"Take me to live bodies, Lothaire! In fact, trace me to Elizabeth's old home. I promised her mother that I'd kill her. I demand to have her in my grasp."

"Demand all you like, it won't happen." After all, he felt gratitude to the peasant woman for bearing Elizabeth. Without that mortal, Lothaire would have no body for his Bride.

"I won't remain at the fore if I'm to be treated thus." Saroya began to sway on her feet.

Now she was going to recede? The hell she would! "If you purposely recede, I'll brand this body. Scald your face. Gouge an eye out."

Saroya immediately righted herself. "What do you want?" Lothaire was clearly in a dangerous mood.

"You're going to answer some questions for me."

In an aggrieved tone, she said, "Really, Lothaire. What's brought this on? I'm the one who should be infuriated. Allowing Elizabeth to tan my skin like this?"

He traced from one wall to the other. "I need information."

"Such as?"

"We talked years ago of ruling together," he said. "Do you still want this?"

"Of course. I fear you are the one with doubts."

"We spoke of thrones and power and vengeance. But what of us?"

"What do you mean?"

"When my retribution has been meted out and our crowns rest easy upon our heads, what then?"

"Then we conquer more," she said. "We could rule the world together, while searching for a way to return my godhood. I have enemies who beg for retribution as well. Or have you forgotten that?"

"Your sister, Lamia."

"Among others." La Dorada, for one. "You've got the Queen of Evil vowing reprisal against you-which means against me." Saroya debated whether to tell Lothaire of her many crimes against the sorceress, but decided against it. He didn't need to know why she'd dispatched assassins after Dorada for centuries.

He doesn't need to know about the prophecy, that foretelling by a long dead vampire oracle. "If you do not vanquish her, she will kill me, Lothaire. I feel this."

"Dorada cannot find you. No one in the Lore knows of this apartment. You are hidden if you remain here or at Hag's, and I cloaked the body otherwise. Do you think I would ever allow Dorada to steal my mate-and with her my entire future?"

Saroya calmed somewhat. Though she trusted no one, she did know that Lothaire was one of the most cutthroat warriors in the Lore, and one of the strongest vampires ever to live.

He pinched the bridge of his nose. "And after Dorada's been defeated, how do you envision our lives?"

"We will annihilate any remaining enemies, becoming the most powerful partnership the world has ever known."

Growing increasingly frustrated, he said, "And when our work is done for the night, when dawn comes . . . what then?"

She smoothed her hair back. "I don't understand."

"Do you know what happiness is?"

"It's watching the light dim in a good man's eyes. It's having subjects grovel. It's wielding the power over life and death."

"No, Saroya. I can't believe I'm about to say this, but . . . each of those things is a process. Not an outcome." He gave a bitter laugh. "You have no more idea of what happiness is than I do."

"You are growing besotted with your little mortal concubine. Look at you-it's almost as if you're pining for her. Almost as if she were your Bride."

Which Elizabeth likely was. Though Saroya had once believed she herself had triggered Lothaire's blooding, she no longer did.

For him to have feelings for such a loathsome creature? Something larger was at work here.

Still, he'd never believe Elizabeth was his; the very idea would be galling to a male of his rank and standing.

If Lothaire hadn't seen the truth by now, then it was because he didn't want to.

Doubts ate at Lothaire's confidence, eroding it.

Even if he could bring himself to believe that Elizabeth was his Bride-and that was a very big if-there was nothing he could do about it.

He'd already set his destiny into motion. He was inextricably bound to his fate-compelled not merely to cast out Elizabeth's soul as the girl thought. . . .

It couldn't be her.

Surely.

Because he'd been so averse to her humanity, Lothaire had never allowed himself even to consider that Elizabeth might be his Bride.

Now, apparently, I'm going there.

It was possible that Elizabeth hadn't blooded him in their early encounters because she hadn't been old enough. Females from other species usually didn't trigger a blooding unless they were grown.

At seventeen, Elizabeth hadn't awakened him. When she was eighteen, one glance at Saroya had sparked his heart and body to life.

Was this due to Saroya's arrival? Or Elizabeth's age?

No, no, no. Goddess trumps mortal trailer trash.

Lusty mortal trailer trash-with a predilection for licking his fangs and slowly sucking on his tongue.

Of all the matches made this Accession, of all the tales of woe and bliss between mates, not one had included a human.

Why would I draw the short straw? Even Regin the Radiant's "mortal" male had ended up being a Lorean berserker.

Saroya crossed to him now. "Imagine how your family would've reacted to Elizabeth Peirce. Would Ivana have approved of her?"

Ivana would have gone into a frothing rage. Her only offspring shunning a goddess for a lowly "animal"? Where was the logic in that?

Stefanovich would have laughed, sneering, "The Dacian son is no better than a Horde vampire." He would have asked Lothaire if Elizabeth tasted of wine and honey.

And I'd have to say yes.

"You know Elizabeth can't be your Bride," Saroya said placidly. "Aside from the fact that I'm a goddess, and therefore an impeccable match for a king like you, consider this: no vampire could terrorize his female as you have her."

Saroya was right. Wouldn't his instincts have prevented him from harming Elizabeth?

Instead, he'd subjected this mortal to death row. He'd belittled her at every opportunity, holding her imminent death over her, taunting her with it.

Mentally tormenting her. Behold the ocean you'll never touch, the jewels you'll

never own. Desire the male who will never want you back and feel the pleasure

you'll never experience again. . . .

Bile rose in Lothaire's throat. It isn't Elizabeth. It's just not.

Even his uncle Fyodor hadn't tortured his Bride like this, and she'd been a reviled enemy.

Ivana had told Lothaire, "You'll be a good and true king to your Bride." But he hadn't been to Elizabeth. He'd made the girl's life a living hell.

Not her, not her.

And yet, as his restlessness increased and his doubt weighed on him to a crushing degree, his first impulse was to touch Elizabeth.

Not because she was his Bride, but because she could pleasure him, making him forget his troubles for a time. "Force her to surface," he bit out.

Saroya blinked at him. "Are you dismissing me?"

"Yes."


"Why aren't you even trying to seduce me?"

"You feel no desire for me. You never have. I can wait for the human-who does."

"How do you know it won't be better with me?"

"Because it can't possibly be better with anyone." The words said aloud rocked him-the truth said aloud.

Am I willing to give up that pleasure? What choice did he have?

"What is so superior with her?" Saroya demanded. "Tell me what Elizabeth does that puts you into such a lather. Do her thighs spread in welcome? Does she moan into your mouth?"

Frustration mounted. He resented this female before him.

"Does she look at you with need?"

"Like she'll die if I don't fuck her," he hissed.

"I will practice that expression in the mirror for when we make love."

"Cease the deception!" He stabbed his fingers through his hair. "You have no intention of bedding me. The rumors of your virginity are true. You've never known a man."

"But only because I hadn't found my mate."

In an icy tone, he said, "You should be above lying to a mere vampire like me, should you not, goddess?"

Long moments passed. "Yes. You are right." Her guise of mild concern transformed into a gloating one. "Oh, Lothaire, you were too arrogant to believe a female wouldn't want you sexually. But I am above base desires."

"You freely admit your treachery? You never intended to share my bed!" Lying to me, betraying me. Already!

"You have a goddess for your Bride. I was born differently, made

differently. Is sex so important to you? We are talking about conquering kingdoms together! Is bedding me so critical? That is what concubines

are for."

He could maintain a harem, taking a new female every night. He didn't require a Bride for those needs. United front, Lothaire? "I hadn't planned to have any other females. They seed dissension."

"You are the most singular male." Then she narrowed her eyes. "It's not a question of sex. It's a question of her." When he said nothing, her lips parted. "You're falling for the mortal! Apprise yourself of this fact: soon you will destroy her very soul."

"You think you have me at your mercy?"

"I do."

"I could use the ring to force the Horde to follow me."

"Tricky ring, precarious power. You will need me by your side for as long as you seek to rule them-or you'll be challenged constantly."

He couldn't deny this. Lothaire didn't meet one of the Horde's two sacred requirements. Just as Hag had predicted, his Bride was the key to his throne.

"Without me, Lothaire, you face an eternity of sedition. How will you conquer the Daci with your kingdom mired in rebellion?"

"Then perhaps I'll keep you and Elizabeth. You will be my queen, and she will be our dirty little secret. A hidden concubine who comes out only in my bed." Perfect.

Just as he deserved a goddess for a queen, he deserved a young, nubile female to appease his lusts.

"You want me to share this body, Lothaire? That will not happen."

"I say it will."

"Do you remember the rest of our conversation that first night in the woods?" Saroya asked, her voice velvety. "I do. Often."

He'd thought of it often as well. . . .

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," Saroya said. "For now, you may take your physical release in some way-after you swear you will do these things you've offered. Vow to your Lore, and make this unbreakable pact with me."

They stared into each other's eyes, and he felt as if time had slowed just so he could appreciate how momentous his next words would be. "I vow to the Lore that I will do everything in my power to extinguish Elizabeth's soul forever, then make this body undying."

She seemed vaguely surprised, then pleased. "Very good, my king. . . ."

Now Saroya said, "You made your vows, Lothaire. You will be compelled by them to find the ring in order to make this body immortal-and to rid it of Elizabeth."

He'd been right that night; his words had been momentous. Just not for the reasons he'd assumed. "Release me from this pact."

Her lips curled, almost a smile. "I vow to the Lore that I will never release you." She was enjoying this. "These vows are so compelling, are they not? Remember my acolytes? Your fate is sealed, Lothaire."

It is. He knew it. His path was clear.

"Console yourself, vampire. If you remain steadfast, you'll soon have everything you've ever wanted. Everything Ivana wanted for you."

But he might have begun to want more.

"Now, Lothaire, shall I summon your-temporary-concubine?"

Eyes narrowed, he grated, "Yes, flower. Have her bathed and dressed in red silk in my bed. Oh, and skip the garish makeup."

Chapter 32

Ellie woke to shivers glancing up and down her body.

Lothaire lay beside her in his bed, trailing the backs of his fingers from her navel to the valley between her breasts.

She was dressed in a sexy teddy; he was naked.

"I like you in red," he said, his voice raspy, making her shiver even more. "I've been awaiting you."

"What . . . what are you doing?"

"I've decided to give you a chance to atone for your earlier insolence. With head."

"My insolence. Did Saroya just recede on her own?" That would mean . . . "Oh, God, she delivered me like this to your bed? Or did you just get through with her here?"

Ellie didn't feel like they'd been intimate. But how could she tell for certain?

"One or the other, it matters naught."

"You're right-either way, it's sick. You and Saroya are sick!" She shoved at his chest but couldn't budge him. "Get away from me!"

He easily captured her wrists in one of his hands, pinning them above her.

When he covered one breast with his free hand, gently kneading, she cried, "Don't touch me! I don't want you!"

He bent down to kiss her, but she craned her head away. He pinched her chin, holding her still . . . she clamped her lips closed against his.

He jerked back. "What is this? Be like you were with me the other times! When you melted for me."

"That was before I fully understood what a nasty piece of work you are."

"Because of a few shifter beheadings? Come on, Lizvetta, it's not as if I went around cock-slapping gnomes."

Her jaw dropped. "You are amazing! A deadly, wretched, friendless monster. Pretty on the outside and not much more. God, just find the ring and put me out of my misery!"

"Be like you were with me! That was not a request."

"Fuck you, vampire."

"Soon."

"Let go!" When he didn't, she screamed, "Let go, let go, LET GO!"

"Dark gods, shut up!" he yelled, but he did release her.