"How could a girl from the backwoods ever get caught up in something so . . . unlikely?"

Without breaking eye contact, he leaned back in his chair. "I asked myself that continually from the time I first saw you. After all, in the beginning, I had no idea you were anything more than a mere human, had no idea how I could possibly be connected to you."

Why was he conversing so readily with her? Perhaps because he knew she would take his secrets to the grave? And soon?

For whatever reason, the words seemed pulled from him.

"Imagine my abject disappointment in you, female. Lothaire the Enemy of Old-the most feared vampire alive, the son of one king and grandson of another-paired with a mortal? Much less a mortal of no distinction. I'm given to understand that your people are worse than peasants."

Instead of indignation, curiosity lit her face. "Wait. I came first? You didn't find me because of her? Hey, are you saying you're a prince?"

"Yes, peasants," he repeated slowly. "The lowliest of the low among humans." Then he enunciated, "Exceedingly backward and vulgar hillbillies."

"Been called worse, mister." At his raised brows, she exhaled impatiently. "Bootlegger, moonshiner, Elly May Clampett, mountain mama, redneck, backwoods Bessie, hick, trailer trash, yokel, and, more recently, death-row con."

"No references to mining? I'm disappointed."

Sadness flashed in her expressive eyes. "My father died in a mine collapse. Ever since then, none of my kin will work underground."

"Naturally the big bad coal company was at fault?"

"I'm sure there are nice, safe coal companies out there; Va-Co isn't one of them. Mining's over for us."

"And so you remain appallingly poor."

"S'pose so. The bottom line is that insults only hurt when they come from someone I respect."

"Then no one's taught you to respect your betters?"

"You think you're better than me because you're a prince?" Had she sounded disbelieving?

"I'm a displaced king of two vampire factions. Now I work to reclaim my thrones." Why am I telling her this? He didn't give a damn if she respected him. "As for the other, I think I'm better than you because you are demonstrably my inferior in every way. Intelligence, wealth, looks, bloodline, should I continue?"

She waved that away. "How'd you find me? You're obviously rich-oh, and royalty-why would you be in one of the poorest areas in America?"

He parted his lips to tell her to shut hers, but she dutifully took another bite of salmon, actually swallowing it. "My Bride's arrival had been foretold. An oracle predicted where and when she would be. But not what." The same oracle who assisted him now, a fey he called Hag.

He glanced at Elizabeth's plate. She took another bite.

"I found you when you were fourteen, but you didn't trigger my blooding." He'd assumed that she was too young. "I decided then that I'd never return, would walk as the dead before being forever tied to such a base creature as you." No matter that she'd promised to be physically lovely.

"Then why did you return?"

"Pure curiosity." It might have been pure, but it had plagued him, and he'd returned to her thrice more.

When she was fifteen, a budding woman, he'd found her swimming one night with a boy, eagerly exploring kissing with him. At seventeen, she'd been on the verge of stunning, with her sun-kissed skin, wide clear eyes, and striking features, yet still too lowly to tempt him.

Until a year later . . . "Just when I vowed to spurn you forever, I found you in the woods at a makeshift altar, surrounded by bodies."

Elizabeth's expression grew stark. "Not me. It was Saroya."

"Yes, Saroya," he breathed. Covered in gore from head to toe, bold and lethal, she'd blooded him at once.

Now he stared past Elizabeth, relishing the memory of that night. . . .

Between unpracticed breaths, he demanded, "Who are you?" He knew that the mortal's consciousness had disappeared, sensed the absence of Elizabeth.

Before him was another entity.

"I am Saroya, vampire." Her very accent had changed. "Your goddess, trapped in mortality."

All vampires knew that Saroya had been tricked from her lofty plane, cursed by her sister to live within random humans, one after another, repeatedly experiencing her own death through them.

If Lothaire had felt any doubt about her identity, she'd erased it by speaking to him in Russian, her accent regal. There was no way for an ignorant eighteen-year-old peasant to know his tongue.

And besides, Lothaire deserved a goddess. He knew fate wouldn't have paired him with lowly Elizabeth Peirce!

For millennia he'd sought to rule the Vampire Horde. How could they deny his claim with Saroya, the protectress of vampires, as his queen?

"Have I blooded you?" she asked with silky menace.

"Yes. I'm Lothaire, your male-"

"I have no male and accept no master," she snapped. "I am a goddess!"

"That's a shame," he replied smoothly, ignoring his new heartbeats and the unbearable stiffening of his shaft, denying the frenzy to claim her, to sink his fangs deep into her flesh. "Because had you been mine, I would have found a way to extinguish that human's soul, then make your body immortal."

"Lothaire?" She narrowed her eyes. "An ancient one with great power, descended from two royal lines. Even I have heard of you."

"And soon I intend to seize my kingdoms. I will have my immortal queen by my side."

She stepped closer. "You could make me undying in this body?"

"In time, I would find a way. Nothing could stop me."

"Yet you would desire to mate with me now? To complete the blooding."

Each vampire had to experience his first release while touching his Bride's body. Most vampires simply mated their females, but Lothaire knew he couldn't. Tracing within inches of her, he cupped her nape with a shaking hand. "The only thing greater than my need is my strength. Your mortal form is too fragile for me to claim. But I must finish this."

"Then I will not yield this body until you destroy Elizabeth's soul and make me whole. For now, you may take your physical release in some way. . . ."

"Lothaire?" Elizabeth interrupted his thoughts.

Reminded of that interlude with Saroya, he cast the girl a look of renewed hatred. That night he and the goddess had talked till dawn, discussing their aims. Again and again, he'd discovered how well she fit him.

Saroya was his match in all ways-a queen even Ivana would bow down to.

Blyad'! How could his Bride expect him to use Elizabeth? Maybe Saroya didn't see the dichotomy between the two females, but it was plain to Lothaire.

It would be like taking an entirely different woman.

Once Saroya understood their circumstances better, she would not be so keen for Lothaire to enjoy another. He imagined how he'd feel if the situation were reversed.

Homicidal.

Though he'd scorned Elizabeth in her teens, even he had been misguidedly protective of her. When he'd seen her kissing that male, Lothaire had tossed his truck into a valley. The male had run out of the water to investigate, so Lothaire had dropped him down as well. . . .

Maybe Saroya feels no jealousy because she feels nothing for you, a part of his mind whispered.

Yes, Lothaire prided himself on predicting others' actions; did he truly anticipate Saroya rising for him tomorrow night?

Though he could hardly believe it, the goddess remained unconvinced of his charms. An absurdity, he knew, but who could fathom the minds of females?

Lothaire resolved to spoil her further and demonstrate to her his prowess in bed-to ensure she needed him for other things.


He exhaled. It'd been so long since he'd had sex that he might not have retained any prowess. He smirked, thinking, Maybe I should practice on Elizabeth.

A sudden jolt of lust took him like a punch, wiping away his smirk. He sliced his gaze to her. Studying gray eyes met his.

The idea was sound.

Or maybe I'm grasping at straws, rationalizing why I want to touch a human.

No, his Bride's shared body was confusing his suffering mind. That was the only reason he'd desire her.

Unless I'm more like my father than I care to admit?

Chapter 11

I have work to do," the vampire said as he traced Ellie back to her bedroom, leaving her wobbling on her feet. Would she ever get used to teleporting? "You'll stay in here until I return for you."

"Work? Getting back your thrones?"

"Do you always ask so many questions?"

"Do you always answer so few of them?" she countered, earning another scowl. "Just tell me this. If Saroya is so all-fired important to you, then why'd you leave her in prison?"

"I was assured you'd be physically safe there."

"And mentally?"

"I couldn't care less. I'm only concerned with your body."

Typical male. "What did I need to be protected from?"

"I'm the Enemy of Old. There are many who would harm Saroya to strike back at me."

"Harm her. In my body."

He grasped her jaw, his skin surprisingly warm. "As I've told you-you're protected here, girl. The only one you need fear is me."

Which meant this was the last place she needed to be. Ellie could pick a lock, but what about busting out of an invisible jail? If there were mystical locks, were there mystical picks? "What about my belongings? Toothbrush, underwear, et cetera?"

"Anything you need is in the bathroom. Any clothing"-he opened a door in the hallway-"is in here." He'd revealed a closet as big as her old trailer.

Her thoughts blanked when she entered. Dresses, coats, purses, slacks-everywhere. There must be several dozen pairs of shoes, even more sweaters and blouses.

Eyes wide, she spun in place. "These are the finest clothes I've ever seen!"

Lothaire leaned his shoulder against the doorway. "They would be. Appalachian couture is reputedly lacking."

She knew he was pointedly insulting her but chose to act as if he were jesting. She'd fought toe-to-toe with him and lost. Now she'd try another tack.

Mama had always said, "You get more with honey than you do with vinegar. And when you run out of both, you reach for the buckshot."

Ellie had concluded she might've reached for the buckshot pretty early.

Now she said, "Appalachian and couture? Put a quarter in the oxymoron jar." She meandered toward the back, browsing rack after rack.

At home, she'd had few clothes-a couple pairs of worn jeans, some cutoffs for summer, a few T-shirts, guide gear. Then in prison, four alternating uniforms.

This selection was overwhelming. "Did you get all this for Saroya?"

He seemed more relaxed than he'd been in the dining room, maybe gazing at her with a bit less hostility. "I did."

Ellie tried to imagine the reaction of a goddess. "She must've gone nuts."

"She desired every last garment and bauble," he said, his Russian accent thick.

"And you just bought all of it for her?" Ellie snapped her fingers. "Just like that?"

"Of course. She's my woman."

"She must love you very much."

He said nothing, just crossed his muscular arms over his chest.

"Does she?"

"I've told you, she's my fated Bride."

If he'd been telling the truth about never telling lies-which might be a lie?-then Ellie might view his answer as a deflection. "Do you love Saroya?"

"When mortals ask me incessant questions, I customarily snatch out their tongues and watch them bleed to death."

Instead of being horrified, she thought, Definite deflection! Trouble in paradise?

Making her tone casual, she said, "Good to know about the tongues." Her red-tipped fingers trailed lovingly over the buttery leather of a coat. "Can I try this on?"

When he shrugged, she slipped into the coat, eyes going heavy-lidded as she hugged it close to her. "Lothaire, I couldn't have even imagined things like this."

"Again, I will accept only the best."

Like a goddess for a Bride, instead of a mortal? A deity, instead of a peasant girl he'd found so lacking that he'd watched her for years, disappointed by fate's choice for him?

And all the while she'd never known that a vampire had kept her in his sights.

Seeming to make a decision, he strode to a polished dresser against the back wall. After pulling open a shallow drawer, he returned to his spot in the doorway without a word.

"What's in there?" Jewels. Huge. Shiny. "Oh-my-God." She gasped. "Can't catch my breath."

At once he traced beside her, grasping her upper arm, this time more gently.

"Obliged, Lothaire. The glittering about blinded me." And she couldn't help but think that just one of those stones would probably float her entire family for years. Might keep the coal company off their asses. . . .

"You react like this, even though you'll never own any of it?"

In a defensive tone, she said, "They're still pretty. I'm still happy to have seen them." She pulled against his hold, but he turned her to him.

She stared up at him, wondering what it would be like to have a man buy her things like this. To have him want me so badly, he'd kill for me.

His brows drew together. She noticed they were darker than his hair, bold slashes across a chiseled face with skin as smooth and pale as marble.

As if unable to help himself, he threaded his fingers through her

hair.

Normally, she loved to be petted like this, could be made docile as a kitten. But now a murderer was touching her. He let the strands sift through his splayed fingers, his gaze following the movement.

Stroking, stroking . . .

Surprisingly, some of her tension began to ease-

He dropped his hand. "I'll leave you alone in your suite for some time. You will be alone," he grated in an insistent tone. As if she were arguing that point with him.

He turned toward a side doorway to a chamber connected to hers. His? Well, how cozy.

"There is no escape, no telephone. Consider this room your new