As he'd gaped up at her in fear, she'd blinked down at him. As though someone else had inhabited her body, she'd throatily murmured, "I guess we should part ways here?" When she released him, he'd fled.
Once Bobby's tales had made the rounds at school, no boy would ask her out, so she'd buried herself even more in her studies.
In fact, she hadn't attempted to be intimate with another male until her first year in college. The only thing different about that encounter was that she'd grown more aggressive and even stronger.
Shaking away that memory, Holly turned to Greta's page in The Book of Warriors. Greta the Bold had been a master strategist and had led troops of Valkyrie, witches, and Furies in the great Battle of the Plains of Doom.
If the dates of that battle were correct, then Greta had gone to war when she'd been pregnant with Holly. Six years later, Greta had lost her life on the front line in the infamous Eighteen-Night Siege.
Holly was struck by the fact that if a new world existed, then she would have an entirely new history to learn.
Suddenly feeling exhausted, she dragged the weighty Living Book of Lore onto her lap without enthusiasm. Scanning the pages, she found encyclopedic entries on each of the "known species." After a brief intro, a more detailed history would follow. Flipping through, she found everything from wraiths and sirens, to Wendigos and demonarchies....
"Do you want something to eat or drink?" Cadeon asked.
She wasn't hungry whatsoever. "Do you have anything to drink other than Red Bull?"
He pulled a bottle of water from the space behind her seat, handing it to her. My favorite brand.
"Thanks." She carefully twisted the cap, determined not to touch -
Crap! She'd touched the bottle rim. With a sigh, she put the cap back on and placed the bottle at her feet.
"Something wrong with the water?"
She debated not answering, but figured he'd encounter all her quirks over the next couple of weeks anyway - the eating difficulties, the germophobia, the endless arranging.
"I touched the rim." She put her chin up. "There was transference. I can't drink it now."
Instead of laughing at her, he reached behind her seat to grab another bottle. He opened it without contaminating the rim, then handed it to her. "These shorter caps must be a pain in the ass."
Her lips parted. She'd complained to Mei about the newfangled caps just the other week.
"So, you feeling overwhelmed yet?" he asked.
"A tad." She took a drink. She continued to feel as if she were reading fiction - as if all of this were far too fantastic to be true.
Even when a thousand-year-old demon sat a foot from her.
"Read the book to me, and I'll add details or explain things."
"How can I trust you? You said Valkyrie are docile. In The Book of Warriors, I read about Kaderin the Coldhearted, an assassin who strings up fangs collected from the heads of vampires she's decapitated. And then there is Emmaline the Unlikely, who slew her own father. Cut him up into three pieces." Three. I like Emmaline already. "Clearly, they are the picture of docility."
"Like I said, I was just having a bit of fun. It'd be like saying sirens don't like to sing."
She tilted her head at him. "So if I had questions, you'd answer them truthfully?"
"Yeah, if you answer questions about yourself."
She didn't see the harm. "Very well. I'll start. How many demonarchies are there? Where are they?"
"There are hundreds. Almost every breed of demon - from the smoke demons like Rök to the pathos demons - has a kingdom of some kind, usually in a separate plane."
"Separate plane? There are such things?"
He nodded. "There are more dimensions than can be mapped."
"What's your kingdom called?"
"Rothkalina." When he said it, his accent became more pronounced, as if even the mention of his home brought on keen feeling.
"How do you get there?" she asked.
"The most accessible portal is in southern Africa."
And that explained the accent. "So does it look like an alternate universe? Does it have purple skies and a green sun?"
"Nah. Rothkalina looks a lot like the west coast of North America."
"Oh," she said, feeling a bit silly. Then she frowned. "But if Omort is a sorcerer, why would he want to take over a demon kingdom?"
Clever chit, Cade thought. Few ever asked him that question, though it seemed one of the most material in his mind.
"The land is rich," he answered. "And the kingdom is strategically located."
But in truth, Omort had no use for the kingdom, and only kept it because he could. The one who controls Tornin controls the kingdom.
Omort desired what was within the castle.
Before written history, Tornin had been constructed around the legendary Well of Souls - to protect that mystickal font of power from sorcerers like Omort. And the rage demons had been dispatched to Tornin to safeguard the stronghold.
Yet they'd never been told exactly what the Well of Souls...did.
"Why are you called rage demons?"
"We get...enraged when we turn demonic. Mindless fury and all that."
"Turn demonic? Like when you fought tonight."
"Yeah, well, that was just a hint." In his fully demonic form, his skin would darken, reddening, while his body grew taller and larger. His fangs would elongate, and his horns would sharpen, reaching their full size. In that state, he could emit a toxin from the ends that could temporarily paralyze even an immortal.
She swallowed. "And how often do you get enraged?"
"It's extremely rare to turn fully. It happens only when a demon's life or the life of one of his family is in jeopardy." Or when he claimed his female for the first time.
"Why is Lorekind hidden from humans?"
"Historically, anytime some faction comes out of the closet, they get slaughtered."
"For millennia, the witches kept outing themselves - until that last rash of burnings. And all those people in the past who were killed because they were supposedly possessed by demons? They were demons."
"But how do all these beings keep secret from humans?"
"It's easier than you think. We mainly stick to crazy cities, party towns. Most humans assume that anything off is a costume or, these days, part of an MTV prank." He grew more serious. "But every myth is an example of when some Lore creature boned up."
"What would you do if you got pulled over right now? What if you threw on your hat and a cop wanted you to take it off?"
"A lot of demons would run, collect a couple of bullets, then get out of sight to trace."
"Trace? I read about that. It means to teleport?"
He nodded. "But not all demon breeds can do it, and of those that have the potential, they have to work at it to master it."
"I assume you can't since you didn't trace us instead of going through the swamp."
"I used to be able to. For centuries I enjoyed that power. But Omort bound my ability to trace. My brother's as well."
"Will you ever get it back?"
He met her eyes. "As soon as that sword severs his head from his neck, we'll be free."
Cadeon's expression grew sinister, as if he was imagining beheading Omort right at that moment. Then his gaze slid to her, and he seemed to shake himself. "So questions about you now..."
"What do you want to know?"
"How did you find out you were adopted?"
"My adoption was never a secret. My mom used to tell me the story of the day someone left me on their doorstep. She always called me her foundling." Holly smiled softly. "They'd tried for years to get pregnant. When they couldn't and sought an adoption, the parish said my father was too old. And he outlived her."
Though not by much. He'd been so utterly in love with his wife of forty-five years that when they'd lost her to cancer, he'd wanted only to follow her wherever she'd gone. Her parents had had an extraordinary kind of love, the kind that you read about but rarely see.
Had her biological parents experienced it, too?
"I bet you never imagined your real mum as a warrior Valkyrie," he said, taking a deep swallow of Red Bull.
"No, we'd always supposed she was an unwed teenager." An unfamiliar scent hit her, and she sniffed the air. "Are you...tippling? Did you pour alcohol in your drink?"
"You're drinking and driving!"
"If I were blotto, my reflexes would still be a thousand times better than a human's."
"You curse like a sailor and denigrate women, and now I find out that you drive under the influence." She peered over at the speedometer. "And you do it too fast."
"True, true, true. And you don't live a little, don't get the lead out, and never have fun."
"I do have fun!"
"You wouldn't know fun if it bit you on the ass."
Her chin jutted up. "You think I'm a goody two-shoes, a prude."
"I was going to say preachy tight-ass. But prude might fit. Especially after what Nïx told me about you tonight."
"What did she say?" Holly demanded.
"She said that you're innocent, and not just in body. I'd figured you were definitely a virgin, but - "
"How?" she interrupted. She wasn't secretive about her virginity, but she hadn't thought it'd be patently obvious to others.
"You've got it written all over you. It's like a flickering beacon for males like me."
"Please. Tell me. What do I have inscribed and flickering over me?"
"Starving - for - it."
She glared at the roof of the car, grasping for patience. Because heaven help her, he might be right.
"So, I got that you were innocent body-wise, but the innocent-in-mind bit threw me. How is that even possible?"
"Why couldn't it be?" she asked.
"The media and such today. Sex is pervasive."
It was. But Holly had diligently trained herself to Turn Away. Somehow, she unfailingly forced herself to avoid anything that might make her lose control - anything erotic, passionate, moving, angering....
A couple necking on campus? Turn away. A steamy scene on network TV? Turn away. "Can you accept that an alcoholic avoids the liquor store? Or that a dieter avoids the bakery?"
"A dieter still has to go to the grocery store."
"Unless he gets the groceries delivered," she countered.
"Why would a dieter have to be a she?"
The corners of his lips curled. "Almost forgot what a little feminist you are."
"I guess everyone would be considered so, compared to a huge chauvinist such as yourself."
"Back to the subject. You're telling me you've never even seen people having sex in a movie?"
"Regrettably, my adult video collection isn't as extensive as yours."
He shrugged. "Not going to apologize for that. I'm currently between females. Flicks help to...pass the time."
Though she could scarcely believe she was discussing porn with an immortal in a million-dollar car, alas, she was.
"Answer the question," he said.
"No, I haven't viewed more than a glimpse."
"Before this trip is over, I'm going to get you to watch a flick."
"Never. I'm just not interested in seeing things like that." She was dying to see things like that. Turn away...
Now she shrugged.
"Do you even know the logistics?" he asked.
"Of course I do. I went to high school."
"And how does your boyfriend feel about all this?"
"Tim and I have decided to wait to have sex until we get married."
"He's onboard with that?" Cadeon met her gaze. "If you were mine, I'd give you a good seeing to at least five times a day."
This was why she avoided talking and reading about subjects like sex. Now all she could do was envision what a day would be like broken up by regular bouts of sex.
Would a male like Cadeon simply find her wherever she was and take her? She stifled a shiver.
He slanted her a heart-stopping grin. "Got you thinking about it, didn't I?"
"Got me thinking about what it'd be like with Tim five times a day," she lied.
Cadeon's knuckles went white on the steering wheel. Almost as if he was jealous. But why? Maybe demons felt possessive of females that were in their care?
"So tell me about Tim," he bit out.
"We've been dating for two years, and still, every day I'm struck by how perfect he is for me. He's caring and funny, and he's going to make a great husband and father. My parents both got to meet him before they died, and they liked him, too."
"Planning on marrying this bloke?"
"We're getting engaged as soon as we get our degrees."
In a brusque tone, he asked, "Aren't you a little young to get hitched?"
"Maybe, but when you find the right one..."
"And he's it?"
She sighed. "Yes. He's brilliant. One of a kind." When Cadeon snorted, she said, "How many men can discuss extremal combinatorics or how to use Mahalanobis distance in cluster analysis? How many know what a permutohedron or bipartite graph is?"
"Extreme combining?" He cast her a leer. "I'll discuss that any day."
"It's extremal...oh, never mind. You wouldn't understand. Tim and I comprehend each other on a different level."
"How smart can he be if he hasn't figured out a way to sleep with you in two years? I'd have had that locked up tight already."
Holly couldn't even manage a response. This male couldn't be more rude or overbearing.
He continued, "How're you going to know if you and Tim are compatible in bed if you don't do the deed before you get married? Come on, pet, you've got to kick the tires before you buy the car."
"I think that's a ridiculous" - valid - "argument. Sex can be taught just like any other skill. If there's something one of us needs, I'm sure the other will figure it out."
"You can't teach intensity. And who knows - you might discover a few kinks in your closet that old Tom might not be onboard with."
I know this. "Tim would do whatever it takes to make me happy," she insisted. But a full, abiding relationship between them would work only if she were normal sexually. Otherwise, how could he survive her strength? And how could they deal with her weird conflicting needs?
At once, she had the instinctive drive to overpower, and the instinctive need to be overpowered.
"What happens when things get a bit out of hand with you and Tim? How do you kids pull back on the throttle?"
Tim took so many herbs and extracts that she suspected his libido was chemically stunted. "We're strictly platonic right now." Yet even without his GNC stash, her boyfriend wasn't a very sexual person - which was perfect for her. "We're more cerebral than physical."
"Your cerebrum can't have an orgasm."
"We don't believe life has to be filled with orgasms to be meaningful."
He coughed on a swallow of Red Bull, then looked at her as if she'd spoken the vilest blasphemy. "You're killing me, halfling."
"I really don't want to talk to you about anything of this nature anymore. It's not an appropriate subject between us."
"A shame. 'Cause it happens to be my favorite one." Seeing she was unbending about this, he said, "Then ask about me more about the Lore."
"Very well. Do beings get married? Or form family units?"
"Some marry. Especially the species that are more humanized."
"Does your kind?"
"A lot do. More now than in the past. But not as a rule."
"Oh," she said, sounding as if his answer displeased her.
He hastily added, "Though we might not marry, we have something more lasting between us. A demon male has one fated female that he desires and needs above all others. He spends his whole life looking for her. A demon would be crazy to stray when he wants nothing more than to pleasure and protect his woman. Marriage is a little redundant."
"Have you found yours?" she asked, seeming fascinated with the idea.
"I...don't have mine yet."
"How do you recognize her?"
"You just know. A feeling. A connection. But, for my kind, we can't say for certain if she's ours or not without having sex with her. As they say, In the throes, you know."
"It's true. Things occur when you're having sex with her. Things you need in order to claim her." For the first time, the way would be opened, the dam breached.
"Like what?" she asked, then immediately added, "Wait - will your response be graphically sexual?"
To explain how a male rage demon could orgasm but never ejaculate until after the initial claiming of his female...? "Odds are."
"Then please don't answer."
She gazed out the window, peering hard at the night, as if she desperately wanted to block him out. "Maybe I'll just rest for a while."
Minutes after she'd closed her eyes, she had nodded off. He kept glancing over at her, wondering what she was dreaming about with her brows drawn.
As he drove, he decided two things. If they were going to be on the road together for potentially weeks, then he would begin teaching her how to defend herself.
If I turn her over to Groot, she's going to have a sporting chance.
And second, he would be with her sexually. He could never take her completely - she may not be far enough into the transition to immortality to survive it. And if she did, once he'd experienced what it was like to be inside her, he might not ever let her go.
No, he couldn't claim her, but before he relinquished her, he would pleasure her. Cade thought she could be seduced - he'd seen a spark of interest in her eyes. She wasn't immune to him. Which meant he now had to coax her to trust him. Which meant he should be on his best behavior.
Except he had to admit that he kind of enjoyed baiting her like this. When her cheeks went pink and she grew flustered...
And Nïx did say she wanted her niece educated.
Cade wondered what his stalwart brother would think about his plans for Holly. Good money said he'd disapprove. Rydstrom was a fairly stand-up guy, with only a few skeletons in his closet.
Ah, but they were big ones.
Cade stilled. What if the Queen of Illusions discovered Rydstrom's secret weakness? What would she do to him then?
He also wondered if Rydstrom even now believed that their cause was lost because it rested on Cade's shoulders.
Cade wouldn't dwell on that thought. He was taking action, closing in on their goal.
Whereas Holly was plagued with unwelcome thoughts, Cade was mentally nimble, skirting disagreeable realizations with ease.
It was what would allow him to grow more attached to her with each hour - even as each second took him closer to the time he'd be forced to betray her.
Holly was at a ball, standing out on a terrace with Cadeon watching her from the shadows. He wanted her to join him there, but she was afraid to go into the darkness.
She kept looking over her shoulder back inside, unable to leave behind everything she'd ever known.
Yet his green eyes glowed from the shadows, and he held out his hand, beckoning her, promising pleasure more wicked than she'd ever imagined....