Erin swallowed at the sight. Could that monster really be the man she loved?
“What’s her name?” the man asked. “Elise? Erika?”
“Erin,” the dragon rasped, his voice both familiar and yet foreign to her. “Her name is Erin.”
“Ah, yes, Erin.” The man shook his head. “Tell me what kind of worthless fool gives up immortality for a woman? Especially a woman who threw him so quickly to his death?”
“She was worth it.”
“Was she? M’Ordant told me she was dreaming of a man last night. Some golden-haired type. Got to figure that if she’s dreaming of someone so soon, she’s probably already got him picked out and is ready to sleep with him. Bet she’s giving him the high hard one even as we speak.”
The dragon let out an anguished cry that tore through her.
The man didn’t seem to care. He dumped food and water into two containers and moved them away from the dragon. “You’d better hurry. I don’t think you’ve made it yet before your food evaporated.” Then he vanished.
Erin watched as the dragon struggled to reach the food and water. His wounds bled anew as he limped, straining against the boulder that would only barely budge. He held one to his heart, and when she saw what it clutched, her own heart splintered apart in pain.
It was that stupid wreath of wildflowers she’d made.
V’Aidan collapsed just before the water, his claw reaching out desperately for it.
Tears streaming down her face, Erin ran to where he lay. She grabbed the water, noting half of it was already gone, and as she touched the container, she knew why. It was red-hot. It burned her hands, but she didn’t care.
V’Aidan needed the water.
Kneeling down, she helped him sit up enough so he could drink.
V’Aidan gasped at the liquid as it soothed his parched throat. His eyes were so swollen from his beatings that he couldn’t see who helped him. All he knew was that at last he had a moment of peace from his burning thirst.
“Thank you,” he breathed, laying his head back down.
He froze at the voice that had stayed with him all these weeks. The voice that both soothed and tortured him.
It was then he felt her gentle touch against his scaly flesh.
Erin cried over what they’d done to him. She ran her hand along his rocky flesh, unable to believe they had reduced him to such a state.
He tried to push himself away from her. “Go. I don’t want you to see me in this hideous form.”
She laid her cheek against his and held him close. She now understood what he’d meant that night at the carnival. “I don’t care what you look like, V’Aidan. I love you as you are.”
Those words tore through him. “You’re not real,” he said, his voice ragged. “My precious Erin can’t love a monster. No one can. She is goodness and light, and I… I am nothing.”
He looked up and roared at the ceiling, “Damn you, Hades! How dare you mock me like this, you bastard! Isn’t it enough for you that I ache every minute of every hour for her? Just leave me to suffer in peace.”
Erin refused to let go of him. “It’s not an illusion, V’Aidan. I want us to go home. Together.”
Tears welled in his swollen eyes, stinging them unmercifully. It was a cruel lie. He’d never had a home. Never had love.
He pulled against the chain that choked him, wishing for one moment that he could be with Erin again in her dreams. It had been the only time in eternity he had ever known happiness. “I am damned here, Erin. I have no powers. Nothing to offer you at all. You must go. If you stay here too long, they won’t let you leave.”
Erin looked around his cold, dark prison that smelled and slithered. She’d never seen a more inhospitable place. Her worst fear had been being stuck in this cave with the dragon.
But if that was what it took to have V’Aidan, then she was willing to do it. “I’m not going to leave you again.”
He lifted his head and she could tell he was trying to see her. “What are you saying?”
“I’m saying that if you can’t go home with me, then I will stay here with you. Forever.”
V’Aidan gaped at her. “You don’t know what you’re doing.” He pushed at her with his talon. “Go!”
She didn’t move. “I will not leave you.”
He gathered her into his arms and held her close. “If you really love me, Erin, you won’t stay. I could never stand the thought of knowing you were here because of me. Please, love, please go and never look back.”
Erin sat in indecision, holding his talon in her hand. How could she leave him here, like this, knowing no one else would help him? Comfort him?
M’Ordant moved forward and pulled her away from V’Aidan, then walked her to the opening, where he kept her still.
For several minutes, V’Aidan didn’t move at all. Then he lifted his head and tried to look around.
“Erin?” he asked quietly. “Are you still here?”
M’Ordant motioned for her silence. “She’s gone now.”
V’Aidan’s lip quivered with sadness. “You sent her home?”
“Thank you.” He lay down as if all his strength had been stripped from him.
“Tell me,” M’Ordant said. “Why didn’t you want her to stay with you?”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
M’Ordant snorted. “What does a Skotos know of love?”
“Absolutely nothing…” He took a deep breath. “And everything. I couldn’t ask her to stay here when I know how much this place scares her.”
“But you wanted her to stay?”
V’Aidan nodded weakly. “More than I want my freedom. Now, leave me, brother.”
Erin wiped the tears from her face as she stared at M’Ordant. She gave him a hopeful look.
“Can I stay?” she whispered so that V’Aidan wouldn’t hear her.
His face impassive, M’Ordant shook his head and led her from the room. “It’s not up to me.”
He refused to answer. “You have to leave.”
“I won’t leave him,” she said, her voice firm. “And no one is going to make me.”
Erin found out those were famous last words as she came awake back in her office. When dealing with Greek gods, human will didn’t amount to much.
Heartbroken, she wept, thinking about V’Aidan in his hell and the fact that she was the cause of it.
Worst of all, there was absolutely nothing she could do to help him. Nothing.
V’Aidan clenched his teeth at Hypnos’s voice. He tucked Erin’s wreath under a nearby rock to keep the god from seeing it and taking it from him as he had done the pictures.
It was all V’Aidan had of her and he couldn’t bear the thought of losing it.
He forced himself upright and cleared his throat of the grief that choked him. “I didn’t realize it was time for more punishment.”
Hypnos snorted. “I can’t break you, can I?”
He sensed the god moving around him.
“You know,” Hypnos said irritably, “I have tried since the dawn of time to make you fear me. And you never have. Why is that?”
“I can’t feel emotion, remember?”
“No. What you are is disrespectful, irreverent, and sarcastic. You have never fit in with us. And the thing that has always made me maddest with you is that you never even tried to.”
V’Aidan gave a weak laugh. “A Skotos who is evil to the bone, imagine that.”
“Well, therein is your problem. Unlike the others, you never were. I never could kill that last tiny bit of goodness in you. That last bit that was capable of honor. Capable of sacrifice.”
“M’Ordant told me what you did for Erin. Both on earth and here. As a result, Hades has informed me that he can’t keep you in Tartarus. Only souls who are completely incapable of love can stay here.”
A burning sensation started in V’Aidan’s body, and with every heartbeat that passed, he felt himself growing stronger.
“It seems to me, boy, you have a decision to make.”
Erin opened the door to her apartment. The familiar hole in her heart burned as she imagined what it would be like to come home, just once, and have V’Aidan here.
She’d been doing that a lot lately. Daydreaming. She’d never really daydreamed before. And she’d been writing. But there was no one to share it with.
That hurt most of all.
Toeing her shoes off, she set her keys down on the mantel and happened to see a white rose petal on the carpet. She frowned as she noticed several more.
They seemed to form a trail leading to her bedroom. She followed them.
When she got to the doorway, her heart stopped.
V’Aidan was asleep in her bed. His sleek black hair was spread out over the pillows, the covers tangled in his long, tawny limbs.
He was the most gorgeous thing she’d ever seen in her life.
Erin laughed as tears welled in her eyes. How? How could he be here?
Rushing to her bed, she dropped to her knees and tried to wake him.
He didn’t budge.
No matter what she tried, he wouldn’t wake.
“V’Aidan?” she said, swallowing in fear. “Please, look at me.”
Terrified, she saw a small note card on the nightstand.
Picking it up, she read it:
It is through true love that all miracles are performed. If you really love me, Erin, kiss my lips and I will be born into your world as a mortal man. Otherwise, I shall be waiting for you only in your dreams.
You have until midnight to decide.
She didn’t need until midnight to decide. Cupping his face in her hands, she kissed him with all the love in her heart.
His chest rose sharply as his arms wrapped around her and held her tight.
Erin laughed happily as V’Aidan deepened their kiss. Her head swam from his warmth, his passion, and she never wanted to let him go.
Nipping her lips, he pulled back to smile at her. The love in his silvery-blue eyes scorched her. “I take it you want to keep me?”
“Buddy, you try and leave me and I’ll follow you to the ends of the earth and beyond to find you and bring you home.”
V’Aidan laughed. She’d already proven that to him.
Erin shivered as he unbuttoned her shirt. “I think I know what you want to do first as a mortal man.”
He ran his tongue over her throat, up to her ear, where his breath sent chills through her. “Believe me, love, you won’t be sleeping tonight.”
Two years later
V’Aidan lay on the sofa with his infant daughter asleep on his chest. He stared at her mop of chestnut curls, curious about what she was dreaming.
He felt his wife standing over them.
Looking up, he caught Erin’s gorgeous smile. “Hi,” he said, wondering what she was up to. There was a gleam in her eye much like the one she’d had the day she’d told him she was pregnant.
“Guess what?” she asked, her voice rife with excitement.
“You’re pregnant again?”
She rolled her eyes at him. “It’s only been three months since we had Emma.”
She blew him a raspberry, then brought her arm from around her back and shoved a book into his hands.
V’Aidan stared at it blankly until the name on the cover registered. “Oh my God,” he breathed, “it’s your novel.”
“I know,” she said, jumping up and down. “My editor sent me the first copy of it! They’ll be shipped to the stores next week.”
Careful not to wake the baby, V’Aidan shot off the couch to grab Erin into his arms.
Erin sighed at the feel of his lips on hers. Even now, those lips could incinerate her. And his smell… Goodness, how she loved the scent of his skin.
“Thank you, V’Aidan,” she said, pulling back to stare into those hauntingly silver eyes. “I would never have written it without you.”
“And I would never have lived without you.”
Erin held him close, delighting in the feel of him and her daughter. The two of them were the greatest gift Erin had ever known.
And it was then she realized that even out of the darkest nightmare, something good could come. It had taken strength and courage, but in the end, it had been worth the battle.
“I love you, Erin,” he whispered against her hair.
“I love you, V’Aidan, and I always will.”
It was hard to find an all-powerful, mythical being in a crowd of thirty thousand.
Or at least it was in theory.
At the yearly Dragon*Con science fiction convention in Atlanta, Georgia, however, it was another story entirely. There were two Yodas and a Dragon Rider from Pern checking in at the hotel’s front desk while a full regiment of Storm Troopers walked by. There were gods and goddesses, all manner of aliens, warriors, and ladies gathered there. Pandora had even seen the Wicked Witch of the West cruise by on her motorized broomstick.