Ellie slowly turned to him, eyes widening at the sight of the chains in his hands.
When he'd disappeared, she'd thought to escape. Now she trudged to the couch and sank down on it, inwardly pleading, Don't chain me, don't chain me. . . .
"Do you fear me, human?" He fingered the links.
Of course she did! He had supernatural powers, he'd just killed, and for some reason this maniac had fixated on her.
But Ellie usually had a good sense about people, and she suspected he would respect mettle. So she answered honestly, "Right 'bout now, I'm pretty scared." Her accent had grown more pronounced, a mountain twang that thickened whenever her emotions ran high. "But I reckon I'll work through it."
"And you fear these shackles?" His every movement spelled menace.
This devil's playing with me. "Yessir, I do. But you don't want to be
He raised his brows. "I don't?"
"What if Saroya wakes? I'm sure she'd be pissed to find herself all trussed up. And you don't want to ruin your . . . reunion." She could barely say the word. What would they do together?
Surely he'd want to make love to his queen at last. Because, for whatever reason, he never had before. Ellie was still a virgin. Which meant that Saroya had never taken a lover when she'd gained control.
After an endless moment, Lothaire let the shackles drop to the floor. The concession didn't feel like a victory to Ellie, more like a baited trap.
But with the immediate threat averted, she dragged her gaze from him to evaluate her surroundings.
The room was multiple times bigger than the entire trailer she'd grown up in. The furniture looked rich but modern, like from one of those design magazines. The curtains were drawn so tight, she couldn't tell if it was day or night. "Where am I?"
He crossed his arms over his broad chest. "New York."
"New York," she repeated dumbly. She'd never been outside of Appalachia but had always wanted to travel. Now everything was too surreal. "Why have you brought me here?"
"Because this place is mystically protected-inescapable and impenetrable."
Mystically? At that moment, she decided she'd better keep her mind open, lest it break from strain.
"You will be kept here for a time, until I cast your soul from your
"Wh-what are you talking about?"
"Your body will become Saroya's alone."
He had the power to steal Ellie's body from her? Forever? "I'll kill myself before that happens!" She leapt to her feet, starting for a bronze statue on a pedestal. "You hear me?"
"If you harm yourself in any way, I'll murder your mother and
She stilled, fear shivering through her.
"Perhaps I should end one of them today to demonstrate good faith on my threat," he said, as though remarking on the weather. "Any message you'd like me to deliver?"
Her mind cried, Oh, God, no! Yet she forced herself to sneer, "Do it. Don't give a damn. None of those assholes came to my execution today." She'd forbidden it.
Had her family obeyed her other orders?
Lothaire disappeared right before her eyes. From just behind her, he murmured, "You are quite the accomplished bluffer, little human . . ."
She felt his breath on her neck before she whirled around.
". . . but your racing heart gives you away," he finished.
He could disappear and reappear directly into Mama's trailer, murdering them in seconds.
If her family was there.
Expecting Lothaire to want payback for the execution, Ellie had made her mother swear she'd get herself-and the entire family-scarce in the days surrounding it.
Surely there'd be news coverage of Ellie's mysterious disappearance; her mother would be in defense mode, unlikely to return to her home until she'd heard from her escapee daughter.
Ellie was almost certain they were out of Lothaire's reach, but could she bet her family's lives on it?
Then he's won. All her brazen anger petered out, and she sank back down onto the couch. She'd always believed she'd win the battle against Saroya because she'd thought it would boil down to a test of wills.
But this man . . . this animal . . .
As her gaze flitted over the bullet holes in his chest that he seemed not to notice, then up to meet his chilling red eyes, she comprehended, I can't beat him.
Lothaire could see the defeat in her bearing.
At last the mortal had accepted her situation, accepted that he
had all the leverage he needed to force her cooperation. Now he merely had
to await Saroya. "Allow her to rise, Elizabeth."
"She's not trying to anymore. I can't prod her to it."
"But she was trying before? To escape the execution." When she didn't deny it, Lothaire imagined Saroya trapped, clawing to rise, to defend herself. . . .
Gods, he hated this girl-and he couldn't kill her! He paced once more, grappling to control his rage while ignoring his weariness and the twinges from his rapidly healing wounds.
When was the last time he'd really slept? Days ago? Weeks since he'd rested for more than an hour at a time?
Need to sleep, to dream. The memories come in dreams. He needed to begin his work, his seven little tasks-
"If you can cast out my soul," Elizabeth said, "then why do you need her to rise? And why'd you put me on ice for five years?"
He slowed, gazing past her. "I didn't possess the means then."
"But you do now?"
Not yet. After years of deceiving, slaying, and manipulating, Lothaire had seized the Ring of Sums, a talisman of great power-a wish giver. Only to have it stolen from him during his recent capture.
Mortals from the Order had attacked with their charge throwers, draining his strength, forcing him to kneel . . . the blood blinding his eyes and pooling around his knees.
He'd never forget the deafening scrape of the ring across the floor as their leader, a soldier named Declan Chase, had snared it.
"Do you have the means now?" the girl asked again.
Somewhere in the tangle of his mind Lothaire knew the ring's location. He just had to access that information. "I've budgeted anywhere from one night to a month until your end." Time enough to wade through the millions and millions of stolen memories.
Like his father before him, Lothaire was a cosaş, a memory harvester. A blessing for some vampires, a curse for one of the Fallen.
Damn his uncle for tempting him with the power all those centuries ago. . . .
"You must drink to the quick to be strong enough to destroy my brother," Fyodor had told him when they'd been reunited once more.
"My eyes are red, are they not?" Lothaire had said. "I've been a scourge upon humans."
"Or you can drink immortals to the quick and steal their strength, even their powers. Join with me, Lothaire."
"Ivana warned against this."
Fyodor had smiled thinly. "Your fair mother probably assumed you would have long since slain Stefanovich by now. . . ."
Impatient for power, Lothaire had begun targeting immortals. Yet their souls were much more decayed than humans'. And they had exponentially more memories. Ruinous to a cosaş.
His uncle had promised and delivered strength beyond measure, but had downplayed the side effect.
Insanity. Memories forever tolled. Lothaire balanced on the edge of a razor.
Though Fyodor, also a cosaş, had lost his mind long before his death last year, Lothaire had somehow pulled back, limiting his kills and memory harvests, scrabbling his way back to reason. All to serve my Endgame. . . .
He peered over at the mortal sitting on the couch. How long had he been pacing, his thoughts drifting? Her expression had turned from defeated to devious as she eyed the fireplace tools.
In another situation, he might have admired her tenacity. Now he snapped, "You must want them dead."
She jerked her gaze straight ahead.
With a scowl, he continued pacing, pondering his reaction to her earlier. He couldn't remember his body responding that wildly during his one night with Saroya.
For years, he'd remained apart from her easily, once he'd taken his initial release with her in the woods.
Now lust seethed inside him. Ignore it, Saroya will rise soon enough. And when she did, he'd touch her, taste her. Explore her new curves.
"Whoa! Your eyes are getting even . . . weirder."
Behold madness in a vampire. Everyone in the Lore knew Lothaire was on the brink; no one knew how close he was.
Most of the time, he had difficulty discerning his victims' memories from his own. When he slept, he uncontrollably traced to strange locales, as if sleepwalking. With increasing frequency, he'd been overwhelmed by rages.
One beckoned even now. "I want Saroya to rise," he told the human.
"Can't you take her from me instead? Maybe put her in the body of a red-eyed female demon-"
"She's no more a demon than I am! Saroya the Soul Reaper is the goddess of death and blood, the Vampire Horde's ancient deity."
"V-vampires?" Elizabeth whispered as she unsteadily stood. "Are you . . . you're not a vampire?"
He bared his fangs.
"You . . . you drink from people? Bite them?"
He enunciated, "Delightedly." Though not without express purpose, not any longer. His last prey had been calculated-Declan Chase, his jailer. The man would know where the Ring of Sums had been taken. Lothaire needed only to sleep to experience Chase's memories in dreams. . . .
Elizabeth put her hands to her knees, panting her breaths. "No sun. That's why the curtains are drawn so tight. A vampire. Sweet Jesus preserve me." Blood began trickling from the needle puncture on one inner arm.
His gaze locked on it, hunger racking him. He'd been injured repeatedly. Surely that was the only reason why he wanted so badly to sample her.
Not because the scent of her blood was exquisite . . . making his cock swell in his pants and his fangs sharpen. He ran his tongue over one, savoring the spike of his own blood.
Elizabeth cried, "Look at you!"
He hadn't allowed himself a taste of her before. Her blood would serve no purpose, might put him over the edge. But gods, its call was irresistible.
"You're not gonna bite me! Come near me with those fangs of yourn, and I'm gonna knock 'em out-"
He was behind her in an instant, one arm looped around her waist. With his free hand, he fisted the length of her shining hair and yanked her head to the side. Her pulse fluttered before his eyes.
How many times had he hungered for flesh but denied himself?
Yet never had his fangs throbbed like this, dripping to penetrate her. . . .
"Don't touch me!" She thrashed, digging her nails into his arm, but he enjoyed his enemies' struggles. Always had.
He raked a fang down the golden skin of her neck, cutting a shallow length, blood gently pooling.
Voice gone hoarse, he said, "I'll like it more if you fight. You'll like it more if you don't."
Scores of women-and men-had enjoyed his bloodtaking. It made them hunger, made them cling to him as if they wanted to sacrifice themselves on his fangs.
Mortals seemed particularly susceptible. Many came in his arms.
Would Elizabeth? The idea made him harden even more. He dipped his head, mouth closing over the fine wound. When his tongue touched a drop of blood, his body jerked as if lightning-struck.
A searing current seemed to electrify every vein in his body. . . .
"Wh-what are you doing to me?"
He licked the seam again and again, wanting to roar when she began trembling, her resistance easing.
She leaned into him, her back pressed against his aching shaft. When he snatched her tighter still and ground it against her, she moaned.
Yes, mortals liked his bloodtaking, but she was shaking with need.
"Oh! Ohhhh, no. . . . Oh, please!" Her voice was throaty, her breaths shallow.
Yet just when he'd widened his jaw to pierce her neck for more, she began fighting again. "No, not now!"
Lothaire tore his mouth away, saw her face go even paler.
She swayed on her feet. "Not now. . . ."
Saroya was rising! "Don't fight her, girl!" he commanded, yanking Elizabeth upright.
"No, no, no-" Her lids slid shut.
He caught her against him, turning her in his arms. "Saroya, return to me."
After a long moment, her eyes opened, narrowed; then her palm shot up to crack across his cheek. "How dare you leave me to rot in prison, you filth! I'll play with your spleen before the night is through."
"Saroya," he grated, barely keeping his rage in check. Inhale, exhale. "Ah, my flower. I've missed you too."
When Saroya drew back her hand to strike Lothaire's smirking face again, his expression turned deadly. "Once was forgiven, goddess, but twice would prove unwise."
Her hand faltered. Lothaire was a notorious killer, and as long as she was trapped in this mortal shell, Saroya was vulnerable.
Though her spirit would continue on after this human's death, just as it always did, this was the body she wanted. Saroya was determined to keep
it alive and unharmed. To do so, she needed this vampire's assistance.
"Release me, Lothaire."
Without a word, he did. She took a step back, surveying him for the first time in years.
Of course he'd changed little, frozen for all time into this immortal form. He was at least six and a half feet tall, lean but muscled. His features were flawless, gold stubble covering his wide, masculine jaw and strong cleft chin. His pale collar-length hair was thick and straight-now stained with blood. "You killed? Without waiting for me?"
"To effect your escape from prison, yes."
Finally out of that hellhole!
She scanned her surroundings, finding them scarcely better. The area was decorated with a subtle flair, rich colors and fabrics of obvious expense, but it was uncluttered-aside from a pile of smashed marble and various shattered vases.
Saroya preferred flashy ornamentation, the elegance of a tomb filled with sacrifices to her, piled high with flesh trophies and bones.