- The Darkest Secret
Heavy eyelids blinked open, and through a misty haze she saw a tal , muscled warrior standing over her, a solid leg on each side of her hips. Amun. Her sweet Amun.
He slashed his serrated daggers with swift proficiency, his wrists arcing as his hands overlapped, quickly sailing apart and nailing a target. Or several targets at the same time.
Thin, scaled bodies—snakes, she thought groggily—fel al around her, crimson rivers flowing under her.
In death, their red eyes were fixed on her, their fangs forever bared but useless.
Those bodies continued to rain as Amun continued to slash, and a more fantastical display of male aggression and skil she’d never seen. But no matter how many reptiles he kil ed, more flew from the tangle of limbs, desperate to bite him. Many had already succeeded. His arms were covered with tiny punctures, his own blood dripping and blending with theirs.
None of the snakes had reached her, however. Every time one of them angled in her direction, either from in front or behind, he noticed and attacked. He protected her, even though he left his sides wide open to do so, al owing several other sets of fangs to sink deep.
She should help, do something, anything, but her limbs refused to obey her command to move. She drew in a deep breath—the air, so sweet, so pungent—trying to find her center, trying to tap into a reservoir of strength. Only lethargy greeted her.
Amun was panting, sweating, probably tiring and definitely needing her to do—her eyes were closing again…open, damn it…closing…thoughts fragmenting…darkness.
THE NEXT TIME HAIDEE managed to pry open her eyelids, she saw wide, rocky wal s painted red with blood and depicting horrific images that blurred at her sides as she…floated? Even from the swift glimpses she was afforded, she managed to spot three stabbings, two rapes and countless burnings.
Worse than the images, however, she saw an actual human body hanging from the domed ceiling, crows eating at its rotting flesh. What. The. Hel ?
Hel . The word echoed in her mind, rousing her memory.
She had entered hel with Amun. Her dream man. Her enemy. Her obsession.
Her head felt too heavy to turn even the barest inch, so she moved her gaze instead—and found herself peering up at his beautiful dark skin. He cradled her in his arms, his chest littered with tiny, seeping holes.
He stared straight ahead, his chin jutting stubbornly, his lips pressed into a thin, mutinous line.
He must be in pain, she thought, yet he carried her with careful, easy steps, doing his best not to jostle her. Such tenderness…such a darling man.
Would she ever figure him out?
She tried to open her mouth to thank him, to apologize for not aiding him in the Realm of Snakes, for actual y hindering him, but no words emerged. Her lips refused to even part, lethargy stil pumping through her at an alarming rate. Damn it. She owed him something.
He must have sensed her internal struggle, though he never looked down, never slowed his gait. Easy now, he said, that husky voice wisping through her mind. Don’t try to talk.
That. She could give him that. Obedience, just this once. Or again. With him, the lines had always been blurred. She closed her eyes and let the darkness once again consume her.
HAIDEE STRETCHED HER ARMS over her head, back arching, legs kicking out. In the back of her mind, she knew she’d grown used to hard, twig-laden ground, cramped cel s and general discomfort.
But, oh, not this time. The mattress beneath her was soft and smel ed deliciously of peat smoke and flowers. And sweet Lord above, she heard a crackling fire, felt wave after wave of delicious heat caressing her skin.
Only two things marred the luxury of the moment. A dul headache throbbing in her temples, and a gnawing sense of emptiness in her stomach. Both demanded attention.
Now. She blinked open her eyes, taking stock. She was sprawled on her side, lying on a bed of soft, colorful petals.
Inside a murky, barren cave. Had Amun picked the flowers from the forest and brought them here, just to ensure her comfort?
She jolted upright, heartbeat accelerating with gratitude, delight and awareness. So much awareness. He sat only a few inches away, within striking distance. Perhaps he was coming to trust her. A fire blazed in front of him, creating a symphony of music and heat. His bare back was to her. As she’d noticed before, he bore no tattoos, no scars. She saw only the ridges of his spine and a wide span of muscle and scabs.
From the snakes, she realized. The snakes he’d saved her from.
“Where are we?” she asked, surprised by the raw quality of her voice.
He didn’t move, didn’t even twitch with alarm at the sudden interruption. We’re between realms, I think.
We’re safe, though. I scouted ahead, and there’s nothing and no one for miles.
“Thank you,” she said softly. “For everything.”
He nodded. You have to talk to me, Haidee. Slowly he twisted so that his hip pressed against hers, and they were facing each other. I wasn’t sure how the ambrosia in the air would affect you. I wasn’t sure if I needed to try and purge it from your body or leave you be.
She knew she needed to reply but couldn’t. Not just yet.
She wanted to savor this moment with him, no animosity between them.
He was just so beautiful, his dark, fathomless eyes probing al the way to her soul. His lips, though taut with tension, could lure a woman to her own downfal . As long as she could have those lips on her body, that tongue licking, sucking and tasting, destruction hardly mattered.
More than embodying physical perfection, he was courageous, caring, protective. How could anyone consider him evil? Least of al herself?
Honestly. How could she ever hurt him? Even if he decided he no longer needed her and opted to punish her for her past sins? She wouldn’t be able to blame him. He just wanted to survive, as she always had.
And what if Baden had been just like him? she suddenly wondered, causing sickness to churn in her stomach. What if she’d helped kil an innocent man? Not that Baden had been innocent back then, but what if he would have matured into a dedicated warrior like the one in front of her?
What if they were al innocent? The sickness intensified.
Strider had spent those seemingly endless days with her, yet he hadn’t raped her, hadn’t tortured her, hadn’t hurt her as he could have. He’d threatened her, yes, but then, she had threatened him. She had even hit him, stabbed him.
He’d retaliated, once, but not as fiercely as he should have.
The Lords of the Underworld are the epitome of evil, Dean Stefano, the modern-day version of the Bad Man, the first Hunter she’d ever encountered, had always said. As right-hand man to Galen, who rarely made an appearance, he was currently in charge of the troops. They must be eradicated before their poison spreads. To you, to your loved ones. How many of your mothers have died of cancer? How many of your teenage daughters have been violated? How many of your spouses have betrayed you?
When someone had balked about kil ing another living being, Stefano had added stiffly, Kil ing a demon isn’t murder. Demons are animals, and those animals would slaughter your entire family without a single pang of remorse. Like a starving lion or bear. They attack and ravage thoughtlessly. Never forget that fact.
Wasted breath, she’d thought every time she’d heard that speech. Haidee hadn’t needed convincing. A demon had slaughtered her entire family. Not just once, but twice.
She’d always blamed the entire lot of them because, to her, a demon was a demon and evil was evil.
Now, with the proud, compassionate Amun so close to her, she at last saw the flaw in her logic. Evil destroyed. These men hadn’t destroyed her when given the chance, yet destruction had always been her ultimate goal.
How many times had she tried to eradicate the Lords? Had she even cared about the methods used?
A wail of regret suddenly caught in her throat. What if she was the evil one?
A firm arm slid under her knees and another wrapped around her waist. A moment later she was being lifted and lowered. After that, she was leaning against Amun’s massive chest, her cheek pressed into the hol ow of his neck. Gently he caressed her hair as if she was beloved rather than despised, as if her emotional state mattered.
What are you, Haidee? he asked again, voice as gentle as his touch.
She’d never discussed her…infection with another living being. Ever. Not even Micah. But this was Amun. Her Amun. As tears burned her eyes, she relaxed against him, flattening her palm against the heart beating so swiftly in his chest. He’d saved her; he deserved to know the truth.
“I’m not exactly sure,” she whispered. “Human, I know that much, but something else, too. I can be kil ed just like anyone else. Bleeding out, disease, starvation. But each time I’m kil ed, I come back, exactly as I am now.”
You’ve died before? I mean, I know you died that once, but you’ve actual y died several times? His tender stroking never ceased.
“Yes. More than several, though. I lost count a long time ago. Stil , no matter how long I manage to stay alive in one incarnation, I never age past this point. I guess my age just kind of froze after the very first death.”
So what happens after you die?
She shuddered. “It’s horrible. You’d think the pain of dying would be the worst, but no. The pain of rebirth, or whatever it is, is devastating. I’l feel my life slipping away, float in darkness for what seems an eternity, but then, when the light comes…” She shuddered again. “The light swal ows me, burns me to my soul, but not with fire, with ice, and my body wil begin to rejuvenate. I’m like a mother giving birth
—to myself. My bones feel like they’re being injected with acid, every muscle spasms and my skin feels like it’s being poured back on.”
Those warm fingers curled around her nape, the caress becoming a massage. Again, his touch was tender, and yet, as aware of him as she was, her sensitive flesh prickled, her nipples beaded, and an ache bloomed between her legs. How she wanted this man.
She had always assumed discussing the past would be difficult. And never had she imagined doing so with one of the demon-possessed warriors she’d fought so diligently to obliterate. The words flowed smoothly, however. “When the pain final y leaves, I always find myself in the same location.