world.
"Why do you want to be with me?"
She paused as she dressed and glared in his direction. "I have no idea. You are surly. Rude. Obnoxious. I have never in my life seen anyone more ill-mannered and... and... aggravating. You have no respect for anyone, not even yourself. All you can do is pick, pick, pick. You don't even know how to be happy."
Astrid opened her mouth to continue, then stopped as she became aware of the tone of Zarek's voice when he had posed his question to her.
It had been gently searching. Not accusatory.
Most of all, it had come from deep inside him.
And so she answered it from her heart. "You want to know the truth, Zarek? I want to be with you because there's something about you that makes me hot and shivery. Whenever I feel you near me, I want to reach out and touch you. To slide you into me so that I can hold you close and tell you that everything is all right. That I'm not going to let anyone else hurt you."
"I'm not a child," he said angrily.
Astrid reached out through the darkness and found his hand on the floor in front of her. She took it into hers and held it tight. "No, you're not a child. You never were. Children are supposed to be protected and cared for. You had no one to hold you when you cried. No one ever soothed you. They never told you stories or made you laugh when you were sad."
The tragedy of his life reached out to her then, penetrating her heart, making her want to weep for all the injustice that had been dealt him.
Things she had taken for granted as a child had been denied him. Friendship, happiness, family, treats. And most of all, love.
His life had been so unfair.
She trailed her hand up his muscular arm, to bury it in his hair so that she could stroke his scalp. "Make love to me, Zarek. I can't take away your past, but I can hold you now. I want to share my body with you, even if it's only for a little while."
He pulled her forcefully against him and kissed her heatedly. She moaned, arching her back as he laid her back down on the floor.
Astrid kicked her shoes off, then removed her pants and panties. She pulled her shirt off and unsnapped her bra.
She should be embarrassed-she'd never stripped in front of anyone before. Never been naked while they were clothed.
Yet she was not ashamed.
She felt powerful with him. Womanly. She knew he wanted her and she desired only to please him.
She lay back against his icy floor.
Mesmerized, Zarek couldn't move as Astrid bent her knees up and opened her legs in invitation.
Her nipples were puckered from the cold and her desire. Her hair was loose, spilling over her shoulders, and her hands rested on her stomach.
But it was her core that he stared at. She was already wet for him, her body swollen with need just as his was.
"I'm cold, Zarek," she whispered. "Will you warm me?"
He should get up and leave her there like that.
No one had ever offered him such a precious gift.
No one but Astrid.
He grabbed the blankets from his pallet and covered her with them. He stripped his own clothes off, then joined her. Spreading her thighs wider, he took a moment to stare at the most private part of her body.
She was beautiful.
He ran his fingers down her rigid cleft, making her shiver even more under the warmth of his furs. Using his thumbs, he spread her open, then dipped down to take her into his mouth.
Astrid gasped at the sensation of Zarek's tongue sweeping against her. He licked and teased her, his breath warming her bottom.
His hot hands cupped her hips, pulling her closer to his mouth and to the prickly skin of his face.
He moaned as if the taste of her were heavenly. Licking her lips, she reached down to cup his face while he pleasured her.
Her heart pounded at the feeling of his jaw flexing under her hands.
In her dreams his touch had been incredible, but in reality it was far more intense.
Far more satisfying.
Her head swirled as her heart raced. Unbridled ecstasy danced through her and left her calling his name as she pressed herself closer to his lips.
And when she came, she screamed out, holding his head to her while her body disintegrated into a thousand sparks of pleasure.
Still he licked and teased her until she was whimpering from the bliss.
Zarek pulled back to see her panting on his floor. The top part of her was covered by his furs and blankets, but her lower half was bare, glistening in the low light of the lantern from the combination of her juices and him.
Her face was flushed, her eyes bright.
He'd never had a woman in his place before. Most especially not a naked one.
He pulled his covers away from her. She gasped as they scraped against her swollen, sensitive breasts. Zarek moved away from her only long enough to remove his clothes.
She reached out for him as he laid his body down over hers and let her heat warm him.
Zarek growled as her hard nipples rubbed against his chest. The tip of his shaft pressed against the damp hairs between her legs.
Astrid covered them with the blankets again and cradled him with her body.
Gods, how good she felt under him like this. Face to face. Her legs wrapped around his waist. Her hands stroking his naked back.
He lowered his head and kissed her, probing her mouth with his tongue.
But it wasn't her mouth he wanted to penetrate...
He trailed his hand down her arm until he could lace his fingers with hers. Holding her hand above their heads, he deepened his kiss.
Astrid swallowed as she felt Zarek shift his weight, bringing his entire lush, rippling male body flush with hers.
He pressed the tip of his shaft against her core. She arched her back, waiting for him to fill her.
He deepened his kiss and, with one thrust, slid himself deep inside.
Astrid cringed and whimpered at the sudden pain that overrode her pleasure.
Zarek pulled out immediately. "Oh, God, Astrid, did I hurt you? I'm sorry. I didn't know it was going to hurt."
His contrition was so immediate and heartfelt that it stunned her more than the pain had.
Apologies and Zarek were two things that went together like porcupines and balloons.
Obviously, he didn't know what she did.
"It's okay," she said, kissing him until he relaxed. "It's supposed to hurt the first time."
"It didn't hurt the first time I did it. Believe me."
She laughed at that. "It's a woman thing, Prince Charming. It's okay, really."
She reached down his body and found him still hard and throbbing. He groaned deep in his throat as she stroked him.
Biting her lip, she guided him back toward her.
He tensed, refusing to let her carry him home. "I don't want to hurt you."
Joy filled her. "You won't, Zarek. I want you inside me."
He hesitated a few minutes more before he slowly slid himself into her again.
They both moaned.
Astrid arched her back at the incredible feel of him deep and hard inside her. He was so full. So commanding.
She ran her hands up and over his muscular back and shoulders.
The only thing more perfect would be to be able to look into his eyes as he loved her. That was the only part she missed from having him in her dreams. Even though the sensation of him was so much richer now, she wished she could watch him again.
Moaning her name, he buried his lips against her throat, scraping her skin with his fangs as he rode her slowly, forcefully.
Zarek's heart raced as he savored the warm, wet feel of her. He allowed the softness of her body to soothe him.
There was heaven in her touch. Heaven in the sound of his name on her lips.
Not once had he dreamed that taking a woman like this could feel the way she did.
She cupped his face in her hands.
"What are you doing?" he whispered.
"I want to see you."
He placed his hand over hers and then turned his face so that he could kiss her open palm.
Astrid melted at the tenderness of his actions as he moved slow and hard against her. His whiskers pricked at her hands, but his lips were soft, gentle.
He was like a tamed panther. One that was still wild at heart but that might come up and nuzzle your hand so long as you took care of him and didn't move too fast.
He leaned forward over her and buried his lips against her neck. She shivered as she ran her hands over his strong back, down to his hips.
How she loved the feel of him there. The feel of his hips thrusting against hers.
She brought her hands around to the front of him and slid them between their bodies. His hairs gently scraped her skin as she encircled his wet shaft with her hands so that she could feel him sliding in and out of her.
Zarek held his breath as she touched him while he rode her. Oh, the sweetness of her hands on him...
He kissed her as she explored where they were joined, and when she gently squeezed his sac he growled as he came dangerously close to orgasm.
"Easy, princess," he breathed, pulling her hands away from him. "I don't want to come yet. I want to feel you for a little while longer."
Astrid smiled at his hoarse words. He held her arms above her head and dipped his head down to gently nip her breast.
How she loved this man.
Faults and irritability and all.
"I'm all yours, baby," she whispered. "Take your time."
And he did. He kissed every inch of her he could reach while still inside her.
The effect of every tender caress was heightened because she knew the rarity of the gesture. This wasn't a man who cuddled up to just anyone. He didn't go willingly to any woman who smiled at him.
He was her fox who only left his den when he heard her footsteps.
She alone had tamed him.
He would never belong to anyone the way he did to her.
Astrid came again calling out his name.
Zarek quickened his strokes and joined her in bliss, his head spinning.
He lay on top of her panting and weak, listening to her heart pound against his chest.
There was no place he'd rather be than with her, letting the smell of her sweet, sweaty skin lull and soothe him.
He'd never been so warm. So sated.
All he wanted was to lie here naked with her and forget all about the rest of the world.
Unfortunately, it was the one thing he couldn't do.
Kissing her gently, he pulled back. "We should get dressed. I don't know if Thanatos will come here, but my money says he will."
Zarek hesitated as he saw the blood on her thighs from where he had breached her hymen.
Clenching his teeth, he turned away, ashamed of the fact that he had taken her on the floor like an animal after all. She didn't deserve this.
She didn't deserve him.
What had he done?
He had ruined her.
She sat up and touched his shoulder. The sensation of it tore through him. It was familiar.
It was sublime.
Why then did it make his stomach ache?
"Zarek? Is something wrong?"
"No," he lied, unable to tell her what he thought. She should never have lain with something like him. He was so far beneath her that he didn't deserve her kindness.
He deserved nothing.
And yet she reached out and touched him. It didn't make sense to him.
She leaned her cheek against his back and encircled his waist with her arm. He could barely breathe as she ran her hand over his chest in a comforting gesture.
"I have no regrets, Zarek. I hope you feel the same way."
He leaned back against her and tried not to let his aching heart overshadow what they had shared.
"How could I regret the best night of my life?" He laughed bitterly as he remembered everything that had happened since Jess had shaken him awake. "Well, except for the Terminator who's after us and the goddess who wants me dead and-"
"I get the picture," she said with a laugh. She nuzzled his neck, sending chills over him. "It does seem hopeless, doesn't it?"
He thought about that. " 'Hopeless' implies that at one time there was hope. And that's another word I don't understand. Hope only exists for people who have choices."
"And you don't?"
He toyed with a strand of her blond hair. "I'm a slave, Astrid. I've never known hope. I just do what I'm told."
"Yet you never have."
That wasn't exactly true. As a human, he had never dared open his mouth to protest anything. He had taken beating after beating, degradation after degradation, and done nothing.
It was only as a Dark-Hunter that he had learned to fight.
"Do you think Sasha's okay?"
Her sudden change of topic surprised him. "I do. Jess is a whiz with animals. Even Katagaria."
She chuckled at that. "Why, Zarek, I do believe you are learning to comfort someone after all. I half-expected you to say you were hoping he'd be lying dead in a ditch somewhere."
He looked down at her small hand on his skin, resting just above his heart. It was true. She was taming him.
And it scared him more than the monster that was out to kill them.
Thanatos he could deal with, but these emotions...
He was helpless before her.
"Yeah, well, with any luck he'll be beyond all help."
She laughed at that, then kissed him lightly on the back. She pulled away to dress.
Zarek watched her, his heart pounding. What was it about her that made him want to be something more than what he was?
For her, he actually wanted to be decent. Kind.
Things he'd never been.
Forcing himself up, he tossed his old clothes into the trash can and pulled new ones out of his wardrobe. At least he no longer had the hole in the back of his coat. He took a couple of minutes to button her into one of his old parkas.
"What's this?" she asked as he draped it over her shoulders.
"It'll keep you warmer than your coat."
She put her arms through the much-too-long sleeves while he gathered up gloves, hats, and scarves for them.
"Where are we going? Won't it be dawn soon?"
"Yes and you'll see. Sort of."
Once he had her dressed properly and had pulled on his insulated boots, he moved the wood-burning stove aside so that he could reach the trapdoor underneath it.
He helped Astrid down the hole, then climbed down after her and closed the trapdoor. Using his telekinesis, he moved the stove back into place.
"Where are we?"
Zarek turned his flashlight on. It was darker than a tomb down here and colder than hell. But they would be safe. For a little while, at least.
If Thanatos came back during daylight, he wouldn't know about this place. No one did.
"What are the tunnels?"
"In short, my boredom. After I had carved up my cabin, I started digging under it. I figured it would give me more room to move about during the summer, and it's not quite so hot down here in summer or so cold in winter. Not to mention I was always paranoid Acheron would come to kill me one day. I wanted an escape route he didn't know about."
"But the ground is frozen solid. How did you manage?"
"I'm stronger than a human and I had nine hundred years to work on it. Being trapped and bored tends to make people do insane things."
"Like try to dig a tunnel to China?"
He led her down the narrow corridor to a small room where he had weapons stored.
"Are we staying here for the day?"
"Since I don't want to spontaneously burst into flames from the sun, I think it's the safest thing to do, don't you?"
Once he had as much firepower as he could carry, he took her to the end of the longest tunnel. The trapdoor above them opened into the dense forest that surrounded his cabin. It would be a safe place to leave from after dark.
"Why don't you go ahead and get some sleep?" he said.
Without thinking, he pulled his musk-ox parka off and made her a small pallet on the floor.
Astrid started to protest, then stopped herself. Acts of kindness were alien to Zarek. She wasn't about to complain over his good deed.
Instead, she lay down on his coat.
But he made no move to join her. He walked around the limited space and seemed to be waiting for her to go to sleep.
Curious as to what he had planned, she closed her eyes and feigned slumber.
Zarek waited several minutes before he picked up the cell phone Spawn had given him. He climbed up the stairs and opened the trapdoor to the forest so that he could get some reception for the phone.
He made sure not to let the predawn light in.
Zarek didn't know if this would work or not, but he had to try.
He dialed Ash's number and pressed send.
"Come on, Acheron," he said under his breath. "Answer the damn phone."
Astrid lay quietly, knowing the cell phone would never ring where Ash was. Artemis wouldn't allow it.
But then, Artemis didn't control everything.
Using her limited powers, Astrid "helped" the signal.
Ash jerked awake the instant his phone rang. Out of habit, he rolled over in bed to reach for his backpack, only to remember where he was and that he wasn't allowed to answer his phone while in Artemis's temple.
Come to think of it, his phone shouldn't be ringing at all. It wasn't as if there was a cell tower on Olympus to carry the signal.
Which meant it had to be coming from Astrid...
But if Artemis caught him talking to the nymph, she'd go ballistic on him and recant their deal. Not that he cared what she did to him, but he wasn't about to unleash Artemis's temper on Astrid.
Grinding his teeth, he pulled his phone out and let his voice mail answer it while he listened to the message.
What he heard made his eyesight dim.
It wasn't Astrid. It was Zarek.
"Dammit, Acheron, where are you?" Zarek growled, then a few seconds of silence followed. "I... I need your help."
Ash's stomach tightened as he heard the four words he'd never expected Zarek to utter.
It must be bad for the ex-slave to ever admit he needed anything from anyone. Especially him.
"Look Acheron, I know I'm a dead man and I don't care. I'm not sure how much you know about my situation, but there's someone with me. Her name is Astrid and she says she's a justice nymph. This thing, Thanatos, is after me and he's already killed one Dark-Hunter tonight. I know if he gets his hands on Astrid he'll kill her, too. You have to protect her for me, Acheron... please. I need you to come get her and keep her safe while I fight Thanatos. If you won't do it for me, then do it for her. She doesn't deserve to die because she tried to help me."
Ash sat up in bed. He held the phone so tight it bit fiercely into his hand.
He wanted to answer it. But didn't dare. Fury and pain surged through him.
How dare Artemis betray him yet again.
Damn her for it.
He should have known she wouldn't pen Thanatos up as she had promised. What was one more life extinguished to her?
Nothing. Nothing mattered to her except what she wanted.
But he cared. He cared in a way Artemis would never comprehend.
"I'm at my cabin with Spawn's phone. Call me. We need to get her out of here as soon as possible."
The phone went dead.
Ash threw back the blankets and willed his clothes onto his body. Furious, he shoved the phone into his backpack and threw open the bedroom doors with a clatter.
Artemis sat on her throne with her twin brother, Apollo, standing in front of her.
They both jumped as he entered.
No wonder Artemis had told him he needed to rest.
She knew better than to let him and Apollo be in the same room together. They got along even "better" than Artemis and Simi did.
Apollo charged him.
Ash threw out his hand and knocked the god back. "Stay away from me, Sunshine-boy. I'm in no mood for you today."
Ash headed for the door only to find Artemis blocking his way again. "What are you doing?"
"Out of my way, Artemis. In the mood I'm in, I just might hurt you if you continue to stand there."
"You swore you would stay here for two weeks. If you leave Olympus, you will die. You cannot break your word, you know that."
Ash closed his eyes and cursed at the one tiny thing he'd forgotten in his anger. Unlike those of the Olympian gods, his oath was binding. Once he uttered an oath, he was bound by it no matter how much he willed it otherwise.
"What is he doing here?" Apollo growled. "You told me he didn't come here anymore."
"Shut up, Apollo," he and Artemis said in unison.
Ash glared at Artemis as she took a step back. "Why did you lie to me about Thanatos? You told me he had been penned again."
"I didn't lie."
"No? Then why was he loose in Alaska last night, killing my Dark-Hunters, after you told me you had him penned again?"
"He killed Zarek?"
He curled his lip. "Wipe that hopeful look off your face. Zarek is alive, but someone else was killed."
Her face fell. "Who?"
"How would I know? I'm stuck up here with you."
She stiffened at the way he said that. "I told the Oracles to pen him after Dion had freed him. I assumed they had done so."
"Then who let him out this time?"
They both turned to look at Apollo.
"I didn't do it," Apollo snapped. "I don't even know where you house that creature."
"You better not have done it," Ash growled.
Apollo gave him a snide smirk. "You don't scare me, human. I killed you once, I can do it again."
Ash smiled slowly, coldly. That was then, this was now, and they played on a whole new field with a brand-new set of rules he would give just about anything to introduce to the god. "Please try."
Artemis stepped between them. "Apollo, leave."
"What about him?"
"He's not your concern."
Apollo looked as if they both repulsed him. "I can't believe you allow something like him into your temple."
Her face flushing, Artemis looked away, too embarrassed to say anything to her brother.
It was what Ash expected of her.
Ashamed of him and their relationship, Artemis had always tried to keep Ash away from the other Olympians as much as she could. For centuries now, the other gods knew he came to see her. Gossip abounded over what they did together and how long he stayed with her, but Artemis had never confirmed a relationship between them. Had never deigned to touch him in the presence of any other person.
Odd how even after eleven thousand years it still bothered him that he was her dirty little secret. That after everything they had shared and done, she could hardly stand to look at him whenever others were around.
And yet she bound him to her and refused to let him go.
Their relationship was sick and well he knew it.
Unfortunately, he had no choice in the matter.
But if he could ever break free of her, he would run as fast as he could. She knew it as well as he did.
It was why she held on to him so tightly.
Apollo raked him with a grimace. "Tsoulus."
Ash stiffened at the ancient Greek insult. It wasn't the first time he'd been called that. As a human being, he had answered to it defiantly, with a sick kind of glee.
The only thing that really hurt was the knowledge that eleven thousand years later, it was every bit as applicable to him as it had been then.
Only now he didn't revel in the title.
Now it cut him soul deep.
Artemis grabbed her brother by the ear and pulled him toward the door. "Get out," she snarled as she shoved him outside and slammed the door.
She turned back to face Acheron.
Ash hadn't moved. The insult still smoldered deep inside him.
"He's an idiot."
Ash didn't bother to contradict her. He agreed completely.
"Simi, take human form."
Simi floated out of his sleeve to manifest beside him. "Yes, akri?"
"Protect Zarek and Astrid."
"No!" Artemis snapped. "You can't let it go, it might tell Zarek everything that happened."
"Then let her. It's time he understood."
"Understood what? Do you want him to know the truth about you?"
Ash felt a wave go through him and he knew his eyes flashed from silver to red. Artemis stepped back, further proving they had.
"It was the truth about you that I kept from him," Ash said between clenched teeth.
"Was it, Acheron? Was it truly about me or did you erase his memories of that night because you were afraid of what he'd think about you?"
The wave deepened.
Ash held his hand up to silence Artemis before it was too late and his powers took control of him. It had been too long since he had last fed and he was too volatile to control himself.
If they continued to fight, there was no telling what he might do.
He looked to Simi who waited beside him. "Simi, don't speak to Zarek but make sure Thanatos doesn't kill either one of them."
"Tell it not to kill Thanatos, too."
Ash started to argue, then stopped. They didn't have time, nor did he have a tight enough grip on himself. If Thanatos killed Zarek and Astrid, life would be a lot more complicated for everyone.
"Don't kill Thanatos, Simi. Now, go."
"Okay, akri, I'll protect them." Simi vanished.
Artemis narrowed her green eyes at him. "I can't believe you sent it out on its own. It's worse than Zarek and Thanatos combined."
"I have no choice, Artie. Have you given any thought as to what will happen if Astrid dies? How do you think her sisters will react?"
"She can't die unless they will it."
"That's not true and you know it. There are some things that not even the Fates have control over. And I assure you that if your mad pet destroys their beloved baby sister, they will demand your head for it."
Ash didn't have to say anything more than that. Because if Artemis lost her head, then the world as all knew it would change into something truly frightening.
"I'll go talk to the Oracles."
"Yeah, you do that, Artie, and while you're at it, you better think about going after Thanatos yourself and bringing him home."
She curled her lip. "I'm a goddess, not a servant. I fetch for no one."
Ash moved to stand so close to her that barely a hand-breadth separated them. The air between them rippled with their warring powers, with the ferocity of their raw emotions. "Sooner or later, we all have to do things that are beneath us. Remember that, Artemis."
He moved away from her and turned his back.
"Just because you sold yourself so cheaply, Acheron, it doesn't mean I have to."
He froze, his back still to her, as her words ripped through him. They were cruel and harsh. It was on the tip of his tongue to curse her for that.
He didn't and she was damned lucky for his control.
Instead, he spoke calmly, and chose each deliberate word with care. "If I were you, Artie, I would pray that I never get what I truly deserve. But if Thanatos kills Astrid, not even I will be able to save you."