The characters of Hercules and Ares, God of War, belong to Universal Studios and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement is intended.
This story contains scenes of graphic consensual sex between a man and a woman. If you are under 18, or this is illegal where you live, please read no further.
This story is a sequel to A New Beginning.
JinXavier's stories are also posted at Hercules After Dark.
Send feedback to JinXavier@aol.com
Melias of Corcyra entered the throne room of the temple, his closest advisor dogging his heels. Even though the king was the picture of royalty in his golden crown and fine robes of ermine and purple, he still bowed respectfully to the god sitting upon the throne.
"My Lord Ares," he began, then paused as if unsure how to put his desires into words.
The God of War did not help the man. He simply gazed at him indifferently, a hint of boredom on his beautiful face.
The king took a deep breath, then plunged forward, speaking so fast that his words almost ran together. "I have come to ask you to release my daughter from your service."
One perfect eyebrow arched. Ares studied the king for a moment, then asked mildly, as if the subject held little interest for him, "And why would I do that?"
"I have need of her, my Lord," Melias replied promptly.
"As do I," the god retorted.
"But . . . but my Lord," the king stuttered. "It is imperative that she return home."
"Imperative?" Ares asked. "Pray enlighten me as to why Cassandra's presence is so vital to you all of a sudden."
"My kingdom has been at war for several years now," the king explained. "My enemies have finally agreed to a truce on the condition that the son of their king marry my daughter."
Ares leaned back in his throne, the fingers of one hand drumming lazily on the arm as he studied the pitiful excuse for a mortal standing before him. He was well aware of the situation in the man's kingdom, the petty fighting which had been going on for years. Only now, when the king's resources had dipped low enough that he stood to lose his entire kingdom, did he decide to sacrifice his daughter for peace. But he was mistaken if he thought that the God of War would give up one of his favorite priestesses so easily. And to stop a war no less. The man was obviously an idiot for coming to HIM to try to stop a war. The idea was laughable.
"That will be quite impossible, King Melias," he announced at last. "Cassandra is my priestess. She has taken her vows. She cannot leave unless I release her from those vows." He paused, then added, "And I have no intention of releasing her."
"But my Lord Ares," the king implored. "She can't be of any real value to you. She was raised to be a princess, not to serve. Besides, she never really wanted to come here. Would you keep her here against her will?"
Ares had to fight to keep from laughing out loud. The old fool really believed that he had punished Cassandra by sending her here. Perhaps it would do him good to see how his daughter had changed.
"Darocles," he yelled, calling for his head priest.
The man soon answered the call, and Ares sent him after Cassandra. Darocles returned shortly with the priestess in tow. Cassandra had obviously been on the practice field. She was dressed in her fighting leathers, and several locks of her black hair had worked free from her braid to drift softly about her face. A long scratch ran down her arm, slowly seeping blood, but her face was aglow with passion and expectation. Until, that is, her gaze fell upon her father. She stiffened, and her expression smoothed out, giving no emotion away. Only her eyes were wary.
"My Lord Ares," she said, bowing respectfully to her god.
"Cassandra," Ares acknowledged her with a nod, not rising from his throne. Without preamble, he said bluntly, "Your father wishes you to return home."
Cass' startled gaze flew to his face. Fear leapt into her eyes, but he was pleased to see that she reined it in and didn't plead with him. She said nothing, simply waited for him to continue.
"He is under the impression that you are here against your will," Ares continued, more than satisfied with her self-control. She had learned well the lessons he had taught her. "I would never force you to stay if you wish to return home."
Cassandra straightened to her full height, raising her chin defiantly. "This is my home," she announced firmly.
"But Cassandra," Melias pled desperately, obviously shocked at the change in his daughter. Cassandra was no spoiled princess now; she was a warrior. "You must come home. I can finally end the war. And Marius' wife has died. He wishes to wed you."
Long dark hair, like silk under her fingertips. Eyes so blue they put the sky to shame. A chin impressed with a tiny cleft. A strong face, a grim face, until he smiled and a dimple winked into view. Oh, Marius.
Cassandra stiffened. Her expression remained blank, but Ares sensed the strong emotions she held in check. Suddenly, he realized that she had managed to keep something hidden from him, and that definitely did not please him. He watched her closely as she answered her father.
"No," she said firmly. "I will not be a pawn in your game, Father. My place is here." She turned to Ares, discounting the king. "Was there anything else, Lord Ares?" she asked.
Ares fought the desire to explore her mind to discover this secret of hers; he'd find it out soon enough. And that might just be a pleasurable experience. He could feel her anger and defiance. Between that and the faint scent of blood wafting from her wound, he was becoming quite aroused. He would definitely have to visit her later, but for now, he had no further need of her. He shook his head and gave her leave to depart.
The king began to splutter in outrage, but the god cut him off, rising from his throne to stand, towering over the man.
"She has made her decision, Melias," he said threateningly. "Cassandra stays here." He turned and stalked from the throne room, leaving the king and his advisor gaping after him.
"My Lord King?"
Melias turned to his advisor. "This isn't over," he growled. "She's my daughter. We'll get her back some way." He whirled and stormed from the room, and his companion scuttled along quickly behind him.
"Gods, Cass. Cut it out."
Cassandra backed off her savage attack towards her fellow priestess and fighting partner and lowered her blade. "Sorry, Lydia. I'm just so . . . ANGRY." She thrust the point of the sword into the ground. "I can't believe he had the nerve to come here and ask me to return home."
"But you're not going, so why are you still angry?"
Cass sighed in aggravation, impatiently pushing back the loose locks of hair drifting about her face. As much as she loved and trusted her friend, she really had no desire to relive the old hurts stirred up by her father's visit. "I don't know," she said lamely. "The whole thing just makes me furious. He throws me away like trash, then thinks I should come running home when he calls."
"Do you want to go home?" Lydia asked gently.
A powerful body, with muscular arms that made her feel safe when he held her. A touch so gentle it made her ache. Lips, full and sensuous, just begging to be kissed. And kiss them she had, whenever possible. Oh, Marius. Oh, my love.
Cass shook her head, scattering her thoughts. "No," she said forcefully. "Never. I've found my place finally. I'm not leaving."
"That's good to hear," a deep voice said behind her. Cass whirled around to see Ares standing behind her, his arms crossed, his expression one of concern as he investigated her from head to toe.
"I noticed your arm earlier," he said. "What happened?"
Lydia stifled a laugh, and Cass shot her friend an irritated look. With a heavy, almost embarrassed sigh, she answered her god. "Lyd got under my guard, my Lord."
"Very good, Lydia," the God of War congratulated her friend, who brightened considerably under his speculative gaze. Cass rolled her eyes. Trust Lyd to take advantage of the situation. Anything to have Ares to herself for a while. Unfortunately, the god took note of her mockery, and with a sinking heart, she saw that it did not please him. "Perhaps you'd better visit the healer," he suggested sternly.
Cass shrugged off his concern. "It's not bad. I'll be all right." She really didn't want to waste time with the healer. The cut wasn't deep, but it was still bleeding, and she knew the fussy little man would send her to her room for the rest of the day. She certainly did not want to be alone with her thoughts right now.
Unfortunately, Ares took her unconcern for defiance. "Cassandra," he said, a warning in his tone. "I suggest you go to the healer now."
"Yes, Lord Ares," she said in exasperation. Why was he pushing this? It wasn't like she had a mortal wound! "I'll go have it checked out in a bit."
"Now!" he snapped, his voice carrying across the field so that all heads turned their way.
"Fine," she muttered, pulling her sword from the ground, then stomping off over the practice field toward the healer's quarters, ignoring all the curious glances from her fellow priestesses and Ares' soldiers.
The God of War watched her go, very annoyed. Up until this day, Cassandra had learned to accept his every word as a command. Her sudden defiance, small as it was, disturbed him. The incident with her father had obviously stirred up emotions that she had managed to keep well hidden. Maybe it was time for another test for his priestess.
Until then, however, he had another priestess to deal with. It was a rare thing for one of the women to get under Cassandra's guard. And aroused as he still was, he certainly didn't mind rewarding this one. He smiled at Lydia and offered his hand, which she was only too happy to take, and in the blink of an eye, he transported them to his chambers.
Late that afternoon, back in her room, Cassandra was curled up on the bed reading when a pounding began on the door. She marked her place, then slid off the bed, annoyed beyond words at the interruption. As she had feared, the healer had banished her to her room, but she had managed to immerse herself in a scroll that detailed some of the earlier battles at Troy. She had been able to forget her anger for a little while, but now it returned in full force.
"What?" she yelled in exasperation as she flung open the door. Her mood was not improved when she saw Lydia standing there, her beautiful face aglow, her long, red curls in disarray. Cassandra could imagine why her friend was in such a state. She usually didn't mind it when she knew that Ares had been with the other priestesses, but today it made her blood boil.
"Cass, come on. We get to go on a hunt!" Lydia exclaimed, so excited that she was practically bouncing.
"Oh, boy," Cass said sarcastically. "What a thrill."
"Seriously," Lydia said, not picking up on her friend's mood. "There's a wild boar loose in the forest. It's even KILLED some people. We've heard it's the size of a small horse. And Ares is sending the two of us and Sen to take care of it."
"Why doesn't he just go take care of it himself," Cass muttered under her breath.
"Because he wishes YOU to do it," a deep voice answered her.
Cassandra shut her eyes in consternation as Ares appeared behind Lydia, his expression grim.
"Is there a problem?" the God of War asked, his tone cold. "You don't seem inclined to obey me today. Perhaps I was mistaken earlier. Perhaps you would rather rejoin your father than serve me."
"No!" Cass cried before she could catch herself. She took a deep breath, fighting for calm. "No," she repeated, her voice lower but just as emphatic. "My place is here. I apologize, Lord Ares. I will be only too happy to help hunt down this beast."
Ares' gaze searched her face, and at last he nodded his head shortly. "One of my men will be accompanying you. Restor is new and inexperienced, but I expect the three of you to treat him with the respect you would treat me. And I expect him to return in one piece."
"A soldier?" Lydia asked, a wide grin splitting her face.
Cass restrained herself from rolling her eyes again. She didn't want to irritate Ares any more than he obviously was with her, but she was hard pressed not to groan. Sometimes Lydia had the most voracious appetites.
Ares reached down and caressed her friend's face. "He's going with you to learn the finer arts of the hunt, my dear priestess, NOT the bedroom arts. Please remember that."
Lydia's grin vanished as quickly as it had appeared. She gulped, then nodded.
Ares glanced back at Cassandra. "Very well, then. You may go now."
"Now?" Cassandra asked, surprised into speaking. "It's awfully late to start out."
Ares' eyes narrowed, and inwardly she cursed her loose tongue. What in Tartarus was wrong with him today? He expected obedience, but he wasn't usually THIS particular. It was almost as if he were angry with her for staying! Surely he didn't want her to leave. "I'm sorry, Lord Ares," she said apologetically. "We'll leave right now."
Ares seemed about to retort, but instead he nodded shortly and vanished.
Cass let out a sigh of relief, just as Lydia griped, "What's with him? He's being awfully short with you today."
Cassandra shook her head. "I have no idea. Well, let's not give him a reason to get more upset. Let's get out of here."
Cass and Lydia met Sen in the armory and geared up for the hunt. Sen was the best tracker in the temple, Lydia the best with a bow. Cass had no idea why Ares wanted her along for the hunt, but she certainly wasn't going to ask him, not when he was in such a foul mood. They each took their swords, just in case. Satisfied with their provisions, the three priestesses left the armory and headed for the practice yard.
Ares' soldier, Restor, was waiting for them. Cass and Sen merely acknowledged the man. Lydia gave him a heartfelt greeting that was almost embarrassing in its intensity. Cass couldn't help but smile at her friend's enthusiasm, however much she didn't share it. Restor was somewhat handsome, with blond hair cut military short, but he wasn't very tall and had few muscles to speak of. She definitely preferred her men tall and dark and muscular. Like Ares.
The foursome headed off into the forest with Sen in the lead. They searched for signs of the animal that was rampaging in the area, but unfortunately, the forest surrounding the temple of the God of War were extensive. By the time they had picked up the animal's trail, darkness was beginning to fall. They stopped for the night by a stream, determined to hunt the beast down in the morning.
Lydia went in search of something for supper while Sen gathered firewood. Cass left Restor to set up camp while she went for water. She wasn't overly impressed with Ares' soldier. He was young and obviously inexperienced. She wondered if they'd be able to depend on him when push came to shove. He was extremely clumsy, tripping often, even falling down a time or two. She only hoped they could find the boar and kill it cleanly without his help.
She filled her bucket, then made her way back to the camp. Restor and Sen already had the fire going when she returned. Lydia soon joined them with a brace of rabbits, and once they had the animals skinned, the wonderful smell of the cooking meat began to fill the woods.
After the meal, Lydia began to ply Restor with questions, but the man avoided her scrutiny, giving short, clipped answers that gave little away. Accepting defeat at last, she turned her attention to Cassandra.
"So, Cass," she began with a small smile. "Why'd your dad want you back? I thought you told me before that he hated you."
Cass bit back a groan. Lydia could be so nosy sometimes. But she could also be so persistent that you finally ended up answering her just to shut her up. "He thinks I can stop his stupid war," she explained shortly.
"Seriously?" Lydia said with interest. She had always been fascinated with Cass' accounts of her royal life and the disdain her father felt towards her. Lydia's parents had run an inn, and although they were far from wealthy, at least they had loved her. "How could you do that? It's been going on for a long time, hasn't it?"
Cass nodded. "Seven years now." She sighed. "My father thinks if I wed his enemy's son, there will be peace."
"And would there?" her friend asked.
Cass shrugged. "Maybe for a while. But eventually they'd argue over something petty, and the whole thing would begin again. It's senseless."
There was a small silence, then unexpectedly, Sen joined in the questioning. "So do you know the son?"
Cass stared into the fire. Sen didn't talk much, but trust her to get right to the heart of the situation. "Yeah," she said shortly.
"Is he awful?" Lydia asked, pulling her knees up and hugging them, her blue eyes full of concern for her friend. "Is that why you didn't want to go back?"
He pulled her back against him, his strong arms wrapped around her as they both gazed out over the sea. "I promise you," he whispered in her ear. "I'll find a way for us to be together."
"It's impossible," she said through her tears. "They will never allow it."
"Do you love me?"
"Then trust me with this. I will love you forever. And I will find some way to be with you."
Fed up with the questions, appalled at the emotions they stirred up, Cass retorted, "No, I didn't want to go back, because the temple is my home now." She stood and grabbed her sword. "You guys better bed down. We have to get up at first light. I'll take the first watch." She stomped away into the night, trying to outrun the memories.
Some time later, a twig snapped behind Cass, startling her from her reverie. She whirled, drawing her sword smoothly as she turned, but it was only Restor. She slowly sheathed her blade. "You need to watch where you walk," she said softly. "Avoid sticks and fallen leaves. They make too much noise."
Restor nodded, chagrined. "Sorry. I didn't mean to scare you."
Cass grinned. "You didn't scare me. You're lucky I didn't skewer you."
The man matched her grin with one of his own. "Yeah, I noticed. You're pretty handy with that. I saw you out on the field today. You're good."
Cassandra shrugged off the compliment. "I'm okay. I can be better."
There was a small silence, and then Restor said, "Lydia's something else."
"She's just friendly," Cass said shortly.
Restor nodded. "Yeah, she is. And she's good with that bow too. Everything is just so different from what I expected when I came to train with Ares. I certainly didn't expect a bunch of woman warriors, but you girls are amazing."
Cass gazed at the man narrowly. "We girls will be only TOO happy to take on you boys anytime."
Restor grinned widely, his teeth gleaming white in the moonlight. "Hey, not me. I know for a fact you'd make mincemeat of me in nothing flat." He stubbed his toes in the dirt, his gaze dropping. "I'm not all that great with a sword. My dad sent me here hoping to make a man of me."
Cass felt a tug at her heart. For just a moment there, he had reminded her of her brother. Well, at least the boy her brother had been before he became obsessed with taking their father's place. "You'll do fine," she assured Restor. "You just need some experience."
The young man shrugged. "We'll see." He slid down the tree to a sitting position, picked up a stick and idly began drawing in the dirt. "I gather from that conversation earlier that your father wants you to go home."
Cass stiffened. "What business is it of yours?" she asked, irritated.
Restor shrugged again. "None. I just wondered. You walked off so fast; it was kind of obvious you were mad. I thought maybe . . . well, you know. Sometimes it's easier to talk to strangers than it is to your friends. You look like you might need to talk."
Cass shook her head. "There's nothing to talk about. My father wanted me to come home. I refused. End of story."
"Is it? I wonder. Is the man's son so terrible?"
He turned his head and smiled one of his rare smiles, and it was as if the sun had come out from behind a cloud. His love shone from his eyes, warming her, and she wondered how she would live if she lost him.
Cass wrapped her arms around herself, feeling suddenly cold although it was a warm night. At last, she shook her head. "No, he wasn't terrible. He was . . ." she trailed off. How to put into words what Marius had meant to her?
"What?" the gentle voice prompted.
Suddenly, and very uncharacteristically, Cass found herself wanting to pour out the story. Maybe Restor was right. Maybe it would help to talk to someone, and even better, a stranger. Someone she might never see again. Ares' soldiers didn't usually stay around the temple for very long. "He was beautiful," she said at last. "And I loved him."
The soldier seemed surprised. "Then why don't you want to go back?"
Cass stared off into the night. "He betrayed me," she said, feeling all the old hurts rising to the surface again. "He told me he loved me and wanted to be with me forever, but when the time came to make a choice, he did what his father commanded and wed the woman chosen for him." She laughed harshly. "I wouldn't do, you know? I was the daughter of his most hated enemy."
"How did you meet him then?" Restor asked.
Cass smiled softly as she thought back to that first meeting. "I used to run off by myself at every opportunity," she explained. "I've been able to ride since I was very small, and I spent most of my free time off exploring." She leaned back against the tree, her face softened in memory. "My father's kingdom is on an island, and Marius loved the sea. He was always happiest in a boat. There was a storm one day, and he was forced to land on our island. He was terrified, of course. He knew if my father captured him, he would be a wonderful bargaining chip in the ongoing war. But I found him, and I hid him until he could make the repairs to his boat and leave."
"And you fell in love?"
Cass nodded. "Oh, yes. With all the passion and angst only the very young and very inexperienced can bring to love. He said he'd do anything for me."
"I can't help it. I have to do as my father asks."
"Let's run away. Together. Away from them and their stupid wars. Right now. Marius, please!"
He shook his head. "I can't, Cassandra. I'm sorry."
Her soft expression fell away, to be replaced by a harder, grimmer look. "But he wouldn't stand against his father. He wed another, a girl who brought a hefty dowry, enough to fill the family coffers so that the war could continue."
"If he's married, how can you marry him now?" Restor asked.
Cass looked up at the sky, her heart aching. "Father said his wife died." How many times had she wished for that, and now when it happened, it was too late.
"So now you're free to be with him. And both your fathers approve. Do you still love him?"
Cass began to fidget nervously with the hilt of her sword. "I hated him at first, but as time passed, I began to understand why he acted as he did. We were young. We had no idea how to take care of ourselves. Had we run away together it would have been a disaster. So I stopped hating him. I threw myself into learning everything I could about fighting, then irritated my father enough so that he sent me to Ares. I've found peace in the temple." She laughed softly. "Funny to say that about the temple of the God of War. I have friends now, people I love who care about me. And then there's Ares . . ." she trailed off, thinking about her god. She served him willingly. Her fascination with him had grown into respect, and yes, love. "Ares has made me whole again," she said softly. "I love him. He's the only man I want now." She glanced at the soldier to see that Restor had gone an interesting shade of red.
He rose to his feet, clearing his throat. "Well, I guess I'd better get some sleep if I'm taking last watch."
Cass hid a grin. She supposed she'd embarrassed the poor guy speaking that way about Ares. After all, his priestesses saw quite a different side of the God of War than did his soldiers.
"Good idea," she said, hiding her mirth. But as the man walked away, she said softly, "Thanks for listening."
And just as softly, he replied, "You're welcome."
"There's that son of a bacchae," Sen swore under her breath, hot on the trail of the boar. At last they could hear grunting sounds as the massive beast rooted in the underbrush. "Ready your bow, Lyd," Sen said quietly.
"I'm always ready," Lydia replied with a grin, her arrow notched and ready to fly.
Just as the pig turned and spotted them, Lydia let loose her arrow. She was already reaching for another as the beast turned and stampeded their way.
"Gods," she swore. "He's a big one." She let loose another arrow, then another, but the boar was almost upon her before she could reach for another. Even with three arrows piercing his body, he was so large and so tough that they didn't seem to bother him. Restor moved to block the animal, but his feet got tangled, and he went down in a heap. Before the pig could reach Lydia, however, Cass was there with her blade, striking the beast straight through the heart, stopping it dead in its tracks.
"Thanks," Lydia said faintly. "I should have brought bigger arrows."
Sen examined the kill. "We are bringing this baby back with us," she announced. "Look at the SIZE of the thing." She turned to her friends with a grin. "We'll have fresh bacon and ham for months!"
Cass helped Restor to his feet, resisting the urge to shake her head at his clumsiness. He certainly wasn't going to last long in Ares' army at this rate.
"Well, look what we have here," a rough voice said from behind them. "Fresh meat."
The foursome whirled around to face a gang of roughly twenty men, unsavory bandits from the look of them. The leader had long, scraggly brown hair that hung around his face in dirty clumps. Scars wandered down each cheekbone, and his arms bore so many tattoos that the skin underneath was completely obscured. He leered at the women. "And dessert to boot." He drew his sword, then yelled, "Get them!"
Cass had time to breathe one quick prayer of thanks that they had all brought their swords on this trip, then plunged into the fray. "Stick close, Restor," she yelled at the young soldier, cursing her luck. She was sure the three priestesses could take on these men, but she also had the added burden of watching after Restor. Ares would be even angrier with her if she came back with a dead soldier.
With one swift stroke, she cut the throat of one of the bastards, then kicked backward to knock the one trying to sneak up behind her to the ground. She glanced back at Restor. The young man was fending off two of the mercenaries at once, his lack of skill with his sword painfully obvious. With a shout, Cass launched herself toward the man, grabbing his two attackers and knocking their heads together. They fell to the ground unconscious. Restor gave her a quick smile of thanks, then his eyes grew round as he stared at something behind her.
Cass whirled around to see another man striding into the midst of the mercenaries, his dress and armor signifying his high rank, his sword hacking a viscous path through their attackers. Even in the heat of battle, she recognized those long, dark locks and those sky blue eyes. She caught her breath, and her sword wavered. "Marius?"
His gaze turned her way and caught hers, and the moment seemed to drag out for an eternity. Only instinct saved her life as she felt more than heard the man sneaking up behind her. She whirled and sliced, opening his belly in a bloody mess, but she felt no disgust, no pity. Her senses were screaming at her. MARIUS!
With the addition of the prince, the mercenaries soon realized they were outmatched and took to their heels. Cass could barely tear her eyes away from Marius, but she did manage to introduce him to her friends, only peripherally noticing the sudden tenseness of Restor's body and the way Lydia's face lit up.
"Thanks," Lydia said with a big grin, her gaze raking over the newcomer from head to toe and obviously approving. "You've got good timing."
"Glad to help," Marius said, sheathing his sword. "Although you four looked like you were handling things pretty well without me."
"Another sword is always welcome," Sen said. Cass hid a smile. Even SEN was staring at Marius as if he were Ares himself.
"We'd better build something to carry this pig," Cass said, reminding everyone of their duties. She glanced at Marius. "Will you come back with us? I'm sure Ares will welcome you."
The prince gazed at her with deep emotion, his eyes seeming to pierce through her as if searching for hidden meanings behind her words. "I need to talk to you, Cass," he said at last, desperation leaking into his tone.
Lydia and Sen exchanged a glance. "Go ahead, Cass," Lydia said. "We'll get to work on Mr. Boar here. Come on, Restor. Let's see if we can build up some of those muscles."
The two priestesses and the soldier set to work on the pig, and Cass allowed Marius to lead her away until they were just out of sight of the others. She leaned back against a tree, trying to calm the rapid beat of her heart as his gaze traveled over her form, taking in every inch of her.
"You look . . . different," he said at last. "You don't look like a princess anymore."
Cass smiled. "I'm not. I'm a warrior now."
Marius shook his head. "You always did like playing around with swords." He paused, his eyes searching her face. "Your father said Ares won't let you go."
Cass sighed. "No, Marius. I CHOSE not to go. I'm happy where I am."
The prince stared at her in disbelief. "You're happy being a priestess for the God of War? You hate war."
She nodded her head. "I hate pointless war. And I'm very happy. I don't have to hide what I really am anymore. I was never cut out to be a princess."
"But . . . but I'm finally free. And we have our fathers' approval. We can be wed now."
Cass gazed at him, calmer now. Strange. How often had she longed to hear those words, but when at last they were uttered, they had no effect on her. He still tugged at her heart, and she supposed she loved him still, but not enough to throw away her new life. She shook her head slowly. "I can't."
"You still hate me," he said, his voice full of pain.
She shook her head quickly. "No, I don't hate you. But I've made a vow, and I have to stick to it."
Marius' eyes narrowed, and his hands clenched into fists. "You would rather stay and be Ares' whore than come with me and be my wife and my queen?"
Cass jerked as if he had physically struck her. "I am not his whore," she said stiffly. "I'm his priestess."
"His priestess? And do your duties include going to his bed?"
She felt her anger begin to rise. She glared at him, her head held high. "My duties are none of your business," she said haughtily.
He grabbed her roughly by the shoulders, shaking her. "By the gods, they are. You are to be my wife."
Furious now, Cass twisted out of his grasp. "No, Marius. That time is long gone. You had the chance to wed me long ago. You chose not to. Now it's too late. My place is with Ares."
"And what of the children you always longed for?" he asked cruelly, anger marring the perfection of his features.
Unexpectedly, hot tears sprang to her eyes. She had always longed for a child. The idea of being chosen to bear one of Ares' children had crossed her mind on more than one occasion. "Maybe someday," she said softly.
"One of his." Marius spat the words.
Cass sighed. "Marius, how can I make you understand? I serve Ares willingly. I WANTED to go to his temple. I . . . I love him."
The prince glared at her, obviously not happy to hear those words. His eyes turned cold, and he snapped, "I hope you do not live to regret your choice." Without a word, he turned and stomped off through the forest.
Cass watched him go, a small pang shooting through her heart. Still, she knew she had made the right choice. She was Ares' priestess. Now and forever. She shook her head, then turned to rejoin the others for the trip back to the temple.
Her friends had the boar ready for transport by the time she returned. They gave her curious glances when she strode over and began to help, but thankfully no one asked any questions. They were just about ready to strike out for home, when a shout rang out in the forest.
"By the gods," Sen swore. "Don't those guys EVER give up?"
The same group of bandits had returned to attack them once again, their tattooed leader in the lead, but this time their forces had swelled to include a great many more men, and hardened soldiers at that. And behind the group, on horseback, sat Marius, his face set in grim lines, an ornate crossbow in his hands, cocked and ready to fire. "Get the princess," he called. "Kill the others."
So shocked was she, that Cass could only stare at her former love in horror, but when he raised his bow and aimed it straight at Restor, she broke free from her trance. Without thinking, she launched herself toward the young man, knocking him out of the way. The arrow caught her in the shoulder, and the force of it spun her around to face her attacker. Marius' eyes seemed to blaze, and they held hers until a blinding pain exploded in the back of her head and darkness fell.
Cass struggled out of the blackness, fighting her way to consciousness. She knew there was something she was supposed to be doing, but she couldn't remember what. Her head and shoulder were twin spots of pain, but she did her best to ignore them, forcing her eyes open.
Dark eyes gazed down upon her, full of concern. She blinked, trying to clear her vision. "Ares?"
The God of War raised a hand to lightly brush her face. "Yes, Cassandra. It's me."
She gazed up at him, confused. He shouldn't be here, should he? Suddenly, memory slammed into her, and she struggled to sit upright, sending two glaring bolts of pain through her body.
"Here now," Ares said softly, gently holding her down. "Lie still. You'll hurt yourself even more."
"Lydia? Sen?" she asked, frightened beyond belief that something had happened to her friends. And then she remembered the young soldier. "Restor? "
"They're fine, Cassandra," Ares said, brushing the hair back away from her face. "They're all fine, and the men who attacked you are dead."
Cass' heart almost stopped. She gazed at him, wide-eyed. "All of them?" she whispered.
Ares expression tightened. "I thought you didn't love him any more," he said shortly.
Cassandra tried to think around the pain in her head. "How . . . how did you know?"
A wave of his hand, and Restor sat beside her on the bed. Another wave, and Ares returned.
"You?" She managed to sit up that time, gathering the sheet around her naked form, staring at him in disbelief. "You were Restor?"
Ares nodded solemnly. "I wanted to know your true feelings. If you truly do not wish to be here at my temple, I will not force you to remain."
"So you deceived me," she asked harshly. "I told you I wanted to stay. Don't you trust me?"
"Cassandra," the god said, pulling her close to him. She resisted, but he was much too strong. He tilted her face up to his. "I do not like secrets."
"It's not that it was a secret," she complained. "It just wasn't important enough to bother you with."
"The fact that the man your father wished you to wed just happened to be the only man you've ever loved wasn't important enough to bother me?" he asked skeptically.
"But that was ages ago. I don't love him anymore."
"I had to be sure, Cassandra. I had to make certain of your loyalty. And I wanted to see if you would protect someone who wasn't as skilled as you."
"Restor," she said, shaking her head. "You sure had me fooled. He was so . . . inept."
Ares smiled. "I do like to play act on occasion."
Suddenly, a thought struck her. "You knew those men were out there, didn't you."
Ares inclined his head. "Of course. I know everything that occurs in my forest. Besides, I expected your father to try something stupid."
She touched the god's face, lightly running the back of her fingers down his cheek. "And did I pass your tests?" she asked softly.
Ares smiled down at her, pride on his beautiful face. "You outdid yourself, my dear. You were willing to risk your life to save a man you hardly knew, just because I asked you to protect him. And you refused Marius, even though you were torn inside."
Cass smiled softly. "It really wasn't that hard of a choice. How could I possibly love anyone else, Ares? No man can compare to you. No one has the hold on my heart that you do. I belong here. This is my home. I WANT to stay. How can I prove that to you?"
Ares eyes bored into hers, and she felt a warm heat begin in the pit of her stomach. Oh, she recognized that look. Unfortunately, when he leaned forward to kiss her, she moved to meet him, and pain flared in her shoulder once again.
The God of War chuckled deep in his throat. "I suppose if you're to prove your devotion to me, I'd better take care of that."
A touch of his hand, and all her pain vanished. She gaped at him. "You can heal? Why do you keep a healer then?"
Ares shrugged. "I'm not always here, you know. And sometimes I don't want to waste the energy. But in this case . . ." He trailed off, lightly running his finger up her arm. "I think in this case it will be more than justified."
He bent his head again, his lips capturing hers, his strong arms pulling her into an embrace. His mouth devoured hers hungrily, and Cass felt that familiar excitement growing inside her. She encircled his neck with her arms, running her fingers through his dark curls, pulling him closer to her. Ares bent her back so that she was lying down once again, his body partially covering hers. She ached to feel him inside her, but he pulled away, gazing down at her, an unfathomable expression in his eyes.
"Cassandra, from now on, you will withhold no secrets from me, is that clear?"
She nodded as she reached up to touch his bare chest where it lay exposed by the open neck of his vest. She loved the feel of the fine dark fuzz there. She longed to trace it down to the part of him she loved the best, but he stopped her. He grabbed her wrist, then brought it to his lips, softly kissing the spot where her pulse beat. "If something is bothering you, I want you to bring it to me. No matter how small or insignificant you might think it is."
"Yes, Ares," she said, becoming more than a bit impatient. She didn't want to talk any more; she wanted HIM.
"You are mine," he said harshly. "Your body is mine. Your heart is mine." He held her face so that she was forced to look into his eyes. "Your soul is mine. Do you understand?"
Startled by his vehemence, all she could do was nod dumbly. His gaze searched her face, and at last he seemed satisfied. With a small smile, he said, "And now, my priestess, you will be rewarded." He placed a light kiss on her lips, then gently turned her over onto her stomach.
"Ares?" she asked, confused, but he simply bent down, brushing the back of her neck with his lips.
"Patience, Cassandra. Trust me. Relax, and enjoy."
Cassandra tried to do as he said, but still she tensed when she felt that first touch on her back. What was this? It wasn't his hands. It was something liquid. Something warm and soothing and sweet smelling. Gently, he began to rub the liquid into her shoulders, kneading her muscles. Gods, it felt wonderful. She could feel her tenseness abandoning her as he stroked her in small circles, first her shoulders, then each arm, down to her fingers. Cass felt herself relaxing even further. Much more of this, and she might just go to sleep!
The god continued his ministrations, rubbing the warm, scented oil into every portion of her back. He removed the sheet from her body, then shifted down to her feet, massaging each toe, then her foot, then slowly, so slowly, up her calf to her thigh. There must have been something special in the mixture because her body was beginning to tingle everywhere it had touched her. Cass sighed contentedly, her legs parting unconsciously as she waited for his touch, but he simply moved down to her other foot, repeating the process once again. This time, however, he continued up, rubbing the oil into her buttocks, almost brushing against that most sensitive part of her several times, but never quite touching. Cass could feel herself becoming wet and ready for him, but suddenly, he spoke again.
"Turn over," he commanded, his voice rough.
Cass complied. She rolled over to her back, gazing up at him through heavy-laden lids. His expression was serene, but she could tell from his breathing that he wasn't completely immune to this little massage. He gazed down at her admiringly as he poured more of the scented oil between her breasts. Slowly, gently, he began to rub the oil into her skin in a circular motion, each pass widening until he reached her breasts. He continued, massaging the warm flesh there, until at long last he reached her nipples. He circled each one, first gently, then harder and faster, but Cass forced herself to lie still and not react although her body wanted to arch to force her breasts into his hands.
A small smile quirked his full lips. Obviously her attempt at control was amusing him. He seemed to take it as a challenge and moved his hands down over her belly, circling again. Cass caught her breath as his hands moved to either side of her mound, gently spreading her legs apart. He took the jar containing the oil and poured more just below the curve of her belly. He began to massage it into the fine dark curls covering her, then allowed the warm substance to flow over her womanhood. Cass bit back a groan as he parted her nether lips at last, allowing the oil to drip down into her opening. He smoothed it over the sensitive skin there, then slowly, so slowly, he slipped a finger inside her.
Her body was ready for him, had been for some time, and she ached for more, but he continued to use one single digit on her, moving it in and out just a little way, then finally sliding it completely inside her, exploring her. He crooked it forward, pushing against one certain spot, and of its own volition, her body arched so that her back rose completely off the bed. This served to press his finger against the spot even harder, and suddenly her breaths were coming in short gasps as he continued to press, sending heat spearing through her body. Her orgasm was almost upon her, when suddenly he withdrew.
He gazed at her, a small smile playing about his lips. She wanted to cry out her frustration, but some sixth sense kept her still. She tried to slow her breathing, preparing herself for what was to come. She didn't have long to wait. He took a pillow and slid it under her hips, parting her legs wide so that he had an unobstructed view of her sex. He knelt between her legs, his dark gaze traveling over the beauty before him. He parted her nether lips again, but this time, instead of his fingers, he bent his head and used his tongue. She was unable to hold back the groan as his tongue entered her, then withdrew to trace around the opening, then swiped over the little nub above. The process was repeated, slowly at first, then faster until she was unable to stop her body from writhing, trying to force him harder against her. Again, just as she reached the peak, he withdrew.
He looked up from his kneeling position, his expression a mixture of amusement and desire. "Had enough?" he asked, smiling slightly.
Cass shook her head quickly, her body aching to fever pitch for more. With a flick of his wrist, his leather vest and pants disappeared, exposing his body in all its perfection. His proud member sprung forth, long and hard, and she couldn't tear her eyes away from its beauty as Ares moved between her legs, pushed her knees to her chest, and plunged into her in one swift stroke.
Cass closed her eyes in ecstasy. His body matched hers perfectly as he began to move in and out. The pillow was tilting her pelvis so that with each stroke he rubbed against that spot deep inside her that he had discovered earlier. He moved his hands down to her mound, spreading her, both thumbs rubbing against that tiny nub in the most delicious fashion. She began to moan as the stimulation both inside and outside caused a tingling to begin in the tips of her toes, spreading up her legs and centering in her core. She bucked against him, her body beginning to spasm, and then he began to pound into her, harder each time, pressing against that spot with each stroke, taking her higher and higher until she screamed his name, and the world exploded around her. With one last mighty thrust, he ground into her, and with a harsh cry, he loosed his seed inside her, its welcome heat filling her. He released her legs and fell on top of her, and she held him close, murmuring his name softly as she stroked his dark curls.
At long last, he rolled off, lying beside her, propped up on one elbow as he gazed down at her. Cass stretched, completely sated.
"Cassandra," Ares said at last, his tone suddenly grim.
"Hmm?" she asked sleepily, hardly able to keep her eyes open.
"I did not kill Marius."
Her eyes flew open, and she stared at him in shock. "You didn't?" she asked. "Why not?"
"Because you loved him once," he explained. "I thought you might still care for him. I wanted you to be happy."
Cass reached up and touched his face gently. "Ares, I love you. I could never feel toward another man what I feel toward you. As you said earlier, I am yours, body, heart and soul. And THAT makes me happy." She paused, then rushed forward. "But I'm glad you didn't kill him."
Ares smiled grimly. "Actually, I thought it quite fitting. Let him live the rest of his life knowing you preferred me to him."
Cass stared into space. "Whatever love I might have felt for him fled when he told his men to kill my friends." She shook her head. "I made the right decision. I belong here, with you."
Ares bent down and kissed her then, a soul-searing kiss. When he pulled away at last, she was breathless.
"Then here you will stay," he said softly. "Forever."
Continue on to the sequel Chance Encounter