Astrid sat on the edge of the bed as she checked the wounds of her "guest." For four days now, he had lain in her bed unconscious while she watched over him.
The tight muscles under her hands were firm and strong, but she couldn't see them.
She couldn't see him.
Her eyesight was always forfeit when she was sent to judge someone. Eyes could deceive. They judged things very differently from the other senses.
Astrid must always be impartial even though at the moment she didn't truly feel that way.
How many times had she gone in with an open heart only to be fooled?
The worst case had been Miles. A rogue Dark-Hunter, he had been charming and amusing. He had dazzled her with his vibrancy and ability to make everything a game. Whenever she had tried to push him to his limits, he had laughed off her tests and shown himself to be a good sport about everything.
He had appeared the perfect, well-balanced man.
For a time, she had even fancied herself in love with him.
In the end, he had tried to kill her. He had been completely amoral and ruthless. Cold. Unfeeling. The only person he had been able to love was himself, and while he was nothing but scum, in his mind, he had been wronged by mankind so it was okay to do whatever he wanted to them.
And that was Astrid's biggest problem with Dark-Hunters. They were humans who were usually recruited from the sewers. Spat upon by others from the cradle to the grave, they were hostile to the world. Artemis never took that into consideration when she converted them. All she wanted was a soldier under Acheron's command. Once they were created, Artemis washed her hands of them and left them for others to monitor and maintain.
At least until they crossed whatever line Artemis had drawn. Then the goddess rushed to have them judged and executed, and though she had no proof, Astrid suspected Artemis only followed that protocol to keep Acheron from being angry at her.
So Astrid had been called multiple times over the centuries to find some reason to allow a Dark-Hunter to live.
She never had. Not once. Every one she had judged had been dangerous and raw. A menace who threatened mankind more than the Daimons they pursued.
Olympian justice didn't operate quite the way human justice did. There was no assumption of innocence. On Olympus, once accused, the defendant must prove himself worthy of mercy.
No one ever had.
The closest Astrid had ever come to clemency had been Miles, and look how that had turned out. It terrified her to think of how close she had come to judging him innocent and then having him set loose on the world again.
That experience had been the last straw for her. Since then, she had pulled herself away from everyone.
She wouldn't let a man's beauty or charm trick her again. Her job now was to get to the heart of this man on her bed.
Artemis had said Zarek had no heart whatsoever. Acheron had said nothing. He had only given her a piercing look that told her he was depending on her to do the right thing.
But what was right?
"Wake up, Zarek," she whispered. "You only have ten days left to save yourself."
Zarek came awake to a pain that was indescribable, which given his brutal background as a whipping boy and slave was hard to believe. Especially since as a human being, pain had been the only certainty in his life.
His head throbbing, he shifted, expecting to feel cold snow and ground underneath him. Instead, he was struck by how warm he felt.
I'm dead, he thought wryly.
Not even his dreams had ever left him this warm.
Yet as he blinked open his eyes to find a fire blazing in a hearth and a mountain of quilts over him, he realized he was very much alive and lying in someone else's bedroom.
He looked around the room, which was decorated in earth tones: pale pinks, tans, browns, and dark green. The log-cabin walls were the upper-crust kind that denoted someone who wanted the look and feel of a rustic cabin, but who had enough money to make sure it was well insulated and cozy, and not drafty and cold.
His bed was an expensive iron reproduction of the large beds from the end of the nineteenth century. To his left stood a small nightstand where an old-fashioned pitcher and washbowl rested.
Whoever owned this place was loaded.
Zarek hated wealthy people.
Zarek frowned at the soft, melodic voice. A woman's voice. She was down the hall in another room, but he couldn't quite pinpoint her location through the pain in his skull.
He heard a soft canine whine.
"Oh, stop that," the woman chided with a gentle tone. "I didn't really hurt your feelings, did I?"
Zarek's frown deepened as he tried to make sense of what had happened to him. Jess and the others were hunting him and he remembered falling down in front of a house.
Someone from the house must have found him and dragged him inside, though why anyone would bother he couldn't imagine.
Not that it mattered. Jess and Thanatos would be after him, and it wouldn't take a rocket scientist to figure out where he was, especially given how much blood he'd been losing as he ran. No doubt, there was a trail that led straight to this cabin's door.
Which meant he had to get out of here ASAP. Jess wouldn't do anything to hurt those who'd helped him, but there was no telling what Thanatos was capable of.
His mind flashed to a burning village. To the horrid sight of people lying dead...
Zarek flinched at the memory, wondering why it would haunt him now.
It was a reminder of what he was capable of, he decided, and a reminder of why he had to get away from here. He didn't want to hurt someone who had been nice to him.
Forcing himself to forget the pain of his body, he sat up slowly.
The dog instantly came running into his room.
Only it wasn't a dog, he realized as it stopped by his bed and growled at him. It was a large, white timber wolf. One that appeared to hate him.
"Back off, Scooby," he snapped. "I've made boots from bigger and badder wolves than you."
The wolf bared more teeth as if it understood his words and was daring him to prove them.
Zarek froze as the woman appeared in his doorway.
She was incredible. Her long blond hair was the color of honey, and it fell in soft waves around her thin shoulders. Her skin was pale, with rosy cheeks and lips that had obviously been protected very carefully from the harsh Alaskan climate. She stood close to six feet in height and wore a white cable-knit sweater and jeans.
Her eyes were a pale, pale blue. So light that at first glance, they were almost colorless. And as she came into the room with her hands stretched out as she moved slowly and methodically, trying to locate the wolf, he realized she was completely blind.
The wolf barked at him twice, then turned and went to his owner.
"There you are," she whispered, kneeling to pet it. "You shouldn't bark, Sasha. You'll wake our guest."
"I'm awake and I'm sure that's why he's barking."
She turned her head toward him as if she were trying to see him. "I'm sorry. We don't get much company and Sasha tends to be a little antisocial with strangers."
"Believe me, I know the feeling."
She walked toward the bed, again with her hand outstretched. "How do you feel?" she asked, patting his shoulder as she located him.
Zarek cringed at the sensation of her warm hand on his flesh. It was gentle. Searing. And it made a foreign part of him ache. But worst of all, it made his groin hard. Tight.
He'd never been able to stand anyone touching him.
"I'd rather you not do that."
"Do what?" she asked.
She pulled back slowly and blinked methodically as if it were more habit than reflex. "I see by touch," she said softly. "If I don't touch you, I'm completely blind."
"Yeah, well, we all have problems." He scooted to the opposite side of the bed and rose to his feet. He was bare except for his leather pants and a few bandages. She must have undressed him and treated his wounds. That thought made him feel rather strange. No one had ever bothered caring for him before when he'd been wounded.
Why would she?
Even Acheron and Nick had left him to his own devices after he'd been hurt in New Orleans. The best they'd offered was a ride home so that he could heal in solitude.
Of course, they might have offered him more had he been a little less hostile toward them, but hostility was what he did best.
Zarek found his clothes folded on a rocking chair by the window. In spite of the painful protests of his muscles, he started pulling them on. His Dark-Hunter powers had allowed him to heal for the most part while he slept, but he wasn't in as good a shape as he would have been had the Dream-Hunters helped him. They often came to injured Dark-Hunters to heal them during their sleep, but not Zarek.
He scared them as much as he scared everyone else.
So, he'd learned to take his hits and deal with the pain. Which was fine by him. He didn't like people, immortal or otherwise, anywhere nearby.
Life was better alone.
He grimaced as he caught sight of the hole in the back of his shirt where the shotgun blast had struck him.
Yup, life was definitely better alone. Unlike his "friend," he couldn't shoot himself in the back even if he wanted to.
"Are you up?" the unknown woman asked, her voice surprised. "Dressing?"
"No," he said irritably. "I'm pissing on your rag. What do you think I'm doing?"
"I'm blind. For all I know you really are peeing on my rag, which is a very nice rag incidentally, so I hope you're kidding."
He felt a strange twinge of amusement at her comeback. She was fast and smart. He liked that.
But he had no time to waste. "Look, lady, I don't know how you got me in here, but I appreciate it. However, I have to get going. Believe me, you'll be very sorry if I don't."
She pushed herself off the bed at his hostile words and it was only then he realized he'd growled them at her.
"There's a bad blizzard outside," she said, her voice less friendly than it had been before. "No one is going to be able to go anywhere for a while."
Zarek didn't believe it until he parted the curtains on her window. The snow was falling so fast and thick that it looked like a dense white wall.
He cursed under his breath. Then louder he asked, "How long has it been doing this?"
"The last few hours."
He ground his teeth as he realized he was stuck here.
This was really not good, but at least it would keep the others from tracking him. With any luck the snow would disguise his trail and he knew for a fact that Jess hated the cold.
As for Thanatos, well, given his name, language, and looks, Zarek would peg him as an ancient Mediterranean, too, and that meant Zarek still had an advantage over both of them. He'd learned centuries ago how to move quickly over the snow and what dangers to avoid.
Who could have known that nine hundred years in Alaska would actually pay off someday?
"How can you be up and moving?"
Her question startled him. "Excuse me?"
"You were severely injured when I brought you in a few days ago. How can you be moving now?"
"A few days?" he asked, stunned by her words. He ran his hand over his face and felt his thick whiskers. Shit. It had been days. "How many?"
His heart pounded. He'd been here for four days and they hadn't found him? How was that possible?
He frowned. Something about that didn't seem right.
"I thought I felt a gun wound on your back."
Ignoring the gaping hole in the shirt, Zarek pulled his black undershirt on over his head. He was sure it'd been Jess who had shot him. Shotguns were the cowboy's weapon of choice. His only consolation was the thought that Jess was aching from it as much as he was. Unless Artemis had lifted her ban. Then the bastard would feel nothing but satisfaction.
"It wasn't a gun wound," he lied. "I just fell."
"No offense, but you'd have to fall off Mount Everest to have those kinds of wounds."
"Yeah, maybe next time I'll remember to take my climbing gear with me."
She scowled at him. "Are you mocking me?"
"No," he answered honestly. "I just don't want to go into what happened."
Astrid nodded as she tried to discern more about this angry man who couldn't seem to speak without growling at her. Awake, he was far from pleasant.
He'd been near death when Sasha had found him. No one should be so badly beaten and shot, and then left for dead as he had been.
What had the Squires been thinking?
She was amazed the rogue Dark-Hunter could stand at all even after four days of rest.
Such treatment was inhumane and unbecoming of those who had sworn to protect mankind. Had a human found Zarek, his cover would have been even more blown by their carelessness, and the humans would have learned of his immortality.
It was something she fully intended to report to Archeron.
But that would come later. For now, Zarek was up and moving. His immortal life or death rested completely in her hands and she intended to test him fully to see just what kind of man he was.
Did he have any compassion left inside him or was he just as empty as she was?
Her job was to be the epitome of the things that drove Zarek to anger. She would push him to the heights of his tolerance and beyond to see what he would do.
If he could control himself with her, she would judge him safe and sane.
If he lashed out to hurt her in any way, she would judge him guilty and he would die.
Let the tests begin...
She ran through her mind what little she knew about him. Zarek didn't like to talk to people. He didn't like the rich.
Most of all, he hated to be touched or ordered about.
So she decided to press his first button with idle conversation.
"What color is your hair?" she asked. The seemingly innocuous question made her memory flash to the way it had felt under her hand as she had bathed the blood from it.
His hair had been soft, smooth. It had slid sensuously through her fingers, caressing them. From the feel of it, she knew it wasn't too short or too long, but probably fell to his shoulders when styled.
"Excuse me?" He sounded surprised by her question and for once didn't growl the words at her.
He had a beautiful voice. Rich and deep. It resonated with its Greek accent, and every time he spoke, it sent a strange chill through her. She'd never heard any man who had a voice so innately masculine.
"Your hair," she repeated. "I was wondering what color it is."
"Why do you care?" he asked belligerently.
She shrugged. "Just curious. I spend a lot of time alone and though I don't really remember what colors look like, I try to picture them anyway. My sister Cloie gave me a book once that said every color had a texture and feel. Red, for instance, it said was hot and bumpy."
Zarek frowned at her. This was an odd conversation, but then, he'd spent enough time alone to understand the need to talk about anything to anyone who would stand still long enough to bother. "It's black."
"I thought so."
"Did you?" he asked before he could stop himself.
She nodded as she rounded the bed and came a little too close to him. She stood so close that their bodies almost touched. He felt an odd impulse to touch her. To see if her skin was as soft as it appeared.
Gods, she was beautiful.
Her body was lithe and tall, her breasts a perfect handful. It'd been a long time since he had last screwed a woman. An eternity since he had been this close to one without tasting her blood.
He swore he could taste hers now. Feel her heartbeat pounding against his lips as he drank from her while her emotions and feelings poured into him, filling him with something other than numbness and pain.
Even though drinking human blood was forbidden, it was the only thing that had ever given him pleasure. The only thing that buried the pain inside him and allowed him to experience hopes, dreams.
The only thing that allowed him to feel human.
And he wanted to feel human.
He wanted to feel her.
"Your hair was cool and silky," she said softly, "like midnight velvet."
Her words made his cock tighten with need and lust.
Cool and silky.
It made him think of her legs sliding against his. Of the delicate, feminine skin that would cover her buttocks and thighs. The way they would feel against his legs as he pounded himself into her.
His breathing ragged, he imagined what it would be like to peel her tight, faded jeans down her long legs and spread them wide. To run his hand through her short, crisp hairs until he could touch her intimately, stroking her until her sweet juices coated his fingers as she murmured in his ear and rubbed herself against him.
What it would be like to lay her down on the bed behind her and sink himself deep inside her warm, wet heat until they both climaxed.
To feel her mouth on his body.
Her hands groping him.
She reached out to touch him.
Unable to move from the force of his fantasy, Zarek stood perfectly still as she placed her hand on his shoulder. The smell of woman, smoke, and roses permeated him and he felt a desperate need to bend down, bury his face against her creamy skin, and just inhale her sweet scent. To sink his fangs into her soft, tender neck and sample the life force inside her.
Unconsciously, he opened his lips, baring his fangs.
The need for her was almost overwhelming.
But not nearly as demanding as the desire to touch her body.
"You're taller than I thought you'd be." She traced the curve of his upper biceps. Chills rushed over him as he hardened even more.
He wanted her. Badly.
Her wolf growled.
Zarek ignored it as he continued to stare at her.
His affairs with women had always been kept brief and hurried. Never once had he allowed a woman to face or touch him while they had sex.
He'd always taken his women on all fours from behind, furious and quick like an animal. He'd never wanted to spend any time with them other than what he needed to sate his body.
Yet he could easily envision taking this stranger into his arms and screwing her, face to face. Of feeling her breath on his skin as he rode her slow and hard all night long and drank from her...
He didn't speak as she skimmed her hand down his arm and he couldn't imagine why he didn't shove her away from him.
For some reason, she held him immobile with her touch.
His heavy groin burned with vicious need. If he didn't know better, he'd swear she was turning him on on purpose.
But there was an innocence in her touch that told him she only wanted to "see" him. There was nothing sexual in this.
At least not from her end.
Zarek stepped away from her and put a good four feet of distance between them.
He had to.
One more minute and he would have her naked on that bed and at his mercy...
Not that he had any mercy for anyone.
She dropped her hand and stood still as if waiting for him to touch her.
He didn't. One touch and he would be the animal everyone thought he was.
"What's your name?" The question was out before he could stop himself.
She offered him a friendly smile that made his groin jerk. "Astrid. And yours?"
Her smile widened. "You are Greek. I thought so by your accent."
Her wolf circled around her feet and sat down next to her to eyeball him. It flashed its teeth threateningly.
He was really beginning to hate that animal.
"Can I get you anything, Zarek?"
Yes, crawl naked into that bed and let me ravish you until dawn.
He swallowed at the thought and his groin tightened even more at the sound of his name on her lips.
He couldn't have been any harder if she had been stroking him with her hand.
What was wrong with him? He was on the run for his life and all he could think of was sex?
He was being a total idiot.
"No, thank you," he said. "I'm all right."
His stomach rumbled, betraying him.
"You sound hungry to me."
Starving, to be honest, but right then he was craving a taste of her a lot more than he was craving food. "Yeah. I guess I am."
"Here," she said, reaching out for him. "I might be blind, but I can cook. I promise that unless Sasha has moved things around in the kitchen, I haven't poisoned my stew."
Zarek didn't take her hand.
She swallowed as if nervous or awkward, then dropped her hand and headed out of the room.
Sasha growled at him again.
Zarek growled back and stamped his foot at the annoying pooch, who looked like it wanted nothing more than to tear his leg off.
He caught an unfocused look of censure on Astrid's face as she paused in the doorway to turn back toward them. "Are you being mean to Sasha?"
"No. I'm just returning his greeting." The wolf's ears were still laid back as it darted out of the room. "Rin Tin Tin doesn't seem to like me very much."
She shrugged. "He doesn't like anyone much. Sometimes not even me."
Astrid turned and headed down the hallway with Zarek behind her. There was something very ominous about this man. Deadly. And it wasn't just the strength she had felt in his arm as she touched it.
He oozed an unnatural darkness that seemed to warn everyone, even the blind, to stay away from him. That was most likely what Sasha reacted to. It was extremely disconcerting.
Maybe Artemis was right. Maybe she should judge him guilty and just go on home...
But he hadn't attacked her. At least not yet.
Astrid led him to the breakfast counter where she had three bar stools. Her sisters had placed them there earlier when they had come to visit and warn her about her latest assignment.
All three of her sisters had been extremely unhappy that she had decided to judge Zarek for her mother, but in the end, they'd had no choice except to let her do her job.
To their eternal consternation, there were some things not even the Fates could control.
Free will was one of them.
"Do you like beef stew?" she asked Zarek.
"I'm not picky. I'm just grateful to have something warm I didn't have to cook myself."
She noted the bitterness in his voice. "You do that a lot?"
He didn't answer.
Astrid felt her way to the stove.
As she neared the pot, Zarek was suddenly there, grabbing her hand and pulling her back. He'd moved so fast and silently that she gasped in startled alarm.
His speed and strength gave her pause. This man could really hurt her if he chose to, and given what she had in store for him, that was a very sobering realization.
"Let me do that," he said sharply.
She swallowed at the unwarranted anger in his tone. "I'm not helpless. I do this all the time."
He released her. "Fine, burn your hand then, I don't care." He moved away from her.
"Sasha?" she called.
Her wolf came up to her side and leaned against her leg to let her know where he was. Kneeling down, she took his head in her hands and closed her eyes.
Reaching out with her mind, she connected with Sasha's until she could use his eyesight as her own. She saw Zarek as he made his way back to the counter and she had to force herself not to gasp.
Afraid that his looks might sway her opinion about his character before she had a chance to interact with him, she hadn't used Sasha before this to see him.
Now she knew how right she'd been.
Zarek was incredibly handsome. His long, black hair was sleek, hanging just past his wide shoulders. The black turtle-neck he wore clung to a body that rippled with finely toned muscles. His face was lean and well sculpted. The planes of it, even while covered in whiskers, were a study in perfect male proportions. Yet he wasn't pretty, he was darkly handsome. Almost sinister looking except for his long black eyelashes and firm lips that softened his face.
And when he took a seat, she got a spectacular view of a well-shaped butt covered by leather.
The man was a god!
But what struck her most as he sat down and stared at the counter was the deep sadness in his midnight eyes. The haunted shadow that hovered there.
He looked tired. Lost.
Most of all, he looked terribly lonely.
He glanced at them and frowned.
Astrid patted Sasha's head and gave him a hug as if nothing unusual had happened. She hoped Zarek wouldn't have any idea what she'd been up to.
Her sisters had warned her that this particular Dark-Hunter would have extreme powers such as telekinesis and refined hearing, but none of them knew if he could sense her limited powers.
She was only grateful that he wasn't telepathic. That would have made her job infinitely more complicated.
She stood up and went to the cabinet to get a bowl for Zarek, and very carefully, she ladled the stew into it. Then she took it to the counter, not far from where Zarek had been standing.
He reached out and took the bowl from her. "You live alone?"
"Just me and Sasha." She wondered why he'd asked that.
Her sister Cloie had warned her that Zarek could turn violent with little provocation. That he had been known to attack Acheron and anyone else who came near him.
Dark-Hunter rumor said that his exile in Alaska had been caused by his destroying a village he'd been responsible for. No one knew why. Only that one night he'd gone mad and murdered everyone there, then razed their homes to the ground.
Her sisters had refused to elaborate on what had happened on that night for fear of prejudicing her viewpoint.
For Zarek's crime, Artemis had banished him to the frozen wilderness.
Could Zarek merely be curious about her living arrangements or was there a more sinister reason for his question?
"Would you like something to drink?" she asked him.
"What do you prefer?"
"I don't care."
She shook her head at his words. "You're not very picky, are you?"
She heard him clear his throat. "No."
"I don't like the way he's looking at you."
She arched a brow at Sasha's angry words in her head. "You don't like the way any man looks at me."
The wolf scoffed. "Still, he hasn't taken his eyes off you, Astrid. He's watching you now. His head is bent down, but there's lust in his eyes as he stares at you. Like he can already feel you under him. I don't trust him or that look. His gaze is too intense. Can I bite him?"
For some reason, knowing that Zarek was watching her made her hot and shivery. "No, Sasha. Be nice."
"I don't want to be nice, Astrid. Every instinct I have tells me to bite him. If you have any respect for my animal abilities, let me put him down now and save us both ten more days in this cold place."
She shook her head at him. "We just met him, Sasha. What if Lera had deemed you guilty on her first encounter with you all those centuries ago?"
"So you believe in goodness again?"
Astrid paused. No, she didn't. Most likely Zarek deserved to die, especially if half of what she'd been told was true.
And yet Acheron's quote haunted her.
"I owe Acheron more than ten minutes of my time."
She poured Zarek a cup of hot tea and took it over to him. "It's rosemary tea, is that okay?"
When he took it from her hand, she felt the warmth of his fingers brush hers.
An incredible rush went through her. She felt his surprise. His heated need. His unsated hunger.
That truly scared her. This was a man capable of anything. One of almost godlike powers.
He could do anything he wanted to her...
She needed to distract him.
"So what really happened to you?" she asked, wondering if he would breach his Code of Silence and tell her that he was wanted by the others.
"Well, I hope I never come across Nothing then if it's capable of putting a hole in my back."
She heard him pick up his tea, but he didn't speak.
"You should be more careful," she said.
"Believe me, I'm not the one who needs to be careful." His voice was sinister as he spoke those words, reinforcing his lethalness.
"Are you threatening me?" she asked.
Again he said nothing. The man was a total wall of silence.
So she pressed him once more. "Do you have anyone we need to call and let them know you're okay?"
"No," he said, his tone hollow.
She nodded as she thought about that. Zarek had never been granted a Squire.
She couldn't imagine being banished the way Zarek had been. At the time of his incarceration, this area of the world had been very sparsely populated.
The climate harsh. Inhospitable. Desolate. Bleak.
She'd only been living here a few days and it had taken some getting used to. But at least she had her mother, sisters, and Sasha to help her adjust.
Zarek had been denied anyone.
While other Dark-Hunters were allowed companions and servants, Zarek had been forced to endure his existence in solitude.
She couldn't imagine how he must have suffered over the centuries as he struggled through his days, knowing he would never have a reprieve of any kind.
No wonder he was insane.
Still, it was no excuse for his behavior. As he had said to her earlier, everyone had their problems.
Zarek finished his food and then took the dishes to the sink. Without thinking, he rinsed and cleaned them, then set them to the side.
"You didn't have to do that. I would have cleaned them."
He wiped his hands dry on the dish towel she had on the counter. "Habit."
"You must live alone, too."
Zarek watched her draw near to him. She moved to his side again, intruding on his personal space. He was torn between wanting to stand beside her and wanting to curse her nearness.
He decided on pulling away. "Look, could you just stay away from me?"
"Does it bother you for me to come near?"
More than she could imagine. When she was near him, it was easy to forget what he was. Easy to pretend he was a human being who could be normal.
But that wasn't him.
That had never been him.
"Yes, it does," he said, his tone low, threatening. "I don't like people to get near me."
"That's none of your damned business, lady," he snapped at her. "I just don't like people to touch me and I don't like them to come near me. So back off and leave me alone before you get hurt."
The wolf growled at him again, more fiercely this time.
"And you, Kibbles," he snarled at the wolf, "had better lay off me. One more growl and I swear I'm going to geld you with a spoon."
"Sasha, come here."
He watched as the wolf went instantly to her side.
"I'm sorry you find us so bothersome," she said. "But since we seem to be stuck together for a bit, you could try and be a little more sociable. At the very least civil."
Maybe she was right. But the bad thing was, he didn't know how to be sociable, never mind civil. No one had ever wanted to converse with him either in his human life or his Dark-Hunter one.
Even when he'd first signed on to the Dark-Hunter.com Web site to chat ten years ago, the other, older Dark-Hunters had thrown a fit and attacked him.
He was in exile. The rules of his banishment required that none of them speak to him.
He'd been banned from posting on the bulletin boards, the chatrooms, even the private loops.
It had only been by accident that he'd stumbled across Jess, who had been in one of the gaming rooms waiting for his Myst opponent to arrive. Too young in Dark-Hunter years to know he wasn't supposed to talk to Zarek, Jess had greeted him like a friend.
The novelty of it had made Zarek vulnerable and so he'd found himself talking to the cowboy. Before he knew it, they had somehow become friends.
And what had that gotten him?
Nothing but a bullet hole in his back.
Forget it. He didn't need to talk. He didn't need anything. And the last thing he wanted was to be sociable with a human woman who would call the cops if she ever found out who and what he was.
"Look, princess, this isn't a social call. As soon as the weather lets up, I'm out of here. So just leave me alone for the next few hours and pretend I'm not here."
Astrid decided to back off a bit and let him get a little more used to her.
Little did he know, he was going to be trapped here a lot longer than a few hours. That storm wasn't going to abate until she wanted it to.
For now, she would give him time to reflect and regroup.
There were still other tests he would have to pass. Tests that she wouldn't relent on.
But there was time for that later. Right now he was still wounded and betrayed.
"Fine," she said, "I'll be in my bedroom if you need me."
She left Sasha in the kitchen to watch him.
"I don't want to watch him," Sasha snapped.
"What if he does something disgusting?"
The wolf growled. "Fine. But can I have one small bite of him? Just to give him a healthy respect for me?"
She paused at that as she entered her room. "Because something tells me that if you attacked him, it is you who would get the healthy respect for his powers."
"Fine, I'm watching him. But if he does anything disgusting, I'm out of here."
She sighed at her incorrigible companion and lay down on her bed to try and get a little rest before she began her next battle of wills with Zarek.
Astrid took a deep breath and closed her eyes. She connected again with Sasha so that she could check in on Zarek. He was standing at her front window now, looking out at the snow.
She saw the ragged tear in the back of his shirt. Saw the weariness on his face. He looked daunted and at the same time determined.
There was an agelessness to his features. A wisdom that seemed somehow at odds with his sinister appearance.
"What are you, Zarek?" she wondered silently.
The question was morbidly followed by another. In the next few days, she would know exactly who and what he was. And if Artemis was right and he was truly amoral and lethal, she wouldn't hesitate to let Sasha kill him.