Authors: Kate Lynd
Tags: #Post Apocalyptic Erotic Romance
His guard would usually be up. Yet, he sat down by the girl’s side and said, “Lots of women come to me. I don’t really remember them.”
“But sister is unforgettable. She’s beautiful, selfish, self-serving, and deadly. I’m pretty sure she hand-picked you to take care of me. Veronica leaves nothing to chance. She trusts no one and thinks she can manipulate anybody if only she finds their weaknesses.”
The name of the queen did not immediately register with him. When it did, he blanched. How could this ethereal being be blood kin of the queen?
“From what I can see, you didn’t know we are sisters. That might be one big bad item of news for me.”
“Only one?” he said, allowing himself a smile.
“Hmmm. You find humor in pathos. No wonder my sister likes you so much.”
“Your sister only likes me for what I can do for her. Just like every other fan who comes in here for my services.”
“Maybe that is why I feel I can trust you. It’s your eyes. They’re so blue and sad. Even when you smile.”
“You like the fact I’m sad?”
“No. I like the fact you’re human.”
Her soft words brought him excruciating pain, pushing him to remember the man he’d been so many years ago. He’d programmed himself over the last ten years not to feel anything. Murdering other men for the mob’s enjoyment and the sadistic pleasure of an out-of-control despot took inordinate coldness. If this girl was telling the truth, where had she been hiding? How had she survived if she was indeed the Healer some were counting on to lead the world out of this darkness humanity had plunged itself into?
“I’m Tristan Shane. Husband, father, Gladiator.”
She touched his hand to show him that she was aware of his identity. She closed her eyes and started chanting in her archaic tongue again. Her hand began to glow. Her face twisted in pain. Tristan pulled away and rose to his feet.
She looked up at him with such empathy he could not look away. “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry. My father and sister are…I…just know your wife would not blame you for what happened.”
The pain and rage welling up in his chest was more than he could bear. He turned and walked away. “Of course she wouldn’t. Hope wasn’t one to blame anyone. She probably forgave the soldiers, too, on the premise that they were only doing their duty.”
Her voice hardened. “No. She blamed them. For hurting your children, Elizabeth and Kevin. And for depriving you of her. As for Veronica…”
He turned on her like a rattlesnake. “Are you sure that’s not just a groupie’s fantasy? What…”
He stopped mid-sentence. The wounded girl had risen to her feet. The next thing he knew, she was levitating…long hair flowing, amber eyes glowing. There was fierceness in her demeanor that hadn’t been there before.
His first instinct was to call for the guards. But did this girl really pose a threat to him? He realized the entire cell was being illuminated. “My name is Alexandra. I am not a groupie. I am my sister’s greatest fear. My father’s worst enemy. And they chose you to kill me. What they fear is far more complicated than anyone can understand. Except maybe you. But if you choose to kill me, there is no one and nothing that will be able to stop you.”
As if her very life source were being drained from her, she dropped into a heap onto the ground. The light flickered out, plunging them back into shadow. He knelt and rolled her over. Tristan knew at that very moment he wasn’t meant to kill Alexandra. Yet he also knew that to protect her might mean certain death for both of them. But she needed a champion; in exposing her true nature to him she had made herself vulnerable. He couldn’t kill her. He wouldn’t kill her. He refused to kill her. And for the first time in ten years, his life had purpose once more.
Protect the Healer. No matter what the cost.
He watched her sleep, but could not reconcile his senses to what had happened. His mind told him what he’d seen was impossible. His eyes told him it was true. Glowing hands, eyes burning like fire, her hair billowing out as if blown by a fierce breeze, and her body hovering in mid-air. Impossible, his mind told him. Yet he knew what he’d seen.
The last ten years hadn’t been good for him. Frankly, they hadn’t been good for anyone. As the night stretched on, he found himself restless, as he normally was after a match in the Metal Coliseum. He had been bathed…cleansed himself of the blood and sweat of his opponent. Killing wasn’t something that came naturally. The only way it might ever feel right was if he were given the opportunity to murder the men responsible for the destruction of his family.
He paced the cell, and then walked over to where he’d laid Alexandra and covered her with a blanket. He touched her face. She seemed so vulnerable lying there. It elevated him out of his ingrained death wish for a moment. The sound of footsteps and metal clanging against metal brought him to his feet. It was Veronica.
“I see you’ve met her. Tell me,” she said, walking up to him, “have you gained her trust?” She ran her finger up his chest and to his chin.
“I don’t know. You’d have to ask her.”
“She seems to be sleeping well enough. Did you seduce her?” Veronica asked stiffly.
“I’m a Gladiator. I don’t have to seduce anyone.”
“Oh, you don’t?” Veronica said, her lip curling upward. “Then however did you manage to bed me?”
“My Queen, you were the easiest of all.”
She made to strike him, but he caught her wrist with one hand and grabbed her by the throat with the other. “Veronica we know each other well enough to know this has nothing to do with love, don’t we?”
She groaned. “If only you weren’t so below my station. We would rule the world.”
He threw her to the bed and said, “You and your ilk disgust me.”
“Darling, lust and power have nothing to do with love, and everything to do with the spoils of war. No stop pouting and come join me.”
“Tell me who ordered my wife’s death and my children’s enslavement.”
Veronica pouted. “Are we really going to play that game again tonight? I was hoping after a kill you would be amped up for me.”
“Go fuck yourself tonight, Veronica. Or, rather, remember that you said your husband wants you in his bed tonight. Your
,” Tristan said, “is asleep there. Look. She’s likely to wake up any moment. Do you really want her to see you make an exhibition of yourself?”
Veronica’s eyes went dark green and she sat straight up. “You will not speak to me in that tone.”
“I will speak to you any way I like. You and your father may have enslaved me for your enjoyment, but I will not dance like the mindless puppet you think I am.”
“Is this about the traitor I put in your cell?”
“No. This is about my life and how your family ended it.”
Veronica sidled up against him. “Oh sweetie, you have no idea how bad your life could really be...” He stiffened and glared at her. She clicked her fingers.
“Just ask her.”
The door to his cell opened and two guards marched in and grabbed Alexandra. Startled, she woke up and began to chant and weep, her eyes glowing defiant amber. The men froze.
“She’s harmless. Cover her head again and return her to the Inquisition Room.”
He closed his eyes and swallowed hard. His every instinct told him if he let her go to that room she wouldn’t survive this time. The chanting got louder. Veronica went white, put her hands up to her throat, and began to gasp for air.
Tristan charged the guards. He grabbed Alexandra and pulled her toward him, ripping the bag off her head. Her eyes were burning bright. He looked at Veronica. “Order her release, Veronica. Now.” The color came back to Veronica’s face while he held the guards back with his sword.
Veronica laughed as the light dimmed in the Healer’s eyes and she went limp in Tristan’s arms. He carried her back to the corner and covered her with a blanket.
“Funny, Tristan, I didn’t think you had in you.” Veronica simpered.
“You didn’t think I had what?”
“The ability to feel for someone. For what it’s worth, she’s to fight Lucilla tomorrow in the ring. And as you can see, she’s no Gladiator.”
Veronica came up to him. “I thought you of all the Gladiators might spare me the trouble of martyring her, but it seems you have a fatal flaw. You care about the weak.”
“Let me be her Second.”
Veronica squealed in laughter. “Seriously? Two women will die instead of one. You’re more twisted than I thought.”
“What happens if I die?”
Veronica raised an eyebrow. “We’ll deal with that complication if it happens. But you’re the best of the best so I doubt that’s something I’ll have to worry about right now. Come with me, Guards! Have fun with her, Tristan. Knowing you’re suffering she may martyr herself.”
Before she left, Veronica kissed him. When he didn’t respond, she sighed. “Don’t feel too guilty. You are serving a higher purpose in helping me.” He swallowed the bile rising in his throat; it was all he could do to keep from vomiting.
“Goodnight, little sister.”
Alexandra’s eyes opened, and the amber color of hers burned bright. She said nothing, but the defiance came through loud and clear. Veronica shivered and motioned for the guards to follow her.
Tristan bent down, scooped up Alexandra, and laid her gently to the bed. “Rest. You’re going to need it.”
He turned, intending to lie down on the floor, but he felt the gentle touch of her hand around his wrist. “Lie with me. Please.”
Her voice was so soft he almost missed it.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he said, gazing at her tenderly.
“If I’m going to die, I’d at least like to know the touch of the person willing to face death with me tomorrow.”
“I’m not sure it’s the right thing to do...”
Her eyes filled with trepidation. “I’m scared. I’ve lived my whole life that way. I feel the pain of everyone my family has ever betrayed. I hate my family. They want me to die. The only one who ever protected me was my mother. But when father murdered her, I had no one. Not even Veronica.”
“Stop. I need for you to stop this, if you want to have a chance to beat Lucilla.” He sat down on the bed next to her. “I don’t know what to make of you. Everything you are makes no logical sense to me. I’m not the best of the best because I’m the strongest, or the fastest, or even the most skilled. I’m the best of the best because I fight as if I don’t care whether I live or die.”
“No. But now there’s you. And I don’t know what to make of anything anymore.”
“Why did you offer to be my Second?”
“Because the only thing I am sure of is that I don’t want to see you die the way my family did.”
“My sister will find a way to load the dice against me. She always does.”
“Veronica is about as soulless as they come.”
Alexandra sat up. She rested her hand lightly on his chest and closed her eyes. Her hand began to glow; her breathing became labored. His chest felt indescribably warm, and she began to weep uncontrollably as she had when she’d crawled away from him. She opened her eyes and repeated, “She doesn’t blame you. None of them blame you.” Her weeping became gut-wrenching sobs. “Oh God, no.” Her shoulders shook and she trembled against him. “I promise. I promise to protect them all.”
He knew she was staring straight into his soul and not flinching. How much more of this could she take and not break? He gently removed her hand away from his body and embraced her. “I have to serve my purpose…”
“Veronica’s purpose is greed and spite and hatred. I serve only the spirits. I have never served anyone or anything else.”
“Whose spirit were you serving?”
“It was your wife’s wish. She said I was to absorb your pain as my own, so that you can stop blaming yourself for her death.”
“But that’s impossible. I don’t feel anything, let alone pain, anymore.”
She looked him squarely in the eye and said, “That’s a lie. All those tears…those were yours. Your rage and grief, it may be overwhelming to anyone but someone like me. I’ve yet to find a soul I couldn’t mend.”
“That’s arrogant. Sweet. But arrogant.”
“Healing people, in mind, in body…it’s who I am. It’s what I do.”
“You’ve never failed, ever?”
Her own pain seemed to dim her eyes. “Only once,” she whispered almost inaudibly.
“Who was it?”
“My mother. But her grief, her pain, was like yours. I tried so hard. It was how my father discovered my Gift. I might have succeeded, too, if Veronica had helped me keep my mother safe. But we had different mothers, and she never took to me. One morning, just as my mother opened her eyes, my father drove a dagger straight through her heart, so she could see him do it. I nearly died. I’ve been imprisoned ever since.”
“How old were you?”
“How old are you now?”
“Twenty. Well… actually, I’ll be twenty-one tomorrow.”
“Happy Birthday.” She laughed through her tears. He wiped them away. “You’re too young to know about death and pain. You should be in college getting drunk and partying and getting into trouble.”
“I’ll never be like that. Veronica might have been. But not me. She’s the one whom men lust after. She’s the one whom women in the mob want to look like. I was always a homebody. At mom’s feet, helping her with something or another. I would be the girl everyone settled for after the beauty queen was taken.”
“Don’t kid yourself. Any man would be lucky to have you. Those eyes…that hair…that face. You’re beautiful in your own right.”
“Thanks. I hope if I live through the bout tomorrow I find someone to love me half as much as you loved your wife and children.”
She was so vulnerable in that moment. So innocent, even in the face of all the evil she had witnessed and lived through. And yet, in the face of insurmountable odds, she hoped she would live to find love. That was heady stuff to a jaded person such as himself.
He caressed her face. “You remind me so much of her.”
Alex remained still. Yet her eyes, soft and yielding, spoke volumes. He brushed her hair over her shoulder and ran his thumb over her lips. She took a sharp breath. He smiled tenderly at her.