"Unless she has a twin...But my gut tells me that was the vampire's Bride I saw."
Rök's instincts had saved their lives more times than he could count. If this was true...
N®¶omi's male knew of another way to kill Omort - an alternative to the sword. If Cade could get his hands on that information, he wouldn't have to betray Holly.
"Why didn't you abduct the mortal? You know how valuable she is."
"She's quick. She seemed to have just...disappeared out from under us. But I'll find her again. I've got a good lead."
If they had N®¶omi, the vampire would do anything to get his Bride back, even divulge how to kill a sorcerer....
"Capture her at all costs, Rök."
"We're already on it. But you're still continuing on - in case we don't, right?"
He exhaled. "I am. I have to. But you will find her. Use any means necessary." Once they'd hung up, Cade gazed over at Holly, and his heart thundered in his chest.
Hope - a way out. A way to have everything he'd ever wanted.
He'd held himself back from her because he'd known he would be forced to hurt her worse than she'd ever been. But this development gave him the possibility of a future with her...
Yes, possibility. Before, anything between Cade and Holly had been doomed because there were so many epic obstacles: betrayals, ancient vows, dark lies, the wills of evil sorcerers.
Now, if the only thing between them was a fucking mathematician...?
And one she hadn't been able to say she loved.
This is as good as locked up. Cade would simply have to convince her why he was the better male for her.
He looked forward to it, he thought as he strode across the lot toward her. She caught sight of him and nibbled her lip, studying his expression. She'd worn her hair in that bun, but it was looser, pretty. She was so beautiful she made his chest ache.
In Cade's absence, the salesman had ventured back, but now looked nervous at his approach.
When Cade reached Holly, he swung her into his arms and kissed her.
"Cadeon!" she sputtered when he released her lips. But he kept her in his arms as he told the bewildered salesman, "We'll take whatever the missus wants. And quickly." Cade met her eyes. "We've got exactly four hundred and twenty miles to drive tonight before she'll be satisfied."
Their new vehicle was barreling down the highway.
Earlier, she'd been so disarmed by Cadeon's dramatic change in mood - which he'd refused to explain - that she'd compromised with him. They'd bought a brand new truck that had an SUV-like compartment over the bed.
And now the demon was continually glancing at the odometer as he drove well over the posted speed limit.
She sighed. "Look I know I said we could be...intimate every four hundred and twenty miles, but I've had second thoughts after what happened last night. I don't want to lead you to expect something that can never be."
"Can never be because of your boyfriend? The one you couldn't tell me you loved?"
"It's not just that. You have to understand that all I've ever wanted was a steady, dependable partner and a normal life. You're not...normal." Her gaze flitted to his horn, and he saw it, rubbing it with a scowl. "It's not just you. It's this entire world. The Lore."
"What's wrong with the Lore?"
"Hmm, it's - oh, I don't know - exceedingly violent? As evidenced by last night."
"That was pretty extreme even for the Lore," he said, then added, "And for the record, I'm not ungrateful about your saving my ass. I know what kind of shape I was in. Poison does a number on demons. We're really susceptible to its effects."
"Species that can emit poisons are vulnerable to others," he answered. "So did you mean what you told those spirits last night? About returning with an exorcist?"
"Of course. I'm going to ask my aunt to help me find one. Why were the ghosts used as messengers for the coordinates anyway?"
"They were perfect for it. They can't be bribed or tortured for the information. After that checkpoint, anyone thinking to find us will be stymied." He added, "As long as you keep those pearls on."
"How would the spirits know the coordinates?"
"One of Groot's followers would have given them the information well in advance."
"Why would they agree to become involved?"
"Maybe Groot promised them the exorcism they wanted."
She frowned. "If he promised, then why would they ask me for it?"
"Uh, probably just being sure. So, what all did I tell you last night?"
"You mean other than the fact that I'm your female chosen by fate?"
"I think fate made an excellent choice for me. The best."
He could be so charming when he wanted to be. "I also learned that you have issues with your brother Rydstrom."
"You have no idea," he said dryly.
"We're polar opposites. He's rational, always looking at things logically, whereas I follow my gut more times than not. He's educated, well-spoken, and...kingly. I'm irresponsible, the notorious ne'er-do-well," he answered with a shrug, as if this was just a carved-in-stone fact of life. "What else did I say?"
"You told me you would bite me, to stun me during the claiming. How? Is it some kind of venom, like from your horns?"
"No, I'd sink my fangs into a muscle between your neck and shoulder."
"And go fully demonic?" When he nodded, she said, "What's that like?"
"My skin would darken, reddening. It's supposed to be an attractant to females. My body will get bigger, my horns and claws growing to their full length. And my face will change. The planes will get sharper."
She bit her lip. "You also said that the only place you'll claim me is in your mind. What does that mean? Have you fantasized about me?"
His lids grew heavy when he said, "Oh, yeah."
"Like, you've imagined me...naked?"
"Ah, halfling, I've stripped your body a thousand times. I've taken you when you were wearing only your pearls, so hard they bounced on your neck."
She stifled a shiver.
"You're quite lusty in my fantasies. And you have a predilection for going down on me at every chance."
Her cheeks heated. "Going down on you...that's exactly what it sounds like, isn't it?" Was her voice breathy? She couldn't help but try to picture what that'd be like.
"It is, but I don't want you to imagine doing that to me. At all. Just get it out of your mind, before you start seizing on the idea, and then that's all you can think about...."
"You ready to review self-defense techniques?" Cadeon asked, as he drove along a desolate stretch of highway.
She nodded. "Just let me upload and power down." She was having to use sat-phone internet access in this isolated area, and it was glacially slow.
Not that she had much progress to upload. Though she'd plugged away at her code, she still had yet to make a significant break.
As she waited, she thought over the last three days. Canada had flown by in a blur.
That first night when they'd been about to cross the border from Michigan, she'd been a wreck, certain that they'd be found out as Lorekind, but Cadeon had been cool, so relaxed. The entire process had taken all of half a minute.
Because darkness lasted so long at this latitude, they were driving most hours out of the twenty-four. Cadeon only needed about four hours of sleep, and she'd found that she didn't need much more.
As they'd traversed the country, they settled into a comfortable familiarity. After so long together in the truck, the rest of the world seemed cut off from them. They'd begun finishing each other's sentences. He regularly pointed out things he thought she'd like to see, getting her to glance up from her work.
Early on, they'd reached an XM radio compromise. Blues rock played when she was working, and any other time, they listened to the fast-paced ska music he liked. She hadn't admitted it to him, but it was growing on her as well.
They collected supplies as they needed them, and as they could find them. He'd bought her a new coat to replace the one lost the night of the bridge and also a sat-phone for her, in case they somehow got separated.
Though they hadn't been intimate again - she had somehow resisted his advances - he'd been putting on the full-court press with her.
And it might be...working.
She thought of Tim less frequently, and she sometimes found herself resenting the guilt her relationship with him brought her. But then she'd feel guilt for the resentment. A vicious cycle.
It wasn't fair to him. Over the last several days, she'd reached a decision. She might not end up with Cadeon, but she didn't necessarily think she belonged with Tim either.
She recalled the injury to her arm. It had healed without a mark by that next morning. Holly had begun to believe that it was too late for the reversal anyway. And she wasn't as broken up about that as she'd thought she'd be.
In truth, she'd begun seeing herself with Cadeon more and more. She'd grown accustomed to his abrasive, lowbrow humor. He made her laugh and made sure she didn't take herself too seriously. She could stare at those green eyes of his for hours.
And he'd proved considerate, always seeing to her needs, working with her quirks. She never opened a bottle when he was near.
He was also tirelessly teaching her, making her spar whenever they stopped at a hotel for a few hours. Then back on the road, he quizzed her on what she'd learned....
When she finished her upload, she took off her glasses and closed the computer. "Okay, ready to drill."
"All right. What's the first thing you do with multiple assailants? And why?"
"Count them, because if I decide to run, they'll likely split up. It'll help me determine whether I'm being surrounded."
One nod. "You've encountered a foe - where's the first place you look?"
"The eyes. They'll change color if he's enraged. After that, I'd look at the hands to check for weapons."
"Say he's enraged and carrying. What's your facing-off position?"
"I narrow the target, with one foot in front of the other, one shoulder outward." Before he could ask, she said, "My left shoulder. Because I'm right handed."
"Utilizing your environment - two examples."
"Put obstacles between me and my attacker," she said. "And use the lighting to my advantage - shadows distort perception."
"How many pounds of pressure does it take to break a knee?" he asked.
"And what do you do if a human male threatens you?"
"Clean his clock, and teach him the time of day."
"That's my girl." He gently chucked her on the chin, and she flushed with pleasure.
"Why do you keep preparing me?"
"Because we're not finished yet. You've still got people trying to kill you, and we've still got at least one more checkpoint. It could be as dangerous as the last."
Cadeon was out on the hunt for uncracked steamed shellfish, leaving Holly back at the hotel to work, "because codes don't write themselves."
But she was blocked, unable to get anything done. She decided to call Mei to make sure everything was going all right with her class. The boys could be...boisterous.
"Everything's fine," Mei said, but didn't elaborate. "How are things with your family?"
"Getting better. A lot better. I think everything's going to be fine."
Holly's ear twitched, and she frowned. "Mei, do you want to tell me something?"
"Look, I wasn't going to call you because I know you've got a lot on your plate, but there might be a time element involved with your work, and I'm sick of women being passed over for these jobs anyway."
Holly's stomach began to churn. "What are you talking about?"
"You know Scott was at the California conference, right?"
"Yes, he went at the last minute." Scott was Mei's boyfriend, a well-respected mathematician and all around nice guy.
"This morning he called me with some disturbing news...."
"Just tell me, Mei."
She took a deep breath, then said, "Tim's been stealing your work - and passing it off as his own."
As Cade waited for food, he checked in with Rök. "Any word on N®¶omi?"
"Again, we were closing in and she just seemed to...vanish," Rök said, sounding like he was scratching his head.
"A mortal is evading you? Come on, Rök - we're running out of time! I need you to be on this with everything you've got."
"I have a really good lead. I'll get her this time."
Rök sounded confident enough, but once they hung up, Cade was uneasy about their prospects.
And Cade had begun mulling another idea - a way for everyone to win. It'd be extremely dangerous. Riskier than anything he'd ever attempted.
If his plan failed, everyone would lose.
In life, Cade's season record wasn't all wins. And when he fucked up, he tended to go big.
He should stick with Rydstrom's wishes, carrying out this operation the way the king intended. Cade would put his idea out of his head.
But what if...?
"What?" Holly cried.
"Tim's been taking sole credit for the papers he's presented," Mei explained. "So Scott figured that he'd just spaced and forgot to mention you. But then later, Scott heard him talking to the recruiters from Lockheed Martin. Tim was downplaying your involvement in all of your past co-projects. And I knew that with your background you had to have carried a lot of them."
"I carried all of them," Holly absently said.
"I shouldn't have told you till you got back."
"No, you did the right thing. I appreciate your letting me know."
"What are you going to do?" Mei asked.
"I don't know." Surely Tim wouldn't screw her over like this.
How well do you really know him...?
"Holly, if you confront Tim, you can tell him where you heard it from. Scott's livid."
Stealing research was about the worst thing one could do in their small community. Everyone toiled too hard not to be fiercely protective of their projects. Not to mention the fact that in their field, research could be worth millions - or even billions.
Scott was well-respected among all his colleagues. If he said Tim had done this, then Tim was going to get crucified....
Once she and Mei hung up, Holly sat on the bed, dumbfounded. She'd always felt confident that her boyfriend wouldn't betray her sexually. Had he betrayed her academically? Had that been why he'd been pushing her for her new code?
No, no, she was sure there was a reasonable explanation for this. This was merely hearsay, at best. Maybe Scott had overheard incorrectly.
Tim was a good guy. He was normal.
She called his cell phone. He answered before the end of the first ring.
"Tim, I'm glad I caught you. Do you have a minute to talk?"
"Absolutely. My next presentation's not for an hour."
"So Mei just called me..."
"Oh? What did she have to say?"
Holly's ears twitched again. There was something different about him, a treble in his voice that was altered. He's nervous. She could perceive it so clearly now. Valkyrie senses.
The benefit of the doubt went out the window. "When you presented our work, did you take sole credit for it?"
"What are you talking about?"
"Did you downplay my role in our projects with the Lockheed recruiters?"
"I wouldn't do that! Of course not. I know better than anyone how hard you've worked on our project - "
"Just cut the bullshit. I know you're lying. I can hear it in your voice."
Quiet. Finally, he said, "I might have played up my role in the work, but I did it for us. You know the big firms usually hire men in our field. I had the better shot at getting that job. And then, just think, I could buy us a house. You wouldn't even need a job."
She sucked in a breath. "Who are you? Need a job? I already don't need one - I love what I do. Was this your play all along?"
"There was no play. We work better as a team, with me as the front man."
"What the hell does that mean?"
"We need to stick together, to keep the work together. We could be unstoppable."