Nix nodded approvingly. "Now you're starting to get it, vampire . . ." She trailed off, shooting to her feet, her eyes swirling silver. "Lothaire, something's wrong."
He'd also felt a heavy sense of dread. His connection to Elizabeth was clearer now, more so than it had ever been. "What do you see, Nix?"
Gaze gone wild, she murmured, "Ellie spinning in blind circles, blood pouring from her mouth. Go to the mountain, Lothaire, follow the screams!"
Elizabeth!" Lothaire found her on her knees in a sunlit field, covered in coal dust, holding her hands over her bleeding ears. He was half-tracing, but still the light burned him.
"L-Lothaire?" Tears tracked down her cheeks, more blood spilling from her mouth. She was frail, obviously hadn't been drinking enough, and was newly injured.
Battered mortals lay on the ground all around them.
"I'm here, tell me what's happened."
She shook her head in confusion. She couldn't hear, could barely speak. "Help . . . me. . . ."
He clasped her in his arms, tracing her back to her home.
"No!" she shrieked, thrashing against him. "Back. Go back!"
Lothaire steadied his breathing, struggling to match his heartbeat to Elizabeth's frantic racing. As her heartbeat began to grow loud in his ears, Lothaire briefly closed his eyes-seeing into her mind, speaking directly into her thoughts.
"Shh, shh, love. Calm yourself."
"Take me back! My kin are dying!"
"I will fix this! Show me what's happened."
"I have to get back!"
"I will save any who live. You know I can do anything. Trust me?"
Her lips trembled. Another pair of tears streaked down her face. "Can I?"
"You alone can trust me." Words in Russian slipped out from his lips: I will fight any battle for you, crush any adversity. Because you are mine, beautiful girl. I love you so madly that the past before you feels sane. . . .
"Depend on me. You must, for your family."
At length, she nodded, and he wanted to bellow with satisfaction.
"Then drink." He bit his wrist, shoving the gash against her lips. "Heal." When she resisted, he yelled into her mind, "Now, Elizabeth!"
She jerked, eyes going wide, then she pressed her lips against his wrist. When she softly sucked, pleasure rippled through him, but he ordered himself to focus, reminding himself that his Endgame was at stake.
As she drew strength from him, beginning to mend, he said, "Let me see what happened. Show me."
Suddenly, he saw pandemonium.
An explosion in a mine, dozens of men trapped . . . Elizabeth trying to trace her relatives out as rocks continued to fall . . . She could only take one at a time, quickly weakening . . . Another explosion burst her eardrums . . . A support beam swung down, striking her torso, damaging something internally.
"If more rocks fall, Lothaire, if it catches fire . . ."
"Where should I trace to? Imagine exactly that location." She did. "Let me see your relatives' faces."
Images of one after another arose. Twelve men left. Lothaire memorized them.
"Remain here, Elizabeth. Do not leave this place. I will save any who live."
He traced away, but as their immediate bridge broke, he thought he heard her say, "Make it back to me."
Two little tasks: find key mortals, get back to Elizabeth.
Inside. Total blackness. The gloom engulfed him, the kind of darkness found only underground. Even he strained to see down here.
The dust stung his eyes and filled his lungs, as if they were compacting with dirt.
He froze in comprehension. He could be buried alive down here.
The earth grinding over me . . .
With violent shudders, he struggled to breathe. A cold sweat beaded his skin.
He'd told Nix that he'd go back to the grave for Elizabeth. Here I fucking am.
No, focus! Two little tasks. Elizabeth would want him once he saved her family. I could take her home with me, this very day.
He clenched the first boulder in his way, heaved it to the side. Then another. Yelling with effort, he began clearing his way through the tunnel.
All the while, the ceiling bowed precariously above him, support beams cracking under their burden.
As silt rained over him, he shuddered anew. Focus!
At last, he spotted lights from the miners' helmets. Most of the men were unconscious, but all had heartbeats. With the dust obscuring their faces, he couldn't discern Elizabeth's relatives from the others.
Which meant he'd have to save all of them, and sort later.
The ones still conscious recoiled from him.
-"Who the hell are you?"
-"Your . . . eyes!"
-"What are you?"
He grabbed the men's collars, tracing six at a time, dumping them in that scorching field and quickly scanning their faces to tally the Peirces.
But he still hadn't found the relative Elizabeth secretly loved the most-her uncle Ephraim. Lothaire traced deeper, deeper, straining to see.
Just when he spotted the man a short distance away, Lothaire heard another ominous quake.
He snatched up her uncle and traced him, tossing him into the field before returning. One man was still unaccounted for, a cousin.
Lothaire had saved his Bride's favorite mortal; now he was to risk being buried down here for some random cousin? He was tempted to trace away, calling this finished. She'd told him to make it back, hadn't she? He was ready to get back to the business of them.
But she trusted him, trusted him to save any who lived. Loyalty must go both ways. Though if he demonstrated it in this shadowy hell, then so help him gods, he had better receive it from her-
He scented the spark too late. . . .
Lothaire had come to her. Had he come for her?
Ellie was healing with every second, his blood like rich, warm rocket fuel compared to the animals' blood she'd been forcing down.
Her hearing was already back, her internal injury mending.
She was no longer petrified for her family-because Lothaire could do anything. If he said he would save all who lived, then that's what he would do.
Funny, Ellie-you didn't mind his high-handedness in this.
But immortal or not, if the coal dust ignited down there, he could . . . die. Beset with anxiety-for him-she paced/traced, biting her lip.
She couldn't lose him again. Her eyes began to tear up, blood pooling. What was taking him so long? She shivered, remembering the falling rocks, the coal in her lungs-
She gasped. "Oh, dear God." He'd dreamed of being buried in the earth, trapped. She'd tried to sooth his agonizing nightmares.
And yet I sent him into a mine collapse. With a cry, she traced to the triage field.
So many had already been saved. Hasty head count. Every single one of her relatives, some of them badly injured, was accounted for. So why hadn't Lothaire returned?
Then she noticed that one of her third cousins was helping the others, but he had no dust on him. He hadn't been in the mine earlier-yet she'd shown him to Lothaire as one of the missing.
Lothaire is searching for someone he'll never find.
Filled with dread, she traced inside the mine, immediately dropping to her front as flames shot over her. There hadn't been fire before! Oh, God, oh, God. She yanked her shirt over her mouth to keep the flammable dust out of her lungs.
If Lothaire had breathed too much of it . . .
Crawling through the blinding drifts of smoke, she scrambled to reach him, struggling to sense him as she navigated the arteries of the mountain. He'd said they had unbreakable ties.
Marshal your wits, Ellie!
Once she settled down and concentrated, she seemed instinctively
to know where to go, which way around boulders, and her connection to Lothaire grew stronger, like a sound getting louder closer to the source.
Almost there . . .
She found him. "Lothaire! Leo?" He was unconscious, pinned under a landslide of flaming rocks, his skin on fire.
When she dragged him out from under the rubble, she screamed. His coal-laden lungs had ruptured wide, his torso exploded outward.
His lids cracked open. Brows drawn, he mouthed, "Leave me now . . .get . . . out . . ." His eyes closed. The tension left his body.
Best be savin' your orders for someone who'll follow them, vampire.
Your mama's coming," Ephraim warned Ellie as she pressed a cold compress over Lothaire's face.
For two days, Lothaire had lain unconscious and bandaged in Ellie's darkened room, with Bo Junior draped across his ankles for most of that time.
That dog had a mean streak a mile wide. Figured the ornery hound would take a shine to the ornery vampire.
After Ephraim had gotten his own head bandaged, he'd helped Ellie clean Lothaire's wounds and get him comfortable, had even poached a deer to feed the man who'd saved his life.
Everyone-including her mother, especially her-had changed their tune about Ellie's villainous vampire.
"So let me get this straight," Mama had said, staring in awe at Lothaire's face. Even burned and gauze wrapped, he'd still looked like a god. "The most beautiful man you've ever seen turned you so you can never get sick or die, then spoiled you with jewelry and clothes while takin' you all around the world?"
"When you say it like that, it sounds unreasonable to have rejected him and accidentally nearly beheaded him."
"If the shoe fits, Ellie Ann Daciano!"
"Have you forgotten what else I told you?" Ellie had cried. "He treated me like . . . like you treat Bo."
"That dog sleeps in the bed with me, girl!"
"If I was with Lothaire, I'd have to live inside a mountain!"
Finally, Mama had frowned. "Like in a burrow or something?"
"A castle. But that's not the point. . . ."
Now Ephraim muttered, "I've been runnin' interference with her, but she's got her mind made up about that vampire of yourn."
Mama swept in, her brows drawing together at the sight of Lothaire sleeping. "Just look at him," she whispered. "I'll never get used to that face."
Ellie almost said, "Wait till you get a load of his eyes."
"Ain't he just the most beautiful thing? Like a fancy museum statue."
Lothaire continued to heal, appearing more and more like the flawless fallen angel Ellie was used to.
Mama rechecked the blankets over the windows, clucking through the room, organizing some of the get-well balloons and teddy-grams that continued to be delivered.
Finally, she took a seat by the bed. "A man that fine wants my baby to be his queen." She sighed. "Queen Elizabeth. You're gonna live forever in a castle, and you can flit around like a fairy"-Ellie didn't correct her-"and you're gonna be rich and adored by him."
"Mama, again, we don't know why he came back. He might only need an heir or something. Who knows?"
"Why else would that angel have saved all our menfolk?"
"He never said he'd returned for me." Unless he'd said it in Russian. She recalled the emotion in those words, what had felt like a promise. . . .
"You better hope he did," Mama muttered angrily.
"I'm just telling you that he's known to be evil. I have no idea what he's plotting."
"We ain't exactly saints around here, Miss Glass House. Sakes, Ellie, when did you get to be so judgmental?"
My mother is disappointed in me for not making my vampiric marriage work. Though Mama had never even spoken a word to Lothaire, she'd already instructed Josh to call him Uncle Leo.
Ephraim shook his head. "There'll be no livin' with your mama now. You know that, huh?"
"Yeah." So I really hope Lothaire came here for the right reasons. . . .
"I'm in the trailer, aren't I?" Lothaire rasped as he came to in Elizabeth's bed. He'd just awakened to her sweet scent on the pillow, when the odor of some unlucky varmint frying in the kitchen overwhelmed it.
Now he peered around him-vinyl walls and threadbare linens, freakish porcelain dolls. A spiteful-looking hound dozed over his feet. He rather liked the dog.
Elizabeth crossed her arms over her chest. "It was either here or I could've left you in the mine."
When he saw balloons and stuffed get-well bears with button eyes, he almost preferred the mine.
She rose and clapped her thigh, urging the dog, "Here, boy, get off him."
The beast growled just as Lothaire said, "He can stay."
She sat back down, mumbling, "You two are perfect for each other. He's now yours, by the way."
Then he's ours. "Why are there hideous stuffed bears with my name on them?"
"My whole family loves you now. They wanted to thank you for saving them. You rescued them all, you know."
"And then you rescued me." Saving his life while risking hers. Loyalty rewarded in kind. But if she ever puts herself in danger again . . .
She waved that away. "In any case, we've got more casseroles than we-or they-could eat in a month."
"And how do they explain their rescue?"
"My family knows what we are, but they don't tell secrets to outsiders-believe me. The other miners think you're . . . the Mothman."
Lothaire rolled his eyes. "Mothman. Really, Elizabeth? Really?"
She shrugged. "Look, I'm deeply grateful for what you did. But why have you come here?"
"For you. I've gained control of one kingdom. Return with me to Dacia and be my queen."
"Your last word on the subject was that I should rot in hell."
Unexpected Elizabeth wasn't falling into his arms as he'd anticipated, even after he had acted heroic and been valiantly injured. Perhaps he had lost her.
"Lothaire, you gave me your black heart and told me I'd never get my claws in another one."
"I'll give it to you anew." He flared his own claws over his chest, about to dig in. "It pains me as nothing has before-"
"No!" She lunged forward, slapping his hand. Hard. "You just mended that skin."
He lowered his hand, grumbling, "My heart doesn't fucking work right without you."