"Wake up, Astrid. Your psychotic criminal is playing with knives."

Astrid snapped awake immediately to Sasha's voice in her head. "What?" she asked out loud before she'd realized it. She sat up in her bed.

A mental image from Sasha flashed in her mind. She saw Zarek in her kitchen, rummaging through the drawer where all her cutlery was kept.

Zarek pulled out a large butcher knife, then tested the edge with his thumb. She frowned at his actions.

What was he doing?

He set the knife aside and returned to the others in the drawer.

Sasha growled.

"Shut up, Scooby," Zarek snarled. He cast a feral, vicious glare at Sasha that held more venom than a rattlesnake farm. "Did I ever tell you how much I love pooch stew? There's enough meat on you to last me for a week."

Sasha moved forward.

Halt! she snapped mentally at her companion.

C'mon, Astrid. Let me bite him. Just once.

No, Sasha. Stand down.

He did, but he was very grudging about it. He stepped back, his eyes never leaving Zarek, who pulled a small paring knife out. Zarek fingered the blade again, looking at Sasha. She could see the gleam in Zarek's midnight eyes that said he really was considering using the knife on her companion.

Finally, he returned the butcher knife to the drawer, then took the paring knife into the den.

Astrid's frown deepened as Zarek went to her kindling pile by the hearth and pulled out a large piece of wood. He took it over to her couch and sat down.

Ignoring Sasha, who followed him every step of the way and finally ended up sitting near Zarek's feet, Zarek started to whittle the wood.

Astrid was transfixed by his unexpected actions.

He sat there for countless minutes in total silence working on the piece. But what amazed her even more than his patient, silent demeanor was the way the wolf he was carving took form. It went from a piece of a limb to a remarkable likeness of Sasha in very little time.

Even Sasha had cocked his head to watch.

Zarek's hands moved the knife over the wood with an expert grace. He paused only at times when he looked up to compare the piece to Sasha.

The man was an extremely talented artist and his talent seemed completely at odds with what she knew about him.

Intrigued, Astrid found herself getting up and returning to the living room. Her movements broke her mental connection with Sasha. Walking always did. She could only use his sight whenever she was perfectly still.

Zarek looked up as he felt the air behind him stir.

He paused as his gaze fell to Astrid and she took his breath away. Unused to having people in a house with him, he wasn't sure if he should greet her or remain silent.

He opted to just watch her.

She was so feminine and beautiful. Kind of like Sharon, only there was a sense of vulnerability about her that Sharon lacked. Sharon possessed a smart mouth that could rival his own and her years as a single parent had left her with a very hard edge to her. But not Astrid. She had that gentle kind of softness that would cause some people to take advantage or victimize her.

The thought sent an unexpected jolt of anger through him.

Astrid moved forward into the room and was headed straight for the ottoman he'd moved out of his way earlier.

His first thought was to leave it and let her fall, but he barely moved it out of her way in time. She missed the ottoman, but did, however, stumble into him, causing the knife to slip.

Zarek hissed as the extremely sharp blade cut deeply into his hand.

"Zarek?"

He ignored her as he rushed into the kitchen to tend the throbbing wound before he dripped blood all over her polished hardwood floors and expensive rugs.

Cursing, he dropped the knife into the sink and turned the water on to rinse it.

She followed him into the kitchen. "Zarek? Is something wrong?"

"No," he snapped, washing the blood from his hand. He grimaced as he saw the depth of the injury. If he were human, he'd need stitches for it.

Astrid moved to stand beside him. "I smell blood. Are you hurt?"

Before he realized what she intended, she took his hand into hers and felt it with her hands. Her touch was feather light as she gently touched his wound and yet the sensation of her hand on his floored him. It felt as if someone had hit him in the gut with a sledgehammer.

She was so close to him that all he had to do was lean forward and he could kiss her.

Taste her neck.

Her blood...

No woman had ever tempted him like this.

For the first time in his life, he wanted to taste someone's lips. To hold her face in his hands and ravish her mouth with his tongue.

What would it feel like to be held... ?

What the hell is wrong with me?

He wasn't the kind of man that anyone held, nor did he want it.

Not really.

He only wanted...

"This is deep," she said quietly, her voice enchanting him even more.

He looked down, but instead of his hand, all he could see was the deep valley between her breasts that was bared by the V of her sweater. He would only have to move his hand a few inches to sink it down between the soft mounds. To push her sweater aside a little bit until he could cup her with his hand.

"What happened?" she asked.

Zarek blinked to dispel the image that caused his groin to ache and throb as it demanded satisfaction. "Nothing."

"Is that the only word you know?" She grimaced at him as she held his hand with hers and reached up to pull a bottle of peroxide out of the cabinet over the sink. He was amazed that she knew which container it was, but then, everything in the cabinet appeared to be deliberately and carefully placed.

He hissed again as she poured the liquid over his cut. The coldness of it stung as much as the disinfectant.

Still, he was stunned by her caring actions, by the gentleness of her hand on his.

She patted around with her hand for the dish towel by the sink. Once she found it, she wrapped it around his hand. "Keep it elevated. I'll call a doc-"

"No," he said harshly, interrupting her. "No doctor."

"But you're hurt."

"Believe me, this is nothing."

Astrid noted the catch in his voice as he said that. More than ever before, she wished she could see him as he spoke. "Were you cut because I bumped into you?"

He didn't answer.

Astrid tried to reach out to him with her senses and found nothing. She couldn't tell if he was with her or if she was completely alone.

Her senses had never failed her before.

It was scary to have no ability to "feel" him.

"Zarek?"

"What?"

She actually jumped at the sound of his deep, accented voice so close to her ear. "You didn't answer my question."

"Yeah, so what? It's not like you care how I got hurt anyway."

His voice faded as if he were moving away from her.

"Sasha, where is he?"

"He's headed back toward the den."

She heard Sasha growling in the hallway.

"Back at you," Zarek grumbled.

"You know," he said louder. "I hear dogs live longer when they're neutered. And they're friendlier, too."

"Oh, yeah, let's neuter you and see if it affects you, you-"

"Sasha!"

"What? He's obnoxious. And I am not a dog."

She walked down the hallway to pat Sasha's head. "I know."

Zarek ignored the wolf and the woman as he went to the window and pulled the curtains back. It was just after one a.m. and the blizzard was as fierce as it had been earlier.

Damn. He was never going to get out of here. He only hoped the weather broke long enough to allow him to make it back to his woods. No doubt the Squires, Jess, and Thanatos were waiting for him at his cabin, but he had several more "safe" areas none of them knew about. Places where he could get weapons and supplies.

But he had to be on his land to reach it.

"Zarek?"

He expelled an aggravated breath.

"What?" he snapped.

"Don't use that tone with me," she said with a sharp note in her voice that caused him to arch a brow at her audacity. "I like to know where people are in my house. Be nice, or I'll make you wear a cowbell."

He felt a strange urge to laugh. But laughter and he were strangers.

"I'd like to see you try it."

"Are you always this cranky or did you just wake up on the wrong side of the bed?"

"This is it, baby, get used to it."

She came to stand right beside him and he had a feeling that she purposely did it just to irk him. "And if I don't want to get used to it?"

He turned to face her. "Don't push me, princess."

"Oooo," she said in a less than impressed voice. "Next thing you'll be talking like the Incredible Hulk. 'Don't make me angry, you wouldn't like me when I'm angry.' " She cast a haughty look in his general direction. "You're not scary to me, Mr. Zarek. So you can just check the attitude at the door and play nice while you're here."

Disbelief racked him. No one in the past two thousand years had dismissed him so easily and it angered him that she would dare discount him now. It reminded him of too many bad memories of people who saw through him. People who held no regard for him whatsoever.

The first vow he had made to himself as a Dark-Hunter was that he would never again worry about trying to earn other people's respect or kindness.

Fear was a far more powerful tool.

He backed her up against a wall.

Astrid panicked as she felt Zarek pressing in on her while the wall behind her blocked her escape. She had nowhere to go. She couldn't breathe. Couldn't move.

He was so large, so strong.

All she could sense was him. He surrounded her with power and danger. With the promise of lethal reflexes. He was trying to make her fear him, she knew it.

It was working very well.

He didn't touch her, but then, he didn't have to. His presence alone was terrifying.

Dark. Dangerous.

Deadly.

She felt him bend down to speak angrily into her ear. "If you want nice, baby, play with your fucking dog. When you're ready to play with a man, then call me."

Before she could respond, Sasha attacked.

Zarek stumbled away from her with a curse as the air around her stirred viciously with Sasha's frantic movements.

Cringing instinctively, Astrid held her breath as she heard the sound of wolf and man fighting. She strained to see, but she was surrounded solely by darkness and overwhelming angry sounds.

"Sasha!" she shouted, wishing she could see what was happening between them.

All she heard was the mingling of hisses, growls, and curses.

Then something solid hit the wall next to her.

Sasha yelped.

Terrified of what Zarek had done to her companion, Astrid knelt on the floor and felt her way over to where Sasha was lying before the hearth.

"Sasha?" She ran her trembling hand through his fur, seeking wounds.

He didn't move.

Her heart stopped beating as terror filled her. If anything had happened to Sasha, she would kill Zarek herself!

Please, please be all right...

"Sasha?" She held him close and reached out with her thoughts to his.

"I'll kill him. So help me, I will."

She shook in relief at Sasha's anger. Thank Zeus he was alive!

Zarek pulled his torn shirt off and used it to contain the blood on his right arm, neck, and shoulder where the pooch had shredded his skin with its claws and teeth.

He barely contained his fury. He hadn't been wounded this many times in a single hour since the day he'd died.

Snarling, he stared at the swollen red flesh. He hated to be wounded.

It was all he could do not to go back to the den and make sure that damned dog never attacked another living thing in its life.

He wanted blood. Wolf blood.

For that matter, he wanted human blood. One quick nip to calm his fury and remind him of what he was.

Just one taste of her...

Astrid came inside the bathroom and ran into him.

He growled at the warm sensation of her body slamming into his.

Without comment, she pushed him away from the sink and knelt down to retrieve a first-aid kit.

"You could have said 'Excuse me.' "

"I'm not talking to you," she snapped.

"Love you, too, babe."

She froze at his sarcasm and glared in his general direction. "You really are an animal, aren't you?"

Zarek ground his teeth at her words. It was all anyone had ever seen him as. He was too old now to change his ways. "Woof, woof."

Huffing at him, she started to leave, then stopped. She turned back toward him with a snarl. "You know, I have no idea where you come from and I don't really care. Nothing gives you the right to hurt other people or Sasha. He was only protecting me, while you... You're nothing but a bully."

Zarek stood immobile while vicious, horrid images tore through his memory. The sight of his village in flames.

Of bodies lying scattered all around.

The faint sounds of people screaming.

The fury inside his heart that demanded blood...

He winced as pain lacerated him. He hated his memories almost as much as he hated himself.

"One day someone needs to teach you some civility." Astrid turned and headed back toward the den.

"Yeah," he said, curling his lip. "Go tend your dog, princess. He needs you."

Zarek, on the other hand, didn't need anyone.

He never had.

With that thought in mind, he went to the room where he'd awakened.

Storm or no storm, it was time for him to leave.

He pulled his coat on over his bare chest and buttoned it. It too had been damaged by the gunshot and would leave his healing back exposed to the weather. So be it.

It wasn't as if he could freeze to death anyway. There were some advantages to immortality.

The hole would just make for a nice cool breeze to run down his spine until he could find more clothes.

After he was dressed, he headed for the door and did his best not to notice Astrid, who was on her knees in front of the warm fire, soothing and consoling her pet as she tended him.

The sight made him ache in a way he wouldn't have thought possible.

Yeah, it was time he got the hell out of here.

"He's leaving."

Astrid started at the sound of Sasha in her head. "What do you mean, he's leaving?"

"He's behind you right now, dressed and headed outside."

"Zarek?"

She was answered by the slamming of her door.




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