hearts of fire Page 23

“I killed you,” she said, and saying it brought the sting of tears to her eyes. After all this time, she’d forgotten that it really had hurt. That knowing it needed to be done hadn’t removed the pain of it. Or the questions that lingered.

“Why?” she asked. “The whole village…the children…how could you do that? They’d done nothing to us!”

“Because I wanted to. Because I could.” He spoke without emotion.

Fresh grief washed over her like a punch in the gut, knocking the wind out of her. She’d known something was wrong with Caius. Then had come the decimated village. The fires. The drained and broken bodies of the most vulnerable. The whispers among the humans of something other that must be hunted before it destroyed them all.

“But…the children.” Her voice broke, and tears stung her eyes. She had seen them, poor little things robbed of their futures. All she had been able to think of was that they were the babies she would never be able to have, stolen all over again by Caius’s careless greed.

He had broken something precious, and when he laughed in her face, she had known the man she’d loved, if he’d ever really existed, was gone.

“Dru. Look at me.”

She struggled to disregard the command, but she wasn’t able to do anything but obey it. And when she gave in, she saw the man as she’d first known him. As she’d loved him. The longer she stared into his eyes, the more the fear and anger vanished, until she began to hope that things could be different. He could change. They could be how they were.

Caius moved closer until he put his hands on the sides of her arms. He was cold, though his touch was achingly familiar.

“Things can be different now,” he said gently, as though he’d read her mind. “I’m right here,” he said. “I still love you. Stay with me, Dru. Stay here with me. We were so good together, remember?”

“We were,” she agreed. “Until we weren’t.” The sadness wrapped around her like a cloak, but there was no love left in it. In some ways, it was a relief to discover all that remained was a faint echo of what she’d once felt.

“I always loved you,” he insisted.

“Maybe you did, once. Or maybe you just thought you did,” she said. “But that was a long time ago.”

The handsome concern on his face flickered with something ugly for the briefest instant, but Dru didn’t miss it. Fear wound through her sadness. She had no knife today…and she recognized that brief glimpse of emotion he’d let her see. It was hate.

“I’ve changed,” Caius said. “I forgive you for the knife. And the fire. And for doubting me. For killing me.” His grip tightened, fingers digging into her skin, and his eyes went the bright crimson of spilled blood.

“You promised to take only what you needed. We all make that promise. You broke it. You broke my trust, you betrayed me,” she said. A tear escaped one eye and made a trail down her cheek.

“I did take what I needed,” he replied, pulling her in closer and wrapping his arms, viselike, around her. She tried to struggle, but he was even stronger than she remembered. She couldn’t move, could barely breathe as he squeezed. “You made me strong,” he said. “I just needed so much more than everyone else. I needed all of them, Dru. I needed them!”

She remembered the bodies in the streets of the village, young and old, women and children, all drained of blood. The flames consuming what was left.

“Let me go,” she said, trying to jerk away, but he was holding her so tightly. His pupils had expanded and become empty.

“Never,” he said. “Never again. We were meant to be together. You can’t kill true love. It never dies.” His smile was a mockery of pleasure, fangs bared in something more like a grimace. “We can be together here. Forever.”

Caius’s voice was a harsh hiss now, nothing like the voice she remembered. But this wasn’t Caius…or if it was, it was the awful remnant of what he’d been.

“You’re not real,” she told him, but her voice shook. He laughed, and in a flash he gripped the back of her head.

“I’ll show you how real I am.”

He pulled her to him and crushed his mouth against hers. She pressed her lips shut and struggled, hating the taste and feel of him. None of this was right. She wanted to leave, she wanted the past to stay gone. She wanted…

Meresin.

His name unlocked everything else, and suddenly she remembered where she was. She remembered stepping through the doorway, and the night she’d spent in Meresin’s arms, and falling into the mist. Losing him, in this place where nothing was real. He was the real one. And unlike Caius, Meresin had always been honest about what he was. Her much younger self had loved what Caius had convinced her he was, even when he’d been taking everything she had to give, body and soul, without giving back much in return. She could see that now, see the things younger Dru could not. Caius had been a beautiful dream. The pain of waking up had echoed through her life ever since.

Until now. Because even though Meresin was flawed and damaged and possibly hopeless, she loved him just the same.

The instant she knew the truth, the most wonderful warmth flooded her. It was so simple. Why had she missed it?

“Say you love me! Say it!” Caius screamed, more demon than man. Calm swept over her, and she was able to answer him without a trace of fear.

“I love Meresin! You’re not real, Caius. Let me go!”

Caius vanished, pulling apart and blowing away without a trace. The only way Dru was certain she hadn’t imagined him was the bruised feel of her lips, and the way her scalp still tingled from his fingers pulling at her hair. He’d been real enough, even if he’d only been made from pieces of memory.

And now she needed to find her fallen angel, before anything else materialized to sidetrack her. She spun…and was startled to see she wasn’t going to have to go searching at all.

“Meresin! Are you okay?” She stepped forward but stopped short when she got a good look at him. His expression was shell-shocked. Deep claw marks had torn through his shirt and ripped into his chest, leaving the cotton stained with blood. One wing hung at an odd angle from his back, and there was an ugly bruise forming on one cheek. But even more troubling was the fear in his eyes. He was staring at her as though he’d seen a ghost.

Or a monster.

He’d heard her, she realized. He’d heard her say she loved him. It wasn’t the way she would have wanted to tell him…and from the looks of things, she wasn’t going to get anything like the reaction she might have wished for.

“I’m fine, thanks,” she said when he continued to stare at her. “I had to face down my two-thousand-year-old ex-boyfriend, but this time he left without my stabbing him. Really, thanks for asking.”

She tried to keep her tone light, hoping to break through his silence to reach him.

When he spoke, it was as though he hadn’t heard a word she said.

“Why did you say that?” he asked, his voice a harsh rasp. “You can’t. You can’t…feel that for me.”

It was like talking to the Meresin of three days ago, right down to the lightning flickering at his fingertips as panic engulfed him. She tried to understand that love was utterly foreign to him, but the horror in his eyes burned right through her—it hurt.

“You don’t get to decide how I feel,” she said, knowing how defensive she sounded. But she’d known. She’d known not to expect anything from him. “I wasn’t asking for anything in return, Meresin. I didn’t even know you were there.”

“I saw you kissing him.”

Her relief at finding him alive vanished in the face of frustration so strong she wanted to scream. She tried to keep her voice cool and calm, knowing he wouldn’t respond to yelling, no matter how much she wanted to.

“You saw Caius—that was his name—trying to force himself on me. It wasn’t my idea. But making him go away was.”

She could see the rapid rise and fall of Meresin’s chest and knew his heart would be pounding. Dru stared at him helplessly, wishing she could understand him better. Was he angry? Scared? Both? She didn’t know how to deal with him…not now, when the truth was out in the open.

“Why would he force himself on you?”

“Because he’s still not okay with my having killed him for murdering an entire village,” she said. “A long time ago, when I was young and stupid, I turned him. He betrayed me and killed a lot of people. Innocents. So I made it right as best I could.” She pushed away the ache that threatened to return—she had lived with that pain for so long. “It doesn’t matter anymore, Meresin. It was a long time ago, and it’s over.”

“You loved him,” he said flatly.

“I…yes,” she replied. It was pointless to deny it. “I loved who I thought he was. I made him into a powerful killer, and I’ve regretted it every day since. Isn’t that what this place is about? Regret? He’s mine.”

It was a painful part of her past, one she would have shared in a different way if she could have. Still, this was what they had, and poor timing had been a hallmark of their relationship so far. All she really wanted, right this second, was to move on and get out of here. Meresin didn’t move, though, and his anxiety crackled though the air just like his lightning.

“I’ve killed innocents, too, Dru. That didn’t seem to bother you.”

Her shoulders slumped in defeat, and she forced herself to stand straighter. It was no shock that he was going to try to defend himself against…well, her heart, as sad as that was. She just wished she’d been better prepared to deal with it.

“You were a demon. He had no excuse. And unless I missed something, you’re more of an ex-demon now. You and Caius are not remotely the same,” she said.

Meresin jerked his head to the side. “I suppose that’s true enough. I managed to leave Hell. He’s probably there right now, toiling away in endless torment. But neither of us is worth the waste of…of that emotion. It’s pointless, Dru. You should know that.”

“Did you miss the part where I said you don’t get to tell me how to feel?” she asked, letting him provoke her against her better judgment. “I’ve asked you for nothing. I can handle my own issues, Meresin. Including being mated to the fallen angel most likely to incinerate himself on any given day! I don’t want to talk about this. Let’s just get out of here.”

She stalked away, not caring what direction she chose. Her chest threatened to burst open, far too full of a toxic brew of emotions, none of which Meresin needed to be privy to. He’d only stand there and tell her why she couldn’t possibly be feeling them.

He was scared to death. She could see that in the way the light flickered around him and the haunted look he gave her. She tried to remember what she’d heard him screaming before she’d been sidetracked by her own past, tried to be understanding. But being rejected had rubbed her feelings raw.

“Wait, damn it.” She heard the snap of his voice an instant before she was spun around to face him, her skin tingling where he’d touched her ever so briefly.

“What?” she snapped. Being this close did nothing for her tattered nerves. All she could see was the softness of the lips she’d kissed, the way his long, dark lashes framed eyes that had blazed with passion for her.

“You didn’t really mean what you said.” Meresin was beginning to sound frantic, and now that he was close, she could actually feel his heart trying to pound out of his chest. “Tell me you didn’t mean it.”

She bared her fangs. “No. I won’t tell you that, because it wouldn’t be true, and I’m not going to lie to make you feel better. Why do you even care?”

“Because love is too powerful a thing to waste on a demon!” His voice was rough and surprisingly close to a shout. “I can’t give you anything, Dru. I’ve tried to tell you. I have no heart, no soul. Even if we live through this, I can never be what Raum and Phenex are! You’re bound to a mistake. If killing me wouldn’t affect you, too, you’d be better off dealing with me the way you did with that Caius. I’m no better for you.”

She closed her eyes and breathed in deeply, then shook her head.

“If I made a habit of killing my problems, you would have been dead two years ago,” she said. Then she opened her eyes. “I heard you. Before Caius showed up. I heard you shouting. You already tried to get back into Heaven, didn’t you? That’s why you think you have no hope.”

He looked as though she’d slapped him. For a long moment, she didn’t think he would answer her. Finally, he spoke.

“I thought about killing myself,” he said softly. “So many times. I wanted to be some glorious hero. Instead, I spent most of my time locked in one cage or another. When things were good, I had a comfortable room in the depths of Lucifer’s palace. One room. No windows. No contact unless I was needed. I was at best a useful weapon, at worst a curiosity he would sometimes bring out to show his friends. My…brothers…” His lip curled when he said the word. “I had been so young when most of them fell that none of them knew me. Not that they would have felt any remorse if they had. Sometimes the Council would summon me to entertain them with my so-called gift. I would be commanded to hurt a few unfortunate nefari, or do a few parlor tricks with the power I’d given up so much for. A pet. Those were the good times.”

She could still see the humiliation in his eyes. For all his menacing bravado, there was a hollowness she had sensed but never seen before now.