The gilded French doors to his room opened silently at his approach, then slammed shut behind him. Long ago, his wife had been terrified of his supernatural powers. What he had now made a mockery of the ones he'd borne as a mortal man. Back then, he'd been limited to simple premonitions, curses, potions, and spells that had to be worked with blood and ritual.
Now his powers were truly fierce. Telekinesis, shape-shifting, and pyrokinetics. Over the centuries, he'd become the monster Esperetta had feared. He held his hand out and the bottle of bourbon flew to him. Uncorking it, he drank the bourbon straight from the bottle as he walked past a mirror that didn't cast his reflection.
He laughed at that. Until he neared the fireplace where Esperetta's painting hung. The look on her face froze him to the spot. And as always, it took his breath.
He'd commissioned it right before their wedding. He'd hired Gentile Bellini and had practically been forced to abduct the man out of Venice for the work. But Velkan had known that no one other than that artist would have ever been able to capture her youth and innocence.
Bellini hadn't disappointed. If anything, he'd excelled past all of Velkan's expectations.
Esperetta had been so nervous that day. With bright summer flowers in her dark auburn hair and dressed in a light gold gown, she'd been an absolute vision. Bellini had placed her in the garden outside of Velkan's residence—a garden that was now a gnarled, unsightly mess from lack of care. She'd been fidgeting unmercifully until she'd spied Velkan sitting on the wall, watching her.
Their eyes had met and had held, and the shyest, most beautiful smile that ever graced a woman's face had been captured by the artist. It was a look that could still bring Velkan to his knees.
Snarling at the picture, he forced himself to walk onward, away from it. He should have burned it centuries ago. He still wasn't sure why he hadn't.
In fact, he could send a blast to it even now and burst it into flames…
His hand heated up in expectation. But he balled it into a fist as he left his room, then descended the stairs to the first floor, where Bram and Stoker waited for his return. Calling out to his Tibetan mastiffs, he made his way to his study, where his fire had all but gone out.
He shot a blast of fire into it, making it roar to life. It bathed the room in a dull orange light and caused the shadows to dance eerily along the cold stone walls. He petted his dogs as they welcomed him home with joyful barks and licks. Then they bounded off to retake their seats beside his padded chair. Sighing, Velkan took his seat so that he could stare into the fire that did nothing to warm him. The light was painful for his eyes, but honestly he didn't care.
He glanced over at the dogs on each side of him. "Be glad that you're both neutered. Would that I had been so fortunate." Because right then, his body was hard and aching for the one woman who would never again submit to his touch.
His anger mounting, he took another swig only to curse over the fact that the alcohol couldn't do anything to him. As a Dark-Hunter he could never get drunk. There was no escape from this pain.
Growling, he threw the bottle into the hearth, where it shattered into a thousand pieces. The flames sparked in greedy consumption of the alcohol. The dogs lifted their heads in curiosity while Velkan raked his hand through his hair.
As bad as it had been before, it was so much worse now knowing that she was only a short distance away. Her scent still hung in his nostrils, making him even more feral than he'd been before.
You should go to her and force her to take you back.
That was what the Moldavian warlord Velkan Danesti would have done. He'd have never allowed a slip of a woman to lead him about.
But that man had died the night an innocent young woman had looked up at him with eyes so blue, so trusting, they had instantly stolen his heart. Perhaps this was his punishment for having lived such a brutal human life. To want the one thing he couldn't have. Esperetta's peaceful, soft touch.
Restless with his thoughts, he rose to his feet. Bram rose as well until he realized that Velkan was only going to pace the room. The dog settled back down while Velkan did his best to banish his memories.
But unfortunately, there was no way to cleave his heart from his chest and until he did that he knew he would never escape the prison his wife had condemned him to.
Retta came awake to a stinging headache and found herself tied to an iron chair. The room, which was industrial, like an old warehouse or something, was dark and damp, with an awful stench that was similar to that of a pair of old gym socks mixed with the smell of rotten eggs.
It was all she could do to breathe past the stench as she tried to wrest her wrists free of the ropes that held her down.
She could hear faint voices from an adjoining room…
She strained to hear them, but all she caught was a faint whisper until a loud roar rang out,
"Death to the Danestis!"
Great chant, especially since she was technically one of them. Granted, she didn't want to claim kinship, but on paper…
Retta turned her head to see a tall, gaunt man in the doorway. Dressed in black slacks and a turtleneck, he reminded her of a slick city drug dealer, complete with a gold-capped tooth.
And he eyed her as if she were the lowest life-form on the planet.
"Thank you, George," an older man dressed in black slacks and a blue button-down shirt and sweater said as he moved past him. There was something innately evil about the older man. He was definitely the kind of guy who'd like to pull the wings off butterflies as a kid. Just for fun.
And pulling up the rear was her "good" friend Stephen, tall and blond. She'd originally liked him because he was the complete antithesis of her husband. Whereas Velkan's features were sullen and intense, Stephen's were wholesome and sweet. He'd reminded her of a very young Robert Redford.
If only she'd known that Stephen wasn't the boy next door. At least not unless you happened to live next door to the Munsters.
She glared at him with every ounce of hatred she felt. "Where am I and what am I doing here?"
It was the older man who answered. "You are our hostage and you are in our… place."
Gee, he was ever so helpful. "Hostage for what?"
It was Stephen who answered. "To get your husband to come to us."
She burst out laughing at the absurdity of that statement. "Is this a joke?"
"No joke," the older man said. "For centuries my family has been hunting him, trying to kill the unholy, unnatural creature he has become."
"And we've been hunting you," "Slim" said as he stepped forward from the doorway.
The old man nodded. "But always you and he escaped us."
"Wow, that doesn't say much about your skills, since I didn't even know I was being chased."He rushed forward as if to strike her, but Stephen caught him. "Don't, Dieter. She's only trying to provoke you."
"She's doing a good job."
Retta cleared her throat to draw their attention back to her. "Just out of curiosity, why have you been hunting me?"
Stephen stepped closer to her and offered her a cocky smile. "Because you are the one thing we know that will draw Velkan out into the open. He's never responded to any lure we've cast at him… yet."
"Yeah, well, bad news for you, pal. He won't come for me, either."
Dieter scoffed at her. "Of course he will."
She shook her head. "Hardly. News flash, guys. All of you have committed a felony for no good reason. I saw Hubby earlier tonight and he made it plain that he never wants to see me again."
The men exchanged puzzled stares.
"Is she lying?" the old man asked Stephen in German.
Retta had to force herself not to roll her eyes. Surely they weren't so stupid as to think she couldn't speak German?
"She has to be," Stephen answered abruptly. "Good God, the man was impaled for her. In all the centuries while our kind have watched him, he's never been with another woman or we would have used her to get to him. There's not even a record of a one-night stand, and he keeps tabs on Esperetta constantly. Face it, the werewolves would never have sacrificed a daughter to stay with her if he wasn't absolutely adamant that she be protected. Those aren't the actions of a man who hates her."
Slim concurred. "The werewolf I tortured and killed said that he keeps her room just as she left it five hundred years ago. It even has the gown she wore when they married. There's a painting of her when she was human in his bedroom and photographs that have been sent to him to prove that she lives and is happy. He stares at the photographs every night.
There's no chance that he doesn't hold her sacred. If he hated her, he would have destroyed all traces of her centuries ago."
"Likewise," Stephen said with a hint of rancor in his voice, "she lives as a nun. I couldn't even get a kiss from her the whole time I've known her. She's only trying to protect him. I'm sure of it."
Retta couldn't breathe as she heard those words. It was true. She'd never touched another man. Had never even been interested in one. Of course, she'd told herself that once burned, a thousand times shy. And she couldn't very well date, let alone marry, a human man who would begin to wonder why she didn't age. After all, there were only so many ways to lie about plastic surgery before it became obvious she was immortal.
And in all this time, she'd convinced herself that Velkan hadn't been as faithful to her. During their lifetime, no woman would have ever expected fidelity from her husband. It was absurd.
Even her father, who was adamant about his Christianity and who demanded absolute faithfulness from his subjects, had been known to have mistresses.
So she'd convinced herself that Velkan had never really missed her. That he'd taken what he wanted and used her to kill her father.
Could it be that Velkan really did love her? That he missed her?
If it were true, then she deserved to die at their hands. Because if it were true, then she'd been punishing a man for centuries for no other crime than loving her.
No one should be hurt because of that.
Surely she hadn't been that stupid. Had she?
I am such a rabid bitch. No wonder Velkan had told her to get lost. She was lucky he hadn't choked her. Clenching her teeth to staunch the pain that ached inside her, she tried her best to remember what he'd said the night she'd left Romania. She could see the moonlight on his face, the blood on his armor.
They'd argued, but now she couldn't remember anything other than her confusion and fear of him. She'd been absolutely convinced that he'd tried to kill her by burying her in the ground.
That he'd lied about the tonic he'd given her.
But had he?
Please don't let me be wrong. Please. "He won't come for me," Retta said from between clenched teeth. "I know he won't."
Dieter narrowed those rodent eyes on her. "We shall see. Not that it matters. Either way, we kill you."
It was almost five in the morning when Velkan found himself alone in his bedroom. Then again, he was always alone in his bedroom. God, he was such a fool. Any man worth his salt would just find a willing female and sate the ache in his loins for a woman's body.
But Velkan refused to forsake the oath he'd taken to Esperetta. He'd vowed before his father's God to honor her and to keep himself for her only, and he'd stood by that oath.
Even though he hated himself for it.
There was only one woman who held his attention and it was why he despised her so much.
She'd left him with nothing. Not even his manhood.
Suddenly there was a knock on his door. "I told you to leave me alone, Viktor," he snarled, thinking it was his Squire.
"It's not Viktor," Raluca said from the other side of the doorway.
How unlike her to venture here so close to the dawn. Not that the dawn held any sway for her, but normally Velkan would be preparing for bed.
Frowning, he opened the door with his thoughts to find her there, wringing her hands. Her sons and Francesca were behind her and all of them echoed their mother's worry. His stomach shrank. "What has happened?"
Raluca swallowed. "They have taken her."
He knew instantly that Esperetta was the her. "Who has?"
"The Order of the Dragon," Andrei said, his voice tinged by anger. "Once they notified us that they held her, we tried to get her free, but…"
"But?" Velkan prompted.
Francesca stepped forward. "They have her tied inside a cage. An electric one. There's no way for us to get to her without it immobilizing us."
Velkan gave them a droll stare. "Fine, let her stew there, thinking about how much she's betrayed me. When the sun sets, I'll go get her."