Now that she'd touched him, she was even more attracted to him. Flying-into-a-lightbulb attracted.

Maybe he was a tad less intimidating without his fancy tailored clothing and expensive boots? And his chugging out of a pitcher at the fridge was so normal, so masculine, she couldn't help but respond.

Even when a line of blood ran from the corner of his lips.

Vampire. Blood. Still, she couldn't look away. How can this sight be wetting my whistle?

When he finished, he ran his forearm over his mouth, over the stubble on his chin. "Look your fill? Grope your fill? Don't worry, I'm accustomed to women of all species lusting after me."

She felt a flush of embarrassment, but curbed it. Ellie had an expiration date on her life that was closing in fast; she couldn't waste a minute being embarrassed over anything.

And she resolved not to beat herself up because she was attracted to a deadly, vampiric maniac that she yearned to kill.

Ellie tilted her head in a considering manner, saying honestly, "Well, at least you're pretty on the outside." At his expression, she said, "Oh, come on. In all of your endless life, no one's ever insinuated that you're ugly on the inside?"

Those weaker than Lothaire didn't make a habit of insulting him. Of course, she wanted to die. "You won't provoke me into killing you," he said, adding, "this evening. But court my wrath, and I'll punish you in other ways."

His wrath was at the ready, his mood foul. Though he'd slept for hours, the only memories he'd dreamed-or experienced firsthand-were his own, something that hadn't happened in ages.

Which meant he'd reaped no new information about the ring's whereabouts.

If he couldn't access Declan Chase's memories, he'd be forced to set off searching for the ring all over again.

When he'd first taken his uncle's advice and drunk "live" immortal blood from the flesh, Lothaire had accepted the risk: madness.

But he'd convinced himself that his mind was too strong to be overly afflicted. Perhaps he'd grow more fiendish, his conscience further eroded.

He'd never expected the sleep-tracing and the rages, the times when he couldn't hear an enemy sneaking up on him because of the thundering of his heart.

He'd never expected to lose his strategic abilities. In the past, he'd easily contrived multiperson, decades-long plots, foreseeing each player's move as if they were chessboard pawns.

Now mere puzzle solutions eluded him. He could rarely sleep. When he did, he couldn't filter through his dreams to get to the information he needed.

Also strange? He hadn't experienced Elizabeth's memories at all. She was his latest take, so why hadn't he seen hers?

The only good that had come from his rest was that his injuries had healed completely. At his age, he could go weeks between feedings, but regeneration had left him starved.

He poured more of the cool blood into a glass-glug, glug. He would leisurely drink it in front of the mortal, just to fuck with her.

But she didn't comment on his breakfast, only said, "I didn't find anything in here that I'd care to eat."

"Don't worry, I'll feed my new pet."

"Pet?" Her eyes glittered. "I never knew I could hate someone as deeply as I do you."

"I often help others discover the outer limits of their hatred. It's a talent of mine." Musing on his own perplexing situation, he said, "It must confuse you to desire a male you despise."

"No, I figured out what's happening."

"I'm unwillingly intrigued. Tell me what your little mortal brain fie-gered out," he said, imitating her drawl.

She narrowed her eyes. "I've always liked men. Before prison I had boyfriends enough, went parking every weekend."

Jealousy flared inside him, though he'd be damned if he knew why. Elizabeth wasn't his.

As if remembering a former boyfriend, she gazed past Lothaire. Her eyes gone languid, she twirled a lock of hair, running it over her plump bottom lip.

That hair. Those lips-

"Miss me some parking," she absently murmured, a blush spreading along her high cheekbones. "Hot, hectic . . . parking." Just when he was about to smash something, she met his gaze. "In the last five years, I've seen a total of nine men. Think about that for a second. Then you'll understand how even you can look good."

"Even I?" His tone was scoffing. "My natural attributes would have nothing to do with that?" He gestured at himself, indicating his faultless physique.

He'd grown to be perfectly wrought.

Exactly as promised.

But, by all the gods, what will it take to keep my own promises?

"Lothaire, just because I'm sexually desperate doesn't make you a peach."

Sexually desperate? His mind flashed to that time he'd seen her in the water eagerly kissing that boy, her fingers biting into his shoulders as her mouth had moved on his. The male's expression had been one of wonderment before his eyes had slid closed, lust overwhelming him. . . .

Red covered Lothaire's vision. Elizabeth had writhed against the boy, as if unable to get close enough to him-

Lothaire hurled his glass across the kitchen, blood and shards exploding against the wall. He traced before her, clutching her upper arms to yank her out of her seat.

Her heartbeat raced, her eyes widening with delightful fear. . . .

Chapter 17

Ellie's hands flew to the vampire's chest as his mouth descended to her neck. "What is wrong with you?"

"This body belongs to me now! It will never be touched by another." Against her skin, he grated, "Damn you, allow Saroya to rise!" His lips parted, and his tongue flicked out.

"Oh! I-I can't-she's not even trying." Is he gonna drink from me again?

His skin was warmer than it'd been earlier, growing hotter and hotter beneath her fingers.

Another wicked lick on her neck sent shivers coursing through her. Ellie's nipples tightened into sensitive points, her breasts swelling.

"You're in need of my touch. Fade back and make her come to me," he commanded, his voice gravelly. "I'll pleasure this body, and then you'll be relieved of this ache when you wake."

"I don't know how to fade back," she cried, her accent growing thicker. He was kissing her neck so greedily, not biting, but still with an urgent hunger. "Oh, God, I can't think when you're doin' that." Had she moaned the last?

She must have, because he broke away from her, gazing down to gauge her reaction. She was panting, eyes focused on his sexy mouth, those lips.

He unfastened the button on her slacks. "You hate me . . ."

She gulped with fear. And anticipation.

". . . but you'll still let me do whatever I want to you." He pinched her zipper, rasping words in Russian to her as he slowly began to tug it down.

"I-I hate you more than anything! But that-that mouth of yourn feels so good. You probably got some kind of unnatural vampire control over me." Something had to explain this animal craving she felt for him.

When he spread her slacks open and fingered the lace on her silk panties with a groan, Ellie bit her bottom lip, struggling to keep her eyes open. Would his fingers continue to dip down, discovering her wetness . . . ?

How much more could he control? Her life, her future, and now her desires? She was suffering from temporary insanity, understandable considering everything she'd been through.

Everything he had put her through.


At the thought, she hated him all over again. Ellie gave a hard shake of her head, then met his fiery eyes. "No, I won't let you do whatever you want." She grabbed his wrist, pulling his ever-descending hand from her panties. "Because I do not want you, will never want you."

A muscle ticked in his jaw.

She didn't know if he was going to kiss her more-or kill her.

He turned and punched the kitchen wall, sending up a plume of plaster. "As if I want you-I detest you so much it burns! And I can't kill you!"

"Yet."

He swung his gaze on her. "Not yet. But soon." He vanished, reappearing seconds later, completely dressed.

His broad chest was still heaving under a dark gray sweater of some fine material, probably cashmere or something expensive. Whatever it was fitted over his muscles like a second skin. His black slacks were obviously tailored for him. He wore a sword belt and sword.

Staggeringly handsome.

"We're going for a jaunt."

A chance to escape? "Where?"

"To see a hag."

Lothaire traced Elizabeth inside a seaside shack at the edge of a solitary beach on the Outer Banks.

He needed an emergency meeting with his oracle, a fey female known as the Hag in the Basement.

"Where are we?" Elizabeth whispered. "You said your enemies would find me outside of the apartment!"

"Not here. Her protections are identical to mine." Elizabeth would be safe enough. Besides, he had no choice but to consult with Hag-his mind was growing more disordered.

Dangerously so.

Moments ago, he'd decided to yank Elizabeth's pants to her ankles, then bend her over the table to fuck her right there. He'd briefly thought that a brilliant idea.

Making her moan my name before I allow her to come, plunging into her tight heat, feeling her grow slick around me . . .

No, no! Focus! Aside from the fact that he awaited Saroya's rising this very night, he could kill Elizabeth. If he lost control, pounding into her with all his strength . . .

His nostrils flared and his fists clenched. Bloodlust warred with sexual need. He'd already come close to piercing her this morning.

Hag could help him find focus, could help him sort through his memories-so he could get rid of Elizabeth as soon as possible.

The oracle was the one person he even marginally trusted with his Endgame. She'd foreseen his Bride and had told him how to find her. She'd made sure Elizabeth's body was safeguarded during her imprisonment.

For years, Hag had guarded his secrets. . . .

Her home's shutters were closed against the last of the day's sun. The oracle had been expecting him.

As Elizabeth surveyed the open living and cooking areas, Lothaire tried to see this place through her eyes.

Bat wings and skeins of herbs hung from the ceiling to dry. Animal carcasses lay on a butcher block in various states of slaughter.

Hag's bubbling concoctions brewed on a modern gas stove, while lengthy work benches held an assortment of flasks on burners.

Her collection of demon skulls decorated a top shelf-they looked human except for the protruding horns and fangs. Ghoul heads lined another shelf, their putrid green faces frozen in horror. Preserved centaur phalli filled jars.

"Hag," he called. The oracle was actually a young-looking fey who'd been transformed into a powerless crone for a few centuries before recently returning to her true form-that of a comely, pointed-eared brunette.

Balery was her real name, but he liked Hag better. Lothaire wanted to remind the fey of her be-croned past as often as possible.

Because he was the one who'd saved her from it. Another name in my book.

Hag emerged from a back room. "Lothaire, I can't say this is a surprise." She wiped her blood-soaked hands on a stained apron.

Though she wore modern clothes under the apron-a short skirt, boots, a T-shirt-she had a decidedly unmodern black pouch of seer bones affixed to her belt.

Aside from her talents as an oracle-which had weakened from involuntary disuse-Hag was also a concoctioness, specializing in poisons and potions.

Elizabeth gaped at the fey's bloody hands, sidling closer to him as if for protection. The vampire who intended to destroy her very soul.

He heard her whispering to herself, "Open mind, open mind," and thought she had her finger curled through one of his belt loops.

"Staying close to the bloodsucker now?" Elizabeth's fear was so mortal, so unqueenly. Another example of how inferior she was to courageous Saroya.

Elizabeth's attempted blaze of glory five years ago? Her joining him in the shadows earlier? Mere feeblemindedness, Lothaire decided.

"At present, I'm figuring you're the lesser of two evils."

He gave a mirthless laugh. "You couldn't be more mistaken."

"She's the hag?" Elizabeth murmured. "She doesn't look like one. Does she turn into one at night or something?"

Hag sighed at her ignorance. In a disdainful tone, she said, "And you brought human company."

"My enemies already know she's in my keeping."

"Within mere hours?"

"Nix." He didn't need to say more.

"We should update our encryption keys every hour."

He nodded.

The fey circled Elizabeth, her pointed ears twitching. "She's even prettier than in my visions."

"Did you expect anything less from my Bride?"

"Visions?" Elizabeth's timid stance disappeared, and she pushed away from him to glare at Hag. "You're the one who told this freak how to find me?"

Hag ignored her as she might a yapping dog. "Her body will breed well, even after you turn her," she remarked to Lothaire.

He'd been so preoccupied with the act of breeding that he'd never thought about the result.

What would his offspring be like, when gotten upon this body? Though vampires reproduced sparingly, he pictured numerous towheaded children with determined gray eyes. "I'll require many heirs."

Comprehension-and horror-dawned in Elizabeth's expression.

How bizarre to realize that one's body would go on, Lothaire mused, would produce young for others.

"My children." Elizabeth balled her fists. "Raised by you and your disgusting bitch." If she struck him as she so longed to do, she'd break the bones in her hand.

When Hag gave an assessing squeeze of Elizabeth's hip, the girl whirled around, swinging one of those fists. He traced between them, catching it with his palm. "Never touch this fey. Never. Her skin is poisonous."

Hag was a Venefican, a poisoned lady. As a girl, she'd been fed small amounts of poison until her skin had grown permanently lethal. She'd also been trained as a courtesan-put those traits together, and she was a perfect weapon.

"And before you get any suicidal ideas," Lothaire told Elizabeth, "know that she'll heal you before you could die. But you'd experience agony as never before."