"Okay, I’m going back to my seat to eat some oatcakes. Good luck with the kids . . . oh and my favorite has to be the little guy over there, picking his nose."
Ash didn’t speak as she went to sit by Sunshine. It took every bit of his willpower not to pull her back to him.
Talon handed a ball to him. "You all right, T-Rex?"
"I’m fine, why?"
"Cause in all the centuries I’ve known you, I’ve never seen you do that with a woman before."
Talon laughed. "Boy, I don’t think you need me to tell you what that is." He cast an incredibly quick glance down to Ash’s groin.
Ash went ramrod stiff as he discreetly looked down to make sure he wasn’t standing at attention. Well, he was, he just wanted to make sure it wasn’t obvious.
Thankfully, it wasn’t.
Which begged the question . . . how did Talon know?
Out of nowhere a ball came at his head. Ash caught it. Picking up his whistle, he blew it to call the players to start the game.
Tory was still rattled by what had happened. By how badly she wanted a piece of that man . . .
Sunshine wiped at the crumbs on her skirt. "Are you sure the two of you are just friends?"
Tory tried to appear nonchalant. "What do you mean?"
"I have never seen Ash allow someone to touch him from behind before. He normally bolts across the room if someone even comes near his back. The fact he didn’t even twitch . . . highly suspicious."
Tory frowned at that new disclosure. "I didn’t know that bothered him. He rode me on the back of his motorcycle over here."
Sunshine gave her a wide-eyed stare. "Touch you, girl. You are special."
"Honey, trust me. What you just did was a freaking miracle and I really wish you could appreciate how amazing it was."
Tory took a sip of water as she watched Ash with a set of older kids. And as she watched him and pieced together what little she knew about his past, she had a really bad feeling about his childhood.
There was only one reason she could think of that it would bother him that much for someone to stand behind him. And the thought of it made her sick to her stomach.
"Every time I’ve ever made the mistake of trusting someone . . . it was a mistake that I regretted and paid for dearly. I’m really happy that no one has hurt you, but I haven’t been so lucky, okay?"
His words rang ominously in her ears as she watched him calling a foul.
Please let me be wrong . . .
But the more she thought about it, the more sense it made. Someone had hurt him badly in the past. So much so that he couldn’t even deal with it.
It was why he hid his eyes from the world. Why he pierced a face that was so perfectly handsome it beckoned to be touched . . . Why he dressed in those FU clothes. It was to keep everyone away from him.
Closing her eyes, it was all she could do not to go to him and just hold him. To promise him that he was safe. How stupid a thought was that? The man was huge and he was fierce. The last thing he needed was her protection.
But he hadn’t always been a man . . .
Tory winced as she remembered what he’d said about his parents. What had they done to him?
She didn’t speak much until the last game was over. Ash and Talon stayed on the opposite side to talk to Perry for a few minutes.
Sunshine was packing up as Talon came over. "Did you have fun, baby?" she asked her husband.
Talon grinned at her. "I’m thinking we ought to make a few of those small things for ourselves."
Sunshine laughed. "Anytime you’re ready. My mother is more than willing to be a grandma."
Talon kissed her passionately. "Yeah, we definitely need to get home and practice . . ."
Sunshine pulled back with a smile before she handed him her purse. "Lead the way."
Talon sucked his breath in before he turned to Tory. "It was nice meeting you."
Sunshine hooked her arm in his. "Don’t forget what I told you. If you need us . . ."
Ash pulled the whistle over his head as he approached her and tucked it back into his pocket. "I hope you weren’t too bored on the sidelines."
"No, it was actually fun. You have great friends."
"Yeah, I do."
He bent over to pick up his coat. The moment he did, she decided to test her theory. She reached down and lightly brushed her hand under the band that held his ponytail over his neck. Her ring caught in his hair and pulled it.
Hissing in anger, he grabbed her hand and snatched it away from his hair. "Don’t you ever touch me like that again." His growl was so feral, she actually thought he might hit her.
She swallowed against the severe lump in her throat. "I would never hurt you, Ash."
He didn’t respond as he jerked his backpack and helmet up from the floor and stalked toward the doors.
Grabbing the jacket and helmet she’d worn, Tory followed him, wanting to cry. "Ash?"
He didn’t stop until he reached his bike. He put his keys between his teeth before he shrugged his coat on.
"Ash?" she repeated. "I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you angry."
Ash tried to calm down. She’d done nothing wrong and he knew it. It was just . . .
He ground his teeth at the memories. He’d shave his hair off except the only thing he hated more than having his hair grabbed was feeling something, especially a breath or breeze against the nape of his neck. He hated people breathing in his ears or standing close to him, especially at his back. Even after all this time, one touch, one breath could make him feel worthless all over again. Make him feel . . .
Like a whore.
But Tory wasn’t a part of that past. She wasn’t Artemis who used those tactics to remind him of his place in her world. To remind him that he should be grateful he was allowed any kind of dignity.
Tory was simply a woman who’d touched a man not knowing the scars that lined his soul.
He let out a long breath as he calmed down. "I’m sorry I overreacted. I just don’t like people grabbing my hair."
"Duly noted. Will never happen again."
Tory lifted her helmet as she again watched him close his eyes, remove his sunglasses and put his helmet on. Was he aware of what he did or was it so habitual that he didn’t even realize his actions?
He turned toward her as he fastened his chin strap.
"I think you have the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen."
Ash froze as those words touched him. But then Artemis had said that to him once . . . and then cursed him for them later. Don’t be suckered in.
"Thanks," he said, his voice hollow as he slung his leg over to straddle the bike. Then he set his backpack over the gas tank while she climbed on behind him.
She slid up against his back, her thighs intimately pressed against his bu**ocks.
He waited for that familiar disgust to fill him, but it didn’t. And when she wrapped her arms around his waist and leaned against his back, he actually savored it. Starting the engine, he looked down at her tiny hands that she had laced together over his stomach.
He’d never allowed another soul to ride on his bike with him . . . not even Simi.
She squeezed him in a tight hug and it was all he could do not to haul her off this bike and screw her like an animal in the parking lot until the fire he felt was quenched. But he’d never do that to her. He wasn’t an animal and she was . . .
There were no words to describe her. She was infuriating, stubborn.
And wonderful. Absolutely wonderful.
Touching her hands with his, he gave a light squeeze before he took the handlebars. "Hold tight."
"Will do, Achimou."
He laughed and cringed simultaneously at the Greek endearment of his name. Since the true pronunciation was Ack-uh-rahn the shortened form of it was Ack-ee-moo. Something he’d always feared someone using. So he’d learned to Anglicize his name to Asheron and then later to Ash to keep anyone from doing what she’d just done.
Yet, for reasons that were totally beyond him, he didn’t mind her doing it.
Amazed by that, he headed out of the parking lot, back toward her side of town. They hadn’t gone far when he felt a weird sensation go down his spine . . .
They were being followed.
Looking around, he saw a gray sedan closing in on them while the car in front of them was slowing down. Ash wanted to pass the car ahead, but there was too much traffic in the other lane.
Suddenly the car in front of him stopped.
He slammed on brakes at the same time a man sat up in the back seat of the car in front of them with a gun and opened fire. "Hold on!" he roared as the bullets slammed into him. Had he been human, he’d be dead. As it was, he put a shield around them to keep Tory from being hit and him from taking any more damage.
Gearing the bike down, he gunned it full throttle and shot around the car to the right, onto the sidewalk to get away from them.
Tory was terrified as she clung to Ash with everything she had. She wasn’t sure how the gunshots had missed them, but she was grateful they had.
Now she saw the two cars racing behind them.
Ash took a corner so low to the ground he was amazed Tory stayed with him even with the shield around her. She hadn’t been kidding. She had to be an experienced rider to take the corner and not fall off.
He considered using his powers to get them out of this, but that would tip her off big time that he wasn’t human and she would lose her mind over the fact that they literally popped back into her yard. No, he was a god. He could surely outrun them.
At least until a third car cut them off. He swung to the left at the same time a fourth car drove straight for them. That car clipped his back tire.
Cursing, he felt the bike slipping out from under him. Before he could react, they went flying off the bike. Making sure to keep Tory shielded as she slid, Ash hit the ground hard as he skidded on the road.
Damn the consequences.
He was about to teleport them out of this right when the car that had hit them ran him over. Ash bellowed in pain as the front then rear tires crushed his legs. Unable to focus on anything but the agony, he dropped the shield around Tory at the same time she went slamming into a set of garbage cans that were lined around a pole.
Tears of pain filled his eyes as he struggled to breathe. He replaced the shield around Tory to protect her from any more harm and to knock her out as he rose to his feet.
Pain hit him hard. He might be a god, but he wasn’t immune to damage. It wouldn’t kill him. It just hurt like hell.
The men opened fire on him.
Ash slung his hand out and turned the bullets back on them. Fury rode him hard as he killed them as mercilessly as they’d tried to kill Tory.
All except one . . .
A small, wiry man, he was cowering beside the brown Audi sedan that had run him over.
"Who the f**k are you?" Ash snarled angrily.
The man didn’t answer.
Ash grabbed him up by his throat and slammed him against the trunk of the car. "Answer me!"
But then he didn’t have to . . . In that instant, Ash saw everything about him and the organization he served. Don’t kill me please . . .
He heard the voices from the man’s past. Voices of people who’d begged for their lives and this prick had killed them without caring.
So be it.
Ash crushed his windpipe and left him sprawled dead on the trunk of the car not caring who saw what he was doing. Still not satisfied, he looked at Tory who lay unmoving.
As he started toward her, he realized his legs were torn open and most of his body was covered with road rash because she’d been wearing his protective jacket. But none of that mattered as he knelt down on the ground beside her. Carefully, he pulled her helmet off to see the bruises on the side of her pale face and the blood on her lips.
He threw his own helmet aside. Fear and grief racked him as he felt for her pulse. She had to be okay. She had to be . . . His stomach knotted until he touched the faint beat.
He wanted to cry in relief. She was still alive, but she was weak from internal injuries.
Ash held his hand out for his backpack which flashed into his grip. Slinging it over his back, he picked Tory up and teleported them to Tulane Hospital. He cradled her against him as he limped painfully into the emergency room entrance.
Luckily it was someone he knew, Wanda, at the front desk.
A heavyset African-American woman, she gaped as she saw him walking toward her. His leg buckled from the pain and he almost fell. But he wouldn’t do that. Not while he held Tory. He had to get her help.
"Oh my God, Ash! What happened?"
He couldn’t speak as he felt Tory expel one last shallow breath before she died in his arms.
Ash sank to his knees in the middle of the ER as the pain from his injuries and an overwhelming, unbelievable wave of grief and anger assailed him. He didn’t understand why, but he couldn’t even breathe at the thought of Tory not being here.
"Tory," he snarled, holding her against his shoulder as he cupped her cold face in his hand and gently shook her body. "Don’t you dare f**king die on me. Tory!"
Wanda was there with a doctor and orderlies. Standing behind him, she took his shoulders as the doctor pulled Tory out of his arms.
Ash wanted to fight them and yet he knew he couldn’t. They had to save her. Don’t interfere. Don’t. Interfere.