A small water moccasin was along for the ride, swimming dazedly among the crushed Red Bull cans, looking as freaked out as she was.
Cade dared a quick snatch for it, but it slithered under the seat. He'd never thought he'd say this, but..."Off me, Holly. Back to your seat. Just keep your legs up."
She shook her head. "Not until it's gone!"
"Then you're going to have to drive."
"Okay," she said shakily, taking the wheel as he edged under her.
His hand shot under the bench. "Come here, you little fuck."
"Ah, come on, halfling!"
The truck began to slow. He jerked upright, facing backward, and was blinded by the nearing headlights. "What in the bloody hell are you doing?" he barked at her.
"Something moved in the water down there!"
"Holly, you slam that pedal down or you die! Clear?"
With a visible shudder, she stretched her leg far down, barely reaching the pedal, tamping it down with her toes. Each time she was jounced in the seat, the gas let off, but she doggedly kept at that pedal.
He snared the moccasin. Knowing that his female would have to see it to believe it, Cade held up the snake as it merrily envenomated him. "Here, look. Visual confirmation." He tossed it out the window hole. "Now, move your little ass over here, and let's lose these miserable pricks, yeah?"
When she shimmied over his lap, he resisted the urge to plant her there, then took the wheel. As they crested a small rise and started back down, he spied another washout. He sped up, yanking her into his side. "Hold on to me."
She wrapped her slim arms around his torso, burying her face against him. Tension shot through him, desire for her eating at him, even now.
He was holding her. Forty miles per hour. His female. Forty-five. He tightened his arm around her as the frame of the truck vibrated, sounding like rocks rattling in a tin can multiplied by a thousand.
The truck hit the washout at nearly fifty miles per hour, plowing through the water. Midway through, the engine strained, sputtering. Water in the exhaust. He floored the gas.
"Come on, baby," he muttered. He smelled incongruous smoke. Churning, churning, and then...
The old girl surged out the other side. When he glanced back and saw the trailing SUV bottom out, he couldn't resist a pat on the cracked dashboard.
"We lost them. Truck's not so bad, then, is it?" he said. "Holly?" He frowned down at her in confusion. She was still holding his torso like he was a tree in a storm. As if she needed him for comfort.
Cade couldn't remember the last time anything had felt a fraction so good.
"Little busy here, Rydstrom," Cade snapped when his brother rang again.
"What's wrong with your phone?"
"Are you back at the house yet?"
"On my way," Cade answered. "I'm fifteen minutes out. Where're you?"
"An hour from the city." He paused. "You sound excited. You sound...not miserable."
Discerning Rydstrom knew him well. For so long, Cade had wanted Holly from afar, and now he was with her, talking with her, touching her.... "Naff off, Rydstrom."
"Something's up with you. Whatever it is, lose it. We've got work to do."
Cade glanced down at Holly still latched onto him, then back at the road. Switching to the demon tongue, he said, "Don't think you want me to lose this. I've got the Valkyrie."
"How the hell is that possible? We didn't know who she was - "
"She's my female. Did you know she was one and the same as the target?"
"That's impossible. Holly Ashwin's human."
"You're sure? And you're certain she's the Vessel?"
"The hall you described is where she teaches math. And she'd already been taken by the Order of Demonaeus. We just got free of them. There were vampires in play as well. They're trying to kill her."
Rydstrom exhaled. "I didn't know the Vessel would be yours. But the fact is - this changes nothing. We're out of options."
When Cade didn't answer immediately, Rydstrom said, "Just last week, Nïx asked if you would give up your female to get the kingdom back. You said you would. Did you lie?"
"I'll do what I have to do."
"If we can't kill Omort, we lose Rothkalina forever."
"Even I can remember that!" Cade snapped. "I've had nine centuries to get that into my thick skull."
"Good. Now, the airports are hot. We'll have to drive her out of the city."
"Where the hell is that?"
"We don't have the end destination," Rydstrom said. "There will be three checkpoints in different parts of the country. Each will render information about the next until we have the final directions to the compound. I've only got the first checkpoint."
"Why the hassle?"
"Groot wants the Vessel, but he doesn't want his fortress discovered. He's taking extra precautions to make sure no one follows us."
"You have no idea where it could be?"
"Somewhere obscure, difficult to get to, with a lot of land. I've heard tales of the Yukon. Maybe even Alaska."
"I wonder that he trusts us with this at all."
"Though your means are questionable, you complete jobs. Hard ones. And he knows how badly we want that sword."
"Why doesn't he meet us?"
"He never comes out of hiding. Omort would destroy him. Groot's the only one who has the means to kill him. At least that we know of."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Cade asked, but he knew what his brother was alluding to. They'd had a lead, a vampire who knew of a way to kill the sorcerer. But to save that leech from certain death, Cade had accidentally taken the life of the vampire's Bride. A young human named N®¶omi.
Unbidden, the memory arose of his sword slipping into N®¶omi's body.... He blocked it out. Cade was the master of blocking out unwanted realities.
Even if they had captured the vampire and tortured him for the information, there was nothing they could inflict worse than losing a Bride. That lead had been extinguished.
Cade's fault again.
"Omort probably already knows our intentions," Rydstrom said. "He won't take this lying down - he'll send out everything he's got to prevent us from getting the Vessel to Groot."
"Little ironic that just when I find out my female's no longer a forbidden human, I have to turn her over."
"You can't be certain that she's yours. And even if she is, you have to think of your responsibilities. The last time the kingdom depended on you..." He trailed off. "Now you have to do what's right."
At the reminder of his failures, the guilt emerged again, and Cade nudged Holly away from him. She shot upright, seeming embarrassed that she'd still been holding on to him.
"No need for me to drive back to the house, then," Rydstrom said. "Just meet me at the gas station north of the lake at eleven o'clock - we'll start from there."
"I'll be there at eleven."
After hanging up with Rydstrom, Cade called Rök - his second-in-command and flatmate. In Demonish, Cade told him, "Tried to ring you for backup earlier. Just before I stormed the Demonaeus lair all by my lonesome."
"Did you?" Rök asked in a bored tone. "I was getting a leg over."
"When are you not? Need you back to the house."
"What's doing?" Rök asked, then shushed a female voice murmuring, "Come back to bed."
Cade quickly relayed the developments, ending with: "Just be there in ten minutes."
Once he'd hung up, Cade glanced over at Holly, staring dazedly out the window frame. Her hair had begun drying in unruly reddish-blond curls. He'd been waiting more than a year to see her hair freed from that tight bun she always wore and had imagined it loose a thousand times.
He hadn't thought it'd be curly. She must hate that - seeing it as another aspect of her life she couldn't control.
She looked so lost, and his hand fisted as he stopped himself from touching her again. But he had to resist. It wouldn't do for Cade to get even more attached to her.
All these months watching, he'd become increasingly fascinated with her. While sitting atop the roof of the building neighboring hers, he'd observed her strictly regimented day-to-day activities. Among them: an hour for swimming laps in her private rooftop pool, three hours a day for her doctoral work, an hour in the morning and another at night to clean her already spotless loft.
In the beginning, Cade had scratched his head at the odd little mortal's repetitive behavior and obsessive cleaning. Now he just shrugged. It was part of what made Holly unique.
On campus, he'd seen her sitting lost in thought, running her strand of pearls against her lips or tapping away at her laptop in bursts of furious inspiration.
And Cade had watched her with her boyfriend, feeling a savage thrill every time she'd denied her lips to that tosser, instead turning to give him a cheek. That male had never spent the night, and she'd never stayed with him.
Which was why the human still lived.
Cade had thought he had learned so much about her, but he hadn't known she would be so brave. Not many females could blindly stick a foot in a pool of water when there were snakes about - much less take down a dozen demons.
But this silence from her made him uneasy. For all her quirks, she wasn't a shy one, nor was she hesitant to speak her mind. "You, uh, got more questions?"
Without hesitation, she asked, "Can this change in me be undone?"
He frowned. "What would you want that for? You're quick to give up immortality." Granted, her introduction to the Lore had been harsh, but still...
"I don't want to be like this. I want to go back to how I was."
As a mercenary, his primary job was to identify what someone desired. Then he had to convince the client of two things.
That he could get it for them. And that he was the only one who could get it for them.
Holly had just given him the key to her. Which was good, because he had to tell her something that would ensure her cooperation, something other than the truth: To score a weapon, I have to give you to an evil sorcerer who will likely ensorcell you to sleep with him. Once you've delivered a child of ultimate evil for him, he may let you go.
"There might be a way to reverse the change." Of course, there was absolutely no way to reverse the change.
She gazed over at him with hope in her eyes. If he were less of a bastard, that look would really bother him. As it was, he hardly noted it. Hardly at all.
"How? How's it possible?"
"Listen, I don't want to speak out of turn and overpromise you," he said. "Right now I'm going back to my place to pick up supplies before we leave town; then we're going to meet my brother, who'll know more about all this. Just bear with me till then, and we'll figure out a way to make everyone happy."
At length, she nodded. "I have to go by my loft and pick up some clothes and things - "
"No way. They'll be watching your place."
"But I need my...my medications. They were in my shoulder bag."
"What kind of meds?" he asked, though he knew about her disorder, had been studying it. He just wanted to see if she'd admit to it.
She raised her chin. "They're for OCD. Obsessive - "
" - compulsive disorder. I've heard of it." She was going to love his place.
"So you understand why I have to get them."
"Will you die without those pills? Because you sure as shite will die to get them. Your building is going to be crawling with assassins."
Her brows drew together. "You said building. How did you know I don't live in a house? And how did you know where to find me tonight?"
"We've been doing background on you. I was trailing you tonight and saw them take you."
"Tell me - who hired you to protect me?"
This was going to get sticky if she pressed. "Don't know exactly. I just got the job details instructing me to keep you safe and the payment scale. Anything else is of no matter to me."
She was quiet for a moment. "Background on me?" she finally asked. "You mean spying."
"I'm not apologizing for it - not when the outcome was that I saved your life."
"And what did you find out about me?"
How to answer her? Every time he thought he had Holly figured out, she surprised him. Over the last several months, he'd deemed her a math geek, a campus feminist, a tease, a tree hugger, and a closet sexpot.
He'd eventually figured out why he could never get a handle on what she was like - because she didn't have any kind of handle on herself. Even she didn't know who she was.
"You're twenty-six, an only child, adopted," he finally said. "Your adoptive parents both died of natural causes in the last two years. They left you a fortune...." He slanted a glance at her.
Her face held no reaction. "Go on."
"You've got two master's degrees under your belt, and you're about to complete your PhD in mathematics." You've got the confidence of a woman who knows she's smart, and that's arousing as hell.
"You like to swim." Your body in even your modest swimsuit puts this demon to his knees.
"You've got a steady boyfriend, also in the PhD program." Tim's a ponce loser and a hypochondriac.
"You teach football players fun with numbers or something." With every sexual comment those jocks make about you, they routinely tempt death by demon bite....
"You like things to be...clean." You like blues rock and prepackaged foods.
"All true," she said. "And yet I know nothing about you except that you're a demon mercenary who has at least one brother."
He stifled a harsh laugh. That's all there is to know about me, he thought bitterly, but he said, "That's probably good. The less you know, the better."
Long moments after he hung up the phone with Cade, Rydstrom was still uneasy.
This is bad.
Groot's emissary had insisted on meeting three hundred miles from the city, and Rydstrom was still more than half an hour from the gas station where he would join up with Cade.
He accelerated even more, his Mercedes McLaren flying along an old ribbon of road, built up levee-style through the bayou. He was cruising at an easy hundred and forty miles per hour - so smoothly that the car seemed bored and sullenly quiet.
Rydstrom had to get to his brother before he did something impulsive. He didn't think even Cade comprehended how much he wanted that female.
This is bloody bad. Because he wasn't certain that Cade wouldn't just run off with Holly now that he could have her.
Did Rydstrom suspect the female was Cade's mate? Yes. But clearly, it wasn't meant to be.
Before, she wasn't attainable because of her mortality.
Now she would be the difference between Rydstrom reclaiming his kingdom or not.
Reclaiming Rothkalina... His heart beat faster at the idea of liberating his country, working to see his people prosper for the first time in a millennium.
Omort had been brutal to them, any rebellions crushed, the offenders sadistically punished.
But right now, their freedom was resting in...Cade's hands. Which was a tenuous position to be in.
Cade frustrated the hell out of him. Rydstrom was a male who worshipped reason, the rare rage demon who never lost his temper. Except with Cade - who knew how to push his buttons like no one else. And in return, Rydstrom was hard on him. Some said too hard.
Yet after every one of their infamous fistfights, just when Rydstrom was ready to part ways permanently, he'd remember his brother as a towheaded pup of seven, still with his baby horns, following him around, hero-worshipping him. Rydstrom would feel some flicker of hope that Cade could still pull back from the brink and make something meaningful of his life.
But if he didn't do the right thing now, that hope would be forever finished.
Recalling the day Cade had first seen Holly, Rydstrom increased his speed....
A little less than a year ago, Cade had taken on a job to retrieve a highborn demon's son from the Tulane campus. The son wasn't merely experimenting at passing as a human. The young male had actually been living the lifestyle, cutting off his horns, filing his fangs down, refusing to teleport.
The horrified parents wanted him brought home, without the "shameful secret" getting out to their friends and business associates.
Cade hadn't agreed with the parents' view - one of his mottos was To each his own. However, his overriding outlook was more along the lines of Another day, another dollar. The job had won out.
Rydstrom had accompanied him to the campus to make sure the extraction went smoothly. On the way to the son's dorm, they'd passed an auditorium with a sign announcing Mathematics Awards Today!
Cade had been amused, ready to ridicule. "Geeks on patrol, yeah?"
Though he'd been schooled in the basics of writing, mathematics, and languages, Cade still had a chip on his shoulder that he'd never been educated like other royals because he'd been fostered out. For him, there'd been no higher learning in subjects like philosophy, astronomy, or literature. And even after all these centuries, he felt lacking.
Over the years, Rydstrom had often found books on subjects like those among Cade's possessions. His brother, the cutthroat mercenary, was secretly educating himself....
Then Cade had seen Holly Ashwin up onstage receiving a first-place math award. "Now, that's a fine bit of grumble and grunt, yeah?" Rydstrom could swear that Cade made his lower-class accent even lower just to screw with him.
At the time, he hadn't understood Cade's attraction. The girl was pretty, no doubt of it, but she'd been buttoned-up, with glasses, no makeup, and her hair pulled back in a tight bun. She'd been brimming with a quiet confidence and was obviously smart - definitely not like Cade's typical fare of brazen and empty-headed.
"Come on, Cade, it's not as if we blend in," Rydstrom had said. Both of them stood over six and a half feet tall and wore hats.
But Cade had waited until the crowd adjourned. When she'd exited the auditorium, he'd called to her, "Come here, little bit. Got a question about the beauty pageant you just dominated."
She'd turned to him with her eyes narrowed, pushing up her glasses with the tip of her forefinger.
Rydstrom had leaned against the corner of the building, watching in grim fascination, like a bystander who saw the train coming and knew the track had been blown out ahead.
Cade's easy grin had charmed female after female, and he no doubt expected this one to heed him. Instead, she'd stood her ground and looked down her nose at him. "Can I help you?"
Flummoxed, Cade had crossed the distance to her as if helpless not to. "Ah, yeah. What's, uh, doing in there?"
She'd repeated, "What's doing?"
Taken off guard because she wasn't receptive to his flirting, Cade had stared, flushing at his own stammering attempts to talk to her. At one point, he'd blatantly peered around her to check out her figure again as if he couldn't help himself.
Just as Cade had reached forward, looking for all the world like he intended to undo her hair, and she'd looked as if she'd slap him soundly for it, Rydstrom had broken up the interaction.
Without a word, the girl had pivoted on her heel and started away.
As Rydstrom dragged him in the other direction, Cade had looked back over his shoulder. In a crushed tone, he'd said, "She didn't glance back at me. Not once."
In the months to come, Cade had discovered everything there was to know about her. Just last week, Rydstrom had caught him kicked back on a downtown roof with a flask of demon brew, spying on her swimming. Even at a critical time like this.
Yes, she was likely the only female he could ever be whole with, have offspring with, know real happiness with, but Rydstrom still couldn't understand it. The kingdom always came first.
He would die for his people. Why wouldn't Cade -
Eyes stared back at him in the headlights. Not an animal, a woman.
He slammed on the brakes and swerved, the McLaren skidding out of control. Just when he was about to right the vehicle, a bridge abutment seemed to appear from nowhere; he careened into it.
When he'd finally stopped moving, he grasped his head, shaking off dizziness.
Staggering out to survey the damage, he crunched over cement littered with glass, chunks of ruptured tire, and even bits of the frame.
At the sight, he whistled in a breath. Totaled. The right side of his car was completely shaved off. So where is the woman?
Flashes of her arose in his mind - eyes wide with fear, long red hair whipping as he'd just missed her.
He lumbered back in the direction he'd come. "Is someone here?" he called. "Are you hurt?"
No answer. The closest gas station was at least twenty-five miles away. He fished out his cell phone from his jacket.
Out of area, the screen read. "Bugger me."
When he glanced back up, he caught sight of her farther along this deserted stretch of road, standing alone.
What the hell is she doing all the way out here by herself?
Their eyes met. At that moment, he caught her sultry, feminine scent.
The night began to feel dreamlike, surreal.
He started toward her, not bothering to retrieve his hat - with her otherworldly beauty, he could tell she was definitely one of the Lore.
Shining red hair curled down to her waist. As he neared, he saw that her eyes were dark as night. A gown of the palest blue silk clung to her lush curves. When he spied the outline of her hardened nipples, he ran a hand over his mouth.
He was fifteen hundred years old. Had he ever been so instantly and fiercely attracted to a female?
She began sauntering along the road away from him.
"No, wait! Are you all right?"