Zarek was headed out into the storm. He lifted the hood of his coat and started down the hallway.
Astrid met him halfway to the door. He paused at the sight of her waiting there for him. Desire rushed through him, making him hard and aching. Her face looked sad and the novelty of that stunned him most of all.
Gods, she was so beautiful. For a moment, he actually wished he could stay here with her. That he could be as lucky as the wolf she had dragged in from the wild and tamed.
He wished he dared to reach out for a star.
Zarek balled his hands into fists before he could yield to that burning desire. Slaves didn't have wishes or dreams.
They didn't lust after women who were too good for them.
He shouldn't even be looking at her, let alone be hard from wanting to touch her.
No matter how much he fought against it, no matter how many times he railed against Acheron and Artemis, he knew the truth. Two thousand years later, he was still a slave. One owned by a Greek goddess who wanted him dead.
He could deny his destiny all he wanted to, but in the end, he knew his place in this world.
Women like Astrid weren't meant for men like him. They were meant for decent, civilized men. Men who knew the meaning of such simple words as "kindness," "warmth," "compassion," "friendship."
He started past her.
"Here," she said, holding out a cup of hot tea.
The aroma was sweet, pleasant, but it didn't heat him half as much as the sight of the slight blush in her cheeks. "What's this?"
"I would say arsenic and vomit, but you trust me so little anyway, I don't dare. It's hot rosemary tea with a bit of honey. I want you to drink it before you leave. It'll help keep you warm on your journey."
Somewhat amused by her reiteration of his rudeness, Zarek at first wanted to toss it. But he couldn't quite do it. It was too thoughtful a gift and thoughtful gifts were an extreme rarity in his experience.
He hated to admit just how deeply this simple act touched him.
He hardened even more with the thought.
Thanking her, he drank it down, staring at her the whole time over the rim of the cup. Gods, how he was going to miss her; but that made even less sense than anything else.
As he drank the tea, his eyes drank in the sight of her.
Her jeans hugged long, shapely legs that a man couldn't help but dream of having wrapped around his waist.
But it was her butt that he wanted most. It begged to be cupped by his hands while he pressed her softness to his groin so that she could feel just how much he burned for her.
Against his will, he imagined her naked in his arms. Her lips on his, her breasts in his hands, while he lost himself inside her hot, wet body.
I have got to get out of here.
Zarek downed the last of the tea, then handed the empty cup back to her.
She took a step away from him, clutching the cup in her hands, her face even sadder than before. "I wish you would stay, Zarek."
He savored the sound of those rare words. Even if she didn't mean them, they still made him ache. "Sure you do, princess."
"I do." The sincerity on her face burned through him.
But it was anger he felt most from her comment. "Don't lie to me. I can't stand lies."
He pushed past her, intent on the door, but as he reached it, his head began to fog.
His eyesight dimmed.
Zarek paused as he tried to focus his gaze. His limbs felt heavy all of a sudden. Leaden. It was a struggle just to breathe.
What was this?
He reached for the door only to find his knees buckling. Then everything went black.
Astrid cringed at the sound of Zarek hitting the floor. How she wished she could have caught him before he fell. But without her eyesight, there was nothing she could do.
Going over to him, she checked to make certain he was all right.
Thankfully, he appeared to be none the worse for her deception.
"Sasha?" she called, needing his help to get Zarek off the floor.
"What happened?" Sasha asked as he came to stand beside her.
"I drugged him."
She felt Sasha flash to human form.
She knew from experience that her companion would be naked now-he always was when he changed forms.
She'd only seen him flash on rare occasions. As a Katagari Lykos, his natural and preferred state was that of the wolf, but his inherent magical abilities allowed him to take human form from time to time, as needed or wanted. His powers and strength were weaker in human form than wolf form, which was why he preferred his animal body.
Still, there were certain things his kindred preferred to do as humans.
Things such as mating and eating.
As a human, Sasha had long blond hair so pale that it was virtually as white as his wolf's fur. His eyes were a deep electric blue that were piercing in either incarnation. And his face...
Captivating and chiseled. The planes of his face were perfect and hard. Masculine.
It was a pity she had never been sexually attracted to him, because he had a body that was every bit as fit and well muscled as Zarek's.
But Sasha for all his beauty and charm was only a friend to her. One who often acted like an overprotective big brother.
"What were you thinking?" he asked in a deep baritone that carried the weight of his sorcerer's power. It was said the Katagaria could seduce any woman alive just by saying her name.
Their sexual prowess and stamina were the stuff of legend, even among the gods.
And yet all she could do was appreciate the seductive appeal of Sasha. Not once had she ever succumbed to it.
"He can't leave this cabin until the test is over, you know that."
Sasha let out an irritated breath. "What did you use to drug him with?"
"Astrid, have you any idea how dangerous that is? It has killed countless mortals. One sip and they can go insane from it. Or worse, become so addicted to it that they refuse to wake up from their dreams."
"Zarek isn't mortal."
Sasha sighed. "No, he isn't."
She sat back on her heels. "Take him to his bed, Sasha."
The air around him sizzled with ire. "Where's my 'please'?"
She turned to the right and hoped that she was glaring at him. "Why are you being so impossible lately?"
"Why are you being so bossy? I think this man is affecting you and I don't like it." He paused before he spoke again. "Never forget, Astrid, that I am here by choice. The only thing that keeps me by your side is that I don't want to see you hurt."
She reached out and placed her hand on his arm. "I know, Sasha. Thank you."
He covered her hand with his and gave a light squeeze. "Don't let him inside you, nymph. There is so much in him that is dark that it could completely obliterate all the goodness you have."
She thought about that for a minute. She hadn't considered herself good for a long time now. Numbness had ruled her for too many centuries. "There are people who would say the same of you."
"They don't know me."
"And we don't know Zarek."
"I know his kind a lot better than you do, nymph. I've spent my life fighting men such as this. Ones who see the world as an enemy and who hate everyone around them."
Sasha let go of her and huffed as he lifted Zarek up from the floor. "Guard your heart, Astrid. I don't want to see you hurt again."
Astrid sat on the floor as he took Zarek back to his bed, and thought about Sasha's warning. He was right. She had been so beguiled by Miles that, even blind, she had failed to see him for what he really was.
But then, Miles had been an arrogant man. A vain one.
Zarek was neither.
Miles had pretended to care for others while he cared for no one but himself.
Zarek cared for no one, least of all himself.
But there was only one way to find out for sure.
Getting up, she poured Sasha a glass of juice.
"What are you going to do with him now?" Sasha asked a few minutes later when he rejoined her.
"I'll let him sleep for a bit," she said evasively.
If Sasha knew what she had in mind, he'd have a fit and she was in no mood to deal with an irate wolf-man.
She handed him the glass, which he took without comment. She listened to him open the fridge and then moved to wait by the counter while he scrounged for food.
While Sasha had been taking care of Zarek, she had placed a small dab of Lotus serum into Sasha's drink.
It took a little longer for the serum to work on him. Because of their metabolism, Were-Hunters were always harder to drug than humans.
"Astrid, tell me you didn't do this?" Sasha said a short time later as the drug started to take effect. She heard the faint electrical crackle that heralded a change in his form.
Astrid felt her way over to him. He was already a wolf again and was sound asleep.
Alone now, she walked through her house making sure the lights and stove were turned off and the heat was set to a comfortable level.
She went to her room and pulled out the Idios serum. Holding it in her hand, she went to Zarek's room.
She took a sip, then snuggled down to sleep by his side, to learn more about this man and what secrets his heart harbored...
Zarek was in New Orleans. Distant music filtered out through the cool night air while he paused near the Old Ursuline Convent in the French Quarter.
A group of tourists were gathered around a tour guide who was dressed much like Anne Rice's Lestat, while a second "vampire" dressed in a long black cape and fake fangs stood back, watching him.
The tourists were listening intently as the guide recounted a famous murder in the city. Two bodies had been found on the front steps of the convent, completely drained of blood. The old legends said that the convent was believed to have once housed vampires who came out at night to prey on the city.
Zarek snorted at the absurdity.
The guide, who claimed to be a three-hundred-year-old vampire named Andre, looked over at him.
"Hey," Andre said to his group as he pointed to Zarek. "There's a real vampire, right there."
The group turned as one to look at Zarek who stared evilly at them.
Before he could think better of it, Zarek bared his fangs at them and hissed.
The tourists shrieked and ran.
So did the tour guides.
Had Zarek laughed, he would have laughed at the sight of them tearing down the street as fast as they could run. As it was, he could only appreciate the mayhem he'd caused with a cynical twisting of his lips.
"I can't believe you just did that."
He looked over his shoulder to see Acheron standing in the shadows like a dark specter, dressed in black and sporting long purple hair.
Zarek shrugged. "Whenever they stop running and reflect on it, they'll think it was part of the show."
"The tour guide won't."
"He'll think it was a prank. Humans always explain us away."
Acheron sighed heavily. "I swear, Z. I was hoping you'd use this time here to show Artemis that you can mingle with people again."
He looked at Acheron drolly. "Sure you were. Why don't you cover me in shit and tell me it's mud while you're at it?"
He started to walk off.
"Don't walk away from me, Z."
He didn't stop.
Acheron used his powers to pin him to the side of the stone wall. Zarek had to give the head Dark-Hunter credit. At least Acheron knew better than to touch him. Not once in two thousand years had Acheron laid a physical hand on him. It was as if the Atlantean understood how much mental anguish such contact caused.
In a weird way, he felt as though Acheron respected it.
Acheron met his gaze and held it. "The past is dead, Z. Tomorrow will become whatever decision you make here this week. It has taken me five hundred years of negotiating with Artemis to get you this chance to prove to her that you can behave. For the sake of your sanity and your life, don't blow it."
Acheron released him and headed off after the tourists.
Zarek didn't move until he was alone again. He let Acheron's words wash over him as he stood silently contemplating things.
He didn't want to leave this city. From the moment he'd arrived to see the crowd gathered at Jackson Square, he'd been enchanted with New Orleans.
Most of all, he'd been warm.
No, he wouldn't blow this. He would do his duty and protect the humans who lived here.
No matter what it took, he would do what he needed to get Artemis to let him stay.
He would never kill another human...
Zarek had started on his way down the street when a group of four men caught his eye. By their extreme height, blond hair, and good looks, he pegged them for Daimons.
They were whispering among themselves, but even so he could hear them plainly.
"Bossman said she lives above Club Runningwolf's in a loft."
One of the Daimons laughed. "A Dark-Hunter with a girlfriend. I didn't think such a thing existed."
"Oh, yeah. Paybacks will be hell. Imagine how he'll feel when he finds her drained, naked body lying in her bed waiting for him."
Zarek started to attack them right then, but paused as a group of humans stumbled out of a bar, into the street. Intent on their target, the Daimons didn't even look at them.
The tourists stayed on the street, laughing and joking, never knowing that if not for a previous engagement, the Daimons would be headed straight for them.
Life was a very fragile thing.
Grinding his teeth, Zarek knew he'd have to wait until he could corner the Daimons in an alley where they wouldn't be seen.
He dropped back into the shadows where he could still watch and hear them, and followed them toward Sunshine's loft...
Astrid's head ached as she followed Zarek through his dreams and let his anger and pain infiltrate her. She was with him in the alley where he'd fought the Daimons and was then assaulted by the cops.
And she was with him on the rooftop when he called Talon to warn him to watch after Sunshine. She felt Zarek's rage. His desire to help people who could only scorn and berate him.
Wrongfully judge him.
He didn't understand how to reach out to them.
So he attacked them instead. Lashed out at them before they could lash out at him.
In the end, it was too much for her to handle. She had to pull herself away from him or she might find herself driven insane by the raw intensity of his emotions.
It was a struggle to separate herself from him. The binding serum was strong and it wanted to keep them united, but as a nymph, she was stronger.
Summoning all her powers, she ripped her geist from his until she was no longer part of Zarek and his memories.
Now she was only a dream observer, so she could watch, yet not feel his emotions.
But she could feel her own and she ached for this man in a way she had never thought possible. The rawness of her recovered emotions overwhelmed her. His past and his scars tore through her, blasting away the numb cocoon that had encased her for so long.
For the first time in centuries, she felt someone else's agony. More than that, she wanted to soothe it. To hold this man who couldn't escape from what he was.
As she watched, Zarek's dream darkened. She saw him struggle through a fierce blizzard. He was dressed only in a pair of black leather pants with no shirt or shoes. His arms wrapped around him, he shook from the cold and trudged forward, cursing at the howling winds as he stumbled and fell in the ice-cold waist-deep snow.
Every time he fell, he pushed himself up and kept going. His strength amazed her.
The winds whipped at his broad, tawny shoulders, blowing his long black hair around his clean-shaven face. He squinted as if trying to see through the storm.
But there was nothing around them. Nothing but white, barren landscape.
Numb to the cold that plagued him, Astrid followed him.
"I won't die," Zarek snarled, gaining speed as he walked. He looked up at the starless, black sky. "Do you hear me, Artemis? Acheron? I won't give either of you the satisfaction."
He started running then, trudging through the crunching snow like a child running after a toy. His feet were red from the cold, his bare skin mottled.
Astrid struggled to keep up.
Until he fell.
Zarek lay quietly in the snow, facedown with one arm above his head and one out before him, panting from his run. She stared at the tattoo at the base of his spine that moved with his breaths.
Rolling over onto his back, he looked up at the black sky as the snowflakes fell on his naked upper body and leather pants. His wet black hair was plastered to his head. He continued to breathe heavily while his teeth chattered from the cold.
Still he didn't move.
"I just want to be warm," he whispered. "Just once let me be warm. Is there no star capable of sharing its fire with me?"
She frowned at his odd question, but then, in dreams bizarre phrases and events were commonplace.
Zarek rolled over again and pushed himself up, then continued through the blizzard.
He led her toward a small, isolated cabin in the middle of the woods. There was only one window, but the light inside was a bright beacon in the cold desolation of the arctic storm.
It looked so inviting.
Astrid heard laughter and conversations coming from inside.
Zarek stumbled toward the solitary side window. Breathing heavily, he splayed his hand against the frosty glass pane as he stared inside like a small, hungry child standing outside a fancy restaurant where he knew he would never be welcomed.
She came up behind him so that she could see inside, too.
The cabin was filled with Dark-Hunters. They were celebrating something while a blazing fire roared in the fireplace. There was food and drink aplenty while they laughed, drank, and spoke to each other like brothers and sisters. A family.
Astrid didn't recognize any of them, except for Acheron. But it was obvious Zarek knew them all.
Clenching his fist, he pushed himself away from the window and headed to the front door of the cabin.
Zarek pounded fiercely on it. "Let me in," he demanded.
A tall blond man opened the door. He wore a black leather motorcycle jacket with red Celtic scrollwork on it and a pair of black leather pants. His dark brown eyes were scornful and held an extremely distasteful look on his handsome face. "No one wants you here, Zarek."
The blond tried to close the door.
Zarek braced one hand against the doorframe and the other against the door so that he could keep the man from shutting him out. "Damn you, Celt. Let me in."
The Celt stepped back as Acheron came forward to block Zarek's way. "What do you want, Z?"
Zarek's face was anguished as he met Acheron's gaze. "I want to come in." He hesitated and when he spoke his next words, his eyes were bright with humiliation and need. "Please, Acheron. Please let me in."
There were no emotions on Acheron's face. Not one.
"You're not welcome here, Z. You'll never be welcome among us."
He closed the door.
Zarek pounded against the wood and cursed. "Damn you, Acheron! Damn all of you!" Then he kicked the door and tried the knob again. "Why won't you just kill me, you bastard! Why?"
This time when Zarek spoke, the anger was gone from his voice. It was hollow and needful, aching, and it affected her even more than when he'd asked to die. "Let me in, Ash, I swear I'll behave. I swear it. Please don't leave me out here alone. I don't want to be cold anymore. Please!"
Tears fell down Astrid's face as she watched Zarek beating against the door, demanding they open it.
No one came.
The laughter continued inside as if he didn't exist
In that moment, Astrid fully understood the desolate isolation he felt. The loneliness and abandonment.
"Fuck all of you!" Zarek roared. "I don't need any of you. I don't need anything."
Finally, Zarek threw his back against the door and then slid down to kneel in the midst of the cold, swirling winds. His hair and eyelashes were white and frozen from the snow, his exposed skin red.
He closed his eyes as if the sound of their merriment was more than he could take. "I don't need anything or anyone," he whispered.
And then everything in the dream changed. The cabin shifted form until it became her temporary house in Alaska.
There were no more Dark-Hunters in his dream. No more storm. It was a perfect, peaceful night.
"Astrid." He breathed her name like a gentle prayer. "I wish I could be with you."
She couldn't move as she heard those softly spoken words.
He'd never said her name before and the sound of it on his lips was like a melodic song.
He looked up at the dark sky where a million stars twinkled through the clouds. " 'I wonder,' " he said quietly, quoting again from The Little Prince, " 'whether the stars are set alight in heaven so that one day each one of us may find his own.'"
Zarek swallowed and folded his muscular arms around his legs as he continued to watch the heavens. "I have found my star. She is beauty and grace. Elegance and goodness. My laughter in winter. She is courageous and strong. Bold and tempting. Unlike any other in all the universe, and I cannot touch her. I dare not even try."
Astrid couldn't breathe as he spoke so poetically. She'd never really thought about the fact that her name meant "star" in Greek.
But Zarek had.
Surely no killer could have such beauty inside him?
"Astrid or Aphrodite," he said softly, "she is my Circe. Only instead of changing a man into an animal she has made the animal human."
Then anger descended on him and he kicked at the snow before him. He laughed bitterly. "I am such a fucking idiot, wanting a star I can't have."
He looked up wistfully. "But then, all stars are beyond human reach and I'm not even human."
Zarek buried his head against his arms and wept.
Astrid couldn't stand it anymore. She wanted out of this dream, but without M'Adoc's help, she couldn't rouse herself from sleep.
All she could do was watch Zarek. Watch his anguish and grief that cut through her like glycerin on glass.
He was so strong in life. An iron forge that could withstand any blow. One who lashed out at other people to keep them away from him.
It was only in his dreams that she saw what was inside him. The vulnerability.
Only here that she truly understood the man he dared not show to anyone.
The tender heart that was hurt by their scorn.
Astrid wanted to ease his suffering. She wanted to take him by the hand and show him a world where he wasn't locked outside. Show him what it was like to reach out to someone and not be knocked away.
Not once in all the centuries she had judged had Astrid felt this way about anyone. Zarek touched a part of her that she didn't even know existed.
Most of all, he touched her heart. A heart she had feared was no longer functioning.
But it beat for him.
She couldn't just stand here, watching him ache in his solitude.
Before she could think better of it, she flashed herself into her empty cabin and opened the door...
Zarek's heart stopped beating as he looked up and saw the face of heaven. No, she wasn't heaven.
She was better. So much better.
Never in this dream had anyone opened the door once he'd been shut out.
But Astrid had.
She stood in the doorway, her face gentle. Her pale blue eyes were no longer blind. They were hot and welcoming. "Come inside, Zarek. Let me warm you."
Before he could stop himself, he stood up and took her outstretched hand. It was something he would never have done in real life. Only in a dream would he have dared to touch her.
Her skin was so warm that it burned him.
She pulled him into her arms and held him close. Zarek shook at the novelty of a hug, at the sensation of her breasts against his chest. Her breath on his frozen skin.
So this is what a hug felt like. Hot. Soothing. Miraculous.
His human contact had been so limited in his lifetime that all he could do was close his eyes and just feel the warmth of her body surrounding his.
The softness of her.
He inhaled her warm, sweet scent and reveled in the newfound emotions that tore through him.
Was this acceptance?
Was this nirvana?
He didn't know for sure. But for once, he didn't want to wake up from this dream.
Suddenly a warm blanket was wrapped around his shoulders. Her arms still held him tight.
Zarek cupped her face in his hand and pressed his cheek to hers. Oh, the feeling of her flesh touching his...
She was so soft.
He'd never imagined anyone being soft like this. So tender and inviting.
The warmth of her cheek on his took the stinging burn of the cold away. It crept through his body until he thawed completely out. Even his heart that had been encased by ice for centuries.
Astrid trembled at the sensation of Zarek's prickly cheek against hers. Of his breath falling gently against her skin.
His unexpected tenderness tore through her.
She'd seen enough of his life to know gentleness was not something he had experience with and yet he held her so carefully.
"You're so warm," he breathed in her ear. His hot breath tickled her neck, and sent chills all over her.
He pulled back and stared at her as if she were unspeakably precious to him. He brushed the back of his knuckles against her jaw. His eyes were so dark and tormented while he stared at her, as if unable to believe she was with him.
His gaze uncertain, he touched her lips with the tip of his forefinger. "I've never kissed anyone before."
His confession stunned her. How could a man so handsome have never kissed?
Fire sparked in his eyes. "I want to taste you, Astrid. I want to feel you hot and wet under me. To look into your eyes while I fuck you."
She shivered at his crudeness. It was what she expected from the conscious Zarek, but she refused to take that from this one.
She knew him better than that.
What he suggested now was forbidden. She wasn't allowed to ever cross the physical line with her charges.
The only one who had ever tempted her to break that rule had been Miles. But she had met that temptation and wisely kept herself away from him.
With Zarek it wasn't so easy. Something about this man touched her in a way that nothing had before.
Looking up into his tormented black eyes, she saw his wounded heart...
He'd never known kindness.
Never known the warmth of a loving touch.
She couldn't explain it, but she wanted to be his first and she wanted him to be hers. She wanted to hold him and show him what it was like to be welcomed by someone.
If you do this you could lose your job as a judge.
It was all she'd ever wanted to be.
If she didn't do this, Zarek could lose his life. If she reached out to him now, maybe she could teach him that it was okay to trust someone.
Maybe she could touch the poet inside him and show him a world where he would be free to allow other people to see his gentler side. Show him that it was okay to befriend others.
She finally understood what Acheron had meant.
But how could she save Zarek? He had turned on the people whom he'd been sent to protect and had killed them.
She needed proof that he would never do that again.
Could she find it?
She had to. There was no choice. The last thing she wanted was to see him hurt anymore.
She would defend this man no matter what.
"I won't fuck you, Zarek," she whispered. "Ever. But I will make love with you."
He looked puzzled and unsure. "I've never made love to anyone."
She lifted his cold hand up to her lips and kissed his fingers. "If you want to learn, come with me."
Zarek couldn't breathe as she withdrew from him. His head spun with strange, alien feelings and emotions. He was afraid of what she offered him.
If she touched him, would it change him?
He didn't expect kindness from her or anyone. A pitiful and horrifyingly scarred slave, he'd died a virgin and as a Dark-Hunter had only screwed women on rare occasions. Not once in two thousand years had he ever stared into a lover's eyes while he took her. Never had he allowed one to hold or even touch him.
Should he follow Astrid, all that would change.
In his dream, she had her eyesight and could see him...
He would be tamed. For the first time in his life, he would have a tie to someone. Physical. Emotional.
Even though this was a dream, it would change him toward her forever because this was what he wanted deep down inside, buried in a place where he dared not look. Buried in a heart that had been crushed by cruelty.
He looked up to see her standing in the doorway of her bedroom. Her long blond hair fanned out around her shoulders and she wore nothing except a thin cotton button-down shirt. Her long legs were bare, inviting.
The light behind her showed through the thin fabric, outlining every precious curve of her body...
Zarek swallowed. If he did this, Astrid alone would be unique to him in all the world. She would be his.
He would be hers.
He would be tamed.
It's only a dream...
But even in his dreams no one had ever tamed him.
His heart hammering, he went to her and scooped her up in his arms. No, he wouldn't be tamed. Not by this and not by her. But she would be his in this dream.
Astrid trembled at the fierce, determined look on Zarek's face as he carried her to the bed. Hunger blazed in his obsidian eyes. She had a strange feeling that Zarek might be right after all.
A man this wild would never make love to a woman.
The saner part of her told her to pull away from him. To stop this before it was too late.
But another part of her refused. This would tell her the true mettle of the man.
He laid her down on the bed and brushed her lips with his fingertips as if he were memorizing them. Savoring them. Then he gently parted her lips and covered them with his.
Astrid was completely unprepared for the passion of his kiss. The ferocity of it. It was both rough and tender. Demanding. Hot. Sweet. He growled fiercely as his tongue brushed against hers, tasting her before he explored every inch of her mouth.
For a man who had never kissed before, he was incredible. She shivered as he tasted her palate, as his tongue swept through her with spears of pleasure.
She buried her hands in his soft hair and moaned as he licked and nibbled until she was nearly unconscious from the ecstasy of it. She'd never known anything like this.
Anything like Zarek.
It had been a long time since she'd kissed a man, and never had any man tasted better than him. She was scared now. Not just of him, but of herself.
No man had ever touched her. She'd never breached her oath to not touch her charge.
Zarek's touch could cost her everything and yet she couldn't find it within herself to push him away.
For once in her life, she wanted something for herself. She wanted to touch the unreachable. To give Zarek something special. A rare moment of peace with someone who wanted to be with him.
No one else would appreciate this as much as he would.
Only he would understand...
Zarek pulled back from her to unbutton her shirt. But what he wanted to do was rip it from her. He wanted to lose himself inside her, crush her to him as he possessed her with all the furious passion he felt.
But even in his dream, he wouldn't treat her that way.
For some strange reason he wanted to be tender with her. He wanted to have sex with her like a man, not a wild animal.
He didn't want to pound himself furiously against her, seeking a passing moment of pleasure. He wanted this night to last. Wanted to spend the whole of it holding her.
For once in his life, he wanted someone to treat him as if he mattered. As if she cared for him.
Not once had he allowed his fantasies or dreams to take him here.
Tonight he did.
She cupped his face in her hands and tilted his head until he could see into her pale eyes that looked at him as if he were human. Eyes that saw something good in him.
"You're so handsome, Zarek."
Her calm, sweet words tore through him. There was nothing about him attractive. There never had been.
He was nothing.
But as he stared into her precious face, there for an instant he felt as if he were something more.
Surely a woman like this wouldn't touch him if he were truly nothing.
Not even in his dreams...
He pulled her shirt open so that he could stare down at her body. Her breasts were of medium size, the rosy nipples hard and swollen, just begging him for a taste. Her belly was rounded ever so slightly, her skin pale and inviting. But what made his breath catch was the sight of her legs slightly parted. The sight of the damp dark blond curls between her legs that held the promise of true paradise. Or at least as close to it as a man like him could ever hope to get.
Astrid held her breath as she watched Zarek's feral gaze search her body. It was so searing that she felt it like a real touch.
He moved from the bed to remove his pants.
She swallowed as she saw him swollen and hard for her. His tawny skin was dusted with black hairs and was the most incredibly masculine sight she'd ever beheld. He was beautiful. Her dark warrior. Unlike him, she knew this night was real. Knew that she shouldn't be doing this when they would both remember it on their waking.
Her job was to remain impartial. But she wasn't impartial to this man, or to his pain.
She wanted to soothe him any way she could.
No one deserved the life he'd had to endure. The degradations and hostility.
He laid his body across hers and gathered her into his arms. His weight was delectable. She closed her eyes and just let the power and strength of him wash over her as she felt his hard, masculine body with every inch of her own.
Zarek struggled to breathe. The feel of her warm body against his was the most incredible sensation he'd ever known.
Her hands roamed his bare back as he stared down into eyes that warmed him.
There was no scorn. No anger.
They were beautiful eyes.
He kissed her gently, taking her upper lip and sucking it tenderly as he tasted the honey of her mouth.
In his human lifetime, women had cringed anytime he drew near them. They had shrieked and thrown things at him.
He'd lain awake many nights trying to imagine what it would be like to touch one. Trying to imagine the feel of their arms wrapped around him.
The reality of it was so much greater than anything his mind had ever conjured.
Before this dream ended, he intended to claim her over and over again until they were both begging for mercy.
Astrid moaned as Zarek broke from his kiss and trailed his lips and tongue down her throat to her breast. She felt his hard erection and soft sac against her thigh, searing and intimate, and it made her quiver.
He cupped her breast gently in his hand as he rolled his tongue around her swollen nipple, gently sucking and nipping her.
She cradled his head in her hands and watched him as he groaned with bliss. He looked as if her body were ambrosia to him. He took his time tasting her. Every inch of her skin was licked and teased. Tasted and sated. It was as if he couldn't get enough of her.
No man had ever been allowed to do this to her and she was terrified of what was to come. Even though she knew what sex was, the sensation of it was alien to her.
But then, so were the feelings Zarek stirred.
All the nymphs of justice were supposed to be virginal and chaste.
No man was ever to lay a hand on them.
Astrid no longer cared. Surely her mother would understand her passion. After all, Themis had had numerous children. Astrid's father had been a mortal man her mother refused to speak of, and no one had ever known the name or station of the Fates' father.
Surely her mother would forgive her this one transgression.
Was one night too much to ask?
And yet as she thought that, she wondered if one night with him would ever be enough.
Zarek's head swam from the sweet scent and feel of Astrid in his arms. He growled as he licked and nibbled every inch of delectable flesh and listened to her murmurs of pleasure. She was the sustenance he needed to live.
He had to have more of her.
Astrid yelped in ecstasy as Zarek spread her thighs and took her into his mouth.
She couldn't speak or breathe as supreme pleasure racked the whole of her body. Every lick, every gentle suck, sent a wave of fierce ecstasy through her.
Such a thing was unimaginable to her.
She should be mortified at what they were doing.
She wasn't. In fact, she wanted more of this.
More of him.
Her heart racing, she looked down to see him there between her thighs. He held his eyes closed and his face looked as if he took as much pleasure from his tasting as she did from being tasted.
She opened her legs more, giving him access to her as she buried her hand in his silken hair. Zarek laughed darkly against her, sending another pleasurable thrill through her, then he rubbed his stubbly whiskers against her cleft.
She groaned deep in her throat.
He slid his fingers inside her, circling the place where she throbbed in aching need of him.
He took his time with her, and all the while her body burned with tremors of pleasure.
Who knew anyone could feel like this?
The ecstasy built and built until she couldn't stand it anymore. His name was torn from her lips as she came for the very first time.
Still he didn't relent. He only growled at the sound of her pleasure and kept tormenting her until she begged him to stop.
"Please, Zarek. Please have mercy on me."
He pulled back to stare up at her. His eyes burned into her as one corner of his mouth quirked up. "Mercy, princess? I've barely started."
He crawled up her body like some giant, fierce beast, licking and nibbling his way as he went until his body was flush with hers.
He cupped her face in his hand and then kissed her deeply. Passionately.
Astrid moaned as he placed his knee between her thighs. The crisp hairs caressed her skin, making her tremble in expectation.
Zarek's head buzzed with the scent and taste of Astrid. The softness of her silken limbs caressing his. Nothing could ever feel better than her hands gliding down his back to cup his ass and press it closer to her.
Nothing sounded better than his name on her lips as she came for him again.
For the first time in two thousand years, he felt human.
Most of all, he felt wanted.
He pulled back slightly so that he could stare down at her as he spread her thighs wider.
This was what he wanted. Her, wild and wet underneath him. To feel her creaminess coating him until he was blind from the ecstasy of it.
He wanted to see her face when he entered her. Wanted to see if she regretted what she was allowing him to do to her.
Bracing himself for the worst, he held her gaze with his and slid himself deep into the velvety heat of her body.
His head reeled from the pleasure of it. From the pleasure of her.
She hissed, arching her back as her grip tightened on his shoulders.
But there was no scorn; no regret.
Her eyes were alight with needful passion and with other tender emotions he couldn't even begin to comprehend.
He smiled in spite of himself, reveling at the miracle of this woman and what she had just given him.
Astrid couldn't breathe as she felt him hard and throbbing inside her. She'd tried to imagine what it would be like to have a man inside her countless times, but nothing had prepared her for this reality. For the sensation of Zarek's hardness.
He rode her slow and easy as if he wanted this moment to last, as if just being inside her was enough for him. She wrapped her legs around his hips and gazed up at him as he looked down at her.
It was so incredible, this feeling of him being inside and on top of her. She loved the pleasure of his weight. The look on his face as he watched her.
"Hi," she said, feeling suddenly awkward to see him there while they were so intimately joined.
His face was a cross between puzzled and amused. "Hi, princess."
She reached up to cup his cheeks in her hands as he stroked her hard and deep, over and over again. Oh, the feel of him there. He was so deep inside that she could almost swear the tip of him was rubbing the inside of her navel.
Zarek closed his eyes as he savored the feel of her under him while her hands touched his face.
No wonder men killed for women. He understood that now. Knew why Talon had been willing to die for Sunshine.
Astrid touched parts of him he'd never known existed. His heart. His soul. She took him to heights unimaginable.
Here in her arms, for the first time, he felt peace.
There was a part of him so calm now, so tranquil, and another part of him that was on fire, dying to touch her.
Zarek lowered himself down on top of her so that he could nibble the tender flesh of her neck. Her ear. He felt the chills run down her body.
He scraped her skin with his fangs, tempted to sink them in.
What would she taste like?
What more emotions would she make him feel?
"Are you going to bite me, Zarek?" she asked, making her throat vibrate under his lips.
He ran his tongue over the vein that throbbed on her neck. "Do you want me to?"
"No. I'm afraid of it. I don't want to be like other women to you."
"Princess, you could never be that. You are unique to me."
"Am I your rose?"
He gave a short laugh as he thought of the little prince's lesson. "Yes, you are my rose. There is only one of you in all the millions of planets and stars."
She answered him with a hug.
That hug pierced him in a way nothing had before. Something inside him seemed to snap and burst, overwhelming him with tenderness and warmth.
He buried himself deep inside her as he came for her.
Astrid bit her lip as she felt his climax. He shuddered in her arms. She smiled as she held him close and kissed his shoulder.
He was so still. So quiet.
Who would have thought that he would be capable of such a thing? He was always so fierce and forceful.
His mere presence made the air around him snap and sizzle.
But not now. Now there was only silence.
Zarek lay on top of her, weak and spent, his body still joined to hers. He didn't want to move.
Her touch was sublime. But more than that, he felt connected to her. And he had never felt that before.
Was this really a dream? Please gods, no. Please let this be real.
He needed it to be real, desperately.
Astrid closed her eyes as Zarek nuzzled her neck again. For some reason she felt as if she had just tamed some wild, uncontrollable beast.
She ran her legs up and down his, cradling him with her body as she brushed her hand through his ebony hair. He pulled back slightly to stare at her in wonderment.
She was so glad she had done this tonight.
He dipped his head down to kiss her again.
She inhaled his scent, drank from the tenderness of his lips. "Oh, Zarek," she breathed.
Zarek clenched his eyes closed at the sound of his name on her lips. It was such fierce, bittersweet pain and it tore through him.
He nibbled at the delicate skin on her neck, letting his fangs graze her flesh. In real life, he would have bitten her by now.
He would never have taken her body with his.
He would have shared her emotions as he drank from her and he wondered what she would taste like in his dream...
Opening his lips, he felt the pulsing of her blood in her veins against his tongue.
She would be sweet, that much he knew.
Her throat vibrated with her words. "Yes?"
"I like you best when you're tender like this."
He pulled away from her and frowned as something tickled his gut.
"Is something wrong?"
Everything. This wasn't his dream. This was a surreal moment. His dreams were never pleasant. Not once had he ever had a lover in them.
No one had ever spoken to him the way she did.
No one had ever opened the door and let him inside the cabin once Acheron had banished him.
He got out of bed and pulled his pants on. He had to get away. Something was wrong. He knew it deep down inside. This was not where he should be.
He had no business with her.
Not even in his dreams.
Astrid watched panic flicker across Zarek's face as he dressed. She wrapped the blanket around her and went to him. "You don't have to run from me."
"I'm not running from you," he snarled. "I run from no one."
Astrid agreed. No, he didn't. He was stronger than any man had a right to be. He took hits and blows no one should have to bear.
"Stay with me, Zarek."
"Why? I'm nothing to you."
She touched his arm. "You don't have to push everyone away."
Snarling, he shrugged her touch away. "You don't know what you're talking about."
"I do, Zarek," she said, wishing there was some way to make him see that she wanted to show him. "I do. I understand wanting to hurt other people before they hurt you."
"Sure you do, princess. When have you ever hurt anyone? When has anyone ever hurt you?"
"Show me the goodness inside you, Zarek. I know it's there. I know that somewhere underneath all the pain and hurt there is someone inside who knows how to love. Someone who knows how to nurture and protect."
He raked her with a cold sneer as he buttoned his pants. "You don't know jack shit." He cast a feral snarl at her and headed for the door.
Astrid started to follow him, then thought better of it.
She didn't know what to do. How to reach him.
She'd meant her words to comfort, not anger him. But Zarek never reacted to her the way she expected.
Frustrated, she dressed and went after him.
Apparently, niceness wouldn't work with Zarek.
So she opted for a different route.
She brushed past him in the hallway, and opened the front door for him.
Zarek paused; it was daylight outside the door and he hadn't burst into flames.
Maybe this was a dream.
It had to be and yet...
"What are you doing?" he asked her.
"Opening the door so it doesn't hit you in the butt as you go through it."
"You said you want to leave. So go. Get out. I don't want to keep you here when it's obvious that I repulse you."
Her logic baffled him. "What are you talking about?"
"What do you mean, what am I talking about? Isn't it obvious? I sleep with you and you can't leave me fast enough. Sorry I wasn't good enough for you. I at least tried."
Not good enough for him? Was she joking?
He stared at her in disbelief. Torn between wanting to curse her for the stupidity and wanting to comfort her.
His anger won out. "You're worthless? Then what am I? Do you realize before I died, I was below even a pity fuck? No one would touch me with any part of their bodies. I was lucky if they even used a stick to knock me out of the way. So don't stand there and act all hurt and talk to me about being worthless. No one has ever had to pay someone else just to get you out of their sight."
Zarek froze as he realized what he had just said to her. Those were things he'd kept hidden deep inside himself for centuries. Things he had never spoken of with anyone.
Painful truths that had languished in his heart, eating at him century after century.
No one had ever wanted him near them.
Not until Astrid.
It was why he couldn't stay. She made him warm, and it terrified him because he knew it couldn't be real.
This was another cruel torment fate had inflicted on him.
When he woke up, he would be with her and she would have no use for him. He didn't belong with the real Astrid.
He never would.
"Then they were blind if they couldn't see what you are, Zarek. They are the losers, not you."
Gods, how he wanted to believe her.
How he needed to believe her.
"Why are you being so nice to me?"
"I told you, Zarek. I like you."
"Why? No one else ever has."
"That's not true. You've had friends all along, but you've never allowed them to help you."
"Acheron," he said, whispering the word. "Jess." He curled his lip at the thought of Sundown.
"You have to learn to reach out to people."
"Why? So they can shoot me in the back?"
"No, so they can love you."
"Love?" He laughed at the thought. "Who the hell needs that? I've lived my entire life without it. I don't need it and I damn sure don't want it from anyone."
She stood strong before him. Unyielding. "You can lie to yourself all you want to, but I know the truth." She held her hand out to him. "You have to learn to trust someone, Zarek. You've been brave your whole life. Now show me that courage. Take my hand. Trust me and I swear I won't betray you."
He stood there indecisively, his heart pounding. He'd never been more terrified.
Not even the day they'd killed him.
"Trust me, please. I will never hurt you."
He stared at her hand. It was long, graceful. Delicate. A tiny hand.
A lover's hand.
He wanted to run.
Instead, he found himself lifting his hand and lacing his fingers with hers.