She stiffened at his insinuation and at his underestimation of her resolve. "You’re boring me."
His smile spread over his face and turned instantly charming . . . as if that could disguise the fact that he was a jackal waiting for a chance to leap at her throat. "I would never want to do that, love. In fact, what I want is to see you come into your own. Imagine a world where you alone rule. A world that is laid at your feet with servants and every desire you have ever had fulfilled."
Zephyra saw it clearly before her. Even with her eyes open, she could picture the very things he described. "And what price would I have to pay?"
He brushed a lock of her hair off her shoulder, his fingers lingering on her neck as he leaned close to inhale her scent. Strange how that failed to elicit the chills that appeared whenever Stryker touched her like that. Instead, she was cold and guarded. "No price. I only wanted to point out that Stryker has designated you and your daughter as his heirs. Should he die, all of this would be yours in his place."
She frowned at what he was implying.
"Think about it," he said seductively. "A world without serving Artemis. Thousands of warriors at your fingertips who are willing to die for your plea sure. Bolt holes that can take you anywhere on earth. You would be a power to reckon with and all you have to do is complete the mission Artemis gave you . . . the mission you owe her. Kill Stryker." He smiled at her as his tone turned deep and husky. "I know you want to, and deep inside so do you. Stryker left you once and you know that if given a chance, he’d do it again."
She tensed with the truth and doubt that lingered in her mind.
She knew she could trust herself. But could she honestly trust him?
"THE GALLU ARE IN RETREAT."
Zephyra looked up as Stryker entered the bedroom, his eyes bright and cheeks flushed. He reminded her of a boy back from a thrill ride who was proud of himself for completing it.
It also reminded her of the boy who’d walked out and left her alone to fend for herself and her daughter. The boy who’d never once inquired about their welfare.
"Kill Stryker." War’s words rang in her ears.
Strange how easy that assignment had seemed when Artemis had given it to her. It wasn’t so simple now. Especially not when he flopped on the bed, by her side, and all the anger she wanted to feel toward him dissipated.
He was sex walking on two legs, and those legs were so long, they hung off the edge of the bed by at least ten inches. Even worse, the denim cupped his butt in a way that ought to be obscene and it made her want to sink her teeth into him. Or more to the point, wrap him around her until they were both sweaty and spent.
Ignoring her inner voice, she looked at him. "So you’ve routed them. Now what?"
He wiped at a smear of blood on his cheek and let out a tired sigh. His hair was damp and his cheeks mottled from the exertion of fighting. It made his silver eyes glow even more. "It’s dawn, so we’re pulling back. At dusk, we’ll be back on their asses like Velcro." He let out another deep breath. "Kessar got away, which would have ruined my night had I not come home to find the most beautiful woman in the world lying on my bed." He lifted her hand up to nibble her fingertips. Chills spread up her arm, over her body, as his eyes seduced her even more. "It would have been better had she been nak*d, but warm and inviting either way."
She watched the way he savored her touch as he rubbed his bristled chin against her palm. The tickle made her instantly hot and aching. Until today, she’d never realized just how lonely she’d been. How much she wanted to be held by someone.
No, not someone. Him.
A hint of a smile curled his lips as he moved closer to her to place the faintest, softest kiss on her lips. His fangs scraped her bottom lip ever so gently. The mark of a true predator. When they’d been married, they’d had no fangs. No craving for blood . . .
They’d just been two kids in love.
Stryker moved from her lips to her neck, where he slowly laved her skin, making her wet and needy. "Stay with me, Phyra," he breathed in her ear.
"I’m not the one who left."
Stryker gathered her into his arms and savored the softness of her body against his as guilt shredded him. He’d made so many mistakes in his past. Mistakes that kept him awake long past dawn when he should have been sleeping. But with her here, he felt as if he had another chance to undo some of what tore at his conscience.
"I know." He wanted to make her forget the past. To earn her trust again. When he thought of all the years they’d been apart that they could have been together, it killed him. Because of his own stupidity, he’d missed everything.
His daughter’s first step. First crush. Her marriage and the birth and death of the grandchild he’d never known. He should have been there to protect them.
It was what he’d promised.
Perhaps this was his punishment for making a vow before the gods that he hadn’t kept. To see them now and lose them for eternity.
But he had to have hope. He couldn’t just walk away without trying to salvage what they’d once shared. "Tell me what to say or do to earn your forgiveness."
Her eyes were as tormented as his soul. "I don’t know, Stryker. Time has hardened me."
He snorted. "You? You’re not the one who killed your own child over a simple act." Anger and grief ripped at his conscience as he saw Urian’s face in his mind. But that was nothing compared to the guilt of what he’d done. "You talk about the humans killing your son-in-law when I’m the one who killed Urian’s wife. I took from my child the one thing he loved more than the world. What kind of bastard am I?"
He had become his own father, and that he hated most of all. If only he could go back and undo that as well.
Zephyra brushed the hair back from his eyes. "Why?"
That was as complicated as the universe, and he was still trying to unravel all the reasons for what had spurred him to become the very monster he’d tried so hard not to be.
"She was part of Apollo’s bastard Atlantean line. The descendant of my Apollite half sisters. For centuries, I’d been hunting them, killing them off in an effort to kill my father. So long as they live, he lives. He made the same bargain with their lineage as he made with mine . . . that our lives were conjoined-and unlike me and my descendants, they never went Daimon, so while my tie to him was severed, theirs never was. And after what he’d done to me over you, I wanted him dead."
He ground his teeth as raw emotions swelled and he craved the taste of his father’s blood over everything. "All I remember from my childhood was the way my father doted on my sisters, especially the eldest, and how many times he said she should have been his legacy instead of me. No matter how hard I tried, I was never good enough for him. In retrospect, I don’t know now why I even tried to please him, but since I had no mother to love me, I’d hoped that he might. It was why Satara and I were . . . well, as close as two vipers can be. Because her mother was human and not Apollite, she was never good enough for him, either. She was the only person he ever treated worse than me." It was also why he hated Apollymi so much. In the end, he hadn’t been good enough for her any more than he’d been for his father.
She still preferred Acheron to him even though Acheron fought against her wishes and protected the very people she wanted to destroy. Meanwhile, he served her faithfully.
Just once in his existence, he wanted to be good enough for someone. To have one person who was willing to sacrifice for him.
But it wasn’t meant to be.
"When Urian went behind my back to marry one of them and I found out about it, my temper exploded. I didn’t see the repercussions past my need to strike out and hurt the very person I should have protected." He shook his head. "I’m such a bastard."
She didn’t comment on that. Instead, she took his hand into hers and gave him a gimlet stare. "Why didn’t you tell me this when we were married?"
He glanced down at their entwined hands and felt a surge of strength over the fact that she wasn’t shoving him away in disgust. He’d never been this open with another soul and he wondered why he was so open now.
But then he knew. She was his heart and he’d missed having that vital organ. "I was ashamed. You were so impressed with my lineage that I didn’t want you to know the truth of what my father thought of me. I didn’t want anyone to ever learn it. I wanted to pretend that I was his beloved son who was destined to carry out his exalted plans."
He looked away, unable to bear her scrutiny as he laid bare the sorest part of his soul-it was a weapon he’d never laid into the hands of another being. "You know what the world was like then. I was the only Apollite son and my father used to tell me that my eldest sister was more of a man than I was." His gaze burned as he stared at the floor and he remembered his father putting him into a dress once. He’d barely stepped foot into his father’s temple when Apollo had changed his clothes in the blink of an eye. "Now you look the part of your true nature. Perhaps I should geld you, too . . . if only I didn’t need you to breed. I can only hope your sons have more testosterone than you do." Those words and the humiliation he’d felt were still branded inside his soul. His father’s derision had hardened him to the point he had nothing left for anyone else. "Have you any idea how painful that is to admit even now?"
Her gaze softened as she took his hand and held it against her heart. "Is that why you loved me? Because you didn’t think you could do better?"
His anger snapped at such a question. "I loved you because of the way you made me feel whenever we were together. Like I mattered to you. In your eyes, I was the man I’d hoped to be even while my father told me the only thing I’d ever be was a disappointment to him. And I haven’t felt that way since the night I walked out the door and left you. You say you died that night. I’ve died every night since then. Every one."
Her nails dug into the flesh of his hand. "I hate you, Stryker."
Honestly, he didn’t expect anything more from her. It was all he seemed to elicit out of everyone. His heart aching, he started away from her side.
She caught him and pulled him back until he was lying in her arms.
Startled, he locked gazes with her.
"You’re still as stupid now as you were then."
His temper flared at her angry words, but before he could tell her to f**k off, she pulled his head to hers and kissed him with a passion so furious it made his senses swirl.
Cupping her head in his hand, he breathed her in and let the feel of her lips chase away all the bad memories that haunted him. It was amazing the lies a person could hide. The shame that they never wanted exposed. It was so much easier to pretend that his father had loved him, that it had been an oversight that caused Apollo to curse him along with the rest of the Apollite race.
But the harsh, bare truth . . . it was something Stryker had never wanted to face. His father hadn’t cared. And that was hurtful. Angry. Debilitating.
He closed his eyes as Zephyra nipped his chin and took away the pain of his reality. Dissolving their clothes, he rolled until she was on top of him. She was the only one he’d ever given power over him to. He belonged to her and he knew it. She’d branded herself into his soul eleven thousand years ago that day on the dock when she’d run from him. And if he had to die, he wanted it to be by her hand. By the hand of someone who had at least loved him for a little while.
Reaching up, he cupped her face in his hands while he savored the sight of her nak*d body on top of his. He trailed his hands from her face down to her br**sts. Lush and full, they, too, had haunted his nights and left him aching for the loss of her and for moments like this one.
"When are you ever going to learn me, Stryker?" she asked.
She traced the lines of his lips with one long fingernail. "I say things in anger that I never mean. When I told you to leave, all I wanted was for you to stay. I wanted to hurt you the way you’d crushed me."
"You told me I was worthless."
"That I did mean. But only because you were packing your things to obey your father and to leave me. That made me feel worthless too and so I struck out at you."
And those words had ruined him. His anger surged anew. "And you’d made me feel like my father did. Like I was less than a man. His criticisms had always hurt, but yours cut me all the way to the bone. They left scars on me that still haven’t healed."
She slapped at his chest. Not painfully, but forcefully enough to get her point across that she was still angry at him. "What do you think you did to me? Have you any idea how many times in my life I was called a whore? Before I went to Artemis, I went back to my father. He took the money you’d left with me and then threw me out to the streets. He told me that if I couldn’t hold on to my husband I should go spread my legs for another who might find some use for me."
He winced and then glared, wishing he’d known about it. "I would have killed your father had I known."
"But you didn’t and that’s why I hated you even more. You knew what kind of hell I’d lived in before you married me. That my father was abusive and harsh. What did you think I was going to do on my own in a world where a woman couldn’t even shop unless a man was with her?"