"They don’t know me."
"And we don’t know Zarek."
"I know his kind a lot better than you do, nymph. I’ve spent my life fighting men such as this. Ones who see the world as an enemy and who hate everyone around them."
Sasha let go of her and huffed as he lifted Zarek up from the floor. "Guard your heart, Astrid. I don’t want to see you hurt again."
Astrid sat on the floor as he took Zarek back to his bed, and thought about Sasha’s warning. He was right. She had been so beguiled by Miles that, even blind, she had failed to see him for what he really was.
But then, Miles had been an arrogant man. A vain one.
Zarek was neither.
Miles had pretended to care for others while he cared for no one but himself.
Zarek cared for no one, least of all himself.
But there was only one way to find out for sure.
Getting up, she poured Sasha a glass of juice.
"What are you going to do with him now?" Sasha asked a few minutes later when he rejoined her.
"I’ll let him sleep for a bit," she said evasively.
If Sasha knew what she had in mind, he’d have a fit and she was in no mood to deal with an irate wolf-man.
She handed him the glass, which he took without comment. She listened to him open the fridge and then moved to wait by the counter while he scrounged for food.
While Sasha had been taking care of Zarek, she had placed a small dab of Lotus serum into Sasha’s drink.
It took a little longer for the serum to work on him. Because of their metabolism, Were-Hunters were always harder to drug than humans.
"Astrid, tell me you didn’t do this?" Sasha said a short time later as the drug started to take effect. She heard the faint electrical crackle that heralded a change in his form.
Astrid felt her way over to him. He was already a wolf again and was sound asleep.
Alone now, she walked through her house making sure the lights and stove were turned off and the heat was set to a comfortable level.
She went to her room and pulled out the Idios serum. Holding it in her hand, she went to Zarek’s room.
She took a sip, then snuggled down to sleep by his side, to learn more about this man and what secrets his heart harbored…
Zarek was in New Orleans. Distant music filtered out through the cool night air while he paused near the Old Ursuline Convent in the French Quarter.
A group of tourists were gathered around a tour guide who was dressed much like Anne Rice’s Lestat, while a second "vampire" dressed in a long black cape and fake fangs stood back, watching him.
The tourists were listening intently as the guide recounted a famous murder in the city. Two bodies had been found on the front steps of the convent, completely drained of blood. The old legends said that the convent was believed to have once housed vampires who came out at night to prey on the city.
Zarek snorted at the absurdity.
The guide, who claimed to be a three-hundred-year-old vampire named Andre, looked over at him.
"Hey," Andre said to his group as he pointed to Zarek. "There’s a real vampire, right there."
The group turned as one to look at Zarek who stared evilly at them.
Before he could think better of it, Zarek bared his fangs at them and hissed.
The tourists shrieked and ran.
So did the tour guides.
Had Zarek laughed, he would have laughed at the sight of them tearing down the street as fast as they could run. As it was, he could only appreciate the mayhem he’d caused with a cynical twisting of his lips.
"I can’t believe you just did that."
He looked over his shoulder to see Acheron standing in the shadows like a dark specter, dressed in black and sporting long purple hair.
Zarek shrugged. "Whenever they stop running and reflect on it, they’ll think it was part of the show."
"The tour guide won’t."
"He’ll think it was a prank. Humans always explain us away."
Acheron sighed heavily. "I swear, Z. I was hoping you’d use this time here to show Artemis that you can mingle with people again."
He looked at Acheron drolly. "Sure you were. Why don’t you cover me in shit and tell me it’s mud while you’re at it?"
He started to walk off.
"Don’t walk away from me, Z."
He didn’t stop.
Acheron used his powers to pin him to the side of the stone wall. Zarek had to give the head Dark-Hunter credit. At least Acheron knew better than to touch him. Not once in two thousand years had Acheron laid a physical hand on him. It was as if the Atlantean understood how much mental anguish such contact caused.
In a weird way, he felt as though Acheron respected it.
Acheron met his gaze and held it. "The past is dead, Z. Tomorrow will become whatever decision you make here this week. It has taken me five hundred years of negotiating with Artemis to get you this chance to prove to her that you can behave. For the sake of your sanity and your life, don’t blow it."
Acheron released him and headed off after the tourists.
Zarek didn’t move until he was alone again. He let Acheron’s words wash over him as he stood silently contemplating things.
He didn’t want to leave this city. From the moment he’d arrived to see the crowd gathered at Jackson Square, he’d been enchanted with New Orleans.
Most of all, he’d been warm.
No, he wouldn’t blow this. He would do his duty and protect the humans who lived here.
No matter what it took, he would do what he needed to get Artemis to let him stay.
He would never kill another human…
Zarek had started on his way down the street when a group of four men caught his eye. By their extreme height, blond hair, and good looks, he pegged them for Daimons.
They were whispering among themselves, but even so he could hear them plainly.
"Bossman said she lives above Club Runningwolf’s in a loft."
One of the Daimons laughed. "A Dark-Hunter with a girlfriend. I didn’t think such a thing existed."
"Oh, yeah. Paybacks will be hell. Imagine how he’ll feel when he finds her drained, nak*d body lying in her bed waiting for him."
Zarek started to attack them right then, but paused as a group of humans stumbled out of a bar, into the street. Intent on their target, the Daimons didn’t even look at them.
The tourists stayed on the street, laughing and joking, never knowing that if not for a previous engagement, the Daimons would be headed straight for them.
Life was a very fragile thing.
Grinding his teeth, Zarek knew he’d have to wait until he could corner the Daimons in an alley where they wouldn’t be seen.
He dropped back into the shadows where he could still watch and hear them, and followed them toward Sunshine’s loft…
Astrid’s head ached as she followed Zarek through his dreams and let his anger and pain infiltrate her. She was with him in the alley where he’d fought the Daimons and was then assaulted by the cops.
And she was with him on the rooftop when he called Talon to warn him to watch after Sunshine. She felt Zarek’s rage. His desire to help people who could only scorn and berate him.
Wrongfully judge him.
He didn’t understand how to reach out to them.
So he attacked them instead. Lashed out at them before they could lash out at him.
In the end, it was too much for her to handle. She had to pull herself away from him or she might find herself driven insane by the raw intensity of his emotions.
It was a struggle to separate herself from him. The binding serum was strong and it wanted to keep them united, but as a nymph, she was stronger.
Summoning all her powers, she ripped her geist from his until she was no longer part of Zarek and his memories.
Now she was only a dream observer, so she could watch, yet not feel his emotions.
But she could feel her own and she ached for this man in a way she had never thought possible. The rawness of her recovered emotions overwhelmed her. His past and his scars tore through her, blasting away the numb cocoon that had encased her for so long.
For the first time in centuries, she felt someone else’s agony. More than that, she wanted to soothe it. To hold this man who couldn’t escape from what he was.
As she watched, Zarek’s dream darkened. She saw him struggle through a fierce blizzard. He was dressed only in a pair of black leather pants with no shirt or shoes. His arms wrapped around him, he shook from the cold and trudged forward, cursing at the howling winds as he stumbled and fell in the ice-cold waist-deep snow.
Every time he fell, he pushed himself up and kept going. His strength amazed her.
The winds whipped at his broad, tawny shoulders, blowing his long black hair around his clean-shaven face. He squinted as if trying to see through the storm.
But there was nothing around them. Nothing but white, barren landscape.
Numb to the cold that plagued him, Astrid followed him.
"I won’t die," Zarek snarled, gaining speed as he walked. He looked up at the starless, black sky. "Do you hear me, Artemis? Acheron? I won’t give either of you the satisfaction."
He started running then, trudging through the crunching snow like a child running after a toy. His feet were red from the cold, his bare skin mottled.
Astrid struggled to keep up.
Until he fell.
Zarek lay quietly in the snow, facedown with one arm above his head and one out before him, panting from his run. She stared at the tattoo at the base of his spine that moved with his breaths.
Rolling over onto his back, he looked up at the black sky as the snowflakes fell on his nak*d upper body and leather pants. His wet black hair was plastered to his head. He continued to breathe heavily while his teeth chattered from the cold.
Still he didn’t move.
"I just want to be warm," he whispered. "Just once let me be warm. Is there no star capable of sharing its fire with me?"
She frowned at his odd question, but then, in dreams bizarre phrases and events were commonplace.
Zarek rolled over again and pushed himself up, then continued through the blizzard.
He led her toward a small, isolated cabin in the middle of the woods. There was only one window, but the light inside was a bright beacon in the cold desolation of the arctic storm.
It looked so inviting.
Astrid heard laughter and conversations coming from inside.
Zarek stumbled toward the solitary side window. Breathing heavily, he splayed his hand against the frosty glass pane as he stared inside like a small, hungry child standing outside a fancy restaurant where he knew he would never be welcomed.
She came up behind him so that she could see inside, too.
The cabin was filled with Dark-Hunters. They were celebrating something while a blazing fire roared in the fireplace. There was food and drink aplenty while they laughed, drank, and spoke to each other like brothers and sisters. A family.
Astrid didn’t recognize any of them, except for Acheron. But it was obvious Zarek knew them all.
Clenching his fist, he pushed himself away from the window and headed to the front door of the cabin.
Zarek pounded fiercely on it. "Let me in," he demanded.
A tall blond man opened the door. He wore a black leather motorcycle jacket with red Celtic scrollwork on it and a pair of black leather pants. His dark brown eyes were scornful and held an extremely distasteful look on his handsome face. "No one wants you here, Zarek."
The blond tried to close the door.
Zarek braced one hand against the doorframe and the other against the door so that he could keep the man from shutting him out. "Damn you, Celt. Let me in."
The Celt stepped back as Acheron came forward to block Zarek’s way. "What do you want, Z?"
Zarek’s face was anguished as he met Acheron’s gaze. "I want to come in." He hesitated and when he spoke his next words, his eyes were bright with humiliation and need. "Please, Acheron. Please let me in."
There were no emotions on Acheron’s face. Not one.
"You’re not welcome here, Z. You’ll never be welcome among us."
He closed the door.
Zarek pounded against the wood and cursed. "Damn you, Acheron! Damn all of you!" Then he kicked the door and tried the knob again. "Why won’t you just kill me, you bastard! Why?"
This time when Zarek spoke, the anger was gone from his voice. It was hollow and needful, aching, and it affected her even more than when he’d asked to die. "Let me in, Ash, I swear I’ll behave. I swear it. Please don’t leave me out here alone. I don’t want to be cold anymore. Please!"
Tears fell down Astrid’s face as she watched Zarek beating against the door, demanding they open it.
No one came.
The laughter continued inside as if he didn’t exist
In that moment, Astrid fully understood the desolate isolation he felt. The loneliness and abandonment.
"Fuck all of you!" Zarek roared. "I don’t need any of you. I don’t need anything."
Finally, Zarek threw his back against the door and then slid down to kneel in the midst of the cold, swirling winds. His hair and eyelashes were white and frozen from the snow, his exposed skin red.
He closed his eyes as if the sound of their merriment was more than he could take. "I don’t need anything or anyone," he whispered.
And then everything in the dream changed. The cabin shifted form until it became her temporary house in Alaska.
There were no more Dark-Hunters in his dream. No more storm. It was a perfect, peaceful night.