"Romantic? It was to mark the end of our relationship. Keep her at Val Hall forever, if you like."
"Oh, no. She's gone. Whereabouts unknown."
His gut tightened. The cloaking tattoo around her ankle had faded with her transformation. Would Elizabeth be safe outside of the wraiths' guard?
Who was he kidding? She was a vicious female-a vampire who'd taken him down!
"Ellie did mention something about seeing the world."
He wanted to tell Nix, "I couldn't care less," but his throat burned on the lie. "You do know that there's a bounty on her head?"
"The one Kristoff posted?"
"Kristoff?" he bit out. The Gravewalker will be receiving a visit from me-
"He's on walkabout currently. He'll be back at Oblak in a few weeks. If I remember, I'll be sure to let him know you'll be calling on him."
"Do whatever you like," he snapped.
"Fear not, very few Loreans would target Ellie. After what I've told everyone she did to you? Plus, they know better than to use her as leverage-since you seem not to want her."
Don't I? He still reached for her in his bed, only to find himself clasping nothing. Upon every wakening, he roared with frustration, shaken anew that she wasn't with him.
"You can keep up the façade, Lothaire, pretending how wonderful it is without her. But we both know you miss her."
"Perhaps I simply miss a female-any female. I wager I'll be the one vampire who will forsake his Bride and enjoy others."
Starting today, he would. His plan to install concubines had been delayed by his regenerating heart. Then he'd lost enthusiasm for the idea because his new heart hurt worse than the other. But no more delays.
Nix examined her claws, as if his statement was the height of absurdity. "Do you know how many times I've heard that?"
He traced in front of her, slowly backing her toward the wall. "Ah, flower, would you like me to demonstrate how quickly I've forgotten her?" he asked, voice dripping with innuendo.
In a breathless whisper, she said, "Yes. Kiss me, Lothaire."
He quirked a brow. Could any male turn her down? Nix was stunning-and apparently willing. He brushed her tangled hair back from her face.
I always knew she wanted me. What female wouldn't?
Elizabeth. Because I'm ugly on the inside.
Ignoring thoughts about his Bride-and his contentious past with Nix-he leaned in closer . . . closer. He grinned as he imagined Elizabeth finding out about other females in his life, discovering that he was bedding scores of them without a thought devoted to her.
Not a thought. I'll kiss Nix-and it will be better than with Lizvetta.
Better than the night he'd first claimed his Bride, helping her take him inside her body? Better than the night he'd turned her? When she'd kneaded his flesh with her little claws as she'd fed from him?
The way his heart had beat in time with hers . . . the way she always ran circles around him . . . the way her chin would jut stubbornly, her gray eyes fierce . . .
Just before he reached Nix's lips, he froze.
Better with the Valkyrie? Fool, it can't be better.
Rage erupted. "Ahhh!" he bellowed. "It's her! That bitch has ruined me!"
He punched the wall beside Nix's head; she yawned.
"You knew this would happen! You knew we'd never kiss. Yet you said I defied foresight."
"Doesn't take a soothsayer to see how much you ache for her, Lothaire. She's your missing puzzle piece. You'll never be complete without her, no matter how many ethereally gorgeous Valkyries you bed."
Elizabeth is my happiness, he thought again. "I could hate her for what she did to me."
"Because of one unsuccessful beheading?" She tapped her claw to her chin. "Wow. I never thought you were such a pussy. I'm rethinking our friendship."
He bared his fangs once more. "It's not about my neck! She betrayed me." She'd feigned affection for him. For him. "I've had enough betrayal in my life. From my father, my uncle, from you."
"Don't play coy, Valkyrie. I know of your treachery. You warned Stefanovich of my impending attempt on his life. He listened well."
She shrugged nonchalantly. "I did tell him-but only after I explained to you that I intended to do exactly that. I repeatedly told you to be patient, to trust me, but you wouldn't listen. You set out anyway."
"You were my oldest friend! I never thought you would truly contact him."
"I acted for your greater good, to turn your fate in a different direction, before tragedy struck."
"Tragedy?" He turned to pound his fist on his desk and it shattered into splinters, papers flying. "What could possibly have been worse than what occurred? I suffered six centuries of hell because of you! Do you know what it was like in that grave, to have insects boring inside my own living corpse, picking at my flesh? No idea when it would end . . . the blood tree growing within." He lurched on his feet, memories threatening to overwhelm him. "It . . . fed. I prayed for death. Anything to make the pain end!"
"If Stefanovich hadn't caught you, then you wouldn't have your Bride."
Inhale for calm. Exhale. Draw from the tie with Elizabeth. "What are you fucking talking about?"
"Have you never wondered why I would betray"-Nix made air quotes-"you?"
"Because we are natural enemies. Instinctively you despise what I am. It was only a matter of time."
She perched on the study's window seat. "If you hadn't been caught by Stefanovich, you would have died in the Horde invasion of Draiksulia."
"There was no Horde invasion of the fey plane."
She snapped her fingers. "Exactly. You, as well as all our Valkyrie allies, were spared. From just a whisper in your father's ear."
His lips parted.
"And had you perished then, you never would have made contact with Saroya-who would have killed even more while in Elizabeth's body, leaving no time for an attempted exorcism." Nix's vacant golden eyes shimmered. "I saw your Bride's alternate future as clear as day. One fall morning, Elizabeth did the laundry for her mother, folding clothes off the line. Then she took her father's Remington and walked into the woods alone. She tucked the barrels under her chin. Blood, brain, and bone splattered over leaves."
"I saw it all. Still think me a betrayer?"
I wouldn't have Elizabeth if not for Nix's actions. He didn't have her anyway! Then his eyes narrowed. "Why did you leave me so long in the grave? You were there the night Fyodor released me-I saw you in the woods."
"My foresight doesn't work with you. I was only able to find you by reading Helen's fate. You know what she became to you."
"Yes." My aunt. "An embarrassment."
"Speak ill of my dead sister again, Lothaire, and I'll take my crazy somewhere else."
"Somewhere outside of Dacia?" He waved his arm. "If you could find this kingdom all along, you might have told me how! I spent centuries searching. As you well knew!"