She shrugged. "I like having my own place. My family visits me often, but I’d rather be alone."
"Because I hate to be babied. My mother and sisters act as if I’m helpless. They want to do everything for me."
Astrid waited for him to say something more.
"Would you like to take a bath?" she asked after a brief wait.
"Do I bother you?"
She shook her head. "Not at all. It’s entirely up to you."
Zarek had never really had to be concerned with things such as bathing. When he was a slave, no one cared whether or not he was clean, and in truth he’d stayed dirty so that no one would want to approach him any more than was necessary.
As a Dark-Hunter, he’d been completely alone even before his banishment to Alaska. And once here it had been so difficult to do anything as simple as bathe that he had all but forsaken it.
It had only been after Fairbanks had started being settled that he had bought a large tub that he used only when he knew he was going into town.
His brief stay in New Orleans had been a treasured delight of running hot and cold water and showers that could last for an entire hour before the water turned cold on him.
Had Astrid ordered him to bathe, he wouldn’t have considered it. Because she had offered him a choice, he headed for the bathroom.
"The towels are in the hall closet."
Zarek paused at the closet right outside the bathroom and opened the door. Like everything in the house, it was well kept. All the towels were folded up neatly. Hell, they were even color coordinated to match the rest of the house.
He grabbed a large fluffy green one and went to bathe.
Astrid heard the water come on. She took a deep, fortifying breath.
Strange, until Sasha had mentioned it, she hadn’t realized Zarek hadn’t had a bath. He hadn’t smelled or anything and he washed his hands so much that she just assumed the rest of him was clean, too.
She returned to the kitchen to find Sasha eating Zarek’s pancakes.
"What are you doing?"
"He didn’t want them. They were getting cold."
"What? It’s not nice to waste food."
She shook her head at the wolf as she moved to make another batch for Zarek. Maybe he would be more sociable when he left the shower.
He wasn’t. If anything he was even surlier as he gulped down the pancakes.
"He’s disgusting," Sasha said to her. "He eats like an animal. Be thankful you’re blind."
"Sasha, lay off the man."
"Lay off, my ass. He uses his fork like a shovel and I swear he shoved one entire pancake in his mouth at once."
Astrid would have been disgusted had she not been in his dreams. No one had ever taught him even the most basic form of manners. He had been relegated to a corner on the floor just like the animal Sasha called him.
In his human life, food had been scarce. And on the heels of that thought came another startling realization. Food when he was a Dark-Hunter would have been scarce, as well.
Unlike the others of his kind, Zarek didn’t have a Squire to plant and grow his food in the daytime. To tend animals and make his meals. For centuries, he’d lived in Alaska’s harsh climate where winter sources of food were seriously limited.
She felt suddenly sick at the thought. No doubt he would have starved to death as a human.
Dark-Hunters couldn’t die of malnutrition. But they could suffer from it every bit as much as a human being.
She made another plate of pancakes for him.
"What’s this?" he asked as she set it down near him.
"In case you’re still hungry."
He didn’t say anything, but she listened to him slide the plate across the table an instant before she heard him snap open the lid on the syrup.
"I can’t stand watching him make pancake soup with the syrup again," Sasha said. "I’ll be in the den if you need me."
Astrid ignored him as she listened to Zarek eating. How she wished she could see him.
"No you don’t," Sasha said.
She had a feeling Sasha was overreacting. She knew the wolf well enough to know Zarek could have impeccable manners and Sasha would complain.
After Zarek finished eating, he got up from the table and rinsed his plate off.
No, he wasn’t a pig. He was a lonely, hurt man who didn’t know how to cope in a world that had turned its back on him.
She saw in him what Acheron did and her respect for the Atlantean grew immensely to realize that he could see what no one else did.
Now she just had to find some way to save Zarek from a goddess who was through with him.
If she didn’t, Artemis would order him dead.
She listened to him tear a paper towel off the rack.
"I heard on the news that it’s still storming. They have no idea when the storm will break. They said it was the worst snowstorm in centuries."
Zarek let out a long tired breath. "I have to leave tonight."
"I have no choice."
"We all have choices."
"No we don’t, princess. Only people with money and influence have choices. For the rest of us, basic necessity dictates what we have to do to survive." He crossed the floor. "I have to go."
Astrid panicked. Since he was a Dark-Hunter he really could leave. Unlike the humans she’d judged, Zarek’s life wouldn’t be endangered if he left the cabin tonight. It would be cold and harsh, but he was used to that.
What was she going to do?
If she followed him, he would figure out very quickly that she was immortal, too.
For a second she considered calling on her sisters, then stopped herself. If she did that, they’d never let her forget it. She needed to handle this alone.
But what would keep him here when he was so determined to leave?
She turned toward the door and knocked over something on the counter. Picking it up, she felt a small bottle of spice that reminded her of the serums M’Adoc had given her.
A large enough dose of Lotus serum would keep Zarek unconscious for a few days…
But then he would be trapped in his nightmares with no way to wake up.
Such a thing could cause him to go insane.
Or she could direct his dreams like a Skoti might.
Dare she try it?
Before she could reconsider, she went to her room to get the bottle she had hidden in her nightstand.
Now she just had to find some way to get the serum into Zarek.
Zarek was headed out into the storm. He lifted the hood of his coat and started down the hallway.
Astrid met him halfway to the door. He paused at the sight of her waiting there for him. Desire rushed through him, making him hard and aching. Her face looked sad and the novelty of that stunned him most of all.
Gods, she was so beautiful. For a moment, he actually wished he could stay here with her. That he could be as lucky as the wolf she had dragged in from the wild and tamed.
He wished he dared to reach out for a star.
Zarek balled his hands into fists before he could yield to that burning desire. Slaves didn’t have wishes or dreams.
They didn’t lust after women who were too good for them.
He shouldn’t even be looking at her, let alone be hard from wanting to touch her.
No matter how much he fought against it, no matter how many times he railed against Acheron and Artemis, he knew the truth. Two thousand years later, he was still a slave. One owned by a Greek goddess who wanted him dead.
He could deny his destiny all he wanted to, but in the end, he knew his place in this world.
Women like Astrid weren’t meant for men like him. They were meant for decent, civilized men. Men who knew the meaning of such simple words as "kindness," "warmth," "compassion," "friendship."
He started past her.
"Here," she said, holding out a cup of hot tea.
The aroma was sweet, pleasant, but it didn’t heat him half as much as the sight of the slight blush in her cheeks. "What’s this?"
"I would say arsenic and vomit, but you trust me so little anyway, I don’t dare. It’s hot rosemary tea with a bit of honey. I want you to drink it before you leave. It’ll help keep you warm on your journey."
Somewhat amused by her reiteration of his rudeness, Zarek at first wanted to toss it. But he couldn’t quite do it. It was too thoughtful a gift and thoughtful gifts were an extreme rarity in his experience.
He hated to admit just how deeply this simple act touched him.
He hardened even more with the thought.
Thanking her, he drank it down, staring at her the whole time over the rim of the cup. Gods, how he was going to miss her; but that made even less sense than anything else.
As he drank the tea, his eyes drank in the sight of her.
Her jeans hugged long, shapely legs that a man couldn’t help but dream of having wrapped around his waist.
But it was her butt that he wanted most. It begged to be cupped by his hands while he pressed her softness to his groin so that she could feel just how much he burned for her.
Against his will, he imagined her nak*d in his arms. Her lips on his, her br**sts in his hands, while he lost himself inside her hot, wet body.
I have got to get out of here.
Zarek downed the last of the tea, then handed the empty cup back to her.
She took a step away from him, clutching the cup in her hands, her face even sadder than before. "I wish you would stay, Zarek."
He savored the sound of those rare words. Even if she didn’t mean them, they still made him ache. "Sure you do, princess."
"I do." The sincerity on her face burned through him.
But it was anger he felt most from her comment. "Don’t lie to me. I can’t stand lies."
He pushed past her, intent on the door, but as he reached it, his head began to fog.
His eyesight dimmed.
Zarek paused as he tried to focus his gaze. His limbs felt heavy all of a sudden. Leaden. It was a struggle just to breathe.
What was this?
He reached for the door only to find his knees buckling. Then everything went black.
Astrid cringed at the sound of Zarek hitting the floor. How she wished she could have caught him before he fell. But without her eyesight, there was nothing she could do.
Going over to him, she checked to make certain he was all right.
Thankfully, he appeared to be none the worse for her deception.
"Sasha?" she called, needing his help to get Zarek off the floor.
"What happened?" Sasha asked as he came to stand beside her.
"I drugged him."
She felt Sasha flash to human form.
She knew from experience that her companion would be nak*d now-he always was when he changed forms.
She’d only seen him flash on rare occasions. As a Katagari Lykos, his natural and preferred state was that of the wolf, but his inherent magical abilities allowed him to take human form from time to time, as needed or wanted. His powers and strength were weaker in human form than wolf form, which was why he preferred his animal body.
Still, there were certain things his kindred preferred to do as humans.
Things such as mating and eating.
As a human, Sasha had long blond hair so pale that it was virtually as white as his wolf’s fur. His eyes were a deep electric blue that were piercing in either incarnation. And his face…
Captivating and chiseled. The planes of his face were perfect and hard. Masculine.
It was a pity she had never been sexually attracted to him, because he had a body that was every bit as fit and well muscled as Zarek’s.
But Sasha for all his beauty and charm was only a friend to her. One who often acted like an overprotective big brother.
"What were you thinking?" he asked in a deep baritone that carried the weight of his sorcerer’s power. It was said the Katagaria could seduce any woman alive just by saying her name.
Their sexual prowess and stamina were the stuff of legend, even among the gods.
And yet all she could do was appreciate the seductive appeal of Sasha. Not once had she ever succumbed to it.
"He can’t leave this cabin until the test is over, you know that."
Sasha let out an irritated breath. "What did you use to drug him with?"
"Astrid, have you any idea how dangerous that is? It has killed countless mortals. One sip and they can go insane from it. Or worse, become so addicted to it that they refuse to wake up from their dreams."
"Zarek isn’t mortal."
Sasha sighed. "No, he isn’t."
She sat back on her heels. "Take him to his bed, Sasha."
The air around him sizzled with ire. "Where’s my ‘please’?"
She turned to the right and hoped that she was glaring at him. "Why are you being so impossible lately?"
"Why are you being so bossy? I think this man is affecting you and I don’t like it." He paused before he spoke again. "Never forget, Astrid, that I am here by choice. The only thing that keeps me by your side is that I don’t want to see you hurt."
She reached out and placed her hand on his arm. "I know, Sasha. Thank you."
He covered her hand with his and gave a light squeeze. "Don’t let him inside you, nymph. There is so much in him that is dark that it could completely obliterate all the goodness you have."
She thought about that for a minute. She hadn’t considered herself good for a long time now. Numbness had ruled her for too many centuries. "There are people who would say the same of you."