His eyes were haunting. "It’s not the pain that’s inflicted on us by others that destroys us. It’s the pain we let inside our hearts that does that. Don’t let the human’s anger become yours. It can drive you mad if you do." And with those sage words spoken, he vanished.
Leta drew a deep breath as she considered what he’d said. She knew he was right. But knowing something and doing it were often two entirely different things. She needed Aidan’s anger. She wanted it.
Closing her eyes, she focused on the target.
He was asleep in his bed, dreaming that he was lost in a thundering storm. The rain slashed painfully against his skin as he trudged along. His breathing was ragged, his handsome face contorted by rage.
Leta was baffled by his actions. By his will to carry on even as lightning struck the ground, barely missing him. The static from the blasts caused his hair to rise and fan out around his steely features. It was a feral determination that carried him onward. And before she even realized what she’d done, she’d stepped through the portal and entered the dream beside him.
He froze in place as he became aware of her. The cold rain pelted her flesh, plastering her hair against her body as she watched him curiously. In this state, all of his emotions were laid bare to her. She could feel every ounce of his rage, his betrayal.
His unsated need for revenge.
It was so close to her own feelings that it fed her powers and brought her emotions back with a clarity so crisp, it stung.
He uncoiled his arms from around his chest as he stared at her with those icy, probing eyes. "Who are you?"
"A friend," she whispered, catching a chill from the wind that started blowing against them.
He laughed bitterly. "I have no friends. I don’t want any."
"Then I’m here to help you."
He snorted in derision. "Help me do what? Freeze? Or is your plan to hold me still in this storm to make sure the lightning kills me?"
Leta snapped her fingers and the rain instantly stopped. The clouds roiled above as they parted to show the sun. The rays illuminated the bleak landscape and painted it in bright greens and yellows.
Aidan wasn’t fazed. "Neat trick."
He was a hard man to impress and his jaded causticity made her wonder what had happened to him to cause it. She dried their clothes and hair. "Why did you summon the rain?"
"I didn’t summon shit," he growled. "I was minding my own business when it came down on me. All I was trying to do was get through it."
"And now that it’s gone?"
He looked up at the clear blue sky above them. "It’ll be back. It always comes back and it hits you when you least expect it."
She knew he wasn’t just talking about the weather. "You should find shelter."
He scoffed at her. "There isn’t any. The storm tears it down and leaves you nak*d in the hurricane, so why bother?"
And she’d stupidly thought she was bitter. Then again, outside the dream world, she could only feel a twinge of what she felt now. Even so hers was nothing in comparison to his. His bitterness ran so deep, it scalded her tongue with the taste of it.
But beneath that hostility she sensed a raw vulnerability in him. Something about him that had been crushed and yet was still struggling to survive even though he didn’t want it to. It reached out to her own grieving heart and made her want to touch him.
Without a second thought, she took a step forward to lay her hand to his cheek.
He hissed at her like a cat before he moved away. "Don’t touch me."
"I don’t want your lying kindness. Sure, you’ll smile and be so sweet to me that I’ll trust you, but the minute I don’t give you everything you want the instant you demand it, you’ll turn on me and try to crush me. You’re just like everyone else in the world. No one matters but you."
And with that, he turned and walked away.
Leta crossed her arms over her chest as she watched him put distance between them.
Oh yeah, she had enough bitter emotions here to more than defeat Dolor. Little did the god know that his current victim was going to be his downfall. Aidan might seem insignificant to the god, but his determination and spirit would be the fuel she needed to avenge them both.
And just like Dolor, she wouldn’t show any clemency or weakness. Nothing was going to stop her from destroying him. For once Dolor was going to know exactly what it was like to have someone come for him and leave him quivering on the ground, begging for a mercy that would never come.
She couldn’t wait…
It was just another frigid day in hell as far as Aidan O’Conner was concerned. Nothing ever changed and he liked it that way.
At least that was what he was hoping for until his cell phone started ringing. Picking it up from his breakfast counter, he looked at the ID. He started not to answer it, but it was his agent, Mori, and if he didn’t answer Mori would worry him like a neurotic puppy with a urinary tract infection needing to go piss in the snow.
Definitely not what he needed in his life or, more importantly, in his current mood.
Aidan flipped the phone open with his chin as he simultaneously turned down his stereo, which was playing his Bauhaus CD. "Hi, Mori."
"Oh, Aidan, there you are. I’ve been worried about you."
Yeah, right. The only thing Mori ever worried about was where his next check was coming from. The bastard was just like everyone else Aidan had ever known. Greedy, self-serving, narcissistic, and wanting a piece of Aidan’s flesh.
Just the sound of his whiny voice telling Aidan what to do made him all warm and toasty inside.
"I have another offer for you, A. They’re up to thirty-five million dollars plus a significant share of the profits, and believe me, with the costars in this movie there will be enough profits to make even a Scrooge like you smile."
Aidan remembered a time when he would have choked and died at such an offer. A time when that kind of money had seemed like an unimaginable dream.
And like all his dreams, that one too had been brutally shattered.
"I told you I’m not interested."
Mori scoffed. "Of course you’re interested."
"No, Mori, I’m not."
"Oh, come on, you can’t keep hiding out on top of your little mountain. Sooner or later you have to come back to the real world. And this will be the perfect comeback. Think of how much money you’d be throwing away if you say no."
Aidan flipped the CD to the song "Crowds" and let it remind him of why he had no interest in going back to Hollywood… or anywhere outside of Knob Creek, Tennessee, for that matter. He didn’t like people and he hated the thought of ever doing another movie.
"Thanks, but no thanks. With a hundred million dollars in my bank accounts, I don’t ever have to come back to reality again."
Mori made a deep sound of disgust in the back of his throat. "Damn it to hell, Aidan. You’ve been gone from the scene so long you’re lucky anyone is wanting you at any price. Even the tabloids have forgotten you at this point."
"Really?" he said, glancing down at the stack on his coffee table that he’d picked up a week ago when he’d been in the supermarket. His face was plastered all over them. "Funny, but I seem to be the talk of the tabloids. They’re speculating on everything from whether I had a disfiguring car wreck to being kidnapped by aliens or an insane fan, to my favorite of all-which claims I’m having a sex change operation at a Swedish clinic. I particularly like the Photoshopped picture of me in a dress. At least I look better than Klinger, huh? But in all honesty, I’d like to think I’d look more like Alexis Mead fromUgly Betty than this hairy yeti they have me pictured as."
Mori cursed again. "You’re really not playing with me, are you? This isn’t a stunt to get more money from the studio. You really are serious about retiring."
"Yeah, Mori. I’m through. I just want to go back to being a plain, normal guy that no one knows."
Mori snorted. "It’s too late for that. There’s not a person in the world over the age of two days who doesn’t know the name and face of Aidan O’Conner. Christ, you were on more magazine covers than the president."
And that was why he had no intention of leaving his mountain top except for food, beer, and maybe once a year to get laid… then again, given all he’d been through, he might consider using blow-up dolls instead-some of the ones he’d found online were getting seriously high tech. "You’re not helping your case. Besides, I thought they’d all forgotten me."
Even over the phone, he could hear Mori blustering in his office. "You know better. I don’t get you, man, I really don’t. You could own the world if you wanted to. It’s yours for the taking."
As if Aidan cared about that… What good was owning the world when he’d have no choice except to defend himself against every person in it? Personally, he’d rather be a beggar with one true friend than a prince surrounded by two-faced assassins.
"I’m hanging up now, Mor. Talk to you later." Aidan clicked the phone off and tossed it back to the counter where it landed oh another photo of him in a bad wig and a dress. God, he remembered when a lie like that would have sent him off on a rage that would have lasted for days.
But that was before the betrayal that had cut so deep it had destroyed every sensitive nerve in his body. Unlike the firestorm he’d been through, these attacks weren’t personal and they weren’t directed at him by people he’d once called family. These attacks were all highly laughable.
He flicked the lid off his beer and held it up to the photos of his "family" that he kept on his mantel next to his five Oscars. "Fuck you all very much," he said snidely.
But in the end, he knew the truth. He was the only one who’d been royally screwed. He’d put his trust in all the wrong people and now he was left alone to deal with the devastation they’d foisted on him-because he’d dared to love them more than he’d loved himself.
Life was nothing if not pain and he was the king of it.
Two years ago, he’d lived and died for those ass**les on the mantel. Had given freely to them, hand over fist, wanting them to have a better life than the hell he’d known growing up.
And even though he’d given all but his life to them, it hadn’t been enough. They’d been deceitful and selfish. Unsatisfied with his extravagant gifts, they’d begun taking, and when he’d dared to question them about their theft, they’d gone after the only thing he’d had left.
His reputation and livelihood.
Yeah, people were sick and he was tired of the Judases around him. His days of being used by others for what they could suck out of him were over.
He wanted nothing more of this world or those who were in it.
His gaze slid to the shotgun that he kept in the corner of his cabin for snakes and bears. Sixteen months ago, he’d loaded that gun, intending to kill himself and end his pain for real. The only thing that had kept him here was the fact that he wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of knowing they’d weakened him to that point.
No, he was stronger than that. He’d come into this world alone and alone he would stand and defend himself until the day God above saw fit to take him from it. He’d be damned if some two-bit backwoods trash would get the better of him. He hadn’t clawed his way out of poverty and built up his life to where it was, to give it all up because of some backstabbing bastards.
He hadn’t started this fight, but he was the one who’d ended it.
"The trust of the innocent is the liar’s most useful tool." Aidan flinched as he remembered the quote from his favorite Stephen King novel. They’d certainly proven that to be true. And no one had been more innocent than he in all this. Because of them, his gullibility had been slaughtered on the altar of treachery.
But no more. Now there was nothing left except a man so strong he would never again allow anyone that close to him. He’d banished all trust. Banished all tenderness. He now gave to the world what it had given to him.
Anger, hatred, and venom. And that was why he kept their smiling faces on the mantel. It was to remind him how two-faced everyone was.
Aidan paused as he heard a slight banging. It sounded like someone at his door…
No. It wasn’t possible. He was too far out and away from everything. No one ever came up the isolated dirt road that led to his log cabin. Cocking his head, he listened again, but the sound seemed to vanish.
He snorted. "Yeah, great, now I’m hearing things."
Aidan took a step, then heard the banging again.
Maybe something had come loose. He reversed course and headed back toward his great room.
He cursed at the muffled feminine voice. Damn it. The last thing he wanted on his mountain was a woman. Growling, he snatched open the door to find a white, bundled form on his porch step. "Get off my property."
"P-p-please. I’m freezing and my car broke down. I need to call for help."
"Then use your cell phone." He slammed the door in her face.
"I can’t get a signal up here." Her voice was faint and the softness of it cut through him.
Don’t you dare feel sorry for her, putz. No one takes pity on you. Give only what you’re given. Hatred. Contempt. He glanced to the pictures on his mantel.
"Please. I’m freezing. Please help."