What he found made him grind his teeth with frustration. None of the guest rooms had been aired. Nor had the brothers' childhood bedroom. Sheets still draped all the furniture, the windows sealed tight.
Grimly he ascended another flight of stairs to the master suite. Of course, it had been readied. Munro, you prick. Treating Will like he was master of the keep?
Chloe blithely entered, then turned in place. "It's beautiful," she breathed.
He understood her appreciation. Softly lit by another fire, the airy suite stretched from one side of the keep to the other and was elegantly appointed, though differently from days past. His parents' sleigh bed had been replaced with an enormous four-poster, and all the furniture had been exchanged for more modern pieces. The handwoven brocades his mother had favored for the window dressings and bed covering were gone, replaced by lighter textiles. The coverlet had a narrow border of plaid, the MacRieve tartan.
Chloe crossed to a curving bank of windows. "What's that forest called?"
"The Woods of Murk," he grated, fists balling. The woods where his mam had died. Ruelle's cottage lay inside that forest. Remember, Will. Remember how weak you were.
Whatever Chloe detected in his voice drew her gaze. She seemed to be noting his reaction.
"It's a place you will never go."
With a glare, she turned to the opposite wall, to another bank of windows. From there she could see the woods to the north and the courtyard below. In the center was a sera cherry tree in full bloom-like the one in Louisiana, except this one was much larger. It'd been there since he was a child.
When she saw it, she gave a little gasp. As if spurred by some invisible force, he joined her. No, not an invisible force-it had to be her strew. Was it getting stronger?
They fell silent, watching the breeze flutter petals. He knew both of them were thinking about that one perfect day.
Still gazing down, she said, "You really screwed yourself, MacRieve. Every day could've been like that. An eternity of them, just like you promised me. I suppose I should just be grateful that you haven't beheaded me yet." With a shrug, she padded toward the walk-in closet. "Oh, my God, it's full of new clothes! And they're ones I'd actually wear."
Draining his glass, he peered into the closet, saw jeans, long-sleeved T-shirts, no-frills button-downs, and blazers. There were running shoes and even tiny cleats. A new set of luggage stood by. As if Chloe would be traveling?
She turned to him, gazing up at him with eyes that flickered green with emotion. "Thank you. I wasn't expecting this."
Succubus green. A shock of anger hammered him. "I would no' do this for you. You'd best thank Munro." That bastard had provided her with things that Will hadn't.
She muttered, "Such a dick," then began investigating the garments.
Had his brother picked out the lingerie she was now rummaging through? The red silks that would quicken any wolf's blood?
There was a piece of paper taped to the closet door. She handed it to him. "I can't read this. It's in either Gaelic or Wolf."
A printed out e-mail from Munro: Calm down, you sodding jackass. Cassandra picked out all the clothes. Consider them gifts from you-for the new mistress of the keep.
Mistress? Then that would make Will the master. This confused him mightily. Conall belonged to both brothers. Yet Munro kept giving hints that Will would live here with Chloe.
Probably to protect the clan. Will had already been shuffled to the fringe.
Chloe turned back to her new wardrobe, murmuring, "Not for the first time I'm wondering why I couldn't be Munro's mate. You both look the same-"
Will lunged forward, snatching her upper arm to yank her from the closet. "You push too far, woman!" Never had he been jealous of Munro. Now Will felt enough to stretch over nine centuries. He growled, "Is it him that you want?"
"Why wouldn't I? At least he's been decent to me."
As Will's grip tightened, he wondered why he was so surprised by this. It was only a matter of time before Chloe strayed. Munro would never touch her, but any other red-blooded male . . .
"Let go, MacRieve." When she couldn't budge his hand, she punted his leg. "Don't touch me!"
"Best get used to me touching you. Soon I will no' be able to help myself. You've started strewing. You're spicing the air right now."
"What?" Her face paled even more, highlighting her bruise. "No. No way."
"Oh, aye. I could barely concentrate on the road, coming in. My mind was in a fog."
"But you said it would madden you."
"It's getting stronger," he said, the truth-yet it was not so simple as that. Her strew was affecting him differently than Ruelle's had. Perhaps because Chloe was his mate.
Ruelle's had controlled him physically; Chloe's was taking him over both physically and mentally, an even more shuddersome proposition. He was compelled not only to mate her, but to clasp her to his chest, to make her smile, anything to chase away the despairing look that was on her face right now.
He resisted it with everything in him. My will is my own.
"I wish I could stop," she said. "It's not consciously done."
"That's all you have to say? Do you have any idea what it's like to have no control of your mind? Your body?"
A flash of irritation crossed her face. "You're kidnapping and terrorizing me. I've got a clue."
"Kidnapping? Try saving your arse. I've brought you to an isolated location for your own safety."
She pinched the bridge of her nose. "You don't seem surprised that I've started this."
"I knew it was only a matter of time."
"If that's true, and you believed I couldn't escape, then you fully intended to be with me . . . sexually?"
"There were two scenarios for me to choose from: let another male have my mate, or take you myself. My Lykae Instinct and my beast would never allow another to fuck you, which meant there really was no choice. I'm compelled to claim you."
She sank down on the window seat, as if the mere idea exhausted her. "Compelled? You are the most hateful man I've ever met. I ask you again, what the hell did I ever do to you?"
He didn't have a ready answer. Yes, she'd pulled him back from the brink, then pushed him back to the edge. But that wasn't her fault.
She'd been his dream female until she'd become one among his nightmares. Again, not her fault.
"You canna have it both ways, canna fill the air with your chemicals, then cry when the result is what you need. You've got my hands tied."
"You're cool with this? To have sex with someone who doesn't truly desire you as a person? Who only wants not to feel pain anymore?"
"My predicament exactly," he lied. He'd never desired another so fiercely. "It will happen tonight, Chloe. Prepare yourself. And gods help us both."
Chloe drew the wastebasket toward her, then spat out a mouthful of saltines as if they were radioactive.
Surrounding her on the floor was a moat of cracker wrappers and crumbs.
She remembered when one of her middle-school friends had fed her beagle some cheese-covered broccoli. The dog had been happily smacking away-until it got to the harsh broccoli center.
I feel you, dog. Blech.
Was food truly no longer an option? With shaking hands, she unwrapped another package, biting through two crackers. Anything not to strew. Chewing, chewing . . . was this mouthful going to do down? Please go down-
Wastebasket! She emptied her mouth, hooking a finger around her gums to get out all the offending particles. Then she tested the rest of her drink. Natch, the whiskey went down like silk. But she knew it wouldn't be nearly enough to sustain her.
Field position? Her body was failing her. She'd done everything she could to stay the course, but maybe it was time to admit defeat.
With each minute she suffered an empty stomach, her desire blossomed. Awakening? Oh, yeah. Like her libido had mainlined crank.
And it remained fixated on MacRieve.
Did that mean all his predictions were about to come true? Would she go crawling to him? Or plead as he denied her again and again?
She'd always heard that you remembered your first time forever. She didn't want to remember groveling for his dick-especially since forever, in her case, could be literal.
The idea of that made her more ill than the crackers.
Was she one of those women who got off on cruelty? Some spring-loaded dojo dummy, perpetually bouncing up for another strike?
No, she refused to believe that. He was simply the target of sheer desperation. When she was young, she'd gotten lost in the woods without water; she remembered being so thirsty that she'd eyed a stagnant puddle with serious consideration.
MacRieve was simply a big Lykae-shaped puddle.
Maybe she should just do it. He'd given her bliss once before, and if sex was supposed to be the most pleasurable act of all . . . Once she was stronger, she could escape him. Would it be so bad to feed and heal?
Her succubus half avidly recalled the energy she'd received from that blow job. If she felt like that again, she could jog straight out of this place, this country, away from him forever.
This would be the last night she'd ever have to see his hateful smirk.
Still, as desperate as she was, she balked at the "crawling to him" portion of tonight's program. She could handle anything but the begging.
Or his beast.
So much confusion. And trying to ignore her escalating desire wasn't working. Her panties were wet, her sex achy.
Could she release some pressure? Or even delay more strewing?
She rose, heading for the shower. As she undressed, she gazed into the mirror. She was slimmer from hunger, but her bruise didn't look too bad.
Her hair had almost grown out. Earlier, she'd thought about finding scissors, but was too tired to be bothered. Pulling it up in a ponytail would be quicker and easier than shearing off that thick mane each day.
Would MacRieve find the length more attractive? Did she care?
She turned on the shower, impressed with the array of toiletries. She stepped under the steaming water, then soaped up a cloth, starting with her breasts then letting her hands linger over her every curve. Her hips, her backside.
As she touched herself, she imagined MacRieve downstairs in front of the fire, his golden eyes lit by flames. She fantasized that his hands roamed her body. She cupped her sex as he had on the plane, massaging herself like that.
She was on the verge of coming, whispering his name, when a spike of worry that he'd scent her shattered her concentration. Visualizing his head between her legs, his strong tongue working her flesh, brought her back into striking range-but then she jumped at a noise, which turned out not to be him at all.
In the end, she was just too weak. All she'd done was leave herself even hornier.
She dropped her hand, leaning her forehead against the wall. With a groan of frustration, she slapped the tile with her flat palm-and it didn't even crack.
MacRieve had been right. If he came upstairs, ready to have sex with her, it would happen. Gods help them both?
And if he didn't come for her soon, would she go limping through the keep, chasing after him?
With a curse, she dried off, wincing when the terry cloth rubbed her swollen nipples.
Perusing her new clothes, she saw there was really only one choice for a night like this. . . .
Though the weather was mild by Highland standards, Will had stoked the fire in the keep's great hearth, forcing himself to sit before it, drinking for fortitude.
This was going to happen. He was about to bed a succubus. Which meant he needed to get as numb as possible before he relived his nightmares.
No. He was a grown man. If he was to mate a succubus again, it didn't have to be anything like last time. He didn't even have to fuck Chloe-a tidy blow job would nourish her. He didn't have to claim her, didn't have to mark her as his mate.
With a perfect mix of misery and eagerness, he knew he'd be inside her tonight. He'd fall on that sword, letting her use his body.
Because that was what succubae did.
He'd heard water running in the master bathroom, unable to resist picturing her in the shower, streams cascading over her naked body. He'd imagined her soaping those glorious breasts of hers, gliding her fingers over sensitive nipples.
He swallowed, gazing down at his stiffening cock. Oh, aye, she was strewing more potently. He decided he would hold out as long as he could, testing his will against the force of her need.
Shaking as badly as he had the night his family had been ripped apart, he stared into the flames. Not ten feet from him was the spot where his mother had stood the last time Will had seen her alive. Never one like her, my Uilleam.
His father had sat before this very fireplace, telling his sons about how he'd met their mother, adoration in his tone.
When Will had predicted that his father wouldn't last the week, he'd been wrong. Da hadn't lived past the next sunset. No one in the clan had been surprised when he'd entreated a trusted comrade to deal his deathblow.
Nothing Will or Munro could say would change Da's mind. He'd been out of his head with grief, unmoved by their pleas, half taken over by his beast already. Will and Munro had just lost their mother and sister, and then their father as well.
All of that because of a succubus. And there's one in our home.
The shame of it! And in the midst of his turmoil, he needed Chloe. He needed her hand on his brow, a loving stroke against his face.
He needed to be inside her-because that was the only place in the world he hadn't yet tried to find peace.
He finished the bottle, setting it down too close to the edge of the whiskey service; it fell to the floor. Nothing left to spill. He collected another fifth, then proceeded to top off his highball glass repeatedly, chasing that numbness.
By the end of the second bottle, all he'd achieved was drunkenness.
When he'd heard her turn off the water, his pulse had quickened. Now he could detect the faintest scent of her arousal, making him quake, like a dog maddened by the scent of heat.
-Claim!- There was nothing preventing him from being inside his mate-nothing but his stubbornness. His battered pride.
He needed to accept that it was his fate to surrender and cede. He told himself that for the nine hundred years between succubae, his life and his will had been his own.