The Guardian

Chapter 8


Lydia woke up with the strangest sensation. Never in her life had she not dreamt. But not a single dream had come to her last night. When the Guardian had said he'd stripped her powers, he wasn't kidding.
He didn't even know she had that one.
Did he?
Stretching, she rolled over to find him at his desk where he'd been when she fell asleep. Still dressed in his loose black clothes, he'd pulled his chair around so that he faced the bed and his back was to the wall. But he wasn't paying her any attention.
Instead, he held an old-fashioned leather-bound book in his lap with one large, graceful, masculine hand. He leaned back in the chair with his arm propped on the desk and his undamaged cheek resting on his fist. His insanely long legs were stretched out before him, and crossed at the ankles. She smiled at the unexpected sight of his well-shaped bare feet. They were so cute and she'd never thought that about feet before. Normally, they grossed her out.
How strange that the sight of them succeeded in making him seem like any man, anywhere.
Well, not any man. Men this handsome were few and far between. Men this good-looking and ripped were even rarer. And finding one with his body, hair, and eyes was like finding a unicorn. In fact, she'd never seen a man with red hair who wasn't freckled or pale-skinned-not that there was anything wrong with that. It was just what you expected whenever you met a natural redhead, male or female. But there wasn't a single freckle anywhere on his body and even though he hadn't seen daylight in who knew how long, his skin was tanned and tawny.
Gah, even bruised and scarred, he made her mouth water.
How could that pose be so incredibly sexy? So lickably luscious?
With the one hand he had on the book, he turned the page without looking up.
She smiled at the sight of all those unruly auburn curls. Shirley Temple had nothing on him. And yet they still managed to be unbelievably masculine. More than that, she really, really wanted to play with them.
And as she studied his features, she noted that the bruise around his blood-filled eye had turned an ugly shade of dark purple. He had another new bruise on his ear that had been bleeding the night before. The handprint was also more pronounced today, as were the swollen, fresh bite marks on his neck.
She wanted to weep at the sight of them. Yet there he sat, so used to them that he didn't even comment on the pain they had to be causing him.
I'm so sorry I stabbed you. He was so not what she'd thought him to be when they first met. How could she have misjudged him so?
But then it wasn't entirely her fault. In spite of the legion of beatings and insults he'd endured, he carried himself as fiercely and confidently as any warrior or king. He exuded so much power and authority that no one would ever suspect he was Noir's punching bag and, from what she'd seen last night, most likely Azura's bootie call boy-toy.
But then maybe that was his shield. His way of not letting other people know his shame.
It kept them at arm's length, and in this hellacious place, it probably kept others from hurting him, too. That thought made her want to wrap her arms around him and hold him close.
If only he'd let her.
Clearing her throat, she finally spoke. "Did you not sleep at all?"
He shook his head, but didn't elaborate. "Are you hungry?"
"Not yet. I need to be awake for a few before I eat." Sitting up, she frowned at the closed laptop. "You stopped researching?"
"There was nothing to be found and I got tired of trying to decipher a writing form that makes no sense to me."
But he'd been so happy when she'd gone to bed ... at least she thought it was happy, looking at all the pictures and listening to her music. Now he was back to that solemnity that seemed to be hardwired into his DNA.
She slid off the bed and went to see what he was reading, but she couldn't understand his alphabet. It definitely wasn't Egyptian, but it kind of looked like it. "What is that?"
Whoa ... that was a new one on her. "What people spoke Bilgames?"
He frowned. "I don't understand."
Well, at least she wasn't the only one in the room lost. "What kind of language is Bilgames? Where does it come from?"
"It's not a language. It's the name of the story." Then his features relaxed as if a thought had occurred to him. "I think your people know it as Gilgamesh."
"Oh..." Now she knew how he'd felt last night when she kept using computer jargon. She had half the puzzle. But the other half was even more intriguing. "What language is it written in?"
Holy snikes. She was floored by his disclosure. She didn't know much about history, but she was extremely old and that predated her living knowledge ... In fact, she'd barely heard of it, it was so old. "And you can read that?"
His eyes snapped fire at her. "I'm not that stupid, nor am I illiterate."
"Obviously not. No one who can read something that complicated in an alphabet that is basically scribbled nonsensical lines could ever be called stupid."
That seemed to soothe him. "It's not that hard."
"For you. If you're as lost looking at my alphabet as I am with this one ... it says a lot." She continued to study it, but it was like trying to read Braille. "So are you Akkadian?"
"Really? You don't look Egyptian."
He arched his brow at that comment. "Been there a lot have you?"
"Well ... no. But I've seen pictures. They're usually dark-skinned and certainly not redheaded."
"Shows what you know. We traded extensively with many nations and had people who came to live in Upper Egypt from all over the known kingdoms."
"You're feisty in the morning, aren't you?" she teased. But it did explain why his skin tone was so dark, given his blue eyes and red hair. "So you can read hieroglyphics then?"
"Of course."
"I bet you're a hoot in a museum. Have you ever walked past a mummy, looked down, and said, hey Uncle Imhotep, how you doing?"
He didn't show even a glimmer of amusement. "A museum?"
That was what he fixated on? "Never mind. What other creepy old languages do you read?"
"Greek and Sumerian."
"What about Latin?"
He frowned. "What's Latin?"
Her stomach lurched. Did he predate Rome? That was probably the most terrifying thought imaginable. Because if he did, he'd been locked away here for more than three thousand years. "You know Rome, right?"
"No. I was never allowed to roam. It's forbidden."
"Not roam around. The Roman Empire. You know, Nero, Octavian, Caesar, other people with funky names..." Names she should have paid more attention to in school. "That giant fearsome empire that conquered the world and subjugated everyone, even Egypt."
"I've never heard of this place you describe."
Yeah, he was older than dirt. She'd ask him what year he was born, but that would be worthless. His calendar, if they even had had one then, wouldn't be the same as hers.
And he'd been under Noir's fist all that time.
She frowned as another random thought hit her ... did they have books then?
Surely not. But then ... She studied the brittle pages and the worn leather binding.
"So how did you get a book written in a language that old?"
His mood turned dark as an air of profound sadness engulfed him. "Noir used to give them to me whenever I pleased him."
Desperately, she wanted him to elaborate on what pleasing Noir entailed, but her animal senses told her not to pursue it. Whatever it meant, it was obvious it caused him a tremendous amount of pain to think about.
Noir must have bound the original scrolls into books. That would make sense.
"Is this the only one you have?"
He shook his head. "I managed to save five of them."
"What do you mean?"
"Noir also destroyed them whenever I made him angry, which has always been a lot. I hid as many as I could, but he eventually found all but the five."
"That bloody wanker bastard." The profanity flew out of her mouth before she could stop it. But honestly, it infuriated her that he would destroy something so priceless. And take from her demon the only thing that had most likely ever given him any kind of pleasure in this hellhole of an existence.
Seth was stunned by her outburst. The fact that she was angered over what had been done to him ...
No one had ever cared before.
She's faking. Don't be stupid.
But it didn't feel like that. It felt ... real.
She cleared her throat as her face flamed bright red. "I'm so sorry."
That confused him even more than her outburst. Anger he always understood. But her incessant need to say that one word all the time ... "You apologize a lot and for things you haven't done. Why?"
"I'm not apologizing because I did something. It's a conveyance of emotion that means I hurt for you or with you."
He still didn't get it. "Why would you ever hurt for me when I'm nothing to you?"
"Because that's what people do. They sympathize with others and try to help them."
If he were capable of it, he'd laugh at the absurdity. "Obviously you haven't met the same people I have. I've never known anyone like you describe."
"I'm not talking about demons. I'm talking about humans."
"And they are even worse. You expect cruelty from demons. They're open with their treachery and make no attempt to conceal it. Humans ... they lure you in, and just when you make the mistake of believing in them, in trusting the lies they spew with conviction, they stomp all over you."
Lydia's head spun at the heated emotion in his voice. What had been done to him? "No one ever helped you? Really?"
"Not once? Ever?"
"If they did, I paid for it eventually with my flesh, bone, and my blood. So no, I don't count that as help. It's even crueler than doing nothing. Trust me."
She would give him that. But man ...
In that moment, she was even more grateful for Solin. Without him, this would have most likely been her fate. "I wish I could make it better for you."
"Make what better?"
"Your life. Your memories. My past isn't perfect and I've had people who have hurt me. Bad at times. But not like you describe. Not to the point that they poisoned my very soul. For that, I'm sorriest of all."
Nothing would ever ease the pain of his past, she realized. He was as broken as anyone she'd ever met. And who could blame him? Noir's cruelty would make anyone insane.
Seth swallowed at the sincerity he saw in her eyes. A part of him was desperate to trust her. If only he could. But a lifetime of betrayal stood between them.
They'd only just met. And she was his prisoner. Like him, she would say or do anything to escape.
Even sell her soul. So what would a few well-placed lies and some tender looks mean if it achieved her goal? How could he ever trust someone in her position?
Only a fool would do it. And he was anything but.
She reached out and touched the edge of his book. "So is this what you do for entertainment?"
"It is."
She bit her lip as she thought it over, then a wicked light gleamed in her topaz gaze. "Haven't you ever wanted to bust loose and do something wild and different?"
"Like what?"
"I don't know. What's outside this room?"
Hell. Misery. Blood-soaked walls. Statues that would come alive and try to eat your eyes. Demons who would attack for no reason. Not to mention two assholes known as Azura and Noir.
Maybe he should tell her that, but in the end he went with a more vague answer. "Nothing worth seeing."
"Really. Azmodea is vast with several realms in it, but none of them are worth the danger it takes to explore them. May your gods take mercy on you if you get caught by some of the roaming demons who do nothing but scout victims. And even worse than that, some of the other realms are ruled by beings who make Azura and Noir look like pacificists in comparison. If they should ever lay hands on you ... it's not pretty."
Lydia nodded. By his tone and the way he unconsciously rubbed at his thigh as if reliving some pain, she could tell he had firsthand experience with that.
"So you just sit here in this room and read, then?"
"When they allow me to, yes."
She couldn't imagine a more boring way to live, especially since he only had five books to keep him company. "No offense, that's kind of pathetic, don't you think?"
His eyes turned brittle as he went ramrod stiff. "I don't care for that word."
Given his tone and the I-want-to-rip-out-your-spine vibes he was bashing her in the head with, that was an understatement and then some. She definitely wanted to know which word he objected to so she didn't say it again. "Kind?"
"Pathetic," he spat it out with enough venom to adequately get his point across.
"All right then. I'll take it out of my vocabulary."
Closing the book, he set it aside. He stood up and hesitated as if he was still struggling to get his temper under control. When he spoke again, there was an undercurrent of residual anger. "I put some clothes for you in the bathroom."
"Thank you."
That seemed to embarrass him, but at least it knocked the last remnants of anger out of him. "If you need anything else, let me know."
She went to the bathroom, where she learned that he'd left her a whole wardrobe. Silk dresses, silk and cotton blouses, along with jeans and shoes.
When she got to the underwear, she couldn't suppress a laugh at his choice. Red thongs. Why didn't that surprise her?
Because he was a man after all. Even though he refused to touch her, this was the kind of underwear a guy would buy a woman he wanted to see wearing it. There was no other reason for it to have even been invented. And she was sure the original designer of it must have been a direct descendant of the Marquis de Sade.
Gah, it's like wearing a perpetual wedgie.
And the bras ...
They matched, but offered her no support whatsoever. Yep, the headlights would be on and shining, and she'd jiggle like Jell-O every time she moved. Still, she was amazed he'd thought of them. And by the looks of it, he'd given it a lot of thought, too.
She went to the shower and turned it on, then noticed that the clothes weren't the only additions he'd made. There was now a variety of shampoos, conditioners, and other toiletries for her.
So her demon could be extremely thoughtful and giving. Who would have ever thought?
Shaking her head, she removed her gown and stepped inside.
* * *
Seth's heart pounded at the sound of the shower running. She'd be in there naked ...
He didn't know why he wanted to see her like that, but he did. In the worst sort of way. More than that, he ached to shower with her.
Sex was good, but the pleasure never lasted long and it was usually tainted with biting, vicious hair-pulling, and clawing, sometimes even stabbing and gouging. After a quick momentary release and a glimmer of perfect pleasure, the old pains set in, and he was told to leave.
Needless to say, he'd never really craved it all that much-at least not when he had access to it. During his confinement, it'd been yet another thing his mind and body had tortured him with.
But with Lydia, it was never far from his thoughts. At times it seemed to be all he could think about.
No, she was all he could think about. It was why he didn't ask her many questions. He didn't want to know her any better. What he already knew of her would haunt him for the rest of his immortality.
He needed no more pain in his life.
Trying to distract himself, he went to the bed to straighten it up. But the moment he touched his pillow, a whiff of her sent a stabbing pain straight to his groin, and it made him instantly hard for her.
What he wouldn't give to have her precious scent on his skin. To have her rub her body across his and tease him with her dark hair.
His breathing ragged, he closed his eyes and imagined himself deep inside her, while her breath tickled his skin.
Was she a biter like Azura, or would she claw at him like a demon? At this point, he didn't care. He'd be willing to be flayed for a week if he could only taste her.
He pressed his hand against his groin and gently rubbed it, wishing it was her he felt there. Just the mere thought of it being Lydia was almost enough to make him come.
Stop it. Now. The last thing he needed was to leave evidence of his desire for her to see.
It would shame him to the bitter core.
His hand trembling, he smoothed her pillow down, then dressed himself in his armor and paint before he returned to reading.
The moment he finally succeeded in putting her out of his thoughts was the one when she opened the door.
He glanced up, then dropped his book straight to the floor.