Instead, he again looked interested. "I enjoy a good bargain. Yet I also enjoy making my enemies beg."

"You need me alive, but you need more than that. You'll be needing my cooperation. So what had you planned for me to do after I got through pleading?"

"I'd planned for you to dine."

She narrowed her eyes up at him. "I sure am hungry, Lothaire. Could eat a horse right now. See how easy we can be together?"

He pinched her chin, hard. "Careful, little pet. If you play with me, you won't like it when I join the game." He tilted his head at her. "And for this easiness, what do you want in return?"

"Don't let Saroya kill."

After a considering moment, he said, "Until you're gone? Agreed. And you'll obey my commands without question, or your next infraction equals your family's end. Try to prevent Saroya from rising or harm yourself in any way and you might as well peel their heads from their necks with your own hands. Do you understand me, Elizabeth?"

"I-I understand." Then she added, "I understand that my entire family is safe from you and anyone who works with you, so long as I'm cooperating."

He quirked a brow as if amazed by her temerity. She suspected she was a novelty to him.

So what would happen when the novelty wore off?

"I wondered if you were crazy. Have now decided you must be." He turned and strode toward another room. "Follow me."

Having had a victory of sorts, she trailed after him. At every turn, she was confronted with more examples of his wealth, luxuries like she'd never imagined-art, oriental rugs, newfangled electronics. But not a single phone or computer.

This place was a paradise compared to jail. The air was drier here, not laden with humidity. While her ward had been ripe with the odor of urine and mace, everything here smelled new.

The apartment had two wings with sprawling terraces between them. One terrace even had a pool.

A paradise compared to anywhere. "How many rooms are in this place?"

"More than a dozen throughout the three floors."

"You live alone?"

"As of today, I live with Saroya and one temporary prisoner."

Then a thought struck her. "Are we fixin' to eat together?"

"Don't want to see me drink my dinner?"

She'd never been squeamish around blood, had hunted deer with her uncle all her life, eventually guiding her own hunting trips for his business. Then Saroya's crimes had hardened Ellie further.

Not to mention when the bitch had drunk buckets of blood. . . .

But Ellie hadn't negotiated that Lothaire couldn't kill. Nor that he couldn't drink from her. "The blood in itself isn't an issue. I'm more concerned with where you get it."

"From a pitcher in the refrigerator usually. For tonight, you'll eat alone. I'm here only to ensure you put on weight. Fill out your curves more. Saroya finds you lacking."

There wasn't a damn thing wrong with her curves! "Then maybe you two ought to go kidnap a plumper girl, a ready-made one who already meets your requirements."

He appeared beside her in an instant, his hand closing over one of her elbows. "You are mine. Your body is mine by right. I do own you. The sooner you accept this, the better off you'll be."

She tried to free herself, but his grip was like a vise. "You're the one who's crazy!"

"Shall I return with your mother's head? Perhaps I'll place it as the table's centerpiece."

"I'm still cooperating!" He was the scariest person she'd ever encountered! No one in the backcountry mountains or even on death row could compare.

His smirk deepened. "And who owns you?"

Say the words! Force yourself to say them! "You-do."

He released her. "Good girl."

Chapter 10

"Sit." Lothaire pointed to the dining room. Atop the extended table were silver-covered dishes and two place settings-with enough utensils to confound the girl.

Elizabeth glanced around. "Who cooked this?"

"A chef came earlier," Lothaire said evenly, surprised by his lingering lucidity. Before Elizabeth had woken, he'd watched the even rise and fall of her chest, his lids growing heavy.

"How'd the cook get past the force field?" she asked. "I thought it was impenetrable."

"It is." In theory, the boundary could never be breached, protecting her against the legions of immortals who would give anything to kill or capture her-just to punish or coerce Lothaire.

If they could even find this place.

But Lothaire wouldn't take any chances. In his long life, he'd found that whenever one described something in the Lore as always or never happening, fate usually proved him wrong. "I can open it at will, of course."

When she chose the seat to the right of the end, he snapped, "Ah-ah. Not that one. You do not sit there." He'd had no control over Stefanovich's mortal whore all those years ago, but now, in his own home, he would make the rules for this human.

"Okay, okay." She moved the place setting one spot, then sat.

"Proceed."

With a glare, she unfolded her napkin and placed it on her lap, then spooned portions onto her plate. As she began her meal, taking dainty bites of various dishes, he noted that her table manners weren't as crude as he'd expected.

She chose that moment to lift a forkful of foie gras, letting it plop back to its plate. "What is this?"

"It's not the provincial fare you're accustomed to, but you'll make do."

"I'm full."

Her meal was barely touched. "Eat. More."

When she began nibbling the garnish, he said, "That's parsley."

"Only thing I recognize."

"Eat more of everything else."

After a pause that would have gotten others gutted, she cut into a succulent lobster tail, took a hesitant bite, then furtively spat it into her napkin.

Two things struck him. She'd never had lobster; the foolish chit didn't like lobster. Even he remembered the taste of it.

The salmon fared no better. Soon there'd be more food in her napkin than in her stomach.

"The meal smells delicious, or at least it would to a human," he said. "Especially one who could eat a horse. Do you challenge me yet again?"

"I was born and raised on a mountain. Then I went to prison. I've never eaten food like this. Fancy seafood like this. If you wanted me to eat fish, it should've come out of a Long John Silver's bag."

Ah, just so. "Then eat the bread."

She began buttering a flaky roll. "Saroya really wants me to put on weight?" When he nodded, she said, "And you're on board?"

He thought her lovely now, nearly irresistible, but he had no marked preference. More flesh meant more of what he already liked. And Saroya would be the one inhabiting the body for eternity. "If my Bride wants it, then I'm in accord."


"Alrighty, but don't say I didn't warn you, 'cause too much bread and my ass'll get huge." She took a bite.

"Noted."

"You talk funny. Is your accent European?"

He rolled his eyes. "It's Russian-"

"Wait! You said bride?" Elizabeth sputtered. "You married her?"

The vampire exhaled impatiently, sitting at the head of the table. "Marriage is unnecessary to my kind. Our bond is much stronger."

"Than what?"

"A Bride is a vampire's mate, the female meant only for him. Saroya is mine."

Ellie processed this information-keep an open mind-then asked, "How do you know she is?"

He tilted his head in that appraising way, as if considering the pros and cons of answering her. "She blooded me." At her questioning look, he said, "Each adult male vampire walks as the living dead until he finds his mate and she bloods him, brings him back to life. Saroya made my heart beat again, made my lungs take breath." In a husky tone, he added, "Among other things."

"How do you know it's not me who's . . . blooded you?"

A muscle ticked in his jaw. "Because fate would not slight me so unspeakably. I'd seek a noon-day sun if I were paired with one such as you."

"Such as me," she repeated blandly. She'd been mocked too often over her lifetime to take offense. Her skin was as thick as armor.

"Yes, you. An ignorant, mortal Kmart checkout girl." He took the sharpest knife from his place setting, absently turning it between his left thumb and forefinger.

"Kmart? I should've been so lucky. Those jobs were hard to come by. I worked at my uncle's outfitter shop."

"Then you're even worse. You're an outfitter checkout girl with aspirations for Kmart."

"Still better than a demon."

"Saroya's not a demon," he grated. "I wouldn't have one of them either."

"Oh, that's right, she's a goddess. And you're a vampire. I suppose pookas are real, too. And shapeshifters?" Then her eyes widened. "Is Mothman real?"

In the Virginias, everyone had heard of that demonic winged being, with its red orbs for eyes. There continued to be sketchy sightings of it flying in the gloom and coal dust.

The sheriff who'd taken Ellie down had joked to others that there might have been a Mothman sighting the night of her arrest, an amusing encounter atop isolated Peirce Mountain.

"Everything you've ever dreamed is real," Lothaire said. "Every creature thought to be myth. We call our world the Lore. And for the record, Mothman's a fuckwit."

Her lips parted at that. "How come your kind don't come out to humans?"

"We are punished when we needlessly reveal ourselves as immortals."

"So all these 'myths' are out secretly combing the streets?"

"And running governments, starring in films, infiltrating human monarchies. Your species is notoriously dim and unobservant compared to Loreans, so we roam freely over the earth, gods walking among your

kind."

A horrific thought struck her. "If you drank my blood, will that make me a vampire too?" Say no, say no, say no.

He exhaled. "If only it were so simple."

"Oh, thank God!"

The vampire didn't like that at all. Tension thrummed off him. He pressed the tip of the knife he held against the pad of his right thumb, twirling until blood began to drip.

Silence reigned. "Lothaire?"

He didn't answer. Drip, drip . . .

She fidgeted with her napkin. The unfamiliar quiet ratcheted up her nervousness.

Prison had been a continual assault on the ears. During the day, inmates banged on the bars, guards stomping up and down steel steps. It sounded like a messy utensil drawer opened and slammed shut repeatedly.

At night, eerie moans of both pleasure and pain echoed down the ward. Screams rang out. The serial killer across the corridor from her had loved to hiss at her in the dark. . . .

Finally Lothaire grated, "I've had mortals beg me to change them. Most humans would give anything to become immortal. It's considered a priceless gift."

She gazed anywhere but at his new injury. "I would never want that."

"Never to sicken, never to grow old?"

Ellie had an innate talent for empathy, for putting herself in others' shoes. Now she imagined what it'd be like to live for thousands of years, as Lothaire apparently had.

How could he savor each day of his life when the supply of them was unlimited? How could he ever experience wonder or excitement? "All I can think is that it'd be wearying."

Had a shadow passed over his expression?

"So if I'm not already changed into a vampire," Ellie said, "and it's not so simple to do, how will you and Saroya get together?"

"I seek a ring. It has the power to transform her into a vampire."

"Made a vampire? In my body? If she's a goddess, why's she been digging into me like a tick?"

He merely stared at her with those creepy eyes, twirling that knife as his blood began to pool on the surface of the table.

Though he terrified her, Ellie pressed on. "Why would she be inside of me, the checkout girl? Why should I believe she's . . . divine?"

"Understand me, girl. I don't lie. Ever. She was cursed to a human form."

"Who cursed her? Why put her in me?"

Seeing he had no intention of answering her, she said, "Look, you guys are getting my body out of this deal. I'm getting nothing. You said you liked a good bargain? You should recognize that this isn't exactly a fair exchange. Would it kill you to tell me why she needs my body?"

His eyes got a faraway look and deepened in color, telling her his mind was drifting. Dissociation?

She'd seen the same look earlier today as he'd paced. It occurred to her then that this vampire was not just evil.

The Enemy of Old might be clinically insane.

"Another goddess cursed her to a mortal's form," Lothaire finally said, struggling to rein back the madness. Focus. "I do not know why you were chosen."

"Which goddess?"

Saroya had a twin, Lamia. Each sister derived her strength from life-Lamia from creating it and safeguarding it, Saroya from harvesting it and consuming souls.

When Saroya had made a bid for more power, killing indiscriminately and upsetting the balance, Lamia had joined forces with other gods and cursed Saroya to experience death over and over as a human. "The curse of mortality," he muttered. "Could there be anything worse?" He glanced down, surprised to find himself boring a knife tip into his own thumb.

"Lothaire, why was she cursed?" Elizabeth continued heedlessly.

He licked his dripping new wound. "Because she is just like me." A being insatiable for power. "She saw a play for more, and she took it."

"I don't understand."

"Do pizdy. Don't fucking care." He was getting sick of others acting as if he'd just uttered nonsense. He killed most who cast him that sharp questioning look.

But he couldn't harm the human before him, the female with her steady gray eyes taking his measure. He stared into them for long moments, surprised to find himself feeling more grounded.