Shimmering black silk against blood-spattered granite.
"Where have you taken me?" she asked in a pained tone.
"New York," he answered. "To one of our homes."
"I assume we have many."
"We own mansions, villas, chateaus. Any dwelling you desire will be yours."
As if she needed him to tell her that. She glanced down at her arm, at a drying track of red. "Did you bite me?" Narrowing her eyes, she added, "And do not think of lying to me."
A muscle ticked in his jaw. "You know I can't lie, Saroya." Natural-born vampires were physically incapable of it. Whenever a lie arose, a vampire would feel the rana, the burn, a scalding sensation in his throat.
"Did you dare pierce my skin?"
"There is little daring to it. But in this case, I only grazed your neck."
She reached up and brushed the nick with her fingertips. For some reason, her body seemed awkward, her breasts heavy. "Taking straight from the flesh, cosaş? Twenty thousand years of my memories will undoubtedly send you over the edge," she said. "You must have been very desirous of blood to have stolen hers."
Was there a subtle flush on his face? "I wager you have to be at the forefront of consciousness in order for me to harvest your memories. As for Elizabeth's-I believe I can handle twenty-four human years."
"How long did you leave me in that prison, Lothaire?"
"A mere half decade."
"What was more important than I?"
He shrugged. "Finding a way to circumvent your curse."
"I assume that you've found such a means. Else I'd still be locked up."
"I freed you because the body was about to be executed. By mortals."
Too shaming to be borne! "I'd sensed a threat, but an execution? For such a paltry number of deaths?"
Some of the tension left his broad shoulders. "My exact thoughts."
"So we're no closer?" At least now that she was free, she'd be able to kill once more. In the past, she'd reaped souls from her kills, each victim providing her strength. She'd been a true vampire. Now she stole lives solely for pleasure.
"After years of searching, I unearthed the Ring of Sums."
"Sums?" Her eyes widened. "Clever Lothaire." For him to have thought of this possibility! That talisman was steeped in power.
"It will allow me to extinguish Elizabeth's soul and make your body undying. You're to become a vampire like me."
Female vampires could only be born-never made. Though vampiric blood could potentially transform human males into vampires, a mortal female like Elizabeth would never survive the turning.
Even a former deity like Saroya didn't know why.
But the ring would overcome that. What else might the ring do . . . ?
She almost felt like smiling-which she never did. Then her satisfaction dimmed. "I understood the ring to be lost centuries ago. Along with its owner." A sorceress named La Dorada, a particularly treacherous adversary of Saroya's, had guarded the ring.
No matter how zealously Saroya had sought Dorada's death, her assassins could never deliver it. "You stole the ring from the Gilded One?"
He inclined his head regally.
Her lips parted. "I knew you were ambitious, but this is scarcely believable! Even gods tread carefully with Dorada. Especially the evil ones." I've never been more defenseless against her. . . .
"I faced the sorceress and her lackeys seven days ago, yet here I
He'd survived a confrontation? "She will target your Bride to punish you! Unless you killed her?" Am I free from the prophecy at last?
"If you left her alive, then she will be coming for us."
"Yes," he said casually.
"We must use this ring to return my godhood, Lothaire! And quickly."
"Even the Ring of Sums has limitations. If the ring could make one a god, then Dorada would have commanded it to do so. I believe we are bound to the realm of the immortals."
"In any case, give the ring to me."
"Three weeks ago, I was trapped by foes, an organization called the Order. They imprisoned me and confiscated it."
She was tempted to disbelieve such a story-few in the Lore were as formidable as Lothaire-but he couldn't speak untruths. "Why would they target you?"
"To examine me, determine my weaknesses, then execute me. Many other warriors from the Lore were captured as well."
"These foes must be exceptionally cunning to have trapped you."
"Their weapons are advanced. But I will steal the ring back. I depart tomorrow night, once you are settled. And once we have . . . caught up," he added.
"You must destroy Dorada, Lothaire. You must."
He narrowed his eyes. "I intend to, as soon as I reclaim the ring. Consider the sorceress as good as dead."
Reassured somewhat, she asked, "How long will it take to retrieve it?"
"A night? A month? I can't say for certain," he said. "I drank the blood of my former jailer. He knows how to find the ring, and I can tap his memories through my dreams. Have already seen some."
Saroya wasn't a patient god. "This body ages with each day."
Lothaire prowled around her, shamelessly raking his gaze over her form. "It is much changed."
"Mirror!" she ordered imperiously.
With a bored lift of his brow, he pointed behind her, to one hanging on a paneled wall.
Saroya crossed to the glass and gazed into it, cringing at her prison garb.
The scratch on her neck drew her attention. Would that scar? Would it heal before she was made into a vampire? Once this body became immortal, it would be frozen forever-its appearance fixed.
Lothaire traced to stand behind her. "You've suffered no ill from your time in prison, have only grown more beautiful."
She scrutinized her figure. Had Elizabeth lost weight? Saroya had resigned herself to her new short frame-mere inches over five feet-but she couldn't accept this leanness. "The body's too slim."
She recalled one of the few times she'd risen in that fetid jail. She'd read Elizabeth's journal, noting that the mortal "worked out" every day in her cell. Unfortunately, it showed.
How Saroya missed her own features! Her eyes had once been large and feline yellow, slit down the center with a thin black iris. Her lips had been bloodred, her skin pale like the moon. She'd been almost six feet tall and voluptuous to an obscene degree.
Whenever she'd descended from her godplane to earth, men had been awestruck just to behold her. Once she beckoned for them, they'd offered themselves to her insidious brand of death. . . .
She ran her hands over this new lean figure, groping for softness. How much flesh can the body gain before Lothaire finds the ring?
At least Elizabeth's bust had grown to a decent size. When Saroya cupped herself with relief, Lothaire's eyes grew hooded.
Saroya abruptly dropped her hands. In a brisk tone, she said, "This face is the most lovely of my temples'."
Though this present guise couldn't compare to hers when she'd been a cat-eyed enchantress, Saroya had enjoyed some success luring victims. Males wanted to protect the vulnerable-looking girl and pluck her innocence. Instead, Saroya had plucked their hearts, eyes, and testes.
Unlike her twin sister, Lamia, a goddess of life and fertility, Saroya was a virgin deity and forever would be, defending her chastity to the death. . . .
To others' deaths.
Yet Lothaire believed she was a sexual creature, believed she'd never taken a lover into Elizabeth's body out of faithfulness to him. . . .
"Indeed lovely." His voice had grown huskier. "Who came before this human?"
"I possessed a middle-aged professor of Americana. I had much to learn from him, kept him alive for most of the nineties. After him came a shovel-toothed hunchback of a woman. I leapt off a building to be rid of her." She frowned. "That transfer hadn't proved as instantaneous as I'd hoped."
"How are these temples chosen for you?"
"It could be based on a bloodline. Only the one who cursed me can say." Lamia, damn you to the Ether! "All I know is that I will do anything to remain in Elizabeth-and you would do well to help me. I promise you, the next form for your Bride cannot possibly be better, if you could even find me. I might possess a male, or a baby, or an octogenarian. Not a young and fair innocent."
Yet another reason this body was a seamless fit. Elizabeth was a virgin, much to Lothaire's fascination.
He reached for her waist, turning her to face him. She stiffened but allowed it. "I'm quite content with your host as well. How long can you hold her off?"
"She'll rise this very night. She is exceedingly strong-willed. Lothaire, I want her gone."
He brushed a lock of hair from her forehead, his red eyes following the movement of his hand. "And you shall have everything you wish once I reclaim the ring. For now, I will make her fear ever to rise again."
"You think you can make one like her go dormant? How? When you can't harm the body to torture her into submission?"
His lips drew back from his fangs, not a smile. "Let me worry about our pathetic little mortal."
"Such vitriol." One thing she'd learned about Lothaire? He despised humans even more than she did.
"Elizabeth just attempted to destroy herself, thinking that would kill my Bride. Yet I can't punish her for her transgression!" he grated. "Be assured that the next time she rises will be her last."
Saroya had never met a man so certain of himself. But then he was powerful, brilliant, calculating, and, above all things, perfectly fashioned.
Lothaire was as compelling as a virility god.
The night of their first meeting, she'd allowed him to lick her prey's blood from her skin as he'd stroked his own organ to release. Though she'd been repelled by his animalistic needs, even she had been reluctantly entranced by the sight. And she was above such urges.
Saroya despised all things sexual. Blood and death were all she revered-certainly not an act designed to create life.
In fact, she loathed males-those reckless carriers of seed-entirely.
Now this one was cupping her nape, his gaze locked on her lips, no doubt intent on claiming her. How to put him off once more? "As I told you years ago, Lothaire, I won't yield this body until it's fully mine to give you."
He straightened, meeting her eyes. "And as I told you, Saroya, I can't take you until you're immortal, else risk killing you with my strength. But there are other ways to pleasure each other."
"Despite ample opportunity, I haven't been with another since my blooding."
Yes, he would have ample opportunity. "I suppose females throw themselves at you wherever you go."
"To a tedious degree." He studied her expression. "Jealous to think of me with another?"
"Not at all." She no more cared whom he mated with than she would about an ant on the sidewalk.
His grip on her neck tightened, a clear threat. "I'm not a selfless male-when I give, I expect to get. Today I gave you freedom."
Though it appalled her, she knew she'd have to manipulate him. "Vampire, I reek of prison, poverty, and fear. Look at my appearance, my atrocious garments. I want to feel beautiful, to be desirable. I need clothes, jewels, cosmetics. My hair must be shorn, my skin bathed."
She thought he might press the issue. Instead, he released her, offering his hand. "Then welcome to New York." He drew back a curtain, revealing a balcony that overlooked a green park and a vast city. He ushered her forward into the sunlight as he drew back into the shadows. "Whatever you need, we'll find it here."
Did he expect her to be impressed by this view? She was confused. Impressive would be this vast city enslaved to her will. . . .
His penthouse had been turned into a female's sartorial dream.
Blue velvet draped the dining room table, dotted with gemstones the size of his Bride's fist. Racks of costly garments lined the walls in the living area. Designer shoes littered the floor. Cosmetics were laid out in the dressing room.
And in the kitchen, a chef prepared a meal fit for a queen.
After Lothaire had cleaned himself, he'd made a few select calls. Within the hour, his home had been filled with the city's most exclusive stylists, beauticians, and shopkeepers, all peddling their wares and services.
At least, the most exclusive mortal proprietors.
Normally he would have purchased through Lore vendors, but gossip about the Enemy of Old's new woman would be impossible to suppress unless he killed all the witnesses.
Which he was hesitant to do; he enjoyed their luxurious wares himself. Even if he wasn't yet a king, he would dress as one. . . .
So humans it would be. He adjusted the sunglasses he was forced to wear in front of them.
For the last several hours, Saroya had been closeted in her suite of rooms with aestheticians and a "wax specialist"-whatever that was-spending the afternoon doing gods-only-knew-what in the bathroom.
To pass the time, he was tempted to tackle a new mechanical puzzle he'd acquired-a polyhedral assembly, solvable in sixty-five moves-but his concentration suffered on most days as it was.
And now the sound of his Bride's voice teased him. Her scent kept his body strung tight. As ever, madness threatened.
Lothaire knew one thing that would relax him. He traced into the closet of his suite, opening a safe within. There lay his most treasured possession: a weighty account ledger.
He didn't use it to track monetary expenditures and incomes. Instead, he recorded blood debts, chronicling all the immortals who had sworn to do whatever he demanded of them.
Like a miser palming his gold, Lothaire would review his debtors, reverently brushing his fingers over the ledger pages-
He froze, sensing something that couldn't be right. A presence from long, long ago. He shoved the book back into the safe, slamming it shut, then traced to the shadow's edge of the balcony.
The setting sun was veiled by misty clouds, but he still had to shade his sensitive eyes as he gazed out over the city.