Ash cursed as he realized he had no way to track him. Damn. "Jared!" he snarled, shooting his voice out into the ether so that the Sephiroth would hear it. "You don’t get it. If I die, the world dies with me. You can’t kill Nick Gautier."
Jared didn’t respond.
Ash let out an aggravated breath. Jared was right, Ash was charged with keeping the order of the universe. And no one was going to stop him from carry ing out his duties.
"Savitar?" he whispered, summoning him.
Savitar appeared as an apparition beside him. "What, grom?"
"You knew about Nick, didn’t you?"
Savitar averted his gaze, affirming Ash’s suspicion.
"Why didn’t you tell me?" Ash asked.
"I won’t tamper with fate. You know that. But, yeah, when you asked me to train Nick and I saw him for the first time, I knew what he was. It’s why I didn’t train him. Had I started, it would have unlocked his powers. His shield was solid so long as he wasn’t struck by those of us who draw our powers from the Source."
Ash frowned at the news. "Then why didn’t his powers unlock the night I fought him?"
"I don’t know. Probably had something to do with the fact that your powers are mixed. Or it could be something as simple as you two were close friends, and even though you fought, you wouldn’t have really killed him. Even at your angriest, you were never a real threat to him. He didn’t need his powers to protect himself from you."
"And yet I’m the reason he died."
"No, Nick is the reason he died. He pulled the trigger."
How simple Savitar made it sound, but it didn’t change the one single truth of that night. "Because I cursed him to it."
Savitar gave him a droll stare. "Be glad I’m not physically there or I’d slap you upside the head. You know how free will works, so stop the whining and get off the cross. Someone needs the wood."
Ash wasn’t amused and he wasn’t a martyr crying over inconsequential crap. There was no denying that he’d been the one to set all of this into motion. But past regrets weren’t solving the current problem. "How do I stop Jared?"
"You can’t. Only his master can rein him in."
"And if she won’t?"
"We’re all screwed."
STRYKER HATED HOW MUCH HE LOVED SEEING Zephyra’s belongings mixed in with his. Her hairbrush, her lotions. Her perfume. He picked the latter up so that he could smell it.
"What are you doing?"
He put the small glass container down immediately. "Nothing."
"It wasn’t nothing. You were mooning over my things, weren’t you?"
He arched one brow at her choice of words. " ‘Mooning’? What kind of archaic term is that?"
She returned his stare with one of her own. "You’re not going to distract me that easily. You were pining for me just now."
He took a step toward her and eyed her suspiciously, yet she showed no emotion whatsoever. If only he could train his men to be this effective . . . "Is that what you want me to say? You already know how much I missed you."
She narrowed her eyes. "But I want to hear you say it."
She leaned against him and gave him a glance that was part malice, part joy, and part teasing. "Because I want to see how much my absence has tortured you."
He started to leave, but he couldn’t make his body obey him. He couldn’t. Instead, he found the one simple truth leaving his lips. "I’ve missed you."
Zephyra wanted to slap him for those words. She wanted to beat him until the hurt inside her stopped aching. But she knew the truth. There wasn’t enough abuse in the world to erase the damage he’d wrought. "Do you think that fixes anything?"
"It fixes nothing." His tone was brittle. "But while you stand there, hating me, think of it from my point of view. I’m the one who f**ked up, and that’s the reality and knowledge I’ve had to live with every single day of my life. You were my one true heart. My other half and I walked out on you. Have you any idea how much that knowledge has eaten at me?"
She sank her hand in his hair and wrenched it until he grimaced. Unable to cope with all the tangled emotions roiling through her, she jerked him close and kissed him fiercely.
Stryker breathed her in as her tongue danced with his and he tasted her fully. In all his life, she was the only thing that he’d ever really craved. Needing to be as close to her as possible, he scooped her up in his arms and carried her to the bed.
She only broke from his kiss long enough to pull his shirt over his head. Unable to bear another second without her, he used his powers to strip their clothes off completely.
She pulled back with arched brows. "That’s a handy power you have there," she breathed against his lips.
Before he could respond, she rolled him over on the mattress, nipping at his chin with her fangs. Stryker growled at how good she felt. Holding her, he traveled back to the days when he’d been nothing more than a young prince. The world had been new and fresh. There had been no hatred in his heart. No loneliness.
In her arms, he’d always been able to see into forever.
Now she attacked him with the same fervor he felt looking at her. Closing his eyes, he savored her nak*d skin against his. Her hands clutching his body tight. Even though he was damned and lost, this was heaven and she was his angel.
Zephyra pressed her cheek against his as she tugged at his earlobe with her teeth. His whiskers scraped her skin, raising chills on her body. He smelled of male and spicy aftershave that blended well with her own scent. For years after he’d left, she’d kept his tunic and held it in the wee hours of the night, aching for his return.
In a fit of anger over Apollo’s curse, she’d burned it. But now that she was with Stryker again, she wanted to forgive him everything. To go back in time and keep him by her side.
If only she could.
"I need you inside me," she whispered. Their play could come later. Right now she wanted to be as close to him as was possible.
He answered her with one low groan as he slid himself into her body to accommodate her request.
She cried out in plea sure as she ground herself against his hips, needing to be a part of him. She’d forgotten just how good it felt to be with a man, especially one so skilled. His every thrust, every lick, set her on fire until she wanted to scream in bliss.
Stryker rolled with her, planting her in the center of the bed as he moved even faster and harder against her. His silvery gaze locked with hers, and there in the dim light the exposed vulnerability inside him made her breath catch. The arrogance of his youth was gone, and the pain inside the man tore her apart. So much had happened to both of them since that day in Agapa’s temple when they’d bound themselves as husband and wife.
Once again, she saw the tall, uncertain youth who’d laid the dagger’s blade to his hand as he cut himself. "With my blood, my heart, my soul, I swear to dedicate my life to yours. Wherever I am, you shall be with me in my thoughts forever. This I vow before your gods and mine. We are now united and only death will divide us." Then he’d leaned forward and whispered in her ear, "Even then I shall find a way to be by your side. You and me, Phyra. For all eternity."
A tear slid from the corner of her eye as that memory burned her. She’d believed in him.
She swallowed as he stopped moving and looked down at her.
"Am I hurting you?"
A sob caught in her throat. "You tore my heart out, you bastard. You made me believe in you when I believed in no one except me."
Stryker sucked his breath in at those words that shredded his soul. "All I ever wanted to be was the man you saw me as. I wish to the gods that I could undo what I did. That I’d stayed and died by your side as I should have. But I can’t undo the past. I can’t undo the hurt. I know it’s no consolation, but I promise you it was no easier on me." His gaze seared her. "I’ve never in my life apologized for anything. I’ve never begged anyone for anything. But I am sorry for what I did and I would gladly go down on my knees if you could forgive me for it."
She pushed him away, then rolled to sit up. "I don’t know how to forgive anymore."
Stryker winced as those words tore through him. He deserved nothing more than her scorn. But he couldn’t let it go at that. His heart broken, he moved so that he could gently unbraid her hair. The silken strands teased at his flesh as he remembered her brushing it every night before she’d joined him in bed.
Zephyra clutched her fists into the cover as his tenderness touched her deeply. She didn’t want to forgive him, but his words and sincerity weakened her. Looking at him over her shoulder, she melted even more. This was a man renowned for his cruelty and savagery. He hesitated at nothing.
Yet he brushed his hand through her hair as if afraid of hurting her.
How could she hate someone who loved her so much? Hate the man who’d given her the most precious thing in her life?
"This doesn’t mean I like you," she growled before she pushed him back and straddled his hips.
Stryker smiled as Zephyra leaned over him and sank her fangs into his neck to feed. He would gladly let her bleed him dry if it meant he could hold her like this as he died. His head swam with the scent of her, the sensation of her br**sts pressing against his chest while the small hairs at the juncture of her thighs rubbed against his hip.
Leaning his head down, he inhaled the valerian even as she nipped him painfully. This was paradise.
He brushed his hand down her arm until he laced his fingers with hers. Lifting her hand, he placed a kiss on her palm before he sank his fangs into her wrist.
She jerked ever so slightly, but she didn’t pull away. Stryker growled at the sweet taste of her. And as he drank, he felt her powers merging with his. Until now, he’d had no idea just how much demonic energy she held.
I should never have been able to defeat her. . . .
He tensed at that realization. She’d let him win. A slow smile curled his lips, but he didn’t speak. He didn’t want to anger her again. Not when they were like this.
She pulled back to stare down at him. He released her hand as her hair teased his chest. Truly there was no more beautiful sight than her rising above him while her bare br**sts brushed against him.
Zephyra was caught by the handsomeness of Stryker. The power of him. Now she knew the truth. He had restrained himself in their fight. He could have seriously hurt her and yet he hadn’t.
If only she could trust him again.
Did she dare?
He lifted himself up so that he could gently suckle her breast. Cupping his head against her, she shivered at the sensation of his hot tongue sweeping over her. He lifted her effortlessly and set her down on him. She sucked her breath in sharply at the sensation of his body inside hers.
She lifted his chin up so that she could taste his lips again while she moved ever so slowly against him. How she delighted in the way he felt. In the sensation of his breath mingling with hers.
Stryker couldn’t even think straight as his body cried out in plea sure. It took every piece of his control not to come from the sheer joy of being with her. He dug his nails into his palm in an effort to keep himself in check. But it was hard.
This was the only woman he’d ever loved.
A whisper of a smile curved his lips as he fingered her ear. There was one spot. . . .
Dipping his head, he swept his tongue behind her ear, down to the lobe.
She sucked her breath in sharply as chills spread over her, drawing her ni**les tight.
"You’re still so sensitive."
She gave him a heated look. "And what about you?"
"I’ve never been sensitive."
"Uh-huh." She swept her hands under his arms and down his ribs, making him jump. She groaned as it caused him to go even deeper inside her.
Laughing, Stryker pushed her back against the bed. Zephyra arched her back, bringing him in even deeper. He quickened his strokes until she couldn’t stand it anymore. She came in a bright flash of sensations that exploded through her. Crying out, she wrapped herself around him and held him close as her body pulsed.
Stryker growled as he joined her in release. He held her close as his body shook and his toes curled.
She was delicious and he wanted to spend the rest of his life entwined with her nak*d in his bed.
He pulled back with an arrogant taunt. "So tell me, love . . . are you disappointed?"
She crinkled her nose. "Hmm, well, all things considered, I suppose there is a term for it."
"And that is?"
He snorted at her bad pun. "The night is still young. I have many more hours left to savor you, and I assure you when I’m done ‘poor’ is the last word that will come to your mind."
She put on a haughty front, unwilling to let him know exactly how pleased she was with him. "Well, if you wish to embarrass yourself again, who am I to stop you?"
He tsked at her. "You’re so evil." He reached around her to pull back the covers so that he could tuck her into his bed.
"You were serious about continuing?" she asked.
"Absolutely. I have a few centuries to make up for."
She started to respond, but before she could there was a knock on his door.
He made sure she was covered completely, then he barked, "Come in."