But Kristoff had forbidden his army to drink blood straight from the flesh-to forbear. Which violated one of the Horde's two sacred tenets: the Thirst.
Aside from Kristoff there was one other contender, unlikely though she might be.
Much to analyze, moves to predict . . .
"I rolled to find Dorada, but she's far removed from us at present," Hag said.
"Very good," he answered absently, only now remembering that he hadn't predicted Tymur's movements, hadn't slain the vampire with his customary detachment. In defending Elizabeth, Lothaire had thrown away his greatest weapon, had relied on searing instinct.
She is mine.
Reading him so well, Hag said, "You know it's Elizabeth now, do you not? Perhaps you won't slit my throat to my spine if I speak of this?"
He'd been so arrogant during that conversation with Hag, dismissing the idea of a mortal Bride as absurd. He hadn't even bothered to tell Hag exactly how ensnared he was with Saroya.
"How will you get Elizabeth to forget all you've done to her?" Hag asked. "She won't be able to easily, if at all. Trust me on this."
"Doesn't matter if she's my Bride. I can't keep her. My plans must remain unchanged."
Hag blinked at him. "You don't intend . . . ? Lothaire, if you go through with this, it will destroy you."
"I'll be destroyed if I don't fulfill these vows."
"Your mother wouldn't have wanted this for you."
"You assume I speak of the vows I made to Ivana? Perhaps I foolishly made others-"
Elizabeth sauntered in. Tanned, barefoot, grinning in her short cutoffs.
So sexy his thoughts blanked for a long moment.
"Hey, Lothaire. Thad's been telling us all about you. How heroic you are." She sidled up to him with a hip-swinging gait that quickened his pulse. "And you went and got ash vines for me?"
Hag chose that moment to turn her stove to simmer and swerve out of the kitchen onto the deck.
Before he ever decided to reach for Elizabeth, Lothaire found his hands circling her waist. "So certain I did it for you?" he asked, lifting her to the counter.
"Uh-huh. You only needed to keep my body healthy. Not my mind."
He eased his hips between her knees. "Perhaps you shouldn't attribute characteristics to me that aren't there."
"And you should stop with the Lothaire-speak." She raised her hand to his chest, making lazy swirls with her forefinger.
"What are you talking about?"
"You ask questions to get around lying. Or you say things like"-she imitated his accent-" 'perhaps you' or 'I'd surmise that you.' Yeah, that's right, vampire, I got your number."
It disconcerted him how quickly she'd learned his tells, but he made his face impassive. "Did you worry for me today? In between tequila shots?"
She sighed. "And you also abruptly change the subject. In any case, I did worry about you, Leo."
"What did you call me?"
"Your initials. Lothaire the Enemy of Old? Sounds like Lothaire the Wizard of Oz. Leo suits you better."
His fingers dug into the counter on either side of her hips. "Enemy of Old is not just a name, it's a designation. It takes bold strokes to survive in the Lore; I've earned the right to be called that."
"Well, right now you've earned your nickname, too."
"I'm buzzed and you're looking gorgeous and kissable. You needed a nickname."
In all his life, no one had ever called him by one. Nor felt the casual ease to do so. "Why this . . . affection? Last night you were crying. Aren't you angry that I took you to Helvita?"
"I grabbed you," she admitted. "You started to disappear, so I tried to shake you awake."
"Concern for me?" His spike of pleasure was overrun by irritation. "And yet I'd ordered you not to touch me. Why would you disobey me?"
"You called for me, repeatedly yelling my name."
Then some part of him had known Elizabeth was his.
"And you'd told me that you could be killed if you traced in your sleep! After seeing the creatures awaitin' you, I believe it."
His shoulder muscles knotted. "What do you remember?"
"Jumbled bits up to a point, then nothing. Anyhow, I'm past it."
"How could you possibly be?"
"I have something to look forward to." In a solemn tone, she said, "I've decided, Leo, that I'm gonna keep you."
Though everything within him was in turmoil, he calmly said, "Have you, then?"
"Even if you've been the biggest dick imaginable."
He glowered at that. "Insolent chit."
"I'm your Bride, aren't I?"
"The idea of a mortal Bride is ridiculous." Even if the Bride in question makes me weak from wanting.
"I'm calling Lothaire-speak! You didn't answer me."
"How many times have I told you that you're beneath me?"
Instead of being insulted, she smiled. "Should I call you hubby? Or vampire groom?"
Just when he was about to give her a set-down, she leaned in to whisper at his ear, "If you sip me, will you get tipsy?"
His body tensed. "One way to find out."
"Then take me back to your bed and do really naughty things to me while you talk filth in my ear."
He just stifled a growl.
On their way out, he quickly stopped at the deck to tell Thaddeus, "Hag will open a temporary portal for you to get home, paren'. Leave your phone number with her before you go. And of course, you will not give this location to anyone."
"Sure thing, Mr. Lothaire." But again, the boy refused to meet his eyes.
Something's different about you," the vampire said as soon as they'd appeared in his room.
I figured out some things about myself. "I can't imagine." And about you.
He'd begun doing that predatory stalking thing around her. "If only I could lie so easily. I will find out your secret."
Grasping for a change of subject, Ellie asked, "What were you dreaming of when you traced earlier?" then bit her tongue when she saw a glimpse of raw anguish in his eyes.
His expression grew shuttered. "A memory . . . one of my own. Something I do not want to speak of."
She had a pretty good idea of what. "Fair enough."
"You're not going to press?"
"You'll tell me when you're ready," she said.
This really seemed to please him. He snatched her close to nuzzle her hair. "You smell like salt, sun, and tequila. Exotic to one like me." He inhaled deeply, as if he wanted to take her scent into him-
Suddenly his body jerked with tension, and he set her away. "Why do I still scent a trace of Thaddeus-even when we're away from him?"
"I'm sure we hugged." But she could feel her cheeks getting flushed. Was her heart speeding up?
"You're . . . lying. Why would you lie, unless . . ." His eyes shot flame-red.
"No, Lothaire, it isn't like that!"
"Tell me what it was like," he said softly before roaring, "or I'll do murder!"
"I-I kissed him."
"Then you've killed him."
"Thad didn't kiss me back! He was bewildered, just stood there. Afterward, he was mortified."
"Then I'll punish you more, slattern! I should string you up naked to a pole at the demon crossroads!" With a crazed bellow, he launched one of his fists into the wall, hitting it like a wrecking ball. The room shook. Another punch before he faced her, yelling, "Did you touch him?"
"No! In any case, why would you care? You keep telling me that I am not your Bride. Saroya is! What is one harmless kiss for a woman you're gonna kill soon?"
"Tell me why you did it! Why in the fuck would you kiss him?"
"My reasons are my own!"
He laid his bleeding hand over her throat. "Tell me or I'll wring your pretty little neck."
Nothing had changed with Lothaire. Nothing. "You can't." She flailed from his grasp. "So take the needle off that record, vampire!"
"No, but I can kill your family! Shall I make you pick one relative over another to live?"
Oh, God, not them! "Please don't, Lothaire-"
He was already tracing her to the mountain.
"Take me back to the apartment, and I'll tell you . . ." She trailed off when she saw that the place was like a ghost town.
No lights, no voices, no TVs going in any of the trailers on the entire mountain. The Peirce family had gotten themselves lost.
"Where the hell are they?" he snapped, tracing her inside her old trailer.
The first time she'd been back since the night of the murders.
Belongings were strewn about. Mama had gotten them out in a hurry, and they'd clearly been gone a while.
Empty. Ellie checked a look of victory.
Lothaire swung his gaze on her, tracing her back outside to gaze down the lightless mountain. "Tell me where they are!"
"Gone." She breathed deeply of the country air, squaring her shoulders. "They're out of your reach forever."
Back here on her mountain, she soaked up strength. This place had seen hundreds of years of struggle and hardship, of blood lost and pain found.
Right now, Ellie believed she'd been honed by life here, as if she'd just been waiting to go toe-to-toe with a fiend like Lothaire.
"Hmm." She tapped her lip. "Can't kill them. Can't hurt me. Seems you're holdin' a shit hand of cards, Leo."
The last time they'd been at the doorstep of this trailer, Elizabeth had risked her life to kill Saroya, running into a hail of bullets.
Now, after all he'd done to her, she was taunting him.
Did I truly think her cowardly?
"So what's worse, Lothaire? The fact that I'm an ignorant hillbilly human?" She jabbed his chest with her forefinger. "Or the fact that you were just bested by one?"
This boldness in her . . . delicious.
No, you're enraged at the slattern!
And enthralled with her. Possessiveness and lust and something else he couldn't define warred inside him.
Then he remembered her kissing that boy years ago. How easily Lothaire could envision Thaddeus's look of wonderment!
Jealousy-seethed. "Hag would never let you call them."
"It couldn't be Thaddeus." Her family had been gone too long. "Tell me how you warned them!"
"Or-what?" She laughed derisively.
"I will find them."
"They are hidden, as only mountain folk can get. Face it, Lothaire, you've lost this match. You play your offense; I play defense. I set this plan into motion half a decade ago."
Lothaire traced her back to the apartment. "What are you talking about?"
Chin raised, Elizabeth tried to fling herself away from him. After a moment, he let her.
"I reckoned you'd dole out that punishment you'd promised if I succeeded in killin' your queen. So I made my mother swear to make herself and the entire family scarce for a spell."
To clear off an entire mountain of Peirces?
Like scraping an anthill completely clean. Yet it'd happened.
"You want your reputation as the Enemy of Old to precede you, to make your enemies fear you?" When she jabbed at his chest again, his gut clenched with want. "My greatest asset is that I'm forever underestimated-by people like you." She pinned his gaze with her own. "I'm the sucker punch that you never saw coming."
Unexpected Elizabeth, with her fierce gray eyes. Saroya might be vicious and lethal, but Elizabeth was cunning, beguiling.
Quietly running circles around him at every opportunity.
Because wasn't unexpected just another way of saying underestimated?
Sucker punch? She'd left him reeling.
"So no, Lothaire, there will not be any harm done to my family by you tonight. Or ever. Are-we-clear?"
Crystal, he thought as his lips parted. I know exactly what you are now. I know what you will be.
It was apparent what he had to do. Even he could recognize that he was experiencing some unknown-before need for this mortal girl, something even more than desire. And it was despite the goddess inside her.
"Lothaire, I asked you a question!"
He narrowed his eyes as a dim thought occurred. "If you suspected your family was safe, why did you go along with my plans? Why did you act afraid for them?"
She shrugged, casting him a queenly look that dared him to do something; a growl of lust burst from his chest.
Her peccadillo forgotten-for now-he leaned in to kiss her.
Get off me, freak!" Ellie futilely shoved at him. "I'm not kissin' you! You were just about to harm my family!" And you took me away from my mountain yet again. . . .
"I wasn't going to harm anyone," the vampire said. "I'd planned to get you outside the trailer and scare you. Then you'd see reason."
He can't lie.
"But it seems I am holding a shit hand of cards." He stabbed his fingers through his hair. "You refuse to do as I predict."
"You're one to talk about that." He wasn't homicidal that she'd gotten one over on him-he was impressed.
And seeing that look in his eyes affected her. Coupled with the rush she'd just experienced from smelling the crisp air of her home-the woods, the very earth-she could almost feel . . . hope.
He took me away from my home, but maybe one day the male before me will bring me back there.
In a weary tone, he said, "Tell me why you kissed the boy."
"To find out if I desired just about any male after my prison stay, or if it was only you-"
He's holding his breath. Dear God, she might truly have a shot at Lothaire. "I didn't feel any desire for him, because I was wantin' . . . you."
"Me." Pride fired in the red depths of his eyes. "Good. I don't . . . I didn't want to have to behead Thaddeus. Or to string you up at the demon crossroads."
"Really? Oh, Lothaire, this is huge! This is what I'd call a breakthrough moment."