“There’s a secret entrance that lets out near a spaceport. It was built four hundred years ago during the Religious Wars, when the temple was used as a military outpost, to allow the priestesses to escape if they were attacked by enemies. I figure we’ll wait there until dark, then head out and find a way off this place.”
They passed several intersecting hallways. Resisting the urge to look down them lest she see something to dislodge her courage, Shahara focused her stare on the floor directly in front of them.
Syn navigated the corridors like a pro.
“Just how many priestess are buried here?” she asked, noting the endless rows of plaques.
“A little over thirty-two thousand.”
Her eyes widened. “You counted?”
“I spent a lot of time here as a kid.”
Vik made a sound of agreement. “He used to pretend they were his guardians who watched out for him.”
He cast an evil grimace at the mechbot. “Thanks, Vik. Want to emasculate me a little more?”
“Okay. You have many other more embarrassing moments.”
“Yeah, and for your own personal safety, you might not want to go there.”
Shahara shook her head at their snipes. “You two argue like an old married couple.”
Syn didn’t respond as they finally reached the end of the hallway. He knelt down and brushed dust out of a barely noticeable crack in the marble. “It looks like it’ll still open.”
Shifting his position, he sat down. “Are you going to stand there or what?”
She sat down opposite of him and wrapped her arms around her chest. As she leaned back against the wall, cold seeped into every part of her body. There was a bit of a breeze that whispered through the hallway, cutting to her bones. “It’s kind of chilly in here, isn’t it?”
He gave her an odd half smile before spreading his arms and legs wide. “Well, you know what they say about conserving body heat.”
She debated the sanity of sitting in the circle of his arms. If he were anyone else, she’d gut him for the mere proposition, but after all they’d been through, she found her body moving toward him of its own volition.
She tensed for a moment.
“I won’t hurt you,” he said, his voice soothing. “Just pretend I’m Caillen.”
Yeah, right. Caillen had never felt this good. And the rush of heat through her body . . . it would be disgusting if it were Caillen who made her feel like this.
Shahara relaxed against his chest and allowed the scent and warmth of his body to engulf her. He rested his arms on his bent knees and she found herself longing for him to put them around her, to hold her tight.
His breath fell down her cheek, rustling her hair and bringing a tingle to her arms.
Syn watched the way her br**sts tightened beneath the thin fabric of her black shirt. His mouth watered, aching for just a tiny taste of the warm soft flesh he’d glimpsed when he’d stumbled onto her nak*d. It was all he could do to keep his hand away from the taut peak.
Never in his life could he remember wanting a woman this badly. If only she would cooperate, he would really enjoy the next few hours of their wait.
In that instant he knew he was going to have her. That he must have her.
But not here on the cold floor like some animal satisfying a basic itch. She deserved better than that.
First, he had to find some way to make her trust him. To make her willingly submit to his touch. She was terrified of men, his kiss had proven that.
But at the moment, she wasn’t terrified of him.
She frowned as she looked at his arm where his sleeve had slid back, showing a glimpse of his tattoo. She pulled the cuff further up, her fingers lightly brushing against his skin. “The words are in Ritadarion, aren’t they?”
“What does it say?”
Syn hesitated as he remembered the origin of his tat. What it signified. Since he’d left prison, only Nykyrian, Digger, and Mara had ever seen the entire thing—aside from Merjack and his guards, but they’d ignored it.
Then again, those bastards were probably illiterate.
Mara had never asked what it said. All she’d done was nag him to have it removed because it disgusted her.
Decent men don’t mark themselves, Sheridan. What possessed you to do something so crass? Really, you should have it removed before one of the hospital administrators sees it. Imagine what they’d say?
But he’d managed to keep it hidden from all the “decent” people at the hospital where he’d worked. Hell, maybe he should have had it removed, but it reminded him of his past and it kept him grounded.
Nykyrian had never commented on the words at all, even though he could read them. Maybe because he understood the underlying meaning without their talking about it. His friend was eerily astute that way.
He took a deep breath before he answered her. “It says . . .” he clenched his teeth, then finished, “ ‘Nobody’s Bitch.’ ”
She arched a single brow at him. “Okay . . . Care to elaborate?”
He gave her a flat, dry stare. “I was in prison, Shahara. I think you can imagine why it’s there.”
Shahara heard the note underlying his bland words. Leaning against his leg, she locked gazes with him and saw the hurt that was deep inside his eyes. “What happened?”
He looked away.
She caught his chin and forced him to look at her. “I won’t think bad of you, Syn. I know what it’s like to be hurt so deep inside that you think it’ll never heal. To struggle every day with memories you wish you could purge out of your mind and can’t.”
“You already think I’m scum.”
“No,” she said honestly. “I don’t.” Maybe she had at the beginning, but she was quickly learning that there was a lot more to him than what she’d heard.
Syn let out a tired sigh as he remembered his past and the humiliation that still tore at him whenever he let his guard down. He’d fought so hard and it hadn’t been enough . . .
“I was attacked the first night I was in prison. Like you, I couldn’t fight them off at the time. But the next day, one by one, I hunted them down and killed all three with a shiv I’d stolen from another inmate. Orius, another prisoner doing a life sentence, was so amused by it that he gifted me with the tattoo as a warning to anyone else who wanted to mess with me. He told me to always wear it with pride.”
Shahara’s heart wrenched at what he described. “How old were you?”
He looked at her blankly and she realized it must have been the first time he’d been sent to prison. She winced at his bitter words.
“I’m so sorry, Syn. No one should have to suffer that and especially not a child.”
“Yeah, well, it wasn’t the first time I’d been raped. It was merely the last.”
Her stomach hit the ground at his dry tone. “What?”
A tic worked in his jaw. “You know who my father was, Shahara. What he was. Did you really think he’d only sold my sister?”
For a moment she couldn’t breathe as those words slammed into her. Honestly, it had never crossed her mind that his father would have been that cold.
She placed her hand to his cheek. “Did Digger know?”
He shook his head. “We didn’t tell him. There was nothing he could do. Had he tried to stop him, my father would have killed him for it.”
Tears stung her eyes as she realized the true horror of his past. One that made a mockery of hers. Placing her hand over his arm where the tattoo was, she leaned her head against his chest and hugged him close. “I’m so sorry.”
Syn was stunned by her hug. Most of all, he was shocked by the sincerity of her tone. His body erupted with heat. “I’ve never told a single soul about any of that. Only Talia ever knew.” And he had no idea why he’d shared it with her.
Maybe because she’d been through it herself. She knew, like him, that they’d done nothing to cause it. Some people were just cruel shits who preyed on others for no other reason than the fact that they could inflict pain.
In the end, he was grateful that, unlike his father, he’d never understood how people could be that way, nor had he ever found joy in hurting someone else.
Closing his eyes, he held her against his chest and let the sweet scent of her hair soothe him. “What about you? What did you do to your attacker?”
“Killed him.” She looked up at him. “Guess that means I’m nobody’s bitch either.”
He gave her a half smile. “Guess so.”
Shahara listened to the strong beat of his heart under her ear. This was the first time since Gaelin that she’d allowed a man to hold her.
And it felt really good.
But there was still a part of her scared of what he might do. A part of her that waited for him to change into a monster.
“How did you do it?” she asked, trying to distract herself from that thought.
He frowned. “Do what?”
“Learn to trust and be intimate with someone after that happened to you?”
“Who says I did?”
She frowned. “You were married. I just assumed you trusted her.”
“And I told her nothing of my past. I knew she couldn’t handle it and I was right. She was married to a character I created and not the person I was or am. She thought I was the orphaned son of a respected businessman who was living on a trust fund and that I’d had a bland, boring childhood.” He sighed. “It was the childhood I’d wanted to have. Totally fabricated so that other people wouldn’t know the truth of me.”
“But, you were with her. I can’t stand to be touched. The thought of sex still terrifies me even though I know it’s not supposed to be violent or painful. I just can’t bring myself to go there with another person.”
His features softened. “I think it was different because I wasn’t attacked by a woman . . . at least not until you. I never really associated the two and honestly, I can’t stand to be touched by a man either. Not even casually to shake hands. It makes my skin crawl. And like you said, it doesn’t hurt when you’re with someone you want to be with. It’s actually extremely pleasant.”
Syn stared into her trusting face and wanted to show her what he meant, but she wasn’t ready for that. Honestly, it’d taken him years before he’d learned to enjoy sex himself. For the longest time, he’d viewed it as a tool. An act to be bartered for something else.
Then Mara had come along and for the first time he’d been able to fully enjoy himself. He’d found pleasure by sharing himself with her and making sure she never left his bed without multiple orgasms.
Until he’d learned about her adultery. That had shattered him worse than anything.
But he didn’t want to think about that. It was a long time ago . . . and yet it still pricked him soul deep whenever he thought about it. Why hadn’t he been good enough for her? Where had he been lacking that she needed to find another man to satisfy her?
Wanting to distract himself from that, he leaned his head back against the wall. “Why don’t you tell me a story to kill time?”
She scowled. “What?”
“Caillen said that you used to make up stories to tell to him at bedtime. He said you were best at it.”
Shahara gave a light laugh, remembering how many stories Caillen used to demand from her.
Please, Shay, make it a funny one!
She missed those days of her little brother making shadow puppets on the wall to illustrate her tales.
“It’s been a long time since I even thought about any. I don’t think I can do it anymore.”
“Why did you stop?”
She shrugged. “After my father died, there were no more stories to tell. They just seemed too trivial to bother with while I had bigger concerns like feeding three hungry siblings.”
He reached up with one hand. She tensed, half expecting him to touch her. Instead he paused momentarily, then scratched his chin. He returned it to rest on his knee. “I told you I wouldn’t hurt you.”
“I know. It’s just hard.”
Suddenly, his hand was on her cheek, brushing a stray curl away. “Are you scared of me?”
“Yes,” she answered honestly.
His blaster appeared in her hands. She grimaced at him. “What’s this for?”
“If I hurt you, you can kill me.”
She scoffed. “This is stupid.” She tried to return it to him.
He pushed it back into her hands. His gaze locked with hers and it held her transfixed. For once there was no mockery in his eyes, nor did they appear quite so glacial. “Fear is never stupid.”
“That’s not what you said earlier.”
He laughed and she marveled at the rich sounded echoing around her. “Well I had to goad you in here for your own sake. Besides, it worked.”
Shahara set his blaster by her foot and relaxed, allowing him to continue to brush her hair back from her face. Chills spread over her and she thought about his strength. Since all this began, he’d been unbelievably courageous.