"Until then, enjoy Elizabeth," she said. "You seem to be rubbing along well with your mortal toy."

"Rubbing along?" When she writhed as he'd ejaculated over her? "Yes, I suppose we do that quite well. It's a good thing you're not jealous-because the two of us were debauched together."

Show displeasure, female. Give enough of a damn that this bothers you.

Instead, she was incredulous. "The two of you? You didn't have to force her to slake you?"

Mildly offended, he grated, "Look at me, Saroya. She can barely keep her hands off me."

"But she just went along with it? Even knowing you're pledged to another?"

"How pledged am I when you direct me to use a substitute for you?" Saroya was clearly feeling none of the vampiric bond that he did. Only one way to kindle that. In bed. "Besides, Elizabeth has taken it into her head that she can win me from you."

"That amuses me immensely."

"Does it? I couldn't tell. Why don't you smile, then?" No expression. "Come, you have a pretty smile."

"You mean Elizabeth does. Does she grin coyly for you, Lothaire? Are you besotted? Perhaps you do prefer her over me?" she scoffed.

Might Elizavetta be mine? Her name yelled to the sky had felt . . . right.

The thought was so abhorrent, he immediately banished it. "I am dangerously close to harming you, goddess."

"Surely the great Lothaire wouldn't be growing foolishly attached."

Was it Elizabeth's abandon that had aroused him so-or merely his Bride's body? Time to find out. "Attachment? As it so happens, I'm keen to sample her replacement."

"The gall! Do you think I won't remember these snide insults?"

"Come to me, and I'll make them all up to you."

"I can read that look in your eyes. Strange. I thought you'd be spent for the night."

"I can go a dozen rounds if I'm inspired. Come to me. Now. That was not a request."

Though her eyes slitted, she did rise and trudge to him. He dragged her into his lap, but she remained tense. "Relax, Saroya."

When he'd lain next to Elizabeth with his leg thrown over hers, his arm draping across her soft breasts . . . they fit.

This was like shoving two mismatched puzzle pieces together, forcing them. No, no. Disordered mind. "I will be easy with you. Do you not desire to kiss me? To know my touch?"

"You will hurt me. Elizabeth isn't aware of your boundless strength, but I am."

"I've managed not to injure her. Twice."

"You've used her twice? And she never fought you?" Again she was disbelieving.

"Allow me to demonstrate to you why she acquiesces."

"You say you haven't injured her, but I'm in pain right now," Saroya said. "Bruised and battered. Tell me, Lothaire, do you have any wounds, any twinges?"

"Of course not."

"I have them all over my body."

"Then I will be gentler with you, even more careful with my Bride." Cupping her face, he murmured at her ear, "Just relax, Saroya, and I vow to you that I will only bring you pleasure."

She will squeeze her eyes shut, her body stiffening, as if a frost grows over her.

He leaned in to press his lips to hers, once and again, teasing with his tongue. He deepened the kiss, and she responded . . .

Exactly as he'd predicted.

He recoiled. "You've gone cold." Her eyes were squeezed shut, her lips thinned. And worse . . . he'd caught himself imagining it was Elizabeth to stay hard. "You don't want my touch at all."

She opened her eyes. "I would never be able to relax for fear you'd harm me. Lothaire, imagine going into battle in a mortal state. With no regeneration, no power, no speed. Imagine being defenseless. Would you be so keen to rush into the fray-no matter how much you love warring?"

She had a point. Convince yourself, Lothaire. You can't lie to others, but you can lie to yourself.

"When I am a vampire, things will be different," she insisted. "For now, I beg your patience. I beg understanding from my male until then."

Yes, when she's a vampire . . .

And still he refused to accept that his Bride was sexually cold? No, Saroya could be made to want him. "Does your mortal body feel nothing but pain? You must have needs."

"No. Apparently you've satisfied any of those urges recently."

Blyad'! He'd wasted that pleasure on Elizabeth!

Saroya awkwardly patted his shoulder. "You'll soon find the ring, and then I'll be yours in all ways. For now, use your mortal."

"Not concerned that I might become infatuated with her?" he asked, though he knew the answer. Saroya simply could not comprehend that someone might not desire her above all others. Her arrogance prevented doubts like that.

And he couldn't help feeling as if there was a lesson inherent for him to be learned.

"Not in the least, Lothaire. If you chose her over me, you'd have to renounce all your aspirations to the Horde throne, everything you've worked for all these thousands of years. Besides, you are so intelligent, I know that you can see through her manipulations. You would never let us be the pawns of a lowly mortal."

A pawn. He and his mother had been pawns to a mortal before. "Beseech Olya's forgiveness . . ."

Never again.

"You've seen Elizabeth's family," Saroya continued. "Those would be your in-laws. She would want to live among them."

He stifled a shudder.

"I barely survived living in that trailer. How well would you fit in there?"

Lothaire would rather die.

"I have an idea, vampire," Saroya suddenly said. "Take me to your oracle."

"Why?" he asked, still kicking himself for sating the human.

"You asked what I'd like to do this eve? I want to pose a question to her about the future."

He exhaled, tracing her to Hag's.

As soon as they appeared in the fey's kitchen, Hag told Saroya. "Oh, it's you."

Between gritted teeth, Saroya said, "How did you know it was I? Before I'd even said a word?"

"Because of the makeup," Hag murmured. "The gobs and gobs of makeup."


Saroya said pleasantly, "You've just ensured your death. Once your usefulness ends, Lothaire will bring me your head. I'll use it as a fly catcher."

The fey's eyes turned forest green with anger. "That is not in my future, goddess-"

"This is my Bride, Hag," Lothaire interrupted sharply, baffled by this hostility. "Not Elizabeth. Some respect, then."

"Very well." But Hag's eyes still glimmered.

"You've aided Lothaire in seeing his future," Saroya said. "I want a question about my own answered."

"I can only roll so many times in a day." At Lothaire's threatening look, Hag added, "But I will try."

"Ask your bones if the Horde will accept Lothaire as its king if I am by his side."

"It's not that simple-"

"It is. He's part Dacian. They cut away all the extraneous considerations and focus only on their goals. Lothaire's primary goal is to become king of the Horde. I want to know if I'm the key to the Horde throne."

"Do it, Hag."

The fey grudgingly removed her pouch, spreading the cloth. She rolled the bones, read them.

"Well?" Lothaire demanded.

As if the words were pulled from her, Hag said, "The Horde will accept you if Saroya is by your side-and she is a vampire. Tymur the Allegiant and his men will yield Castle Helvita and swear their fealty to you."

Tymur kneeling before me while I decide if I should decapitate him . . . Lothaire's eyes grew hooded.

"There, Lothaire," Saroya said, "as I promised, I shall place that crown on your fair head. You'll be a king, just as Ivana the Bold wanted. And after you rule the Horde, you'll use that army to seize the Dacian throne. It's all so close. We're only waiting on you, my king."

King. His chest ached with want. Crowned, ruling, power. He'd build a monument to his mother in Stefanovich's old castle. If I don't raze it to the ground, stone by bloody stone.

"Now, Lothaire," Saroya began, "shall we have more goods and services delivered to the apartment? Your queen longs for rubies. And cat's-eye diamonds. Perhaps a Roman collar studded with emeralds . . ."

Chapter 29

Lothaire just . . . left me," Ellie murmured to Hag, her voice sounding as bewildered as she felt.

For the last seven nights, he'd dropped her off at the fey's-like a brat at the sitter's-while he'd been out tirelessly searching for the ring, so determined to replace her forever.

But this sunrise, he hadn't come to pick her up. It was three in the afternoon. Now she knew what it felt like to be the last kid standing at KinderCare.

"What am I supposed to make of that?" Staring at nothing, Ellie swigged her beer.

She and Hag were out on the fey's deck, reclining on sun chaises with snacks, magazines, and a party pail of iced Corona Lights between them.

After the witch-in-the-mirror scare, the oracle had been much nicer to her. Probably because she knew Ellie was about to die and all.

And Ellie had eventually forgiven her for setting Lothaire on her path-after all, Hag had nothing to do with Saroya parking inside Ellie.

"Make nothing of it, Elizabeth," Hag said. "He's merely late. Let's enjoy ourselves until he returns."

Realizing that Saroya probably wouldn't want a suntan, Ellie had gone St. Tropez, spending the day out here, slathered in coconut oil. Though she'd always tanned easily, lately she'd been prison pale.

Not anymore. Feel the burn, freak.

And since Saroya wanted her to put on weight, Ellie had decided to lose it. She was presently on a barley-and-hops diet.

"Something happened after Saroya rose that last time," Ellie said. "Ever since then, Lothaire has been acting different with me." As if all the ground she might have conquered with him had been lost.

When Ellie had awakened, Lothaire had gazed at her as if she'd wronged him, as if he resented her.

Perhaps Saroya had proved seducible. Maybe she'd schooled Ellie's attempts. Though I'm still a virgin. Of course, Lothaire had explained why they couldn't have sex.

"I'd pat your hand with a well-intentioned but awkward gesture if my skin weren't poisonous." Hag was as unused to having a girl friend as Ellie was.

Each night, once the fey's work was done, she and Ellie had downed drinks and chatted.

Saucing it up with a fey oracle. My new normal.

They'd talked about potions, hunting, the craziness of the Lore. And of Hag's single status.

Turned out that ages ago, Hag had fallen for a demon-strictly off limits for a fey like her. The brawny warrior had doubted his "delicate little fey's" love, especially since she'd been so young. In turn, she'd doubted he could withstand her poisoned skin for long enough to claim her. They'd decided to meet a decade later under the golden apple tree in Draiksulia-if she still felt the same way, and if he could obtain an antidote

for her.

Because of Hag's curse, she'd been centuries late for her date. Now she was unable to find the warrior-even her bones couldn't tell her where he'd disappeared to.

Hag's doe-brown eyes sparkled green with emotion whenever she spoke of him. . . .

"Hey, you don't think Lothaire's . . . dead?" Ellie asked, confounded that she almost felt worried about her captor's safety. Captor and soon-to-be executioner.

"He will come back, Elizabeth."

And how should I feel about that?

"I would know if he were dead," Hag said as she checked her timer.

The fey was working on a potion, an experimental one she hoped would counteract a spell that protected one of Lothaire's enemies-some Valkyrie named Regin the Radiant. Upon discovering that Regin had a protection spell, Lothaire had hissed, "Nix, that bitch!"

Whatever that meant.

"He might have grown distracted and lost his way temporarily," Hag added.

Ellie could believe that. He'd been deteriorating mentally. One sunrise when he'd arrived to collect her, he'd been covered in blood and raving about his enemies: "Following me! Isn't safe for you."

Two nights ago, she'd awakened in her spot on the sofa to find him kneeling beside her, stroking her hair.

He'd murmured, "Harder and harder to tell when I'm awake . . . can't live like this much longer."

Sometimes he spoke to her in Russian, as if he fully expected her to answer in the same.

She'd never questioned him again other than to occasionally ask, "Am I going to die tonight?"

"Not yet," he would answer distantly. But last sunset, he hadn't replied, just gazed away.

Ellie opened another beer, plugging the bottle with a lime wedge. "Can you tell me why Saroya isn't even trying to rise? Shouldn't she be worried about him right now? Why isn't she hankering to see him? If I was evil and Lothaire had showered me with jewels and clothes, I'd be all over him."

"Would you?" Hag studied her face. "Even after all he's done to you?"

As ever, Ellie replayed the vampire's mocking voice in her head. "You can't compare to Saroya." She'd thought herself immune to insults, but for some reason, his had struck home. "You are demonstrably my inferior in every way. Intelligence, wealth, looks, bloodline . . ."

The scorn in his tone, his smirk. She sighed. The truth of his words.

Her ego had taken a hit.

But then there'd been those glimpses of a different side of him. The seductive, charming Lothaire whose kisses set her blood afire. The vampire who made her toes curl with his accented, old-fashioned phrasings. "Be my dear . . ."

"Are you wondering if I could fall for him?" Ellie asked, trying to imagine what it might be like to be loved by Lothaire. But she knew better than to dream of things that would never be. "Even if by some miracle he felt more for me, I'd never love him. Only a fool would fall in love with her captor." She met Hag's gaze. "I'm no fool. My interest in him is purely life-or-death." She took a long pull from her beer. "On that note, is there any chance that I'm his Bride?"