"So perhaps I'm not completely evil?" He gave a humorless laugh. "Most of the time I'm the one who manipulates creatures into desperate positions. For instance, I'll fatally wound a loved one, then offer to save her."

"Those targeted names are in for one hell of a surprise, huh?"

Elizabeth was cleverer than he'd initially deemed her. "Precisely."

He dragged his gaze from the pages to her face, inspecting it as he might a painting he'd found superficially appealing only to discover layers, nuances.

He shook his head hard. No, if Saroya were at the fore, he'd be feeling this desire, this fascination even, for her alone.

"What do you usually demand of them?"

"I don't often collect on these." His debtors always assumed he'd demand their firstborn. Like I'm fucking Rumpelstiltskin? What would Lothaire do with countless squalling babes? Raise them in a kennel? "But when I make my move to take my thrones, their accounts will come due."

And the world will quake.

His lips curled as he reviewed some of the newest entries: two royal members of the Lykae Clan MacRieve; the sea god Nereus; Loa the voodoo priestess; Gamboa the demonic drug lord; Rydstrom Woede, king of the rage demons.

"All that work to get those thrones?"

"Yes. Anything for them." He'd fought side by side with a Valkyrie he hated when all he'd wanted to do was exact revenge on her. He'd aligned with various demonarchies, convincing some that he was the devil incarnate, dedicated to leading them back to hell.

He'd sworn fealty to a vampire king-one who'd sat upon Lothaire's own throne.

"If your kingdoms are so important, then why'd you lose them in the first place?"

"I couldn't expect you to understand the political machinations of vampires."

She tilted her head at him. "None of your debtors ever welsh?"

"Vows to the Lore are unbreakable."

"Then I'm surprised they don't just try to kill you."

"Oh, they do, constantly," he said. "And now they'll be coming after you, thinking to trade you for their debt or to cash in on a bounty. Then, of course, there are the retribution seekers, bent on avenging whatever murders I've committed." He leveled his gaze on her. "I've committed

many."

She didn't look away. In fact, he got the uncanny impression that she was studying him.

The insect wants to understand the magnifying glass.

"Is that why you're called the Enemy of Old?"

"Partly. Also because I show up like a plague every couple of centuries, killing masses of beings before disappearing." Sometimes disappearing involuntarily.

"There's an actual bounty on my head?"

When Lothaire found out who'd posted it, blood would run. "My Bride would already be target number one in the Lore. Now thousands will fight for the reward-and they'll believe that you are mine. They'll be using oracles to track your movements. So if somehow you were able to escape this boundary, you'd be abducted in seconds. They would do terrible things to you."

She raised her brows. "I can only imagine how bad something would have to be for you to call it terrible. But if they're offering death, don't forget that I want to die."

"Some foes would take your life. Most would keep you. An anatomically incorrect sea god would love nothing more than to plumb your depths and steal your virginity. My vampire enemies would keep you alive for food, piercing you nightly for decades. Demons would consign you to their notorious harems, where you'd be whored out for all the many creatures who'd pay handsomely for a chance to humiliate Lothaire's Bride. You'd learn to polish demon horns in the most degrading ways."

She swallowed. "Harems and whoring and horns, then?"

"Suddenly the fate I have planned for you doesn't seem so egregious?"

She returned to the settee, sitting less stiffly than before. "Just to be clear. My fate, as you intend it, goes like this: In one to thirty days, you'll send my soul packing-to wherever souls go-and my family will never be harmed by you."

"Approximately," he replied, using one of his favorite go-to words. The girl would assume he addressed the number of days. Actually, he spoke of the "soul packing" portion. Her soul would be extinguished-

"By approximately, do you mean the one to thirty, or the rest of it?"

Little witch. "The question you should've asked is why the days are so variable."

"Lothaire. Why are the days so variable?"

"I've told you I need a special ring to make Saroya a vampire. The same ring will free your soul from your body." Not a lie. "It might take me weeks to locate it."

"I see. Not that I'm complaining, but if you're supposed to be searching for something, then why were you trying to sleep tonight? Isn't this pretty much your nine-to-five? Shouldn't you be out tracing the pavement even now?"

She made him sound lazy.

No one worked harder than he did on his seven little tasks: find the ring, dispose of the human's soul, turn Saroya into a vampire, kill La Dorada, claim the Horde crown, find Serghei to burn him alive, conquer the Daci.

He took no pleasure from life, enjoyed no amusements. Everything served his Endgame.

Wearied just to think of all that work, he leaned back in his chair. And again, he got the feeling that she was studying him. "Sleep and work are one and the same now."

"I don't understand."

"When I drink blood straight from the vein, I can harvest my victim's memories. I see his recollections in my dreams, reliving them when I sleep. I feel the bite of cold on his skin, the pain of his injuries, even his death at my hands. Recently, I drank from a man who knows where the ring is. Now I have only to get at that memory, but it's easier said than done. I have to wade through a lot of them."

She ran her fingertips over the graze on her neck. "Will you dream mine?"

"Likely. Cannot wait for fond remembrances of squirrel stew around the trailer hearth."

She parted her lips, no doubt to deliver a cutting retort, then stifled it. "How do you know what's a regular dream and what's from someone else's life?"

"I don't dream anything but memories, and only theirs."

"No wonder you're crazy. But I affect your sanity, don't I?"

"Saroya affects my sanity. You're merely a placeholder."

"So if the ring equals my death, then every time you sleep means I'm closer to dying?"

"Not to put too fine a point on it, but yes."

Finally she gazed away, saying quietly, "Would you give me advance notice?"

"No. No more than you would those deer you hunted."

"They were animals!"

"Are you much more?" he asked in a thoughtful tone. "And what would you do with your advance notice?"

"I'd want to write to my family."

"Ah, Ellie Ann's last letters. How touching. But there's no room in the Lore for sentimentality." When he folded his arms over his chest, she seemed to be making a mental note of it.

He'd actually felt a jot sentimental earlier when he'd realized that Chase might die-and with him, Lothaire's sole hope of a vampire line. Am I to leave nothing of myself behind?

Long ago, Lothaire had created vampires on occasion, but they always predeceased him. He'd lost his taste for it.


Everyone died before him. And now am I to be maudlin, feeling my age?

Elizabeth asked, "Have you ever done anything for another without expecting something in return?"

"I'll cast my mind back. Further . . . further . . . Ah, yes. During the Iron Age, I came upon a dying mortal warrior on a battlefield. He wanted me to get a message to his wife and children. I was in a whimsical mood. 'Give her the message yourself,' I told him, and turned him into a vampire. When he reunited with her, she ran to him, tears of joy streaming down her face, their children trailing her. As their offspring rejoiced, he swung her up in his arms, squeezing her to his chest. Such a poignant moment, such emotion-until she popped like a grape."

Elizabeth was aghast.

"Vampires and humans do not mix. You're too frail. If I lost control and laid hands on your body . . . pop."

She fell silent.

Why would I kill to know what she's thinking right now?

Probably because I enjoy killing.

In a clear bid to change the subject, she asked, "Do your targets always fall into your clutches?"

"Ninety-six-point-four percent of the time, yes."

She pursed her lips. "How . . . boring."

"What did you say?"

"Where's the fun in that? Where's the surprise?"

"Life isn't fun."

"Not for most, I suppose." She leaned back on the settee, tucking her legs under her. "But if I was rich like you, I'd have fun."

"If you weren't woefully poor, you'd know that money doesn't buy happiness."

"Spoken like a man who's always had cash."

"What would you do if you were me? To have fun?"

"I'd spend money on my family. And I'd travel." She gazed at the ceiling, as if imagining all the places she would go. "I'd see all the Greats: the Great Wall of China, the Great Pyramids, the Great Barrier Reef. Hell, I'd visit the coast for the first time ever."

She'd never been outside of Appalachia, had never seen an ocean, a beach. He could scarcely imagine that. She had no idea what sea air smelled like, no idea what waves lapping at her feet felt like. How would she react?

Probably not as he would expect her to. "I've seen the world, Elizabeth, several times over. It's overrated. I've no family I'll acknowledge."

"So now you read your book for enjoyment?" She skimmed the design of the settee's fabric, red nails trailing lightly. "What's the last entry in your ledger?"

"It will be a mortal named Declan Chase. If he lives. He's the one who possesses memories of the ring."

"If he lives. Did you hurt him?" she asked. Had she stifled a yawn?

"Not I. A demon gutted him with a sword yesterday. But I gave him my blood to make him immortal."

"Isn't that a really big deal? Since mortals beg you to do it and all. I believe you said it was priceless?" She rested her head on the arm of the settee.

"I wanted a tie with him very much. Though I acted as if put out to tender my blood."

Lothaire recalled the subterfuge, a simple but elegant plot, and then the culmination-Chase unconscious, his mouth pried open as he was forced to accept a vampire's blood.

Even though the Blademan would consider it a defilement, a poison in his veins. . . .

"Now I can locate him anywhere in the world, at any time," Lothaire continued. "Can read his mind if he's nearby. Yes, mortal, under the right circumstances I can read minds. Yet another way that I'm superior to you."

She'll gasp with astonishment, raising her hand to her temple, fearing that I'm reading her mind right now. . . .

Silence. He glanced over at her; his hands clenched into shaking fists.

Elizabeth was sound asleep.

He'd finally opened up and actually talked with someone-had shown her his fucking book-and she'd fallen asleep? Had he bored her?

Suka! He was tempted to trace her into the middle of a ghoul cage fight, see if that would wake her up!

He loomed over her, staring down, confounded by this mortal's behavior.

And why he could never predict it.

Over the pounding of his heart, he heard Elizabeth's even breaths. In sleep, she looked soft, even younger. So beautiful, but profoundly lacking in potential.

She seemed intelligent enough-except when challenging me-yet other than her looks, there was nothing noteworthy about her, no accomplishments she could boast of.

She'd been athletically inclined with all her wilderness expeditions and such, but she wasn't a distinguished athlete. She played no instrument, and she spoke only one language-poorly.

If not for Saroya, Elizabeth would have lived a wasted existence, just like her loathsome mother. Thrift-store clothes and cheap perfume in a dingy, leaking trailer.

At least now Elizabeth served a higher purpose.

As her breaths deepened, her lips parted and her heartbeat grew lulling. Like a metronome . . . like the waves she'd never see.

So young, this mortal. Gazing at her now, he could almost forget how much he detested humans.

Almost.

His thoughts were interrupted by his sudden yawn. Watching her sleep had calmed him. His Bride-or at least her body-could soothe him. A tool I can use?

After unfastening his sword, he kicked off his boots, drew off his shirt. Now I sleep. Now the memories would come.

As he traced to his bed, he thought, Your days are numbered, young Elizabeth.

Chapter 15

Ellie woke to a groan. A male's groan.

She cracked open her eyes, found herself curled up on the couch in the vampire's bedroom. She groggily reached over and turned on a nearby lamp, lighting the area enough for her to see Lothaire.

He lay asleep in his bed.

She rose and crossed to him, curious to see if she'd find him so handsome now that she was rested-and not acutely traumatized.

At his bedside, Ellie exhaled in resignation. How could he be so damaged mentally-and morally-and yet so stunning on the outside?

Clad only in dark jeans that hung low on his hips, he reclined on his front, the side of his head resting on his forearm. His longish blond hair was tousled, those unnerving eyes concealed.

His face was hauntingly flawless, with his proud, patrician nose and broad cheekbones. Even the stubble covering his bold jawline was enticing to her. Her fingers itched to trace his lips, to determine if they were as firm as they looked. She'd never really noticed men's lips before, but his were sexy.

Now that his wounds had healed, the smooth skin of his back seemed to demand her touch. Those brawny shoulders . . .

He groaned again, his brows drawing together sharply. Dreaming?

If he truly experienced the memories of all his victims-thousands of years' worth-how could he not be going insane?

Surely he wouldn't be dreaming of that ring already. Maybe he was seeing her memories?

She'd never done anything she'd be too ashamed of him discovering, but she didn't want him to feel exactly how much she loved her family-or to know how dire their straits currently were.