Seeming to choose her words very carefully, Hag said, "Mortal mates are extremely rare for Loreans. I'm thinking now of all the couples brought together this Accession and can't cite a single one with a human in the mix. In any case, Lothaire despises mortals more than anyone I know."

"Why?"

"I won't say, and I don't suggest asking him."

"But it is possible that I'm his. Why don't you oracle-up and find out for certain?"

"You know I only have so many rolls a day."

Ellie had asked Hag how bone-rolling worked. She'd answered that it was like scanning text in a book, but if done too often, the words would grow blurry.

"What if I am his?" Ellie insisted. "If you serve Lothaire's interests, then how do you think it'll affect him once he realizes he killed his one and only Bride? You think he'd be pissed?"

Hag's gaze flitted away. "I trust Lothaire's judgment."

"Tell me why you owe him so much."

"Very well." Hag retrieved another beer, easily popping the top with her thumbnail. "Centuries ago, I began working for a powerful sorcerer and his sisters. He didn't like one of my foretellings, so he cursed me to appear as a repulsive crone, captive to his will for as long as he lived-a particularly dire predicament, considering how difficult it was to kill him. He was known as the Deathless One." Her fingers tightened around her bottle. Just when Ellie thought it'd shatter, Hag loosened her hold. "If not for Lothaire, I'd still be trapped in a dank castle basement. He betrayed all his alliances, breaking a covenant to free the sorcerer's

assassin."

"Lothaire did all that for you?"

Hag gave a humorless laugh. "No, he had other mysterious reasons. My freedom was merely a happy coincidence, but all the same, he made me vow a debt in advance, which put me in his notorious book-" Her timer went off. "I'll be back after a while. Don't get too burned."

Alone, Ellie picked up her travel magazine once more. She turned the page, perusing an article on Bora-Bora, but not really reading. Instead, she reflected on all the things she'd never get to do.

See her family again. Travel around the world. Make a home of her own. Have kids. Ellie's idea of a white picket fence? Her own cabin on Peirce Mountain.

She'd never get to find that man who would dote on her. She'd always imagined the kind of guy she'd end up with, fantasizing in loving detail what he'd be like.

Basically the opposite of Lothaire in every way.

Reflecting like this could make a girl wish she weren't teetering on the verge of death.

Teetering. Ellie was sick of it. At least on death row she'd been able to count down the days till she was freed at last. The magazine edges crinkled in her grip.

Now she lingered in this wait-and-see hell.

She wanted to scream, wanted to strangle Lothaire, could actually see the appeal of ending a being's life.

How she wished for another chance to "cross swords" with him, especially now that she'd learned to decode the way he talked. She had analyzed his statements over and over, and she felt confident that she'd be able to tell when he was deflecting or misdirecting.

If she asked him, "Do you like blue?" and he did but didn't want to admit it, he'd sneer, "Do I look like the type of man who would like blue?"

He started statements with "Perhaps" or "I'd wager" to avoid lies. Or he'd say something distractingly outrageous.

She called it Lothaire-speak.

Ellie did agree with him about one thing: for even the remotest chance of survival, she still had only that one move open to her.

Seducing him.

Part of her wanted to try it once more. Maybe if she got him to claim her totally, she could drive a wedge between him and Saroya.

Or maybe Ellie should just give him the blowjob he'd wanted. She remembered the wise words of her cousin Sadie, the mountainside's resident slut: "If you want to communicate an idea to a man's brain, you talk to him through his pecker. It's like an ear horn, y'all."

Musing on Lothaire's seduction had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that Ellie still craved him like crack.

Sure enough, he had awakened something in her.

All week, she'd been horny as hell, aching for his hands on her, replaying what they'd done together. When she slept, she dreamed of suckling him, then taking his thick shaft inside her.

She'd touched herself a couple of times in the shower, but could never relax enough to get off, always afraid Lothaire would suddenly appear to catch her-then mock her so viciously. . . .

She exhaled, turning a page, deciding then and there not to put out. I never had a shot at him anyway.

Which meant there were no moves open. Already as good as dead, just like the frontline soldiers.

The idea was liberating in a way. The pressure to sway him had been grueling. Especially since he'd avoided her for days.

She was resolved, steadfast.

So why were the pages blurring from unshed tears?

Hate her. Want her.

For a week, Lothaire had kept his distance from Elizabeth, leaving her with Hag and ignoring her when they were forced to be together.

Never had he needed her more than now.

This entire day, he'd tracked Declan Chase-who'd survived through no help of Lothaire's.

It turned out that the Blademan had been an immortal berserker all along, though Chase hadn't known he was.

Again and again, Lothaire had tried to get close enough to him to tap into his mind, but his mate, Regin, had some kind of spell on her that repelled Lothaire.

The suka never left Chase's side.

After a day of spying on the couple-including their enthusiastic bouts of sex-Lothaire returned to his apartment, weary but keyed up, lusting for his own woman. His Bride.

When Saroya had last surfaced, he'd sworn off the mortal. And once he'd purchased everything but the moon for the goddess, she'd agreed to rise in two weeks.

But what to do until then?

The separation from his Bride's body was affecting his own-as well as his sanity. There'd been more sleep-tracing, more rages, and even blackouts while he'd hunted.

Instead of visions concerning the ring, he'd been dreaming of things he'd thought long forgotten, random memories-his own random memories.

A fair-haired infant reaching for me.

The Valkyrie Helen big with child, her eyes filled with sorrow as she gazed at her husband.

Nix demanding, "Where is your patience . . . ?"

And more, Lothaire had perceived that mysterious presence again. The Daci. He thought he'd felt them outside the apartment on a couple of occasions. But none faced him.

Had they been following him, or had he only imagined their presence?

So many developments, so many moves. And I can barely keep my thoughts from Elizabeth, my lust under control.

Before he picked her up for the remainder of the day, he knew he had to ease some of this pressure. Seven days' worth . . .

Lying back in his bed, he carefully unzipped his pants over his aching erection. As he clasped it in his fist and began to pump, he wondered whether Elizabeth had brought herself to come since their last time together.

While he'd been so busy thinking about his miserable sexual state away from Elizabeth, he hadn't thought about hers.

She was a lusty female. The little peasant would probably ease her-

self.


Inside his home, caressing her virgin sex. That delicate bare flesh growing so slick . . .

The idea sent him into a lather and his fist bobbed. Would she take his suggestion and penetrate herself with a finger? Or two? Or would she wait for him to teach her . . . ?

His fangs dripped in his mouth, razor-sharp for her. He licked one, sucking his own blood, fantasizing that it was hers. His back arched as he groaned in Russian, "Wait for me, Lizvetta. Wait . . ."

Semen surged up his rampant cock as he rocked his hips, fucking his fist. . . .

Yet then he slowed. What if she had waited on him?

I want her hands on me. I want her to see me come. Elizabeth had enjoyed watching his seed spill. If he returned to her, he might coax her to wring it from him. With her mouth.

This plan made sense-taking his release with her, using her as a tool. If only to shore up his sanity.

With that aim in mind, he painstakingly worked his shaft back into his pants, donned a trench to disguise it, then traced to Hag's.

The fey glanced up from a boiling pot. Giving me a look of censure? "Elizabeth's outside."

He found the mortal lying in the sun while reading a Travel + Leisure magazine, a bucket of iced beers by her side.

She wore a bikini. A tiny one. Triangles of cherry-red material strung together.

Her golden skin was sheened with oil. Coconut oil-an exotic, and therefore erotic, scent to him.

His jaw slackened, his cock jerking in readiness. I hadn't even known this sight would greet me!

Wanting to view her like this at his leisure, he traced back to the apartment, slipped on sunglasses, then returned.

After telling Hag to go take a walk, he traced a chair to the edge of the shadows, silently removing his coat.

There, he watched, captivated, as the sun soaked into Elizabeth's slick skin, heating it, marking it before his eyes. Never had he seen such supple flesh.

Her even teeth gleamed white against her new tan. He spied a subtle hint of auburn in that shining mane of hers. She was from Appalachia-somewhere in her line, she probably had a Scottish ancestor.

Her bikini taunted him, the material clinging to stiffened nipples and the faintest hint of her cleft. He'd bite her under each triangle-

She dog-eared the page she was looking at. There was only one reason to save pages in a travel magazine. When dreaming of a future trip.

One she will never take.

He frowned at his reaction to this, then reminded himself that he didn't suffer regrets about decisions already made. And her sacrifice had been determined for half a decade. All he wanted was the use of her lovely body until then. "Take off your top, pet."

She gasped. "Stop calling me that, asshole."

"But you are a pet. I feed you, shelter you, stroke you. And you bring me amusement. Now, do as I say."

"If I'd known I'd be spending the day here, I might have packed

a bag."

"So that's why you're ireful today."

"Right, Lothaire. I have nothing else to be ireful about."

"Ah, you must have missed me."

"Not as much as you clearly missed me." She lifted her sunglasses, rolling her eyes at his erection.

"I gave you an order."

She ran the end of one string tie against her bottom lip. "You want to see my breasts?" she purred, casting him that blinding smile.

He sat upright in his chair, tensing in anticipation.

"Get Saroya to show you." Smile gone, she reached for her beer, crooking her finger around the bottleneck.

As she swigged, he thought, Not classy. But oddly . . . arousing. "You don't even aspire to grace, do you?"

"Nope." She noisily sucked on a wedge of lime.

"You really do not want to do this today, Elizabeth."

"But I have to! You see, I'm running out of days too quickly to put anything off."

Refusing to rise to the bait, he agreed, "Yes. You are. Now, about your top. Shut up and take it off."

She laughed, and drank more beer. "Take a long trace off a short bridge, vampire."

"Don't you want to further seduce me from my Bride?"

"No, I've decided that nothing is worth whoring for you."

"And what about your alternative reason? Merely wanting to be with a man? To know one's touch?"

"It was good, Lothaire, but it wasn't that good."

"You came quickly enough." He rather enjoyed this sparring, because it so rarely happened to him.

"Do you really want to go there? Because, oh great king, you came in your pants."

His eyes narrowed. "Isn't that what happened with every other one of your conquests? Just because I'm not poor, imbecilic, and vulgar like them doesn't mean I'm immune to your charms. Now. Take off your top." When she didn't, he snapped, "You disobey me because you assume you'll get no punishment."

"How about we play a game of tit for tat. You answer my questions, and I'll tug this"-she indicated one of the top triangles of her suit-"a little to the right."

Chapter 30

Elizabeth and her games. Which he might enjoy more than he cared to admit. "Continue."

"Where have you been?" she asked.

"Stalking my enemies, Declan Chase and Regin the Radiant. Chase is the key to finding my ring."

She adjusted the material to the right, just enough to reveal . . . her tan line. Fuck, that was sexy to him. He'd bet her skin would be searing to the touch.

"I thought you only needed to dream his memories."

"The memories prove elusive," he said absently. "But we shared blood between us, so I can read his mind if I can get close enough to him."

Another adjustment. "Who's Nix? You cursed her the other day."

The bane of my existence. "She's a Valkyrie soothsayer whom I've known for almost all my life. She likes to stick her nose where it doesn't belong." The white queen, with her godlike precognition.

"Did you have a relationship with her?"

How to answer that? "We were . . . many things to each other," he said, recalling the first time he'd met her, just one month after his mother's death.

He'd been starving, injured, limping down a secluded mountain pass with no idea where to go. A metal net had descended on him, preventing him from tracing.

"Look at the lordling leech in his rags," a dark-haired Valkyrie had said as she and others of her ilk descended from a rock face. "He looks hungry."

He'd snapped his fangs at them, hissing blood and spittle. While they debated who got to decapitate their prey, another Valkyrie had strolled into their midst.

With her jet-black hair and brilliant golden eyes, she'd been incomprehensibly lovely to him. "Spare this one, sister," she said. "He's special."

"How so, Phenix?"

"I cannot see," this Phenix said. "In fact, the only way I can tell that he plays a role in our affairs is by reading your future, Helen. You two are connected in some way."