Ivo appeared directly after, his red eyes ablaze, his head completely shaven. All the runnels and reliefs of his scalp stood out as distinctly as his facial features.
"Valkyrie," he sighed to Annika as he dropped onto their settee and rudely kicked his boots up on their table.
"You still have all the arrogance of a king. Though you aren't one." Annika regarded him gravely. "Can never be one."
Regin tilted her head at him. "Just a wittle wapdog. Demestriu's wittle bitch man."
When Lucia tried to bite back a snicker, Annika rapped Regin on the back of her head.
"What? What'd I say?"
"Enjoy your taunts," Ivo said pleasantly. "They'll be your last." To the demon, he said, "She isn't here."
"Who?" Annika demanded.
An amused glance. "The one I seek."
Out of the corner of her eye, Annika spied a flickering shape. Lothaire, an ancient foe of theirs as well, had traced into the shadows of the room, behind Ivo's seat. Everything about Lothaire was chilling, from his white hair, to his eyes that were more pink than red, to his expressionless face.
Tension stole through her; they were even more outnumbered. But Lothaire put his finger to his lips. He doesn't want Ivo to know he's here?
Ivo jerked his head around to see what had caught her interest, but Lothaire had traced away. Ivo seemed to shake himself, then ordered the demon, "Kill these three."
At his command, the other two sprang for Regin and Lucia. The demon vampire traced behind Annika before his image faded in front. As she whirled, his hand shot out for her neck, but she dodged, striking out fast as a blur to splinter his forearm. Another hit cracked his cheekbone and shattered his nose. While he roared, spraying blood, she kicked him between his legs hard enough to break his tailbone and send him crashing to the ceiling.
Yet fast and strong as if fresh to the fight, he snatched her neck. She twisted to get free, but he hurled her into the fireplace, propelling her headfirst so hard that the first layer of bricks turned to powder from the blow. Her head recoiled and she fell, unable to move as the second layer dropped like a flood onto her back. Unmoving but still seeing through the dust... Lightning. Beautiful lightning. She couldn't think.
Regin scrambled from the vampire she'd been fighting to stand protectively over Annika. Lucia sped to her side, finally garnering room for a shot. Regin panted, "Lucia, the big one. As many arrows as you can. I'll pry his head off."
Lucia gave a quick nod and strung four arrows with supernatural speed. The legendary archer, invincible if she could just get room...Lucia unleashed her arrows that would tear through flesh and bone, then drill through the brick walls after.
The sound of her bowstring was as beautiful as the lightning -
Ivo laughed from his seat. The demon's muscles went rigid. He brushed three arrows aside, and caught the fourth.
And Annika knew they were going to die.
Lachlain directed Emma to the lavish hotel just outside London that the concierge had arranged, then observed every detail as she checked in. She seemed very put out at having to ask him for her credit card, and even more when he retrieved it from the hotel clerk. But she hadn't said a word about the expense.
He didn't believe this was because she trusted him to repay her. He thought she'd wanted to quit driving, at any cost. The journey obviously had been hard on her.
He should be driving, taking on the burden of seeing them to Kinevane, but he'd been forced to have her do it. Because of his inability, she was exhausted and the lights had hurt her sensitive eyes again and again.
When she requested two rooms, he slapped down a hand on the counter, not bothering to retract his dark claws. "One."
He'd realized she wouldn't make a scene around humans - few in the Lore would - and she didn't argue now. But while the bellman showed them up, she pinched her forehead and said under her breath, "This wasn't part of the deal."
She must still be unnerved about the night before. It had only been twenty-four hours ago when she'd gazed at him with a bleak expression and whispered, "You frighten me."
He frowned to find his hand reaching out to stroke her hair, and jerked it back.
While he tipped the bellman, she staggered past him into the spacious suite. When he closed the door, she'd already fallen forward half on the bed, nearly asleep.
He'd known she was tired, had reasoned driving was draining, but how could she be this bad off? Immortals were usually powerful, near inexhaustible. Was this the condition she spoke of? If she'd drunk Monday, and she had no discernible injuries, then what was it?
Was it the shock of what he'd done to her? Perhaps she was as fragile inside as her appearance suggested...
He tugged her jacket off by the collar - easy to do, since her arms were limp - and found her neck and shoulders were knotted. Surely driving did that. Not sitting next to him for hours.
When he felt her skin was chilled, he ran water in the bath, then returned to roll her over and pull off her shirt.
She weakly slapped at his hands, but he ignored her protests. "I've drawn you a bath. It's no' good to sleep like this."
"Let me do it myself, then." When he removed her boot, her eyes opened fully to meet his. "Please, I don't want you to see me unclothed."
"Why?" he asked as he stretched out beside her. He picked up the end of a curl to run it along the side of her chin as he gazed down into her eyes. The skin beneath her lashes was pale like the rest of her face, so pale it matched the whites of her eyes, with only the fringe of thick lashes sweeping between them. Fascinating to him.
And looking down into them felt oddly familiar.
"Why?" She frowned. "Because I'm shy about things like that."
"I'll leave your undergarments on."
She did want a bath, desperately. It was the only thing that could possibly warm her.
When she closed her eyes and shivered, he made the decision for her. Before she could even finish sputtering a protest, he'd stripped her to her underwear, then himself completely, and clasped her in his arms. He dropped them into the steaming oversize bathtub with her between his legs.
In the warm water, his injured leg brushed her arm, and she stiffened. He was naked and aroused, and her underwear was no true barrier since he'd unerringly chosen a thong. He laid one heavy hand on her shoulder. A second later, she felt a finger from his other hand tracing the thong she wore. "This pleases me," he growled.
Just as she tensed to leap from the water, he brushed her hair over one shoulder, put both hands on her neck, then pressed down with his thumbs.
To her morbid embarrassment, she moaned, loud.
"Relax, creature." Against her efforts, he pulled her back into him. When she lay fully on his erection, he hissed and shuddered, his reaction flooding her with heat. But she shot back up, fearing he would want to have sex with her. It didn't take an anatomist to make a case that they wouldn't fit like that.
"Easy," he said, continuing to work out the knots in her shoulders with an expert touch. As he drew her to him once more, the only struggle she could manage was internal, and she was glad no one could see that stumbling, pitiful attempt. Finally he forced her to relax against him completely, body gone limp.
What no one knew about Emma was that she loved to be touched. Adored it. Even the more because it was utterly rare.
While her family was affectionate in a spartan way, they wanted to toughen her up. Only one of her aunts, Daniela the Ice Maiden, seemed to understand her yearning, because she herself couldn't touch or have her freezing skin touched without extreme pain. She understood it, but for some reason Daniela didn't miss it, didn't feel the same need, while Emma thought she'd slowly die without it.
Creatures from the Lore who would be acceptable lovers for her, like good demons, were scarce in N.O.L.A., and most of those had been hanging around the manor since she'd been young. She saw them as nothing more than big brothers. With horns.
The infrequent demons who were strangers didn't exactly line up to come calling at the coven. Even they found Val Hall, their fog-enshrouded home in the bayou, terrifying, with the shrieks echoing within and the constant lightning hovering.
A few years ago, Emma had finally grasped that she would be alone when yet another cute, perfectly doable human male in one of her night classes had asked her out - for coffee the next afternoon. Emma loathed Starbucks for its very existence.
She'd realized then that she could never be with a man who was of her own kind, and could never be with most who weren't. Sooner or later they would discover what she was. The reasons she hadn't found someone in her life - A matinee...? Dinner and drinks...? A picnic...? - weren't changing, ergo...
Later she'd "accidentally" bumped into the human just to know what she was missing. Warm touch, appealing masculine scent. She'd realized she was missing a lot.
And it had hurt.
Now Emma had a cruel but divinely handsome Lykae who couldn't seem to keep his hands off her. She feared she'd be a sponge for his touch even as she hated him.
She feared he could make her a beggar for it.
"What if I fall asleep?" she asked, her voice soft, her lightly drawling accent more pronounced.
"Fall asleep. Doona care," Lachlain said, as he kneaded her neck and her slim shoulders.
She moaned again and her head sank back against his chest. She sounded as if she'd never been touched like this. The utter surrender wasn't sexual, but he thought she'd give anything for him to continue. She seemed starved for it.
He remembered days in his clan. Everyone roughhoused, men always found an excuse to touch their women, and if you did something well, you received literally a hundred slaps on the back. Lachlain had spent most hours with his family with a child perched on his shoulders and two bairns dragging on his legs.
He pictured Emma as a timid little girl growing up in Helvita, the vampire stronghold in Russia. Though gilded with gold, Helvita was damp and dark - he should know, since he'd spent time enough in the dungeon. In fact, she might have been there when he was imprisoned, if she hadn't already journeyed to New Orleans.
The vampires who lived there were as cold as their home. They would not touch her with affection - he'd never seen a vampire display affection. If she needed it like this, how had she gone without it?
He'd suspected she'd been long without a man, but now Lachlain knew that if she had had someone, the man didn't touch her nearly enough and she was well rid of him. He recalled how when they'd been in the shower, her tightness and her reactions had made him wonder if she'd ever had a man. But now, as then, he thought it unlikely she was virgin, since not many immortals made it through centuries abstaining. She was just small and, as she'd said, shy.
Remembering her tight sheath made his cock go painfully hard for it. He lifted her into his lap, turning her side to his chest. She stiffened, no doubt from his shaft throbbing under her arse.
Urges wracked him. She was wearing the silk that was little more than a string, and the sight of it was even better than his imaginings. He opened his mouth to simply inform her that he was about to stroke his fingers between her legs and then settle her down on his shaft. But before he could, her delicate hands lighted upon his chest, their paleness standing out against his skin. She waited a moment as if testing the waters. When he did nothing about her hands, she rested her face against him, settling in to sleep.
He drew back his head and frowned down at her, bewildered by this. Was this...did she trust him? Trust him not to take her while she slept? Damn it, why would she do that?
With a foul curse, he lifted her from the water. Her hands were still against his chest, clutching a little. He toweled her off, then laid her on the bed, her blond hair fanning out, the ends damp. The exquisite scent of it swept him up. Shaking, he peeled her wicked undergarments from her. He inwardly groaned at her body, about to spread her legs and set upon it with a vengeance.
Barely awake, she murmured, "Can I sleep in one of your shirts?"
He stood back, clenching his fists, brows drawn. Why would she want to be dressed in his clothing? Why did he want it as well? He ached, he needed to be inside her so badly, and yet he was stalking to his bag. At this rate, he'd be returning to the shower and bringing himself release. How else could he make it through the day with her?
He dressed her in one of his new undershirts though it swallowed her, then put her under the cover. Just as he'd drawn it up to her chin, she woke and sat up. She squinted at him, turned to regard the window, then gathered the cover and the pillow and bedded down on the floor, tucking herself into the side of the bed.
Out of the path of the window.
When he scooped her up, she whispered, "No. I need to be down there. I like it down there."
Of course she did. Vampires craved low places, sleeping in shadowed corners and under beds. As a Lykae, he'd always known exactly where to find them to sever their heads before they even woke.
Anger flared again. "No longer." She slept with him from now on, and he would never even entertain the idea of accepting that unnatural custom of his enemy. "I will no' let the sun get you again, but you'll break yourself of this."
"Why do you care?" she asked so softly he barely heard her.
Because you've been out of my bed for far too long.
Annika's broken body lay trapped in the bricks. Helpless, she could do nothing but watch when the vampire brushed away Lucia's arrows as though they were flies.
Annika shared Lucia's obvious disbelief. Cursed long ago to feel unfathomable pain if she missed a target, Lucia suddenly shrieked, dropping her bow as she fell. She lay writhing, her fingers curled, screaming until she'd shattered every window and light in the manor.
In the distance, a Lykae howled, a deep, guttural sound of rage.
Darkness, except for the lightning now thrashing the earth and a flickering gas lamp outside.
Ivo's red eyes were ablaze in the lamplight, his expression amused. Lothaire secretly appeared in the background once more but did nothing. Lucia still screamed. The Lykae roared in answer - nearing them? Regin alone against three. "Leave us, Regin," Annika bit out.
Then...a shadow moved inside. White teeth and fangs. Pale blue eyes glowed in the darkness. It crept over to Lucia's twitching form. Annika could do nothing. So helpless. In the scant lulls between bolts, he looked human. In the silver flashes, he was a beast, a man with the shadow of a beast.
Annika wanted her strength as she never had, wanted to kill it so slowly. The beast pawed at Lucia's face. Annika couldn't bear to -
It was trying to brush away Lucia's tears? He lifted her, then crossed to a corner, tucking her behind a table.
Why wasn't it ripping her throat out?
It reared up with a terrible fury and launched itself at the vampires, fighting beside a shocked, but quickly adapting Regin until the two vampire followers were decapitated. Ivo and the horned one traced away, fleeing. Enigmatic Lothaire merely nodded, then disappeared.
The Lykae sprang for Lucia, then crouched beside her as she stared up in awe and horror. When Annika closed her eyes and opened them once more, it had disappeared, leaving Lucia shaking.
"What the fuck?" Regin cried, circling around as though shell-shocked.
Just then Kaderin the Coldhearted arrived, jogging up the glass-covered porch. Ever blessed to feel no raw emotions, she chided gently, "Language, Regin." Then she entered the war zone, and even she raised an eyebrow as she leisurely drew her swords from the thin sheaths at her back.
"Annika!" Regin cried, digging through brick. Annika strained to answer but couldn't. She'd never felt so helpless, never been beaten so badly.
"What has happened here?" Kaderin demanded, searching for a kill yet holding her swords so loosely, her wrists fluid as she swirled them in tight circles. When Lucia crawled out from behind the table, Kaderin backed her way to her.
"Vampires attacked. And you just missed the Lykae on top of all this," Regin sputtered, digging frantically. "The fucking monster mash - Annika?"
Annika managed to work a hand out of the rubble. Regin gripped it, hauling her free.
Dimly, Annika spied Nïx perched on the rail of the stairs above. She called down in a petulant tone, "How inconsiderate not to wake me when we are entertaining."
Emma woke precisely at sundown, frowning as she recalled the details of the morning. Hazily, she remembered Lachlain's big, warm hands kneading the stiffness from her muscles, making her moan as he'd rubbed her neck and back.
Perhaps Lachlain wasn't the insanely brutish animal she thought him. She'd known he wanted to make love to her - she'd felt how badly - yet he'd refrained. Then later, she'd sensed him returning from the shower and climbing in bed with her. His skin had still been damp and so warm as he'd tucked her bottom into his lap and placed her head on his outstretched arm. She'd felt his erection growing behind her. He'd grated a foreign word as though he cursed it, but he'd never acted on his desire.
She'd been distinctly aware that he'd lain between her and the window, and as he drew her to his chest, she'd felt...protected.
Just when she thought she had him figured out, he did something to surprise her.
She opened her eyes and sat up, then blinked as if the scene couldn't be right. If he noticed she'd woken, he didn't indicate it, just continued sitting in the corner in the dark, watching her with glowing eyes. Disbelieving her night vision, she reached for the bedside lamp. It lay crushed beside the bed.
She'd seen correctly. The room was...destroyed.
What had happened? What could make him do this?
"Get dressed. We leave in twenty minutes." He rose wearily, nearly stumbling as his leg seemed to give out, then limped to the door.
The door closed behind him.
She stared, bewildered, at the claw marks in the walls, the floor, the furniture. Everything was rent to pieces.
She looked down. Well, not everything. Her belongings sat behind the savaged chair as though he'd hidden them away, knowing what was about to come. The blanket he'd strung up over the curtains sometime last night still hung where it added another safeguard against the sun. And the bed? Claw marks, mattress foam, and feathers surrounded her like a pod.
She was untouched.
If Lachlain didn't want to tell her why he'd huffed and puffed and torn their hotel room to bits, then fine by her. After she'd thrown on a skirt, shirt, and boots and very purposely tied a folded scarf over her ears, she dug her iPod out of her luggage and strapped it on her arm.
Her aunt Myst called it the EIP, or "Emma's iPod Pacifier," because whenever Emma got irritated or angry, she listened to music in order to "avoid conflict." As if this were a bad thing.
And if the EIP wasn't made for a time like this...
Emma was pissed. Just when she'd decided this Lykae might be okay, that he'd finally begun leaning the right way in the sane-or-not conundrum, he had to go all big bad wolf on her. But this little piggy can compartmentalize, Emma thought, and Lachlain was cruising toward getting squared away in her mind forever.
His personality changed like rapid fire, from the soul-searing embrace in the rain when he'd pressed his naked chest against hers, to the howling attacks, to the gentle would-be lover in the bathtub last night. He kept her wary - an unfortunate and fatiguing state that she already tended to - and that frustrated her.
And now this. He'd left her with this ravaged room and no explanation. She could've looked like that chair.
She blew a curl out of her eyes, and found a wisp of upholstery filler had attached itself to her hair. As she swatted at it, she realized she was as angry at herself as she was with him.
Her first night with him, he'd allowed sun to burn her skin, and now, today, he'd used those claws - which had shredded the side of a car - in a frenzy while she'd slept unaware.
Why had she overprotected herself all her life, put forth the exhausting effort to do so, then thrown caution out the window regarding him? Why had her family taken pains to keep her safe, moving the coven to Lore-rich New Orleans to hide her, cloaking the manor in darkness only to have her die now -
Cloaking the manor...? Why had they done that? She never rose before sunset, never remained awake past sunrise. Her room was shuttered and she slept under the bed. So why did she have memories of running through their darkened home during the day?
Her gaze was drawn to the back of her hand, her trembling immediate. For the first time since she'd been frozen into her immortality, the memory of her "lesson" erupted in her mind with a perfect clarity...
A witch was babysitting. Emma was in the woman's arms when she heard Annika returning to the manor after a week's absence and struggled until she freed herself. Screaming Annika's name, Emma ran for her.
Regin had heard her and tackled her into the shadows right before Emma ran headlong for the sun shining in from the just-opened door.
Regin squeezed her to her chest with shaking arms and whispered, "What'd you do that for?" With another squeeze, she mumbled, "Boneheaded little leech."
By this time everyone had come downstairs. The witch apologized abjectly, saying, "Emma hissed and snapped and scared me till I dropped her."
Annika scolded Emma between her shudders, until Furie's voice sounded from outside the circle. The crowd parted to let her pass. Furie was, just as her name said, part Fury. And she was frightening.
"Put the child's hand in it."
Annika's face had paled even more than natural. "She is not like us. She's delicate - "
"She hissed and fought to get what she wanted," Furie interrupted. "I'd say she's exactly like us. And like us, the pain will teach her."
Furie's twin, Cara, said, "She's right." They always took each other's sides. "This isn't the first time there's been a close call. Her hand now or her face - or, worse, her life - later. It doesn't matter how dark we keep the manor if you can't keep her inside."
"I won't do it," Annika said. "I...can't do it."
Regin dragged Emma along, though she resisted. "Then I will."
As Annika stood by, her face perfectly stoic, like marble but for incongruous tears running down, Regin forced Emma's hand into the shaft of sunlight. She shrieked in pain, screaming for her Annika, crying "why" again and again until her skin caught fire.
When Emma woke, Furie was peering down at her with lavender eyes, tilting her head, as if confused by Emma's reaction. "Child, you must realize that every day the entire earth is saturated in something that will kill you, and only if you're wary will you elude it. Do not forget this lesson, for it will be repeated to bring you much greater pain next time."
Emma fell to her knees, then to her hands as she gasped for breath. The fine scarring on the back of her hand itched. No wonder she was a coward. No wonder...no wonder...no wonder...
Emma believed that they had saved her life, but they'd compromised it at the same time. That lesser evil they'd chosen shaped every day of her life. She stood, then stumbled to the bathroom, splashing water on her face. She clutched the counter. Get it together, Em.
By the time Lachlain returned for her bag, her emotions had fired into roiling anger, and she directed it to the deserving target. She made a show of brushing upholstery stuffing from her luggage with jerky, exaggerated movements, glaring at him. His brows drew together.
She followed him to the car, stifling hisses, wanting to punt the back of his knee. He turned and opened the door for her.
Once they were ensconced inside and she'd started the car, he said, "Did you...hear?"
"Did I hear when you flipped out like a ninja?" she snapped. At his blank look, she answered, "No. I didn't." And she didn't ask him to elaborate. She believed he wanted her to, felt that he was willing her to. When he wouldn't look away, she said, "Not taking that ball back in my court."
"You will no' address this?"
She gripped the steering wheel.
"You are angry? I dinna expect this reaction."
She faced him, her rein on her temper and her innate fear of him no match for such a close call with death. "I'm angry because you only gave me an inch-wide margin of error with your lethal claws. Maybe next time I won't get an inch. When I sleep I am utterly vulnerable - I have no defenses. You forced me into that situation and I resent it."
He stared at her for long moments, then exhaled and said something she'd never expected. "You are right. Since it happens when I sleep, I will no' sleep near you again."