Simone felt sorry for him if that was the best he could do. But then she remembered a time when she’d felt exactly like he did. Jesse was the only reason she’d kept herself together. She wasn’t sure she’d have made it out of that dark hole she’d lived in after her parents’ deaths without him.
It was obvious Xypher had never had another person to rely on. Not even a ghost.
Her throat tight in sympathetic pain, she started walking down Chartres Street. Her condo was over on Orleans, not too close, but not that bad a hike, either. The walk would be quicker than trying to get a cab.
And at this point, she couldn’t even remember where she’d left her car. Okay, not true, she’d left it at Julian’s. But she just needed a few minutes at her place where everything was familiar. She needed something to ground her before the next round of lunacy assailed her.
As they neared the Hotel Provincial, she saw the way Xypher slowed down as a whiff of something good hit them. His gaze went longingly toward the Restaurant Stella. He didn’t say a word, but then he didn’t have to. His expression said it all.
"When was the last time you ate?"
He didn’t answer.
Simone pulled him to a stop. "Xypher? Food. When was the last time you had some?"
"What do you care?"
It was then she understood what those four words meant when he said them, No one in his life had ever cared before. Why should she, a stranger?
"I’m going to get something to eat." She held the bracelet up for him. "I suggest you follow me." She headed for the small Mediterranean cafe across the street that would be much quicker than an upscale restaurant.
Xypher wanted to curse as he followed her. But the truth was, he was starving, It was another one of Hades’ sadistic pleasures that Xypher could manifest weapons with nothing more than a thought-but not clothing, food, or money. Nor could he heal himself.
His stomach had been cramped with hunger even before Hades had dumped him here. For the last week he’d been eating things he didn’t even want to think about in an effort to at least get his stomach to stop burning so badly.
Even so, he wasn’t the land of creature to take charity. No one had ever given him anything. He was used to it.
Damned if he was going to beg.
Simone paused at the entrance until a woman in a white shirt and black pants came forward. "How many?"
Xypher looked at Jesse, who grinned at him. "I’m never counted. But I’m always here."
The woman grabbed two menus and led them to a small table in a comer, Xypher didn’t miss the way Simone very discreetly pulled a chair out for Jesse while making it appear she was using it for her jacket.
Ignoring Jesse, Xypher considered putting Simone over his shoulder and earning her out of here. Honestly, he couldn’t stand the thought of smelling all this food and not having any.
But then he was used to torture.
He sat down with his fury barely leashed. The woman handed him a menu and left. Xypher set it aside and stared out the window.
It was so strange to be back in the world after all this time. So many things had changed. Last time he was here, horses had been the best mode of transportation. There had been no electricity. Mankind had been afraid of the dark. Afraid of the dreams Xypher and his brethren gave them.
Now they mostly feared themselves and well they should.
Simone frowned as Xypher sat back, not even glancing at the menu. "Aren’t you hungry?"
The look he sent her chilled her to her bones. "I don’t have any money."
"Well, you don’t think I’d eat and leave you to starve, do you?" The sad thing was, he most likely did.
She picked the menu up and held it toward him. "Order something or I’ll order for you."
"Do you know what happened to the last person who took that tone with me?"
"Let me guess . . . Disembowelment. Probably painful. Definitely slow." She wagged her brows at him. "Lucky for me you can’t kill me so long as I have the bracelet on." She gave him a smug smile. "I’m having the shrimp cocktail and blackened chicken Alfredo. What about you?""
For the first time, she saw a humble look about him as he pulled the menu toward him like a sullen child.
"Kindness makes you uncomfortable, doesn’t it?"
He didn’t respond as his gaze skimmed the menu.
She let out a tiled breath before she exchanged a frustrated look with Jesse. She couldn’t believe she had an easier time talking to ghosts than she did talking to a flesh-and-blood . . . something seated in front of her.
What had they done to him to make him so closed off from everyone?
Xypher wasn’t sure what to order. Everything looked good and his stomach was burning. Not to mention he felt extremely awkward sitting here . . . like a civilized human.
No one had treated him like this. Ever.
He was a Phobatory Skotos. He’d spent his life making everyone around him tremble in fear as he gave them nightmares. Even the gods. He was evil incarnate. Even other Phobatory Skoti feared him.
And this woman had dared to order him around . . . She was actually quite pretty and more tempting than any woman should be while he had a goal so important. Until now, he hadn’t thought about how long he’d been without a woman. But her gentle hazel eyes set him on fire.
"Are you having trouble deciding?"
He blinked at her question. "How do you do that?"
"Talk to me like I’m normal."
She frowned at him. "Well, you don’t make it exactly easy. But I remember a time when I was angry at the world, too. All I wanted was to lash out and make everyone around me as miserable and angry as I was. That . . . need burned like a fire inside and obliterated everything else. Then one day I realized that the only one I was really hurting was myself. I might piss off other people, but within a few hours they forgot me. I was the only one who lived in perpetual hell. So I made the decision to let the anger go and move on."
How easy she made it sound. But it wasn’t that easy to just let go. "Yes, but you had a future to look forward to."
She shook her head. "It didn’t feel like that at the time. You have to remember that I saw my brother killed when he was only seven years old." She clenched her teeth as the familiar pain lacerated her. "He thought he had a future, too, and in one blink of an eye it was gone. So were my mother and my father …"
Her pain reached out to him; it was something he could relate to. But what surprised him was the little twinge inside him, a part that actually . . . no, it wasn’t caring. He wasn’t capable of that. It was . . .
He couldn’t place it.
"What happened?" he asked her.
She held her hand up. "I know I brought it up, but I really can’t talk about this right now, okay? Just because it was a long time ago doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt still. There are some pains that time doesn’t numb."
"Then you understand me."
Simone froze at that simple statement from him as she realized she really did. No matter how many years it’d been, the agony of their death was still raw and fresh. "Yeah. I guess I do. And if yours is even a pittance of mine, then I’m really sorry."
Xypher looked away as those words touched a part of him that hadn’t been touched in centimes. He didn’t even know why. It was like they had a connection through their pain.
"Do you like seafood?"
How did she do that? Such a simple question and yet it touched him. It made him feel . . . he couldn’t describe it. "I don’t remember. I haven’t been able to really taste food in centuries.’"
She laid her menu down on the table. "What have you been eating while you’re here?"
"Whatever I could find."
Simone’s heart clenched at his words. "We’ll get you the gyro platter and oyster plate. Between the two of them, you should find something tasty."
Xypher didn’t know what to say. Usually he was violent, wanting to lash out and hurt anyone around him, but sitting here like this . . .
He was calm and calm was something he hadn’t tasted in so long he’d forgotten how it felt.
Glancing away, he was tormented by old memories, Even before his emotions had been stripped, he’d been angry and bitter. Lashing out at everyone around him. He’d been raised among Sumerian demons, not humans or the gods on Olympus.
His mother’s people had been harsh and unforgiving. And in the beginning, he’d welcomed Zeus’ curse of feeling nothing at all.
Until Satara. She’d shown him other things. Laughter. Passion. For a time, he’d even deluded himself that he loved her.
In retrospect, it was enough to make him laugh. What did the son of a demon and the god of nightmares know about love? His own parents had been incapable of it. Love wasn’t in his genetic makeup.
But vengeance . . .
That was something he could sink his claws into.
A waitress came over, eyeing him as if she could sense his malevolent thoughts. She quickly tinned her attention to Simone who ordered for him.
Xypher listened to the melodic accent that made Simone’s voice seem softer and more gentle than any he’d ever heard before. Her dark brown hail’ hung in ringlets around her face while her hazel eyes reflected intelligence, curiosity, and an innate zest for life.
She wasn’t as skinny as the waitress who was leaving them. Rather she was robust. Healthy. And for the first time in centuries, he felt his body stilling with lust.
A mischievous glint sparkled before she took a sip of water, then spoke to him. "You’re being quiet, which is making me nervous."
She looked at Jesse before she answered. "There’s an old saying that the tiger lies low not out of fear but for better aim. It reminds me of
She sighed as she cupped her glass in her hands. "You really like to scare people, don’t you?"
"I was bred for it."
Jesse laughed. "Clan I sign up for lessons? I feel really shafted that I didn’t get to come back as a poltergeist." He held his hands Up at Simone. "Ooo, I’m coming for you."
Jesse let out a sound of disgust. "See. Laughter. I want, just once, to induce actual fear."
Xypher cut a look to the ghost to remind him that he could reach out and hurt him. Jesse immediately shrank back.
Simone leaned her head against her hand as she watched him. "You don’t have to do that, you know?"
"Grimace and yowl at everyone around you. Take a breath and relax."
"Relax?" Xypher was incredulous at her words. "You do know they’re going to be coming for us? You let your guard down-you relax-you die. Trust me. I have firsthand experience with that."
"Yeah, you said you were dead. What happened?"
Xypher fell silent as her innocent question dragged him back to the fool he’d once been. "I was betrayed by the only person I made the mistake of trusting."
"Don’t be. I’d rather have died than lived an eternity with a lie."
"Well?" Satara asked as Kaiaphas materialized in front of her.
"He’ll be dead soon."
She shrieked before she started pacing the small space that made up Stryker’s office. "That’s not good enough."
"Then I suggest you kill him."
"Don’t you dare take that tone with me." She snatched up the bottle on Stryker’s desk that held Kaiaphas’s soul inside. She lightly tapped the side of it against the desk, not hard enough to shatter it, but hard enough to sound like it might. "In one flick of my wrist, I could end your existence."
She saw the shimmer of fear in his eyes, but to his credit, he didn’t show any other concern over her threat. "Xypher was protected by a son of Aphrodite wielding the sword of Cronus. There was no way to defeat him and finish off Xypher."
Satara let out a disgusted breath. Relying on someone else was what had gotten her into this mess. Her only saving grace was the deamarkonian Stryker had given her. With that, Xypher could be found with little effort.
That was if the worthless demon before her was capable of it. "I want his head delivered to me, Kaiaphas. And if not his, I will take yours …"
He bowed low before her. "Your will be done, my mistress. My brother’s head will be yours."
Xypher had to struggle not to launch himself at the waitress as she brought food and snatch it out of her hands. The scent of it reached deep inside and literally made him ache for a taste of it. All he wanted was to tear into it like a rabid animal and it took all the restraint he had not to. But what amazed him more than the fact that he was able to stop himself was the reason why it was so important to him to behave.
He wasn’t about to let anyone humiliate him again.
"You’re nothing but a mongrel. Uncouth. Uncivilized. Disgusting. Who could ever love a beast?" Satara’s words rang loud and clear in his head.
Simone sat across from him, eating daintily, primly. It was obvious manners had been bred into her and for some reason he couldn’t even fathom, he didn’t want her to judge him like the rest of the world had and find him an animal, too. Never once had he cared what anyone else thought of him.
As if she could hear those thoughts, she reached across the table and placed one gentle hand on his arm, over the words he’d branded there. "I know you’re starving, Xypher. You don’t have to worry about your manners with me. Dig in."