Authors: Elisabeth Naughton
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Paranormal
Stay professional. You’re just being a Good Samaritan.
But oh, hell. She had an overwhelming urge to be anything but.
He moaned, tipped his head her way, eyes still shut. Absurdly thick, dark lashes any woman would die for fanned over the soft skin beneath his eyes. He didn’t feel hot, so she figured that was a good sign.
“Just breathe,” she whispered. “And sleep now.” She reached over to turn off the bedside lamp and forced herself to step away. “I’ll check on you in a little while.”
,” he whispered as she walked out of the room.
She hesitated in the doorway, struck by the fact he’d used the same term of endearment her grandmother had always used. His accent was definitely European, but not like any she’d ever heard. Eastern European maybe? But even that didn’t fit. Her grandmother had been born outside Athens, then immigrated to the United States when she was just a girl. And though Casey’s roots were Greek on her mother’s side, she knew for certain the endearment
was not a Greek one.
, she told herself,
but not a biggie
. In the grand scheme of things, what this man called her was trivial at most. Making sure he didn’t die on her watch was all that mattered.
“You are certain of this?”
Atalanta looked out across the River Styx in the belly of the Underworld and ground her teeth at what she had just learned.
“Yes, my queen,” her archdaemon said. “There is no mistake. Her essence was strong.”
She turned to look back at Deimus, the creature she considered her number-one daemon, and narrowed her eyes. Her bloodred robes spilled over her bare shoulder, the hems pooling on the blackened ground where she stood. “He was wise to keep her from us.”
“Yes, my queen. Wise but not perceptive. To think she would not be found was an oversight on the king’s part.”
“Hm,” was all she said. “And what of the princess?”
A low growl rumbled from Deimus’s chest. “The Argonaut Theron sent her back to Argolea before we could apprehend her.”
“I see.” She knew, of course, that Theron’s sending the princess home had drained the Argonaut of his powers. Just as she knew he still lived due to her daemons’ ineptitude. She lifted one eyebrow in challenge. “And he is dead?”
“No, my queen. The human woman interceded. She…When we recognized her, we came directly to enlist your guidance.”
“I see,” she said again, with perfect calm. She linked her hands behind her back and stared down at Deimus, three steps below on the blackened ground. He was tall, but being one of the original heroes, so was she. And he
had not even a tenth of the powers she did. “Tell me of the princess.”
He breathed out what sounded like a sigh of relief. “She is fragile, my queen. For her, it is a matter of time. This one, however…” He hesitated. “She could strengthen their cause if left unchecked.”
“And yet you said she is but human.”
Deimus nodded. “Human and weak, my queen. Like all humans.”
Deimus didn’t know of the prophecy, but Atalanta did. The temper she’d so carefully tamped down rumbled deep in her soul. “Then explain to me why she still lives!”
He bowed his head in submission. The hesitation confirmed what she suspected.
Disgust roiled through her. She turned her full fury his way. “Do I not bleed for what I have created? Have I not sacrificed myself for what I have built?” She lifted her arms and looked to the swirling sky, now red and glowing from the rage that spilled forth from her body. “Did I not give up all that was within my grasp for immortality, to lead you and your rogue band?”
In two quick steps she was on level ground. His head darted up at her swift movement. She watched his surprised eyes as she deftly pulled the sword from his hip guard and, without looking away, threw her arm out sideways. The blade sliced the jugular of the daemon at Deimus’s left, sending him to his knees in a gasping gurgle of blood.
He made no move to help his brother in battle. Deimus’s shocked eyes quickly shifted from the daemon, who moments ago had stood with him in the human parking lot, back to Atalanta. His head dropped lower. “Yes, my queen.”
Atalanta’s disgust grew as she thrust the bloody sword to the ground and kicked the writhing daemon to his
back. Useless. All of them. Was she forever going to be surrounded by imbeciles?
“A human woman will not be the fall of what I am on the verge of commanding!” she yelled. “I have not spent the last three thousand years in the bowels of hell to fail now. Argolea belongs to
. And I will take my rightful place on the throne and rule that which should have been mine eons ago. Not the fool-hearted king, nor the hapless princess, nor the mightiest of the Argonauts can stop me from attaining what is mine. And I relish the day they are banished from my kingdom forever. She is but a human, as you so eloquently pointed out, Deimus. Find her. Kill her. And bring me her head.”
Green, catlike eyes lifted to hers. And smoldering in them was true fear. “But she is—”
“Do you dare question my authority?” she bellowed. “
am the goddess. You are but a servant in
realm. My dominion over the daemons is all-encompassing and the choices I make regarding that rule are mine alone. No god, including Zeus, can overrule my authority. Make no mistake, Deimus, if you cannot do the job that is before you, I will turn you over to Hades myself. You think this is bad?” She gestured to the limp daemon at her feet and slowly shook her head. “Your time in my kingdom will feel like heaven compared to what awaits you with him.”
Deimus’s head dropped once more, and though the tense line of his shoulders remained defiant, his acquiescence was palpable. “Yes, my queen.”
She waited until Deimus and his incompetent warrior fools dragged the mutilated daemon out of her stone temple, then turned her attention back to the River Styx. She drew in a steadying breath to calm herself as she climbed the steps again and stared out at the water.
Oh, how she hated them all. Every single Argolean. Especially the Argonauts. There’d been a time…
She ran her hand over her lips and thought back. Yes, there’d been a time when she’d wanted only to join them.
But that time was long over. Their dominance was nearing an end. Argonauts were merely mortal beings with longer-than-average life spans. They could be killed. They
be killed. She lived for the day the Argonauts—every last revolting one of them—was wiped from the face of the Earth and the Argoleans they protected were hers for the taking.
She’d had it with the Underworld. Her time was now.
She took another deep and calming breath. The prophecy would never come to pass. She had stopped it before. She would do so again at all costs.
A smile worked its way across her face as the knowledge relaxed her further. And ice, as cold and wintry as the winds that blow across the Arctic in the human world, solidified in the space that had once held her heart.
Casey was halfway to the living room, where she planned to lie down on the couch and get at least thirty minutes of sleep before she went to check on the mystery man in her bed again, when she heard a knock at her front door.
She froze, glanced at the clock on the wall—3:14
.—then at the door. And for a moment had a paralyzing flash of seething wild animals in the lot behind XScream.
Which was off-the-charts insane, because such things just didn’t exist.
The knock turned to a heart-thumping pounding. Her adrenaline shot through the roof.
Oh, God. What if that was…
“Casey?” A muffled voice called from beyond the door. “I know you’re in there. Your light’s still on.”
Panic turned to bewilderment to apprehension. What was Nick Blades doing at her house at three o’clock in the morning?
“Nick?” She took two steps toward the door.
“Open the door, Casey,” he said in a more forceful voice.
Her hand hovered over the doorknob as she glanced
down at her feet and suddenly realized she was wearing nothing but ruined Keds, blood-stained jeans and her bra. “Um. Hold on. I need to get, um…I’m not decent. Just…wait.”
She ran to the hall bathroom and grabbed her white terry robe, only to realize her hands were covered in dried blood. Crap. She didn’t have time to scrub them. Nick’s earlier warning zipped through her mind, and she knew for certain she couldn’t let him know about the injured man in her bed.
She tugged the robe on over her bra and cinched it tight, curling the collar up so it hid any blood that might have splashed onto her chest. Then she unrolled the sleeves as far as they’d go until they hung over the tips of her fingers. Confident her hands were now hidden, she glanced in the bathroom mirror and swallowed a gasp at what she saw.
Her hair was standing at odd angles, and dark circles had formed under eyes, but she figured, screw it. Whatever Nick wanted, she’d just find out quickly, then send him on his way.
On a deep breath she hoped would calm her nerves, she walked to the front door and at the last second remembered her shoes.
“Dammit,” she muttered under her breath as she toed off the bloody Keds and kicked them behind the door. Then she pulled the heavy wood back a crack and peered through the darkness to where Nick stood on her front porch.
And this time she did gasp. Silhouetted by utter darkness, his scarred face highlighted only by the light coming from her kitchen behind her, he was huge. Like a Mack truck come calling. He towered above her, a dark and dangerous badass biker dude, just as Dana had pegged him, with narrowed eyes studying her as if he expected her to do something completely unpredictable, like attack him.
That night three months ago flashed in her mind without warning. And as it did whenever the memory hit, her stomach pitched all over again. She’d left the club at two
. that night, headed for home. Halfway to her car, the two drunk guys who’d repeatedly tried to manhandle her inside stepped in her path and not so politely offered her a ride home. She said no, but they had other plans. Three minutes later she was flat on her back in the dirt of the adjacent empty lot, not more than a hundred yards from the club where she served drinks night after night. She knew they were going to rape her, possibly kill her, just as she knew there wasn’t a thing she could do about it.
And then like out of a dream—or a nightmare—Nick had materialized behind them. A towering, menacing threat from above. Even now she could hear the screams. Smell the blood. Conjure up the horrifying sounds that still woke her sometimes in the night. She’d covered her ears and rolled away in the dirt to get away from the horror. Where, thankfully, she blacked out.
She’d awoken in the hospital the next morning. Dana was there, holding her hand. Her friend told her one of the dancers had found her in the parking lot moments after she’d left the club, that she’d slipped on an oil patch on the pavement and hit her head. But Casey knew that wasn’t true. She still wasn’t sure what exactly had happened to those two losers, but she’d never seen them again. Nick, on the other hand, hadn’t missed a night at the club since.
This is Nick
, she reminded herself.
He saved you once. He’s not here to murder you in your sleep.
“Um, hi, Nick,” she said in what she knew was an unsteady voice. “It’s a little late. What can I do for you?”
a.m., her mind warned.
What the hell do you think he wants you to do for him?
“Everything okay?” he asked, tipping his head to the side, almost as if he’d heard her arguing with herself.
She nodded too quickly. Kept one covered hand clutching the lapels of her robe together, the other firmly on the door. “Yes. I was just about to go to bed. Is there something…wrong?”
His eyes narrowed to thin slits. He eyed the outside of her house. Looked over her head through the small gap in the door and into her living room.
Casey stiffened. “Nick?”
His gaze ran back to her. Rolled from head to foot. Not a steamy sweep, like she’d seen some men do at the club, but more of an observation. Like he was satisfying a curiosity.
“Cooking something?” he suddenly asked.
“Oh. Um.” Could he smell the lavender? She drew in a deep whiff without realizing it. “Just tea. I always have some before bed,” she lied. “Was there, uh, something you needed?”
His gaze settled back on hers, but she couldn’t read his stone-faced expression. Had no idea what he was thinking.
“There was a commotion at the club after you left,” he finally said. “Those college kids that you spilled beer on. They were asking about you, where you lived and stuff. That dancer, the one you don’t get along with—”
“Yeah. Paula. She was talking to them. I thought maybe she gave them your address. Figured I’d drive up here on my way home and check on you, just to be safe.”
“Oh.” Confusion at his sudden appearance turned to gratitude, though something in the back of her mind screamed,
Don’t you think it’s odd he feels so protective of you?
“Thank you,” she said, pushing that thought aside. “I’m fine, though.” She tried a smile she hoped reached her eyes and didn’t give away any of what she’d dealt with tonight. “Just tired. But safe and sound. So there’s no reason to worry about me.”
He didn’t look convinced. His gaze swept over her again, but he nodded, as if he knew not to press the issue. “Okay,” he said, backing off her porch and down two
steps, until he was on the ground but still taller than she was. “I’ll let you go back to bed then. Sleep well, Casey.”
He made it halfway down her front walk before common sense finally kicked in. “Nick?”
He turned slowly. “Yeah?”
“How did you find me?”
Her eyebrows drew together. “Oh. But—”
Her mouth snapped closed. By the time she thought to ask just how he’d wrangled that info from Dana, he was already on his Harley, revving the engine. Seconds later he was gone, and all that was left was the sound of his bike whining through the trees off in the distance.
Casey closed the door with a click, latched the dead bolt and turned the lock. Still reeling from Nick’s strange visit, she wove through the house to the hall bathroom.
Her mind was a tumble of activity as she slowly peeled the clothing from her body, then climbed into the shower and turned the water on hot. Fifteen minutes later, with the mystery man’s blood cleaned from her skin and her nerves somewhat steadier, she wrapped a fresh towel around herself and went to find clean clothes.
Her patient was still sound asleep in her bed, in the same position she’d left him—flat on his back, with his head tipped slightly to the side, his dark hair fanning over her pillow. Why hadn’t she taken him to the hospital before? Tentatively, she walked to the edge of the bed and felt his forehead again. Finding he was still cool, she lifted the towel covering his wounded leg and drew in a sharp breath.
It was already healing. A scab had formed over the wound as if it had healed for two days already. Unable to believe what she was seeing, she lifted another rag on his chest to see that the gash over his ribs was healing in the same way. Another on his arm. One on his chest. And looking closely at his face, she realized the swelling had
already gone down near his eye and that his scrapes weren’t nearly as fresh as they’d been only an hour ago.