Deimos had Artemis pinned to the floor by her throat. "You ever-"
He didn’t get a chance to finish his threat before Ash picked him up and tossed him wide. Deimos hit the wall, then the floor. He sprang to his feet, braced for attack until he realized who he was facing.
His lips and nose bleeding, Deimos wiped at his face.
Ash gave him a cold, emotionless stare. "You should leave now. Really."
Deimos spat blood on the white marble floor. His gaze went to Artemis, who was now sitting where Deimos had left her. For once she wasn’t looking arrogant. "If you want the bastard dead, Artemis, you should send your pet after him."
Normally Ash would have let such a comment pass without issue. But today it just struck him the wrong way. He threw his hands out and brought Deimos straight into his grip.
"I’m so in the mood to kick someone’s ass for no good reason. Glad you dropped by." He kneed Deimos in the stomach, and just when he was going to punch him, Deimos vanished.
"Oh c’mon," Ash said out loud. "Was it something I said?"
As expected, Deimos stayed quiet. One word would have allowed Ash to follow him to his haven and finish it.
Still not appeased, he went to Artemis, who hadn’t moved from her spot on the floor. How very strange for her. He clenched his teeth as he saw her throat was red from Deimos’s attack and her cheeks were pinkened by anger.
"You all right?" he asked.
"Like you care," she spat in a snit. "You’d just as soon hurt me, too."
He bit back a sarcastic comment of agreement as he saw the pain in her eyes. Even though they’d had a less than idyllic relationship, it wasn’t in him to kick her when she was down and hurting. He’d been hurt enough in his life to never want to deal that to someone else.
He sat down beside her on the floor and pulled his knees up to his chest. "So what happened?"
Her sullen pout would have made a toddler proud. "Nothing."
He drew a ragged breath as he saw where this was heading. She wanted to talk, but she was going to make him drag every word out. Lovely. Just how he wanted to spend his time here. Then again, given what she normally did to pass time with him, this was an improvement. "C’mon, Artie. I know better. You sent Deimos after Sin, didn’t you?"
Her pout increased before she sniffed. "What choice did I have? You wouldn’t do anything."
Would she never grow up? Just once, he’d like to deal with an adult… "I can’t while I’m here. You know that. You refused to give me a break to go talk to him."
"You wouldn’t do anything even if you weren’t here."
She sniffed again and gave him a sideways glare. "No one cares what happens to me."
"Don’t, Artemis," he said between clenched teeth. "I don’t play that pity game and you know it. If you want Daddy to baby you, he’s in the big hall up the hill."
The anger returned to her eyes. "Why do you stay with me if you feel that way?"
Funny, he asked himself that every day. "You know why."
She sidestepped his comment. "You hate me, don’t you?"
Sometimes. No, most times. But he felt her current vulnerability and for some reason he could never fathom, he had a need to soothe her. Yeah, he was one sick sonofabitch. "No, Artie, I don’t."
"You’re lying," she accused. "Don’t you think I know the difference?" A single tear slid down her cheek as she stared at him. "You used to hold me like I mattered to you."
She was right, and the sad thing was, back then she’d mattered to him more than his own life. But that had been eleven thousand years ago and many, many things had changed between them. "You used to not beat me, too. Remember?"
Artemis shook her head. "You changed even before that. You were angry at me before you died."
Ash so didn’t want to deal with this. His past had been painful enough the first time around. The last thing he wanted to do was relive it in any shape, form, or fashion.
Getting up, he headed back to the bedroom, but Artemis followed him.
"What happened to you?" she asked.
He laughed at the stupidity of that question before he turned around to face her again. She truly looked clueless. "How could you forget? It was the day you told me I was nothing more than a booty call for you. Oh wait… What were the exact words you used? ‘If you ever tell anyone about us, I’ll have you flayed in my temple until you’re bleeding all over my floor.’ That was kind of a buzz kill, huh? And then when you fulfilled that promise even when I hadn’t breathed a word of us to anyone, it destroyed whatever part of me cared for you, Artemis."
"I apologized for the beating."
Ash winced at her words. Words. Mere words she thought could erase the pain and humiliation he’d suffered because of her. He could still feel the sting of the lash against his nak*d flesh.
Even now he heard his sister’s shrill cry that afternoon when his human father had confronted him over his absence. "Father, stop! He’s innocent. He was with Artemis. Tell him, Acheron! For the sake of the gods, tell him the truth so he’ll stop this beating."
His human father had knocked him to the ground. He then kicked him onto his hack and pressed his foot to Ash’s throat to the point where bile had risen to choke him. "What lies have you told her, maggot?"
Ash had tried to push the foot away, but his father had only pressed it even harder against his windpipe. Speaking had been all but impossible. "Nothing, p-p-please…"
"Blasphemer." His father had stepped back then and left Ash to strangle as he tried so desperately to breathe through his bruised esophagus. "Strip him and drag him to Artemis’s temple. Let the goddess witness his punishment and if he really was with her, then I’m sure she’ll come to his defense." He’d turned a smug look at Ryssa. "Beat him at the altar until Artemis shows herself."
The humiliation of that day still stung him to the core of his soul. The people who’d cheered for the executioner to strike him harder. The priests who’d slapped him while the executioner had beat him.
The water that had been thrown in his face to revive him whenever he’d passed out from the pain…
Every bit of it was still fresh in his memory.
And Artemis had shown herself all right. But no one other than Ash had seen her there. She’d watched his beating with relish. "I told you what would happen if you betrayed me." Then she’d moved to the beefy executioner who was beating Ash and whispered for him to hit even harder, to make the lashes more severe.
Ash had only been twenty years old at the time.
When it was finally over, and then only because the executioner’s arm had gone out, Ash had been left to hang for three days in her temple. No food, no water. No comfort. Naked and bleeding. Aching. Alone. And while he’d hung there, people had come up to spit on him and curse him. They’d pulled his hair and hit him.
Told him he was worth nothing and deserved nothing but what he’d received.
When the priests had finally cut him down, his head had been shaved and they had branded the back of his skull with the bow symbol of Artemis.
Then he’d been dragged in chains behind a horse back to the palace. The ground had reopened his wounds and added even more. By the time he was back in his room, he’d been unable to even speak for the pain. He’d lain on the cold stone floor for days, weeping for the fact that the woman he’d loved so dearly had forsaken him when he’d done nothing wrong. He’d guarded her name to the bitter end.
And she thought a mere apology would ease all of that … The bitch was crazy.
To this day, Artemis wouldn’t tell anyone anything about their relationship. Not that anyone with a brain hadn’t guessed it at this point. It’d only been what? Eleven thousand years of her sneaking him into her temple. Eleven thousand years of her abusing him.
They all knew, but none of them let on. It was a stupid game they all played, and for what? For Artemis’s vanity.
"Hold me, Acheron," she said with a tremor in her voice.
"Hold me like you used to."
It was all he could do not to shove her away. But that would be cruel, and in spite of what he might wish, he wasn’t as cruel as she was.
Instead, he pulled her against him even though his insides cringed.
She sighed dreamily before she wrapped her arms around his waist and snuggled against him.
Ash hated her tenderness most of all. It reminded him too much of the dream he’d once had. A dream of her taking his hand in public. Of her smiling at him openly.
As a human, he’d been dumb enough to think that she would cherish him. At least acknowledge his presence.
But instead, he was and had always been her dirty secret. Before his death at the hands of her own brother, Ash hadn’t even been allowed to speak her name in public. Never to touch or look at her or walk past her temple. Only in private had she ever acknowledged him.
He’d been so desperate for even that modicum of kindness that he’d accepted it.
"I love you, Acheron."
He ground his teeth at words she didn’t even understand.
Love … yeah. If this was love, he could definitely do without it.
She kissed his lips before she pulled away with a smile. "You always taste like sunshine."
And she always tasted of cold darkness. He let out a tired breath. "Feeling better?"
Rubbing his chest, she nodded. "You look tired, my Acheron.
Go back to bed. I´ll join you shortly."
Yee-flippin’-haw, he thought sarcastically. He couldn’t wait for that. It rated right up there with an acid enema. "Where are you going?"
She stood up. "I have something to take care of. But I´ll be right back. Trust me."
Like he had a choice?
"Take your time." If he were lucky, he might actually have a whole grope-free hour.
It was really sad when that was the best thing an all-powerful, immortal god could look forward to.
Artemis smiled at him, before she vanished.
She took herself to the Underworld where the Dolophoni made their home in the darkest part of Hades’ domain.
It didn’t take her long to find Deimos. He stood before a large bureau of weapons, examining the blade of a small hand axe.
"What are you doing?" she asked, wondering what thought was in his mind.
He looked up at her question. "Testing the blade."
"Shouldn’t you be finding Sin?"
He set the blade down but didn’t look at her as he brushed his hand over other weapons. "Depends. Is your daughter going to keep getting in my way?"
Her stomach shrank at his words. "Excuse me?"
He turned toward her with a cold, sinister look. "Your daughter. You know, the tall blonde with a body made for sin who has your eyes and her father’s powers. You didn’t really think I was so stupid that I never knew, did you?"
Artemis couldn’t speak. She was only grateful Acheron wasn’t here to hear that. He’d kill her.
Deimos narrowed his gaze. "That is why you called me in to kill Sin, isn’t it? He learned the truth and now he must die."
She refused to give him anything he could use against her. "I don’t know what you’re talking about."
"Of course you don’t." His tone was mocking. He closed the distance between them.
Artemis backed up until she was pressed against the wall.
Deimos gave her a twisted smirk. "So does that mean I have your permission to kill Katra if she gets in the way?"
Sin ducked as Kat’s dagger narrowly missed his throat. He smiled at her skill, extremely impressed by it. It wasn’t often he found anyone who could come close to striking him, and especially not someone who was put together like a brick house. Like Kish had said about Angelina, he wouldn’t mind having his ass beat by Kat, so long as she did it in a black lace or leather teddy. Yeah, the thought of her nak*d in spiked red heels made him hard even as she slashed at his face.
He caught her wrist as she swung back, but he wasn’t expecting her knee a heartbeat later. It landed straight in his ribs.
He grunted before he squeezed the dagger out of her hand. The next thing he knew, she’d head-butted him.
Pain splintered his skull as his head snapped back and blood trickled from his nose. Damn, the woman could hit hard…
"Omigod!" she said instantly. "I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to. I got carried away."
He shook his head to clear it even though his forehead and nose were still throbbing and his ears were ringing. "You always apologize to your enemies when you land a solid blow?"
"Never, but I do so whenever I accidentally whack my sparring partner."
Rubbing his head, he smiled as he noted the red spot on her sweaty forehead. The flush on her cheeks made her eyes practically glow. Daughter of Artemis or not, Kat was absolutely beautiful.
"What?" she said, stepping back.
"Nothing. I was just looking at the red place on your forehead where you ‘whacked’ me. I was wondering if mine looked the same way."
She let out a light laugh before she reached up and touched his head where it was throbbing. "Just a little, Uni."
Her smile made his c**k twitch. "Unicorn. You look like someone sliced the horn right off your forehead." She lifted up to kiss the spot she was eyeing.