The darkest night, p.5

The Darkest Night, page 5

 part  #1 of  Lords of the Underworld Series


The Darkest Night

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  Sometime during the endless night, Ashlyn stood and felt her way around the cramped cell. Her ankle throbbed with every step, a reminder of the hours she'd spent climbing the snowcapped mountains outside and the sense of hope she'd lost with six swings of a sword.

  Her search for a way out had proved fruitless. There was no window like the one in Rapunzel's tower, no wicked witch's magic mirror to walk through. Nor had she found any bars to squeeze through or tunnels to burrow into like Alice. Somewhere along the way, she'd lost her cell phone. Not that she could get reception in the dungeon of a castle.

  As time ticked by, the darkness seemed to close tighter and tighter around her.

  The mice had stopped squeaking, at least.

  She just wanted to go home, she thought, once again huddling on the floor. She wanted to forget this entire experience. She could live with the voices now. She would live with them. Trying to silence them had cost her too much. Her job, perhaps. Her lifelong friendship with McIntosh, maybe. A piece of her sanity, definitely.

  She would never be the same.

  Maddox's lifeless face would haunt her, waking and asleep, for the rest of her life. Oh God. Tears streamed down her cheeks, chilling with the cold. How many would she shed before the ducts dried completely? Before the ache in her chest faded?

  Please, just let me go, a voice babbled. Please. I swear. I'll never return.

  Me, too, she thought miserably.

  "Have you been here all night, woman?"

  A moment passed, the question unanswered as Ashlyn oriented herself. That voice. . . she would swear it came from the present, not the past. The rough, booming sound of it echoed in her ears.

  "Answer me, Ashlyn. "

  Another moment passed before she realized it was the voice that had come to haunt her above all others. A voice that was somehow imprinted in her mind, even though she'd only heard it a few times before. She gasped, eyes straining through the darkness, searching. . . searching. . . but finding nothing.

  "Ashlyn. Answer me. "

  "M-Maddox?" No, surely not. It had to be a trick.

  "Answer the question. "

  Suddenly a door was opened and rays of light flooded the cell. Ashlyn blinked against the orange-gold spots clouding her vision. A man stood in the doorway, a tall, black shadow of menace and muscle.

  Sweet silence - silence she'd only encountered once before - enveloped her.

  She flattened her palms against the wall behind her and inched to a stand. Shock pounded through her and her knees wobbled. He wasn't. . . He couldn't be. . . This wasn't possible. Wasn't even fathomable. Only in fairy tales did something like this happen.

  "Answer me," the man said yet again. There was violence in his tone now, as if he spoke with two voices. Both dark, thick and thunderous.

  She opened her mouth to respond, but no sound emerged. That double voice was guttural, turbulent and yet sensual beyond her wildest dreams. Maddox. She hadn't been mistaken. Shivering, she wiped at her tearstained cheeks with the back of her hand.

  "I don't understand," she breathed. Am I dreaming?

  Maddox - no, the man, for he couldn't possibly be Maddox, no matter how similar the voices - stepped into the cell. His attention jerked to the side, away from her, as if he needed a moment to compose himself.

  Golden rays of sunlight danced over him, reverently caressing his beautiful face. Same dark eyebrows, same thickly lashed violet eyes. Same blade of a nose and lush lips.

  How could this be? How had her captors produced the exact likeness of the man she'd met last night, down to that same feral edge? A man who stopped the voices of the past with his mere presence?

  A twin?

  Her eyes widened. A twin. Of course. Finally, something made sense. "They killed your brother," she blurted out. Maybe he already knew. Maybe he was glad. But maybe, just maybe, he'd take her into town and she could report the horrendous crime she'd witnessed. Justice could be served.

  "I do not have a brother," he said. "Not by blood. "

  "But. . . but. . . " Maddox will be fine, the gorgeous man had said. She shook her head. Impossible. She'd watched him die. But an angel could have been resurrected, right? A hard lump formed in her throat. The men of this household were most definitely not angels, no matter what the townspeople claimed.

  His gaze swept back to her, down her body in a possessive appraisal and up again. He scowled. "Did they leave you here all night?" Countenance darker by the second, he scanned the rest of the cell. "Tell me they gave you blankets and water and only removed them this morning. "

  Shaking still, she smoothed a hand over her face and through her hair, wincing at the tangles she encountered. Dirt probably caked her from head to toe. Like that matters. "Who are you? What are you?"

  For a long while, he didn't speak. Just studied her as though she were a bug under a microscope. She knew that look well. It was a favorite of everyone at the Institute. "You know who I am. "

  "But you can't be him," she insisted, not wanting to accept the other alternative. He was not like the others, the demons who had slain him. "My Maddox is dead. "

  "Your Maddox?" Something fiery flickered in his eyes. "Yours?"

  She lifted her chin, refusing to answer.

  Lips inching into what might have been a smile, he held out one arm and beckoned her over. "Come. We will clean you up, warm you and feed you. Then I will. . . explain. "

  That hesitation made it clear he wouldn't be explaining anything. He had something else in mind and his tone suggested that something would be intense. She remained in place, scared to the core. "Let me see your stomach," she said, stalling for time.

  His fingers gave a swift jerk. "Come. "

  A part of her wanted to go to him, to follow wherever he would lead. Because he did look like Maddox, and whatever else Maddox was, he'd still been the best thing to ever happen to her. But once again she held her ground. "No. "

  "Come. "

  She shook her head. "I'm staying here until you show me your stomach. "

  "I won't hurt you, Ashlyn. " The words not yet echoed from the walls - unsaid, but there all the same. Even more unnerving, the sound of her name on his tongue was decadent, as if he couldn't help but savor it. And desire another taste. "Ashlyn," he repeated.

  Another shiver raked her and she frowned. He shouldn't desire her, and she damn sure shouldn't desire him. "You can't be my Maddox. You just can't. "

  That intense, fiery something flashed over his face again. "That's twice now you've claimed me as yours. "

  "I-I'm sorry. " She didn't know what else to say. Maddox had saved her from the voices, for a little while at least. She had watched him die. They were connected. He was hers.

  "Don't be sorry. " He sounded almost tender just then. "I am Maddox," he insisted. "Now come. "

  "No. "

  Tired of her refusal, the man closed the rest of the distance between them. He smelled of wanton heat and primitive rituals performed in the moonlight. "I'll carry you over my shoulder if I must, just as I did last night. If I'm forced to do it, however, I cannot guarantee you'll make it out of this cell with your clothes on. Understand?"

  Oddly, his words were heady when they should have been frightening. Comforting when they should have been intimidating. Only Maddox knew the way she'd been carted. He'd switched her to his arms before entering the chateau and yelling at his murderers.

  "Please," she found herself saying. "Just show me your stomach. " The more she demanded to see it, the more she wanted to. Would she find stitched wounds? Smooth skin?

  Would there be any indication that this man had been stabbed over and over again?

  At first he gave no reaction to her request. Then, finally, he sighed. "It appears I am the one who will not make it out of here with my clothes on. " He reached for the hem of his black tee and slowly. . . slowly. . . raised it.

  Despite her insistence, Ashlyn couldn't yet work up the cou
rage to tear her attention from his intense violet gaze. She told herself it was because his eyes were so beautiful, so mesmerizing that she was lost in them, drowning. But she knew that was only half the truth. If he was stitched, was scabbed. . . if this was Maddox. . .

  "You wanted to look. So look," the man commanded, both impatient and resigned.

  Do it. Look. Inch by inch, her gaze lowered. She saw a corded neck and a wildly ticking pulse. A collarbone mostly covered by black cloth. She saw one of his thick hands fisting that cloth right above his heart. His nipples were tiny, brown and hard. His skin was that otherworldly bronze she'd admired in the forest, and he was stacked with rope after rope of muscle.

  And then she saw them. Six scabbed-over wounds. Not stitched, but red and angry. Painful.

  She sucked in a shocked breath. Almost in a trance, she reached out. Her fingertip brushed the scab that slashed through his navel. The healing sore was rough and warm and abraded her palm. Electric tingles rushed up her arm.

  "Maddox," she gasped out.

  "Finally," he muttered, backing away as if she were a bomb, detonation imminent. He dropped the shirt, blocking the injuries from her view. "Are you satisfied now? I'm here, and I'm very real. "

  He - no, not "he. " Maddox. Not his twin, not a dream. Not a trick. He'd been stabbed; the evidence was there, those six hellish wounds. He'd had no heartbeat, no breath. And now he stood before her.

  "How?" she asked, needing to hear him say it. "You're not an angel. Does that mean you're a demon? That's what some people have said about you and your friends. "

  "The more you speak, the more you hang yourself. Will you follow me now?"

  Would she? Should she? After that "hang yourself" remark. . . "Maddox, I - " What?

  "I showed you my stomach. In return, you said you would come with me. "

  Did she really have any other choice? "Fine. I'll follow you. "

  "Do not try to run. You will not like what happens. " Motions fluid, he wheeled around and marched out of the cell.

  Ashlyn paused only a moment before limping after him, doing her best to stay close on his heels. Her hands itched to touch him again, to feel the life pulsing beneath his skin. "You never answered my question," she said. The farther they walked from the cell, the more the cold air gave way to warmth. "If you are a demon, I can take it. Really. I won't be grossed out or anything. " She hoped. "I just have to know so I can prepare myself. "

  No response.

  Those flaxen rays of sunlight streamed through stained-glass windows, casting rainbow flecks on the stone walls. Fatigue and lack of nourishment must have weakened her, because she fell a few steps behind. "Maddox," she said, a low entreaty.

  "No conversation," he replied, his gait never slowing as they climbed a flight of stairs. "Perhaps later. "

  Later. Not what she'd hoped for, but better than never. "I'll hold you to that. " She stumbled and winced, sharp pains shooting through her ankle.

  Maddox stopped abruptly. Before she realized what he'd done, she'd slammed into his back with a pained cry. Immediately that tingling warmth returned, sparking, catching fire and spreading.

  As she struggled to find her balance, he hissed a breath through his teeth and spun around, pinning her with a vicious stare. His eyes were black, the violet gone as if it had never been. "Are you hurt?"

  A tremor swam through her. Yes. "No. "

  "Do not lie to me. "

  "I twisted my ankle last night," she admitted quietly.

  His features softened as his gaze slowly perused her, lingering on her breasts, her thighs. Goose bumps broke out over her skin. It was as though he were stripping away her clothing piece by piece, leaving her in nothing but flushed skin. And she liked it. Her heart fluttered wildly in her chest; moisture pooled between her legs.

  Suddenly she didn't care about answers, the pain in her ankle or the lethargy in her muscles. Her nipples hardened and strained. Her stomach clenched and unclenched with need. Her skin felt too hot and tight for her bones. She wanted his arms around her, comforting her, holding her close.

  A moment later, she realized she was reaching out.

  "No touching. " He jumped onto the step behind him, widening the distance between them. All hint of softness left him. "Not yet. "

  Her arms fell to her sides as disappointment crashed through her. No answers, no touching, she silently mocked, fighting off the decadent rush of pleasure that came with finally being close to the man who'd consumed her thoughts all night. His warmth, the silence. . . a combination lethal to her common sense.

  One stroke, that's all she'd needed - all she'd wanted, surely - but he was determined to deny her. "What about breathing?" she asked dryly. "Can I do that?"

  His lips twitched, smoothing the edges of his fierceness. "If you do it quietly. "

  Her eyelids narrowed to tiny slits. "Well, aren't you a sweetie. Thanks a lot. "

  That twitch became a full-fledged smile, the blinding force of it knocking the air from her lungs. He was beautiful. Absolutely mesmerizing. Ashlyn found herself caught in his snare yet again - how did he do that to her? - and again reached up without thought. Craving that spark of contact, yes, yes. Needing. . . needing. . .

  He gave a sharp shake of his head, humor suddenly gone. She stilled, annoyed with him, herself.

  "There is something I need to do before the touching can commence," he said, the words so husky and low she felt them as deeply as a caress.

  "What is it?" she asked, biting her bottom lip as violet began to reclaim his eyes, trickling from his pupils to overshadow the black. Amazing.

  "Doesn't matter. " Frowning, he reached out as if he meant to stroke her cheek. He caught himself and dropped his arm to his side, a mirror of her own actions a few moments before. "What does matter is that you never answered me. Were you in that cell all night?"

  His heady, masculine scent wafted to her nose, summoning her closer. She tried to resist, truly she did, but found herself leaning toward him despite his warning. "Yes. "

  Again, fury darkened his face. "Were you fed?"

  "No. "

  "Given blankets?"

  "No. " Why did he care?

  "Did anyone hurt you?"

  "No. "

  "Did anyone. . . touch you?" A muscle ticked in his jaw, once, twice.

  Her face scrunched in confusion. "Yes. Of course. "

  "Who?" he demanded. His face began that freaky change, gnarled skeleton flashing and churning under his skin as if he wore a see-through mask. Even his eyes changed again. Black covered violet, then red covered black, glowing ominously.

  Another of those hard lumps formed in her throat and she struggled to catch her breath. Not even in the forest, not even while chained to a bed, a sword slicing through his organs, had he exuded such ferocity.

  Why are you still standing here? Run!

  His expression twisted, as though he knew what she planned to do. "Don't," he said, confirming her fear. "You will only incite me further. This will pass in a moment. Now tell me who touched you. "

  "All of them," she forced out, remaining in place. "I think. But they had to," she hurried to assure him. She couldn't believe she was defending his murderers, but it seemed the fastest way to calm him down. "It was the only way to get me inside the cell. "

  He relaxed, but only slightly. The skeletal image receded and the red glow faded from his eyes. "They didn't touch you sexually?"

  She shook her head, relaxing a bit herself. He'd been angry with the men, then, not with her for resisting.

  "I will allow them to live. Barely. " Forgetting his own rule, he cupped his palms over her temples and forced her attention on his face.

  She experienced those electric tingles again as his warm breath fanned her nose. He was so big he dwarfed her, his shoulders so wide they engulfed her.

  "Ashlyn," he said gently.

  The swift change in him, from beast to concerned gentleman, was dizzying.

; "I didn't want to discuss this yet, but I find I must hear your response now. " Heavy pause as he stared at her. "I killed those four men last night. The ones following you. "

  "Following me?" Had someone from the Institute seen her and come after her? Had they - the rest of his words finally registered. She gasped as a high-voltage shock-wave slid down her spine. "You killed them?"

  "Yes. "

  "What did they look like?" she choked out. If Dr. McIntosh had been slain because of her. . . She pressed her lips together to cut off a pained moan.

  Maddox described the men - tall, strong warriors - and she slowly relaxed. Most of the employees she'd met at the Institute were older, like McIntosh. Many were pale, with thinning hair and glasses, eyes weakened from constantly staring at computer screens. Relief speared her, which in turn made her feel guilty. People had died last night. It shouldn't matter whether she knew them or not.

  "Why would you do something like that?"

  "They were armed and eager for battle. I had a choice - kill them or let them kill me. "

  He said it without a single hint of remorse, as though it were a simple point of fact. What a bloody, violent place this fortress had turned out to be. Maddox, too. Her savior spoke like a veteran soldier. . . or a cold and callous killer like his roommates. He didn't, and wouldn't, hesitate to slay.

  So why did she still want his arms around her?

  Whatever emotion Maddox saw on her face seemed to answer his unspoken question. His brow puckered and his mouth thinned. In displeasure? But why? Before she could study him further, he turned away and climbed two more steps, saying, "Forget I mentioned it. "

  "Wait. " She leapt forward, winced at the renewed pain in her ankle and grabbed hold of his bicep. A puny move, really, but he stopped.

  He stiffened, then slowly turned his head and growled down at her fingers.

  She jerked away from him. Not because of his reaction but because she'd felt more of those strange tingles. She'd have liked to believe it was static cling. Something, anything, besides more of that oh, so wrong desire.

  "Sorry," she muttered. No touching, she reminded herself. It was better for both of them that way. She couldn't seem to control her body's reaction when they were close. Actual, prolonged contact might reduce her to a drooling puddle. "Maddox?"

  In profile his expression appeared blank, completely devoid of emotion. "Yes?"

  "Don't be mad, but it is technically later so I'm going to bring us back to Topic One. What are you?" Before he could jump back into motion as if she hadn't spoken, she added, "I answered your questions. Please answer mine. "

  He didn't. But he did face her again.

  Nervous, she ran her tongue over her lips. His gaze followed the movement and his nostrils flared. She didn't mean to, but she started babbling. "Look, there are all kinds of unusual creatures in the world. No one knows that better than me. Did I mention I know firsthand that demons exist? I just want to know what I'm dealing with here. " Shut up. Stop talking.

  If only he would respond. She'd never had to fill a silence before. Never thought silence could be uncomfortable.

  He eased down a step, the action measured and precise as it closed the small distance between them; she eased down a step in response, widening it again.

  "No more questions. I want you bathed, fed and resting within the hour. You're covered in dirt, wavering on your feet because of hunger and there are dark circles under your eyes. Afterward, we can. . . talk. "

  Again that hesitation. It disconcerted her, and she gulped. "If I asked you to take me back to the city, what would you say?"

  "Unequivocally no. "

  I thought so. Her shoulders slumped. No matter how much she might want this man - or maybe because of how much she wanted this man - she had to start acting like a rational human being and escape.

  What if she was next in line for a stabbing? She wouldn't rise from the dead, that much Ashlyn knew.

  Yesterday she would've sold her soul to come here. Who are you kidding? You did sell your soul. She might not have learned to control the voices unless Maddox was with her, but she simply couldn't stay. There were too many uncertainties and too much violence.

  But to escape, she'd have to endure the mountain, the cold, the fog and the voices. You can do it. You have to do it.

  Maddox arched a brow. "Do I need to lock you up again, Ashlyn?" he asked, as if reading her thoughts.

  The threat scared and infuriated her, but she shook her head. No reason to upset him and risk getting herself killed or thrown back in that icy, damp prison, freedom unattainable. Outside of it, at least, she stood a chance. Small though it was.

  Silence isn't as sweet as you hoped, is it?

  "Do you want to leave because there is someone you need to speak with?" he asked. He failed to disguise his growing anger with that polite inquiry - she saw the flickers of it just beneath the surface of his skin. "Is someone anxious to know where you are?"

  "My boss," she said honestly. Maybe, if she found a phone, she could call him. He could then call the police - no. She nixed that thought immediately, reminding herself they might be entranced by the "angels . "

  But if she could call McIntosh, the Institute could devise a way to rescue her. She could return to her old life and pretend the last two days had never happened - even though the thought of abandoning Maddox created an inexplicable ache in her chest. Stupid girl!

  "Who exactly is your boss?"

  As if she would tell him and put an innocent man in danger. Instead, she gathered her courage and said, "Let me go, Maddox. Please. "

  Another pause, heavier than before. He stepped closer, placing them nose to nose as he had in the forest. His eyes were bright violet now. "Last night I told you to return to the city. You refused. You even followed me. You cried out for me. Remember?"

  The reminder stung. "A moment of insanity," she whispered, looking down at her hands. Her fingers were intertwined, the knuckles white.

  "Well, that moment of insanity sealed your fate, woman. You're staying here. "

  Maddox escorted the reluctant Ashlyn to his bedroom. He'd already cleaned the floor and thrown out the soiled mattress, replacing it with a new one from the array in the room next door. In anticipation of her seduction, he'd prepared a bath for her, made up a platter of meats and cheeses, opened a bottle of wine and turned down the clean, sun-kissed sheets.

  He'd never put so much effort into a coupling, had only heard Paris talk about how quickly women melted when men pampered them like this.

  Maddox hadn't realized Ashlyn would spend the entire night in a cell or that she would need all of this care thanks to his friends. His fingers curled into a tight fist.

  Her comfort doesn't matter. He wasn't sure who the thought came from - the demon or himself. He only knew it was a lie.

  "Bathe, change and eat," he forced himself to say. "No one will bother you. " He paused. "Is there anything else you might require?"

  She walked around him in a wide half circle, turning to face him almost immediately, as if she didn't trust him at her back. "Freedom would be nice. "

  "Besides that. "

  Her gaze scanned the room. He didn't like how pale she was, how wobbly and withdrawn. She had not been so drained last night, even in the bitter chill of the forest. "What about wiping out my memory of the past few days?"

  "Besides that," he repeated darkly, not liking that she wanted to forget him.

  She sighed. "No. There's nothing, then. "

  He knew he should leave, give her a chance to relax and follow his commands, but he found himself reluctant to do so. He leaned against the side of the door. She remained in the center of the room, arms crossed over her middle, stretching the pink jacket she wore over her breasts. His mouth watered.

  "Have you done this to many women?" she asked in a conversational tone.

  His eyes snapped up and locked with hers, his body tightening. "Done what?" Entranced them? Seduced them?
His throat was suddenly blocked by a hard mass.

  Now she snorted. "Locked them away. What else?"

  The mass quickly dissolved. "You are the first," he replied, doing his best to hide his disappointment.

  "And what do you have planned for me, special girl that I am?"

  "Only time will tell," he answered honestly.

  A shadow of concern darkened her expression. "How much time?"

  "We shall have to discover the answer together. "

  Now she flashed him a frown. "You're the most cryptic man I've ever met. "

  He shrugged. "I have been called worse. "

  "I'm sure you have," she muttered.

  Even the insult did not drive him away. Just a little longer. . . "I did not know what foods you would like, so I brought you a little of everything we had in the kitchen. I fear there wasn't much to choose from. "

  "Thank you," she said, then pressed her lips together. A flash of anger descended over her face. "I don't know why I'm being polite to you. Look at what you're doing to me. "

  "Taking care of you?"

  Her cheeks flushed, and she glanced away from him.

  "Do you belong to a man, Ashlyn?" he asked, hating the thought.

  "I don't understand your question. Am I married? No. Do I have a boyfriend? No. But I do have friends, and people will worry about me," she rushed to add, as if suddenly realizing she'd made herself vulnerable.

  Who did she hope to convince? Him? Or herself?

  "They'll search for me. They will," she insisted when he failed to respond.

  "But they will not find you," he said, confident. The four last night hadn't made it up the hill. Her other friends wouldn't, either.

  Her hand fluttered to her throat, drawing his attention to the pulse hammering there. Why did he find himself so entranced by the beat of her heart, compelled to touch the evidence of its movement?

  "I didn't mean to scare you," he told her. He wasn't certain which of them was more surprised by his words - Ashlyn or himself.

  "I don't understand you," she whispered.

  Neither did he understand himself. And the more he stood here talking to her, the less sense he made. He straightened. "Clean yourself up. I will return later. " Not giving her a chance to counter, he stepped into the hall, shutting the door without a backward glance.

  Better this way. From the moment he had asked her if she belonged to a man, the demon had begun to churn inside of him, eager for a fight. If he stayed, he would touch her. If he touched her, he would take her. But he did not want to risk tangled bodies and heated kisses turning to biting, clawing and a too-rough pounding.

  The delicate woman inside his room would not survive.

  "Damn this," he growled. Ashlyn was, beyond any doubt, the sweetest-looking human he'd ever encountered. His mouth still watered for her; his besieged body wept for her. Hurting her was not his desire, no matter that she had admitted to knowing about the demon, as only a Hunter or Bait could. No, he wanted only to pleasure her.

  Turning, he locked the door from the outside. Switching the tumblers was something else he'd done in anticipation of her seduction. Jumping from the bedroom's terrace would be the only other way out, and he doubted she wanted to fall five stories and land on jagged rocks. Still, he'd glued the window leading to the terrace shut, just in case.

  Maddox stalked down the hallway, praying the other warriors had not fled for the day. When he'd awakened in his already-healing body, his first thoughts had been of Ashlyn. He had prepared his room and a meal for her and sought Lucien, finding him in the entertainment room and demanding to know what happened.

  "Dungeon," the man had muttered, a strange glint in his eyes.

  Furious, Maddox had raced from the room, desperate to assure himself that she was in the same condition he'd left her in: alive and untouched. He'd thought that at least his friends would have given her food, water and blankets. Wrong. She could have frozen to death. She could have starved. And they wouldn't have known.

  Had they expected him to passively accept such a thing?

  Wrong again.

  One glance at Ashlyn's dirty, frightened features and he'd wanted to kill someone. He'd barely leashed the urge, telling himself she'd soon be lying in his bed, naked, open to him. And while that had calmed him, it had not calmed the demon - had only managed to incite it further.

  Now Violence needed an outlet for its growing rage. For only then would Maddox be able to touch Ashlyn without fear of snapping that fragile little body.

  Body. . . Ashlyn. . . two words sure to arouse him when used in the same sentence. Luminous as she was, she was every fantasy he'd ever had come to life, and he planned to sate himself inside her, over and over again, taking her in every position imaginable and even some that weren't.

  Soon she would want that, too.

  Desire had glistened in her eyes when she'd looked at him, and she had constantly reached for him, clearly hoping for some sort of physical contact. He'd even smelled her arousal, a perfume of passion, innocence and that delectable honey. He frightened her, though, and that fear overrode her desire.

  You should be happy that Bait fears you.

  Should, he inwardly scoffed. How he was coming to hate that word.

  Was she Bait, though?

  When he'd mentioned the four humans who'd followed her, she had appeared genuinely surprised. Horrified by his actions, true, but most women were horrified by war and carnage.

  More perplexing still, she had freely admitted to knowledge of the demons. He hadn't tortured her for the information. Why would Bait willingly do such a thing? Why not pretend she thought he was human to lower his defenses?

  And so far, she had not tried to lead him from the fortress, nor had she tried to let anyone inside. But then, she hadn't yet had the freedom to do so, he reminded himself. And she wouldn't.

  What confused him most of all, however, was that she had tried to save him from his friends. That, he couldn't rationalize away. Saving someone she'd meant to harm was ridiculous. She could have been harmed herself.

  She was a walking contradiction to his black-and-white world.

  Tomorrow he would deal with her true reasons for being here. Today, well, today was meant for other things.

  His boots clicked against the floor, the sound echoing from the walls. The entertainment room loomed ahead and he quickened his step. The spirit purred in anticipation as his bones ached for a fight.

  When he stood in the wide expanse of the doorway, he saw popcorn scattered over the floor and ground into the crimson rug. His trained eye spotted several splotches of dried blood. Obviously Reyes had been here. For once, the TV was switched off. Balls littered the surface of the pool table, as if someone had stopped a game midway through.

  But no sign of the men, not even Lucien. Where had everyone gone?

  Maddox stormed through the fortress, bypassing the luxuries they'd acquired over the years. The hot tub, the sauna, the gym, the makeshift basketball court. None of that would help him.

  He reached Paris's room first and burst inside without knocking. The black silk-covered bed was rumpled but empty. The blow-up dolls Torin had purchased were sprawled in every direction, a rapt but useless audience. Whips, chains and a variety of sex toys Maddox couldn't identify lined the walls. They weren't in use, which meant Paris should be inside the fortress. Somewhere.

  Shaking his head, Maddox stalked down the hall.

  Fight. Fight. Fight.

  He tried to ignore the demon's voice as he entered Reyes's room. No Reyes, and no sexual toys. Instead there were weapons. All kinds of weapons. Guns, knives, throwing stars. There was a blue wrestling mat on the floor with more dried blood splattered over it. There was a punching bag, a few dumbbells. Several holes marred the walls, as if someone had punched the stone until it crumbled into sand.

  He would have to patch those up later.

  Fight, fight, fight.

  Lucien's ro
om was locked, and no one answered when he knocked. Aeron and Torin's rooms were empty. Frustration rode Maddox's shoulders. Black spots were beginning to wink in and out of his line of vision.


  He craved Ashlyn, but he could not have her until the urge for violence was tamped - and that could not happen until he found the men. All of which only made him angrier. He strode back into the hall, his biceps flexed, the blood rushing through them blistering hot.


  "Where are you?" he shouted. He punched the wall once, twice, leaving a groove identical to the ones he'd seen in Reyes's room. His knuckles throbbed, but it was a good pain, a pain that made the spirit rumble happily.

  Maddox stopped and punched the wall again.

  He didn't have a lot of time. Midnight would come again. Death would claim him. Before that happened, he had to lose himself in Ashlyn. Had to know every inch of her body, for the torment of not knowing was far worse than burning in hell each night.

  What if the woman doesn't truly desire you? the demon taunted. What if she's pretending to want you so you'll give her information? What if she's thinking of another man every time you're near and her arousal is for him?.

  Roaring, Maddox once more slammed his fist into the wall. More of the stone cracked and crumbled. She wanted him. She did. Do not react. Do not listen to the spirit.

  Violence shut its mouth, liking his vehemence, his sense of possession.

  "What are you doing, messing up the walls rather than fixing them?"

  Maddox heard the familiar voice and spun. Blood dripped from his hands, warm and invigorating.

  Aeron stood at the end of the hallway. Light streamed in from the windows, dancing over the man's tough frame. One beam hit directly atop his dark hair, a bright crown that illuminated his decorated skin.

  As if it had never been stroked, never been eased, Violence howled to full life. Maddox pointed at his friend and scowled. "You left her down there. "

  "So?" The black demon tattooed on Aeron's neck seemed to blink its red-rimmed eyes, awakening from a deep slumber. Saliva seemed to drip from its sharp-toothed mouth. "Did she talk?"


  "Her reasons for being here. "

  "No. "

  "Let me ask her, then. "

  "No!" She was frightened enough. An image of Ashlyn as she'd looked inside that cell flashed through Maddox's mind. Her skin had been paler than the snow outside, the only color streaks of black-brown dirt. She'd been trembling. When that woman trembled, it should be from passion, not fear.

  Fight. Fight. Fight! chanted the demon again.

  "Where is she now?" Aeron demanded.

  "None of your concern. But someone is going to pay for the state I found her in. "

  His friend's violet eyes - eyes identical to his, as if the gods had been too tired to create something different - widened in surprise. "Why? What's she to you?"

  "Mine," was the only answer he had. "She's mine. "

  Aeron ran his tongue over his teeth. "Don't be foolish. She's Bait. "

  "Maybe. " Probably. He stalked forward. Seething. . . hungry. . . "At the moment, I don't care. "

  The warrior stepped toward him, equally infuriated. "You should. And you should not have brought her here. "

  Maddox knew that, but he wasn't going to apologize. He would do it again, if given the choice.

  "Take her back to town and figure out a way to wipe her memory," Aeron said. "Otherwise, she'll have to be killed. She's seen and heard too much, and we cannot allow her to report to Hunters. "

  They were almost upon each other. Maddox hadn't armed himself this morning, a fact that saved Aeron's miserable hide. He would have thrown a dagger in the man's dead, black heart had he been able. "I would rather hurt you. "

  The demon tattoo stretched its wings, fully awake now, and Aeron grinned slowly. "We do this, and you'll have to patch up the mess. "

  "And you'll have to clean it. "

  "Like I care. We going to get started or just talk about it?"

  "Oh, yes. We're going to start. " Maddox leapt.

  Aeron did, too. They collided in midair.
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