She let out a slow breath as she saw in his anger exactly what M’Adoc had seen in hers. His was an unreasonable master that wouldn’t release him. The worst part was the degree to which he’d embraced his rage. It controlled and distorted everything around him to the point he was unable to see past it. "There are sorry people out there. But I promise you not everyone is like that. For every act of cruelty mankind is capable of, they’re just as capable of kindness."
He sneered at her. "You’ll forgive me if I ruthlessly disagree." He shook his head as if the mere sight of her disgusted him. "I marvel at the fact you’ve lived to your age and no one’s taken those rose-colored glasses and shoved them up your-"
She held her hands up in surrender to silence his tirade. "You’re entitled to your opinion just as I’m entitled not to listen to it."
That set him off even more. He pushed himself away from the counter and headed toward the front door. "You’re irritating. If I had to have someone barge into my home, couldn’t they at least have been mute?" He picked up the gun and started for the small hallway that led to his den. "Don’t make yourself too comfortable. I want you out of here the instant the weather clears."
Her gaze sharpened on the gun in his hands. "Trust me so little?"
"I don’t trust you at all." And with that, he went off to his den and left her standing in his kitchen.
Leta took a deep breath as she felt his hostility reaching out to her. Good.
So far Dolor hadn’t managed to break into the mortal plane. But it wouldn’t be long.
Dolor had been summoned to kill Aidan and he would do everything within his power, which was great, to succeed. There would be no stopping him.
Which meant she wouldn’t have long to build up her own powers by feeding from Aidan. She frowned as she felt a twinge of guilt. As a Dream-Hunter, she shouldn’t feel anything like that at all and yet she couldn’t squelch the part of her that didn’t want to hurt Aidan when it was so obvious he’d been cut enough by those around him.
It’s for his own good.
Odd how the gods and humanity used that so often to justify brutality.
Zeus had even said that when he’d ordered all the emotions stripped from the Dream-Hunters. When he’d had all of them punished for a crime only one god had committed. And even that hadn’t been a crime. It’d been intended as a joke on old Thunderbutt to make him not take everything so seriously. Instead of laughing, Zeus had abused his powers to lash out against everyone who didn’t agree with him.
The rest of the dream gods had merely been innocents caught in the crossfire. But Zeus’s fear of being overthrown and mocked had caused him to punish them all. How pathetic to live his existence in such paranoia.
However, Zeus’s god complex didn’t concern her. What she needed to focus on was saving Aidan’s life if she could and killing Dolor at any cost.
Dolor’s laughter from the past filled her head. "I am Pain. I am eternal. And you are insignificant, Leta. You will never defeat me."
So far he was right. She hadn’t defeated him, but she had wounded him.
His arrogance would be the tool she would use to break his strength and Aidan was the hammer she needed to drive her spike right between Dolor’s eyes.
Her resolve set, she went to find Aidan and anger him some more.
Aidan sat in his chair, strumming the Indigo Girls’ "Strange Fire" on his electric guitar, as he realized tomorrow would be Christmas Eve, and for the third year in a row, he’d be all alone for it. It was why he hadn’t bothered decorating anything. All that would do was remind him of just how lonely his life had become.
He sighed wearily as he thought about all he’d been through. How could one man be adored by millions and loved by no one? Yet that was his fate. The only people who claimed to care for him didn’t know him at all, and the people he’d once loved with everything he had spent every moment of their lives trying to end his.
"Merry f**king Christmas," he muttered.
Trying to forget the past, he focused on the song in his head. Since the guitar wasn’t plugged in, the notes were only a whisper around him but it was enough to soothe his ragged state. Music had always been his sanctuary. No matter how hard life was, it was music and movies that he ran to for comfort and inspiration. They gave him solace when nothing else could.
He was so intent on the song that it took him several minutes to realize he was no longer alone. Opening his eyes, he looked up at Leta and paused mid-strum. The light formed a soft halo around her, making her black hair appear luminescent. For a solid minute he couldn’t even breathe. Every hormone in his body was on fire.
It’d been way too long since he’d last touched a woman, other than to hand over his credit card to her in a checkout line. And to think he’d almost convinced himself that he didn’t need a woman’s softness.
With her looking at him while a beguiling half-smile touched her lips and her bright eyes shone, his resolve shattered. All he wanted to do was set the guitar aside and pull her into his arms for a long, wicked kiss until both of their lips were numb. It was way too easy to imagine her in his lap, nak*d. That one image seared him from the inside out.
His c**k hardened to the point of pain.
"You need something?" He hated that his voice had a hollow note in it and not the venom he wanted to give her.
"I was just curious what you were doing in here by yourself. You’re very talented, by the way."
He sneered at the compliment. "Don’t flatter me."
"No, you really are."
"Yeah, and don’t flatter me," he repeated, finally finding the venom he wanted in his tone. "I don’t like or want compliments."
A sharp frown wrinkled her brow. "Are you serious?"
"Deadly." He strummed an idle chord. "See, I know this game. You flatter me, make me laugh and feel good about myself. Then the next thing I know you’re walking out the door with your pockets stuffed with my money, telling the world what an ass**le I am. Let’s just skip straight to the end where you get out of my house and tell everyone I’m a dick." Cradling his guitar, he nodded. "Yeah, that works for me."
Leta couldn’t believe what she heard. His anger sharpened her powers even as his words flabbergasted her. She sucked her breath in sharply. "What did they do to you?"
He set the guitar aside before he stood up. "Don’t worry about it."
She reached out to touch his arm as he started past her. "Aidan-"
"Don’t touch me." His voice was a feral snarl.
But that only made her want to touch him more, even though she knew she should anger him as much as possible in order to strengthen herself. "I’m not here to hurt you."
Aidan wished he could believe that. But he knew better. How many times had he heard that lie? And in the end, they always hurt him and laughed while they did so.
He was tired of falling for it.
"You know, if I had a nickel…" His gaze sharpened on her face. He wanted to reach out and touch her too. But he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Not after what had happened with Heather.
"I would never hurt you, baby. You can always trust in me. I’m here for the long haul. You and me, forever. Us against the world. No matter what. You can always be yourself and know that I will love you regardless. I don’t care about your career or fame. If it all ended tomorrow, I would still be here for you, with you ."
Those words had made his heart soar-they had been a symphony to his ears, which were tired of the liars around him. Most of all, he’d trusted them just as he’d trusted Heather. As an orphan, all he’d ever wanted in his life was a family of his own. Someone who wouldn’t hurt him. Betray him.
Someone who would accept him for the man he was, regardless of fame and wealth or even poverty.
Unfortunately, he’d never once found that. The moment he’d started making real money and people had begun to recognize him, Heather had felt threatened by it and by the women who threw themselves at him. She’d become catty and biting. Criticizing everything he did and resenting him for wanting more.
Even now, he could hear her caustic words. "There are two kinds of people in Hollywood. Actors who want to act and those who want fame. The ones who go after fame deserve everything they get, so don’t cry to me about the tabloid liars. It’s what you wanted, Aidan. Everyone knows who you are. You should have been satisfied with the acting alone. But no, you had to have more. So now you got all you wanted and everything that goes with it."
Ultimately, because she couldn’t cope with it all, she’d carved his heart out and handed it to him on a silver platter. Not in private like a decent human being. She had done it publicly by seeking out the same tabloids that had already eviscerated him. Even worse, she’d helped his enemies come after him and had done everything in her power to embarrass him before the world.
And this woman before him now was no exception. He had no doubt. If he let her in, she’d hurt him too. The only person in this world who cared about him was himself.
He indicated the door with a jerk of his chin. "Can’t you just stay here for a couple of hours and not speak to me? Is that really too much to ask?"
"I don’t like silence."
"Well, I do."
"And it’s my house," she said in a deep voice, imitating him with the voice of an irate parent. "While you’re under my roof, young lady, you’ll do as you’re told!"
Aidan wanted to be offended by her mockery. But a smile tormented the edges of his lips. "You’re not funny."
"Of course I am." She winked playfully at him. "You wouldn’t be smiling inside if I wasn’t."
His stomach tightened as he realized that she was charming him with her actions and that only made him angry again. "Look, I really don’t want to talk to you. I just want to be left alone. Get out."
She released a tired breath and shook her head. "When was the last time you talked to a friend?"
"Nineteen months ago."
Leta felt her jaw drop at his disclosure. She couldn’t believe that. Even with her emotions muted and basically gone, she still confided in others. The only exception being the time she was in stasis. "What?"
"You heard me."
Yes, but hearing and believing were two entirely different things. "You’re not serious."
"Oh, I’m serious all right. I called up my best friend to confide in him because I needed someone to talk to and the next thing I knew our conversation was not only in the paparazzi rags, but on blogs and in every industry magazine the bastard could find. ‘Aidan O’Conner: The Truth Behind The Legend. Read how his girlfriend betrayed him and left him a drunken sot on the street, begging for change while assaulting his fans.’ What killed me most, there was so little truth in what he told them. Instead, he distorted my words and embellished them until I couldn’t even recognize what I’d said. Let’s just say I learn from my mistakes. So no, I don’t talk to friends. Ever."
Well, she could understand that. Back when she’d still had her emotions, she’d once shoved M’Adoc from behind when he’d told their brother M’Ordant that she thought he was a prig at times. She’d been humiliated and mortified that M’Adoc had repeated a private conversation and then used it to hurt someone she loved dearly. It’d made her cautious for weeks about saying anything to anyone, but eventually she’d gotten over it and moved on.
That experience was certainly minor in comparison to what Aidan had been through. Honestly, she couldn’t imagine having to cope with something so intrusive or a person so slimy. M’Adoc had only told one person, not the entire world, and he had quoted her verbatim without embellishment.
That being said, it didn’t mean Aidan should give up on people and trust no one at all. People needed friends in this world. "Well, one person’s betrayal doesn’t-"
"We’d been best friends since junior high school," he said between clenched teeth. "We’re talking twenty years of friendship flushed away in three seconds because someone was willing to give him five thousand dollars." He curled his lip bitterly. "Five grand. That’s all my friendship over the years was worth to him. Funny thing is, I’d have given it to him if he’d just asked."
Leta cringed in sympathy. No wonder he was so bitter. She knew such things went on, but as a rule the gods of dreams didn’t betray each other like that-especially now that their emotions were gone. There had been a few over the centuries, but not many, and they had been an exception who had been hunted down and killed.
Aidan narrowed his eyes on her, "Now tell me again how you can be trusted when you just walked through my door."
She held her hands up in surrender. "You’re right. You can’t trust me or anyone else. Never in my life have I understood why people betray others. I don’t guess I ever will."
He scoffed at her words. "Like you’ve never betrayed anyone."
Leta quickly countered with a simple question. "Have you?"
"Hell, no," he roared as if the very thought sickened him. "My mama taught me better."
"And so did mine." She paused before she added, "Actually, that’s not true. My brother taught me better. And when we were under fire, he did his best to protect me no matter the cost to himself."