She seemed to soften at that, but then she asked, "Has anything really changed?"

"I've learned I need to consult you in matters, lest you decapitate me."

"Lothaire . . ." she said warningly. "You didn't truly want me, not until I was a vampire. And that hurts."

"When Saroya was cast out of you that night, it felt like someone had injected me with feeling for you. I saw you clearly for the first time, knew you as my Bride with no doubts. Before you were a vampire."

"What if there'd been no ring, no way to turn me? Could you have accepted that?"

"Never."

Pain flashed in her expression. "Why?"

"I don't court my own death, Lizvetta. You were mortal, could perish so easily. When a vampire's Bride dies, he is ended, back to being the walking dead-if he doesn't greet the sun. So ultimately, I'm only as strong as you are."

"That's why you were so raring to turn me?"

He hiked his shoulders. "And the sex is better."

"Ugh!" She threw her hands up.

"Because it's safer. Each time I denied my instincts, I feared I'd harm you myself."

"If I'd remained human, could you have felt the same way about me?"

"I would never have acknowledged to myself everything I felt for you while you were so vulnerable. But then, when you'd been turned, you were so strong. . . ." Voice dropping an octave, he said, "You took all my lusts and made me weak."

When she nibbled her bottom lip with one of her little fangs, his thoughts blanked for a moment.

"Everything you felt for me?"

"Come, come, Bride. You're exceedingly clever. You must know that I'm in love with you. Now will you return with me?"

Seeming to steel herself against him, she said, "But you told me we weren't equals. That doesn't really go along with my idea of love."

"You traced the first day you were a vampire. You took me down with a sword. Most of the Lore lives in fear of you. Your loyalty to your family never faltered, no matter how much I offered you, or how much pressure I put on you. You've much to teach me, Elizabeth."

When she remained uncertain, he said, "I understand how important your family is to you because I remembered how important my mother was to me. These long millennia, I've hated Serghei for taking my family from me-now I've realized I tried to do the same to you."

"And what if we have another falling-out? Will you refuse to talk to me? I longed to tell you how sorry I was for hurting you-until you sent me that awful package!"

"And you gave me the finger in return. Which I can now admit was uproarious." Especially since it had grown back.

"You didn't answer my question. You don't exactly have relationship skills mastered. And we will fight in the future."

"As I said, you're to teach me. Plus, you'll have my memories and know how I truly feel. All you have to do is drink from me every night." He gazed at her mouth, at her fangs readying from the mere thought. "You miss my blood-admit it."

"No!" she gasped, pressing her lips together.

Voice gone hoarse, he said, "Then why are those sexy fangs of yours so sharp?" Raising his gaze to her darkening eyes, he rasped, "Gods, I am going to do depraved things to you back at our castle."

She swallowed. "I-I haven't agreed to go with you."

"Then tell me where I may do those things to my Bride. If we remain here, we'll break this flimsy bed, possibly this entire conveyance."

Chin raised, she said, "You need to apologize for how you treated me."

She's wavering. He checked a look of victory, saying honestly, "I am sorry, Elizabeth. I tried to go back in time with the ring, intending to treat you like a queen from our first meeting." Then he frowned. "You should always tell me whenever I need to apologize."

"Just till you should be gettin' the hang of it!"

"Ah, you're agreed, then? So let's be off." He sat up, going still. "Am I wearing a wife-beater, Lizvetta?" He gaped down. "Oh, come on!"

"I suppose now's not a good time to give you your Skoal hat?"

"Your retaliation is unspeakable. For this alone, you must forgive me for my treatment of you."

"Still high-handed?"

"I literally risked my neck just now to say that in front of you."

He saw her lips quirk, but she schooled her expression.

"I told Nix that I would go to the grave again if it would make you love me. I went to the grave in that mine, ergo . . ."

"Are you trying to make me feel guilty so you can manipulate me?"

He blinked. "Of course. Now, tell me you love me."

"I do, Lothaire. For some reason, I truly do love you. And I will give this a chance," she said. "If you stay here with me."

Ellie had already made up her mind that she'd try living in Lothaire's castle and being a queen of the vampires and all, but this was too funny an opportunity to pass up.

Lothaire swallowed, his gaze flickering over the Beanie Babies on the windowsill and the stuffed animals.

"You could like it here, Lothaire, I just know it!"

With a pained expression, he said, "Those stuffed animals horrify and repel me." He shuddered. "And the aura of pathos in this place is inescapable. You don't . . . you can't want to live here. Not instead of a castle with servants to wait on your every need?"

"Sure I could! And then you wouldn't need all those fancy clothes of yours."

He squirmed. "I don't think I can live here. I really don't, Elizabeth."

And because she was so attuned to him, she could feel something akin to panic inside him. "Don't want to even give it a try?"

"Actually, I can't even be here for much longer."

She patted his hand. "I know, baby, I know."

"If you know I can't be here, and you won't come with me . . ." His eyes reddened ominously. "You believe we're living apart? I tried that; I detested that!"

Then he made a clear effort to calm himself. He opened his mouth to say something, thought better of it. At length, he grated, "I'm purchasing this mountain and the adjoining ones for you."

A breath left her. "Lothaire, I don't even know what to say."

"Come with me back to our kingdom, and I will have a mansion built here for your mother." With great effort, he said, "We could visit, if infrequently."


She leaned down until their faces were inches apart. "We'll visit every weekend, holidays, and NASCAR, vampire." She pressed her lips against his, sighing from the rightness of it, from the certainty that her life was with him.

Oh, Lothaire, you're not even gonna know what hit you. . . .

Between kisses, he told her, "If you agree to only Sundays and holidays, I will buy all your brethren homes." Against her lips, he said, "And you knew NASCAR was pushing it, Bride."

Epilogue

SOME TIME LATER . . .

We'd snickered behind your back," Stelian told Lothaire in a dazed tone, "amused by how such a young female was managing you." His expression was thunderstruck.

Lothaire knew that look, wore it often himself. "But you understood nothing of which you spoke?" he said, gazing at Elizabeth across the den of their castle apartments. She sat before a hearth fire, laughing with Hag and Kosmina, the royal hound at her feet.

"Correct." Stelian swigged a deep drink of blood mead. "How did she just get me to agree to her family's Christmas visit?"

In a tone both rueful and brimming with pride, he said, "You never see my queen coming till it's too late." Just this evening, Elizabeth had somehow gotten Lothaire to agree to take Joshua-and eight of his cousins-trick-or-treating.

But really. How hard could that be?

Though it shouldn't have surprised anyone, the mortal boy worshipped Lothaire.

I'm acquiring relatives like unspayed cat shifters.

Elizabeth caught his gaze, casting him that mind-scrambling smile of hers. Draped in the jewels he lovingly bestowed upon her, she radiated her contentment.

She'd had no trouble adjusting to this foreign way of life, taking everything in stride. With each foray out into their new realm, she'd readily picked up more of her subjects' language and customs.

And taught them some of her own. The reserved Daci . . . adored her, found her refreshing. As predicted.

After excusing herself, Elizabeth traced to sit beside him on the settee. Their hound-which he refused to call Bo Junior-chuffed indignantly, still baffled whenever anyone traced.

As Lothaire took her hand in his, pressing a tender kiss to the back, Stelian excused himself with a wary glance at Elizabeth.

"Everyone's getting along so much better, don't you think?" she asked. She'd long since dreamed his memories of Dacia, and after analyzing Lothaire's relationships with the royals, she'd set about "salvaging" them.

Now that Elizabeth was queen, some of the ice among them all was in fact thawing. After centuries of strife, they'd begun gathering around the den hearth. Still he said, "Would I admit it, if I did?"

"Lothaire-speak?" She quirked a brow. "Well, I think everything's coming along nicely."

Upon meeting Viktor, she'd told the general, "You're the fierce one Lothaire bragged about! No wonder he appointed you to be head of my guard. When he's away, he'll trust me with no one else." The soldier's chest had bowed.

To Mirceo, she'd said, "You could ask Balery to see how long your wait for your Bride will be. Counting down sometimes helps." Advice from a wise queen who'd had grueling life experiences to count down.

She'd told Trehan, "If I can live with Lothaire, then anything is possible with your Bride. Can't you give your relationship just one more try?"

With Kosmina, she'd done little managing, admitting to Lothaire, "I don't even know where to start. She might truly need a complete reboot. . . ." Hello, Louisiana.

Elizabeth believed that they were all "coming together as a family" or something, and that the reason he felt uncomfortable around them was that he feared he "might grow to care about them."

He'd scoffed, ready to assure her that he loathed his family and didn't want them near, but he hadn't been able to utter the words.

So for now, they invaded his personal space, Dacianos overrunning them.

Despite this, he was happy once more. As he glanced at his exquisite Bride, he thought, But I guard my key jealously.

Queen Elizavetta Daciano was his Endgame, always had been.

Would Ivana the Bold have bowed down to her? Yes. But deep down, he knew it no longer mattered.

Each night, when Elizabeth drank from him, their unbreakable bond only strengthened-and with it, his mind continued to hold steady. He would never be completely sane-not a chance of that-but as long as she accepted him, he could manage.

Whenever she slept, she dreamed of his actions from the previous day's span. If he went out on official kingly business, she would kiss him good-bye with the plea, "Don't do anything I'm gonna regret dreaming about, Leo."

Only two pressing tasks remained. He needed to repay Nix, and he needed to fulfill the vow to his mother to rule the Horde.

He'd decided-with the help of a sucker punch-to assist the soothsayer's search for Furie. Though he didn't necessarily want Phenix to be his boon companion once more, he didn't like being indebted to anyone.

And when he thought about how much he loved Elizabeth and how inconceivably right it felt to have her by his side, he recognized that he was seriously-grievously-indebted to Nix.

Now if he could just find the soothsayer to tell her; when he'd traced from Dacia to save Elizabeth, the Valkyrie had vanished.

No one in the Lore could locate Nix the Ever-Knowing. . . .

As for his final vow to Ivana, Lothaire was torn. Elizabeth had pointed out: "Ivana wanted you to rule the Horde while Serghei ruled the Daci, joining the two kingdoms, right? What would she have said if she'd known you would take Serghei's place as king?"

Good point.

Yet then Elizabeth had added, "Of course, if the crown's just sitting there for the taking, I know my guy is up for the job. . . ."

In order to avoid a large-scale conflict, Trehan had offered to have his assassins eliminate the two other contenders: Kristoff the Gravewalker and Emmaline the Unlikely, the halfling daughter of the Valkyrie Helen and Lothaire's uncle Fyodor-also known as King Demestriu.

Though both Kristoff and Emmaline were legitimate, neither worshipped the Thirst.

Lothaire had put Trehan on hold, but at the ready. With that thought in mind, he told Elizabeth now, "I go to see one of the contenders to the Horde throne this eve."

"Do you have to?"

"I must confront Kristoff"-that prick-"to get the bounty on your head revoked."

She grinned. "Plus you just want to see the look on his face when you reveal yourself to him."

"There is that." Knows me so well. "Will you remain here?"

"This one time, yes."

"Very well," he said, masking his excitement-because he intended to make a capture this eve. What good was having a dungeon of one's own unless it was utilized?

Would Elizabeth uncover his coup-truly just a paltry one, probably not even a slaying-in her next set of dreams?

His lips curled. Of course. So he "stored" a message just for her: Admit it, love, you like it when I'm a little bad. . . .

She gazed up at him. "Just don't forget our new motto, Leo. 'We can always murder them later, but we can't bring them back.' "

"My wise and clever Bride." He cupped her nape, drawing her close. "You are everything," he said simply.

With a contented sigh, she pressed her mouth to his, giving him a kiss that almost landed her back in their bed.

Somehow he broke away, murmuring at her ear, "When I return, be wearing red silk."

Her irises flashed black, her gaze smoldering. "I'll make sure you'll be . . . pleased."

"Saucy chit," he teased lightly, even as his body tightened with want. Must make this fast. . . .