Agony poured through her as she remembered the last time Zeus had come for them. Her vision was still tainted by the blood spilled that day and by those that followed as Zeus demanded they each be beaten and stripped of their emotions.
It’d been a harsh time for everyone.
"I thought it was part of your job to report that."
His look was harsh. Cold and determined. "I don’t betray my family."
Her heart lightened at his words. Better than anyone, she knew he meant it. He’d already proven those words to her. "Can I trust what I feel?"
He gave the subtlest of nods. "But remember, don’t show it. More lives than just your own are on the line with this. I’m one of the three chosen to report anyone who begins to feel and if Zeus ever finds out that I’ve failed in that he will have no mercy for me."
As if she would be so cold-too bad others weren’t so trustworthy. "Have no fear, brother. I would never betray you."
"I know. It’s why I came to talk to you. I wanted you to know that everything you feel is your own. I don’t want you to get into trouble for it."
He inclined his head to her before he stepped back and vanished.
Leta stood there, rolling the small vial of purple serum between her palms. So what she’d shared with Aidan hadn’t been a farce. These weren’t his emotions siphoned.
It was her determination.Her compassion.
Grateful for that fact, she smiled. Kissing the bottle in her hand, she flashed herself back to the cabin where Aidan sat before the fire he must have started in his hearth after she left.
There was an odd look about him. He was somber, but there was something underneath that that hadn’t been there before.
"Are you okay?"
He nodded without looking at her. "Tomorrow is Christmas Eve."
"I know." She glanced about the room that had nothing in it to mark the coming human celebration that she’d witnessed in the Hall of Mirrors. "Should we get a tree for you?"
He snorted as if the mere thought offended him. "When I was a kid, my mother used to make us watch that 1950s movie,A Christmas Carol , and then after she died, my uncle would put in Bill Murray’s Scrooged every year while we decorated the tree. Do you know the story?"
She shook her head as she sat down beside him.
He turned away from her so that he could stare into the crackling fire. "The basic story is about a miser named Scrooge. In the beginning, he’s harsh and unyielding. He hates Christmas and refuses to celebrate it.
"Scrooge gets taken to task for being so selfish and in response he says ‘Bah Humbug’! Then during the course of the night, Scrooge is visited by three ghosts-Christmas past, present, and future and they show him the error of his ways. In the morning, he wakes up refreshed and confident in his new, reaffirmed life of giving. He tosses coins to the orphans in the street and he gives gifts and food to his employee, Bob Cratchit’s, family." He gave her a hard, steely stare. "But you know, even as a kid there was something about those movies that always bugged me."
"And that was?"
"Why Scrooge was Scrooge. They never really explained to my satisfaction what had made him so miserly. But the toasty little Christmas story stayed with me, and all my life, I wanted to be the man Scrooge had become-always giving to those in need. Do you know, in the course of one year, I donated over a million dollars anonymously to charity? My mother taught me that no one should advertise their good deeds. You do them because you care and you should never accept any kind of benefit from those acts. It belittles them."
Leta smiled at that. There was a lot of truth to his mother’s statement. "I can understand her sentiment."
He nodded. "I agreed with it too. But one thing I realized with my brother is that you can’t toss your pearls before the swine. I think that’s why my mother insisted you give anonymously. The instant anyone sees that you’re kind and giving, they immediately take advantage of it. They seem to mistake kindness for weakness and giving for stupidity."
"How do you figure?"
He sighed. "My brother sent my nephew to me for a job when Ronald was still in high school. Donnie told me that he couldn’t afford the tuition for Ronald’s private school and asked if Ronald could work for me part-time while he went to school. Like a fool, I agreed, and even though I didn’t have that much money back then, I started paying his tuition for him. Six years later, Donnie came to me telling me that he was getting divorced and that his wife was taking everything from him. He was about to lose his house, his car, everything. He told me he didn’t want a handout, but wanted to know if I had some work he could do."
"So you hired him."
Every emotion left his face except for the harsh twist of his lips. Even so, she could feel his bitterness burning inside his heart. "Yeah. I seriously overpaid him to be my manager. God knows, I didn’t want my own brother out on the street. And for a about a year, everything was great."
"I started noticing that money was missing. Mysterious charges were being made with no explanation. Worse, neither one of them would do their job. They always had some excuse for why they were about to get to what I needed them to do or why it wasn’t done yet. Time after time, I’d walk into the office and find Ronald asleep in my chair-at least on the days he actually showed up to work. It was unbelievable. I told them that if they didn’t straighten up, I was going to fire them."
"And what did they say?"
He curled his lip before he mocked in a gruff tone, " ‘You can’t fire me. If you do, I’ll ruin you. I know all your fans, all your friends, and all your business associates. I’m untouchable, hah, hah.’"
Aidan cursed before he spoke in a normal tone again. "At first I thought it was a joke at best and an idle threat at worst-until I looked around and realized that they really had ingratiated themselves with everyone in my life. Methodically. One by one. They went after them all. Those who wouldn’t befriend them and fall in line with their vicious insanity, they cut out and kicked to the curb. Then in a show of power right before Christmas, they turned six of them solidly against me, cut one of them completely out of my life, and it was then they turned really brazen."
" ‘Give us five million dollars or we’ll take everything you have. By the time we’re through with you, every fan and friend you have will hate your guts and never pay a dime to see another movie of yours again. You’ll be ruined.’"
He drew a ragged, angry breath. "That was my Christmas gift from my brother. After I’d bought him and his son a car each and a house each, paid them far more than their skill levels warranted. It still wasn’t enough for them. They had to take more because I had it and they didn’t. Of course I was the one working twenty hours a day for months on end at shoots, attending publicity functions and interviews, and busting my ass reading and learning scripts while I was at home while they stayed up all night partying, playing games online, and then slept until noon or later. Blowing money on women, beer, and expensive toys. Gee, I can’t imagine why they had so little, huh? As my mother used to say about Donnie, a hard day’s work would have killed him."
She leaned against his arm, wanting to comfort him. "I’m so sorry, Aidan."
"Don’t be. I should have known. Scrooge was right. You can’t let people know anything about you. You can’t give freely to them, because it’s never enough. They always want more of you than any human being can give. If you let them, they’ll suck your soul right out of your body. The golden rule really is if you give an inch, they take a mile." He shook his head bitterly. "There was a movie last year that I was in called 300 . It was about the ancient battle of Thermopylae-"
She frowned as he finally mentioned a reference she completely understood. "Where King Leonidas and his band of three hundred warriors held off the Persian army?"
He looked shocked by her question. "You know the story?"
She gave him a chiding smile. "I’m a Greek god, Aidan. Of course I know the story."
There was a light in his eyes that said he still had a hard time accepting who and what she was. "Yeah… anyway, I was curious about the history of the battle, and unlike you, I wasn’t fortunate enough to be an eyewitness to it. When I looked it up, I learned that they were betrayed by a fellow Spartan soldier."
Aidan nodded. "He wanted money, so for that, he sold out his own countrymen and fellow soldiers and told the Persians about the small goat path that allowed them to slaughter all of Leonidas’s men. Men who had protected his back in battle. Men with families to feed. Men who fought to protect his own homeland and his own family and son that he’d left behind with theirs. A family that would suffer under Persian occupation. But none of that mattered to the greedy, selfish bastard. All he wanted was more and the rest of the world be damned. It appalled me when I found out about that. I didn’t understand then and I still don’t understand how someone could do such a thing."
Unfortunately, she understood. She’d seen people do it time and again over the course of history. "Simple. There’s always some sorry human being who wants what other people have and they don’t want to have to work to earn it."
"Exactly, and the part that kills me is the lengths to which they’re willing to go and how they feel so justified in their theft. If they’d apply half the effort to earning the money that they spent trying to steal it, they’d be far richer than me."
Leta couldn’t agree more. Such people had always angered her too. "Familiarity breeds contempt. By bringing them in close, they realize that you’re just as human as they are. That’s when the madness sets in. They can’t understand why you have more than they do when you’re just a regular human being the same as them. Then they hate you for it."
"Yeah, but why?"
Leta sighed. "I truly don’t know. Humans are capable of so much creativity and goodness and at the same time they are destructive and cruel. It’s as if your kind needs adversity in order to achieve."
"No, we don’t. That’s just a lie people tell themselves to feel better about all the people who kick them in their teeth when it’s just as easy to help a man up as it is to knock him to the ground. That’s why I’ve withdrawn from this world. I don’t want to have to watch my back all the time and I’m tired of trying to figure out if the loyalty someone professes is real and true, or just another lie that will crumble the instant they taste jealousy."
"I’m incapable of being jealous."
She cupped his chin and forced him to meet her gaze. "Seriously, Aidan. In my world, jealousy is a man, Phthonos. He walks in the court of Aphrodite and he has never taken root in my heart. He never will. Even when I had all my emotions, I never let him in."
He pulled her to his lips for a kiss so wickedly sweet it literally made her toes curl. That kiss was the most incredible one she’d ever known and the knowledge that this couldn’t last made her ache.
As if he sensed her fear, Aidan stiffened an instant before he pulled back from her. "I just thought of something. What happens to you when this is over?"
Leta looked away, unable to answer that question. The pain of it was unbearable.
Aidan cursed before he answered for her. "You’ll have to leave, won’t you? I mean, you’re really a goddess. I can’t exactly keep you, can I?"
"Would you want to?"
He shot up off the couch so that he could pace the floor in front of her. His entire body was tense as he moved, and it showed off every corded muscle in that lean, hard body. She could feel his turmoil. "I don’t know, Leta. I really don’t. But you’re the only person I haven’t wanted to throw out of here in a really long time."
She smiled at him. "Well, that wasn’t from lack of trying on your part."
"Yeah, but I brought you back."
"True…" She sobered as she considered what lay before them. "I don’t know either. I personally think we should focus on surviving the next few days and then we’ll see where we stand… if we’re still intact."
He paused before he raked his hand through his tousled blond hair. "What aren’t you telling me about what we’re up against?"
She pulled the small square pillow under her arm into her lap. "Our only option with Dolor might be putting him back to sleep again."
"The last time I did that, my injuries were so extensive that I had to go into stasis with him in order to heal. That was almost two thousand years ago."
No part of him moved except for his gaze, which fell to the floor in front of her. "I see."
Her heart shredded at all the meaning in those two simple words. "Don’t, Aidan. Don’t look like that." His hurt made her ache too. "I need you angry. Your anger feeds my powers and makes me stronger. The stronger I am, the less he’s capable of hurting me or you."
He laughed at the irony. "I’ve never had a woman ask for my anger before."
She tossed the pillow aside before she rose and crossed the short distance between them. "I’m not your typical woman."