Still willing to give up her freedom to be near him? Damn her. He fell a little more in love with her. “Go! Did you not hear me? I can’t stand the sight of you anymore. Don’t you get it? You make me sick, Nike.”
“Shut up.” Tears filled her eyes. Real godsdamned tears. “You don’t mean that. You can’t mean that.” The last was whispered brokenly.
His heart constricted painfully. Do it. Finish it. “I’d rather be killed or locked away than look at you another moment. Because every time I look at you, I’m reminded of what we did and I—I want to vomit. I was using you, wanting to punish you, but I took things too far. Even for me.” Hating himself, he turned away from her. “So do us both a favor and go.”
For a long while, she didn’t speak. He knew she didn’t flash away, either, for he heard no rustle of clothing. But then, he did hear a whimper. A sob. More of those tears must be falling.
Gods, he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t send her away like this. He spun, meaning to grab on to her and tell her the truth, to force her to listen. To make her leave another way. But she was gone before their eyes could meet and his hands encountered only air.
“YOU INSOLENT FOOL!”
Atlas peered up at the fuming Cronus. Not like he could do anything else. His wrists were chained to poles, forcing him to remain on his knees. The very collar he’d removed from Nike was now wrapped around his own neck.
He’d known this would happen, but he hadn’t cared. He still didn’t. Nike was free, and that was all that mattered.
“Have you nothing to say for yourself?”
“One Greek can raise an army. That army can attack us. Ruin us. I told you that, and still you defied me.”
“Nike won’t do that,” he said confidently. He trusted her to disappear. Even as angry as she had to be with him, she would not endanger herself to save people she had never truly liked.
Cronus slammed his fist against the arm of his throne, ever the petulant child. “You can’t know that! You aren’t my All-Seeing Eye.”
Atlas arched a brow, refusing to be cowed. “Would you risk being imprisoned again to help your fellow Titans? I may not be able to see all the secrets of the heavens and Hell, yet I know you would not. She will not, either.”
The king had no response to that, but that didn’t stop him from growling. “You disobeyed a direct order, and for that you will be punished.”
“I understand.” He offered the statement without hesitation. It was the truth. He understood that the god king had to make an example out of him. Otherwise, others would see Cronus as weak. They would disobey him as Atlas had.
“I think you actually do.” Some of Cronus’s fury abated. “Only this morning I saw a portrait of you. A portrait painted by my Eye. With it, she showed me exactly how to punish you.” The king smiled evilly and looked to the ghostlike girl still standing at his side. “You know what to do, sweet Sienna.”
Sienna strode forward, a knife appearing in her hand. She stopped in front of Atlas and dropped to her knees, placing them eye to eye. So this was it, he thought. The end. As an immortal, he’d never thought to reach this point. Still. He found he only regretted that he hadn’t had more time with Nike, that he hadn’t gotten the chance to apologize for his harsh words the last time they were together and that he would never have the chance to confess his love.
With absolutely no emotion on her face, the girl dug the tip of the blade into his wrist and cut out his sensor, rather than chop off his head. That’s when he realized Cronus meant to lock him away rather than kill him. Good. More time to think about Nike and what could have been.
But then Sienna moved the blade to his chest and pressed, slicing. It stung, but that was not what made him struggle against her ministrations. No, it was the fact that she began carving away Nike’s name. He roared loud and long, fighting for all he was worth. Guards were called over and hard hands settled over him, pressing him down, holding him steady. Still he fought, but in the end, they managed to remove all four letters.
As each person walked away from him, he glanced down at himself through burning, watery eyes. Blood poured down his chest and four open wounds stared up at him, the muscles torn, the skin completely gone. He might have hated that brand at one point in his life, but he’d grown to love it as much as the woman who’d given it to him. More than that, it had been the last remaining evidence of her presence.
His hands fisted, and his back straightened. Blood and sweat mingled, stinging further. Another roar burst from his lips, and he tossed it to the domed ceiling. He didn’t stop until his throat was shredded from the strain.
“Are you quite finished?” Cronus asked him.
His gaze fell to the dais, narrowing. “I will destroy you for this,” his vowed brokenly. “One day you will die by my hand.”
“Not likely. Take him to Tartarus,” the king told his guards, unconcerned. “Where he will rot for all eternity.”
IT TOOK HER TWO DAYS, but Nike finally located Atlas’s home, a sprawling estate in Olympus. Or Titania, as Cronus had renamed the city. The amount of wealth Atlas had needed to acquire such a place astonished her—and she knew exactly how much he’d paid because she had once owned it. But then, she supposed he’d considered every cent worth it. After living in a tiny cell for thousands of years, he’d most likely wanted every bit of space he could get. And every amenity.
There was a swimming pool, more than thirty bedrooms, two winding, marble staircases and four fireplaces, and all the walls were comprised of solid gold. None of that interested her, however. Only his bedroom did.
There, she discovered more about the man who had sent her on her way. A man who would not have risked this just to avoid her face, as he’d claimed. A man who would not have risked his life for anything other than love.
Nearly everything was as she’d left it. A huge bed covered with black silk sheets. The walls were painted with murals of the sun and sky, and the furniture smelled of rich mahogany. There were multiple bookcases, each filled with leather-bound books. Her books. Beaded pillows were strategically placed along the floor. Places for him to lounge and read, as she had done.
What held her attention, however, was the only difference. A portrait hung above the hearth. A portrait of her.
He must have commissioned it after their time inside that tent, for she was reclined in a porcelain tub, bubbles sliding over her shoulders and chest, her hair soaked. She would have looked as plain and masculine as always, except he’d had the artist add a sensual light to her dark eyes and a come-and-get-me curve to her lips.
Finally she knew how he saw her. As someone beautiful. He’d once told her so, but she’d had trouble believing him. Now…
Only a man in love would do such a thing. Only a man in love would keep such a thing in such a prominent place. Only a man in love would want to see a woman’s portrait every night before he fell asleep, then wake up looking at it.
Oh, yes. He loved her. As she loved him.
There, outside of Tartarus, she’d thought, hoped, that he did so, but she had let his words scrape against her already low self-esteem. How could so beautiful and sensual a man want her? she’d wondered. But he did. He loved her. Proof: he’d risked everything for her.
She could do no less for him.
Nike strode through the bedroom, knowing her lover would have a weapons case stashed somewhere—and knowing exactly what to do with it.
ATLAS WAS NOT GIVEN A CELL of his own—not at first. Still bleeding and frantic, fighting, he had been thrust into a cell with Erebos. Of course, that’s who had been chosen as his cell mate, he’d thought, rage filling him. A male who had once thought to claim his Nike. A male who had then stolen food from her, pushed her around and called her terrible names.
Atlas had seen it happen on numerous occasions. He hadn’t done anything about it then, telling himself she deserved what she got, but he’d wanted to. And there was no better time than now.
Even with his strength corralled by the collar and half his blood dried to his chest, even with his still-seeping wounds splitting open with every move he made, Atlas managed to defeat Erebos in record time. He punched, he kicked, he did not play fair, kneeing the god in the balls while he was down. In the end, a broken, bloody Erebos lay crying on the dirty floor, right alongside everyone who had tried to save him.
That’s when Atlas was moved to the empty cell Nike had occupied. He stretched out on the cot, simply breathing in her lingering essence. His sweet, sweet Nike. He would have to spend eternity without her. Without even her brand. Once again, he roared.
What was she doing now? If she sought solace in the arms of another man, even in the years to come, he would tear this prison apart stone by stone and kill the bastard. As if. You sent her on her way to do just that. You want her happy.
“What’s all the racket? Seriously.”
Gods, he was hearing her voice now. Locked up two days, and he was already headed into insanity.
His bars rattled, slid open. He rolled to his side, determined to send whoever it was away. When he caught sight of his beloved Nike, he blinked. Oh, yes, he was indeed going insane. She stood before him, clad in a black leather bra top and black leather pants. Her hair was slicked back in a smooth ponytail. Blood splattered her cheeks. Never had she looked more beautiful, her strength there for all to see.
She was holding someone’s arm. Without their body. For the sensor in the wrist?
His hallucinations were certainly detailed.
“Well?” she said, clearly impatient. She tossed the arm aside. “Aren’t you going to say anything?”
Slowly he sat up. He didn’t want this moment to end. Didn’t want to lose sight of her. “I missed you. So much.”
“And I wanted an apology. Stupid me. I much prefer this.” She grinned, practically beaming. “I missed you, too, but we’ll have to catch up later.” Her gaze fell to his chest, and she gaped in astonishment. Then she growled. “Did the god king cut my name off you?”