"Hands where we can see 'em!"

Lothaire attacked. First shot, second shot, third-

A tortured scream. The big one's spineless body crumpled to the floor.

With one hand, Lothaire tossed away the length of bone. With the other, he lifted the remaining guard by the throat. "Which way to the execution chamber?"

Lothaire eased his grip just enough for the man to grit out, "R-right, then . . . then second left. All the way to the end. But p-please-"

Snap. By the time the guard's body collapsed, Lothaire was already at his second left.

He'd put Elizabeth from his mind, assured she'd be relatively safe. After all, he didn't care about her mind, only about her body, the temple that housed his Bride.

My mate. The female meant only for him. And what a glorious, bloodthirsty female she was. . . .

Did Saroya sense this execution? Was she desperately struggling to rise, to protect herself?

His black claws dug into his palms till blood flowed. Focus. Focus!

As he delved deeper into the building, Lothaire fought to distance his thoughts from his own recent imprisonment. The reason I'm late for my Bride's execution.

Weeks ago, when he'd learned of this date, he'd been on the verge of rescuing Saroya. Then he himself had been captured by the Order, a mortal army.

He'd escaped them . . . but in time?

Beams from more flashlights shone ahead. Three guards in riot gear escorted out a handful of civilians.

"Is someone there?" one guard demanded.

Lothaire envisioned cutting a swath of blood and screams through the group. No, focus! Though pleasurable, it would be selfish.

To save time, Lothaire traced past them, disappearing and reappearing in an instant.

When he reached the viewing room, he teleported inside. Two young males had just burst through the door of the adjoining execution chamber to guard her, fumbling with Maglites and assault rifles.

Then, for the first time in five years, Lothaire's gaze fell upon Elizabeth. The last time he'd beheld her, she'd lain in the snow, her unusual gray eyes peering up at him with delightful fear.

Now she lay restrained, dressed in a dingy orange uniform. Her long, coffee-colored hair was pulled back severely from her face.

Again, she was terrified, her eyes darting blindly in the dark, but he felt no sympathy, only hatred.

This was all her doing! With Elizabeth's blessing, needles had been sunk into both of her inner arms-

A transparent liquid already flowed down each tube.

His heart felt like it might explode. Too late?

With a roar, he traced inside, batting the two males away, launching them headfirst into opposite walls.

"Who's there?" Elizabeth cried when he laid shaking hands on her delicate arms to thread those needles out of her veins. "What's happening? Can't see!"

He leaned down to scent the fluid, nearly sinking to his knees with relief. Saline. No chemical odor, merely salt water.

To be certain, he sliced the line with one claw and dripped the liquid on his tongue.

Safe.

But if he'd been seconds later . . .

As he ripped free the electrodes covering Elizabeth, he grated, "You've been a bad little mortal."

A sucked-in breath. Then she yelled, "Stop this, you bastard! You leave me be!"

Once he'd slashed through her bonds, he clamped his hand around her wrist and yanked her to her feet.

Before Lothaire traced her back to the safety of his home, he promised her, "Now, Elizabeth, you will pay."

When the ground suddenly reappeared beneath her, Ellie pitched forward. She knew that monster had ahold of her, would recognize Lothaire's voice anywhere.

That deep, accented timbre had haunted her dreams.

As nausea washed over her, she realized that she was no longer in the prison. Somehow he'd transported her into a fancy sitting room, some type of mansion.

Just as she regained her balance she felt her body lifted off the ground. "Ah! Stop, stop-"

"I warned you, mortal!" the demon bellowed as he hurled her away from him.

With a strangled cry, she landed sideways on a couch halfway across the room.

Get up! Dizziness . . . Keep him in sight, Ellie! After a clearing shake of her head, she clambered to her feet. The demon strode back and forth in front of her, vanishing and reappearing as he paced.

He was bigger than she remembered, and this time he looked even more murderous. His fists were clenched, tendons straining in his neck. His irises glowed red, veins of blood forking out over the whites of his eyes.

His face was spattered with blood, his pale hair stained with it. Again he was clad all in black, from his trench coat to his boots. Bullet holes riddled his shirt.

This can't be happening! Stolen from death row at a maximum-security prison? By him.

"I promised you punishment!" He swung one long arm out to the side, bashing a marble column.

Chunks of it landed on the plush carpet at her feet, the entire building seeming to rock. His strength was monstrous, just like everything about him.

"You disobey me at your peril."

She should be cowering from him. Instead, she felt a blistering rage boiling up inside of her. Ellie had thought she'd finally be free, that she'd at last defeat Saroya. She'd been two minutes away from death, ready for it. But this devil had thwarted her yet again.

He'd already taken away her freedom, ensuring she'd spent half a decade in a tiny, rank cell.

Five years despairing.

As she recalled those years, she found herself screaming, "What do you want from me? What?" Out of the corner of her eye she spied a vase, snatched it up. "Why can't you leave me the hell alone?" She flung the heavy piece-it struck him in the chest and shattered from the impact.

As though she'd bashed it against a brick wall.

Even as she stared in disbelief, a heavy candleholder found its way into her grip. Two minutes. So damned close. She lobbed it overhand.

He . . . dematerialized, and it flew through his hazy form.

She gave a shriek of fury. Another candleholder went flying, a paperweight, a lamp.

He just dodged the missiles.

Can't be happening! She was out of breath, desperate to hurt him, to punish him.

Eighteen hundred and twenty days without seasons, without snow or blooms, without friends or family. Her baby brother didn't remember her. While Josh had been steadily growing toward manhood without her in his life, Ellie's existence had been stagnant, punctuated only by bouts of evil.

She no longer felt like a . . . person.

I'm not a person, I'm Virginia DOC Inmate #8793347. I'm Saroya's host.

Because of him.

Ellie's gaze landed on a sword in a display cradle. She leapt for the weapon, yanking it free from its ornamental sheath.

The glimmering metal reflected light into her eyes. In that instant, clarity came.


She knew what she had to do.

Clutching the hilt in both hands, she turned on him. "I'm gonna gut you, demon!"

He drew back his lips so she could see his horrifying canines, then flicked two fingers at her. Come on, then. . . .

Her eyes widened and she charged, sword poised to sink into his chest.

At the last moment-she turned it on herself.

"No!" he bellowed. Then somehow he was between her and the sword tip, wedged against her body.

The blade slid into his lower back until it met bone.

She gasped, feeling his muscles tensing against her, sensing his escalating rage. The red of his irises bled over the whites of his eyes completely. He bared those fangs down at her. "This makes twice that you've defied me, suka. You've erred for ill."

With a snap of his wrist, he sent her flying to the floor.

Stunned. Flat on her back. Hysterical tears threatening.

She heard him removing the sword from his body, then tossing it away. Won't cry in front of him. Won't surrender to his bitch.

For courage, she recalled the years spent staring at cinder-block walls. Counting the blocks, the grout lines, seeing patterns and shapes. She'd called it the Cinder-Block Channel.

All block, all day. No interruptions. Ever.

Gritting her teeth, she twisted to her side, working to rise. Her hair had come loose, spilling over her face. She shoved a lock from her eyes.

"Stay-down," he ordered, towering over her. He was a fiend, an animal, still had blood sprayed on his face. How many had he murdered today?

"Go back to hell, asshole." Then she spat on his boots.

Chapter 4

Lothaire snatched her upper arms, yanking her against him, ignoring the pain from his new wound. She tried to end herself again. Almost succeeded . . .

"Let me go!" She thrashed against his hold.

Elizabeth had nearly robbed him of his coveted Bride, had disobeyed his orders-twice-and had stabbed him.

Yet she was furious with him?

When she continued to flail, his grip tightened until a cry was wrenched from her lips, and she stilled.

Control yourself. He inhaled deeply. Else forfeit your Bride. He was far too strong to lose control when she was near. The rage . . . madness . . .

Inhale. Exhale. Saroya was in his keeping, safe for now. Disaster averted.

After long moments, he found his wrath ebbing, the haze dissipating somewhat. He eased his grip but kept her close to him. "Are you done?" he snapped.

Expression mulish, she muttered, "For a spell."

Challenging me still? Lothaire knew he balanced on the very brink of insanity; now he realized this human might already be there.

But in the wake of his anger, the pain of his injuries lessened, drowned out by an excruciating awareness of her. He gazed down into her striking eyes with bemusement.

The feeling was almost . . . hypnotic.

She permeated all his senses. His Bride's body was giving off an unbearable heat as it trembled against him. Her rapid heartbeat was a siren's call to him, flaunting its coursing rush. A vein in her neck pulsed invitingly.

Pain? He felt none.

His gaze fell on the silky spill of her hair flowing loose past her shoulders. Dark brown waves made the color of those eyes stand out: smoky gray, framed with thick black lashes.

She'd grown prettier in the intervening years. Curvier. Her hips rounded enticingly, her high breasts straining against that threadbare top.

He rubbed his tongue over a fang as he recalled the first night he'd seen Saroya. She'd been in the woods at a makeshift altar, covered in blood beneath the light of the full moon.

One look at her, and his heart had awakened from its long slumber. Breath had filled his lungs. His shaft had stiffened with a swift heat, demanding its first release in millennia.

He hardened now, remembering how he'd licked her victim's blood from her sweet skin as he'd stroked himself. She'd stood passive against him-a giving female, the softness to his strength-as he'd shuddered and spilled his seed upon the leaves. . . .

Whatever Elizabeth saw in his expression made her suck in a breath, her cheeks pinkening. "What do you want from me?"

His gaze fell on her neck, his fangs throbbing for that tender flesh. To touch you. To drink you and make you grow wet from it. . . .

No, not her! Lust rode him hard, but he would never act on it. Though Lothaire killed so readily, though he unfailingly acted without honor, he wouldn't betray his queen.

Especially not with a worthless mortal, a female normally beneath his notice.

He released Elizabeth, shoving her away from him. Lothaire would slake himself with his Bride alone.

When would she rise?

Saroya had explained much of how the possession worked with Elizabeth. Neither female knew what the other was thinking, though Saroya believed the girl could sense her intentions at times-just as Saroya could perceive changes in Elizabeth.

The goddess found it difficult to rise unless Elizabeth was weakened in some manner, physically or emotionally, or when she slept.

The more Saroya herself slept, the more readily she could regain control of the body.

Yet once the girl began shoving her way back to the fore, Saroya would be overwhelmed with dizziness, blurred vision, and a feeling of movement within the body, a shifting inside.

Lothaire had asked her, "Why can't you stay in control?"

With her gray eyes glittering, Saroya had hissed, "The mortal's too strong."

Now, as then, it appalled him that his Bride was subject to the whims of a human-a situation all too similar to his mother's.

Blyad'! If Elizabeth could sense Saroya's intentions at times, then couldn't the goddess sense the presence of her mate?

Until she rose, he'd have to deal with Elizabeth. "Sit," he commanded her.

Chin raised, she remained standing.

His brows drew together. So few ever disobeyed him, especially not on the heels of his rage.

Lothaire had stayed alive this long by using his ability to predict his adversaries' moves. He knew how they would behave, oftentimes before they did. His life was an endless chess match, a calculated march taking him ever closer to his Endgame-of kingdoms seized and retribution delivered.

Yet this female continued to prove unpredictable. When she'd turned the blade on herself . . .

"Sit now. Or I'll return with chains for you to sit shackled."

She swallowed but didn't move.

He almost found it a pity that she'd be gone so soon. Breaking her would have been amusing sport. "Very well." He traced to one of his many hideaways, this one a strategic keep in the Ural Mountains, to retrieve a set of manacles.

Though immortals with untold strength and abilities routinely quaked before him, a powerless human who was not even a quarter of a century old was defying him.

Powerless. He thought again how easy it would be for his enemies to kill her. Why couldn't Elizabeth have languished quietly in prison? This rescue couldn't have come at a worse time!

Multiple factions-demonarchies, Horde vampires, Valkyries, Furies, Lykae-hunted him, seeking revenge, or, better yet, his death. As soon

as they found out he had a Bride in his possession, they'd target Saroya as well.

Thousands of years spent plotting would soon come to fruition-his Endgame finally achieved-as long as he didn't get distracted in these final weeks.

He considered the Endgame his master because he served it alone, thinking of nothing else. . . .

No, he wouldn't allow Elizabeth to alter his course.

He returned with the manacles. The girl had only gotten a few steps away when she froze at the clinking sound.