"Barely. Had I been even a second later…" He shook his head. "It was too close. My attention was on you and your comfort. It wasn’t on what it needs to be. I can’t allow my attention to falter for even a second. Good gods, can you imagine what it would have done to a child?"
Kat went cold with dread. "What are you saying?"
His golden gaze froze her to the spot. "I need you to go back to Olympus and stay there until this is over."
The mere thought of what he was asking set her temper on fire. How dare he even suggest such a thing. "Like hell."
But there was no backing down in his determined gaze. "Don’t you understand?" he said between clenched teeth. "This isn’t a game. We are playing with people’s lives… children’s lives. It’s not worth it."
She more than understood that. But for him to go up against the gallu by himself was suicide. "You can’t stand alone."
"Bullshit. I’ve been alone since the dawn of time. I’ve been fighting the gallu single-handedly and doing a pretty damn good job. Believe me, this has to be done."
No, she didn’t believe that. Not for a second. "Sin… you can’t throw us away because of what could have happened. You got here in time. You have to trust in that."
"And what if I hadn’t? What would you have told that kid’s parents then, huh? ‘Sorry I missed saving your daughter, but I was too busy having a nooner’?"
She was appalled at his crudity and deep down she knew there was more to this than just the close call. "What is really bothering you?"
All emotion fled his face. "I don’t know what you mean."
"Yes, you do. You know exactly what I mean. Something much deeper than a near miss is hurting you. What is it?"
Sin didn’t want to feel the pain that was building up inside him. He wanted to stay angry. Rage was something he could deal with…
Guilt, fear, regret, anguish, loneliness-those were emotions he’d gladly banished. They were the ones that weakened a man.
But when he looked at Kat, he felt all of them and he didn’t know how to rid himself of them without getting rid of her, too. "They got to my brother because I was tending to you, Katra. I was more worried over your welfare than his. And now I almost let one of them get to a kid. I can’t live like this. I can’t. I need my thoughts uncluttered. I don’t need a weakness of any kind in my life."
"Weakness?" He heard the pain in her voice and it tore him apart. "I can kick your ass any day of the week and six times on Sunday."
A part of him wanted to pull her close, but the sane, rational part knew he couldn’t. She was a danger to him, and he couldn’t lose her. He’d held his daughter in his arms as her life had drained out of her. He refused to relive that pain with Kat. Her death would shatter him. "You were bitten in a fight that I wasn’t even scratched in. Remember? You almost became one of them."
"Okay," she snapped, holding up her hands, "so I made a mistake. I forgot about the bite in the ensuing chaos of getting Zakar back. My bad. I own it. I named it. Sue me."
"You make it sound so simple, but it isn’t. I can’t afford any mistakes here, and worrying over whether or not they’re going to kill you makes me sloppy. It leaves them an opening to kill us both."
She gave him a knowing look as she calmed a degree. "I’m not Ishtar, Sin. I won’t fall victim to them."
He wanted to trust her, but he couldn’t. "You already did."
"It was a simple learning experience. I got it. It won’t happen again."
She was right about that. Sin wanted to reach out and touch her. But he knew he couldn’t. If he did, she would destroy his resolve. "And now you understand my point of view. I won’t bury you or burn you and I won’t jeopardize anyone else. It’s over, Katra. I want you to take your demons and leave."
Kat curled her lip as she contemplated the dismemberment of a stubborn man. Why wouldn’t he see reason? "Leave and let you be overrun by the gallu? What kind of a stupid plan is that? If you don’t want me, fine. I’m a big girl, I can handle that. But keep Simi and Xirena. They’re the one thing the gallu can’t take from you. Let them stand at your back and protect you… please."
"Fine. If that will make you happy, they can stay. Now I want you out of this."
Infuriated, Kat held her hands up in defeat. She could tell by his demeanor and tone of voice that he had no intention of allowing her to stay.
Maybe if she gave him some space, he might see reason. But knowing him, she doubted it.
"Whatever. Play all macho if that’s what makes you happy. I’m out of this."
Sin watched as she faded before him. His throat burned as every part of him screamed out for him to call her back. But he wouldn’t.
No, he couldn’t.
She was a distraction. But most of all, she was a weakness he couldn’t allow himself. He’d buried everyone in his life who ever meant anything to him.
He refused to lose her, too. Better to hurt a little bit now and know that she was alive and well than to be here and see her dead.
She would get over this and so would he.
Kat was livid as she shoved open the doors to her mother’s throne room. "Matisera?" she called, wanting her mom. She didn’t even really know why. Her mother wasn’t the most sympathetic or affectionate of women. Still, Kat needed to feel the comfort of her mother’s presence.
But Artemis didn’t come.
Acheron stepped out of the bedroom to look at her with a quizzical stare. "Is something wrong?"
Part of her wanted to run to him for comfort, but the other part wanted to keep her distance. Right now, he reminded her too much of Sin. "Where’s Artemis?"
Acheron pointed over his shoulder with his thumb. "Big house on the hill. It’s the one you really can’t miss. Gaudy as hell and seriously overcompensating for a complex of some sort. Zeus is apparently throwing a party and Artemis wanted to stop in and visit."
Of course she did. She’d probably be gone for hours-it was just Kat’s luck.
Acheron crossed the distance between them. "Is there something I can help with?"
"No," Kat said petulantly. "You’re a man and I hate all of you right now."
He took two steps back. "Fair enough. Since my presence is obviously causing you pain, I’ll take my manhood outside to the terrace, where you can join me if you can overlook my obvious birth defect."
Kat glared at him. It was just like a man to try to make light of this when it hurt so badly. It was why she hated all of their dreaded species at the moment.
Her father went outside to sit on the railing, with his back against a column. The angry part of her wanted to run outside and shove him over it and let him go sprawling to the ground below. And even though the thought gave her a moment’s amusement, she knew the truth. She wasn’t really angry at her father.
She wanted to crush Sin.
Unable to stand it, she went outside.
Acheron turned toward her with an arch stare.
"Why do all men have to suck?" she asked, folding her arms over her chest. "I knew you all sucked and still I stupidly fell in love with one of you. Why? Why would I be such a masochist? You pour your heart out to a man and what does he do? ‘Could you change the channel, babe?’ " she mocked in a faked masculine tone. "You’re all pathetically cold. You don’t care about anyone but yourselves."
Acheron duplicated her pose, folding his arms over his chest. "Do you want my input or is this just an angry tirade you need to vent?"
"Okay, you rant and I’ll add my comments at the end." Why did he have to be so damned reasonable? It actually snapped her out of her anger enough so that she was moderately accommodating. "No, by all means, go ahead. You have something to say, say it."
"For the record, this isn’t a male/female thing. It’s a people thing. You talk about men being cold… you should see women from my standpoint. We’re talking Arctic tundra would be warmer. Believe me, you don’t want to know my vantage point on your gender. As a man, if I grabbed your br**sts, I’d be arrested. Any idea how many women have felt free to grab my crotch at will?"
"Sorry, but it’s true. Women are just as quick to use a man as a man is to use a woman. It’s not right to judge an entire gender or group by the actions of a few ass**les… Now what has Sin done to cause you to hate all the rest of malekind?"
"It’s not just Sin," she said defensively. "Look at what Grandpa did to Grandma. What-" She caught herself before she let her next thought slip.
"I’ve done to your mother."
Damn, he’d guessed it. She bowed her head down, feeling sheepish and churlish. "I didn’t mean it like that."
"Don’t apologize. You thought it and I heard it loud and clear." Ooo, she’d forgotten about his ability to do that.
"No, you’re not," he said with an understanding smile. "It’s something you’ve thought about a lot. Don’t forget, you get that ability to read people and their emotions from me."
She was really squirming now. No wonder poor Kish had taken her head off. "Am I this obnoxious with it?"
"No wonder people get so irritated with me."
"I’m sure they forgive you quickly enough." Not really, but she didn’t want to argue with him. He leaned forward to pin her with an earnest look. "For the record, I haven’t done anything to your mother."
"You seduced her."
"I kissed her, and believe me when I say my intent was never to make her crave me. I was actually hoping she’d kill me for it."
His confession startled her-it was so extremely different from the way Artemis had portrayed the event.
He nodded and she could feel his sincerity. "There has never been a woman born I wanted to seduce, and that’s the truth. I have spent my entire lifetime trying to get people to keep their hands off me. So before you blame me for seducing your mother and then scorning her, get the facts. I kissed her once, hoping for death, and then she came after me."
It was hard for Kat to wrap her mind around that, but then again, it made a lot of sense.
"As for my parents…" he continued, "they were totally screwed up from the beginning, but that has nothing to do with you or me. And it definitely has no bearing on your relationship with Sin unless you make it so. Don’t. Your problems with Sin are simple. He’s scared and you’re pushing him to take a step he’s not ready to take."
"You told me to go to him. I did."
"And did you apologize?"
"Then give him time, Katra. When you’ve spent a lifetime being betrayed by everyone around you, it’s really hard to let that go. Sin is afraid of love."
She didn’t understand that. "How can anyone be afraid of love?"
"How can they not?" His face was completely aghast. "When you love someone… truly love them, friend or lover, you lay your heart open to them. You give them a part of yourself that you give to no one else, and you let them inside a part of you that only they can hurt-you literally hand them the razor with a map of where to cut deepest and most painfully on your heart and soul. And when they do strike, it’s crippling-like having your heart carved out. It leaves you nak*d and exposed, wondering what you did to make them want to hurt you so badly when all you did was love them. What is so wrong with you that no one can keep faith with you? That no one can love you? To have it happen once is bad enough… but to have it repeated? Who in their right mind would not be terrified of that?"
Kat swallowed against the lump in her throat as she heard the pain inside him. Her eyes tearing, she walked forward, into his arms, and hugged him.
Ash couldn’t breathe as he felt his daughter’s arms around him. Only Simi had ever held him like this. There were no demands or payment expected for the embrace. It was meant for comfort only.
And it meant everything to him.
"I love you, Dad, and I would never hurt you."
He closed his eyes as those words touched him deeply. "I know, baby. Just give Sin a little space and let him come to grips with himself and his past."
"And if he doesn’t?"
"I’ll take him outside and beat him for making my girl cry."
She laughed through her tears as she backed away from him.
"Absolutely. Forget medieval, I’ll break Atlantean on his ass, and you’ve seen what a ticked-off Atlantean god can do. Makes Hannibal Lecter look like a crybaby."
Smiling, Kat sniffed back her tears. "I’m going to hold you to that, you know?"
"Feel free. I live to kick the snot out of people."
Kat really liked that thought. She could just see Ash doing that, too.
She wiped her eyes before she had a weird off-topic question. "What do you do when Mom leaves you alone like this?"
He shrugged. "I write romance novels."
His response was so quick, deadpan, and unexpected that she was stunned. "Really?"
"Nah." He winked at her. "I’m not that talented, and I know absolutely nothing about romance. I only wanted to see your reaction."