"I'm going to react," he said. "Even if you're not my usual type."

"Usual type? Oh, let me guess. Swimbos with more br**sts than brains?"

He hiked his broad shoulders. "My kind prefer tarts with a little more meat on their bones so they can take a demon's lusts."

"Tarts?" Her jaw slackened. "My God, you're the most misogynistic man I've ever met. I bet you also like your tarts barefoot and pregnant."

"Nah, I like them barefoot, on birth control, and always available in my bed."

She sputtered. And then the truth of her situation hit her.

My fate is in the hands of a chauvinist demon, who seems to be trying to exacerbate my condition.

She'd never needed the medication more than now - when getting it seemed impossible.

Her mind was wracked with ideas and images that shouldn't be in there. She was unable to stop seeing that golden hair leading down from his navel. The more she endeavored not to think about it, the more the picture flashed in her head.

What would it be like to nuzzle that trail? To clutch his hips as she lowered her face to it...?

Her heart thundered in fear of what she might do if she lost control.

Advertisement..

The last time had been eight years ago. She'd terrified a young man, even...hurting him.

And he hadn't been the first.

9

"Rydstrom isn't here. He's always where he says he'll be."

They'd pulled over to the side of the gas station parking lot twenty minutes ago. Cade called Rydstrom's cell phone again, but got an out-of-area message.

"Maybe he got caught in traffic," Holly offered.

"No way." Cade rubbed a palm over one of his horns, then got out to pace in front of the headlights. Ten more minutes passed. Something's definitely wrong.

His brother had told him just tonight that Omort would be dispatching everything he had to stop them. Had Rydstrom somehow fallen victim to the bastard's powers?

Cade couldn't continue this job without Rydstrom - he didn't know where the first checkpoint was and hadn't been in contact with Groot himself. I need Rydstrom for the directions.

I need him to keep me in line with the asset.

Half an hour had dragged by when a red Bentley pulled up behind them, hopping the curb in an alignment-wrecking jounce.

"Well, if it isn't Nucking Futs Nïx," he muttered to himself as she parked the wheezing car. Never had Cade seen such an abused Bentley.

There were dings in the body, mud all over the tires, smoke tendrils rising from the hood, and at least two bullet holes. A Garfield doll was stuck to the rear window.

Surely Rydstrom had sent her to tell Cade about a change of plans. But this was a problem. Cade couldn't let Nïx near Holly without the chance of getting caught in his lie about reversing her transition.

He hastened to the car - and found the soothsayer shutting down the engine and the blaring music. "Where the f**k is my brother?" Cade demanded as soon as she opened the door. Sand poured from the floorboard.

Nïx gracefully stood, immediately strapping a sword over her back. She wore a T-shirt that read: Keep Me Separated. "Rydstrom's a bit tied up at the moment."

"What the hell does that mean?" he asked, studying Nïx's exotic eyes for lucidity. He'd seen them go blank with confusion many times and couldn't afford that now. "Nïx, did he send you to meet me?"

"No. I thought I'd drop by to see my niece." She peered past him in Holly's direction, and he stepped in front of her.

"Nothing is more important than this to Rydstrom. If you know where he is, then you must tell me."

Her tone casual, Nïx said, "Sabine, the Queen of Illusions, tricked him, capturing him."

Dread settled like a brick in Cade's stomach. "She's Omort and Groot's half sister." And rumored to be a hundred times more evil. "What does she want with Rydstrom?"

"I'm guessing she wants to be impregnated by him," she said blithely, while Cade's jaw slackened. "The last of the holdout rebels in your kingdom would be forced to recognize Rydstrom's heir - under any circumstances."

"But Rydstrom can't get her pregnant. Not unless she's his female."

"I'm sure with Sabine's powers, she could work something out."

"Is she in league with Omort? Is Rydstrom being held in Tornin?" No one escapes the dungeons of Tornin.

"I don't know if Sabine works with Omort or if she has her own agenda. And I can't see exactly where Rydstrom is imprisoned. All I know is that it's a shadowy cell."

"I need that sword even more now." He ran his fingers through his hair. "I don't know how to contact Groot or even where the first checkpoint is."

"I know where it is, but I don't see any further than that."

"What? That's all I need! Tell me."

"You just assume I'm going to allow you to ransom my niece to an evil sorcerer?"

"You're the one who set up this deal!" he snapped.

"But I hadn't seen that the Vessel would be one of our kind."

"You know what's at stake."

"What's at stake for you," she said. "This is my kin."

"Then why are we even discussing this?"

She blinked at him. "Because I'm mischievous?"

Nïx started toward Holly, and short of violence, there wasn't a damn thing he could do to stop her. Cade was a lowlife mercenary, but he drew the line at hurting females.

Immediately, he thought of that vampire's Bride he'd killed. Or rather, Cade didn't hurt them purposely. Block it out....

At the car, Nïx said, "Come, dearling."

Holly opened the door, pulling Cade's jacket tighter as she got out. She met Nïx eye to eye, almost exactly the same height as the Valkyrie soothsayer.

"Welcome to the family." Nïx kissed both of Holly's cheeks with loud mwah sounds, seeming not to notice Holly's startled expression. "I'm your aunt Nïx, the Ever-Knowing. I'm also the Proto-Valkyrie and Soothsayer without Equal."

"You're a Valkyrie?" Holly asked, her gaze on one of Nïx's uncovered ears.

"Only the oldest and greatest," Nïx answered.

Cade said, "She's a powerful prognosticator."

Nïx's eyes grew silvery with emotion. "And you are the spitting image of your mother. Strawberry blond hair and violet eyes."

"You were related to my mother?"

"Greta was my half sister."

"Greta," Holly said slowly, as if stunned to finally know her mother's name.