The demon clutched the small pink bunny to his chest and frantically shook his head no. "Nim stays with Jared. Those are the laws."
A muscle twitched in Jared’s jaw. "I should have never saved your life."
Ash felt his pain and understood what Jared was doing. Since Ash had a demon of his own, he knew what a weakness they could be. And what a responsibility. Even though the demon appeared to be around the human age of twenty, his actions said he was even younger than Ash’s Simi. "Nothing worse than adolescent demons."
"You have no idea."
"Actually, I do." Ash approached Nim slowly, like he would a small toddler. "Nim, you can come with me and I promise nothing will hurt you."
Nim gave him a mean, sullen stare. "I don’t know you."
Jared tried to push him toward Ash. "He’s a good man."
Nim bared his fangs at both of them in a vicious hiss. "He’s been with the Charonte and they hate me. They hurt Nim and make him bleed. I want to stay with Jared." Nim immediately returned to sleep as a small dragon tattoo on Jared’s neck.
Jared let out a long, aggravated breath. "Is there any way to get him off me like this?"
"Figures." His eyes shimmered with gold flecks that flipped until his eyes were a solid golden amber. "One day my master is going to kill him if I don’t find him a new home."
"I think you need to tell him that."
"He says he’d rather be dead than leave me. According to him, we’re family. I guess that makes me the psycho uncle no one wants to talk to. And he’s the kid with only imaginary friends for company. Normal Rockwell, here we come."
Ash smiled at his twist on the paint er’s name. Honestly, Ash felt for Jared, but there was nothing either of them could do. "Then it’s his decision."
Jared gave him a harsh stare. "Would you feel that way if it were Simi?"
"You know the answer."
"And you know why I have to get him off me."
True enough. There was nothing worse than having an exposed weakness that those around you preyed on. One they used to control your actions and subjugate you. Ash knew that better than anyone. And he felt sorry for Jared’s situation.
Sighing, Ash changed the subject to something he could perhaps control. "So why were you ordered to kill Nick?"
Jared shrugged his coat back on. "He’s the last of the Malachai bloodline."
Ash laughed at the absurdity of that idea. "Nick Gautier is a Malachai? C’mon, Jared. Lay off the crack."
"I’m not joking. He’s the last of their breed."
Stunned, Ash actually gaped. Nick Gautier? And yet as ludicrous as that seemed, it strangely made sense. Nick’s unfounded powers. Ash’s inability to control him . . .
How could he have missed it?
You weren’t looking for it. Who would have? They were an extinct breed.
"Don’t feel so bad," Jared said softly. "His powers were bound and hidden much the way yours were when you were human. It wasn’t until War attacked him that they kicked in."
"Does Nick know what he is?"
Jared shook his head. "My job is to kill him before he learns it."
"I can’t let you do that."
"You have no choice and neither do I." He vanished before Ash could even draw breath to speak.
The Sephiroth ignored him completely. "Damn it!" If Jared found Nick before he did, the boy was deader than five o’clock roadkill.
"YOU’RE LOOKING ENTIRELY TOO SMUG WITH yourself."
Stryker glanced over his shoulder to see Zephyra eyeing him. "I have you here. Why shouldn’t I be pleased?"
"I can think of a million reasons, starting with the fact that I want to kill you more than I want to breathe. As for the others, would you prefer them in order of importance or alphabetically?"
He laughed. "Tell me honestly . . . didn’t you ever miss me?"
Those words struck him hard. "Not once?"
She folded her arms over her chest. "You know what I remember about you, Stryker? It was the last words you said to me. ‘There’s no reason for me to stay.’ Then you walked out of my house and never looked back. No reason for you to stay, you said. None." She narrowed her eyes dangerously at him. "You severed my heart with those few words. I’d have rather you hit me."
Stryker paused as he saw that night so clearly in his mind. She’d stood before him with tears in her eyes. Not a single one had fallen. A tribute to her strength. He’d wanted nothing more than to pull her into his arms and tell her that he didn’t give a damn about his father. That she was the only one he loved and that he’d die to protect her.
Had he stayed with her, his father would have killed her, no doubt. And if Apollo hadn’t, he would have sent Artemis in to do the honor as Zephyra birthed his child and then he would have lost them both. Apollo was grotesquely vindictive that way. Stryker had tried to explain it to Zephyra, but she’d refused to listen.
"Then I will die loving you." That had been her answer to his arguments.
It’d been a sacrifice he hadn’t been willing to make. He thought it best that she hate him and live rather than she love him and die.
If only he’d known then what was waiting for them in the future.
"I didn’t mean those words."
She scoffed. "Of course not. You were thoughtless, et cetera, et cetera. I really don’t care anymore."
"If you really didn’t care, you wouldn’t remember them."
"Don’t flatter yourself. I wrote you off the same way you wrote me off. Unlike Medea, I don’t need closure. I just need you dead."
"So we’re back to that."
"We will always come back to that."
Stryker would curse and rail, but honestly, it was what he deserved. She was right. He’d walked out and never looked back.
No, that wasn’t true. He had looked back. Often. He’d remembered their time together. Remembered the way she looked first thing in the morning when she’d been snuggled up beside him. The way she’d shyly glance at him as if she could eat him alive.
He’d hated himself for giving that up. For giving her up.
Sighing, he moved toward the door. "I have duties to attend. Should you need anything, call for Davyn." Without another word, he was gone.
Zephyra watched as he left her alone in his room. The look of hurt in his silver eyes had made her ache, and she hated herself for that weakness. Why did she still want to hold him after what he’d done to her?
Yes, she wanted to claw out his eyes and stab him until he was dead.
But underneath that anger and hurt was the part of her that still loved him. The part of her that she tried so hard to bury and ignore. He was a beast and a coward.
He’s the father of your daughter.
So what? A biological donor who’d left them. That didn’t make him a father. It made him an ass**le. Her fury renewed, she glanced about the room that he slept in. It was rather plain. Burgundy coverings on the bed. No windows. A small chest of drawers and nothing hanging on the walls.
"You live like a bear in a cave."
There wasn’t even a book on the nightstand. Which begged the question of why he had one. Then again, the top drawer was slightly cracked open. Perhaps there was one inside. Curious, she walked over to it and opened it.
Her breath caught in her throat.
In the bottom of that drawer was the last thing she had ever expected to see again. It was the hand-painted tile that he’d commissioned of her as a wedding present. Memories slammed into her as she stared at the faded image of her in ancient Greek clothing, her blond hair bound up as curls fell around her face. Large green eyes were set in the countenance of utter innocence. She’d forgotten all about this tile’s existence.
But Stryker hadn’t. In spite of everything, he’d kept it. And underneath it was another tile and pictures of men who bore a striking resemblance to him. One picture in par tic u lar caught her attention. It was three men, similar in face and form, dressed in clothes from the 1930s. They had their arms slung over each other’s shoulders as they smiled happily.
Over and over, she found pictures of them.
The only other tile in the drawer was that of a girl who looked almost identical to Medea. A chill went down her spine as she ran her finger over the faded writing in the lower right hand corner. Tannis. She must have been his daughter, too.
She flipped it aside to find the most recent photo in the drawer. From the looks of the quality of the picture and the black clothing, she would guess it was no more than ten years old. It was of a young man with white-blond hair that was pulled back into a ponytail-the middle of the same three brothers from the 1930s. Even though his features were masculine, they were so close to Medea’s as to be eerie. And as Zephyra tilted the photo in the light she realized something.
The stains on it were from tears.
"No," she breathed, unable to imagine Stryker crying over anything. He’d always been rigidly unsentimental. She’d seen him brutally wounded in sword practice and his eyes hadn’t even misted.
The only time she’d known them to cloud was . . .
The night he’d left her.
And yet as she ran her hand over the stains, she knew nothing else would have caused them. Who, other than him, would have held this photograph in his room and cried? No one. They were his and he’d kept all of this in a place where he thought no one would find it.
"Dear gods." The bastard had a heart. Who knew?
"I will love you forever, Phyra. Never doubt that or me."
Her throat tightened as she looked down at the tile of herself that she’d put on the tabletop. Had he really missed her? Pined for her?
Don’t be ridiculous. He probably planned this for you to find.
Planned it? He’d thought her dead. Why would he hang on to her image all these centuries unless she meant something to him? She certainly had kept nothing of his.
"Don’t you dare weaken," she snarled at herself. "He’s nothing." Determined to stay hard, she put the pictures back, then froze as she saw something she’d missed earlier. It was a small green frayed ribbon.
The same ribbon she’d worn twined through her hair on the tile. And there, tied in the middle of it, was the wedding ring she’d thrown in his face when he’d told her he was leaving.
Her eyes teared as she saw the ancient carving on the band. S’agapo. "I love you" in Greek.
"Damn you," she growled as she weakened even more in the face of his obvious love. He had cared about her. Through all these centuries, he’d kept her as close to him as he could.
Unable to stand it, she left his room and went in search of his study. She hadn’t gone far when Davyn appeared.
"Can I help you?"
"I want to see Stryker. Now."
"He doesn’t like to be disturbed when he’s in his study."
"I really don’t care." She stepped past him.
Davyn sighed heavily before he passed her and then led her to the correct destination. He knocked on the door. "My lord?"
"What!" Stryker barked.
Zephyra stepped around Davyn and threw open the door to find Stryker sitting at his desk, looking into a small round ball. No, not just looking, he was fixated by it.
"What are you doing?" she asked, her voice rife with her agitation that she used to cover the tender feelings inside her.
He glanced up. "Trying to find Gautier. What are you doing here?"
Truthfully, she wasn’t sure. She didn’t want to be here and yet . . . "I wanted to see you."
"Leave," he ordered Davyn, who obeyed instantly. As soon as they were alone, he looked back at her. "I thought you’d seen more than your fair share of me."
She had and . . .
He’d kept a tile of her. How could something so insipidly stupid weaken her? She’d always thought herself above such petty sentimentality.
Apparently she was wrong.
Before she could stop herself, she moved to his side. "Why didn’t you go after Gautier yourself?"
"I tried. The little bastard is fast and extremely resourceful. Not to mention his powers aren’t anything to laugh at. I stupidly thought he received most of that from our blood exchange. Now that I know what he is, it makes even more sense why I was having such a hard time controlling him. I should have been feeding from him and taking his powers."
"You couldn’t tell?"
"No. Whoever bound his powers did one hell of a job. Case in point, I can’t find him anywhere. Even though we’re supposed to share sight, he’s off my radar completely."
He gave her a dry "duh" stare. "I know that. Yet here I am, completely blind to him."
She stepped around his desk to look into the sfora. "When was the last time you had a visual?"
He looked aghast at her. "Are you helping me?"
She refused to give him the satisfaction. "Shut up and answer my question."
A slow smile spread over his face and the teasing gleam in his eyes set her ire off. "You are helping me."
"Don’t get used to it. I’m a woman of my word, and since I can’t kill you it’s not in my nature to crochet and do nothing. Why are we going to kill this man anyway?"