Scott pounded Arik on the back as Geary took the cup from his hand.
"Are you all right?" Teddy asked.
Coughing, Arik nodded. "I wasn’t expecting it to be so…"-he curled his lips-"so strange tasting."
"Strange?" Teddy asked, gulping his. "This is the best shit to be had."
Geary remembered what Solin had said about Arik’s sequestered upbringing. "Have you ever had champagne before?"
He shook his head.
Scott gaped. "Get out. Where you been living, under a rock?"
Arik cleared his throat. "Not exactly. But close."
Geary set his cup aside. "Arik was raised in the Greek countryside, away from civilization."
Scott shuddered. "Man, that sucks. I went up there once a couple of years ago and it was enough to convince me that I like American plumbing, if you know what I mean. And since you’re from up there, I know you do."
Teddy and Scott exchanged a horrified look before Geary pulled Arik out of the room so that she could speak to him alone. Not that they had much privacy in the hallway, but at least they weren’t in direct line of sight and hearing of the others.
She crossed her arms over her chest as she narrowed an agitated glare on him. "I thought you were going with Solin."
Arik looked less than apologetic. In fact, he was actually charming as he offered her a lopsided grin. "I don’t want to be with Solin. I want to be with you, especially while you’re happy."
On the one hand that was flattering, but on the other it made her nervous. She didn’t like the feeling of being stalked by him… granted most of her discomfort was caused by the fact that she’d seen him in her dreams these last few months. That wasn’t his fault, but still… "Thank you, and while I can appreciate that, I don’t like clingy men. I’ve always needed my personal space, okay? I mean, really, I barely know you."
Arik nodded as a fierce pain settled in his chest from her words. It constricted his breathing and made him literally ache. What was this sensation? He’d never felt anything like it before. Strange emotions seemed to be gathering in his throat to choke him. It was a physical pain and yet there was no physical reason for it. He didn’t understand.
"Please, Megeara. Don’t be angry at me. I don’t have a lot of time left and I don’t want-"
Geary cocked her head at his offhand comment. "What do you mean you don’t have a lot of time left?"
He tensed as if he’d let something slip he hadn’t meant to. "I meant… It’s nothing. Forget I said anything." He started past her.
Geary gently pulled at his arm to stop his retreat. "Wait a sec. Go back to the ‘lot of time’ comment.
What did you mean by that? Are you leaving to go back to the mountains?"
He was sheepish now. Not the man in charge who was on comfortable ground. Something about his demeanor reminded her of a little boy. "No."
"Are you going back to Solin’s or your house?"
He shook his head.
"Then what exactly did you mean?"
He met her gaze and the anguish there actually made her heart ache for him. "I don’t have a lot of time left here in this world. I’m going to have to leave it soon… very soon."
In the back of her mind that was what she’d suspected he meant, but having him say it out loud cut through her a lot more than it should. She’d lost so many people who were close to her that the thought of his dying so young tore her apart. "Are you telling me that you’re dying?"
Arik hesitated. He didn’t want to lie to her, but in a way it wasn’t a lie. He would cease to exist as a human in two weeks and he would never again be here.
Ultimately, he settled on being completely honest. "My body was given an expiration date."
Geary covered her mouth with her hand as a wave of pity washed over her. He looked so healthy and prime. How could a man like this be dying? It didn’t make sense. "Are you sure?"
He gave a light, nervous laugh. "Yeah. I couldn’t be more positive."
"Oh, Arik, I’m so sorry."
"Don’t be. I’m just glad I have any time here at all."
Those words touched her deeply. That he could look at the positive at a time like this and not be angry or bitter over the injustice spoke volumes about his character. She couldn’t imagine being told that she only had a finite time to live. How awful it would have to be.
"I don’t understand why you’d help me get my permits when I’m sure you had a lot better things to do with your life."
His handsome features softened. "I wanted you to have your dream before I left."
She couldn’t understand his altruism. People just weren’t that kind. "Why?"
He reached out and cupped her face in his warm hand. "You live your life like it’s a rare treasure to be savored. You take pleasure from the simplest of things and you never take them for granted. I saw the joy on your face and the life in your eyes when you cradled the permits to your chest. I’ve never seen anything lovelier. I actually thought you would cry just from the joy of touching them. I’ve been numb all my life, Megeara, but you… you feel on a level that I can’t even imagine and for a little while I wanted to feel that, too."
And she felt like crying now at the thought of this gentle, considerate man dying. "How long do you have?"
Grief tainted the luster of his eyes. "Two weeks."
"Two weeks?" she repeated, her chest tightening even more. "Are you kidding?"
There was no mistaking the sincerity in his gaze. The man was really dying, or at least he believed it.
"Well, maybe your doctor’s wrong. Have you gotten a second opinion?"
"I don’t need one," he said with a bitter laugh. "You can trust me on thus. In two weeks, I won’t be here, at least not with a human body."
And he had come to help her in his last days…
"Oh, Arik," she breathed before pulling him close and hugging him. "I’m so sorry."
Arik couldn’t breathe as her br**sts pressed fully against his chest. Heat coiled through him, making his entire body burn. His groin tightened and swelled as he thought of how many times they’d touched like this and yet he’d never really felt it.
"Is there anything I can do?"
"Just be with me for a little while."
Why was that so important to him? "Don’t you have a girlfriend or family you’d rather be with?"
"Only Solin, and honestly, he’s not this soft. Even if he was, it’d be gross."
Stifling a laugh, she tightened her hold on him.
Arik leaned his cheek against her head and inhaled the sweet scent of sea and woman. There was a faint trace of peaches on her skin as her hair tickled his lips. He closed his eyes and savored the feeling of her against him. It was miraculous and wonderful, and it left him cold that he’d have to leave this behind and return to his sterile world again.
And she would be dead because of him….
He winced with the thought. Regret had been something he’d never experienced as a Skotos, but he felt it now and it stung deep.
What have I done?
The only consolation he had was that when he returned to the Vanishing Isle, he wouldn’t have human emotions to haunt him. No regret or sorrow.
Nor would he have Megeara’s dreams…
An aching pressure tore through him. It was raw and open and made him want to shout from the weight of it.
How did humans live with these feelings all the time? Honestly, they were enough to wear him out. To make him afraid to even move for fear of tweaking them to full capacity.
Basically, emotions sucked. Hades had been right. The gods had done the dream gods a favor by making them numb. And even knowing that, he still savored his emotions.
Megeara stepped away from him and took his hand in hers. The softness of her skin radiated through his body. "C’mon. Let’s go back to the party and celebrate what you’ve given us."
AS SHE STOOD AT THE PROW, KAT FELT A BITTER CHILL THAT had nothing to do with the weather. It whispered against her skin like a light kiss, and it was the last sensation she wanted to experience tonight.
Unfortunately, she’d known this was coming.
"What the hell is going on here?"
She turned slowly toward the deep baritone voice to find an exceptionally tall and handsome man whose violet eyes were cutting even in the darkness. His dark blond hair was windswept and streaked with lighter tones that only emphasized the masculine beauty of his face. Zebulon, or ZT as he preferred to be called, was a creature of extreme power and nastiness.
Like the others of his kind, no one knew when or where he’d been born. All they knew was that he held enough power to kill a god with a single act. God killers, or Chthonians as they preferred to call themselves, were a rare breed and ZT was one with an unholy attitude.
He stood before her now, dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved maroon T-shirt that had the Greek phrase Sa? p?os???, e?µa? foß?sµ??o?. "I am watching you, be afraid," stenciled in gray on it. How apropos, since that was what he did. Aeons ago, he and his brethren had banded together as policemen for the gods. They were the check-and-balance system for the universe.
Until they’d turned on one another for reasons known only to themselves.
Now the handful who survived watched over mankind with a bitter eye and with no real leader. Rather, they were the epitome of a cold war where they were only kept in check by one another and rarely got along-unless it was to go after a god who’d stepped over whatever line they’d drawn.
Because of their hostility toward one another, the earth had been divided between them for safekeeping and they were highly territorial.
Greece and her surrounding areas belonged to ZT, and he tolerated very few treading on his turf, which meant that anytime Kat ventured here she got a nice visit from the crank.
The first time they’d met, she’d been a curious child who’d only wanted to see a chariot race. Her mother had sent her out with a chaperone. The sun had been bright when all of a sudden ZT had appeared out of nowhere and quickly scared her by telling her that if she ever broke Chthonian law, he would gleefully kill her.
She’d "loved" him ever since.
"Long time no see, ZT." Total sarcasm, since he kept a permanent watch on her anytime she was on earth. They’d crossed paths only two weeks ago when she’d been in the market and had sneezed, which caused her powers to shatter a nearby window. ZT had been pissed that she’d almost betrayed herself and, true to his badass form, had let her know it.
"Don’t be coy with me, Katra. I know about the permits. How did that happen?"
She shrugged. "It was an unforeseen event, but I have it under control. There’s no need for you to bother yourself."
His eyes flared in the darkness as he closed the distance between them. Raw esoteric power emanated from him, raising the hairs on her body. He tilted his head as if he was sensing the ether around them.
"A human god?" he whispered.
"His time here is short and he has no powers. Again, it’s nothing to worry over."
ZT curled his lip at her. "I will decide what I worry over. Not you." He let out a vicious hiss. "He’s meddling with human affairs."
Even though she knew it was foolish, she scoffed at him. "So do I."
"Which is why you’re on my radar. I don’t like the games that Artemis plays and I like your part in them even less."
"Then why don’t you stop her?"
He gave a bitter laugh before he gave Kat a cutting glare. "You’re so naive."
Perhaps she was, but it didn’t change the fact that he was overreacting. "You don’t have to concern yourself with this, ZT. Really."
A muscle worked in his taut jaw as he looked out over the dark water. When he spoke, his tone was flat and emotionless. "I have you-a god of mixed heritage-on an expedition that could unleash the Destroyer from her hole. Arikos, another god, on the same team who is masquerading as a human. The demigod Solin, who I have to ride herd on constantly anyway, who gave them their permits; Megeara, a human who is sensitive and subjective to the voices of the gods and the pissed-off goddess, Apollymi, who will do anything to be free and once free wouldn’t hesitate to destroy every one of us." He turned that deadly stare to Kat. "I can’t imagine why I’m concerned over this, can you?"
"Granted it looks a little bad when you put it that way, but I can assure you that I won’t let them near Apollymi’s seal."
His doubting look, was really beginning to piss Kat off. "And does the name Pandora hold any meaning for you? Anytime you allow a human near a box they shouldn’t open, what do they invariably do?"
"It’ll be different this time."
He made a rude noise in the back of his throat. "Don’t be arrogant, Katra. I’m tired of cleaning up the messes left by gods who thought they could do better." He turned toward her and there in the moonlight she saw something she’d never seen on him before. A vicious scar that ran from his hairline to his neck. It looked as if someone had once sliced open his face.
But as soon as she saw it, it faded and left him handsome and unscarred. "Keep the seal hidden, Katra.
Apollymi cannot go free."
Before Kat could respond, Tory came up on deck.