Castle Gornyi, Russia
For the second time in her life, Kaderin the Coldhearted hesitated to kill a vampire.
In the last instant of a silent, lethal swing, she stayed her sword an inch above the neck of her prey–because she’d found him holding his head in his hands.
She saw his big body tense. As a vampire, he could easily trace away, disappearing. Instead, he raised his face to gaze at her with dark gray eyes, the color of a storm about to be unleashed. Surprisingly, they were clear of the red that marked a vampire’s bloodlust, which meant he had never drunk a being to death. Yet.
He beseeched with those eyes, and she realized he hungered for an end. He wanted the death blow she’d come to his decrepit castle to deliver.
She’d stalked him soundlessly, primed for battle with a vicious predator. Kaderin had been in Scotland with other Valkyrie when they’d received the call about a “vampire haunting a castle and terrorizing a village in Russia.” She had gladly volunteered to destroy the leech. She was her Valkyrie coven’s most prolific killer, her life given over to ridding the earth of vampires.
In Scotland, before this call to Russia, she’d killed three.
So why was she hesitating now? Why was she even now easing her sword back? He would be merely one among thousands of her kills, his fangs collected and strung together with the others she’d taken.
The last time she’d stayed her hand had resulted in a tragedy so great her heart had been broken forever by it.
In a deep, gravelly voice, the vampire asked, “Why do you wait?” He seemed startled by the sound of his own words.
I don’t know why. Unfamiliar physical sensations wracked her. Her stomach knotted. As though a band had tightened around her chest, her lungs were desperate for breath. I can’t comprehend why.
The wind blew outside, sliding over the mountain, making this high room in the vampire’s darkened lair groan. Unseen gaps in the walls allowed in the chill morning breeze. As he stood, rising to his full, towering height, her blade caught the wavering light from a cluster of candles and reflected on him.
His grave face was lean with harsh planes, and other females would consider it handsome. His black shirt was threadbare and unbuttoned, displaying much of his chest and sculpted torso, and his worn jeans were slung low at his narrow waist. The wind tugged at the tail of his shirt and stirred his thick black hair. Very handsome. But then, the vampires I kill often are.
His gaze focused on the tip of her sword. Then, as if the threat of her weapon were forgotten, he studied her face, his eyes lingering on each of her features. His blatant appreciation unsettled her, and she clutched the hilt tightly, something she never did.
Honed to masterly sharpness with her diamond file, her sword cut through bone and muscle with little effort. It swung perfectly from her loose wrist as though it were an extension of her arm. She’d never needed to hold it tightly.
Take his head. One less vampire. The species checked in the tiniest way.
“What is your name?” His speech was clipped like an aristocrat’s, but held a familiar accent. Estonian. Though Estonia bordered Russia to the west and its inhabitants were considered a Nordic breed of Russian, she recognized the difference and wondered what he was doing away from his own country.
She tilted her head. “Why do you want to know?”
“I would like to know the name of the woman who will deliver me from this.”
He wanted to die. After all she’d suffered from his kind, the last thing she wanted to do was oblige the vampire in any way. “You assume I’ll deliver your death blow?”
“Will you not?” His lips curled at the corners, but it was a sad smile.
Another tightening on the sword. She would. Of course, she would. Killing was her only purpose in life. She didn’t care if his eyes weren’t red with bloodlust. Ultimately, he would drink to kill, and he would turn.
They always did.
He stepped around a stack of hard-bound books–some of the hundreds of texts throughout the room with titles imprinted in Russian and, yes, Estonian–and leaned his massive frame against the crumbling wall. He truly wasn’t going to raise a hand in defense.
“Before you do, speak again. Your voice is beautiful. As beautiful as your stunning face.”
She swallowed, startled to feel her cheeks heating. “Who do you align with . . .?” She trailed off when he closed his eyes as though listening to her were bliss. “The Forbearers?”
That got him to open his eyes. They were full of anger. “I align with no one. Especially not them.”
“But you were once human, weren’t you?” The Forbearers were an army, or order, of turned humans. They refused to take blood straight from the flesh because they believed that act caused bloodlust. By forbearing, they hoped to avoid becoming like crazed Horde vampires. The Valkyrie remained unoptimistic about their chances.
“Yes, but I’ve no interest in that order. And you? You’re no human either, are you?”
She ignored his question. “Why do you linger here in this castle?” she asked. “The villagers live in terror of you.”
“I won this holding on the battlefield and rightly own it, so I stay. And I’ve never harmed them.” He turned away and murmured, “I wish that I did not frighten them.”
Kaderin needed to get this killing over with. In just three days, she was to compete in the Talisman’s Hie, which was basically a deadly, immortal version of The Amazing Race. Besides hunting vampires, the Hie was the only thing she lived for, and she needed to confirm transportation and secure supplies. And yet she found herself saying, “They told me you live here alone.”
He faced her and gave a sharp nod. She sensed that he was embarrassed by this fact, as if he felt lacking that he didn’t have a family here.
He hiked his broad shoulders, pretending nonchalance. “A few centuries.”
To live solitary for all that time? “The people in the valley sent for me,” she said, as if she had to explain herself. The inhabitants of the remote village belonged to the Lore–a population of immortals and “mythical” creatures kept secret from humans. Many of them still worshipped the Valkyrie and provided tributes, but that wasn’t what made Kaderin travel to such an isolated place.
The chance to kill even a single vampire had drawn her. “They beseeched me to destroy you.”
“Then I await your leisure.”
“Why not kill yourself, if that’s what you want?” she asked.
“It’s . . . complicated. But you save me from that end. I know you’re a skilled warrior–“
“How do you know what I am?”
He gave a nod at her sword. “I used to be a warrior, too, and your remarkable weapon speaks much.”
The one thing she felt pride in–the one thing in her life that she had left and couldn’t bear to lose–and he’d noted its excellence.
He strode closer to her and lowered his voice. “Strike your blow, creature. Know that no misfortune could come to you for killing one such as me. There is no reason to wait.”
As if this were a matter of conscience! It wasn’t. It couldn’t be. She had no conscience. No real feelings, no raw emotions. She was coldhearted. After the tragedy, she’d prayed for oblivion, prayed for the sorrow and guilt to be numbed.
Some mysterious entity had answered her and made her heart like ash. Kaderin didn’t suffer from sorrow, from lust, from anger, or from joy. Nothing got in the way of her killing.
She was a perfect killer. She had been for one thousand years, half of her interminable life.
“Did you hear that?” he asked. The eyes that had been pleading for an end now narrowed. “Are you alone?”
She quirked an eyebrow. “I do not require help from others. Especially not for a single vampire,” she added, her tone growing absent. Oddly, her attention had dipped to his body once more–to low on his torso, past his navel to the dusky trail of hair leading down. She had a flash imagining of grazing the back of one of her sharp claws along it while his massive body clenched and shuddered in reaction.
Her thoughts were making her uneasy, making her want to wind her hair up into a knot and let the chill air cool her neck–
He cleared his throat. When she jerked her gaze to his face, he raised his eyebrows.
Caught ogling the prey! The indignity! What is wrong with me? She had no more sexual urges than the walking dead vampire before her. She shook herself, forcing herself to remember the last time she’d faltered.
On a battlefield, an age ago, she had spared and released another of this ilk, a young vampire soldier who had begged for his life.
Yet he had seemed to scorn her for her very mercy. Without delay, the soldier had found her two full-blood sisters fighting in the flatlands below them. Alerted by a shriek from another Valkyrie, Kaderin had sprinted, stumbling down a hill draped with bodies, living and dead. Just as she’d reached them, he’d cut her sisters down.
The younger, Rika, had been taken off guard, because of Kaderin’s panicked approach. The vampire had smiled when Kaderin dropped to her knees.
He’d dispatched her sisters with a brutal efficiency Kaderin had since emulated. She’d like to say she started with him, but she’d kept him alive for a time.
So, why would she repeat the same mistake? She wouldn’t. She would not ignore a lesson she had paid so dearly to learn.
The sooner I get this done, the sooner I can begin preparing for the Hie.
Squaring her shoulders, she steeled herself. It’s all in the follow-through. Kaderin could see the swing, knew the angle she would take so that his head would remain on his neck until he fell. It was cleaner that way. Which was important.
She’d packed her suitcase lightly.
* * *
As a young man, Sebastian Wroth had desired so many things from life, and having grown up wealthy among a large and supportive family, he had expected them as his due.
He’d wanted his own family, a home, laughter around a hearth. More dearly than all the rest, he’d longed for a wife, a woman to be his alone. He’d been ashamed to admit to this female that he’d managed none of those things.
Now all Sebastian wanted was to gaze at the fascinating creature just a little longer.
At first, he’d thought her an angel come to set him free. She looked it. Her long, curling hair was so blond it appeared almost white in the candlelight. Her eyes were fringed with thick black lashes and were dark like coffee, a striking contrast to her fair hair and wine-red lips. Her skin was flawless, light golden perfection, and her features were delicate and finely wrought.
She was so exquisite, and yet she carried a killer’s weapon. Her sword was double-edged, with a ricasso, an unsharpened area on the blade just above the guard. A skilled user would loop a finger over the guard for better control. She confidently carried a sword not made for defense, not made for battle.
The creature carried steel forged to deliver quick, silent deaths.
Fascinating. An angel of death.
He’d considered it an undeserved blessing that hers would be the last face he would behold on this earth.
Yes, he’d thought her divine—until her smoldering gaze had strayed lower, and he’d recognized she was very much flesh and blood. He’d cursed his useless, deadened body. As a turned human, he had no respiration, no heartbeat, no sexual ability. He could not take her, even though he thought . . . he thought this beauty might actually receive him.
The loss of sexual pleasure had never bothered him before. His experience as a human had been limited—very limited—by war, by famine, by the need merely to survive, so he’d never felt that his turning had deprived him of much. Until now.
He’d never been attracted to small women, because he’d known if he did somehow manage to bed one, he’d dread hurting her. Yet with this one, the most ethereal and fragile female he’d ever seen, he found himself wondering what it would be like to carry her to his bed and gently undress her. His mind began to riot with imaginings of his big hands cupping and stroking her slight body.
His eyes dropped to her slender neck, and then to her high, full breasts pressing against her dark blouse. Now, this part of her was far from slight. He wished he could kiss her breasts, run his face against them. . . .
“Why are you looking at me like that?” she asked in a halting, baffled tone, taking a step back.
“Can I not admire you?” Amazingly, he took a step forward. Where was this coming from? He’d always been awkward and unsure around women. In the past, if he’d been caught staring like this, he’d have turned his face away, muttering apologies as he left the room. Perhaps he’d at last found freedom in imminent death.
Then again, he’d never stared, never hungered, as he did now for this slip of a woman with her lush breasts. “A dying man’s last wish?”
“I know the ways a man looks at a woman.” Her voice was sensual, a voice from dreams. It seemed to rub him from the inside. “You’re not merely admiring me.”
No, he was thinking at that moment that he wanted to rip open her shirt, pin her shoulders to the ground, and suck on her stiffened nipples till she came. Pin her shoulders hard and lick her–
“How dare you play with me, vampire!”
“What do you mean?” He met her gaze. Her eyes flicked over his face as though she were attempting to read his thoughts. Could she begin to guess the battle inside him? That in one instant the idea of being gentle was replaced with the impulse to cover her on the ground?
What is happening to me?
“I know you can’t feel this . . . this . . .”—she made a small sound of frustration—”you can’t feel what you are appearing to. It’s impossible, unless—” She gasped. “Your eyes . . . they’re turning black.”
Black? His brothers’ eyes had turned black with sharp emotion. He hadn’t known his did as well. Was it because he’d never felt anything so sharply as his desire for this mysterious female?
He felt like he’d die if he didn’t act on that desire—
A sudden explosion of sound made him swing his head around, his body tensing. “What was that?”
She took a quick glance around her, eyes alert. “What are you talking about?” she demanded.
“You do not hear that?” Another shaking like that, and the castle would collapse. He had to get her away, even into the morning daylight outside. The need to protect her had suddenly become critical, undeniable.
“No!” Her eyes went wide, her expression aghast. “It can’t be!” She backed away from him, moving gingerly, as if he were a snake about to strike.
Another explosion. He traced to just in front of her, and her sword shot up in a blur. He snatched her wrist, but she struggled. Christ, she was strong, but he seemed to be stronger than usual himself, more powerful than he ever could have imagined. “I don’t want to hurt you.” He pried the weapon from her wrist and tossed it to his low bed. “Do not fight me. The roof is about to fall–“
“No . . . no!” She stared at his chest—at his heart—in horror. “I am not a . . . Bride.”
Bride? His jaw slackened. He remembered his brothers explaining that when he found his Bride, his eternal wife, she would blood him. With his blooding, his body would come back to life . He’d always believed they’d lied to dull the bitter sting of what they’d made him.
Yet it was true. The sound he’d heard was the roar of his own heart beating for the first time since he’d been turned into a vampire. He rocked on his feet as he inhaled deeply, breathing at last after three hundred years.
His heartbeat grew stronger, faster, and his sudden erection was tight and throbbing, pulsing with each beat of his heart. Pleasure seemed to course through his veins. He’d found his Bride—the one woman he was meant to be with for eternity—in this hauntingly fine creature.
And his body had awakened for her.
“You know what is happening to me?” he asked.
She swallowed, backing away farther. “You’re changing.” Her blond brows drew together, and in a barely audible whisper, she added, “For . . . for me.”