"What’s the matter?" Priapus taunted, using his shield to press Julian back. "Oh, I forgot. The curse may be gone, but you’re still drained from it. It will take days before you reach your full strength again."
Julian shook his head and raised his shield higher. "I don’t need my full strength to beat you."
Priapus laughed. "Brave words, little brother."
He brought his sword down across Julian’s shield.
Grace held her breath as they began hammering blows again.
Then, just as she was sure Julian would win, Priapus tricked him into overextending his reach. As soon as Julian’s side was unprotected, Priapus brought his sword up, and sank it into Julian’s stomach. Julian dropped his sword.
"No!" Grace screamed in horror.
His face a mask of disbelief, Julian staggered back, but couldn’t go far with the sword still in Priapus’s hand, and now in his side.
"You’re human again," Priapus sneered as he twisted the sword. He lifted his foot to Julian’s hip and kicked him back.
Free of the sword’s blade, Julian staggered, then fell to the floor. His shield clattered loudly as it hit the ground next to him.
Priapus was actually smiling as he stood over Julian. "You may not be able to die by mortal weapons, little brother, but you can die by immortal ones."
The force holding Grace released her. As fast as she could, she ran across the room to where Julian lay on the floor, covered in blood. His breathing came in short, sharp gasps as his entire body shook.
"No!" Grace sobbed, pulling Julian’s head into her lap. Horrified, she stared at the gaping wound in his bare side.
"My precious Grace," Julian said as he reached one bloodied hand up to touch her cheek.
She wiped the blood from his lips. "Don’t leave me, Julian," she begged.
He winced in pain. Dropping his hand, he struggled to breathe. "Don’t cry for me, Grace. I’m not worth it."
"Yes you are!"
He shook his head as he held her hand tightly in his. "You are my saving Grace. Without you, I would never have known love." He swallowed and moved her hand to his heart. "And I would never have known me again."
She watched as the light faded from his eyes. "No!" she screamed again, cradling his head to her breast. "No, no, no! You can’t die. Not like this. Do you hear me, Julian! You can’t leave me. Please, please don’t go. Please!"
Grace held him tight as she wept out the agony in her heart, her soul.
"No!" The fierce scream echoed through the room and shook it.
Grace saw Priapus actually pale at the sound. A clap of thunder sounded and, in a brilliant flash of white light, Aphrodite appeared in front of her. The agony on the goddess’s face was indescribable as she looked down at Julian’s cold, pale body.
Her blue eyes filled with disbelief, Aphrodite glared at Priapus.
"What have you done?" she asked him.
"It was a fair fight, Mother. Me or him. I had no choice."
Aphrodite let out an agonized scream that came straight from her heart. "I invoked the wrath of Zeus and the Fates to give him his freedom. Who the hell do you think you are to do this?" She looked at Priapus as if he made her ill. "He was your brother!"
"He was your bastard son, but never my brother."
Aphrodite shrieked in rage. "How dare you!"
When the goddess turned her gaze back to Julian, Grace saw the grief on her face.
"My precious Julian," Aphrodite wept. "I should never have let them hurt you. Sweet Cyprus, what have I done with my selfishness?" She fell to her knees by his side. "I left you alone when I should have protected you."
"Oh, give it a rest, Mother," Priapus said as if bored by his mother’s pain. "Julian knew what all of us have known since the dawn of time. You think only of yourself, and what we should be doing for you. It’s who you are. Unlike Julian, the rest of us learned to accept it aeons ago."
Aphrodite didn’t take those words well. In fact, her face turned to granite as she rose to her feet with all the dignity and grace one would expect of a goddess.
She arched a brow at Priapus. "You said it was a fair fight? Well, let’s have one, shall we? Thanatos has yet to claim Julian’s soul. It is not yet too late to save him. All I need do is start his heart."
Grace felt a sudden warmth engulfing Julian’s body.
Leaning back, she watched as a golden aura surrounded him, mending the jagged wound in his stomach. His jeans melted away slowly and were replaced by golden greaves and shoes. The golden wave traveled up over his chest, covering it with ancient gold armor and dark red leather and cloth. Dark brown leather bands covered his forearms.
The blue tinge faded from Julian’s face.
Suddenly, he took a deep breath that shook his entire body, then opened his eyes. He looked up at Grace and smiled a smile that warmed her all the way to her soul.
Grace bit her lip as happiness swelled inside her. He was alive!
"What the bloody hell?" Priapus roared.
A woman appeared above them, floating serenely. Her black hair shimmered as she glared at Priapus. "As your mother said, it’s time we had our fair fight, Priapus. It’s long overdue. And this time, there’s no Alexandria to distract Julian from his vengeance."
"What?" Aphrodite asked. "Athena, what are you saying?"
"I’m saying Priapus sent her to Julian on purpose to distract him while Priapus fled your temple in fear of Julian’s wrath."
By the look on Priapus’s face, Grace could see the truth of it. He curled his lip. "Athena, you treacherous bitch. You always did coddle him."
Athena laughed as she appeared next to Aphrodite. "No one ever coddled him. It’s what made him the finest warrior Sparta ever trained. And it’s what is going to enable him to kick your ass now."
Julian rose to his feet. The grim look on his face sent a ripple of chills over Grace.
Aphrodite moved to stand between him and Priapus, and when she looked up at Julian, Grace saw the pride in Aphrodite’s eyes. "This is the second time I have given you life, Julian. I regret I wasn’t the mother you needed the first time. You have no idea how much I wish I could change that. All I can do now is give you my love and blessing."
Aphrodite looked over to Priapus. "Now, go kick his spoiled little ass."
"Mother!" Priapus whined.
Julian turned his gaze to his brother. He twirled his sword around his body as he approached Priapus. "Ready?"
Priapus attacked without warning. Not that it mattered.
Grace’s jaw dropped as she watched them fight. If she had thought Julian skilled before, it was nothing compared to the way he fought now.
He moved with a speed and agility she would never have thought possible.
Athena came to stand by her side. She reached out and ran a light touch over the red wrap. "Nice dress."
Grace frowned in disbelief. "They’re fighting to the death and you’re admiring my clothes?"
Athena laughed. "Trust me, I pick my generals well. Priapus doesn’t stand a chance."
Grace turned back to the men at the same time Julian drove his shield sideways into Priapus. The god stumbled back and Julian plunged his sword straight into his side.
"Rot in Tartarus, you bastard," Julian sneered as Priapus disintegrated into a thousand lights.
Grace ran to him.
Julian tossed his sword and shield aside and grabbed her up in his arms and twirled her around.
"You’re alive! Right?" she asked.
Grace surrendered herself to him then. He lowered her down his body, slowly, his armor caressing every inch of her. Until he could claim her lips with his kiss.
Grace heard someone clearing her throat.
"Excuse me, Julian," Athena said when he didn’t release Grace. "You have a decision that needs to be made. Do you want me to send you home or not?"
Julian looked down at her, his gaze searching. He ran his hand gently over her cheek as if savoring the feel of her skin against his. "In all the centuries I have lived, I’ve only known one home."
Grace bit her lip as tears swelled. He was going to leave her now. Dear God, she just hoped she could stand the pain of it.
He leaned down and kissed her forehead. "And it’s with Grace," he said against her hair. "If she’ll have me."
Grace rolled her eyes as relief swept through her with such ferocity that she wanted to scream, to laugh, but most of all she wanted to hold on to him forever.
"Gee, Julian," she said with a nonchalance she didn’t feel. "I don’t know. You do take up more than your fair share of the bed. And those noxious boxer shorts you wear… What is that? If you come back with me, those have got to go. And no more wearing jeans to bed at night, they chafe my legs."
He laughed at her. "Don’t worry. For what I have in mind, nudity works best."
She joined his laughter as he cupped her face in his hands.
When he tried to kiss her, she pulled back impishly. "Oh, by the way, is this your armor?"
He frowned. "It is, or was."
"Can we keep it?"
"If you like. Why?"
"Cause, ooo baby," Grace said, raking a look over his gorgeous body, "you are one hot tamale in that getup. This outfit alone will get you laid at least four or five times a day."
Athena and Aphrodite laughed.
In a flash of light, they were back in Grace’s bedroom, just the way they’d been before Priapus had shown himself.
"Hey!" Grace said irritably. "Where’s the armor?"
It appeared along with his helm, sword, and shield in the corner.
"Happy now?" Julian asked as he pulled her across his chest.
He raised his head and delivered a kiss to her that shook her entire body. Grace moaned at the heat of his mouth on hers. The feel of his body under hers.
She would never again let him go.
"By the way…"
Julian pulled back from Grace’s lips with a groan as he quickly covered the two of them with a sheet.
Grace clutched the sheet to her chin.
"Athena," he asked testily, "are you going to keep interrupting us?"
Athena didn’t look a bit sheepish as she approached the bed. She held a large gold box in her hands. "Well, I forgot something."
"What?" they asked in aggravated unison.
Before Athena could answer, Aphrodite appeared. "I’ve got it," she said to Athena before taking the box out of her hands.
Moving to stand by the bed, Aphrodite set the box next to Julian, then opened it. "If you’re going to stay, there are a few things you’ll need. A birth certificate, passport, green card…"
Aphrodite looked at it with a frown. "No, wait, you won’t need that." She looked to Grace. "Will he?"
Aphrodite smiled as it evaporated. "There’s also a driver’s license, but if you’ll take some motherly advice, I’d let Grace do all the driving. No offense, but you stink at it." Aphrodite sighed. "It’s a pity we didn’t have a god for that, too. But, oh well." She closed the box and handed it to him. "Here, you can go through it later."
As Aphrodite moved away, Julian reached out and took her hand. "Thank you, Mother, for everything."
Tears welled in her eyes as she patted her son’s hand on her arm. "I am so sorry I didn’t know about your children in time to save them as well. You’ve no idea how much I regret that I found out only after Thanatos had them."
Julian squeezed her gently.
"If you need anything at all, you’ll call?" she asked.
"I’ll call even if I don’t."
Aphrodite lifted his hand to her lips and kissed it. She looked back and forth between them. "I want six grandchildren. Minimum."
"Hey," Grace said as she pulled a college degree out of the box. "You’ve given him a Ph.D. in ancient history? From Harvard?"
Aphrodite nodded. "There’s also one in there for languages and classical studies." She looked at Julian. "I wasn’t sure what you might want to do, so I’ll let you pick."
"Can we really use these?" Grace asked.
"Absolutely. If you dig a little deeper, you’ll find his certified transcripts."
Grace did. Looking them over, she gaped. "No fair, they’re all A’s."
"Of course," Aphrodite said indignantly. "My son would never do second-rate work."
Aphrodite smiled. "I didn’t bother with a marriage certificate. I figured the two of you would want to take care of that one on your own. And as soon as Julian decides on a last name, it’ll appear on all the documents inside the box."
Aphrodite dug to the bottom of the documents and pulled out a small bankbook. "By the way, I converted the money you had in Macedonia into modern currency."
Grace opened the book and gasped. "Holy green guacamole! You’re filthy rich!"
He laughed. "I told you, I conquered well."
Aphrodite held her hand out. The book that had contained Julian appeared in her arms. "I also thought you might want to find some safe place to put this."