Nothing had ever touched him so profoundly. Just as no one had ever looked more beautiful to him. The light in her hair, the way her hazel eyes flashed with an inner spirit that was intangible and electrifying. It baffled him.
He lashed out at her and she took it, just like he did in Tartarus. No matter what they did, no matter how hard they tried to break him, he stood strong against their best attacks. Just like her. Only her strength was innately good. She never sought to hurt anyone.
Not eves him.
She was gentleness personified.
And because of that, he was more determined than ever not to give in to that rabid side of himself.
“I’m all right,” he muttered, picking up his silverware.
Simone sat in silence while she watched Xypher’s hand visibly shaking as he ate his lamb. There was no mistaking his hunger or his need to satiate it. She wasn’t sure why he was fighting it when it was so obvious he wanted to tear into his food. In his shoes, she’d be ripping into it and shoving handfuls into her face.
Not him. It was as if he wanted to prove something. Like he needed to eat with good manners for some reason she couldn’t even begin to guess at.
Shaking her head, she tried to focus on her own meal. Something that wasn’t easy given the leashed power of him. He was compelling. The Strength, the power. All she wanted to do was reach out and touch those perfect lips.
He was like watching a beautiful animal that was stalking its prey.
But the best part was when he tried to take a bite out of the oyster shell. The boyish confusion on his face was utterly charming.
Stifling a laugh, she got up and walked to his side of the table. “You don’t bite into the oyster shell.”
He scowled at her. “How do you eat it, then?”
“Let me show you.” She took the oyster from his hand and picked up the small fork from beside his plate. “First you detach the meat and then you up the shell to your lips and let it slide down, into your mouth. Then you swallow, but don’t chew it.”
She stared at the oyster meat that appeared harmless enough, but she swore she could still taste the one time she’d mistakenly bitten into one. Nasty didn’t come close to describing that taste. “Well, it’s gritty and land of gross. But if you really want to you can.”
Xypher froze as he watched her put a dab of Tabasco sauce on the meat. The scent of her filled his head and reminded him that it’d been centuries since he last touched a woman . . .
Strange how in his rage and quest for vengeance, he hadn’t even thought of that. Hadn’t noticed any of the women he’d passed on the streets while searching for Daimons to take him into Kalosis.
Now that long-forgotten ache burned through him. He wanted to take her hand in his so that he could lick the pads of her fingers to taste the salt of her skin. To bury his face in the crook of her neck so that he could inhale her scent until it clung to his skin.
He didn’t know why, but just the thought of her touching him in even the most careless way had him harder than he’d ever been before. And he longed to reach up and brush his hand through those chaotic curls that had defied her best efforts to tame them. He wondered what they’d feel like brushing against his chest while she made love to him. Were they as soft as they appeared?
Were her lips?
Would she welcome him into her body?
Xypher forced himself to look away from her and to squelch those thoughts. It wasn’t his fate to have a woman like her touch him in that way. He was an animal and he knew it. He’d been left alone too long, had been cast out to find his own way. Tenderness was for humans. It wasn’t for a renegade Skotos who was going to be taken back to hell in a few weeks.
Don’t go soft. Don’t let down your guard.
Sooner or later, he’d be back in Tartarus at the mercy of Hades. It’d taken centuries to harden himself so that he didn’t feel the steel-barbed lashes so deeply when they beat him. Centuries of learning how to not fall for the cruel mind games that Hades played.
Comfort on this plane would only weaken him when he returned.
It would make hell even more biting. That was something he couldn’t allow. It was bad enough. To soften his existence here . . .
No wonder Hades had agreed to let him loose for a month. The god of the Underworld had known exactly how much worse Xypher’s punishment would be after he’d tasted freedom.
Curling his lip, he snatched the oyster from her hand. “I’m not an infant. I can feed myself.”
Simone cocked her head irritably at his quick reversal. There for a moment, she’d almost thought that he was learning to be . . . well, nice.
She must have been hallucinating.
“Fine,” she said, flinging out her hands. “Whatever.”
Angered over his gruffness, she went back to her seat and finished her food in silence.
What was his deal? She’d never before met anyone so surly that they couldn’t accept even a minimal amount of kindness. He reminded her of that awful Scott Murphy…
Her heart slapped a beat as she remembered the boy who’d been in her children’s home with her when she was eleven. Hostile and feral, he’d barely been human.
At nine years old, he’d been taken away from his parents and then put into the revolving door of foster homes because no one could do anything with him. Finally, children’s services had started sending him to various facilities that were equally quick to toss him out.
No one at the home where she’d stayed, including the staff, could stand him. He was always picking fights and mocking everyone, even Simone who’d tried to be his friend. He’d laughed at her, then bit her so hard, she’d needed stitches-she still had the scar on her left forearm. Because of that and other such tantrums and attacks, he’d spent all of his time being punished until he’d mysteriously vanished in the middle of the night.
His body had been found a few days later in the basement of the gym, still dressed in his pajamas. Apparently he’d gone there, alone, and slit his own wrists.
He’d only been eleven years old.
Simone had been sad enough over the horrible occurrence, but when she’d overheard two of the teachers talking later that day, that sadness had tinned to all-out grief for the child who shouldn’t have been reduced to ending his own life.
“It’s a shame that boy ended up like that, but I guess given the trauma of his childhood, he didn’t have any hope.”
“Trauma ? ”
“Didn’t you know? He was taken away from his parents because his mother was a crack addict and his father a drug dealer. Scott had his skull shattered one afternoon when he interrupted Daddy doing a deal because the poor thing was starving and dared to ask for a sandwich. That’s when the state took him away. His dad’s been trying to regain custody ever since. We’d just told Scott the day he vanished that his father was coming to take him home the next morning. Guess the poor kid would rather be dead than go back to whatever hell was waiting for him …”
In that one moment, Simone had learned a valuable life lesson. Judge no one until you know their circumstances. No matter how awful they seemed, sometimes there was a valid reason for their behavior. Granted, some people were just mean and corrupt, but not always.
Many people were just in pain, and by acting out, they were only trying to protect themselves from being hurt more.
It was what she tried to teach her students. Anytime you entered a crime scene, the worst thing you could do for the decedent was to pass judgment on them. It clouded your professionalism and jaded your work. A medical examiner’s job was to report without prejudice.
Personal views had no place in a morgue.
It was one thing to tell someone how to live their life and what decisions to make. It was another to be the person who had to do it and live with the consequences. Just because you would do something differently, it didn’t mean they would. People rose and fell by their own life choices and experiences. The mistakes were theirs to make.
And as she thought about that, it made her curious over Xypher and his past. Why was he so defensive?
Who had hurt him?
“What are gods’ childhoods like?”
Xypher looked up from his tabbouleh to meet a pair of the clearest, most innocent eyes he’d ever seen. “Excuse me?”
She didn’t flinch at the causticity in his tone. “I was just wondering. I mean, mine was very typical until my family died. I rode my bike through the neighborhood, made mud pies, had tea parties with my friends and dolls, and fought with my brother over TV shows. What did you do?”
Like he would tell her that? It was none of her damned busuress. “What do you care?”
The friendliness on her face was washed away by a pained expression. “I really hate it when you ask that question . . . I care because you’re a person I’m stuck with until we get the bracelets off and I’d like to know something about you. Who knows? There might even be someone in there buried under all that hostility that I can actually like.”
His blood boiled to think about what she really wanted. “You won’t set my weaknesses that easily, babe. I don’t have any.”
She gaped at him. “You equate childhood memories with weakness? Dear God, what did they do to you?”
He laughed bitterly at the memories of his past. Memories he tried so hard not to think about. But one of them was clearer than all the others. It was the only time in his life he’d allowed himself to be weak and it was an experience he would never again repeat.
“I was chained to a fence where they beat me down and then cut my heart out while I fought them. Even one-handed, I made my impact on those who killed me. Suffice it to say, I will never be that helpless again.”
Simone wanted to weep at the honor he described. At the pain she saw in those clear, bright eyes. “You didn’t deserve that.”
“No kidding,” he said between clenched teeth. “But deserving has nothing to do with anything. Life and death are what they are. They have mercy for no one.”
Simone looked over at Jesse who wore the same aching expression she was sure was on her face, Xypher’s words hit her hard as she remembered her mother and brother, They didn’t deserve what had happened to them, either.
Not wanting to think about it, she didn’t try to speak to him as he finished eating. It was just too hard to try and reach someone who obviously didn’t want to be reached.
Once he was done, she upped the waitress and headed back toward her condo.
They’d barely left the restaurant when Tate called. “How’d it go with Julian?” he asked.
She glanced down at the bracelet on her arm. “Not really the way I wanted it to. We’re still united.”
“Man, I’m sorry.”
“It could be worse, I suppose. He could be your serial killer.”
The look Xypher gave her told her he could hear her conversation.
“Oh, damn, I have to take this call, boo. You guys be careful and I’ll check in again later.” Tate hung up before she could tell him good-bye.
Closing the phone, she saw Xypher rubbing his arm out of the corner of her eye. Even though he didn’t say anything, both of his arms were covered with goose bumps. “You cold?”
He didn’t respond.
“He’s cold,” Jesse said. “It’s all over his aura, which I can see, even if you can’t.”
Xypher sent him a glare that should have set fire to him.
Simone paused as she considered where they could get clothes for him in the Quarter. Most of the places catered to women . . .
Or to goths.
A slow smile curved her lips. Yeah, with his caustic personality and height, goth would look really good on him.
Without a word, she cut down Dumaine to head to Decatur Street.
“What are you doing?” Xypher asked defensively.
“Getting you some clothes.”
He pulled her to a stop on the sidewalk. “I don’t need anything,”
“Yes you do.”
His handsome face turned to stone. “I’m not taking your charity. I don’t need anything from anyone.”
She raked him with a cold stare. “And I’m not getting stuck for a month with a man who only has one shirt and one pair of pants when I’ll be forced to smell you the entire time.”
That took some of the fire out of his eyes.
Jesse scowled. “Hey, he’s a god. Can’t he just make clothes for himself?”
Xypher gave Jesse a quelling glare. “Hades is a bastard as I said earlier. My powers aren’t intact. I can use them for defense. But not for food or clothing … or shelter.” The last bit came out so low that she wasn’t even sure she’d heard it.
The ashamed expression on his face told her that she hadn’t been mistaken.
Why would Hades do that to him?
“C’mon,” she said, tugging his hand gently. “You need clothing, especially a coat or jacket.”
Xypher couldn’t breathe at the gentleness of her fleeting touch that set file to his entire being. It wasn’t designed to hurt or to control. It was nothing more than a friendly touch any human might give to another.
He’d never been touched like that.
Awed by her kindness, he followed her into a store. Not that he was following per se. He never followed anyone. She only led because he didn’t know where they were going.
As they entered the store, he paused at the sight of a mannequin with a corset, short skirt, and striped leggings.
“Is something wrong?” Simone asked.
“I know a demon who dresses like this.”