"I understand."

"Murdoch, there's no magic that's going to change our situation, no way to circumvent it - not now, and potentially not ever. Do you think you can be satisfied with that?"

"Satisfied? Completely? No. But I think we can be happier together than apart."

If he had waxed rhapsodic about their chances, she probably would've run screaming. Instead, he'd been honest. And she agreed - she wouldn't be satisfied completely either.

"I'll give this a few months," she eventually said. "On two conditions."

"What are they?"

"Just as before, you can never tell anyone about me. Not until I'm ready."

"Why?"

Because I give this a one-in-fifty shot of working out. "Because I don't want to be the butt of jokes or the betrayed one on the betting books. And I don't want to be known as the Forbearer's forsaken one."

"You expect me to forsake you."

"Any reason why I shouldn't?"

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"I'm not my history. At least, that's not all I am. Anymore." He frowned, as if he couldn't believe what he was saying.

"You've told me that you can't do monogamy."

"I'm going to. Do it. Now. But you must as well." When she gave him a "no kidding" expression, he gritted his teeth. Again, clearly not pleased with what he'd said.

"I won't be dissuaded from this condition. You must keep us a secret."

"My brothers will hear my heart beating. They'll know."

"Do you agree or not?"

Finally, he said, "I agree. And what's the second?"

"You have to vow never to bite me."

"I vow it."

Don't get too excited, Daniela!

He placed his gloved hands on the sides of her face, gazing down at her. "Now, does this mean you've signed back up on my roster?"

Too late. "Did you practice that line as well?"

That lock of hair tumbled over his forehead. "Repeatedly."

CHAPTER 29

"Come on in!" Danii called to the vampire pacing on shore. "The water's great."

Under the moonlight, Murdoch looked as if he were actually considering joining her as she swam amidst the ice floes. He was also probably regretting that he'd agreed to trace her to the northern limits of his property, which extended all the way to the Arctic Ocean.

Seconds after she'd seen the water, she'd been skinny-dipping in it.

Poor vampire, pacing at the very edge of the sea, wanting to follow her, his gorgeous face tense. Her heart tugged at the sight, just as it'd been doing daily for these last several weeks, ever since the night she and Murdoch had started living together.

After they'd paid off the irate Sno-Cat operator, of course.

"Maybe the water's a jot brisk," she teased. These closing months of winter had been particularly harsh, an idyll of blizzards and negative degrees for her - and of course virtually twenty-four hours of darkness for him.

Without complaint, he endured the cold to be with her. She slept during the brief murky daylight to spend more time with him. And when they hadn't been talking, learning more about each other, they'd been indulging in bouts of sensual - albeit inventive - bliss.

She'd never been happier.

"Out, Daniela," he called, still pacing. "You've been in long enough."

"If you don't come join me, a merman might get frisky with me!"

He stopped and canted his head, wondering if she was kidding, growing increasingly agitated.

"Oh, very well. I'll come in." She wanted to walk some of the way back to the lodge anyway, and needed to budget time for snowball fights - she might let him win one tonight. She loved playing in the snow with him. When he had all his cold-weather gear on, they could roll around without having their skin touch.

As she swam in, she called, "Trace and get me a towel?"

Obviously reluctant to leave her for even seconds, he disappeared, returning moments later with one. He met her at the shore, wrapping her in it. As he rubbed her dry, her eyes closed with pleasure, reminded anew of their earlier encounter. For hours, she'd teased him with ice cubes, running them all over his body, everywhere she wished she could lick him.

"You were kidding about the merman, right?" he said. "You'd never told me they existed."

"I haven't gotten to merfolk yet." Yes, Danii had relented, finally divulging the secrets of the Lore, once she'd sworn him to secrecy. She owed him her life and couldn't stand the thought of him out there engaging opponents that would try to kill him just for being a vampire - enemies with powers and weaknesses he wouldn't understand. "I've only covered the first two hundred or so beings, and there are more than can be catalogued. And that's just on this plane."

She'd outlined many of the larger factions, from the demon kingdoms called demonarchies to the history of the noble fey. "They were feudal lords called Feodals," she'd explained. "That's where they get the name. They hailed from the plane of Draiskulia, but once they came here, they became divided into different factions. Like the Icere." And she'd related humorous trivia: "Some demons, like Desh, can be involuntarily summoned by previous bed partners. They call those summoners swimbos - a play on She Who Must Be Obeyed... "

"Merfolk," he repeated now, handing Danii her clothes. At times he seemed overwhelmed by all the Lorean histories and details. Admittedly, it was a lot to take in.

He'd probably learned the most via laptop, by following the web results and commentary on the Talisman's Hie, a sort of immortal Amazing Race, sponsored by Riora, the flighty Goddess of Impossibility. Entrants from all factions crossed the globe, competing for mystical prizes.

Through the results, he'd discovered that his brother Sebastian was indeed alive and well - because he was competing in it. "My brother's alive?" he'd said that day, shooting to his feet. Just before he'd swung Danii up in his arms, he'd abruptly dropped his outstretched hands, drawing back self-consciously. "Can you believe it? I have to let Nikolai..." He'd trailed off. "Why did you just go pale? Daniela, is Sebastian in danger?"

Regrettably, Sebastian was competing against Danii's half sister, Kaderin the Coldhearted, a vicious vampire assassin. "The rules state that the competitors can't kill each other until the final round," she'd said, not wanting to extinguish his hopes, but Kaderin had never lost a Hie. And this time they played for Thrane's Key, which unlocked a door to the past. Since Kaderin felt responsible for the deaths of two of her full-blood sisters, she'd be a ruthless menace in order to win that key.