Zarek tossed the phone down and stared at Astrid sleeping on his coat. He needed to rest too, but couldn't quite manage it. He was too wound up to sleep.
After closing the trapdoor, he moved toward her pallet.
Memories surged through him.
He saw himself on a rampage. Saw faces and flames. Felt the rage of his anger sizzling through him. He had killed the very people he was supposed to protect.
Evil laughter echoed in his head. A flash of lightning filled the room.
Zarek struggled to remember. Why couldn't he remember what had happened in New Orleans?
What had happened in his village?
It was all fragmented and nothing made sense. It was like thousands of puzzle pieces that had been tossed on the floor and he couldn't figure out what went where.
He paced the tight quarters, doing his best to recall the past.
Hours went by slowly as he listened for any telltale sounds of Thanatos approaching. Sometime around noon exhaustion overtook him and he lay down beside Astrid.
Against his will, he found himself gathering her into his arms and inhaling the sweet, fragrant scent of her hair.
He snuggled against her, closed his eyes and prayed for a kind dream...
Zarek stumbled as he was jerked forward and secured to the whipping post in the old Roman courtyard. His tattered, threadbare peplos was ripped from him, leaving his entire body bare to the three people gathered there to punish him.
He was eleven years old.
His brothers Marius and Marcus stood in front of him with bored looks on their faces while their father uncoiled the leather whip.
Zarek was already tense, knowing all too well the stinging pain he was about to receive.
"I don't care how many lashes you give him, Father," Marius said. "I'm not sorry for insulting Maximillius and I intend to do it again the next time I see him."
Their father stopped moving. "What if I told you this pitiful slave was your brother? Would you care then?"
The two boys burst out laughing. "This wretch? There is no Roman blood in him."
His father moved forward. He buried his hand in Zarek's hair and pulled his head up so that his brothers could see his scarred face. "Are you sure he's not related?"
They stopped laughing.
Zarek held himself completely still, unable to breathe. He'd always known of his parentage. He was reminded of it every day when the other slaves spat in his food and threw things at him or hit him because they dared not take their anger and hatred out on the rest of his family.
"What are you saying, Father?" Marius asked.
His father shoved Zarek's head against the post, then let go of him. "I sired him on your uncle's favorite whore. Why do you think he was sent to me as an infant?"
Marius curled his lip. "He is no brother of mine. Better I should claim Valerius than this scab."
Marius approached Zarek. He bent down, trying to make Zarek meet his gaze.
With no other recourse, Zarek closed his eyes. He'd learned a long time ago that to look his brothers in the face would mean an even harsher beating.
"What say you, slave? Have you any Roman blood in you?"
Zarek shook his head no.
"Are you my brother?"
Again he shook his head.
"Are you calling my noble father a liar then?"
Zarek froze as he realized he'd been tricked by them again. Panicking, he tried to pull away from the post. He wanted to run away from what would come over this.
"Are you?" Marius demanded.
He shook his head.
But it was too late. The whip cut through the air with a frightening hiss and bit into his back, slicing through his bared flesh.
Zarek came awake shaking. He struggled to breathe as he scrambled to sit up and look about wildly, half-expecting one of his brothers to be here.
He felt the warmth of a tender hand on his back.
"Are you all right?"
He couldn't speak as old memories flared inside him. From the moment Marius and Marcus had learned the truth until the day Zarek's father had bribed a slaver to take him, his brothers had gone out of their way to make Zarek pay for the fact they were related.
He had never known a single day of peace.
Beggar, peasant, or noble, they were all better than him.
And he was nothing but a pathetic whipping boy for them all.
Astrid sat up and wrapped her arms around his waist. "You're shaking. Are you cold?"
Still he didn't answer. He knew he should shove her away from him, but right then he wanted her comfort. He wanted someone to tell him he wasn't worthless.
Someone to tell him that they weren't ashamed of him.
Closing his eyes, he drew her to him and laid his head on her shoulder.
Astrid was stunned by his uncharacteristic actions. She stroked his hair and rocked him slowly in her arms. Just holding him.
"Will you tell me what's wrong?" she asked quietly.
"Why? It won't change anything."
"Because I care, Zarek. I want to make it better. If you'll let me."
His tone was so low that she had to struggle to hear what he said. "There is some pain that nothing heals."
She laid her hand against his stubbled cheek. "Such as?"
He hesitated for several heartbeats before he spoke again. "Do you know how I died?"
"On my hands and knees, like an animal on the ground, begging for mercy."
She flinched at his words. She hurt so much for him that she could barely breathe from the tightness in her chest.
He stiffened and swallowed. At first she thought he would pull away, but he didn't move. He remained there, letting her hold him.
"You saw how my father got rid of me? How he paid for the slaver to take me?"
"I lived with that slaver for five years."
His arms tightened around her as if he could barely stand to admit that to her. "You can't imagine how they treated me. What I was forced to clean up.
"Every day when I woke up, I cursed to find myself still alive. Every night I prayed to die while I slept. I never had a single dream of escaping that life. The idea of running away doesn't occur to you when you're born a slave. The thought that I didn't deserve what they did to me never entered my mind. It was what I was. All I knew. And I had no hope of anyone ever buying me to get me away from there. Every time a customer came in and saw me, I heard their sharp intakes of breath. Saw the blurry shadows of their horrified sneers."
Astrid's eyes teared up at his words. He was such a handsome man any woman would kill to have him, and yet his looks had been brutally ruined. For no reason other than cruelty.
No one should be maimed and degraded the way he had been.
She pressed her lips to his forehead, brushing his hair back from his face as he continued to confide in her what she was sure he had never confided to another living soul.
There was no emotion in his voice. Her only clue to the pain he felt was the tenseness of his body.
The fact that he had yet to let her go.
"One day a beautiful lady came in," he whispered. "She had a Roman soldier as her escort. She stood in the doorway wearing a dark blue peplos. Her hair was as black as the midnight sky, her skin smooth and unblemished. I couldn't see her very clearly, but I heard the other slaves whispering about her and they only did that when a woman was truly exceptional."
A stab of jealousy went through Astrid.
Had Zarek loved her?
"Who was she?" she asked.
"Just another noblewoman, wanting a slave."
Zarek's breath fell against her neck as he toyed with a strand of her hair between his callused fingers. The tenderness of that gesture wasn't lost on her.
"She neared the cell where I was cleaning out the chamber pots," he said. "I dared not look at her and then I heard her say, 'I want that one.' I assumed she meant one of the other men. But when they came for me, I was dumbstruck."
Astrid smiled sadly. "She recognized a good thing when she saw it."
"No," he said sharply. "She wanted a servant to warn her and her lover whenever her husband came home unexpectedly. She wanted a slave who would be loyal to her. One who would owe her everything. I was the most wretched creature there and she never failed to remind me of that. One word and she would have sent me right back to my hell."
He pulled away from her then.
She reached out to find him sitting just beside her. "Did she?"
"No. She kept me even though her husband was livid at my presence. He couldn't stand the sight of me. I was so repugnant. Crippled. Half-blind. I was scarred so badly that children used to cry whenever they saw me. Women would gasp and avert their eyes, then shuffle out of my way as if afraid my condition might rub off on them."
Astrid winced at what he described. "How long did you serve her?"
"Six years. I was completely loyal to her. I would have done anything she asked of me."
"She was kind to you?"
"No. Not really. She was merely kinder to me. She didn't want to look at me any more than anyone else did. So she kept me hidden in a small cell, and only brought me out whenever her lover came to visit. I would stand by the gate and listen for the guards to greet her lord. Whenever he returned while they were together, I would run to her room and rap on the door to warn them."
That explained a lot to her about his death. "Is that how you died? Did her lord catch you warning them?"
"No. On that day, I went to the door to warn her, but when I got there I heard her crying out in pain, telling her lover to stop hurting her. I rushed inside to find him beating her. I tried to pull him off. But he turned on me. He finally heard her husband outside and he left. She told me to leave too and I did."
Zarek fell silent as the memory of that day tore through him anew. He could still see the small cell that was his room. Smell the stench of it and his wounded body. Feel the sting of his face and neck where Arkus had punched him repeatedly as he tried to pull the soldier off Carlia.
The soldier had given him a beating so severe that he'd expected it to kill him. He'd been so sore and broken afterward that he could hardly move, hardly breathe, as he limped back to the hole where Carlia kept him.
Zarek had been sitting on the floor, staring at the wall, wishing for his body to stop hurting.
Then the door had crashed open.
He'd looked up to see the blurry image of Carlia's husband, Theodosius, glaring at him with raw fury contorting the old man's face.
At first Zarek had innocently assumed the senator had found out about his wife's infidelity and his own part in warning her whenever he came home.
It hadn't been.
"How dare you!" Theodosius had pulled him up by his hair and slung him from the cell. The man had beaten and kicked him across the villa's courtyard all the way back to Carlia's rooms.
Zarek had spilled into her bedroom, just a few feet away from her. He lay on the floor, beaten and bloody and shaking, with no idea why he had been attacked this time.
Helpless, he waited for her to say something.
Her bruised face ashen, she had stood there like a tattered queen, clutching her torn and bloodied gown to her ravaged body.
"Is this the one who raped you?" Theodosius asked his wife.
Zarek's mouth had gone instantly dry at the question. No-he couldn't have heard that correctly.
She wept uncontrollably as her female attendant tried to comfort her. "Yes. He did this to me."
Zarek dared to look up at Carlia, unable to believe her lie. After all he had done for her...
After the beating he'd received from her lover to protect her. How could she do this to him?
Theodosius had viciously kicked him in the head, cutting off the rest of his words. "Silence, you worthless dog." He turned on his wife then. "I told you you should have left him in the cesspit. See you what happens when you feel sorry for creatures such as this?"
Then Theodosius had called for his guards.
Zarek had been summarily pulled from the room, and taken to the authorities. He'd tried to protest his innocence, but Roman justice followed one basic principle: guilty until proven innocent.
His word as a slave was nothing compared to Carlia's.
Over the course of a week, his Roman judges managed to torture a full confession from him.
He would have said anything to get them to stop their painful torture.
He'd never known more pain than he did that week. Not even his father's cruelty could match the instruments of the Roman government.
And so he'd been convicted. He, a virgin who had never touched a woman's flesh in any way, was going to be executed for raping his owner.
"They dragged me from my cell and led me through town where everyone was gathered to spit on me," he whispered woodenly to Astrid. "They jeered and tossed rotten food, calling me every name you can imagine. The soldiers untied me from the wagon and dragged me to the center of the crowd. They tried to stand me up, but both my legs were broken. Ultimately, they left me there on my hands and knees so that the crowd could stone me. You know, I can still feel the rocks raining against my body. Hear them telling me to die."
Astrid struggled to breathe as he finished his tale.
"I'm so sorry, Zarek," she whispered, aching for him.
"Don't patronize me," he growled.
She leaned against him and pressed her lips to his cheek. "Believe me, I'm not. I would never patronize anyone with your strength."
He tried to pull away from her, but she held him fast. "I'm not strong."
"Yes you are. I don't know how you stood the pain of your life. I've always felt alone, but not the way you have."
He relaxed a degree as she leaned against his side. She wished she could see him now. See the emotions in his dark eyes.
"You know, I'm not really crazy."
She smiled. "I know you're not."
He let out a long, tired sigh. "Why didn't you go off with Jess when you had the chance? You could be safe now."
"If I leave you before the judgment is complete, the Fates will kill you."
"I don't want you to die, Zarek."
"You keep saying that and I still don't know why."
Because I love you. The words lodged in her throat. She wanted desperately to have the courage to say them out loud to him, but she knew he wouldn't accept it.
Not her Prince Charming.
He would growl and push her away because in his mind such a thing didn't exist.
He didn't understand it.
She didn't know if he ever would.
Astrid wanted to hold him. To comfort him.
But most of all, she wanted to love him. In a way that made her ache and soar at the same time.
Would Zarek ever allow her or anyone else to love him?
"What can I say to you so you'll believe?" she asked back. "You'd laugh if I said I cared for you. You'd walk off angry if I said I loved you. So you tell me why I don't want you to die."
She felt the muscles of his jaw working underneath her hand. "I wish I could get you out of here, princess. You don't need to be with me."
"No, Zarek, I don't. But I want to be with you."
Zarek winced as she spoke the most beautiful words he'd ever heard in his life.
She amazed him. There were no walls between them now. No secrets. She knew him in a way no one ever had.
And she wasn't repulsed by him.
He didn't understand her. "I don't even want to be with me most of the time. Why do you?"
She gave him a shove. "I swear, you're like a three-year-old. Why? Why? Why? Why is the sky blue? Why are we here? Why does my dog have fur? Some things just are, Zarek. They don't have to make sense. Accept them."
"And if I can't?"
"Then you have worse problems than Thanatos wanting you dead."
He thought about that for a little while. Could he accept what she offered him?
Did he dare?
He didn't know how to be a friend. He didn't know how to laugh from pleasure or be nice.
For a man who was over two thousand years old, he really knew very little about life.
"Tell me, princess. Honestly. How are you going to judge me?"
She didn't hesitate to respond. "I'm going to acquit you if I can."
He laughed bitterly at that. "I was condemned for something I didn't do and acquitted for what I did. There's something not right about that."
"And will they accept your judgment now?" he asked, interrupting her. "You're not exactly impartial, are you?"
"I..." Astrid paused as she considered that. "They will accept it. We just have to find a way to prove to them that you are safe to be with other people."
"You don't sound too sure about that, princess."
She wasn't. Not once in all eternity had she breached the impartiality oath.
With Zarek she had.
"Lie down, Zarek," she said, pulling at his shoulder. "We both need to rest."
Zarek did as she said. To his chagrin and delight, she laid her head down on his chest and snuggled close.
He'd never held a woman like this and he found himself running his hand through her long blond hair. Spreading it out over his chest. He tilted his head so that he could look down at her.
She had her eyes closed as she idly traced circles on his chest, around his nipple, which was hard and swollen underneath his black jersey shirt.
He felt a closeness to her that was indescribable. If he knew how, he would wish they could stay like this forever.
But dreams and hopes were as alien to him as love and kindness.
Unlike her, he didn't see a future.
He only saw his death clearly in his mind.
Even if Thanatos didn't kill him, there was no use wishing he could stay with Astrid.
She was a goddess.
He was a slave.
He had no place in her world any more than he had a place in the realm of mortals.
Alone. He was always alone. And he would remain that way.
It didn't matter if he survived Thanatos. He was living only to see her safe.
Sighing, he closed his eyes and forced himself to go to sleep again.
Astrid listened to Zarek as he slept. His hand was buried in her hair, and even while unconscious, he held on to her as if afraid to let her go.
She wished she could get inside his head again. Wished for a moment where she could stare into his midnight-black eyes and see the beauty of her dark warrior.
But it wasn't his face and body that made her burn for him.
It was the man he was inside his battered and bruised heart. The one who was able to create poetry and art. The one who hid his vulnerability behind barbs and stinging retorts.
And she loved him. Even when he was mean and nasty. Even when he was angry.
But then, she understood that part of him.
How could anyone bear so much pain and not be scarred by it?
And what would become of him now?
Even if she did get her judgment to stand she doubted Artemis would ever let him leave Alaska.
He would be trapped here forever.
She shuddered at the thought of his isolation.
And what of her?
How could she go back to her life without him? She actually liked being with him. He was amusing in a very salty sort of way.
She lifted her head, amazed at the sound of her name on his lips. It was the first time he'd used it outside of his dreams. She hadn't even realized he was awake.
"Make love to me."
She closed her eyes and savored those words as much as she had savored her name.
Impishly, she arched a brow at him. "Why?"
"Because I need to be inside you right now. I want to feel connected to you."
Her throat constricted at his words. How could she ever deny him so simple a request?
Astrid rose up on her knees, and straddled his hips. He cupped her face in his hands and pulled her down for a scorching kiss.
She'd never imagined a man could be like this. So tough, and yet so tender.
She nipped his lips and chin with her teeth. "You should be resting."
"I don't want to rest. I seldom sleep anyway."
She knew it was true. The only time he had slept more than a couple of hours at a stretch was when she had drugged him. Judging by what she'd seen of his dreams and what M'Adoc had said, she well understood why.
And in her heart she wanted to soothe him.
She pulled her shirt off over her head.
Zarek swallowed at the sight of her bare breasts and skin. He swelled underneath her. It had only been a few hours since they had screwed.
No, she didn't screw him.
That was why he needed to feel her now. He desperately craved her hands on his flesh. Her naked body against his.
Because they didn't screw each other. What they shared was so much more than that. It was basic and primal and it was sublime.
What had she done to him?
But then he knew.
She had done the impossible. She had slid herself inside his dead heart.
Astrid alone made him ache. Made him want.
Made him human.
In her arms, he had discovered his humanity. Even his missing soul.
She meant something to him and he could at least pretend he meant something to her.
He reached down slowly to unzip her pants so that he could slide his hand into her pink cotton panties and sink his fingers down into her moist heat. It still amazed him that she would let him touch her like this.
Granted, women had been much more receptive to him as a Dark-Hunter than they had been when he was a human, but it hadn't changed him. He'd avoided them, knowing the only reason they were drawn to him now was because Acheron had repaired his body. So he'd snarled at the ones who offered themselves to him and he had only taken a handful of them when he had gotten tired of jerking himself off.
But in the end, they had meant nothing to him. He couldn't even remember any of their faces.
Astrid moaned as he stroked her.
"Zarek," she whispered, her breath falling lightly against his cheek. "I love the way your hands feel on my body."
"Even though I'm a slave and you're a goddess?"
"I'm no more a goddess than you are a slave."
He started to contradict her, then stopped. He didn't want anything to spoil this moment. This could very well be the last moment he had with her.
Thanatos could come crashing through the door at any moment to kill him, and if he had to die, he wanted one moment of happiness.
And she made him happy. In a way he'd never thought possible.
When he was with her, it seemed like something inside him wanted to fly. To laugh.
He was warm through and through.
"You know," she whispered. "I think I was wrong earlier. I think you have made me a nympho."
Zarek smiled at that and pulled his hand away from her so that he could open his fly and free himself from his pants. He shoved them down his legs, to his knees, but didn't want to dislodge her to remove them completely.
He raised her up and then set her down on him.
They moaned in unison.
It was so erotic to watch her naked above him while he was still mostly dressed. He lifted his hips from the floor, thrusting himself deep inside her warmth while he ran his hands over her bare breasts.
Astrid gasped at Zarek's hardness inside her. She'd pushed his shirt up so that his hard, muscled stomach was bare, but he was still fully clothed. His leather pants brushed against her thighs with every move he made.
His hands left her.
A few seconds later, she felt his soft fur parka against her bare skin as he draped it around her.
"I don't want you to get cold," he explained quietly.
She smiled at him, touched by his thoughtfulness. "How could I ever be cold with you inside me?"
He rose up then and wrapped his arms around her. His lips possessed hers with a fiery passion that left her breathless and weak.
Astrid cried out as she came in his arms.
Zarek waited until he'd wrung the last tremor of her orgasm from her before he sat up, still inside her and leaned her back against the floor.
Kissing her again, he quickened his thrusts, seeking his own peace.
And when he found it, he didn't close his eyes. He stared down at the woman who had given it to him.
She lay beneath him, breathing raggedly, her eyes unseeing, her touch enchanting.
He knew then there was nothing he wouldn't do for her. If she asked, he would walk through the fires of hell just to make her smile.
He cursed at the knowledge.
He ground his teeth as he pulled away from her. "What?"
She took his chin in her hand and turned his face toward hers, then she kissed him fiercely. "Don't you dare turn away from me."
He couldn't breathe as he felt her with every fiber of his being. Her bare bottom was wet against his groin, her skin cool against his.
But it was the warmth of her lips and breath that heated him.
The fire of her undaunted will. It burned through him, tearing away centuries of loneliness and pain.
" 'You know-my flower,'" he breathed. " 'I am responsible for her.' " He kissed her gently. " 'She doesn't even have four thorns to protect herself from harm.'"
Astrid listened as he quoted from The Little Prince. "Why do you love that book so?" she asked.
"Because I want to hear the bells when I look up at the sky. I want to laugh, but I don't know how."
Her lips quivered in sadness. That was the lesson of the book. It was to remind people that it was okay to care and that once you let someone into your heart, you were never really alone. Even the most simple thing such as looking up at the sky could bring comfort to you, even when the one you loved was far away. "And if I taught you to laugh?"
"I would be tamed."
"Would you? Or would you be the sheep who has a muzzle with no strap and who eats the rose when he's not supposed to? I somehow think that even tamed, you would be beyond control."
Astrid felt the most remarkable thing then. Zarek's lips curled up beneath her hand.
"Are you smiling?"
"I'm smiling, princess. But not broadly. No teeth."
She leaned forward and kissed him again. "I'll bet you're gorgeous when you smile."
He grunted at that, then helped her dress.
Astrid snuggled up to him once more so that she could hear the rhythm of his heart. She loved the sound of it, the feel of his strength beneath her.
Even though their lives were in danger, she felt oddly safe here.
Or so she thought.
In the stillness, she heard a strange scratching sound above them.
Zarek jerked up.
"What is it?" she whispered.
"Someone's upstairs in my cabin."
Horror consumed her. "You think it's Thanatos?"
He moved her gently off him and stood her against the wall. Terrified, she remained perfectly still as she listened to his movements and to those above.
Zarek grabbed a grenade, then reconsidered. The last thing he wanted was to trap them underground. He pulled on his spare set of silver claws that covered every finger of his left hand, and moved down the hallway back toward the trapdoor that was underneath his stove.
He heard light footsteps above him.
Then a curse.
Suddenly, there was silence again.
Zarek strained, desperate to hear who was up there and what they were doing.
A strange shiver went down his spine as the air behind him stirred.
He turned expecting to see Astrid.
It wasn't her.