“I suppose at this point you believe I’m completely brain-dead. I would agree with you.” She used his chest to push off his body and stand on shaky legs. “And now that I’ve utterly made a fool of myself, I would like some answers. You didn’t come here to…whatever we just did against my door. Nobody comes into anyone’s house with that many weapons for a booty call. So why are you here?” She crossed to a dresser and pulled out a shirt before he could respond. Ayah put the tank top on before turning around to face him once more.
Booty call? What in the name of Hel was that? It didn’t sound pleasant, whatever it was, and he didn’t like that she had reduced something so beautiful to something so…well, a booty call. He stood slowly, not quite sure if his legs could take his weight but choosing to meet her on equal ground. If she wanted to show strength after what had just happened between them, then he could do the same. Taking her had been his one moment of weakness, and he could have no more. It would have been nice to be able to wallow in the moment for just a little bit longer, but he had a job to do—even if it pained him.
“You said someone wanted me dead. How do you know?” she asked.
“Sit down,” he said instead. Some part of him was not ready to let the moment disappear. This incarnation of Nila, this Ayah, was so beautiful but was not his. She sat on the edge of her bed as he’d asked and turned questioning eyes back to him. He sighed roughly and scrubbed his hand down his face, suddenly tired. In most cases when he appeared to his marks, they were already in the situation that would result in the end of their lives. To them he was simply a Good Samaritan who had shown up at the right time. Their gratitude prevented them from asking too many questions. They were just happy to have survived. This mission was so very different. He had to try to keep her safe for a week, only to kill her himself, and it was torturing him on the inside. He chose to at least speak with her about what was going on and cut himself out of the equation. She didn’t need to know how this would end.
“I’m here to save your life, to make a long story short. I’m not sure how to explain this, and I never have had to in the past,” Sevani said, not sure how to go on.
“How about we start at the beginning? That way I can make my own decision,” Ayah said. Watching her, Sevani knew she was much different now than she had been in their past. He also knew that though she might be carrying Nila’s soul, she was not Nila. The thought angered him. He’d given in to this woman who was not the woman he remembered, the woman he knew.
“Fine. Freya, goddess and wife of Odin, has chosen you as one of her warriors. As such, your death can only come at the time that was woven into the fabric of destiny at your birth. I am one of Freya’s Watchers, and it is my job to make sure you meet your predetermined destiny. That is why I am here. Someone is trying to kill you, and I’m here to stop them. Now, can you tell me who would hate you so much to want you dead?” It was not the best way to explain things, but there it was.
“Wait, wait, wait,” Ayah said, standing. She shook her head as if to clear it and held the bridge of her nose as she looked at him. “You expect me to believe that some Norse goddess I never even knew existed outside my books in ancient civilizations class in college wants me as one of her warriors? And that she is trying to protect me from whoever is supposed to kill me? I may have been stupid enough to come all over a man who is covered with knives, but I’m not stupid enough to believe that story. Obviously you’re psycho and need to be back on your meds. You have a doctor we can call? Maybe get you a straitjacket and get you back on a paddy wagon?”
Straitjacket? The nerve!
“I am not crazy,” he said, gritting the words out through his teeth. “You asked for an answer, and I gave it to you. If you don’t want to believe it, that is your choice. I have told you the truth. Now, if you want me to help you, then you need to answer my questions.”
“And you need a trip to the loony bin. I don’t give a damn about the questions you asked me because you are crazy.”
That did it. That was the second time she’d called him crazy. After the pleasure he had given her? The pleasure she had given him? He would not stand for being likened to the mentally disturbed.
“I’m crazy?” he asked as he stalked toward her and backed her up against the wall once more. “Was I crazy when I took your mouth? Did you not feel me as I sucked your breasts and set your body aflame? Was I a lunatic
when you begged me for more and wrapped your legs around my waist?” He spoke roughly through his teeth as he pinned her against the wall. “Would you like me to show you again how sane I am?”
“No need for that,” she said as she lifted her hands to placate him and pushed away from him. He let her go, and she stepped around him. “Even you have to realize that this is hard to believe. We’re in the twenty-first century, for God’s sake. Now, I’m not here to debate the theologies with you about whom and what God is and how many gods there are. What I’m saying is that what you’re talking about only happens in the movies—make-believe. I am not a child.”
“No, you’re surely not.” He groaned, giving her a pointed look. When she blushed from the roots of her hair, he smiled inside. Charming.
“It doesn’t change the fact that this is real. I’m trying to save your life.”
“Save my life from whom, you? There’s no one else here. You’re the only one standing in front of me with enough weaponry to kill me where I stand. So, in my mind who do you think poses the most danger to me?”
This was not working. If she didn’t understand the gravity of her situation, she would only make his job harder. If he was to protect her, then she would have to trust him. Damn, her single-mindedness meant he had to find some other way to get through to her. He stepped back from her and leaned on the wall, crossing his arms across his chest. If Valerie were here, he knew she would find this entire situation entertaining. She would take Ayah off somewhere and have girl talk. Lei would find some way to make her feel at ease with his laughter and dazzling smile. Alexander would’ve stayed in the shadows and simply watched her. He was one for deep thinking before he spoke. By the time he revealed himself to her, he would’ve known exactly what to do to bring her over to his side. But Freya hadn’t chosen any of them for this mission. She had chosen Sevani. He would have to find his own way.
“Don’t you know me? Know the touch of my hands, as if by some memory? Do my arms around you provide some comfort? Are you the kind of woman to give yourself so freely to anyone, or was there something about me that made it all right?”
He saw a dizzying array of emotions cross her face. Awe, confusion, thoughtfulness, fear, and shock, they all filtered through her features before her gaze met his. She had known him. She had sensed him. Nila’s soul deep within Ayah knew him. The woman Nila was today did not know him, but her soul recognized him. The thought nearly brought him to his knees. They had truly been as one. Their love, it seemed, transcended even death.
“How did you know that?” she asked breathlessly.
“Because, you do know me. You know that you can trust me,” he said as he walked toward her. When she didn’t move away, he framed her face with his hands. “Once you were worth more than my life to me. But I made a mistake, and we were torn apart. So many years ago, and yet, if I hadn’t made that mistake, you would be home waiting for me to return, and would have taken me into your arms when I got there.”
“But I would remember that. There’s no way I would’ve forgotten you.” She blushed again, but he ignored it, thinking she wouldn’t like attention brought to it. The compliment warmed him enough.
“There is so much to explain, but not enough time,” he said as he caressed her cheek. Those eyes that had at one time been so full of love stared at him with both knowledge and ignorance. She gripped his wrists.
“Make time,” she urged.
He sighed and lifted his face to the heavens, his eyes sliding closed. They did not have time. He had only seven days before he would have to kill her again. Only seven days before he had to kill her! He could not live in a fantasy world and believe it would not happen. He could not fight a goddess. Never before had he wanted to give himself to someone so completely. Never before had he wanted to lay his weapon down and never again pick it up. He wished he could give anything, do anything, to save Ayah. But he could not. He just couldn’t.
“Please,” he heard her say, and he could deny her nothing. He had never been able to deny her. All she had to do was ask, and he would give her what she wanted. Dare he hope? Was there a way to save her from a goddess that was all seeing? Had the strength of his very existence, the skills he had learned over thousands of years, all his pain in their deaths—had it only happened to bring him to this point? He had often said if he had been given the chance, he would do anything to make it right. Was this the chance now?
Gods, let it be, he prayed.
“When we met, you were a shepherd’s daughter. But your beauty was renowned. I was the main warrior for the leader of our tribe, and many believed he would take you for himself. But he was not an unkind man, and he saw the way I looked at you. He gave you to me. It was the way things were done, long before the children of the one God walked the earth. It took time, but we learned each other and fell in love. But several years later, I did not do as I should have, and you paid the price. With your death, my very existence changed. I was no longer a simple soldier out to claim more prizes and treasures. I was the plaything of a cruel goddess. It became my job to watch over women whose lives would be taken by men who were supposed to protect them. I swore that if I ever had the chance to be near you again, that I would protect you with everything that I was. That I would have my chance to have happily-ever-after with you, the way I was supposed to the first time. I have waited a very long time. And then you came to me, looking at me with eyes that don’t recognize me, but holding me against a body that doesn’t want to escape my touch. That is what’s real, Ayah. That is the truth. Now, will you help me help you?”
“But you’re white.”
He stared at her, not sure what that had to do with anything he’d just told her. What difference did his race make to saving her life?
“And that matters because…?” he asked, confused.
“I’m black. There is no way they let you marry me in the past.”
He laughed once he got her meaning. “Have you ever heard of the Queen of Sheba?”
“I think most people have. Why?” she asked, frowning.
“She was of Africa, of Ethiopia as it’s called today. She was a lover of King Solomon, who was for all intents and purposes, not black. Color is not of importance.”
He watched her as she took it all in. Her face was so expressive. He could have sworn he was able to hear her arguing with herself, sorting through the facts and the emotions right in front of him. He waited for her as if they had all the time in the world instead of just days. “Make time,”
she’d asked, and he was doing so for her. He needed to know what was going on in her life, about her siblings and those closest to her. He also needed to prepare this house for battle, to teach her what to do. He wouldn’t think about the end right now. He couldn’t. If he did, he would try his best to whisk her away, and that would force Freya to show herself. He had no idea if he could save Ayah or if he could even try to. He’d have to think, plan, and do something. Because he wasn’t sure he could kill this woman. Freya’s torture would be cruel and lingering, but he’d suffered worse when he’d lost the love of his life.
The more he watched Ayah pace the room as she thought, the more he realized she wasn’t a replica of his former wife. Her walk was more determined, her stance much more secure. She had an assurance about her that Nila had never possessed. It was then he realized that he had still, despite knowing Ayah housed Nila’s soul, been thinking of them as the same person. She might house Nila’s soul, but Ayah was her own person, spiced with the memories, experiences of this life. He looked at her in a new light. Her nose was just a bit more upturned. Her face was slightly narrower, so that her eyes seemed almost too big for her face. Her lips were a perfect pout and softer, fuller, like the taste of her. Gods be damned, but he craved her, even more than he had before. She wasn’t Nila. She was Ayah, and he was going to save her life.
Once he acknowledged the thought, it blossomed through him. He would save her. This woman didn’t deserve to die for his past mistakes. He did not deserve to go through the pain of her death at his hands, when he hadn’t even had a chance to know her again. He rubbed his suddenly aching chest. The realization of that nearly brought him to his knees. He wanted to have her. Why couldn’t he keep her for his own? An immortal destined to be alone for the rest of his life, and he wanted her. He would have to contact the other Watchers. Surely Valerie, Lei, and Alexander would assist him. They would help him find a way. Valerie, in particular, would find this chore pleasing. She had no love for the goddess, and it seemed the feeling was mutual. Of them all, she was the only one Freya had never punished. Perhaps Valerie was the key to stopping the goddess from interfering. As soon as he got the answers he needed from Ayah and got her to bed, he’d contact the immortals. Determined, he stalked over to her and stopped her pacing.
“I am going to save you, Ayah, I promise you. Trust in me. We will find a way.”
“But I’m supposed to die at some point. Freya wants that. So if the person who is supposed to kill me can’t because of you, then how am I supposed to die?” And that was the question. It was a question he didn’t want to answer, one he wouldn’t answer.
“She meant for you to die the natural way, the way you were supposed to. I have no knowledge of how that was supposed to be.” The lie flowed off his tongue with an ease he should have been worried about, but for Ayah, it was worth it. She needn’t ever find out it was his blade that was meant to cut her down, and that at one time, he’d intended to do just that. That secret he would hold until he took his last breath, and that was a long way away.
“Then, yes, I will trust you. I don’t know what is going on, really, or how it’s all even possible, but I believe you.”
“That is all I ask of you, Ayah. If I must bring the others here to protect you, I will. We will find a way.”
Her gaze met his, and she watched him for a few moments. He felt as if she could see into his soul, see into the blackness that had become his heart. He felt she read more than he was telling her. He was beyond saving. He knew that. He was also selfish enough to still want the light of the world. It was not fair to her, he knew, but he would not let her go.
She nodded. “So we just have to figure out who’s gunning for me. Would the fact that I just became a millionaire help with all this?”