If the overgrown vampire didn’t stop staring at her face, even his wicked talent with his sword wouldn’t keep his head upon his shoulders.
The thought made Myst, an immortal known as the Coveted One, grin as she curled up in the windowsill of her cell. Leaning against the reinforced bars, she watched the two vampire armies battle below as she might a rumble from the back of bleachers.
The poor warlord with his broad shoulders and jet black hair was about to join a legion of other males whose last sight on earth was her smiling face—
She frowned when he ducked and ran through his enemy. He was a big male, at least six and a half feet tall, but he was surprisingly fast. Tilting her head, she studied him. He was good. She knew fighting and liked his style. Dirty. He’d cut with his sword then strike out with his fist, or duck a parry then throw an elbow. It amused her to watch, but what she wouldn’t give to be down there fighting. In the middle. Against both sides. Against him.
She fought dirtier.
His gaze continued to stray to her, and once he’d even killed while his eyes were still on her. She’d blown him a kiss, sincerely, choosing to see it as a tribute.
He found time to glance back even as he thundered orders and gave commands to the army of vampires around him, showing brilliance in strategy. She examined it all as though watching Decisive Battles on A&E and grudgingly noted the effectiveness of his army’s acid grenades and guns.
The creatures of the Lore scorned human weapons like these. The only ones such weapons could kill were humans, which was beyond non-sporting. Yet that was the thing about bullets—aside from ruining perfectly good couture, they hurt and could immobilize an immortal for precious seconds. Long enough for a dirty fighter to take your head. Done enough times, they could help take an “untakable” castle like Ivo the Cruel’s.
Myst hardly cared that Ivo, her jailer and tormentor, was about to have his ass handed to him by this warlord with his forbidden modern weapons. Her situation would not change, for these rebels, turned humans known as the Forbearers, were still vampires. A blood foe is a blood foe is a blood foe….
An explosion rocked the castle, and sparks and bits of debris wafted down from the roof of Myst’s cell. The low creatures in the dank holds down the corridor howled with impotent fury, increasing in urgency with each successive blast, until it was … over. Silence. An aftershock here and there, a muted whimper…
The defense of this castle was no more, its inhabitants having disappeared—by tracing, as the Lore called teleporting—leaving no more than an airy draft and the burned records of their Horde.
She could hear the rebels searching the bowels of this place but could’ve told them they wouldn’t find any of their enemies. The denizens here had not been a fight-to-the-death sort, more of a he who fights and runs away, lives to run away another day type.
Shortly after, she heard heavy boots on the stone floor of the dungeon and knew it was the warlord. He crossed directly to her cell and stood before it.
From her perch, curled in the window, she examined the vampire up close. He had thick, straight black hair that hung over his face in uneven sections, no doubt from where he’d sheared it off with his blade months ago, and never thought to cut it since. Some hanks were kept from his field of vision with those small ravel plaits like the berserkers used to wear. He had scars on his hands, and his big body was powerful and cut with muscle. She wanted to purr—because apparently central casting had just sent down the consummate virile warlord.
“Come down from there and show yourself.” Deep voice. Russian accent, moneyed, aristocratic.
“Or what? You’ll lock me away in a dungeon?”
“I might free you.”
She was at the bars before he’d had time to lower his gaze from the window. Had his squared jaw slackened just the smallest bit? She listened for a quickening of his heart, but found none because there was no heartbeat whatsoever. So the vampire was single? His eyes were clear of the red haze that marked bloodlust, which meant he had never drunk a being to death. But then a Forbearer eschewed taking living blood through the flesh altogether.
When he saw her face up close, the key wasn’t immediately in the lock as it usually would have been, but his lips parted, exposing his fangs for her to see. Of course his would be sexy—not too prominent or even much longer than a human’s canines.
When she saw the short splendid scar that passed down both of his lips, lightning struck just outside, but he didn’t flinch at the bolt or even glance up—he was too busy staring back at her.
Scars, any external evidence of pain, attracted Myst. Pain forged strength. Strength begat electricity. This one could give it to her.
It was possible he was even missing an eye under a thick hank of hair.
She stifled a throaty growl as her hand shot out to brush his hair back. But he was quick, catching her wrist. She curled one finger in a beckoning gesture, and after a moment he released her, allowing her to reach forward. She brushed his hair back, revealing a hard-planed, masculine face covered with grit and ash from the battle.
He was still in possession of both of his eyes and they were intense. Gun-metal gray.
When her hand dropped, his brows drew together, perhaps at her blatant interest, or perhaps at her fingers already stroking the bars in invitation as she stared at his mouth. She was surprised by how carnal she found it, especially since the vampire could use it to hurt her.
The smooth gold chain that she’d worn at her waist for millennia now felt heavy on her.
“What are you?” he asked in his pleasingly low voice. She realized then that his accent wasn’t Russian, but from that of neighboring Eesti. The general was Estonian, which made him a kind of Nordic Russian, though she was sure he wouldn’t appreciate that description.
She frowned at his question and pulled back her hair to show him her pointed ear. “Nothing?” She parted her lips and tapped her tongue against her smaller dormant fangs. No recognition.
Apparently, the rumors were true. Here was a leader in this army, a general most likely, and he hadn’t a clue that she was his mortal enemy. He would think she was fey or a nymph. She’d prefer fey because she’d cringe to be confused with one of those little hookers—
She shook her head. As long as he didn’t know she was Valkyrie it worked for her.
Killing the unwitting Forbearers would be easy for her and her sisters. Too easy. Like being your own secret Santa.
Myst had just confirmed rumors in the Lore that whispered of asses and elbows and this Horde’s inability to differentiate between the two.
“What are you?” Nikolai Wroth demanded again, surprised his voice was steady.
When he’d seen her in the light, he’d felt like exhaling a stunned breath—if his kind respired—for she was strikingly lovely, with a beauty only hinted at from the distance of the battlefield. He’d been attracted to that face to his reckless peril.
Though she had expected him to recognize her kind, all he could determine was that she wasn’t human and that he hadn’t a clue what she might be. Her ears said fey but she also had the smallest fangs.
“Free me,” the creature said. Flawless skin, coral pink lips, flame red hair. The eyes that flickered over him appraisingly were an impossible green.
The way she held the bars was suggestive—everything about her was … suggestive.
“Swear fealty to my king, and I will free you.”
“I can’t do that, but you’ve no right to keep me here.”
His brother Murdoch passed by then, raised his eyebrows at Nikolai’s discovery, and muttered in Estonian, “Sweet Christ.” Then he walked on. Why was Nikolai unable to do the same?
“What’s your name?” He wasn’t used to his questions going unanswered.
Another stroke of the bars. “What do you want it to be?”
He scowled. “Are you a vampire?”
“Not the last time I checked.” Her voice was sensual. He couldn’t place her accent, but it was drawling, honeyed.
“Are you innocent of malice against us?”
She waved a dismissing hand. “Oh, good gods, no! I love, love, love to kill leeches.”
“Then rot in here.” As if she could kill a vampire. She was scarcely over five feet tall and delicately built—aside from her generous breasts showcased in her tight shirt.
Just before he turned, he saw her eyes narrow. “I smell smoke,” she called after him. “Ivo the Cruel burned his records before he fled, didn’t he?”
Nikolai stilled, clenching his fists because he’d have to return.
“He did,” he grated at the cell once more.
“And this new king’s army is full of Forbearers—turned humans? It matters little. I’m sure the king is very knowledgeable about the vampire Horde’s extensive list of enemies within the Lore. He wouldn’t need this castle’s records. In fact, I’m positive that that is not the reason you chose this stronghold over the four others, including the royal seat.”
How did she know their agenda so well?
Nikolai could plan battles and sieges—he’d earned his rank by this victory alone—but he knew nothing of this new world to advance the army. Unfortunately, he wasn’t the only one.
The blind leading the blind. When they’d found the records reduced to a smoldering heap of ash, that’s what Kristoff had muttered.
“You think to bargain for your freedom? If you do happen to have information, I can get it from you.”
“Torture?” she asked with a laugh. “My first piece of information I’ll divulge to you? I wouldn’t recommend trying to torture me. I dislike it and grow sulky under pincers. It’s a fault.”
The things in the cells, many of which he’d never even heard of, never could have envisioned, howled and grunted at that.
“Now let’s not quarrel, vampire. Free me, and we’ll go to your room and talk.” She offered her fragile-looking hand out to him. A smudge of ash was stark against her alabaster skin.
“I don’t think so.”
“You’ll call for me. You’ll be lonely in your new quarters and will feel out of sorts. I could let you pet my hair until you fell asleep.”
He drew in closer and lowered his voice to ask in all seriousness, “You’re mad, aren’t you?”
“As—a—hatter,” she whispered back conspiratorially.
He felt a hint of sympathy for the creature. “How long have you been in here?”
“For four long … interminable … days.”
He glowered at her.
“Which is why I want you to take me with you. I don’t eat much.”
The dungeon erupted with laughter again.
“Don’t hold your breath.”
“Certainly not like you, Forbearer.”
“How do you know what I am?”
“I know everything.”
Then, if true, she had a wealth they didn’t.
“Leave her,” Murdoch called at the gateway of the dungeon. His brows were drawn, no doubt puzzled by his brother’s interest. Nikolai had never pursued women. As a human, they’d either come to him or he’d gone without. He’d had no time in wartime. As a vampire he had no such need. Not until he could find his Bride.
He shook his head at the insane, fey creature, then forced himself to walk on, though he thought he heard her whisper, “Call for me, General,” making the hair on the back of his neck stand up.
He followed his brother to Kristoff’s new antechamber and found their king gazing out into the clear night from a generous window—one that would be shuttered in the few hours till dawn. When Kristoff turned to them, his gaunt face looked weary.
Nikolai suspected it had been difficult for him to kill other natural-born vampires, his own kindred, no matter how crazed they’d become, and no matter that they followed his uncle Demestriu, who’d stolen his crown centuries ago. Nikolai had no such compunctions. He was weary but only from injury and his sword arm being overworked as he hacked through them.
“Were any of the records salvageable?” he asked with little hope. If the vampires of this castle had spent as much energy fighting as burning, they might have kept Oblak. To his disgust, they’d fled. He didn’t understand it. When defending your home, you defend to the death.
Kristoff answered, “None.”
Without the records, their own ignorance would kill them. Kristoff, the rightful king, had been raised by humans far from Demestriu’s reach. For centuries, he had lived among them, hiding his true nature yet learning little of the Lore. His army consisted of human warriors he’d turned as they died on the battlefield, so they knew nothing. Before Nikolai had seen Kristoff standing over him like an angel of death, offering eternal life for eternal fealty, Nikolai had thought vampires were mere myths.
The rules of this new world were complex and often counterintuitive, and their order knew little more than conjecture and what had been learned by painful trial over centuries. They were trapped in a kind of twilight—not human and yet universally shunned by all the factions of the Lore. Those beings hid in the shadows, fleeing from whatever land Kristoff’s army occupied, working together to always be one step ahead. Nikolai’s human experience said they should have been able to get information by now, but the reality was that this was a different plane altogether. The same effort that went into hiding the Lore from humans for ages went into keeping Kristoff’s soldiers in the dark as well.
“Any sign of Conrad or Sebastian?” Kristoff asked.
Nikolai shook his head. He hadn’t seen his brothers since shortly after they’d been turned, but he knew natural born vampires often clashed with turned humans. Though he and Murdoch hadn’t expected to find their brothers here, they had distantly hoped the two might be in the dungeon of the castle they’d strategically needed to take.
“Perhaps the next Horde stronghold.”
Nikolai nodded, though he doubted it. He sensed his brother Bastian was dead and suspected the mind of the youngest, Conrad, was unreachable even if he could be found. The two had not appreciated the eternal life their older brothers had forced on them.
Murdoch examined a gouge in his arm, seeming unconcerned with this blow, but then he generally seemed unconcerned about everything. Though they shared similar looks, he and Nikolai couldn’t be more different in personality. Nikolai believed in Kristoff’s cause, seeing many parallels to his own past, and wanted to continue to fight. Murdoch didn’t particularly care. Nikolai suspected his brother fought only as a favor to him—or because they had nothing else now.
“Nikolai found a being in the dungeon,” Murdoch said. “She seems to have extensive knowledge of the Lore.”
“What kind of being?”
Nikolai answered, “I have no idea. She appears fey, delicate, with sharply pointed ears. But she has these small fangs and her fingernails were more like … claws. She’s not vampire.”
Kristoff frowned at that. “Perhaps she’s born of more than one species?”
“Perhaps.” More speculation. Nikolai was sick of it. He wanted to know the rules of the game so he could dominate it.
“Find out everything you can from her.”
“She won’t talk. I’ve interrogated enough to know she’ll hint but never truly divulge. And she hates vampires.”
Kristoff pinched his forehead. “Then tomorrow night if we haven’t gotten information from the rest of the prisoners, we treat her as the Horde she hates would. Torture her for the information if you can’t get it any other way.”
Nikolai nodded, but the idea sat ill with him. As a human he’d been merciless to his enemies, but he’d never tortured a woman. She wasn’t truly a woman, he reminded himself. She was a female among the Lore, and their army’s survival could depend on the knowledge she held.
Perhaps he’d never tortured a woman because he’d never needed to.
The creature had been right, Nikolai thought as he made his way to his new chambers. He was going to call her up to him.
To do what with her, he didn’t know.
“Did you miss me? Because I missed you,” the female said when a guard escorted her inside his bedroom. Out of habit, Nikolai stood when a lady entered, and she flashed him a brilliant smile. “A gentleman warrior. Who cleans up very well.” She fanned herself with her hand. “I think I’m in love.”
He didn’t answer, and she didn’t seem to mind as she casually scanned the room. “Retro Nosferatu. Not necessarily what I would have done, but then I’m not married to sunproof shutters like you might be…” She shrugged, then headed for the bathroom. “Taking a shower if you don’t mind,” she said airily over her shoulder, making him raise his brows.
At the doorway, she unbuttoned her tight blouse and shrugged from it, leaving only a transparent black bra. She turned to him, revealing her scarcely covered breasts, he knew, just so he could see the creamy flesh spilling from the lace when she bent over to remove her boots. What he didn’t know was why.
Was she truly mad? Most people who were mad didn’t think they were, but she seemed to be proud of it. He was usually quick to determine people’s motives. Yes, she wanted her freedom, but for some reason he knew she wouldn’t sleep with him to receive it.
If he had to guess, he would say that she simply didn’t see stripping in front of him and making herself completely at home in a stranger’s bedroom as odd. In fact, he suspected she didn’t see them as strangers at all.
As he stood, concealing his surprise, she untied the fastening of her silky skirt at her hip, and it too fell to the ground.
A fine gold chain around her tiny waist caught his attention. It was unusual, the design appearing very old, but it glinted like new when she moved. Once he could take his eyes from it, he found her in only that wispy bra and scanty, black underwear so intricate he was shocked anew. They were like a work of art—or a like a ribbon decorating one.
She gave him a teasing smile. “Vampire like?” she purred, unclasping the front of her bra to toss it with her other clothes. He scowled because he did like. Very much. He ran a hand over his mouth, wondering if her high, plump breasts could be any more beautiful. She had coral pink nipples that he could spend hours tonguing and alabaster flesh he wanted to cup and palm. He began to speak, then had to cough in his fist to continue. “You’ll strip in front of a vampire when you don’t even know his name?”
She gasped with mock horror and covered her breasts with her hands. “You’re right! So what’s your name?”
“My answer will be as forthcoming as yours. What do you want it to be?”
She smiled at that but then replied to the question, “Some kind of name that fits a battle-scarred, overgrown vampire warlord.”
Battle-scarred? Overgrown? He wondered why in the hell he cared how she saw him. She was divinely wrought, but mad. He’d take his scars with his sanity. “Nikolai Wroth,” he grated.
For the briefest second he thought he saw recognition flicker. But then she eyed him archly and breathed, “Oh, you are good. Wroth, the old word for rage? That’s a bingo idea for a name.” Her hands dropped. “I’ll just call you by that,” she said, shaking her head with a rueful smile as if she couldn’t believe he was so clever.
. . . as a hatter.
Then she leaned back against the doorway, raising her bent arms above her head to grasp her elbows. Displaying her mouthwatering breasts and flashing a flirtatious smile that would’ve dropped most men to their knees, she asked in her whiskey voice, “Care to join me, Wroth?” She winked when she said his name and rolled her hips up off the doorframe.
“No,” he bit out the word with difficulty. He didn’t want her to know how his body didn’t respond to her. His mind did, his vague memories of being human did. But not his body. He was the walking dead. No respiration, no heartbeat, no sexual need—or ability. Not until he found his predestined Bride and she “blooded” him fully. With his blooding, something inside him, some essence—maybe even his soul—would recognize her as his. He would see her as the one he was meant to spend eternity with, the woman he could love without measure, if one believed in that, and his body would wake for her.
In the past he’d yearned for his Bride because of the power she would bring him—he would finally be as strong as blooded vampires, his senses as acute as theirs—but he’d never missed the sex before this. And Nikolai knew after this display that she was not his. For this should’ve blooded any vampire.
She shrugged, the simple movement a sight to behold, then turned the corner to the bathroom. When she emerged fifteen minutes later clad in a towel, she crossed to his closet. He was almost certain she’d used his toothbrush.
Which … charmed him for some reason—
The towel dropped, leaving her with only her chain and him with a view of her perfect ass.
He swallowed. “Have you no modesty?” Never in his life had he encountered a female so quick to be naked. Of course, he’d never in his life encountered a female who should so utterly be naked at any chance.
“Not at my age,” she said as she began exploring his recently unpacked clothing. How strange to hear her say that when she looked so young. He found his head tilting to keep his gaze on her as she moved and bent. The chain swayed at her waist, and her long, damp hair cascaded down over her breasts. He stifled a groan at a particularly fruitful glance. A true redhead. He closed his eyes. And he couldn’t have her.
“How old are you?” he grated, opening his eyes.
“Physiologically, I’m twenty-five. Chronologically, I’m … not.”
“So you are an immortal?”
An amused smile played about her lips. “I am.” She pulled on one of his shirts though it fell far off one shoulder and well down her legs.
“Why did you stop aging at twenty-five?”
“When I was strongest. Not for the same reason you were frozen at…”—she trailed off, eyeing him—”thirty-four?”
“Thirty-five. And why do you think I stopped aging then?”
She ignored him to continue digging. After a few moments, she plucked out an old bejeweled cross from his bag. She pinched the relic, holding it away from her, keeping her gaze from it. “You’re Catholic?”
“Yes. It was a gift from my father.” To help keep him alive in wartime. Nikolai shook his head at the irony of just how well it had worked. “I thought I was the one who should be repelled by it.”
“Only a turned human would say that. Besides I’m in no way repelled. With jewels like that? If I look at it, I’ll want it.”
“So you wouldn’t want it because you’re Catholic, I take it?”
“My family was very orthodox pagan. Can I have?” She held it forward, still not looking at it. “Can I, can I, Wroth?”
“Put it back,” he said, fighting the unfamiliar urge to grin. With a pouty expression, she returned it, mumbling something about tight-fisted vampires, then dipped her feet into his boots. When she turned to him with her hands on her hips, his lips almost curled at the sight of her, a mad pagan immortal swallowed by his boots.
“What did your mother feed you?” she teased. “Renaissance anabolics?”
His urge to smile faded. “My mother died young.”
“So did mine.” He thought he heard her murmur, “The first time.“
“And I was born after the Renaissance.”
She drew her feet from his boots and sauntered past him. “But not by much.”
“That’s true. And why do you think I stopped aging at thirty-five?” he asked again.
She frowned as if she didn’t know where his question had come from, then said, “Because naughty Kristoff found you dying on a battlefield, decided you’d make a fine recruit, then made you drink his blood. Bit a wrist open, perhaps? Then with his vampiric hoo-doo blood in your veins, he let you die. Unless he was in a hurry, then he would’ve killed you. One to three nights later and voila, you rise from the dead—most likely with a frown on your face as you think ‘Holy shite, it worked!'”
He ignored the last and asked, “How do you know the blood ritual?” He’d thought that only vampires knew the true way to turn a human. In movies and books, the change always came as a consequence of a vampire’s bite, when in fact a human had more chance of turning if he bit a vampire.
“Like I said, I know everything.”
Yes, but he was learning, if sporadically. She was an immortal who’d been frozen physiologically at twenty-five. If she was pagan she was at least several hundred years old. She knew of the blood ritual and that Kristoff “recruited” his soldiers straight from the battlefield.
When she scooped up her clothes, opened his door, then snapped her fingers for a guard down the hall, Nikolai merely watched like a bystander.
“Pssst. Minion. I need these laundered. Very little starch. Don’t just stand there gawking or you’ll anger my good frienemy General Wroth. We’re like this.”
He couldn’t see her but knew she was twining two fingers together.
Once she’d foisted her laundry, she closed the door by dramatically leaning back against it—as if to say he couldn’t get away from her now—then glided over to him. As a rule, he observed, he calculated and he waited, but he’d never quite enjoyed sitting back and watching events unfurl as much as with her. Unpredictable didn’t begin to describe—
She clutched his shoulders and straddled him.
Nothing between them but his pants and a few inches. He could even feel her heat as she knelt over him. She was definitely not his Bride or he would’ve ripped through his zipper to get inside her. His heart would beat, he would take his first breath in three hundred years, and in the space of one of those breaths he would be buried so deep in her tightness, wrenching her down on him…. But nothing approaching that happened.
“Now, Wroth, we need to work some logistics out. When I’m kept as a pet, my care is very involved.”
His brows drew together. “I have no wish to keep you as a pet.”
“You hold me prisoner. You think to order me. How does this differ?”
“You’re not a pet,” he insisted. He couldn’t think—her eyes were mesmerizing, her sex was inches away from his, and her pleasing accent was lulling.
She leaned in by his ear and murmured, “What if I want to be your pet? Would you like that, vampire?” Her fingers brushed their way over his chest, unbuttoning his shirt. She picked up his hands one at a time and set them on the armrests, giving each a squeeze as if to let him know she wanted them to stay that way.
With raised eyebrows, he let her. He wasn’t about to move, and couldn’t imagine what she would do next.
“If I was your pet, you could keep me for your pleasure, and I would serve you in every way you desire.” She pulled his shirt open, clearly admiring his chest. “Hard.” Her voice was breathy. “Scars.” She moistened her lips. “I’d endeavor to blood you so you could wake at sunset with my mouth greedy on you while you clutched my thighs to drink from. You would go to sleep at sunrise still deep inside my body.” Her hand was trailing down, her eyes raptly following the jagged scar that had been his deathblow. “I am here for the taking and ache for your touch.”
She reached down and cupped him beneath her before he could grip her wrist. In an instant her seductive look vanished, though she showed no surprise that he wasn’t hard. She felt around his cock, arching an eyebrow. “Well, my word, Wroth. If you were hard, I wouldn’t know whether to be tantalized or terrified.”
Then with blurring speed she was off him, and in the bed, lying on her stomach, chin propped on her hands. She was utterly unaffected by what had just occurred, while he was angered and . . . shamed that she’d felt him like this. He wanted to show her hard. . . .
“How do you plan to keep me here during the day? An unblooded Forbearer shouldn’t be so hard to vanquish.”
Vanquished by her? Amusing. “I’ll send you back to the cell. You want to be my pet? I’ll take you out and put you back in your cage at my pleasure.”
She blinked at him. “You don’t want to send me back. Who will entertain you? I can deal poker and make shadow animals.”
He shook himself. This was just another instance of the Lore playing with them. She was not normal. He knew that anything he’d learned about females was inapplicable with her.
If she could be unaffected, he could pretend it. “I want you to answer some questions. I need to know what you are and what your name is.”
“I’ll answer your questions if you answer mine.”
“Done,” he said quickly. “Ask.”
“Were you afraid when Kristoff stood over you?”
“I was … tired.” Strange question.
“Most mortals would have been terrified to see the Gravewalker.”
“Is that what he’s called?” Kristoff would find that amusing. At her nod, he said, “Well, I’d seen a lot by that time.”
“What’s his agenda? Does he want to replace Demestriu?”
Nikolai hesitated, then answered honestly, hoping that she would do the same. “He wants his crown back, but he doesn’t want to rule over any faction but our own.”
“Uh-huh.” She raised an eyebrow as if she didn’t believe him, then asked, “That was your brother in the dungeon?”
“Turned vampires don’t usually have family within the Horde…”
“Murdoch died in the same battle. I’ve two other brothers turned later as well.”
“You’re young. Yet you’re a general. How’d you swing that?”
He was over three hundred years old. Young compared to her? “I refused the dark gift if certain conditions weren’t met.”
Her eyes grew bright with new interest, and she patted the bed for him to come sit with her. He felt he was on the verge of learning something, so he complied, resting against the headboard to face her, stretching his legs out. He almost laughed. The first time he’d been in bed with a woman in centuries, and she was easily the most beautiful of any before—and he could do nothing with her. He couldn’t even drink her, though his fangs ached to pierce the pale column of her neck. Thank God he’d fed before she’d been brought up.
“Wroth, you countered with Kristoff as you lay dying?”
When she put it like that it sounded more reckless than it had been. As Nikolai had lain in his own cooling blood, nearly freed of the constant struggle, the ongoing war and famine and plague, he’d told Kristoff, “You need me more than I need to live.”
Kristoff had seen him in many battles and agreed. “I did counter. I was used to giving orders and would take them from no one but a powerful king. I wanted my brother turned if he was dying, and trusted compatriots as well. Kristoff complied.” That wasn’t all. Nikolai had asked for sixty years so he and Murdoch could watch over the rest of their living family—their father, four sisters and two other brothers.
Already too late to save them . . .
“You know, I’d heard of you when you were a human,” she said. “Weren’t you called the Overlord?”
This surprised him. “On kinder tongues. How could you have heard of me? Your accent isn’t from the northlands.”
She sighed. “Not anymore. I’d heard of you because I’m interested in all things martial. You were quite the vicious leader.”
He felt his expression grow cold. “We were defending. I was anything I needed to be to see it done.” He could tell by her reaction that she liked his answer. Her lips parted as she tilted her head at him. Then she sidled closer to him on the bed as if she couldn’t help herself.
Her voice more gentle, she said, “But in the end you lost.”
He stared past her. “Everything.” The battle had only been like the final blow on a dying man. Prior to that, the enemy had scorched and salted their lands. Famine followed and there’d been no defending when plague erupted.
“Wroth,” she said softly. He turned his gaze to her. “Let’s make a pact, you and I.” Her eyes were so captivating in her elven-like face as she eased open his legs to kneel between them. “Let’s vow that we won’t harm the other in this room.” She pressed him back until he lay fully on the rolled pillow. What would she do next?
When he gave her one quick nod, she flashed him a warm smile that made him feel praised in some way. Her damp hair was spilling down over his legs, and with the back of her hand, she swung it to one side, baring her tantalizing neck. A rush of the innate scent of her hair swept him up, like a drug. Sweet and subtle, just like her skin. If she smelled like this, he couldn’t imagine what she would taste like. He wished she’d bared her flesh in offer to him.
“Wroth, this is embarrassing,” she murmured in a sensual voice, “but I think I’ve caught you staring at my neck.”
“You did,” he admitted, oddly feeling no shame to be contemplating his order’s most reviled crime.
She brushed her fingertips over her skin. “Are you tempted to take a drink from me?”
In the worst way.
He wondered how many times Ivo had sampled her and felt a spike of some unfamiliar feeling claw in his gut. “We don’t drink from living beings. It’s how we got our name.” It was this order’s pledge, their pact. Nikolai had never tasted flesh as he drank. But then he’d never felt the smallest stir of temptation to before her.
“So we are never tempted to kill,” he said, giving her the official line, which was true, but the whole truth was more complicated, and they kept secret the details they’d managed to learn. Living blood, blood not separated from its source, brought side effects with it. A vampire would suffer torments from it, such as his victim’s memories. Kristoff believed these memories were what drove natural born vampires insane and made their eyes turn permanently red. As far as they could determine, the only way not to harvest them was to drink blood that had died, avoiding the evils—and the benefits.
“What if you drank from an immortal that couldn’t be killed from that?” she asked, her words lulling again. He couldn’t seem to take his eyes from hers.
A tricky question to answer without saying that the immortal would have far too many plaguing memories, multiple in number to a mortal. He answered her question with one of his own. “Do you want me to take your flesh, creature?” The mere idea of it made his words rough, his fangs ache.
At her titillated look, he feared she’d say yes, calling his bluff. What would he do then?
“Rain check,” she answered brightly. Then, to his shock, she curled up between his legs. Nuzzling her face against his uncovered torso, she wrapped her pale, delicate arms and hands around his thigh.
“I never asked my questions,” he said, staring at the ceiling, trying to sound casual about what was occurring. He’d seen a great many things in his life, but this female was throwing him.
“We have all the time in the world for that, do we not?”
He thought she kissed the scar on his lower stomach with her lips—and a slow little lick. He lay tensed, rasping, “At least tell me your name.”
“Myst,” she whispered, then she fell asleep.
Myst. How fitting that she was named after something intangible and capricious.
Long after, he was still roiling. In sleep, his little pagan clutched his leg with her pink claws. And they were claws, sharp and curling, though somehow elegant. He ignored the pain, for it was little compared to the odd satisfaction of thinking that she clutched him for comfort.
He savored simply resting with her, doing nothing but watching as her hair dried into glossy red curls that spread out over his chest. For centuries their army had been constantly on the move, hiding in the shadows of the northlands in often grueling conditions, keeping their growing numbers secret. Everything had been about the war, all adding up to this attack, to furthering their cause.
He brought a curl up to his face to brush it over his lips. So soft, like her flawless skin. Tomorrow night, if she hadn’t given him information, could he lash her skin to get at her secrets? After Myst had cleaved to him so trustingly? Could he break her delicate bones and have her gaze at him with pain in those green eyes? If she’d been his Bride, he would have been forbidden from ever harming her—his life given over to protecting hers.
He ran the backs of his fingers down her silken cheek, feeling her light, quick breaths warm on his stomach. He’d never truly felt the sting of jealousy in his life, had never envied other men except those who enjoyed peace in their land. He’d been born affluent, his family aristocratic, and fortune had followed him until the latter years of his mortality. To envy was to lack.
So why did he want to destroy any vampire who might be blooded by her?
Where the hell is my warlord?
Myst jerked upright, waking from the first real sleep she’d enjoyed since she’d been taken by the Horde four nights ago. She was alone in Wroth’s bed, her clothes washed and folded at the foot. She smiled to realize he’d drawn a blanket over her.
She needed to keep up with him until her sisters broke her out of this pokey. She swore again that this was the last time she would be bait—and this time she meant it. Rumor was rife in the Lore, but tales of Ivo the Cruel making dark alliances proved worrisome enough for them to “reconnoiter,” or undertake Operation: Myst Gets Nabbed. Yet she’d learned little about Ivo for her troubles—the acting, the getting too close and then letting herself get caught, etc.—only that he was definitely planning something major.
She chuckled. That is, until General Wroth punked his ass out of a castle.
No, she hadn’t learned much about Ivo, but this Kristoff and the general would make good dish. What if this king really wanted to kill Demestriu and stop vampires from terrorizing everyone else? Was it possible that not all vampires had a predisposition toward sociopathic evil? What if the Valkyrie didn’t have to war with these Forbearers? However, it was doubtful. Her sisters wouldn’t discriminate between the two vampire factions. Kill first and then say, “Gosh, were you actually good? My duh!” Vampires as a species were simply too powerful to go unchecked.
Demestriu and his vampire Horde had been brutal to all the Lore, but especially the Valkyrie. Fifty years ago, Furie, their queen, the strongest and fiercest of them all, had tried to assassinate him. She’d never returned. Tales abounded that Demestriu had chained Furie to the bottom of the sea to drown again and again only to have her dogged immortality surge her to life for more torment. When the covens finally found her and freed her, Furie would be as none other on earth, awash in rage. She wouldn’t check for vampire affiliation before she slaughtered and would expect her covens to follow her example.
So, until Myst’s covens decided on their plan of action with this new power, she’d go about business as usual, which meant she needed to find Wroth. Before he’d come, Myst had been powerless here. She could handle weapons as well as most in the coven, though a sword and bow were not her strengths.
Her preferred weapon was men. She manipulated them, played them, making them believe she lived for them alone in order to have them do her bidding. That was her m.o. Furie had once asked her, “Why would you ever send a man to do a woman’s job?”
Confused, Myst had answered, “Because I can.”
And now she had one—a big, scarred one with gorgeous eyes, and with skin that she wanted to lick until her tongue got tired—in her clutches.
Or she’d had him.
The problem with Oblak’s vampires was that they had no appreciation for her whatsoever. At least Wroth liked to look at her.
For them, the blood superseded all, and she could neither withhold it nor capitalize on it. Though the eyes of every creature in the Lore turned a certain species-related color with intense emotion, theirs were permanently, wholly red from sucking the life from their victims to the very marrow—not from merely drinking as these Forbearers feared. One kill put them in a downward spiral, because with the kill came the bloodlust riding them to do it again and again. Then the subsequent accumulation of their victim’s memories over the years drove many of them mad.
Yet for the last four nights, Ivo and his men had never drunk from her, vacillating, examining her as she had yawned with boredom. Finally she’d snapped, “Get dental with me or don’t, but make a damned decision.” Ivo’s eyes had slitted with menace, his red gaze a contrast to his pale face and shaven head. But in the end he’d avoided her blood, thinking her madness might be catching. Worked for her. In fact, she’d never in her life been bitten.
She wondered what it would have been like to have Wroth take her neck last night when his irises had flickered black with want. She was an awful person, she knew it, weak with perversion to even entertain these thoughts. Probably the only Valkyrie on earth who’d ever fantasized about a vampire. She frowned. No. There’d been one other….
Myst tapped her chin, wondering if she should tell the Forbearers that they forwent for really no reason.
Maybe if the scrumptious general continued to be nice to her she’d hint a little. She had heard of him back in the day. Most Valkyrie had. Naturally, they’d had a correspondent in the field covering that war, and she’d reported back that Wroth had been cunning, brave, and deliciously ruthless to his enemies. Though the Overlord had lost in the end against a much larger force, he’d bought his people at least a decade of protection.
Myst and her sisters had sat by the hearth, sighing over tales of his deeds as though ogling an issue of Tiger Beat. Myst remembered that she had felt loss at the news of his defeat because she’d known it meant the death of a great man. But he’d made a comeback, and in person, he hadn’t disappointed. Except for the fact that he was now a mortal enemy—or rather, an immortal mortal enemy. Oh, and a leech.
She tried the door to his room, just in case he’d decided to trust her, but it was locked—
though not mystically reinforced like her cell was. She could easily have broken it down, but she didn’t have to be back in the dungeon until dawn. So she took her time dressing and piling her hair up in a way she thought he’d like, and still had time to root through all his things. Though she kept her eyes from the shiny jeweled cross, lest she get sticky-fingered with it.
Digging through his clothes, she realized she liked how he dressed, his style modern but still aristocratic somehow. And she loved his scent and his careless but sexy hair. She’d rolled in the bed with one of his big cable-knit sweaters, her face buried in it, uncaring if he returned and found her like that. But he never showed, and instead two guards had arrived to escort her back down as per his orders.
They wouldn’t meet her eyes.
Well, shite, they knew something she didn’t. Wroth hadn’t kept her as she’d hoped. She was in trouble, and she suspected she knew why. If you do happen to have information, I can get it from you, he’d said.
When the guards closed the cell door behind her, and she realized she was the only one in the dungeon, her fears were confirmed. The low beings here—those who made up the Saturday night creature-feature underbelly of the Lore—had been taken away, no doubt to be tortured and killed.
She was the only girl left on the dance floor, but not for long, because none of the others would’ve talked. Of course, she’d threatened to peel them, and their families, for revealing any information, and there was a reason that “And may you never feel a Valkyrie’s breath at your back” was a drinking toast among the Lore. The vampires might come and take one’s village, but the Valkyrie would creep in, hiding under a bed to take one’s head from one’s pillow. Their word was law.
Which left her… She looked up when she heard boots clicking over the stone.
“Listen carefully, Myst,” Wroth said as a guard opened her cell before leaving them. “I’m going to ask you questions about your kind and about the different factions in the Lore. You must answer them or I’ve been ordered to get the information from you by force.”
“Torture? Ordered? Can’t disobey Kristoff for me?”
“Myst, you know I’d be dead if not for him. My brothers and friends as well. My life has not been my own since that night.”
He was actually serious about this. But then Myst hadn’t been kidding either when she’d
said that torture really pissed her off. She’d been giving Wroth preferential treatment because he was, like, a celebrity in martial circles, but now he’d taken a plunge into vampirism—and she needed to remember that. She’d push and cajole to the end but after that… Bring it, leech. Still bubbly friendly, she said, “Wroth, you could help me escape—”
“I swore my fealty and I’ll see my order through. Answer or you’ll face the consequences,” he said. “I’ll begin with the most basic. What are you?”
“Pussy Cat Doll?” she asked, immediately doing a slow headshake at his look. “Judge, jury and executioner.” He scowled. Her eyes lit up. “Transient! What? Really. No? Babe in Toyland?”
“Damn it, Myst, just answer the questions. Then you can come back up to my room.” He lowered his voice and curled his finger under her chin. “We can sleep together again as we did today—”
“But you don’t understand that torture would be easier for me than to go back to the Lore as an informant.” She’d no longer be an A-lister, an “avoid at all costs” enemy. She’d lose her status as a creature with which one did not fuck.
“My brother has tried to get information from the others—”
“But they didn’t talk either, huh?” Had she sounded smug?
He seemed to shake himself, hardening his resolve. “You’re leaving me little choice.”
Well. She was about to experience first-hand the Overlord’s ruthlessness she’d admired, because apparently he’d decided she was an enemy just when she’d thought they were getting kinda cozy.
Way to hurt my feelings, Wroth. She sniffled. Now I’ll really have to kill you.
With his thoughts constantly on her throughout the night, Nikolai had stalled for hours, as much as he could, waiting till nearly dawn, ensuring it would at least be brief.
“You’re really going to do this?” she asked as she turned from him, moving into the back corner.
Her shoulders were shaking, and he suspected she was laughing. When he crossed to her, taking her arm and turning her, he was shocked to find genuine tears streaming down her heartbreakingly beautiful face. “Wroth, I thought we had an arrangement.” She cast him a brows-drawn look of betrayal.
She wasn’t feigning this. In her wild, mixed-up mind, she had thought they were … friends?
The cell wobbled and he braced himself, frowning that she seemed not to notice. Just aftershocks from last night.
He didn’t want her to hurt. But her eyes blazed with it, raw and true and bare. He was actually seeing her—Myst with her false swagger and play peeled back. This was a facet of her, but it was finally Myst, and suddenly he found it unbearable as each tear fell. He flinched when one dropped to her cheek, flinched as if he’d been hit. Another shake all around him.
She turned from him and appeared to wipe her face. When she turned back, she was blatantly sexual, as though she’d donned a mask once more.
“Myst, I don’t want to hurt you, but you must answer my questions. This isn’t a game.”
She gave him a look of utter disbelief. “That’s exactly what this is. You want to know about the Lore? Learn this lesson well—we are all pawns.”
The castle shook around him, and while he glanced around wildly, she remained undaunted. No, it was not the outside shaking.
The sound booming in his ears like an earthquake was coming from … within him. “What are you?” he demanded again.
Her face never lost its expression of vague distaste even when her hand pressed gently against his chest—to feel his heart stutter then thunder to life. Because he’d finally seen her and recognized her for what she was….
“Apparently, I’m your Bride.”
“I was wondering if I could get you to turn for me,” Myst purred to Wroth, as he struggled to hide his shock.
She’d found him to be a cool, disciplined man, but she’d heard a new heartbeat was deafening for these unblooded vampires, the sudden rush of sexual desire overwhelming, their breaths unpracticed and rough at first. With soft touches, she eased him against the wall. His eyes were half-lidded as she rubbed up and down his chest. “How does the air in your lungs feel?”
He inhaled deeply. “Cold. Pressure, but it feels good.” He looked at her with such gratitude for blooding him.
They always did.
“How does your blood feel, heating and moving?”
“Stronger. It’s … searing.”
She palmed his erection through his pants, and his entire body jerked as he threw back his head to yell out. My gods. She’d known Wroth was very well endowed, but when hard, he was overly so.
Like Demon or Lykae endowed.
He held her hand in place over his shaft, curving her fingers around it as he slowly thrust against her palm. Her body softened when she imagined the onslaught of need clawing at him. In a sensual whisper, she asked, “And how does this feel when it swells and distends?”
“Good,” he grated with a shudder. “So damn good.”
“It’s been three centuries? Well, you are due I suppose.” She unzipped his pants just enough to wiggle her thumb inside and rub the broad tip of his penis, making it grow slick. His eyes rolled back in his head. “I can only imagine how heavy and tight this feels, throbbing with pressure, close to exploding.”
“Why are you doing this to me?”
Because I can.
Soon he would have no more thought than an animal. His eyes were growing black. She stroked his length through his pants, relieved she would never have to take his uncomfortable size within her. Five, four, three, two…
Wroth attacked with surprising strength, snatching her wrists in a viselike grip, securing them behind her back as he slanted his mouth over hers. Seeming to brand her with his lips and tongue, he kissed her, deeply, possessively, groaning against her. He left her panting when he bent down to lick her nipples, sucking at them through her blouse. His other hand cupped her sex.
With a growl, he abruptly drew back from her, taking her elbow. “Come with me.”
Damn it, dawn neared. Where were they? She had to keep him here. “No, Wroth,” she said.
“Won’t claim my Bride in a dungeon.”
“But I can’t wait,” she cried. “Order the guard to leave.”
“Wroth,” she gripped his shaft hard while whispering in his ear, “my body weeps for this thrusting inside me.“
He bellowed out that order, then tore open her blouse and bra, suckling and tonguing her nipples roughly. Involuntarily her back arched, pressing her breasts into his gorgeous lips. When had she begun undulating her hips for him?
“I’ve waited for you,” he bit out. “So long I’ve waited.”
One hand pinned her wrists above her, the other shot up her skirt and ripped her panties completely from her. His fingers roved, hot and slow over her, teasing. He knew exactly how to set her on fire, using her own moisture to slide his thumb around her clitoris in slick, mind-numbing circles.
“So wet,” he rasped against her breast. “As soon as I saw you, I wanted it to be you.” His lips took her hardened nipple, sucking on it till it throbbed. He turned to the other one for the same attention.
Myst made a decision then. There was simply no way she was going to miss this.
She moaned in truth, unable to control herself as lightning fired outside in conjunction with the emotion inside her. When he plunged one finger into her, withdrew, then thrust two deep within her, she wanted to come around them. He slid them into her unhurriedly but with enough force that she was rocked to her toes each time.
She arched her back more, wanting to offer up her breasts. She spread her legs, taking his fierce touch. “Don’t stop,” she panted, so close, aching to reach for his shaft. But he’d trapped her hands above her.
“Never.” He thrust harder, until she didn’t know if her toes even touched the ground, then he spread his fingers inside her as if preparing her for his size. Her head fell back and she moaned at the overwhelming feeling of fullness.
She raised her leg to lay it over the knee he’d placed against the wall as if just for that purpose. Bared to him, she ground her hips wildly.
At her ear, he rumbled the words, “Come for me, milaya.”
“Ah, yes … Wroth,” she moaned again, about to succumb to his stroking. She gave a strangled cry and climaxed with a fiery, wet pulsing that staggered her and made him groan as if he had as well.
“I can feel you come,” he grated while she clutched him, rolling her hips against his masterful touch until she was too sensitive to continue. But he didn’t stop until she was mindlessly moaning his name in his capturing arms.
When she was spent, she sagged against him, still weakly undulating for him. Her nipples were damp and achy from his tongue.
He cupped the back of her neck and yanked her up to face him, gazing down at her with lust, but his words were more. “I will be good to you, Myst. I will protect you. You are mine.”
He was saying these things because he was about to shove into her with that huge shaft, to claim her. A true vampire’s Bride. He took her leg and clutched it to his hip, about to free himself.
Her half-lidded eyes had just widened with true alarm when she heard the merest whisper at the gateway to the dungeon.
Before Nikolai could react, Myst flung herself away. Why would she do that? His hand shot out to pull her back, but she shrank from him. Why wasn’t he inside her right now? He’d made sure she was wet, ready to receive him—
He heard movement and jerked his head around, fangs sharpening in fury.
“Look at the lovebirds.” A creature similar to Myst was standing at the entry to the cell, a bow at the ready.
A second one with bright, glowing skin joined the first, happily chewing gum and flipping a dagger in the air. “Don’t make me look—I think I’ll be sick. Myst, cavorting with a vampire is a new low even for you.”
“What is this?” Nikolai demanded, stalking toward them.
The archer nocked an arrow with supernatural speed and let it sing without hesitation. He lunged to dodge it, but she’d anticipated his move and the arrow pinned him to the wall. A second took his other shoulder, drilling its tip half a foot into the stone. He cast her a killing look, then lurched forward to simply let the arrows tear through him, but the shafts were ringed like shank nails.
When he realized he wouldn’t be moving, he bellowed with rage.
He saw Myst pulling her clothing together, turning for the door. “Don’t you walk away from me!“
“So sorry to interrupt your plans for tonight.” She cast him that hurt look. “You almost made me forget that you’d come down here to torture me. You want to learn? Know that we hate torture. It starts to add up over the years—”
“That was before I knew you were my Bride.”
Her face went cold in an instant. “Before you knew you could finally screw me? Now that your body’s in working order, I don’t feel the skin flayed from mine?”
“You’re my Bride. Mine. You belong to me.”
She flew back at him, enraged. The bright one tossed her a dagger and Myst caught it behind her without looking. Again his mind demanded to know what she was.
She pressed the blade to his jugular. Her pupils were silver and lightning bombarded the castle. “If I belonged to every man who wanted it so or to every vampire I’ve blooded there’d be nothing left of me. But no one cares about that.”
“You’ve not blooded others. They would be here protecting you, fighting for you.”
“Not”—she leaned in closer, tilting her head like an animal—”if I killed them all.”
Then she grabbed the back of his head and pulled him to her, pressing her lips against his. She kissed him hard. Yet he soon tasted … her blood? Just as he groaned, she drew back with an inscrutable expression on her face.
Unimaginably warm and rich, her blood was as exquisite as everything else about her, and he shuddered in ecstasy at the luscious taste. “You know I’ll want nothing else now,” he rasped.
In response, she snapped her teeth at him. To the others she commanded, “Leave him,” then exited the cell.
The archer and the bright one exchanged a confused glance. “And by ‘leave him’ you clearly mean leave him beheaded, disemboweled, and chock full of quills like a pincushion.”
“You heard him—I’m his Bride.”
“Ohhh,” the bright one said, blowing a bubble. “You mean he hasn’t, uh, you know, released, the first time since his blooding?” Then with a quick glance at his crotch, she said, “And he stays like that without you, right?” She chuckled. “I’m cool with the plan.”
The archer wasn’t convinced. “Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy condemning vampires to unending sexual torture as much as the next fabulously talented huntress…” When Nikolai heard a guard charging in, she leisurely shot an arrow in that direction, tilted her head at the result, then sighed to Myst, “But Vampire Bride just sounds so B-movie. He just dragged you down to B-moviedom.”
The bright one made her voice overly dramatic, saying, “For that alone … he must die. Seriously, Myst. Your ‘husband’ has irrevocably damaged your street cred unless you kill him like the others.”
They were all mad.
And still he was hard, aching for her body, for the blood she’d given him just to torture him. “You evil, teasing bitch. Kill me then.”
For just the merest second he imagined he saw compassion in her eyes, but when she shrugged, his hazy mind finally grasped that she was going to leave him here with nothing but a body knotted with lust for her and a taste of blood that he would go to his knees for. “You’re the most malicious bitch I’ve ever known.”
“Flatterer,” she chirped.
Across the corridor, she easily leapt to the window forty feet above, opening the shutters to draw the unfortified bars from the space as though she might pluck back a curtain. She held a hand down for the others.
“I will find you,” he bit out. “I will find you and make you pay for this a thousand times.”
The bright one leapt up and caught Myst’s forefinger with her own. “Sounds like he’s setting up a date,” she said as she dangled.
“Oooom,” Myst purred, her gaze flickering over him. “Dress casual.”