The darkest night, p.17

The Darkest Night, page 17

 part  #1 of  Lords of the Underworld Series

 

The Darkest Night
 


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CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

 

  Maddox became aware of his surroundings with a jolt. Dead one moment, fully conscious the next. Ashlyn slept in the crook of his arm, her pliant body curled around him.

  He glanced down at himself. She must have cleaned him and even managed to change the sheets despite his chains because the blood was gone. His scabs were back and stretched across his stomach and his ribs.

  Ashlyn's soft honey-colored hair ticked his chin; her warm exhalations fanned his skin. Alive and here. With him. He hadn't imagined it. Straight from hell into heaven.

  Come morning, he usually felt the need to destroy something. To fight. To forget the flames and the pain by giving in to the numbness and darkness of the spirit. Not so right now.

  He felt - dare he believe it? - at peace.

  Ashlyn looked so relaxed, he was loath to awaken her. No, not relaxed, he realized on closer inspection. Tearstains were evident on her cheeks and teethmarks marred the lushness of her lips, as if she'd bitten down hard and repeatedly.

  He longed to caress a fingertip over the curve of her cheek, but couldn't. Damned chains. "Ashlyn. Beauty. Wake up for me. "

  A soft moan parted those lips.

  Sunlight caressed her as he craved to do himself, bathing her luminous skin and paying her absolute tribute. Her lashes were feathered, still damp from her tears, like strands of ribbon covered with dew.

  She'd cried at his suffering. When was the last time someone had cried over him?

  "Ashlyn. "

  She moaned.

  He lowered his head and kissed the tip of her nose. As always, spears of electricity slammed into him. She must have experienced it, too, gasping out his name and jolting upright. The cover fell to her waist, revealing the baggy T-shirt she wore. His T-shirt. He liked her in his clothing, liked that she was covered by material that had once covered him. Lock after lock of hair fell down her shoulders and back.

  When her gaze landed on him, she released a trembling sob and threw herself into his wide-open arms. "You're alive. You came back from the dead again. "

  "Unlock me, beauty. "

  "I don't have the key. "

  "It's under the mattress. " Lucien had stopped carrying the key years ago when Maddox managed to snap it from its chain around his neck. "Why didn't they take you?"

  "Torin hid me. Oh. " She hurriedly dug under the springs, found it and released him. She fell back into his side, the scent of her skin distracting him from wondering why Torin would have done such a thing. "I'm so glad you came back to me. "

  He wound his arms around her waist, rubbing his hands up and down her back, soothing, calming. His joints protested, but he didn't stop. "I came back. I'll always come back. "

  "I don't understand," she said on a shaky breath. Her body trembled. "Why do they keep doing this to you?"

  "Another curse. " His voice cracked with emotion. "I killed a woman, and now I must die as she died. " He had not wanted Ashlyn to know what he'd done, but it wasn't fair to keep her in the dark when she'd revealed all her secrets.

  Ashlyn gripped him tightly. "Who was she? Why did you kill her?"

  "The woman I told you about. The warrior, the one given the task I desired for myself. Pandora. "

  Her eyes stretched wide. "The Pandora?"

  "Yes. "

  "That's the box you opened? Dear Lord, I don't know why I didn't piece this together before. Why didn't the gods just put the demons back inside the box?"

  "Punishment. But more than that, the box was gone, with no way to be re-created. "

  "How did you kill. . . "

  "My demon had overtaken me, and - "Again he could hear the torment in his own voice, and wondered what Ashlyn thought. "I lost control, became Violence completely, and my sword did irreparable damage to her. I have regretted the action ever since, doubt me not. "

  "But immortals can't be killed eternally. Right? I mean, you're proof of that. "

  "Most can be killed. Not easily, but it is possible. "

  "Well, everyone makes mistakes, and you've paid for yours," she said, her understanding surprising him. Warming him. Felling him. "I sort of wish you'd killed those gods who cursed you, too, because they're vile, disgusting - "

  Wincing, he plastered a hand over her mouth, cutting off her words. "She did not mean it," he said, eyes traveling ceilingward. "I will willingly take any punishment meant for her as my own. "

  Lightning did not strike them. The earth didn't rumble.

  Locusts didn't swarm, eating at their flesh. Maddox slowly relaxed. "Never curse the gods. They hear all. " Unfortunately.

  She reluctantly nodded and he removed his hand.

  "I'm not bait," she said.

  "I know you're not. "

  "Really?" she asked hopefully. She angled her head, peering up at him.

  "Really. "

  Her features softened; she even smiled. "What convinced you?"

  "You. " He looked at her in wonder because it was still a surprise to him. "Your sweetness, your ability. Your virginity. "

  "So you. . . wanted me?" she asked, unsure now. "Not because you desired answers from me but because. . . "

  "But because," he assured her. "You make me burn. "

  Happiness sparkled in her eyes, like rays of sunshine stamping out the night. She snuggled still deeper into his side, breasts meshing into his chest. "I'm glad the Institute brought me to Budapest. "

  His body had begun to stir, to ready, to desire more. Until the Institute was mentioned. Violence growled. "You are not going back to them. "

  "You and your demands. " Not realizing his sudden turmoil, she continued blithely, "You know, I've heard a few tidbits about Pandora's box here and there. Did I tell you that the Institute is always interested in tracking down supernatural relics mentioned throughout history in myth and legend?"

  He stiffened. "Will you tell me what you heard about the box?"

  "Let's see. . . " She tapped her chin. "I heard that the box is hidden. Where, I don't know. But supposedly it's guarded by Argus and even the gods themselves can't get to it. "

  Maddox absorbed this news with shock. Argus was a huge beast with over one hundred eyes, enabling it to see everything that happened at all times. Legend claimed it had been killed by Hermes, but legend was often a lie told by the gods to fool mortals.

  "I also heard a conflicting story," Ashlyn continued, "that the box is actually guarded by Hydra, not Argus. The common denominator in both stories, though, was that the - " She gave another gasp.

  "What?"

  "If the box ever resurfaced, the demons would be sucked back inside. That's good, right?"

  He shook his head. "For the world, perhaps, but not for me. Without the demon, I will die. "

  "How can you know that? I mean - "

  "I know it," he interrupted, thinking on what she had said. Hydra. A poisonous serpent with multiple heads. If that was true, the box was buried deep in the ocean. But which story was he to believe? One or both or neither? If the rest of what she had heard could be believed, that the demons could be sucked back inside if the box were found. . .

  "I could, I don't know, do a more thorough search for the box. Make it my top priority. "

  "No!" That would entail having her leave the fortress, placing her in danger. "I know I told you to tell me everything, but now we must choose a less volatile topic. " Violence was prowling his mind, more agitated with every word. While Maddox now believed the demon did not want to hurt Ashlyn, he wasn't willing to take a chance. He would talk about flowers and moonbeams - he cringed - if it meant maintaining this delectable inner peace.

  "Is there a way to break your death-curse?" Ashlyn asked. So much for flowers and moonbeams.

  "No. " He shook his head. "There is no way. "

  "But - "

  "No. " He would not allow her to try and bargain with the gods, hoping to find a way to save him. He was not savable. More than that, he was not worth the effort. He was more m
onster than man, even if he sometimes tried to convince himself otherwise. "That is a subject best dropped, as well. "

  She trailed a fingertip down his sternum, deliciously warm breath fanning him. "What subject can we talk about, then?"

  He splayed his fingers over her bottom and squeezed. "Have you heard any more voices during your time here?"

  "Unfortunately. " She arched slightly, the action nearly imperceptible, in an effort to be closer to him. "I heard every word spoken by those four women. Who, by the way, should be released immediately. "

  "They stay. "

  "Why?"

  "That, I cannot tell you. "

  She drummed her fingertips. "At least tell me what you plan to do with them. They're nice. They're innocent. They're scared. "

  "I know, beauty. I know. "

  "So you're not going to hurt them?" she insisted.

  "No. I'm not. "

  Her palms flattened, just above his heart. "Does that mean someone else is?"

  His blood heated erotically, singeing his veins. "I'll do everything in my power to make sure they aren't. All right?"

  Her lips pressed into his neck and her tongue flicked over his pulse. "All right, but I'm going to do everything in my power to make sure they aren't, either. "

  He hated denying her anything, so he clasped her chin, forcing her to face him, and gave her what he could. "I'm sorry you had to listen to their conversations. Never again will I put you in a room where humans have been. "

  "It wasn't so bad this time. " Her fingers curled around his wrists, soft, gentle. "And I don't hear anything when you're around, no matter who's spoken. "

  "I wonder why. I am not complaining - I am glad, just curious. "

  "Maybe the voices are afraid of you. "

  He almost grinned.

  "Actually, I wonder why I can't hear any of your friends' past conversations. I mean, I've always been able to hear other supernatural beings. "

  "Maybe we operate on a higher tier of existence. "

  She did grin.

  "Still, we will make sure I am always around you," he said, and it would be his pleasure. "That way, the voices will never bother you again. " What about when you're dead? The thought caused him to stiffen. There was no one to watch her then. No one to protect her.

  Sensing his anger, she frowned. "What's wrong?"

  "Nothing. " He would not think of the coming death now. He had Ashlyn in his arms and he was going to enjoy her, savoring this small amount of time they had together. "No more talk of the women or curses. "

  "Well, now you've taken away most of our common ground. " Her gaze lowered, fastening on his lips. She shivered. "I've traveled all over the world for the Institute, but I never dreamed I'd meet someone like you. "

  "Strong?"

  A chuckle escaped her. "Yes. "

  "Handsome?"

  "Of course. "

  "Sharp of wit and skilled with a sword?"

  "Absolutely. " Another chuckle. "But I mean a man. . . friend. . . guy. Oh, I don't know what to call you!"

  He savored her amusement - and her earnest words. "Just call me yours. That is all I want to be. "

  Everything about her softened. "Tell me something about yourself. " She tugged her face from his clasp and once again snuggled into his body. She didn't remove her hands from his wrists but slid them down his arms and around his neck, as if she feared letting him go, even for a second. He feared it, too. He wanted her desperately. And would have her, he swore, after they showered, all traces of blood and death removed. "Something you've never told anyone else. "

  He could tell her that he liked classical music rather than the hard rock his friends preferred, but that information lacked the deeply personal touch she obviously craved. And Maddox found that he wanted her to know him better than anyone else in the world.

  His sense of peace - true peace - deepened. All because she was here with him. Because she had cried for him and cared for him. Because she didn't judge his past sins or revile him. Because she wanted to learn about him, too. Because only he eased her torment.

  Because, when she looked at him, she didn't see Violence. He suspected she saw man. Her man. A heady thought. Drugging. Shocking. Enough to earn his eternal devotion.

  "There have been a few times over the years that I wished to be human. And have a wife and - " he gulped, confessing " - children. " He'd never told his friends, who would have laughed. He should laugh at the ridiculousness of it.

  Violence? Near children?

  Ashlyn didn't laugh, didn't scold him. "That's a beautiful dream," she said, and there was a wistful catch in her voice. "You'll make a wonderful father. Fierce and protective. "

  Humbled by her proclamation, though he knew he would never be given the chance to prove her words, he traced circles over each of her vertebra. "Tell me one of your secrets now. "

  Shivering, she drew her finger over the ridged peak of his nipple. His cock jumped in response; his blood blistered. No longer simply heating, but already an inferno. Still, he didn't kiss her, didn't roll on top of her. However much it pained his body, now was a time for talking.

  "I didn't learn to read until last year," she admitted shamefully. "Until then, I had to give all of my reports verbally, rather than typing them, and everyone knew why. I just couldn't concentrate long enough to decipher the words. The voices were always there, disturbing me. When I was a kid, my boss would read stories to me, fairy tales so magical I could almost block out the whispers. That was when I became determined to learn on my own. But it took a long time to actually do so. "

  He didn't care if she could read or not. But she cared, and he sought to comfort her. "That you learned at all is worthy of praise. "

  She gifted him with a brilliant smile. "Thank you. "

  "I didn't learn to read until hundreds of years after my possession, and then I only did so because I didn't like others knowing something I did not. See? You are ahead of me already. "

  She chuckled, relaxing further, "Once I learned, I went online and ordered every romance novel I could find. They're fairy tales for grown-ups. They were delivered straight to my door and I devoured them as fast as I was able. "

  "I will have Paris buy you some in town. An entire boxload. "

  "That would be lovely. Thank you," she said again, giving him another of those smiles.

  His chest ached as he kissed the top of her head. "I've seen a few romance novels. " Paris had left a few lying about the fortress, and Maddox had - maybe, perhaps, might have, would never admit it aloud - picked them up. "Had I read them - " cough, cough " - I would probably think they were - " sexy, fun, enlightening " - interesting. "

  Her gratitude morphed into pure wickedness. "Maybe. . . maybe we can read one together or something. "

  "I would like that. "

  As hungry as he was for her, Maddox found it amazingly pleasant to pass the time just talking. She told him how she'd spent part of her childhood inside a lab, being tested - sometimes painfully, which meant he now had a list of scientists to kill - and how she still spent most of her time alone, just to escape the noise. She'd never really been part of a family. Only one man had ever treated her as anything more than an animal, and Maddox found himself indebted to that human.

  But Maddox seethed with the need to chase away those memories and replace them with better ones, happier ones. More than that, he seethed with the need to avenge her. "You deserved better," he said, Violence finally stretching its arms and yawning.

  "I didn't mind my upbringing," she said. "For the most part, that is. I was always hearing things, so solitude was actually welcome. "

  But she'd missed playing and being touched, loved. He heard it in her voice, a need she couldn't quite hide. You know her so well do you? Yes, he thought. He did. A part of him, a part buried so deep he hadn't realized it was there until she had materialized in his life, had known her from the beginning.

  She was his. His woman. His. . . everything.


  He caressed her arm and felt a small, hard, unnatural lump. He frowned and glanced down. "What's that?"

  "Birth control," she said, cheeks heating to a dark pink. "Standard agency procedure. A while back, a woman was raped on the job by a rabid goblin. She became pregnant and the child was. . . not normal. Now the Institute teaches us self-defense and gives all female employees the option of having the implant. "

  Violence arched its back and fluttered open its eyes, awakening further. The thought of this delicate beauty being forced was abhorrent to both man and spirit. She was a virgin, but that didn't mean she had been left completely alone. "Were you ever hurt?"

  "No," she assured him. "But I knew if the voices ever overtook me I wouldn't be able to protect myself. "

  Violence did not relax.

  "Tell me about your childhood," she said. Her fingertip again grazed his nipple. She rubbed against him, caught herself and stopped.

  His skin tightened with awareness. So did hers; he knew it. From the beginning, he'd always seemed to know when she was aroused. And right now, the woman was definitely aroused. "I did not have a childhood. I was created already a man, already a soldier. "

  "I'm sorry," she said softly. "I forgot. "

  I want her so badly. Last time he had stopped himself from taking her fully because she was a virgin. He was the same man he had been yesterday - he'd still never had a virgin and still wasn't exactly sure of the best way to go about it - but none of that mattered now. He'd almost lost her. She had almost been taken from him.

  He would not wait another moment.

  He would be as gentle with her as he was able. And if the spirit sought to intrude, well, he'd allow Ashlyn to chain him. "I want to make love with you, Ashlyn. "

  Breath caught in her throat as she inched her fingers over the ropes of his stomach. Stopped at his scabs, then his navel, circled. Moved down another inch. Stopped again. "You do?"

  Want her, need her, want, need. Soon. . . now. . . Maddox thought perhaps she wanted to touch lower, to hold his cock, but hadn't quite worked up the nerve. Yes, yes. He would have smiled but he and the demon were too primed.

  The more she touched him, the more he - they - wanted her. Her sweet scent was in his nose, firing his blood all the hotter. That sweetness trickled all the way to his bones, igniting all sorts of needs. "Oh, yes. "

  "I want you, too," she whispered on a tremulous breath. "But. . . "

  No more waiting. Must have, must have, must have. A sense of ferocity pounded through him. Ours, the spirit said. Mine, Maddox corrected. "I want to be inside you. No more waiting. "

  She stilled, air wheezing from her.

  "I need you to understand that I'm keeping you. You will stay here with me, and I will protect you. Together we will learn how to stop the voices for good. "

  "M-Maddox. " Whatever else she meant to say was lost as she pressed her lips together.

  Yes. Must keep. "I won't hurt you," he said, more for himself and the spirit than for her.

  "I know you won't hurt me. But I do have a life and a job. "

  Keep!

  "I'm going to stay for as long as I feel like staying, but I need your promise that you won't lock me up again. When your friends come for you to - " she gulped " - kill you, I want to be with you. I swear I won't attack them, even though I'll want to, but I need to hold your hand. I can't stand the thought of you dying alone. "

  In that moment, Maddox fell completely, absolutely, irrevocably in love with her.

  Mine, mine, mine. She was more important than breathing, more necessary than food or water or shelter. In a thousand lifetimes of war and violence and rage, she gave him kindness. Serenity. Compassion. Trust. Woe to anyone - even the Lords of the Underworld, even the gods - who tried to hurt her. He'd thought it before, but it became a blood oath now. Whoever attempted to harm her from this moment on would die at Maddox's feet.

  Lucien and Reyes hadn't taken her last night as they'd claimed, and that saved their miserable hides. Barely. They would pay, though. Oh, they would pay. Violence needed some sort of retribution before it could forget.

  "I don't want you to have to watch. I won't be alone, sweet. Pain and Death will be with me. "

  "Yeah, but they won't snuggle you. "

  He contained his grin. "You are mine, woman, and I am yours. Until you, my life was desolate. I existed, but I didn't truly live. Now I live, even in my death. " The words were as close to marriage vows as he would ever come, he was sure. She would always be his, and he would always be hers.

  Tears welled in her amber eyes. "That's the most beautiful thing I've ever heard. "

  "All I want you to do is think about what you are asking. " If he had to watch her die over and over again. . . Sickness churned inside of his stomach. "The blood, the horror of it. . . "

  "I know what I'm asking," she said, determined. "I still want to stay with you. "

  Once again, need replaced all else. "You're going to take a shower. Paris says human women love them, that they help relax and soothe. " He sat up, dragging her with him. Finally, finally.

  No, not yet. Soon. He would make Ashlyn's first time special, even if it killed him.

  She twirled the ends of her hair around her finger. "Are you going to join me again?"

  Maddox forced himself to shake his head and the spirit roared in fury. Why not now? "If I shower with you, I'll take you. Totally and completely. "

  Her gaze slanted over to him, hot, so hot, and he felt the force of it vibrate through him. "Like I told you, I know what I'm asking," she whispered.

  Gods, he wanted to kiss her. But if he kissed her, he wouldn't stop kissing her until he was inside her, pumping, pounding, sliding. "There's something I have to do first. "

  "Afterward. . . " She didn't finish her sentence, but then, she didn't have to.

  "Afterward," he promised. Oh, yes. Afterward.

  Slowly, the spirit smiled. For the second time in two days, man and demon were in perfect agreement.
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