He was being a total idiot.
“No, thank you,” he said. “I’m all right.”
His stomach rumbled, betraying him.
“You sound hungry to me.”
Starving, to be honest, but right then he was craving a taste of her a lot more than he was craving food. “Yeah. I guess I am.”
“Here,” she said, reaching out for him. “I might be blind, but I can cook. I promise that unless Sasha has moved things around in the kitchen, I haven’t poisoned my stew.”
Zarek didn’t take her hand.
She swallowed as if nervous or awkward, then dropped her hand and headed out of the room.
Sasha growled at him again.
Zarek growled back and stamped his foot at the annoying pooch, who looked like it wanted nothing more than to tear his leg off.
He caught an unfocused look of censure on Astrid’s face as she paused in the doorway to turn back toward them. “Are you being mean to Sasha?”
“No. I’m just returning his greeting.” The wolf’s ears were still laid back as it darted out of the room. “Rin Tin Tin doesn’t seem to like me very much.”
She shrugged. “He doesn’t like anyone much. Sometimes not even me.”
Astrid turned and headed down the hallway with Zarek behind her. There was something very ominous about this man. Deadly. And it wasn’t just the strength she had felt in his arm as she touched it.
He oozed an unnatural darkness that seemed to warn everyone, even the blind, to stay away from him. That was most likely what Sasha reacted to. It was extremely disconcerting.
Maybe Artemis was right. Maybe she should judge him guilty and just go on home…
But he hadn’t attacked her. At least not yet.
Astrid led him to the breakfast counter where she had three bar stools. Her sisters had placed them there earlier when they had come to visit and warn her about her latest assignment.
All three of her sisters had been extremely unhappy that she had decided to judge Zarek for her mother, but in the end, they’d had no choice except to let her do her job.
To their eternal consternation, there were some things not even the Fates could control.
Free will was one of them.
“Do you like beef stew?” she asked Zarek.
“I’m not picky. I’m just grateful to have something warm I didn’t have to cook myself.”
She noted the bitterness in his voice. “You do that a lot?”
He didn’t answer.
Astrid felt her way to the stove.
As she neared the pot, Zarek was suddenly there, grabbing her hand and pulling her back. He’d moved so fast and silently that she gasped in startled alarm.
His speed and strength gave her pause. This man could really hurt her if he chose to, and given what she had in store for him, that was a very sobering realization.
“Let me do that,” he said sharply.
She swallowed at the unwarranted anger in his tone. “I’m not helpless. I do this all the time.”
He released her. “Fine, burn your hand then, I don’t care.” He moved away from her.
“Sasha?” she called.
Her wolf came up to her side and leaned against her leg to let her know where he was. Kneeling down, she took his head in her hands and closed her eyes.
Reaching out with her mind, she connected with Sasha’s until she could use his eyesight as her own. She saw Zarek as he made his way back to the counter and she had to force herself not to gasp.
Afraid that his looks might sway her opinion about his character before she had a chance to interact with him, she hadn’t used Sasha before this to see him.
Now she knew how right she’d been.
Zarek was incredibly handsome. His long, black hair was sleek, hanging just past his wide shoulders. The black turtle-neck he wore clung to a body that rippled with finely toned muscles. His face was lean and well sculpted. The planes of it, even while covered in whiskers, were a study in perfect male proportions. Yet he wasn’t pretty, he was darkly handsome. Almost sinister looking except for his long black eyelashes and firm lips that softened his face.
And when he took a seat, she got a spectacular view of a well-shaped butt covered by leather.
The man was a god!
But what struck her most as he sat down and stared at the counter was the deep sadness in his midnight eyes. The haunted shadow that hovered there.
He looked tired. Lost.
Most of all, he looked terribly lonely.
He glanced at them and frowned.
Astrid patted Sasha’s head and gave him a hug as if nothing unusual had happened. She hoped Zarek wouldn’t have any idea what she’d been up to.
Her sisters had warned her that this particular Dark-Hunter would have extreme powers such as telekinesis and refined hearing, but none of them knew if he could sense her limited powers.
She was only grateful that he wasn’t telepathic. That would have made her job infinitely more complicated.
She stood up and went to the cabinet to get a bowl for Zarek, and very carefully, she ladled the stew into it. Then she took it to the counter, not far from where Zarek had been standing.
He reached out and took the bowl from her. “You live alone?”
“Just me and Sasha.” She wondered why he’d asked that.
Her sister Cloie had warned her that Zarek could turn violent with little provocation. That he had been known to attack Acheron and anyone else who came near him.
Dark-Hunter rumor said that his exile in Alaska had been caused by his destroying a village he’d been responsible for. No one knew why. Only that one night he’d gone mad and murdered everyone there, then razed their homes to the ground.
Her sisters had refused to elaborate on what had happened on that night for fear of prejudicing her viewpoint.
For Zarek’s crime, Artemis had banished him to the frozen wilderness.
Could Zarek merely be curious about her living arrangements or was there a more sinister reason for his question?
“Would you like something to drink?” she asked him.
“What do you prefer?”
“I don’t care.”
She shook her head at his words. “You’re not very picky, are you?”
She heard him clear his throat. “No.”
“I don’t like the way he’s looking at you.”
She arched a brow at Sasha’s angry words in her head. “You don’t like the way any man looks at me.”
The wolf scoffed. “Still, he hasn’t taken his eyes off you, Astrid. He’s watching you now. His head is bent down, but there’s lust in his eyes as he stares at you. Like he can already feel you under him. I don’t trust him or that look. His gaze is too intense. Can I bite him?”
For some reason, knowing that Zarek was watching her made her hot and shivery. “No, Sasha. Be nice.”
“I don’t want to be nice, Astrid. Every instinct I have tells me to bite him. If you have any respect for my animal abilities, let me put him down now and save us both ten more days in this cold place.”
She shook her head at him. “We just met him, Sasha. What if Lera had deemed you guilty on her first encounter with you all those centuries ago?”
“So you believe in goodness again?”
Astrid paused. No, she didn’t. Most likely Zarek deserved to die, especially if half of what she’d been told was true.
And yet Acheron’s quote haunted her.
“I owe Acheron more than ten minutes of my time.”
She poured Zarek a cup of hot tea and took it over to him. “It’s rosemary tea, is that okay?”
When he took it from her hand, she felt the warmth of his fingers brush hers.
An incredible rush went through her. She felt his surprise. His heated need. His unsated hunger.
That truly scared her. This was a man capable of anything. One of almost godlike powers.
He could do anything he wanted to her…
She needed to distract him.
“So what really happened to you?” she asked, wondering if he would breach his Code of Silence and tell her that he was wanted by the others.
“Well, I hope I never come across Nothing then if it’s capable of putting a hole in my back.”
She heard him pick up his tea, but he didn’t speak.
“You should be more careful,” she said.
“Believe me, I’m not the one who needs to be careful.” His voice was sinister as he spoke those words, reinforcing his lethalness.
“Are you threatening me?” she asked.
Again he said nothing. The man was a total wall of silence.
So she pressed him once more. “Do you have anyone we need to call and let them know you’re okay?”
“No,” he said, his tone hollow.
She nodded as she thought about that. Zarek had never been granted a Squire.
She couldn’t imagine being banished the way Zarek had been. At the time of his incarceration, this area of the world had been very sparsely populated.
The climate harsh. Inhospitable. Desolate. Bleak.
She’d only been living here a few days and it had taken some getting used to. But at least she had her mother, sisters, and Sasha to help her adjust.
Zarek had been denied anyone.
While other Dark-Hunters were allowed companions and servants, Zarek had been forced to endure his existence in solitude.
She couldn’t imagine how he must have suffered over the centuries as he struggled through his days, knowing he would never have a reprieve of any kind.
No wonder he was insane.
Still, it was no excuse for his behavior. As he had said to her earlier, everyone had their problems.
Zarek finished his food and then took the dishes to the sink. Without thinking, he rinsed and cleaned them, then set them to the side.
“You didn’t have to do that. I would have cleaned them.”
He wiped his hands dry on the dish towel she had on the counter. “Habit.”
“You must live alone, too.”
Zarek watched her draw near to him. She moved to his side again, intruding on his personal space. He was torn between wanting to stand beside her and wanting to curse her nearness.
He decided on pulling away. “Look, could you just stay away from me?”
“Does it bother you for me to come near?”
More than she could imagine. When she was near him, it was easy to forget what he was. Easy to pretend he was a human being who could be normal.
But that wasn’t him.
That had never been him.
“Yes, it does,” he said, his tone low, threatening. “I don’t like people to get near me.”
“That’s none of your damned business, lady,” he snapped at her. “I just don’t like people to touch me and I don’t like them to come near me. So back off and leave me alone before you get hurt.”
The wolf growled at him again, more fiercely this time.
“And you, Kibbles,” he snarled at the wolf, “had better lay off me. One more growl and I swear I’m going to geld you with a spoon.”
“Sasha, come here.”
He watched as the wolf went instantly to her side.
“I’m sorry you find us so bothersome,” she said. “But since we seem to be stuck together for a bit, you could try and be a little more sociable. At the very least civil.”
Maybe she was right. But the bad thing was, he didn’t know how to be sociable, never mind civil. No one had ever wanted to converse with him either in his human life or his Dark-Hunter one.
Even when he’d first signed on to the Dark-Hunter.com Web site to chat ten years ago, the other, older Dark-Hunters had thrown a fit and attacked him.
He was in exile. The rules of his banishment required that none of them speak to him.
He’d been banned from posting on the bulletin boards, the chatrooms, even the private loops.
It had only been by accident that he’d stumbled across Jess, who had been in one of the gaming rooms waiting for his Myst opponent to arrive. Too young in Dark-Hunter years to know he wasn’t supposed to talk to Zarek, Jess had greeted him like a friend.
The novelty of it had made Zarek vulnerable and so he’d found himself talking to the cowboy. Before he knew it, they had somehow become friends.
And what had that gotten him?
Nothing but a bullet hole in his back.
Forget it. He didn’t need to talk. He didn’t need anything. And the last thing he wanted was to be sociable with a human woman who would call the cops if she ever found out who and what he was.
“Look, princess, this isn’t a social call. As soon as the weather lets up, I’m out of here. So just leave me alone for the next few hours and pretend I’m not here.”
Astrid decided to back off a bit and let him get a little more used to her.
Little did he know, he was going to be trapped here a lot longer than a few hours. That storm wasn’t going to abate until she wanted it to.
For now, she would give him time to reflect and regroup.
There were still other tests he would have to pass. Tests that she wouldn’t relent on.
But there was time for that later. Right now he was still wounded and betrayed.
“Fine,” she said, “I’ll be in my bedroom if you need me.”
She left Sasha in the kitchen to watch him.
“I don’t want to watch him,” Sasha snapped.
“What if he does something disgusting?”
The wolf growled. “Fine. But can I have one small bite of him? Just to give him a healthy respect for me?”