When she turned around to thank the wraith, it had disappeared.
Going into her bathing room, she soaked until her skin was rosy and flush, then dressed in the gown.
Then she nervously bit the tip of one of her fingernails, wavering on her decision to eat dinner with Hades. However, Grimm hadn’t come to ask her to have dinner with Hades.
Why had she let the wraith influence her?
Because she had been right. Hades had shaken her self-esteem, but he hadn’t done it on his own. She had.
Hurt pride and feelings had kept her from facing the fact that she had let Hades use her. Just as he had all the women whose portraits hung from the walls. Well, she was done being his doormat. It was time Hades realized she wasn’t going to be played. At least not unless she could win.
Zerina left her room, making sure to keep her eyes straight. She was sick of the portraits, but she was sicker of letting her jealously rule her.
When she went into Hades’ dining room, she saw he was sitting at the head of the table with an empty plate next to him.
“May I join you for dinner?” Zerina asked, as if he wasn’t expecting it.
“Please.” He gallantly rose to pull out her chair before regaining his. “What made you decide to join me?”
She placed her napkin on her lap as a different wraith served their dinner.
“Do I need a reason?”
“Women usually do.” Hades chewed his food thoughtfully, watching her with hooded eyes.
“I’ve decided your company is better than no company.” She shrugged, taking a bite of her food. “You should understand that.”
“Why should I?”
“Because you surround yourself with few males. Tartarus and Grimm are the only two I’ve seen. You tend to prefer the company of women.” She pointed her empty fork at the portraits. “Most of them, and I don’t mean to be insulting, but I don’t imagine your concubines were picked because they’re conversationalists.”
Hades’ lips curled in amusement. “No, conversation isn’t why they were chosen.”
Zerina nodded matter-of-factly. “I didn’t assume so. You, on the other hand, are very intelligent and refined in your tastes.” Zerina took an appreciative sip of her wine. “It’s delicious.”
“I’m glad you think so.” Hades quit eating to stare her.
Zerina took another sip, letting it roll around her tongue. “I do. Chateau Mouton Rothschild 1945?”
“My mother enjoys a good wine occasionally. Did you know that?”
“No, I can’t say I did.”
“She does. Fate taught me how to enjoy the delicate flavors at a young age. I’m almost as good as she is now. Do you have a wine vault?”
“I must have missed that room when you gave me a tour.” She smiled impishly, taking a bite of the perfectly prepared beef Wellington.
“I can show you after dinner.”
“You’re not afraid I’ll sneak one back to my room?”
“I’ve never denied a beautiful woman anything that is in my power to give. If you see anything you want to try, I am perfectly willing to give you a private tasting.”
Zerina feigned regret with a disappointed pout. “No, thank you. Your private collection may be too expensive for my taste. I’ll limit myself to what you’re willing to share with dinner.”
“So, if I can’t please you with my choice of jewelry or my wine, how am I supposed to win back your friendship?” He watched her intently for a reaction.
She knew he was reading her mind, so she made sure her answer was honest. “Have you just tried to be yourself? It’s as little as that. Or is that more than you’re willing to give?”
His dark eyes swirled with emotion. “I have been myself, even when I was in Mother’s court. I don’t hide behind lies and emotions to lure women to my bed. Can you say I did?”
“Technically, you did,” she asserted. “I thought we were friends.”
“I don’t hide that I’m a monster, or that humans and gods alike think I’m a demon for the punishments I have given. I won’t apologize for the things I’ve said or done. It takes a monster to keep the prisoners I guard from further harm. I regarded you as a friend also.” Hades looked as if the last admission wasn’t one he wanted to make.
Zerina motioned for the wraith to refill their wine glasses.
“I don’t think of you as a monster, Hades. You read my mind at your will. Other than when I’m hurt, do I think of you like that?” She stared at him steadily. “I know what job you do; it doesn’t make you a monster. Mother doesn’t send the innocent for you to guard. She allows the humans and the gods to seek forgiveness from her. Those who are too stubborn to do that are damned by their own deeds.”
Zerina placed her napkin on the table, losing her appetite. “I am—was—gifted with the joy to carry souls to babies. Most of the time, I experienced the same joy as the parents.” Zerina fiddled with her wine goblet, stopping when a drop spilled onto the white tablecloth. “Usually, I am able share the joy of birth with the parents and the soul I was gifting. A few times, I wept when I had to leave a soul that I knew wouldn’t be cared for. I had to tell myself that Mother, Fate, and Destiny would watch over them. It was hard and made me physically sick at being unable to change the course of a soul Mother was gifting them.
“A very few times, it was the opposite. A soul so dark I didn’t want to carry it to the unsuspecting parents. A soul so dark that light cannot find a way into their life. Those are the souls that you imprisoned after their lives ended. So, if you’re expecting me to plead their cases or berate you for keeping them locked up, you’re mistaken.
“I thank Mother every day that those souls will never hurt another, as the other countless souls you hold won’t.”
For a brief second, Hades discarded the air of arrogance he had always assumed, showing emotions she had believed him incapable of. Hades was used to being cursed and reviled. He was shocked that she could see the tortured soul who lived beneath the mask he presented to his concubines as a generous lover and warden.
“Were you ever in love with my mother?” Zerina watched him closely to see if he would let his mask slip again. It didn’t.
“Then I don’t understand why you’re so set on punishing me by refusing to take Ixcuina’s portrait from my room … and made sure I saw the one you made of me.”
“When I get angry, I tend to strike out. I read your mind that day in my office. You hate me with a fiery vehemence that I didn’t believe you capable of.”
“Your feelings were hurt?” she asked. “Or, unlike your concubines, I have emotions that aren’t centered between my thighs?”
“Your thoughts of contempt were like fingernails screeching on a chalkboard.” He sighed. “You may have been right that I am soulless. That doesn’t mean I like to hear it.”
“Then don’t read my mind. No matter how much you like or love someone, no one can love them all the time. How would you like it if I read your thoughts?”
His eyes shuttered.
“See? Why do you expect more of me than yourself?”
“I thought you were different.”
“You seriously believed that I would be okay with sharing you with your concubines?”
“I thought that you would be able to adjust.”
“Did you adjust when Persephone cheated on you?”
Hades stubbornly flexed his jaw. “That was different. I cared for her—”
“I was falling in love with you.”
Hades had the grace to lower his eyes. “That was your mistake.”
“Yes, it was. I overestimated you as a god, and underestimated you as a man. I won’t make that mistake again.”
She should have gotten to know Hades better before trusting him with her heart. He had leashed his power as a god when he was around her, which ha
d been when she had begun to believe they were friends. But, like a curve in a road, each time you took it, you told yourself it wasn’t so dangerous, gradually increasing your speed until you took the curve too fast, and then did what you were expected to do the first time—crash and burn. She had crashed and burned with Hades because she had fallen in love with the god and forgot he was just a man at heart.
“It would be useless to say we could try to be friends again?”
“Not a snowball’s chance in hell.”
When Hades raised a hand, Zerina expected another portrait to appear. Instead, she felt suspicious wetness on her hand and looked up to see snow falling from the ceiling.
Zerina laughed when a snowflake landed on the tip of Hades’ nose and he didn’t brush it away.
“It might take a couple of tries before I can make one, but I’ll try.”
Hades would never apologize out loud, pompous as all gods were. Plus, being surrounded by people who wanted to please him, he hadn’t known how to react when he met a woman who refused to acknowledge his superiority. Not only did Zerina not acknowledge it, she had fought against it.
She had to learn to pick her battles, and she had to learn to give him the deferential treatment he was used to, even if she had to bite her tongue more times than not.
A small snowball hit her in the chest and icy water slid down, leaving her tight bodice damp and sheer.
She demurely rose, her breasts nearly bursting out of her gown. Hades’ eyes became fixated on them.
“Good night, Hades.”
“Good night,” he choked out, not raising his eyes.
Zerina trailed her hand up his elegant suit sleeve to his shoulder as she stood behind him. Leaning down behind him, she pressed a chaste kiss to his beard-covered jaw. “I wish you sweet dreams.”
Zerina left him with her laughter ringing behind her and a collar full of melting snow.
Zerina practically skipped down the hallway the next morning. She had woken to a big breakfast and the portrait gone from her room.
Hades was too big of an ass to have taken it down immediately; it had been there when she had gone to bed. No, he had waited as if she wouldn’t know it was gone.