In the streets below, screams rang out. Thunder rocked the entire kingdom, echoing until rubble quaked. The unknown threat Hag spoke of.
"Calm yourself, Valkyrie!" He grabbed her shoulders, giving her a jostle.
She thrashed against him harder, and two more bolts speared down in rapid succession. Like detonations. She could topple the castle!
"Phenix, calm yourself!" He lifted her into his arms to trace her away-
At once, the lightning ebbed. Seconds passed. A muted scream here and there. Disaster averted.
"Phenix?" she whispered up at him. "No one calls me that but you. Everyone who used to is dead. They're all dead."
He exhaled a gust of breath. "They always die before us, don't they?"
"When was the last time you slept?"
"Not since I saw you on the island."
That had been several weeks ago. "Why? The shrieks at Val Hall keep you up?"
"I like to drift off to the sound of shrieks. No, it's because someone always needs my help. Loreans are incessant, skulking around the manor, with their languishing hearts and unfulfilled desires. I can feel them ache, like a bad tooth I can never yank free."
"You need a male to keep those beings at bay."
"You have no idea."
He muttered a curse, then said, "You may rest here this eve." Tracing to the sitting room couch, he gently laid her down. "I'll keep the Loreans away for one night."
"It is blessedly peaceful here, high in this castle. White queen and black king can call a draw for a time. . . ."
My enemy, my onetime friend. Why had she continued to help him? With a brusque "Good night," he tossed a blanket over her.
But she said, "Stay. Just till I fall asleep."
After debating a few moments, he sank down, resting his back against the couch, his arms stretched over his bent knees. "Why do you want me here?"
She yawned widely, as the young did. "We can watch each other's backs in shifts, as we used to do."
Though it did feel like times past, he said, "You still can't trust me. I'm considering cutting your hair when you sleep, just for keys past the Scourge."
"Naturally. Talk to me about other things."
Another exhalation, then he spoke his mind. "I feel . . . old." He knew she could sympathize. When they'd been friends, he'd once confessed to her, "Phenix, you are the only one who understands the truth: Eternal life alone is naught but an eternal punishment."
"Lothaire, I've met dirt younger than we are."
He scrubbed his hand over his face. "I didn't feel old when I was with Elizabeth. I felt like a young vampire, just starting out with her. The world was ours for the taking."
"I envy you that feeling."
After several heartbeats, he admitted in a low voice, "I'd go back to the grave if it would force Elizabeth to love me."
"Oh, Lothaire," she sighed, patting his shoulder. "I tried to help you with her. I watched out for her at Val Hall. I showed her that she could walk in the sun."
"Was she excited?" He twisted around to face Nix. "What did she say? Did she mention me?" Though Lothaire had long sworn never to bestow a gift with no thought of a return on his investment, he finally had. I gave Elizabeth the sun. He'd wanted her to know that happiness, even if he, himself, could not-
"Ellie was . . . sad."
"Sad?" he bit out. He'd never understand females! "Did she never speak of me?"
"In the weeks that you ignored her, humiliating her with every day that you didn't retrieve her? Honestly, Lothaire, if she'd brought you up to anyone . . . awkward."
He glowered at the ceiling. Silence reigned.
Damn it, Nix was going to fall asleep and leave him alone and unsettled, wondering how he'd made Elizabeth sad-and whether he should give his Bride another one of his black hearts in penance.
With a scowl, he gruffly said, "I'm not a pussy, you know."
"Then dream her memories," Nix whispered, before drifting off.
After several days back in her childhood home, Ellie still hadn't acclimated.
As she mended socks, she gazed around the trailer, trying to see it through Lothaire's eyes.
Mama was at the stove, frying up chicken for when Ephraim and the others got home from the mine. A singing Big Mouth Billy Bass was proudly mounted on the wall. Porcelain dolls that screamed "QVC Christmas Sale" lined a shelf. Two lazy hunting dogs, Bo and Bo Junior, dozed at her feet.
Lothaire probably hated animals. He'd find it all tacky and shuddersome.
She shrugged. Even compared to the luxury of the apartment and the grandeur of Val Hall, she liked it best here. Though it no longer felt like home.
Because Lothaire isn't with me.
Mama glanced over at her. "If you're hankerin' for that vampire, you just cut it right out, Ellie Ann Peirce."
"I believe my last name is Daciano, actually."
"The hell you say! I could kill that monster for what he did to you."
"He's not a monster, Mama. I think he's just misunderstood-"
Josh came bounding inside, running straight for Ellie. "My fort is the best, Ellie!" he told her, clambering over her onto the couch.
He'd been playing in the tree house she'd built him-the one constructed in less than forty-five minutes without a hammer. She'd used her thumbs to press nails into unwittingly donated lumber.
Initially, Josh had been wary of his long-lost sister, as if he'd sensed she wasn't right in some way. Though Ellie didn't suppose she appeared all that different-as long as she wasn't hungry or upset-the boy had been standoffish.
Now she couldn't pry him away. Not that she would ever try to. Since he'd taken to latching on to her at all times, she'd had to seriously accelerate her crash course in vampire strength control.
"Josh, I still can't get over how big you are!"
When he made a muscle with his right arm, she curbed a grin and looked dutifully impressed.
"Uncle Ephraim said I'm gonna be over ten feet tall."
"Well, maybe if you eat your greens."
"And Mama said you came back to the mountain 'cause you got a dee-vorce, and if any man comes 'round askin' for you, I'm s'posed to tell him you're dead, then spit on his boots."
With an arch look at her mother, Ellie said, "A divorce? Did she, then?"
Ellie turned to Josh. "Why don't you get cleaned up, and I'll make you a PBJ."
"Depends on how the finances are doing, honey." At his raised brows, she said, "Ellie's kidding. No crust, promise."
Once he was gone, she told Mama, "I'm going out tonight." For the last week, she'd continually thought about ways she could break into Lothaire's apartment and steal those jewels.
She'd come up empty.
In lieu of that, she intended to go cat-burgling later, anything to get her family out of the mine-
The trailer rocked, grease sloshing out of the fryer. Just as Josh came running wide-eyed from the bathroom, a loud boom followed.
Ellie and her mother locked gazes, knowing only one thing that could set off an unplanned explosion like that.
There'd been another mine collapse.
Lothaire drifted off shortly after Nix, his head slumping forward, his eyes darting behind his lids.
At long last, he began to witness a stream of Elizabeth's memories.
He feared what he would find, but heedlessly opened himself to her past. . . .
When her father had died, Elizabeth had been grief-stricken, but she'd allowed herself little time to mourn him. Instead, she'd worked tirelessly to scrabble together a better life for her mother and brother.
Lothaire observed example after example of her using her wits to make strides, with work, with school. And she'd known successes, gaining momentum.
Until Lothaire and Saroya had devastated her existence with a year of hell, culminating in a night of carnage.
Prison followed. Lothaire's eyes stung as he experienced the pall of mace lingering in the ward. He felt her pulse racing when she shot upright in bed, awakened by the other prisoners hissing in the dark, moaning, wailing.
Her bottom lip would tremble when she dreamed about her college pennants and her little brother's ruddy cheeks. How much she yearned to watch him grow up!
But in five years, she never allowed herself to cry.
He experienced firsthand her near execution, the IVs sunk into her veins, her "rescue" to a place even more torturous.
He relived his own mocking, as if it'd been directed at him. He'd derided her background and her loved ones, wounding her repeatedly.
If he had, in fact, ever praised her intelligence, then she had no memory of it.
Not only hadn't he recanted his hateful comments, he'd never righted the wrongs.
Lothaire heard her thinking, "Does he still consider me just a "backward and vulgar hillbilly"? He'll probably be embarrassed of me around others. God, that hurts."
No, you are everything to me!
From her point of view, he experienced the night that he'd told her he'd keep her, that he'd chosen her. He felt her flutter of hope; later, he felt her misery once she'd comprehended that he would still kill her, would destroy her soul.
In the beginning of her ordeal with Saroya, Elizabeth had accepted that she would die; yet then she'd let herself hope for the first time since the night he'd sent her off to death row.
The dashed hope was the worst.
Elizabeth had told him honestly, "I don't want to live in your violent, messed-up world."
Why would she decide to live within the violent realm of immortals-much less choose him as her protector amid it?
He'd given her no reason to choose him over her loved ones, simply decreeing that she'd never see them again.
Once he viewed her memories of her family-laughing with them, covering for them, always there to help out-he recognized how ridiculous he'd been to expect her to forget them.
Her family had proved just as loyal to Elizabeth. With no questions asked, two of her cousins had buried bodies for her behind the barn.
I hadn't even thought-or cared-about what had happened to Saroya's victims.
Elizabeth had once told him that her family was a unit, that their mountain was an ironclad support system.
My own family is lacking compared to that. Ivana had been betrayed by her father. Lothaire's own father had tortured him.
The Peirces were invulnerable to deceit and cowardice like that.
But at last, Lothaire wasn't jealous of Elizabeth's devotion to others-no matter how much he coveted it.
Just because she loved her family and was loyal to them didn't mean she couldn't be loyal to him as well.
As long as he never crossed them.
Instead, he'd set events into motion that would separate her from her loved ones forever. He'd robbed her of her family.
Just as Serghei robbed me of Ivana.
In sleep, he began to sweat as he grasped the truth: I did to Elizabeth . . . what he did to me.
Lothaire had never seen her memories for a reason-because he couldn't handle the way he'd treated his precious female.
Just when he was about to wake, despairing of ever winning her back, a flash of another memory arose. As he'd slept one night, suffering from some nightmare, she'd gazed down at him with tenderness. Her chest had ached with feeling for him-as his continued to do for her. She'd smoothed hair from his brow, soothing him with soft words.
He'd never known that before. Ah, gods, she did love him.
Lothaire could feel it burning strong within her. I could have the loyalty she showed her family. The love-
He woke with a yell. "Lizvetta!"
I knew she was falling in love with me!
He twisted around, but Nix wasn't on the couch. He found her sitting at the window, waving down at his subjects. She looked refreshed, her hair combed.
"Elizabeth did love me!" he barked without preamble. "So why would she lash out like that?"
Nix shrugged, blowing a kiss to someone. "Because she was a new vampire with her emotions running high? Did you say anything that might have provoked her to that kind of rage?"
He rubbed the back of his neck. "There might have been a few choice phrases."
"Plus, she traced just as she swung the sword at you."
"Impossible. She'd only been a vampire for hours."
"She can trace all around the world now."
Unexpected Elizabeth. "I am prideful. But if she can trace without limits, will she go back to her family?" He was unable to think of much beyond getting his Bride back, his mind seizing on one little task: get Elizavetta. "What did she say when she left Val Hall?"
Nix turned to him. "I remember her standing dazed on our front porch. The vaunted queen of the proud Daci was alone, penniless, with her few clothes-all Valkyrie cast-offs, mind you-in a grocery bag. She had no idea what she was going to do or how she was going to feed herself, and feared her family would never accept her. Oh, and she was light one finger."
He yelled in frustration, tracing to punch a fist into a fresh wall. "You tell me these things? You might as well gut me with a blade."
"I'm just telling you so you know why she might be less than thrilled if you show up."
"I felt her emotions, I know she loved me."
"Before you broke her heart."
Long moments passed. In a low tone, he asked, "Am I never to have her love again?"
"I'd hold on to the finger, Lothaire. It might be all you ever have of her."
Family is her key. He threw back his head and yelled, "Stelian!"
When the big vampire traced inside, he gave a courtly bow to Nix, who smiled absently.
Lothaire wasted no time. "Go and buy my queen's family mountain. Put it in her name. Lie, steal, cheat, or kill to see this through."
Stelian saluted sarcastically. "We have intermediaries who deal with humans. Consider it done."
"And get the mountains next to it, just in case."
"I see we're planning to buy the queen's forgiveness. It's about time."