The darkest night, p.9

The Darkest Night, page 9

 part  #1 of  Lords of the Underworld Series


The Darkest Night

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  When Reyes strode into Maddox's bedroom with the angelic-looking blonde Aeron was supposed to kill in tow, Maddox almost wept with relief. Ashlyn had vomited over and over again, until there was nothing left in her stomach. And then she had vomited some more.

  Afterward she'd fallen back onto the mattress and stopped breathing. Desperate, Maddox had hailed the Titan again, but the god had done nothing whatsoever. Once Maddox had agreed to repay him for any aid rendered, the all-powerful entity had abandoned him.

  The Titan had raised his hopes and then dashed them completely. Maddox had wondered at the being's intentions, and now he knew: utter cruelty, sadistic amusement.

  Reyes stepped out of the way and the little blonde rushed forward.

  "Help her," Maddox commanded.

  "Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod," she chanted. She paled as she knelt at the side of the bed. She was trembling, but gave Maddox an accusing glare. "What did you do to her?"

  Guilt intensifying, Maddox tightened his hold on the fragile, sick, dying Ashlyn. He barely knew the woman, but he wanted her to live more than he wanted to avoid hell's hottest flames. It was too sudden to feel this strongly, yes.

  It was completely out of character, yes. That, too. He could ponder his foolishness later.

  "She's not breathing," he rasped. "Make her breathe. "

  The blonde's attention returned to Ashlyn. "She needs a hospital. Someone call 911. Now! Wait, crap. Do you have emergency service here? Do you even have phones? If so, we need to call immediately!"

  "No time," Maddox snapped. "You must do something. "

  "Just call. She's - "

  "Do something or die!" he roared.

  "Oh God. " Absolute panic filled her eyes. "I need - I need to do CPR. Yes, that's right. CPR. I can do it. I can," she said, more to herself than anyone else. She jackknifed to a stand and leaned down, hovering directly over Ashlyn's lifeless face. "Lay her flat and then get out of my way. "

  Maddox did not even think of protesting. He rolled Ashlyn to her back and hopped onto the floor, crouching beside the bed. He refused to release her hand, however, retaining a tight clasp. The girl stood there for a moment, unmoving, panic still lighting her eyes.

  "Danika," Reyes said, a warning.

  The girl - Danika - swallowed and flicked Reyes a nervous glance. The warrior's dark eyebrows winged into his hair as he stared at her and asked, "Are you sure you know what you're doing?"

  "Of - of course. " Rosy color seeped into her cheeks as she once again returned her attention to Ashlyn. Flattening her palms just below Ashlyn's breasts, she pushed once, twice, and said shakily, "Don't worry. I've practiced. A dummy is the same as a human, a dummy is the same as a human. " Then she meshed her parted lips over Ashlyn's.

  For the next several minutes, surely an eternity that was worse than the hours Maddox spent burning each night, she alternated between pumping on Ashlyn's chest and blowing air into her mouth. He'd never felt so helpless. Time became an enemy more hated than ever.

  Reyes waited by the door, still and silent. His arms were crossed over his chest. He wasn't watching Ashlyn, but Danika, his expression shuttered. Maddox rubbed the back of his neck with his free hand, his own breathing so labored he could hear every exhalation echoing in his mind.

  Finally, blessedly, Ashlyn coughed and sputtered. Her entire body spasmed as she opened her mouth and struggled to suck life into her lungs. In - she gasped, choked. Out - she gagged.

  Maddox gathered her to his chest in the next instant. She struggled against him. "Hold still, beauty. Hold still. "

  Gradually her movements ceased. "Maddox," she rasped, and it was the sweetest sound he'd ever heard.

  "I'm here. " Her skin was still cold, still clammy. "I've got you. "

  Danika remained at the side of the bed, wringing her hands. White teeth bit down on her bottom lip, drawing a bead of blood. "She needs a hospital. Doctors, medicine. "

  "The journey from fortress to city would be too much for her. "

  "Wh-what's wrong with her? A virus? Oh God! I put my mouth on hers. "

  "Wine," Reyes answered. "She is sick from our wine. "

  Her green eyes widened and she flicked Ashlyn a glance. "All this from a hangover? You should have told me. She needs water and coffee to dilute the alcohol. " She paused. "For what it's worth, I hope - think she'll live, but you really should take her to a hospital and get her on an IV. She's probably dehydrated. " Even as she spoke, shades of color trickled back into Ashlyn's cheeks.

  "Hurt," Ashlyn whispered. Her hands clutched at Maddox's back, drawing him closer. Perhaps she felt as he did, that they could not be close enough. He would have burrowed under her skin if possible.

  "What else can you do for her?" Maddox demanded of Danika. "She is still in pain. "

  "I - I - " Danika pursed her mouth and glanced away from him, her gaze locking on Reyes. The warrior looked suspicious. Her eyes widened, and she snapped her fingers again. "Tylenol! Motrin. Something like that. That always helped my hangovers. "

  Maddox glanced to Reyes. "I've seen a commercial for such things, I think, but don't know where to obtain them. Do you?"

  "No. There's never been a reason to pay attention to human medicines. " Reyes didn't remove his eyes from the blonde; his voice sounded scratchy for some reason.

  Paris would have known, but Paris was not here. "Where can we get this Tylenol?" Maddox asked the girl, urgency consuming him.

  Danika's brows puckered in an imitation of Reyes as she glanced between the two men. There was an odd gleam in her lovely green eyes, as if he and Reyes had been speaking a foreign language and she could not grasp the specifics. "I have some in my purse," she finally said.

  When she failed to elaborate, he gritted out, "Go fetch your purse, then. "

  "Unless you free me, I can't. It's in my hotel room. What - what kind of wine did she drink?" she asked with barely a pause.

  "One you have never heard of, healer," Reyes said softly.

  He knew, Danika realized, suddenly petrified. What had given her away? Her panicked plea to call 911? Her nervousness? A shudder rocked her. Cold infused her blood. Then he stepped behind her, crowding her with his heat, his vibrant energy chasing away the chill. Her shudder became a shiver. She hastily moved away from him, afraid of her reaction to him.

  "You are a healer, aren't you?" he asked, his voice a mocking curse.

  Oh, yes. He knew. She twisted the material of her pants and swallowed audibly. At least he didn't rat her out - or slay her on the spot.

  She gulped. "You can't deny she's breathing now. I did my part. You owe me. "

  Reyes looked away from her, as if he couldn't stand the sight of her another moment.

  "Get Lucien," Maddox said.

  "Can't. He is otherwise occupied. " Reyes stalked toward the open door. "I'll be back," he called over his shoulder. "Watch the blonde, Maddox. She's wily. " With a jerk, he slammed the door shut behind him.

  Like an idiot, Danika nearly ran after him. He scared her more than any of the others, but for some reason she'd rather be with him. There was something about him that affected her. Deeply. The pain in his eyes, maybe. The fine lines of stress etched in his face, perhaps. He called to her on a primitive level. A level that claimed he'd keep her safe, no matter what threats he uttered.

  "If I have to chase you," the one named Maddox said, "you will regret it. Understand?"

  The blunt warning shoved the lingering heat from her skin. This man was completely terrifying. Every time he spoke, she heard a trace of brutality in his voice, as if it were infused in the undercurrents. As if he couldn't wait to inflict maximum pain on anyone who even glanced in his direction. She'd noticed in the past few minutes that his face sometimes mutated, a skeletal mask falling over his features. His violet eyes had flickered to black, then neon red, then black again.

  What kind of man - what kind of human - could look like that?

nbsp; A quake traveled from the top of her head to the bottom of her feet. As a child, she'd feared the boogeyman until her mother had told her the creature was a myth, a lie meant to keep children obedient. Danika thought perhaps she was staring at the boogeyman right now.

  Only when he gazed at the woman on the bed did he appear normal.

  "Understand?" he demanded again.

  "Yes. " She punctuated the word with a cooperative nod.

  "Good. " Promptly dismissing the girl from his thoughts, Maddox turned back to Ashlyn. Her trembling had escalated into wracking tremors. Her teeth chattered. Her eyes were open and a lone tear slid down her pale cheek.

  "Thank you," she whispered to the healer.

  "You're welcome. "

  "Feel better?" he asked softly.

  "Still hurt," she said. "Cold. But yes. Better. "

  Willing his own heat into her body, he said, "I'm sorry. " He rarely uttered those words. In fact, the only apology he'd made in decades was the one he'd offered his friends this morning. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. " He couldn't say it enough. "I'm so sorry. "

  She shook her head, then moaned and lay still. "Accident. "

  His mouth fell open in surprise and reverence. So far he'd caused this human nothing but pain, yet here she was, trying to absolve him. Astonishing. "You're going to live. I swear it. " Whatever he had to do to keep his vow, he'd do it.

  Ashlyn smiled faintly. "At least. . . silence. "

  Silence. That wasn't the first time she'd used that word. Nor was it the first time she'd said it with such awe. "I do not understand. "

  Despite her weakened condition, she managed another of those frail, sweet smiles. "Makes two of us. "

  Fireworks sparked in his bloodstream - that smile, so radiant, so lovely - warming him, arousing him, filling him with so much relief he was almost drunk with it. He opened his mouth to respond, not that he knew what to say, when Reyes sailed into the room, Aeron at his side. The other man's short hair gleamed in the light.

  Seeing them, Danika retreated to the wall, realized what she'd done and stepped forward again. She raised her chin again, reminding Maddox of Ashlyn in healthier moments.

  He had assumed Reyes had left the fortress and traveled into the city for Danika's purse, but Reyes's hands were empty. Anger slithered through Maddox, provoking Violence as a child would a beast in a cage, running a stick over the bars.

  A frown pulled at his lips. He'd hoped to see the last of the wretched demon today - at least until midnight arrived.

  "Why are you still here? Go get that purse," he commanded. Words he had never thought he'd say.

  "I'll take too long," Reyes said, looking anywhere but at Danika. "Aeron is going to escort the female into town. He says he's fine right now, that he has no desire to hurt her. "

  "Oh, no. No, no, no. I don't want to leave without my family," Danika rushed out on a panicked breath.

  Aeron ignored her and pulled his shirt off over his head. "Let's get this done. " He was tanned and muscled, a testament to his warrior's soul. He sported so many tattoos it was hard to distinguish one from the other.

  Maddox only recognized two: the black butterfly that flew along the waves of his ribs and the demon that stretched ugly wings over the contours of his neck. Just looking at him, anyone could tell he was a good man to have at your side and a bad one to have at your throat.

  "Stop. There's no reason to undress. " Danika shook her head violently. "Put your shirt back on. Right now, damn it!"

  Grim determination emanated from Aeron as he approached her.

  Danika locked her wild gaze on Reyes. "Don't let him rape me. Please. Reyes, please. "

  "He's not going to touch you that way," Reyes gnashed out. "You have my word. "

  There was something very odd about him, Maddox noted. His black eyes were edged with scarlet, a color-match to the scarlet butterfly tattooed on Maddox's back. Pain, it seemed, was working himself into a fit of violence. Over Danika?

  The girl wasn't pacified by his words, but Aeron continued his approach anyway. Danika scrambled from one side of the room to the other, strange noises emerging from her throat. Small, raspy pants, as desperate and feral as Reyes's suddenly quickened breathing. Maddox felt certain that at any moment, Pain was going to leap at Wrath and attempt to claw it to death.

  "Stop," Ashlyn said.

  Finally Aeron trapped the frantic woman in a corner.

  She screamed as her arms and legs lashed out, trying to keep him at a distance. "Don't touch me. Don't you dare touch me!"

  "I'm not going to hurt you," Aeron said calmly.

  She kneed the sensitive flesh between his legs. He gasped, hunched a little, but gave no other reaction.

  "Fuck you," she snarled, a wildcat that wouldn't be tamed. "I won't let you rape me. I'll die first. "

  "No rape. But if I must, I will knock you out. And you won't like my methods, that I promise you. "

  Far from subduing her, the threat merely enraged her further. She fought harder, slamming her elbow into Aeron's stomach, kicking him in the groin a second time. Obviously growing weary of her struggles, Aeron raised his fist.

  Ashlyn stiffened, moaned. "Stop this. I don't need the pills. I don't. "

  "Do not hurt her," Reyes growled.

  Aeron didn't strike. Yet. He ran his tongue over his teeth. "She made her choice. "

  If he hit her and Ashlyn witnessed it, Maddox feared she would want to leave again, would once again insist he take her home. "Calm down," he told Danika. "He only needs to accompany you into town. "

  "Liar!" Snarling, she used her leg to boot Aeron in the stomach.

  The warrior didn't budge. Disgust fell over his features, and he tightened the fist he still held in midair. "I warned you. "

  "Stop," Ashlyn called hoarsely.

  Maddox opened his mouth to utter his own command. He needn't have bothered. Reyes beat him to it. One second Reyes was on the far side of the room, the next he was at Aeron's side, gripping the man's wrist. The two glared at each other for a long, silent moment.

  "No hitting," Reyes said, and Maddox had never heard a more lethal tone.

  A battle raged in Aeron's eyes before he lowered his arm. Had he lied? Was the gods' decree already taking root? Was he fighting the need to hurt Danika? "Calm her down, then, or I will knock her out. "

  Reyes didn't move, just shifted the direction of his gaze. Tears poured from Danika's eyes, making the terror banked there glisten.

  "Don't let him do this," she whispered in that same broken tone Ashlyn had used. "I helped you, just like you wanted. Don't let him do this," she repeated.

  As quickly as Reyes had leapt to her defense, Maddox half expected him to give in to her plea. He was mistaken.

  "Stop fighting him," Reyes commanded, showing no mercy. "We need that medicine, and he is the only one who can take you to get it. You won't even scratch him because you can't afford to anger him. We clear?"

  A look of betrayal passed over her face. "Why can't he go into town alone? Why can't he buy the pills at the nearest drugstore?"

  "Maddox," Ashlyn said. "I'm better. Swear. I don't - "

  He squeezed her shoulder gently, but did not reply. Interrupting the trio would only increase the tension. Besides, he knew Ashlyn was lying. Pain still lingered in her eyes, glowing brightly.

  "Aeron is taking you into the city," Reyes continued. "He will not rape you. You have my word. " A muscle ticked below his left eye. "He would not know what to buy on his own - you must go. "

  Silent, shaking, Danika studied his face through the watery shield of her lashes. Searching for truth? Or for comfort? Finally she nodded, a single, nearly imperceptible incline of her head. She straightened and took a wobbly step toward Aeron.

  Without a word, Aeron grabbed her wrist and stalked to the room's only window. Its arching glass led onto a wide terrace. Danika did not protest, even as he unlatched the pane with his free hand, the glue Maddox had used earl
ier nothing to his superior strength. Cold air instantly blustered inside, virginal snowflakes swirling through the room. He released her wrist only to grip her waist and lift her onto the window ledge.

  "Stop him," Ashlyn rasped as Danika peeked over the rail and laughed bitterly, a little hysterically.

  "What are you going to do?" the blonde demanded. "Throw me? You're all liars, you know that? I hope every single one of you rots in hell. "

  "We already are," Reyes said flatly.

  Aeron gripped Danika's shoulders as he joined her, then spun her so that she faced him. "Hold on to me. "

  Another bitter laugh. "Why?"

  "So you'll live. " Large wings suddenly sprang from hidden slits in his back. They were long and black and looked as soft as gossamer, but the ends were pointed, sharp as knives.

  Ashlyn gasped in shock. "I'm better. I swear I'm better. "

  Maddox stroked her cheek, hoping to relax her. "Shh. Everything will be fine. "

  Danika's eyes widened unnaturally. "Stop!" She tried to wrench herself from Aeron's grip, tried to race back inside the room, but he held tight. She reached for Reyes. "I can't do this. I can't! Don't let him take me, Reyes. Please!"

  Expression tormented, Reyes stepped toward her. . . stretched out his arms. . . scowled. . . dropped them to his sides.


  "Go!" Reyes shouted.

  Without another word, Aeron jumped, falling from view and taking Danika with him. She screamed, but that scream soon became a gasp, the gasp a moan. Then the two came into view again, soaring through the air, Aeron's wings flapping gracefully, rhythmically.

  "Stop him," Ashlyn breathed. "Please. "

  "I can't. I wouldn't even if I could. Do not worry for her. The wings of Wrath are strong, well able to hold Danika's slight weight. " He searched the room for Reyes, who paced from one corner to another. The man was gripping a dagger by the blade rather than the hilt and blood was dripping from his white-knuckled hand onto the floor.

  "We need water and coffee," Maddox told him, remembering Danika's instructions.

  Reyes planted his feet and squeezed his eyelids closed, as if he fought for control. As if he teetered on the brink of a total meltdown. "I should have taken her myself, but walking would have taken too long. Did you see how frightened she was?"

  "I saw. " Maddox didn't know what else to say. Danika's fear was nothing to him when compared to Ashlyn's pain.

  Reyes rubbed a hand over his jaw, smearing a trail of crimson on his skin. "Water? Coffee, you said?"

  "Yes. "

  Seemingly grateful for the reprieve, Reyes strode from the room. Obviously Maddox wasn't the only one in the fortress who suddenly had woman troubles.

  A short while later, Reyes returned with the desired items and set the tray on the edge of the bed. That done, he left again. Maddox doubted he'd return. Shaking his head in pity - if Reyes felt for Danika half of what Maddox felt for Ashlyn, he was destined for a world of hurt, and not the kind he craved - Maddox reached over Ashlyn and gripped the tepid glass of water. He slid one hand under her neck, tilted her head, and placed the rim of the glass at the seam of her lips with the other.

  "Drink," he told her.

  Stubborn, she pressed her lips together and gave a slight shake of her head.

  "Drink," he insisted.

  "No. It will hurt my - "

  He dumped the contents into her mouth. She sputtered and coughed, but she did swallow most of it. Several droplets trickled down her chin. He tossed the empty glass onto the floor, heard a thud.

  Ashlyn glared up at him, accusation in those amber eyes. "I said I feel better, but that doesn't mean I feel great. My stomach is still sensitive. "

  His mouth edged into a frown. Caring for a human was difficult, that was for sure. He did not apologize for forcing her to drink, however. What she needed, she would get. Whether she wanted it or not.

  He gripped the mug of coffee, and his frown deepened when he realized it was cold. Oh, well. It would have to do. "Drink," he ordered. For whatever reason - he still wasn't ready to ponder it - she was important to him. She mattered.

  She was not escaping him. Not through death or any other means.

  Ashlyn gave no indication that she'd heard him and certainly no hint of her intentions. In the blink of an eye, she shot out her arm and knocked the mug out of his hand. The movement was weak, but the ceramic hit the floor and shattered, leaving a black, caffeinated river.

  Twin spots of color dotted her cheeks. "No," she said, drawing out the single syllable with relish.

  "That was uncalled for," he chastised, brushing moist strands of hair from her temples, savoring the feel of her silky skin.

  "I don't care. "

  "Fine. No coffee. " He stared down at her, this woman who had shaken his entire world. "Do you still wish me to let you go?" The question left his lips before he could stop it. He hadn't meant to put the request before her, since he intended to keep her by whatever means necessary, but there was a need inside him - a foolish need - to give her whatever she desired.

  She looked away from him, over his shoulder, past the wall, a peculiar intensity claiming her expression. Several minutes ticked by in silence. Torturous minutes.

  He fisted the pillow. "It is a yes or no question, Ashlyn. "

  "I don't know, okay?" she said softly. "I love the silence, and I'm beginning to like you. I'm grateful to you for taking care of me. " She paused. "But. . . "

  But she was still scared. "I told you that I'm immortal," he said. "And I told you that I am possessed. The only other thing you need to know is that I will protect you while you're here. " Even from himself.

  What a change the last hours had wrought in him. Yesterday - this morning, even - he had thought to take her body, question her, then kill her. Yet he had since done everything in his power to keep her alive. And he was no longer certain what questions he wanted to ask.

  "Will you protect the other woman?" she asked. "The one who helped me?"

  Unless someone figured out a way to defy the Titans, he doubted anyone could protect the healer. Not even Reyes. But he gave Ashlyn a gentle squeeze and said, "Do not give her another thought. Aeron will take care of her. " That was not a lie.

  Ashlyn nodded gratefully, and he experienced a twinge of guilt.

  A few minutes passed in silence. He watched her, happy to note that her color was returning steadily now and the glaze of pain was fading. She watched him, too, her expression unreadable.

  "How are demons able to do good deeds?" she eventually asked. "I mean, besides what you've done for me, you've done great things for the town with your donations and philanthropy. The people believe angels live here. They've believed it for hundreds of years. "

  "How can you know that they've believed such a thing for so long?"

  A tremor swept through her and she looked away. "I - I just do. "

  No, she had a secret, something she didn't want him to know. He cradled her jaw and forced her eyes back to him. "I already suspect you are Bait, Ashlyn. You can tell me the truth. "

  Her brow puckered, those dark, golden slashes drawing together. "You keep calling me that like it's something foul and disgusting, but I have no idea what bait is. "

  There was genuine confusion in her voice. Innocent or actress? "I'm not going to kill you, but I expect total honesty from you from this moment forward. Understand? You will not lie to me. "

  Frowning, she said, "I'm not lying. "

  Slowly his blood began to heat, the spirit once again making its presence known. He hurried to change the subject. Hearing more lies might cause him to snap, to hurt.

  Bait or not, he refused to let it come to that. "Let us talk of something else. "

  She nodded, appearing eager to comply. "Let's talk about you. Those men stabbed you last night, and you died. I realize you came back to life because you're an immortal demon warrior. . . thing. What I don't know is why they did it. "

bsp; "You have your secrets, and I have mine. " He planned on keeping her here and keeping her alive, and because of that, he wouldn't discuss his death-curse. She already feared him. If she knew the truth, she would despise him, too. Bad enough he knew what he had done to deserve such punishment.

  More than that, if word spread of what happened to him every night, people might forget his reputation as an angel. Someone could snatch his body, cart him away, set him on fire or cut off his head and there was nothing he could do about it. He might desire this woman more than he'd ever desired another, but he didn't trust her. Some of his brain, at least, was still in his head and not in his cock.

  "Did you ask them to kill you so you could go back to hell to visit your friends down there or something?"

  "I have no friends in hell," he said, insulted.

  "So - "

  "So nothing. " She opened her mouth to speak, but he squeezed her side. "It is my turn to ask the questions. You are not Hungarian. Where, then, are you from?"

  She settled into his side with a sigh, curling her body around his, back to stomach. That she was comfortable enough to willingly lie with him like this delighted him. "I'm from the States. North Carolina, to be exact, though I spend most of my time traveling with the World Institute of Parapsychology. "

  He flattened his hand on her belly and gently rubbed as he searched his mind for any reference to such an Institute. "And they are. . . "

  "Interested in the supernatural. The unexplainable. Creatures of every kind," she answered on a contented exhale. "They study, observe and try to keep peace between the different races. "

  He paused. Had she just admitted to working for Hunters? Their hate-filled actions had always been carried out in the name of promoting peace for mankind. His brow furrowed in confusion. An odd thing to do, and certainly a first. "What do you do for them?"

  She hesitated. "I listen in order to help find the creatures and any other objects of interest. " She wriggled uncomfortably against the mattress, no longer quite so content.

  "What happens when you find these things?"

  "I told you. They're studied. "

  When she did not elaborate, he stared up at the ceiling. His confusion intensified. Studied, as in killed? Was this a secret warning, her way of letting him know she did indeed work for Hunters? Did she work for them and not know it? Or was this Institute harmless and truly aiming for peace between the species? "Do the people you work with have tattoos on their wrists? A symbol of infinity?"

  She shook her head. "No, not that I know of. "

  Truth? A lie? He didn't know her well enough to gauge. Every fanatical Hunter that had attacked the Lords in Greece - and even those in the forest surrounding the fortress yesterday - had been branded with a tattoo. "You said that you listen. What exactly do you listen to?"

  Another hesitant pause. "Conversations," she whispered. "Look, I thought I could talk about this, thought I wanted to talk about it, but I'm not ready. Okay?"

  Violence sniped at that, and Maddox struggled to contain the demon. What was she hiding? "It doesn't matter if you are ready to talk about it or not. You will tell me what I want to know. Now. "

  "No, I won't," she said, stubborn again.

  "Ashlyn. "


  He was very close to rolling on top of her, pinning her to the bed and forcing the answers from her. Only the knowledge that she was still sick, still weak, held him in place. But he would get the answer one way or another. "Beauty, I ask only because I want to know you better. Tell me something about your job. Please. "

  Slowly she relaxed. "People who work for the Institute learn to keep quiet about their jobs. Not many civilians would believe what we do. Most would just consider us crazy. "

  "I will not think you crazy. How can I?"

  She sighed. "All right. I'll tell you about one of my assignments. Which one, which one," she muttered, then clicked her tongue. "I know! You might appreciate this. A few years ago, I - uh, the Institute discovered an angel. He'd broken his wings in several places. While we doctored him, he taught us about different dimensions and gateways. That's the best part about my job - with every new discovery we learn that the world is a bigger place than any of us ever realized. "

  Interesting. "And what does the Institute do with demons?"

  "Study them, like I mentioned. Step in and prevent them from hurting humans if needed. "

  Part of what she described meshed with the goals of the Hunters he had dealt with all those years ago, not to mention those he'd dealt with yesterday. The rest, well, didn't. "Your people do not believe in destroying that which they do not understand?"

  She laughed. "No. "

  Hunters did. Or had. At least, he thought so. So many years had passed since he had fought in that war that he sometimes had trouble remembering certain details. At one time, he knew he had understood why the Hunters wanted him and the others dead: they had done evil things, their abilities giving them the strength and longevity to do so forever if not stopped. But then the Hunters had killed Baden and his understanding had evaporated, for the demise of Distrust had divided the warriors. Half had craved peace, absolution and refuge, quietly relocating to Budapest. The others had sought revenge and remained in Greece to continue the fight.

  He'd often wondered if the blood feud still raged and if the Lords who had stayed in Greece had survived these many centuries.

  Maddox brushed a strand of hair from Ashlyn's temple. "What else can you tell me of this Institute?"

  Frowning, she turned her head and stared up at him. "I can't believe I'm admitting this, but I think they plan to study you next. "

  Now that did not surprise him. Whatever this Institute was, objective or war-hungry, they would be interested in the demons. But with Torin's sensors and cameras, they would never make it up the hill - and those that dared try would, in fact, be treated as Hunters, whether they were or not.

  "They can try to study us, but they will not find it easy to do so," he told Ashlyn. With her so near to him, her scent in his nose, he was catapulted deeper and deeper into sexual awareness. With every second that passed, he hardened a little more. She was soft and sweet. She was alive, feeling better with every second that passed. And she was his.

  Suddenly he found himself eager to forget the Institute, not learn more about it. "I want you," he admitted. "Very badly. "

  Her lovely eyes widened. "You do?" she squeaked.

  "You are beautiful. All men must want you. " He said the words and immediately scowled. If another man tried to touch her, that other man would die. Painfully, slowly.

  Violence purred in agreement.

  Ashlyn's cheeks colored again, reminding him of the roses he sometimes spied growing beside the fortress. She shook her head. "I'm too weird. "

  The flat assurance in her tone caused him to frown. "How so?"

  She looked away, saying, "Never mind. Forget I said anything. "

  "I can't. " He traced his thumb along her jaw.

  A shiver traveled the length of her body, followed quickly by goose bumps. She squirmed against him. Arousal suddenly scented the air, and his nostrils flared as he drank it in. "You want me, too," he said on a low, gravelly rumble of satisfaction, forgetting his question and her refusal to answer.

  "I - I - "

  "Cannot deny it," he finished for her. "So now I will ask again. Do you still wish me to take you home?"

  She gulped. "I thought I did. Only a few hours ago, I thought I was desperate to escape. But. . . I can't even explain it to myself, but I want to stay here. I want to stay with you. For now, at least. "

  His satisfaction increased, swimming through him, potent, intense. Whether she answered as Bait or simply as woman, at the moment he did not care. I'll have her yet. We'll have her, Violence corrected, frightening Maddox with the fervor of its tone. We will have her.
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