Zarek froze outside the door. Literally and figuratively. The bite of the wind was so harsh that it took his breath and sent a fierce shiver down his entire body.
It was so cold outside that he could barely move. The snow was falling fast and furiously, and was so dense that he couldn't see more than about an inch from the tip of his nose. Even his goggles had frozen.
No one sane would be out tonight.
So it was a good thing he was insane.
Grinding his teeth, he headed north. Damn, but it was going to be one long, miserable walk home. He only hoped he could make it to some kind of shelter before dawn.
If not, Artemis and Dionysus were going to be two happy gods in a few hours and old Acheron would have one less headache in his life.
He cursed as he heard Astrid's voice over the howling winds.
But it was compulsory. He glanced back before he could stop himself and there he saw her leaving the cabin with no coat on.
"Zarek!" She stumbled in the snow and fell.
Leave her. She should have stayed inside where she was safe.
She was helpless alone and he wouldn't leave her outside to die.
Mumbling a fetid curse that would have made a sailor cringe, he went to her side. He picked her up roughly and pushed her toward her house. "Get inside before you freeze to death."
"What about you?"
"What about me?"
"You can't stay out here, either."
"Believe me, princess, I've slept in worse conditions than this."
"You'll die out here."
"I don't care."
"Well, I do."
Zarek would have been far less stunned had she slapped him. At least that he would have expected.
For a full minute he couldn't move as those words rang in his ears. The idea that anyone cared whether or not he lived or died was so alien to him that he wasn't even sure how to respond.
"Get inside," he snarled, shoving her gently back through her door.
The wolf growled at him.
"Shut up, Sasha," she snapped before he had a chance to. "One more sound out of you and I'll make you go outside."
The wolf sniffed the air indignantly as if it understood her, then darted to the back of the house.
Zarek shut the door while Astrid trembled from the cold. The falling snow melted, making her instantly wet. He was wet too, not that he cared. He was used to physical discomfort.
"What were you thinking?" he yelled at her, sitting her down on the couch.
"Don't you dare take that tone of voice with me."
So he growled at her instead and stalked to the bathroom where he could grab a towel from the rack. Then he headed to her bedroom and grabbed a blanket.
He returned to her. "You're soaked."
Astrid was surprised by the sudden, unexpected warmth of a blanket covering her, especially given his angry, gravelly words that had all but called her an idiot for going after him.
Zarek wrapped her up tightly, then knelt before her. He pulled her fur-lined slippers from her feet and rubbed her frozen toes until she could again feel something other than the painful burn of cold.
She'd never experienced cold like this before and she wondered how many times Zarek must have suffered from it with no one there to warm him.
"That was a stupid thing for you to do," he said harshly.
"Then why did you do it?"
He didn't answer. Instead, he dropped her foot and moved around her.
She didn't know what he was going to do until she felt a towel covering her head. Tensing, she expected him to be rough.
He wasn't. In fact, his touch was amazingly gentle as he toweled her hair dry.
How strange was this? Who would have thought he would take such tender care of her?
It was completely unexpected.
Perhaps there was more to him than there appeared...
Zarek gnashed his teeth at how soft her damp hair was as it fell against his hands. He tried to keep the towel between it and his skin, but it didn't work. Strands of her hair continually brushed his flesh, making him burn.
What would it be like to kiss a woman?
What would it be like to kiss her!
He'd never before had the inclination. Every time a woman had tried, he'd moved his lips away from hers. It was an intimacy he had no wish to experience with anyone.
And yet he felt the yearning for it now. Felt a hunger to sample the moist, rosy lips of Astrid.
What are you? Mental?
Yes, he was.
He had no place in his life for a woman, no place for a friend or companion. He'd learned from the hour of his birth that he had but one destiny.
Even when he tried to belong, it didn't work. He was an outsider. That was all he knew.
He pulled the towel away from her hair and stared at her, wanting to run his hand through those damp strands and comb them. Her skin was still ashen and gray from the cold. But she was no less lovely. No less inviting.
Before he could stop himself, he laid his bare hand against her chilled cheek and let the softness of her skin pierce him.
Gods, but it felt so good just to touch her.
She didn't pull away from his touch or cringe. She sat there and let him touch her like a man.
Like a lover...
"Zarek?" Her voice was full of uncertainty.
"You feel like ice," he growled, then left her. He had to get away from her and the strange feelings she stirred inside him. He didn't want to be around her.
He didn't want to be tamed.
Every time he had allowed himself to be tied to another human, he'd been betrayed.
Even Jess, who had seemed safe because he lived so far away.
An echo pain stabbed his back.
Apparently Jess hadn't lived far enough away.
Zarek glanced out the kitchen window where the snow continued to fall. Sooner or later, Astrid would sleep and then he would leave.
Then she couldn't stop him.
Astrid started to go after Zarek, but stopped herself. She wanted to see what he would do. What he intended.
Sasha, what is he doing?
She held herself still and used Sasha's sight. Zarek was unbuttoning his coat. Her breath caught at the sight of his bare chest. Every muscle on his body rippled as he removed the coat and draped it over the back of her ladder-back chair.
The man was simply gorgeous. His tawny, bare back and wide shoulders inviting. Delectable.
But what stunned her was his right arm and shoulder, which were a total mess from Sasha's attack.
Astrid gasped at the sight of what her companion had done. Zarek on the other hand didn't seem to be the least bit bothered by his vicious wounds. He went about his business as if nothing had happened.
"Do I have to look at this?" Sasha whined in her head. "I'm going to go blind looking at a naked man."
"You're not going to go blind and he's not naked." Unfortunately.
Astrid was a bit taken aback by that uncharacteristic thought. She'd never ogled a man before, but she found herself transfixed by Zarek.
"Yes I am, and yes he is. Naked enough to make me lose my lunch anyway." Sasha started out of the kitchen.
"I'm not a dog, Astrid, and I don't care for that commanding tone. I stay with you by my choice, not by yours."
"I know, Sasha. I'm sorry. Please, stay for me." Growling in a manner very reminiscent of Zarek, Sasha loped back into the kitchen and sat down to watch him.
Zarek paid no attention to Sasha while he moved about the kitchen looking for something.
She frowned at him pulling out a small pan. As he moved toward her fridge, her breath caught at the sight of a stylized dragon tattooed onto the small of his back. And right above it was the fierce-looking wound where someone had shot him.
She cringed in unexpected sympathy. For the first time in a long while she actually felt sorry for someone. It looked vicious and painful.
Zarek moved as if he barely noticed it.
He went to the fridge and pulled out her milk and the big Hershey candy bar she'd bought on impulse. He poured the milk into the saucepan and then added pieces of the chocolate to it.
How strange. He'd bit her head off and intimidated her, then tended her, and now he was making hot chocolate.
"It's not for you," Sasha said to her.
"It's not. Wanna bet he tries to poison me with the chocolate?"
"Well, then don't eat it."
Zarek turned around and leveled a sinister sneer at Sasha. "Here, Lassie, want to go find Timmy in the well? C'mon, girl, I'll even open the door for you and toss you a biscuit."
"Here psycho-Hunter, wanna find my teeth in your-"
"I can't help it. He bothers me. A lot."
Zarek looked over at the water and food bowls that Astrid had placed on a small tray that was about four inches off the floor for Sasha.
Sasha bared his teeth. "Not my food, man. You contaminate it and so help me I will bite the shit out of you."
Zarek approached the stainless steel bowls.
"I told you, Astrid, the bastard is going to poison me. He's going to spit in my water or do something worse to it."
Zarek did the most unexpected thing of all. He bent down, picked up the almost empty water bowl, washed it out in the sink and refilled it with water, then carefully returned it to the tray.
Astrid wasn't sure which of them was the most shocked by his actions. Her or Sasha.
Sasha moved to his bowl and sniffed it suspiciously.
Zarek returned to the sink to wash his hands. Once the chocolate milk was warmed up, he poured it into a mug and brought it to her.
"Here," he said, his voice ringing with its usual rude, hostile note. He took her hand and led it to the cup.
"What is it?" she asked.
"Arsenic and vomit."
She screwed her face up in disgust at the thought. "Really? And yet you managed to hack that up so quietly. Who knew? Thanks. I've never had vomit before. I'm sure it's extra special."
Well, so much for thinking Zarek had a kinder, gentler side.
"Drink it or don't," he growled. "I don't care."
She heard him leave the room again.
Astrid held the cup. Even though she had watched him make it through Sasha's eyes and knew he hadn't done anything to contaminate it, she was still reluctant to taste it after his off-putting comment.
"He's watching you," Sasha told her.
She cocked her head very slowly. "How so?"
"Like he's daring you to taste it."
Astrid held her breath, debating what to do. Was it a test of his own? Was he asking her to trust him?
Taking a deep breath, she drank the chocolate, which was a perfect temperature and very tasty.
Zarek was amazed at her bravery. So, she had called his bluff and trusted him. He would never have drunk anything a stranger handed him and it surprised him that she had.
He felt a grudging respect for her. The woman had a lot of guts, he'd give her that.
But at the end of the day, guts didn't account for much, and all they would do is get her killed if Thanatos found them before he had a chance to leave.
His gaze turned dull as he remembered the demon or Daimon or whatever he was who had been sent to kill him.
All this time, the Dark-Hunters had assumed Acheron was the bloodhound Artemis used to track and kill rogue Dark-Hunters.
All the men who knew the truth were now roaming the earth as Shades. Soulless, bodiless entities who could feel hunger and thirst and yet were never allowed to sate it.
They could feel and sense the world, but no one could feel or sense them.
He understood that existence. For the twenty-six years he had lived as a mortal human, he'd been one himself.
Only then, a world that didn't know he existed would have been preferable. Because when people had realized he was around, they had gone out of their way to increase his pain.
Gone out of their way to hurt and humiliate him.
Rage flooded him as his gaze sharpened once more. He looked around the immaculate cabin where every detail showed Astrid's wealth. In his human existence a woman like her would have spat in his face for no other reason than that he dared to cross her path. He would have been so far beneath her that he would have been beaten for even daring to lift his gaze to her face.
To look her in the eyes would have been his death.
"Is this slave bothering you, mistress?"
He winced as the memory ran through his mind.
At age twelve he had been foolish enough to listen to his brothers as they pointed out a woman who was in the marketplace.
"She's your mother, slave. Didn't you know? Uncle freed her just last year,"
"Why not go to her, Zarek? Maybe she'll take pity on you and have you freed, too."
Too young and too stupid to know better, he had stared at the woman they showed him. She had hair as black as his and perfect blue eyes. He'd never seen his mother before. Had never known she was so beautiful.
But in his heart, she had always been more beautiful than Venus. He had envisioned her as a slave like himself who had no choice but to do as her master said. He'd built up a whole dream of how he'd been ripped from her arms after birth. How she had wept for him to be returned to her.
How she had pined every day for her lost son.
Meanwhile, he had been given to his merciless father who had vengefully kept him away from her caring arms.
Zarek was sure she would love him. All mothers loved their children. It was why the other female slaves had no use for him. They were saving all their rations and affections for their own.
But this woman... she was his.
And she would love him.
Zarek had run to her and embraced her, telling her who he was and how much he loved her.
But there had been no warm welcome. No motherly affection.
She had looked at him with abject disgust and horror. Her lips had curled cruelly as she hissed to him, "I paid that whore good money to see you dead."
His brothers had laughed at him.
Zarek had been too crushed by her rejection to move or breathe. He had been devastated to learn that his mother had bribed another slave to kill him.
When a soldier approached them to ask if he were disturbing her, she had said coldly, "This worthless slave touched me. I want him beaten for it."
Even after two thousand years those words resonated through him. As did the pitiless look on her face as she turned and left him to the soldiers, who had gleefully carried out her order...
"You are worthless, slave. Good for nothing at all. You're not even worth the scraps it takes to keep you alive. If we're lucky mayhap you'll die and save us the winter rations for a slave who has some value."
Zarek growled as his memories took hold of him. Unable to deal with the pain they caused, he lashed out with his powers. Every lightbulb in the den shattered, the fire roared in the hearth, narrowly missing Sasha, who had been lying before it. Pictures fell from the walls.
All he wanted was for the pain to stop...
Astrid screamed as her ears were assailed with foreign sounds. "Sasha, what's happening?"
"The bastard tried to kill me."
"He shot a fireball from the fireplace into my hindquarters. Man, my fur is singed. He's having a fit of some kind and using his powers."
The entire cabin shook with such ferocity that she half-expected it to burst apart.
Total silence descended.
All Astrid could hear was her heart pounding.
"What's happening?" she asked Sasha.
"I don't know. The fire went out and I can't see anything. It's totally black. He shattered the lights."
"Zarek?" she tried again.
Again no one answered. Her panic tripled. He could kill her and neither she nor Sasha would see him coming.
He could do anything to her.
"Why did you save me?"
She jumped at the sound of his voice right beside her ear as she sat on the couch. He was so close to her that she could feel his warm breath on her skin.
"You were hurt."
"How did you know I was hurt?"
"I didn't until after I got you inside. I... I thought you might be drunk."
"Only an absolute idiot would bring a strange man into her home when she's blind and lives alone. You don't strike me as an idiot."
She swallowed. He was a lot smarter than she had given him credit for.
And a lot scarier.
"Why am I here?" he demanded.
"I told you."
He shoved the couch so hard that it skidded forward several inches. Then he was in front of her, pinning her to the cushions. Making her tremble from his fierce presence. "How did you get me inside?"
"I dragged you."
"You don't look strong enough."
She gasped in terror. What was he going for? What did he intend to do to her? "I'm stronger than I look."
"Prove it." He grabbed her wrists.
She wrestled with him for several seconds. "Let me go."
"Why? Do I repulse you?"
Sasha growled. Loudly.
She stopped moving and glared at where she hoped his face was.
"Zarek," she said firmly. "You're hurting me. Let me go."
To her shock, he did. He moved back ever so slightly but his angry presence was still tangible. Oppressive. Frightening.
"Do something smart, princess," he growled in her ear. "Stay far away from me."
She heard him walk away from her.
"He's guilty" Sasha snapped. "Astrid. Judge him."
She couldn't. Not yet. Even though Zarek scared her. Even though at this moment he did seem unbalanced and terrifying.
He hadn't really hurt her. He'd only frightened her, and that wasn't something anyone should die for.
After this, she could well understand how he could have snapped one night and killed everyone in the village he had been entrusted to guard.
Would he snap like that with her?
Because she was immortal, he couldn't kill her, but he could hurt her.
A lesser judge might go ahead and render verdict based on his actions tonight alone. She was tempted herself, but she wouldn't. Not yet.
"Are you all right?" Sasha asked after she refused to respond to his demand for a verdict.
But she was lying and she had a feeling Sasha knew it. Zarek terrified her in a way no one ever had before.
Over the centuries, she had judged countless men and women. Murderers, traitors, blasphemers. You name it.
But none of them had ever scared her. None of them had ever made her want to go running to her sisters for protection.
There was something about him that really wasn't sane. She was used to dealing with people who tried to hide their insanity. Men who could play gallant heroes while inside they were cold and cruel.
Zarek lashed out and yet he hadn't hurt her.
At least not yet.
But his bullying tactics were going to have to go.
She remembered Acheron's words to her: "It is only with the heart that one can see rightly..."
What was inside Zarek's heart?
Expelling a long breath, Astrid reached out with her senses and tried to locate Zarek.
As before, she couldn't find him at all. It was as if he were so used to keeping himself hidden that he didn't register on anyone's radar. Not even her heightened one.
"Where is he?" she asked Sasha.
"In his room, I think."
"Where are you?"
Sasha came and sat at her feet. "Artemis is right. For the sake of mankind, he should be put down. There's something seriously wrong with that man."
Astrid rubbed his ears as she considered that. "I don't know. Acheron bartered with Artemis so that I could judge Zarek. He wouldn't have done that for no reason. Only a fool barters with Artemis for anything. And Acheron is far from foolish. There has to be something good in Zarek or else-"
"Acheron will always sacrifice for his men. It's what he does," Sasha scoffed.
But she knew better. Acheron would always do whatever was the greater good for all involved. He had never before interfered when it was time to judge or execute a rogue Dark-Hunter, and yet he had asked her personally to judge this one...
He hadn't allowed Zarek to be killed nine hundred years ago for destroying his village and killing innocent humans.
If Zarek truly posed a danger, Acheron would never have bargained with them for a hearing or allowed the Dark-Hunter to live. There had to be more to this.
She had to believe Acheron.
She had to.
Zarek sat alone in his room, watching the snow fall outside through the open curtains. He was seated in the rocking chair, but remained motionless. After his "meltdown," he'd gone through the house replacing bulbs and picking up the broken pictures. Now everything was eerily quiet.
He had to get out of here before he snapped again. Why wouldn't the storm break?
The hall light came on, temporarily blinding him.
He frowned at that. Why did Astrid use lights when she was blind?
He heard her padding down the hallway toward the den. Part of him wanted to join her, to talk to her. But he had never been one for idle conversation.
He didn't know how to make small talk. No one had ever been interested in anything he had to say.
So he kept to himself and that suited him just fine.
The sound of her melodic voice went through him like shattered glass.
"Sit here while I make another fire."
He almost got up to help, but forced himself to stay in his chair. His days as a servant to the rich were over. If she wanted a fire, then she was just as able to make one as he was.
Of course he could see to light the kindling and his hands were rough from hard work.
Hers were soft. Delicate.
Fragile hands that could soothe...
Before he realized it, he was headed for the den.
He found Astrid kneeling before the hearth, trying to push new logs onto the iron grate. She was struggling with it and doing her best not to get burned in the process.
Without a word, he pulled her back.
She gasped in alarm.
"Move out of my way," he snarled.
"I wasn't in your way. You got into mine."
When she refused to move, he picked her up and dropped her into the dark green armchair.
"What are you doing?" she asked, her expression startled.
"Nothing." He returned to the hearth and made the fire. "I can't believe that with all the money you have, you don't have someone here to help you."
"I don't need anyone to help me."
He paused at her words. "No? How do you get around on your own?"
"I just do. I can't stand for anyone to treat me like I'm helpless. I happen to be just as capable as anyone else."
"Bully for you, princess." But he felt the swell of another wave of respect for her. In the world he'd grown up in, women like her never did anything for themselves. They'd bought people like him to serve their every whim.
"Why do you call me 'princess' all the time?"
"It's what you are, aren't you? Your parents' shining darling."
She frowned. "How do you know that?"
"I can smell it on you. You're one of those people who has never had a moment's worry in your life. Everything you've ever wanted, you've gotten."
"No? What have you ever lacked?"
Zarek fell silent as her words rang in his ears. "Yeah, being blind sucks."
"How would you know?"
"Been there, done that."