Not after what had been done to Acheron when he’d been born.
"Fine," she breathed. "But next time you’re the one who’s doing labor duty. I get to sit there and hold your hand."
And again he laughed.
She glared at him. "You have no sense of self preservation, do you?"
"Akra-Tory want some of my barbecue sauce to use on akri if he don’t behave?"
Tory laughed again. "It’s all right, Simi. I’ll…" she screamed as something twisted inside her that felt like a broken bottle scraping her stomach lining.
Ash went pale. "Tory? Is something wrong?"
She couldn’t answer. All she could do was try to breathe.
Ash looked at Tory’s best friend Kim who was their lead midwife. Her features were drawn tight as she and Tory’s other best friend, Pam talked in a low whisper.
"What’s going on?" Ash demanded.
Kim turned to Danger. "Hon, can you go get Essie from downstairs?" Esmerelda Deveraux was another friend who was practically family. While Kim was a medical practitioner and experienced midwife, Essie was a medical doctor with an additional twelve years of experience with delivering babies at home.
Danger left immediately.
Tory screamed as the pain worsened.
Acheron’s skin turned from olive to mottled blue as his panic rose. "Answer me, Kim. What’s happening?" Oh yeah, the god tone came out. It was so deep a growl that it vibrated the room.
Luckily, Kim knew he was a god and she never panicked over anything. "I don’t know, sweetie. I’ve never delivered a nonhuman infant before. I don’t know if this is normal or not. That’s why I want a second opinion."
"How about a third?" Menyara asked as she, Essie, and Danger spilled into the room.
Ash stood up. "Don’t touch the baby, Mennie."
Menyara cocked her hip and head at his concern. Dressed in a flowing orange skirt and cream peasant blouse, she had her sisterlocks held back from her face by a striped red scarf. "Now I know you didn’t just come at me with your attitude, Mr. High And Mighty Atlantean God. Believe you me, if there’s one thing I know how to do it’s birth nonhuman infants. Been doing it since before even your old ass was born."
She held up her hand, cutting him off. "You know me better than that. I would never do anything to harm your baby and I’m not about to curse or mark it. Now let me take a look and see what’s going on."
Ash stood down. "I’m sorry, Mennie."
"It’s all right. I know where you’re coming from and I know you’re stressed. But don’t worry. We’ll take care of it."
Ash returned to Tory’s side.
Tory took his hand again and did her best not to scream out anymore. Her poor baby. From the moment she’d told him she was pregnant, he’d been terrified. He didn’t say it, but she knew. His childhood had been made so violent and traumatic by those who sought to destroy him that it’d left scars inside him that not even eleven thousand years could ease.
And all because his goddess aunt had touched his skin when she delivered him.
"It’s okay, baby," she said to him.
But still she saw the fear in his eyes. I can’t lose you, Sota. I can’t. He sent those words to her and her alone.
She smiled at him through her pain as she used the powers he’d given her to respond. I have no intention of leaving you. Ever.
"Is it supposed to do that?" Kim asked Menyara.
Menyara swallowed. "I’ve never seen anything like this."
"What’s wrong?" Tory’s heart pounded as her panic rose. For Menyara to say something like that …
It was bad.
"We need to do a c-section." Menyara directed the others as they scrambled to make preparations.
Ash went to look, then stepped back.
Tory panicked even more. "What is it?"
"Stay calm," Apollymi said. "It’s fine."
But it wasn’t fine and she knew it. That fact was etched in the horror on all their faces. More pain stabbed at her.
Within minutes, they had her prepped. But when Essie went to make the cut, the blade snapped in two.
The room began to shake.
Tory screamed as the baby rolled inside her. It was as if he was angry at all of them and taking it out on her.
The midwives looked hopelessly at each other. "What do we do?"
Tory’s vision dimmed. She was shaking uncontrollably.
"Do something!" Acheron shouted.
Essie swallowed. "We don’t know what to do."
They couldn’t take her to a hospital because of the fact that the baby wasn’t human. If he were like his father and had mottled blue skin and horns, it was going to be a little difficult to explain.
Apollymi gestured to Menyara and Acheron. "Use your powers to pull it out."
Ash paled even more. "What if it damages the baby?"
"Oh for goodness sakes, child. The baby will never be left alone and unprotected." She gestured to the crowded room. "There’s not a being here who wouldn’t lay their life down for him. He is not you, Apostolos. We don’t have to hide him."
Pam looked up from the monitors. "Tory’s blood pressure’s too high. We have to calm her down or she’s going to have a stroke."
"Calm her down? How?"
Tory screamed as the baby moved again. It felt like he was trying to rip her in half.
Kim blanched. "We’re going to lose them both."
Ash couldn’t breathe as he heard those words.
In all of his extremely long life, he’d never been more terrified. He couldn’t lose his wife. He couldn’t.
Hoping he didn’t do it wrong, he reached with his powers to pull the baby out.
Lightning burst in the room, ricocheting all over it. He had to duck to keep from getting blasted.
Tory screamed even louder.
And the baby stayed inside her.
"Oh that’s not good," Menyara whispered. She moved him aside. "Let me try."
This time, the lightning slammed her into the wall.
Ash looked at his mother who shook her head. "I’ve never seen anything like this."
Pam turned the monitors toward them. "She can’t take much more."
Ash met Tory’s gaze. The utter agony and terror there stabbed him. What were they going to do?
"Her heart’s failing."
Tears welled in his eyes. If she died because of this, because of him, he’d never forgive himself.
Ash frowned at Kat. "What?"
"She’s a goddess of childbirth. She was only a few hours old when she delivered Apollo from her own mother. If anyone knows what to do…"
Yes, but she was also his worst enemy. They hated each other. Why would she help?
And then another fear stabbed him. What if Artemis was doing this? She’d been known to kill women in the throes of labor. Could she hate him so much that she would kill Tory just to get back at him?
Of course she would
Tory screamed again.
Wincing, Ash teleported himself from his home to Artemis’s temple on Mount Olympus. He would rather be flayed, which he’d been many times, than come here. Only fear for Tory’s life would have him in this hated place.
Her receiving hall was completely empty. "Artemis!" he called, heading toward her bedroom. If she did have something to do with this, he would turn Simi loose on her. Fate and order be damned.
Artemis appeared in front of the doors.
Ash hesitated. There was something different about her. She still had the flawless beauty that had always been hers. The long curly red hair and eyes so green they betrayed her divine status, but there was a serenity to her that had never been there before.
"Are you all right?" She actually managed to look concerned.
"Tory…" he choked at saying her name as unimaginable fear and pain ripped him apart. "She’s in trouble. The baby won’t come and she can’t survive it. I need your help."
Her eyes darkened. "You would dare come here about that after all you’ve put me through?"
Oh yeah, there was the old Artemis he knew and hated. No mention of the fact that she’d stood and watched while her brother disemboweled him at her feet. Or of all the times he’d been beaten and humiliated while she watched on.
But none of that mattered to him.
Only Tory did.
Swallowing his pride, he kept the hatred from his gaze. "Please. Whatever price you demand of me, I will pay it. Anything, Artie. Just don’t let her die."
"She, a pathetic human, really means that much to you?"
"I would die for her."
Artemis pressed her lips together as tears glistened in her eyes. "You loved me like that once."
And he’d paid for that love in the most violent ways imaginable. "Please, Artemis. If you ever loved me, don’t make Tory pay. I’m the one who wronged you. Not her."
A single tear slid down her cheek. "Would you have ever begged for my life?"
"When I was human. Yes."
She reached out and laid her hand on his cheek. "I did love you, Acheron. As I have never loved anything else, other than the child you gave me. And you’re right to hate me. Because I’d never loved anything, I didn’t know how to take care of it. I didn’t know how to take care of you." She pulled his head down to hers and whispered softly in his ear. "I’m sorry." She placed her lips to his cheek and kissed it.
Then she vanished.
Ash scanned the room, trying to locate her. "Artemis?" Where had she gone? He shoved open the doors to her bedroom. "Artie?"
Still no answer.
Had her apology meant that she was sorry she wouldn’t help? Terror tore through him.
What have I done?
Ash raked his hands through his hair as he fought down his panic and rage. Fine, if Artemis wanted to be a bitch, he’d find some way to save his wife.
Closing his eyes, he went home.
And froze in the corner as he saw the most shocking thing of all time.
Artemis with Tory.
"That’s it, Soteria. Breathe easy." Artemis had one hand on Tory’s forehead while she gently rubbed the other over Tory’s stomach. "See how calm he is now?"
"He feels what you feel. He’s trying to protect you both." Artemis looked at the others. "All of you need to leave."
Kat stood up slowly. "Mom…"
"Leave, Katra. The baby wants peace."
"We’ll be downstairs," Menyara said.
Ash hesitated. "Am I to leave too?"
Artemis shook her head. "If you go, you’ll always think I’ve done something to the child to get back at you. Stay and know that I’m not hurting him."
One by one, she pulled all the monitoring devices from Tory. Then she cupped Tory’s face in her hand.
"Breathe slow and easy, then push. Not hard, but gently. Let him know that it’s safe and that you want him here to be loved."
Licking her lips, Tory nodded and did what she ordered.
After the fourth time, Artemis went to her feet. Then turned toward Ash. "Come, Acheron. Be the first to welcome your son into his new life."
She was right, he was still suspicious of her. All their centuries together, the only thing he’d ever been able to count on was her willingness to hurt him anyway she could.
But he did as she said. He went to Tory and with one more push, his son slid into his hands.
For a full minute, he couldn’t breathe as he stared at the tiniest, most perfect creature he’d ever seen in his life.
"Is it a smurf?" Tory asked.
Ash laughed. Since he was blue in his natural god skin, Tory had been joking with him that she wasn’t having a baby, but rather a smurf. Artemis cut and sealed the cord, then took the baby and woke him.
He let loose a wail that would have shamed Simi.
Artemis wrapped him in a blanket, then took him to Tory. "Meet your son, Soteria."
Tory stared in wonder at the tiny baby who, even now, looked just like her husband. He was perfect in every way. From the top of his head that was covered with blond fuzz to the bottom of his itsy bitsy toes.
Artemis started to move away.
Tory took her hand to stop her. Her emotions swelled inside, choking her. "Thank you, Artemis. Thank you."
Artemis smiled at her. "I hope he brings you as much happiness and pride as Katra has always brought me."
Ash came closer. "Thank you, Artie."
She inclined her head to him, then moved to leave.
"Aren’t you forgetting something?"
She paused at Ash’s question. "What?"
Artemis shook her head. "The happiness on your face when first you touched him was enough. I only wish you’d been there when your daughter was born, but that was my fault. I’ve had a lifetime of joy, hugs and love from her and you missed all of that because of my stupidity and fear. His life is my gift to both of you. Let’s hope the future is much kinder to all of us than the past has been." And then she was gone.
Tory stared in confounded disbelief. "What did you do to her?"
Ash shook his head. "I don’t think it was my influence."
"Then who? ‘Cause that’s not the Artemis who came at me over you."
Ash shrugged. "I don’t know. She’s been hanging out with Nick."
"Nick? As in I-hate-your-guts-Ash-go-die Nick?"