Acheron (Page 69)

Acheron (Dark-Hunter #15)(69)
Author: Sherrilyn Kenyon

"Look at me, Ash."

Ash ground his teeth as he remembered Artemis telling him the same thing. Back then, he’d been afraid of her hurting him over them. Now there was no fear of Tory doing him harm, but even after all these centuries he knew how seldom people met his gaze without curling their lips or cringing. He hated for anyone to see the evidence of his godhood.

Tory stroked his brow with a light, gentle touch. "Please, Ash?"

Bracing himself for her horror and fear, he looked up and met her gaze levelly.

Tory stared in shock at the swirling silver color. Never in her life had she seen anything like them. The color was so pale and pure. They reminded her of mercury. "Are you blind?" Even as the question left her lips, she knew it was absurd. He could see plainly.

His features were stoic. "No, I’m not blind. It’s just an unfortunate birth defect."

She saw the shame in his eyes as he spoke and it made her chest tight that something so beautiful would hurt him so much. "It’s not a defect. Your eyes are beautiful. Unique . . . like you. I think they’re very cool."

He glanced away.

She caught his chin and forced him to look at her again. "Who hurt you?"

His gaze was guarded. "What?"

Tory stroked his jaw as she realized how shrewish that must have sounded. "I’m so sorry, that was so nosy of me. It’s just, you’re so guarded and private about even the most innocuous thing. Like you’re afraid to let anything out for fear of it being turned against you. And it’s everything, right down to your eye color. I’ll bet black isn’t even your natural hair color, is it?"

Ash swallowed at her question. She was eerily perceptive. "Like you said, we barely know each other."

She brushed his hair back from his face. "Have you ever been intimate with anyone?"

"Of course I have."

"I don’t mean sexually intimate. I’ve no doubt you’ve been with countless women, even at your age. What I’m talking about is having someone who knows your most intimate thoughts. Someone you can be yourself with without fear of them judging you or thinking less of you?"

Ash laughed bitterly at the mere thought of being so open with another person. "It’s in the nature of people to hurt each other. No one really cares about your thoughts or your feelings."

Tory ached for him. He was so closed off that it made her want to weep. "I care about your thoughts, Ash."

"You? You’ve misjudged everything about me from the very beginning. I’m nothing but another ass**le you have to deal with."

"Because you haven’t given me anything other than your worst to judge you by. Why did you come to Nashville? Huh? Why was ruining my reputation so important to you?"

She saw the light fade from his eyes as he withdrew further into himself. But it was the pain in them that made her ache for him and in that moment she knew he’d had a very personal reason for what he’d done.

"Why, Ash?"

Her hall clock chimed.

He pulled back. "It’s nine o’clock. I have a date."

Bemused, she frowned as he left the kitchen with his beer and headed to her living room where he’d set up an Xbox 360 to her TV. At least that’s what she thought it was, but instead of being white it was covered with black hacker/pwn3d stickers.

Ignoring her, he pulled a T-shirt out of his backpack, put it on, then sat on her sofa and attached an earpiece to his head.

She sat on the arm of the couch. "What does pwn3d mean? I see that all over the Internet."

"It’s a gamer’s term that means you’ve been owned or defeated badly." He turned everything on.

"You do this a lot?"

"Every Saturday morning."

She rolled her eyes, waiting to see something like Halo or Gears of War or some other macho male game come up. So when it started out with pink dancing animals, she scowled. "Viva Pinata?" It looked like a young kid’s game.

"Yeah," he said as he signed in under his own name. "Hey Tobe."

She realized he was talking to someone on the earpiece.

"Yeah, I know I’m a little late. Sorry."

Confused, she saw Ash pick a fox character while someone named Tobinator was a bear. Then JadeNX joined in and Toki-san.

Ash glanced at her, then turned all his attention to the game. "Toby, watch Jaden. I heard he had a bad night and is in the mood for annihilation." He laughed. "End of the world’s not on me today, bud. Hey Takeshi, get your fat butt off me. You’re squishing the fox." He skidded his character sideways in the race. "There is no honor in sacrificing the fox, you ugly hedgehog."

Completely baffled by the fact a grown man was playing a small kid’s game, she went to bathe and dress.

She came back thirty minutes later to find him still at war with his opponents.

"Where’s a friggin’ rocket when you need it? Ah crap, Jaden, stop with the pollen. I hate that." Screwing his face up, he hit a button. "Yeah taste honey, you punk."

She heard the sound of a little boy’s loud laughter through the earpiece.

Ash’s phone rang. He glanced at it before he muted his earpiece and answered. "Hey, Trish. Yeah, I understand." He hung up the phone and returned to the game. "Guys, I think we have to declare Toby the de facto winner. His mom says he has to get out of his pajamas and get cleaned up to meet the world." There was an audible cry of protest. "I know, Tobe. PT sucks, but I’ll see you later, right?"

Ash smiled sadly. "Listen to Takeshi, buddy. He’s right." He paused to listen. "Good game, gentlemen. Thanks for the competition. Jade, me and you are going to rematch on this later. Peace, my brothers." He hung up and turned the game off.

Tory watched as he packed everything up. "Toby is how old?"

"Eight."

"And the other two?"

"Older than eight."

"So you grown men get online to beat an eight-year-old kid every Saturday morning?"

He laughed. "Nah, Toby always wins."

Tory let out an irritated sigh. "You see, you’re doing it again. Telling me nothing."

Ash turned to look at her. "You know trust is always a good idea . . . for someone else. Every time I’ve ever made the mistake of trusting someone . . . it was a mistake that I regretted and paid for dearly. I’m really happy that no one has ever hurt you badly. I haven’t been so lucky, okay?"

"I would never betray you, Ash."

He shook his head bitterly. "I’ve had people I’ve known a lot better than you tell me that. In the end, they lied and I was screwed over by them. No offense, but I don’t want a repeat."

Tory wanted to weep at that. How badly had he been burned that he couldn’t even tell her if the people on the other end of the game were friends, family or other?

"I’m going to go grab a shower." He picked up his backpack and took it with him.

Damn, she’d never seen anyone so mistrusting. He probably didn’t have anything in that backpack except for dirty underwear. But God forbid someone should ever see his undies-they might learn something personal about him like his clothing size. Call the feds! Such a thing could jeopardize national security.

Sighing, she picked up the black controller from the coffee table and paused as another thought occurred to her.

Don’t do it.

She couldn’t help herself. Turning the system back on, she signed in under Ash’s profile. JadeNX was offline, but Toki-san was still there.

She messaged him. "Are you a friend of Acheron’s?"

He came back with, "Are you?"

Dang, was everyone Ash knew defensive like that? "Yes. My name is Tory, would you please call me? 204-555-9862."

Her phone rang a few seconds later. Tory turned the game and TV off before she answered it. "This is Tory."

"Takeshi," he answered in a voice thick with a Japanese accent. "What do you want with me?"

She suddenly felt ridiculous and prying. "I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have bothered you. Forgive me." She started to hang up.

"Wait. You wouldn’t have contacted me without it being important. Is Acheron in trouble?"

"No. I’m an archaeologist and he’s staying with me because we think someone might be trying to steal some Atlantean artifacts my team has found." She had no idea why she was telling him all this. "Ash is so quiet about everything that I just . . . I don’t know."

"I wouldn’t tell him that you spoke to me. He’s very closed about such things and would take this angrily."

"I know. I shouldn’t have contacted you. I just needed to know that he’s . . . not insane or something."

Takeshi laughed. "You’re safer with him than with your own family. He holds his honor above all things, even his own life."

That made her feel better. "Thank you."

"You are very welcome." He paused before he spoke again. "Take care of him, Soteria. And remember it takes great courage and heart for a man who knows no kindness to show it to another. Even the wildest of beasts can be tamed by a patient and gentle hand." He hung up.

Tory stood there, digesting that last bit when it hit her . . . he’d called her Soteria.

How on earth had he known her real name when she hadn’t given it to him?

CHAPTER 9

"What did you do?"

Tory jumped at the sound of Ash’s deep, accented voice behind her. Guilty about contacting his friend, she turned around to face him and froze. Dressed in black pants and boots, he’d left his damp hair to hang freely around his broad shoulders. Good night, the man was unbelievably delectable. But it was the faded gray T-shirt that had a pile of skeletons on it that really caught her off-guard and made her wonder if his propensity for that wouldn’t have him kill her over what she’d done behind his back.

She cleared her throat and tried her best not to look too nervous. "What?"

"You turned something on while I was in the shower and froze the crap out of me."

Relieved that was all that had him ticked off, she laughed. "Sorry. Dishwasher. I won’t do it again."

"Please don’t. One minute it was scalding. The next freezing."

She scowled as she saw the dragon tattoo back on his forearm-where it’d been originally. "Is that like some sort of temporary thing you do to screw with people’s heads? I swear it keeps moving to different parts of your body."

Before he could answer, her phone rang. Tory groaned at the sound. "You know, between the two of us, we can’t have a minute’s peace from these stupid phones." She picked up the phone, surprised to find Bruce there. "Hey, sweetie. Did you get the journal for me?"

"No. Someone killed Dimitri last night and ransacked his place. They must have taken the book."

Staggering back at the unexpected news, Tory dropped the phone as horror and grief enveloped her.

Ash barely caught Tory before she fell to the floor, sobbing. "Breathe," he whispered.

But she didn’t appear to hear him as she kept saying, "No, no, no," in a low tone.

He picked up the phone from the floor. "Hello?"

"Where’s Tory?" a man demanded.

Ash looked at her. She’d gathered her legs to her chest and was sobbing against them while she covered her head with her arm. "She’s really upset. What happened?"

"One of our friends was killed last night."

Ash ground his teeth as he remembered the horror of Dimitri’s final hours-no one deserved that. "Okay. I’ll have her call you back when she calms down." He hung up the phone and pulled her against him.

Tory buried her face against his shoulder and wrapped her arms around his neck in a stranglehold that somehow didn’t manage to hurt him. "How can he be dead? Why?"

He held her close. "I don’t know, Tory. Shit happens to the best of us."

"No. Not over a f**king book." Her language shocked him and let him know exactly how upset she was. "Please, Acheron, tell me a book isn’t worth a man’s life." She launched herself from the floor and grabbed the phone.

"What are you doing?"

Lifting her glasses up, she wiped at her eyes as her cheeks flushed red with anger. "I’m calling everyone on my team and telling them to hide immediately. I won’t have another person hurt. I won’t!"

He didn’t try to stop her as he rose to his feet. Instead, he attempted to sense something about this with his powers. It was so frustrating to have no insight or clues about what was going on. He hadn’t felt this vulnerable since the day he’d died.

After calling everyone she could think of, Tory hung up and sighed. "Everyone else is accounted for and safe. Let’s hope they stay that way." Sniffing, she pulled her glasses off and used her shirttail to wipe the lenses. Ash admired the way she’d pulled herself together.

She put her glasses back on and pierced him with an angry, hurt look. "What do you think is in that book that makes it so important?"

"The end of the world."

She scoffed at him. "Be serious."

"What if I was?" he asked, wanting to feel her out and see what she’d do if she had it. "What if there was something in that book totally apocalyptic?"

She didn’t hesitate with her answer. "Then it would have to be destroyed."