"Otto wanted to know if you like mushrooms."
"I’m totally ambivalent to them."
Valerius cast an amused look at her before he relayed the information to Otto. After he finished ordering their dinner, he put the phone back in his pocket. "Are you all right?"
No, she wasn’t. The images and words of Zarek and Ash tumbled through her mind.
And she wanted to know who to believe.
"Where’s your solarium?"
There was no missing the wave of apprehension that went through Valerius. "My what?"
"Your solarium. You do have one here, right?"
"I… uh, yes, I have one."
At least he didn’t lie about it. "Can I see it?"
He went rigid. "Why?"
"I like solariums. They’re nice rooms." Tabitha headed out of the library toward the other side of the house. "Would it be this way?"
"No," Valerius said as he followed her. "I still don’t see why you’d want-"
"Humor me. Just for a sec, okay?"
Valerius debated. Something wasn’t right with Tabitha, he could sense it. And yet he couldn’t hide from the past; and for some reason he didn’t understand, he didn’t want to hide anything from her.
Inclining his head to her regally, he took a backward step toward the stairs. "If you’ll follow me."
He led her up the stairs to the room beside his bedroom where the door was sealed with a keypad.
Tabitha watched him key in the code. The lock clicked. Valerius took a deep breath before he swung it wide.
Tabitha’s heart shrank as she saw the statue in the middle of the solarium of a beautiful young woman. There was an eternal flame burning beside it
She looked up at Valerius, who refused to meet her eyes while he stared at the floor.
"So this is why you were freaking out about the lamp oil. You must really have loved her."
Valerius looked up at the statue as Tabitha’s words rang in his ears. As always Agrippina’s face stared out into nothingness. Blank. Cold.
His chest ached from the harsh reality of the past and his own particular stupidity of trying to hang on to something good from his human life.
"Honestly, I didn’t even know her," he said quietly. "I most likely never spoke more than a handful of words to her during her lifetime and yet if I could have had a woman to love me, I would have been grateful for it to have been her."
Tabitha was stunned by his confession. "I don’t understand. Why do you take care of a statue of a woman you didn’t know?"
"I’m pathetic." He gave a bitter laugh. "No, actually I’m too pathetic for even the average pathetic. I take care of her statue because I wasn’t able to take care of her." His anger and pain reached out to her and seized her heart.
"What are you talking about?"
His entire body rigid, he stared off to the side of the room. "Do you want the truth of me, Tabitha? Really?"
"Yes, I do."
Folding his arms over his chest, he moved away from her so that he could stare out the dark windows of the room, into the elegant courtyard in back. "I was a genetic screw-up of titanic proportions and I’ve never understood why. I’ve spent my entire life trying to understand why I give a single shit about anyone when no one ever gave a damn about me."
His profanity shocked her. It wasn’t like him to speak that way and that alone told her how volatile his mood was. "There’s nothing wrong about caring for other people."
"Yes, there is. Why should I care? If I died right now, no one would miss me. Most of the people who know me would openly rejoice."
Her throat tightened at the truth of his statement and yet the thought of him dying…
It hurt to an unfathomable level. "I would care, Valerius."
He shook his head at her. "How could you? You barely know me. I’m not stupid. I’ve seen the people who are your friends. None of them look like me. None of them act or speak like me. All of you mock anyone you see who looks or acts like I do. Your kind hates us. You dismiss us. I’m rich and cultured, I come from a noble Roman family, therefore I must think myself above everyone else, so it’s okay to be vicious and cold whenever I’m around. We have no feelings to hurt. How could a Roman nobleman give a single rat’s ass for a slave? And yet two thousand years later, there she stands and here I am, a noble watchdog for a humble slave because she was afraid of the dark as a child, and I once made a promise to her that she wouldn’t have to sleep in darkness."
His words touched her so deeply that it tightened her chest and almost succeeded in bringing tears to her eyes.
The mere fact that he’d kept his vow to a simple slave…
"Why was she afraid of the dark?"
A muscle worked in his jaw. "She’d been the daughter of a wealthy merchant in a town my father had destroyed. He’d brought her back to Rome intending to sell her at market when my grandmother saw her and thought she’d make a good companion. My father made her a gift to my grandmother, and Agrippina lived in terror all her life that someone else would come for her in the dark of night and destroy her world again."
His gaze turned haunted. "She found out the hard way that the light can never keep the real monsters away. They could care less who sees them."
Tabitha frowned. "I don’t understand."
He turned to face her with a menacing glare. "Do you know what asterosum is?"
"It’s an ancient drug that completely paralyzes your body, but leaves you completely able to see, hear, and feel. Roman physicians used it whenever they needed to amputate."
He winced as if something painful went through him. She felt the agony of it in her own chest.
Valerius wrapped his arms around himself as if that could protect him somehow from the horror of his past. "It was the drug my brothers gave me the night they came to my villa. I had just taken over the Celtic city of Angaracia. Instead of razing it to the ground and killing everyone as any other male in my family would have done, I negotiated a surrender with the Celts. I thought it would be better if their children didn’t grow up to hate Rome and strive to avenge their people as so many had done before them." He laughed bitterly. "It was my fatal flaw."
"How could mercy be a flaw?" she asked, aghast.
And even as the words came out, she remembered the sight of his father. In Valerius’s world, it would have been a crime.
Valerius cleared his throat. "Most of my assignments were in the outer provinces, fighting the Celts. I was the only Roman of my time who had ever been truly successful against them, mostly because I understood them. My brothers hated me for that. To them, the only way to conquer a people was to destroy them."
"So they thought to kill you?"
He nodded. "They came into my house and drugged me. I lay on the floor completely helpless as they destroyed everything around me. After they had ransacked my hall, they took me out into the back courtyard to kill me. It was there they discovered Agrippina’s statue."
Tabitha looked up at the white marble face from his past. "Why did you have her statue there?"
"Like my grandmother, I thought she deserved to be saved. To be preserved. So, I commissioned the piece for my private garden not long after she came to live with me."
A vicious stab of unwarranted jealousy went through her. He might not have loved the woman, but he obviously felt deeply for her. Especially since he’d spent thousands of years keeping a promise to her.
"How did she end up with you?" she asked quietly.
He drew a deep, ragged breath. "My grandmother had summoned me home from the battlefield because she knew she was dying and she was afraid for Agrippina. She knew the temperament of her sons and grandsons, and Agrippina was a very beautiful and delicate woman who had grown to mean a lot to her. I was the only one who had ever come to call on her that she didn’t have to keep from Agrippina’s bed. So she asked me to take Agrippina into my house and to keep her safe from the others."
Tabitha’s throat tightened at his kindness. "You fell in love with her?"
"I loved the idea of her, she was beauty incarnate. Soft and kind. Things that had never existed in my world before. Whenever I was home, I spent hours watching her from afar as she went about her duties. And I often wondered if someone so beautiful could ever love something as vile as me. Then I would castigate myself for wanting the love of a slave. I was a noble Roman general. What did I need with a slave’s regard?"
Yet he had craved it. She knew that. She could feel it.
Valerius grew silent. If she didn’t know better, she’d swear she saw tears in his eyes.
"They raped her in front of me and I couldn’t help her."
"Oh, Val," she breathed.
He moved away from her as she sought to touch him. "I couldn’t even close my eyes or turn my head. I lay there completely helpless as they took pleasure violating her. The more she screamed, the more they laughed, right up until the end when Markus ran her through with my sword." The words were torn from his throat as tears welled in his eyes.
"What good was I?" he asked between clenched teeth, his nostrils flared by impotent rage. "What good did I do her in the end? Had I never taken her into my home, they would have at least allowed her to live."
Tabitha choked on her own tears as he finally allowed her to pull him into her arms. She tried to blot out what must have happened after they killed Agrippina.
She’d seen the scars on his wrist and knew from him that they had crucified him. The horror that must have been that night! No wonder he didn’t want to remember the past.
And she would never again ask him anything about it.
He was rigid for several seconds before he relaxed. Then he wrapped his arms tightly around her and held her close.
"What kind of man am I that every act of kindness I ever attempt ends up hurting the very people I seek to help?"
"You didn’t hurt me or Marla or Gilbert."
"Yet," he breathed. "Agrippina lived in my home almost ten years before the Parcae hurt her."
"No one’s going to hurt me, Valerius, trust me."
He brushed his hand lovingly over her scarred cheek. "You have so much fire inside you. It warms me every time you near me."
"Warms you? Most people are consumed by it. My ex used to say that I was completely exhausting to be around. He’d tell me that I wore him out and that he needed at least two to three days to recoup for every hour he spent with me."
He offered her a small smile. "I don’t find you exhausting."
"And I don’t find you pathetic."
That succeeded in bringing out a laugh from him. "What is it about you, Tabitha? I’ve only known you a few days and I feel as if I could tell you anything."
"I don’t know, but I feel the same way about you." She reached up and pulled his head down so that she could kiss him.
Valerius moaned at the taste of her. At the feel of her. In her arms, he didn’t feel pathetic or rigid. She allowed him to laugh and to feel joy again.
No, she allowed him to feel joy for the first time in his life. No one but Tabitha had ever reached out and embraced him.
She knew he was stodgy and she accepted it. Instead of turning him away, she poked gentle fun at him and then worked around it.
She didn’t write him off.
In all of history, she alone had befriended him. And that made her the most precious woman on earth.
Tabitha pulled back. "How much time do we have before Otto gets here with food?"
He checked his watch. "Probably twenty to thirty minutes. Why?"
She smiled. ‘That’ll do."
Before he could ask her more, she pulled her shirt off and wrapped it around his neck, then crooked her finger for him to follow her.
"Come with me, General. I’m going to rock your world."
Little did she know, she’d done that the minute he’d first seen her fighting the Daimons, and she’d been doing it steadily ever since.
Stryker had finally managed to calm himself. At least on the outside.
Inside he was still seething.
Damn the Destroyer and her lies and damn Acheron Parthenopaeus for his honesty.
If it was the last thing he did, he would rid the world of both of them. But he had to move carefully.
If the Destroyer ever learned that he’d been the one to give Aima to Desiderius so that the Spathi could wound Acheron, his life would be meaningless. No, he’d have to move with great skill to defeat them both, and he would.
The air around him sizzled with a request from Desiderius for a bolt hole so that the Spathi could return from New Orleans to the realm of Kalosis, the Atlantean hell realm.
Here there was no light. It was perpetually dark and dismal. Up until the night he had slain his own son, that hadn’t bothered him.
Now it did.
Stryker held his hand out and opened the portal.
Desiderius returned, still a bodiless mist.
Stryker curled his lip at the incompetent Daimon. There had been a time once when he’d held the Daimon in regard, but Desiderius’s failure against a simple Dark-Hunter and his human paramour had left Stryker completely disgusted with the being.