The Darkest Touch – Gena Showalter

DON’T DIE. Don’t you dare die.” Frantic, Torin dug through a backpack crammed with clothing, weapons and medical supplies. He’d packed it days ago, blindly filling it with everything he’d thought he might need. There was no mouth guard. Fine. He’d proceed without one. He hurried to his companion’s motionless form, straddled her waist. Her precious life slipped away with every second that passed. CPR was a last resort, but suddenly her only hope, and because they were locked inside a dungeon, no one else inside their cell, the responsibility belonged to him alone. The guy who’d rarely ever come this close to another person. Just call me Wonder Doc. He flattened his gloved hands over Mari’s delicate chest—still, too still. But rather than proceed as he should have, he found himself pausing to savor the rare and extraordinary connection with the opposite sex. So soft.

So luscious. What the hell am I doing? Jaw clenched, he pushed. Crack. Too hard. He’d just broken her sternum and probably several of her ribs. Guilt pierced straight through his heart, and if the organ hadn’t already been shredded beyond repair, it might have hurt. Sweat trickled down his temples as he pressed against Mari’s chest more gently. Nothing else broke. Good. Okay.

He pressed again and again, gradually increasing his speed. But how fast was too fast? What helped? What damaged? “Come on, Mari.” She was human, but strong. Fragile, but resilient. “Stay with me. You can survive this, I know you can.” Her head lolled to the side, her glassy eyes staring out at nothing. “No. No!” He checked her for a pulse, waited…but never felt even the weakest of beats. As he returned his hands to her chest to start over, his gaze locked on her blood-splattered lips; his mind willed them to part, a cough to escape.

It would mean the sickness still plagued her, but sick was better than dead any day of the week. “Mari, please.” He heard the desperation in his voice, didn’t care. I can’t be the one to kill someone so sweet. Torin pushed harder, heard another crack. Hell. He wasn’t some pansy crier, but damn if tears didn’t scald the backs of his eyes. He’d come to think of this girl as a friend, and despite the numerous centuries he’d lived, he didn’t have many of those. He always protected the ones he had. Until her.

If not for him, she never would have sickened in the first place. Again he felt for a pulse. Still no beat. Cursing, he set back to work. Five minutes…ten…twenty. He was Mari’s life support, the only thing standing between her and death; he would do this however long proved necessary. Pull through, Mari. You have to pull through. “Fight this!” But as another eternity elapsed without any change in her, he finally admitted his efforts weren’t doing any good. She was already gone.

Already dead. And there was nothing he could do to bring her back. With a roar, Torin wrenched away and paced the cell like the caged animal he was. His arms shook. His back and thighs ached. But what was physical pain compared to mental? Emotional? This was his fault. He’d known what would happen if ever he touched the girl, and he’d lured her closer anyway. Monster! With another roar, he punched the wall, enjoying the unrelenting throb of pain as skin split and bones fractured. He punched again and again, cracks appearing in the stone, dust pluming around him. If he had just stopped to question why a girl like Mari would be so starved for companionship she would agree to be with him she would still be alive.

He pressed his forehead against the battered wall. I’m keeper of the demon of Disease. When will I accept the fact that I’m meant to fly solo? To be forever denied what I crave most. “Mari, darling,” a slightly accented voice rang out. Female…delicious—even soaked in panic and pain as it was. “The bond is broken. Why is it broken?” The blood in Torin’s veins turned into fuel, igniting as if a blazing match had just been thrown inside him. He became increasingly aware of his own heartbeat, speeding up, the need to stalk to the cell’s door and rip away every metal bar consuming him; anything to erase the distance between him and the speaker. An extreme reaction. He knew that.

Just as he knew such excruciating awareness of another person was unusual for him. It was also uncontrollable and unstoppable, his entire world centering around this one woman. And this wasn’t the first time it had happened. Anytime she’d spoken, no matter the words she’d uttered, the huskiness of her tone had always carried a promise of absolute pleasure. As if there were nothing she wanted more than to kiss, lick and suck on him. Masculine instincts he’d spent countless years denying shouted, Come, little moth. Come closer to my flame. Or I’ll come to you…. He strode to the bars and, like a thousand times before, willed the shadows between their cells to part. But it did no good.

Her appearance remained a mystery. Somehow his sick obsession with her only intensified…and he thought that, for just five minutes of that kissing, licking and sucking, he would have happily risked a worldwide plague. Hate myself. Someone should string him up by the collarbone and cane him. Again. “Mari!” his obsession said. “Please.” Disease whipped into a frenzy, banging against Torin’s skull, suddenly desperate to escape. Escape her? Another unusual reaction. Usually the demon adored such close proximity with a potential victim.

How the fiend had laughed at Mari…. Hate him, too. “Mari can’t talk right now,” Torin said. Or ever. The admission…like pouring salt over my wounds. Bars rattled. “What did you do to her?” Nothing…everything. “Tell me!” the female shouted. “I shook her hand.” The words exploded from him, bitter and cutting.

“That’s it.” But he’d done far more than that, hadn’t he. He’d put a lot of time and effort into charming her. Feeding her. Talking and laughing with her. Eventually she’d felt comfortable enough to remove one of his gloves and intertwine their fingers. On purpose. Nothing bad will happen, she had said. Or maybe her gaze had said it. The details were hazed by the fog of his eagerness.

You’ll see. He’d believed her. Because he’d wanted to believe her more than he’d wanted to take his next breath. He’d held on to her so tightly, a thirsty man who’d just discovered the last glass of water in a world burning to ash, nearly brought to his knees by the force of his physical response. Sensation after sensation had overwhelmed him. Feminine softness so near his masculine hardness. A floral scent in his nose. The ends of her silky hair tickling his wrist. Her warmth blending with his own. Her breath intersecting with his.

I experienced an instant connection, immediate bliss, and very nearly creamed my damn jeans. From a handshake. She’d died from it. With him, it never mattered if the touch was accidental or intentional, or if the victim was human or animal, young or old, male or female…good or evil; any living creature sickened soon after contact with him. Even immortals like himself. Difference was, immortals sometimes survived, becoming carriers of whatever illness they’d contracted from him, capable of spreading it to others. As a human, Mari had never even stood a chance. “Tell me the truth,” his obsession demanded. “Every detail.” He didn’t know her name or if she was human or immortal.

He only knew Mari had made a deal with the devil to save her. The two women had been imprisoned here for centuries—wherever “here” was—for no real crime Torin could perceive. Cronus, the prison’s owner, had never really needed a reason to ruin someone’s life. He’d certainly helped ruin Torin’s. He had owed Torin a favor, and Torin, being Torin, had chosen to overlook the male’s shady reputation and ask for a woman who wouldn’t sicken at his touch. Cronus, being Cronus, hadn’t bothered to search for a suitable candidate and had simply recruited one of his prisoners—sweet, innocent Mari. “Cronus made a deal with the girl,” Torin said. “I know that.” His obsession huffed and puffed, a veritable big, bad wolf. “Mari was cursed to flash to your bedroom one hour a day for nearly a month, all in the hopes of convincing you to touch her.

” “Yes,” he croaked. And in return, Cronus had promised to set her dearest friend free—the woman currently grilling Torin for answers. No big surprise Cronus had lied. At least he got his in the end. Torin had wanted to haul ass to a hospital the moment he’d realized Mari was sick, but that stupid curse had bound her to this prison with invisible chains. She’d had to return. Left with no other option, Torin had held on to her as she’d moved from one location to another in a blink, traveling with her. He’d tended her to the best of his ability. But his best hadn’t been good enough. Would never be good enough.

“I don’t care about the whys,” the female said. “Only the outcome. What is Mari doing right now?” Decomposing. Can’t say it, just…can’t. Silent, he removed his gloves and used his hands as a shovel, throwing scoop after scoop of dirt over his shoulder. Not the first makeshift grave I’ve dug, but I hereby vow it will be my last. No more impromptu friendships. No more hopes and dreams for what could never be. I’m done. “Ignoring me?” she asked.

“Do you have any idea the being you provoke?” Torin never paused in his task. He would bury Mari. He would find a way out of this hellhole. He would continue the job he’d abandoned when he’d chosen to come with the girl. The search and rescue of Cameo and Viola, who’d gone missing several weeks ago—friends who comprehended his need for distance. “I am Keeleycael, the Red Queen, and I will be more than happy to take a coat hanger and fish out all of your internal organs…through your mouth.” Disease went still and quiet. That, too, was a first. The Red Queen. The title was somehow familiar to Torin.

From a children’s storybook, yes, but there was more to it than that. He’d heard it…where? An image flashed through his mind. A dilapidated bar in the skies. Yes, of course. While working for Zeus, the king of the Greeks, he’d tracked many fugitive immortals there. The words the Red Queen had been whispered behind the trembling hands of fearful men and women, right along with insane and cruel. He’d always enjoyed pitting his skills against the strongest and vilest of predators, and such a visceral reaction to the supposed Red Queen had intrigued him. But when he’d asked the whisperers who she was and what she could do, they had gone quiet. Maybe this prisoner was the one they’d spoken of, maybe she wasn’t. Hardly mattered anymore.

He wouldn’t be fighting her. “Keeleycael,” he said. “That’s quite a mouthful. How about I call you Keeley instead?” “An honor reserved solely for my friends. Do so at your own peril.” “Thanks. I will.” A soft snarl from her. “You may call me Your Majesty. I’ll call you My Next Victim.

” “I usually prefer Torin, Hotness or The Awesome.” Nicknames to help smile through the pain. Should probably have gone with Proctalgia Fugax—meaning a literal pain in the ass. “Why has Mari gone silent, Torin?” Keeley asked as if they were discussing nothing more important than tomorrow’s dinner menu. (Rat casserole.) She knew Mari was dead, didn’t she? Making him admit it was some sort of punishment. “Before you reply,” she added, “you should know I would rather save the enemy who tells me the truth than the friend who tells me lies.” Not a bad motto. Lie and die happened to be his. And, really, if the situation were reversed, he would have wanted the same thing: answers.

But again, if the situation were reversed and she had led to the demise of one of his friends, he would have moved heaven and earth to administer justice. But trapped as they were in these cells created for the strongest of immortals, there was nothing she could do but stew in her rage, helpless as the emotion grew darker and darker, perhaps even driving her mad. It was a cruel fate. It was also an excuse. Time to put on my big-boy panties. “Mari is… Dead. She’s dead.” Silence. Such oppressive silence and, with it, darkness, as if they’d somehow fallen into a sensorydeprivation tank. He spoke in a desperate bid to dull his mounting sorrow, explaining, “Since you know about Cronus’s deal with Mari, you must know I’m a Lord of the Underworld.

One of the fourteen warriors responsible for stealing and opening Pandora’s box, unleashing the demons from within. As punishment, we were each cursed to house one of those demons inside our own bodies. I was given Disease, the world’s worst SSTD. Skin-to-skin-transmitted disease. I make people sick. That’s what I do, and there’s no stopping it. She touched me, like I said. We touched each other. But that’s all it took. She died.

She’s dead,” he repeated hollowly. Again silence. He locked his jaw to prevent himself from admitting the other Lords hosted baddies like Violence, Death and Pain. That thousands of innocents had died at their hands, and thousands more had lamented the vileness of their deeds. That, despite everything, none of his friends were as wretched as Disease. They chose their victims. Torin did not. What a freaking prize I am. Who would ever want him? Single immortal male looking for someone to love—and murder. He couldn’t even comfort himself with memories of past lovers.

When he’d lived in the skies, he’d concerned himself with his war duties and very little else, women nothing more than an afterthought…until his body demanded attention. But every time he’d chosen a lover, his warrior instincts to dominate and subdue had overtaken him, and his unintentional roughness had made the females cry before their clothes had ever come off. Which meant their clothes had never come off. Perhaps he could have coaxed the females to continue, but his disgust with himself had been too great. He excelled on the battlefield but couldn’t master the mechanics of sex? Humiliating. Now he would trade what little remained of his integrity for skin-to-skin anything, desperate to have what he’d once disdained, unable to fight his enemies in the down-and-dirty way he’d once— still—loved. “Torin,” Keeley said, and despite the strain he heard, he still reacted with the same raw hunger as before. “You realize you killed an innocent girl, yes?” He settled in the hole he’d dug, pulled on his gloves and rested his head against his upraised palms. “Yes.” His gaze flicked to Mari.

She might have known about his condition, but some part of her must have trusted him to keep her safe. Now look at her. “Torin,” Keeley said again. “Have you also realized I will punish you for your crime?” “You can’t hurt me any more than I’m hurting right now.” “Not true. I have heard of you and your friends, you know.” What did that have to do with anything? “Explain where you’re going with this, and I might decide to invest in the rest of the conversation.” Otherwise, it was time to find his way free. “You may have the world’s worst SSTD,” she said, “but I throw the world’s worst temper tantrum.” Interesting, but not applicable.

“Are you chastising me or applying to be my sidekick?” “Silence!” Disease recoiled like the coward he was. “I’m sure you’ve heard of Atlantis,” she continued easily. “What you probably do not know is that I ensured the island was swallowed by the sea simply because I was a wee bit annoyed with its ruler.” Truth? Or exaggeration? Either way…it excited him with the same fervency as her voice. At last. The opponent of my dreams. “You have garnered more than my annoyance, warrior. I had one friend here. Only one. She is— was—my family.

” A pause as Keeley sniffled. “Not by blood, but something far greater. I was once a creature of hate, but she taught me to love. And you took her away from me.” Her pain sliced at him. “Torin,” she said, and he knew instinctively this was the final calm before a great and terrible storm. “Yes, Keeley.” If she asked for his heart—a life for a life—he would give it to her. The storm broke, revealing the temper she’d lauded. “I’m going to kill you,” she screamed.

“Kill you so dead.” The bars of her cage rattled with increasing fervor. “You’ll experience agony in ways you’ve never dreamed possible, for I will do to you what I’ve done to so many others. I will skin you with a cheese grater and stuff your organs into a blender to make a smoothie. I will donkey punch your skull so hard your brain will ooze out of your eye sockets.” “I…don’t know how to respond to that.” “Don’t worry. Soon I’ll cut out your tongue and use it as a cleaning rag—you’ll never have to respond to anyone ever again!” A rock skidded into his cell…the first of an avalanche, rage and grief giving her the strength that centuries of imprisonment had surely stolen. I’m wrecked. He’d robbed this woman of her best and only friend, leaving her with nothing but pain and misery.

Story of my life. He wished his next deed would kill him but knew it would only make him wish he’d died. Any wound he received damaged his resistance to the demon and thereby his own immunity, allowing Disease to rise up and infect him. At least for a little while. Still. Torin did as he’d imagined. He clawed his way into his chest, scooped out his heart…and rolled it into Keeley’s cell.


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