And as he improved, they talked more and more - two people who desperately needed to. Often they'd hit a rhythm, a bandying back and forth, as if their thoughts were interlocking pieces. She'd told him, "When we talk, I like how our words ebb and flow. There doesn't seem to be a need to remark on each comment, no need to clarify - it's as if we both understand that we understand each other. It's like dancing."
She'd smiled. "Only if it's great."
He'd given her a confident nod. "Then we would have great sex."
Lord, we would... .
They seemed to fit in every way. Yes, he was half-mad, but as a Prohibition-era ghost with a penchant for stealing condoms, moon pies, and bras, she wasn't exactly in touch with reality herself.
Conrad could see her; her presence seemed to be the only thing that calmed his mind. He was healing, and she was happier than she'd been in eighty years. Two broken souls together in this broken place had found a kind of contentment.
Maybe his being here wasn't the accident she'd thought it. She couldn't believe this was all random. Maybe he was supposed to save her from this cursed afterlife?
And maybe she hadn't learned her lessons from Marguerite L'Are. If anyone was going to save N¨¦omi, it'd be herself... .
At dusk, Conrad came to her.
Somehow looking both proud and contrite, he said, "I won't damage your house anymore."
He held out his hand. "I want you to come inside with me."
"No, Conrad, not tonight," she said, making him grind his teeth.
She knew her refusal frustrated him not only because he wanted to be near her. She believed he had a deep-seated need to protect her, as if she might actually need him to.
As if he felt that it was his right to.
Whenever he looked at her now, his eyes would darken in color and were becoming more and more possessive... .
"I might have damaged things, but I've repaired parts as well," he pointed out.
"C'est vrai." After finding some tools in the old shed by the drive, he'd fortified the manor, patching up or covering window openings and reattaching the front door he'd leveled.
Then, seeming to obey some undeniable instinct to keep her warm and safe, he'd set about rendering the master suite livable for her. He'd transferred the new mattress to the suite's bedstead, adding any available furniture to the area. In the attic, he'd unearthed an antique dresser and a chair that even she hadn't known were up there.
Once he'd miraculously cleared the chimney flue and was able to make a fire though he didn't seem to be cold and she certainly wasn't - he'd informed her that she would sleep with him in that room from now on.
His tone had reminded her that he'd been born an aristocrat and had become a warlord in the seventeenth century. Conrad Wroth was well used to having his will obeyed.
He'd seemed perplexed when she'd just laughed and deemed his domineering ways tr¨¨s charmant, and then he'd been angered when she'd reminded him that she already had a place to stay.
The fact that she had a hideaway she adjourned to every day annoyed him to no end...
"So you will come?"
When she made no move to, she could tell how badly he itched to force her inside. If she'd been corporeal, she had no doubt she'd be to force her inside. If she'd been corporeal, she had no doubt she'd be bouncing along over his shoulder as he hauled her away.
This mountain of a man was learning that his considerable might - which he'd clearly relied on for everything - was futile with her.
For once, her incorporeality was proving to be an advantage.
If he desired to be with her, then he either had to persuade her to come back or prevent her from leaving in the first place.
"I said not tonight." Willingly separating from him was just as miserable for N¨¦omi. But she couldn't let him get accustomed to taking his anger out on her house - or her.
"Do as you will," he said in a seething tone, leaving her. But not before she spied that muscle tick in his jaw.
Late in the night, she'd just been dozing off in the studio when she heard his yell.
Before N¨¦omi had even decided to, she'd traced to him. The second she arrived, he shot up in bed with another yell at the top of his lungs, so loud it rattled the windows.
When she hastened beside him, he swung his legs over to sit on the side of the bed.
"Conrad, it's all right. It was just a dream."
He held his head with his bound hands, elbows to his knees as he rocked. "My head... too full." He was squeezing it so hard, she feared he would crack his skull.
"Shh, shh, mon coeur." She gave a telekinetic stroke down his back. "It's over."
"I don't... I don't want to be like this anymore!" His tone was anguished.
"You're getting so much better," she murmured. "Soon you won't have these nightmares."
He narrowed his gaze at her, as if just noticing she was there. "You were... murdered - you remind me of the things I've done, of consequences," he choked out. "And you show me what I could have had... if I'd been... different." He grasped his head again and muttered, "You're what's wrong with my past. What has to be missing from my future."
She knew he would remember little to none of these words - but she would. "Conrad, your future's not settled. You can have good things in your life again."
"You're the perfect punishment for me."
"Oh." Stunned, she rose to leave.
He reached out to stay her. When he closed his big fist around air, he turned and struck the headboard with frustration. Eyes vacant, burning red, he rasped, "Did any man ever want his penance so much?"
She said nothing, just settled back beside him to stroke his hair from his forehead. She hated that he was in so much pain and wished she could draw it from him. He'd once been a hero, his life given over to something greater, but now he suffered.
N¨¦omi had known that he was a broken man who needed saving. Over the last three days, she'd become convinced that he deserved saving.
Right at that moment, she realized it might just fall to her.
But how could she help him? She sighed, coaxing him to lie back once more. N¨¦omi had been a dancer, raised in a demimonde concerned with little more than revelry and drinking. What did she know about bringing vampires back from the brink?
She'd simply have to use the tools she had at her disposal. And really, the medicinal values of Scotch and laughter were underrated.
"Who's your best friend, mon grand?" she cooed, levitating two bottles. "Who does Conrad love?"
He was kneeling at the fireplace, finishing his fire. Outside the night was blustery, but inside it would be comfortable. "What have you got?" He stood, brushing his hands off on his pants, then sat on one of the chairs in front of the hearth.
"A gift for you."
"A... gift?" Even he knew his tone sounded perplexed.
"Oui, also known as a present. Or as the French say, un pr¨¦sent."
He accepted the bottles from her, dusting off the label of one. His jaw slackened. "This is Glen Garioch, nineteen twenty-five!" He hesitated even to read the other label. "My God," he breathed. "Macallan, 'twenty-four. N¨¦omi, this is about a hundred thousand dollars' worth of whiskey. I can't drink this - you could sell it. Or have someone sell it for you."
"What would I do with money? I have plenty in my safe. Besides, I'd get much more pleasure out of seeing you drink it." She hovered just behind him, peering over his shoulder, which put her soft words right at his ear. "And then you must describe it to me, very slowly, in that deep, rumbly voice of yours. Is it smoky or earthy like peat? How does it unfold on your tongue? How long does it take for the heat to stroke through you inside?"
She could read the phone book and make it sound erotic. "You're sure?"
"Cheers!" She gave him an odd little smile as she said, "Á votre sant¨¦." To your health.
"Then I want to drink this and watch you dance."
She looked delighted with him; he'd never get enough of that look. "I want to dance and watch my vampire drink."
My vampire... Damn, he liked it when she called him that. He knew it was flirting at best, but he couldn't stem the flush of pleasure.
He opened the Macallan, letting it breathe. The scent of it hit him, and his lips curled. This would not be whiskey that he would use, as he had in the past. For one thing, he didn't need it to dull his rage as much as he had before. More importantly, a bottle like this demanded to be savored -
"I'll be back," she said, then vanished.
He tensed, anxious whenever she left, but she returned in minutes, bearing a windup gramophone over one hand and a crystal tumbler over the other. She handed him the glass, then positioned the gramophone on the floor. Once she'd wound it and set the record needle in place, scratchy music began to play, a slow jazz ballad.
Making her voice like an announcer's, she said, "And now! For the matinee! The supremely talented Miss Laress will perform for a lucky audience! Of one!" She smiled coyly. "I've remembered an old dance I used to do when I was younger. I think you'll like it... ."
As his rare whiskey breathed, Conrad leaned back in the chair in front of the fire, watching the most beautiful female he'd ever seen dance solely for him.
Though N¨¦omi wasn't blushing with color, she was still lovely to him - especially when she moved. Hypnotic. This dance was so effortless for her, she would turn to him in the middle of pirouettes or standing splits to smile or wink at him.
N¨¦omi lived in the moment, laughed easily, flirted constantly. Her natural state was happiness, which both mystified and attracted him. Over his long life, that state had continually eluded him. But she had a theory why: "People think happiness will simply fall into their laps. You have to aspire to it. And sometimes you have to seize it when it's kicking and screaming."
N¨¦omi had been murdered, possessed no body, and was still seizing all the pleasure she could. Conrad respected that.
Now she danced as if she knew by instinct precisely how to attract him alone. How to be irresistible to him. So why try to resist? Why struggle against his attraction?
Because even if she returned his feelings, he would only end up disappointing her.
He was improving here, but he wasn't right in the mind by any means, still suffering from occasional rages and grueling nightmares. How would he do once freed into the real world? Would he be able to keep from drinking his foes when he was addicted to harvesting their power?
For centuries his adversaries had been determined to discover anything he cared for. But then, that was an unspoken rule in the Lore. Immortals could be blas¨¦ about death after living so long - the best bargaining chip was revenge against family or loved ones. Yet for all those years he'd had no liabilities.
Conrad had acquired his first. Was running headlong to her.
He shook his head. No, his enemies couldn't hurt N¨¦omi, could never abduct or wound her. Maybe that was part of the reason he'd found such an unusual feeling of ease with her - because he knew he couldn't harm her either. Even when he got free, he wouldn't be able to accidentally injure her if he lost control.
But how to get free? Not one of his brothers had returned since that day he tried to convince them of N¨¦omi's existence - the day they'd left for Mount Oblak, the Forbearer Castle.
Conrad knew that meant one of two things had happened.
Kristoff had possibly discovered that they were keeping Conrad alive. The second law of the Forbearer order? Kill the Fallen without measure. Just by keeping Conrad alive, they'd been committing treason. Kristoff had likely imprisoned them at Mount Oblak, vowing to free them as soon as they gave up Conrad's location.
Which they would never do. For all their faults, they were as loyal as men came.
The other possibility? They'd fallen in battle. And Conrad didn't know how he felt about that. Over the last week, he'd become keenly aware that if not for his brothers, he would never have known N¨¦omi.
Now that he was somewhat more rational, able to quell the worst of his rage, the thought of losing all three of them left him unaccountably troubled.
Revealing details of his past to her had forced his mind back to better times. He'd recalled how Nikolai had bailed him out of scrape after scrape. He'd thought back to the day the four brothers had made the fateful decision to take control of their country's defense: No one else is getting the job done. Conrad remembered being proud because not one of them had hesitated.
If his brothers lived, he would not be able to destroy them as planned. He didn't want to have anything to do with them, but he couldn't kill them... .
"Don't you want to try the whiskey?" she asked, pausing her dance.
"What? Yes." He'd planned to let it breathe a minute for every year of its age. But she looked so expectant. He supposed more than half an hour would be sufficient, and the taste would only grow increasingly complex with time. He poured a dram, swirling it in the tumbler, letting it coat the glass.
He took his first sip, just preventing his eyes from sliding closed in pleasure. "My God, that's what it should always be like." The taste was bracing yet smooth, the elements distinct but complementary.
"Is it better than what you usually drink?"
"Other whiskey or blood?" he asked.
"It shames other whiskey - and it's better than the blood I've been drinking."
Conrad instinctively knew that it wouldn't compare to hers.
"Bien," she said, resuming her steps.
As his gaze followed her, he wondered what would it be like to pierce her pale skin with his fangs. If she were a flesh and blood woman, what would it be like to cup her breasts as he sucked her neck?
He had never touched a woman's breasts. He often tried to imagine what N¨¦omi's would feel like from what he'd seen of them. They'd be soft against his rough palms, giving to his grasp... .
He'd always yearned for a woman of his own. He'd dreamed of not letting her leave the bed for days as he explored her, discovering how to pleasure her. He'd wanted to learn how to make his woman pine for him if he had to leave and cry his name as he entered her.
Cry his name in a sultry voice tinged with French.
Suddenly fantasies ran riot in his mind, of kneading her ass at the same time he suckled her nipples. Of petting her pale little body for hours until she came again and again for him -
"You look content, mon tr¨¦sor."
He coughed into his fist. "I have to say, I've been in worse jails." And having such a desirable cellmate didn't hurt either. Though the need to pursue Tarut grew more pressing with each hour, and a promising hunting ground awaited, he also found himself on edge from the idea of leaving her here for even a short time.
Suddenly, she twirled around and brushed a sizzling kiss on his cheek. His eyes narrowed suspiciously at her, but she merely laughed. "It's called - say it with me - a-fec-shun."
He'd just assumed she flirted because that was her nature. Yet could she... could she truly be interested in him? Even be attracted to him - with his red eyes and scars? Maybe she wanted more, as he did.
But then there was no one else to attract her. He had no competitors here.
"Why would you show me affection?"
She answered, "Because I... feel it?"
With a laugh, she asked, "Why, why, why? Must you question everything good?"
"Yes, when it's illogical. You know nothing about me - "
"I know more about you than any other woman does, n'est-ce pas? You don't have to muster up the nerve to divulge your secrets to me, while secretly hoping I don't run away screaming. I know them all. I'm still here." Eyes bright, lips curling, she said, "And I know that you're my favorite man. Dans le monde entier."
"Because I'm the only one in the entire world who can see and hear you." She gave him that mysterious shrug. He knew she was likely playing, the flirtations meaningless. But damn it, her words still got to him. It was becoming easier to pretend the sentiment was real.
"You don't know what to do with affection, do you?"
"I... have no idea," he admitted. "I don't know my way around this. It makes me feel weak. You make me feel that way sometimes."
"How a man as powerful as you could feel weak, I'll never know. This disturbs me. What would you suggest I change so you don't feel that way?"
He scrubbed a hand over his face, struggling to convey what he was thinking. "You make me uneasy at times because you and everything you do are so unfamiliar to me."
"Your laughter. It's as if you spend every second of the day merely awaiting a time to be able to laugh or tease."
"I sound tr¨¨s terrible. How do you stand being near me? It must be because of your saintlike patience and calm?" She topped off his glass.
Once she'd finished dancing, N¨¦omi floated to the chair beside Conrad's.
The thoughtful vampire had pulled up two of them in front of the fire. He continued to treat her like a woman instead of a ghost. He opened doors for her, and though she could never take it, he often held out his hand for her.
Little things like this increased his already devastating attractiveness.
"Conrad, what was it like in the Kapsliga?"
"Regimented," he answered shortly, no doubt predicting where she was headed with this.
"Was it terribly difficult to abstain?" She'd been prying to uncover more about this part of his life. She was probably as tenacious at this as he was about the key. Or as he had been.
No longer did he ask her to retrieve it - because his brothers had stopped coming.
She suspected Conrad felt let down that they still hadn't returned. It must prey on him, wondering what had happened to them. Though he'd never admit it.
"Why are you so curious about this?" He swigged his whiskey. Though she might've expected him to take from the bottle, he drank it neat from the glass, and slowly.
"Because I want to know more about you."
"Then why not ask me about the Great War, about our greatest victory or shrewdest defense - "
"Because I am also a female?"
"I can't argue that." He lifted his glass to her. "Ask what you will."
She made like she was sitting. "Did you abstain only because of your vow?"
"You heard my brother - Wroths keep their vows. That would've been enough. But there wasn't much temptation anyway. Healthy women near the front line were scarce. Especially any who weren't already obsessed with Murdoch." He contemplated the whiskey in his glass. "And the end was in sight. Service in the Kapsliga is from the age of thirteen to thirty seven. I only had a few more years left."
"I'll bet you were counting down the days."
"When there were lulls in the war, I did." His brows drew together. "But then I died."
"There was never a girl that struck your fancy? You never fell in love?"
"There wasn't any time even to contemplate emotions like that. I fought in battles all day and then warred with vampires each night. Survival was foremost on everyone's minds." He took a drink, his gaze turning distant for long moments. Was he reliving those horrors even now? Just when she was about to prompt him back to the conversation, he blinked and asked, "What about you? Did you love the oil man?"
"Not at all." And he hadn't loved her. That night when Louis had wielded his blade, N¨¦omi had understood him better than she ever had. Louis had been frenzied not because he'd needed to be with her but because he'd wanted to punish her. No matter what sentiments he'd spouted over her body, he'd murdered her out of spite.
"The men you were with - did you love any of them?"
"I had great affection for them. But no abiding love for them."
"Why couldn't they win you?" He leaned forward, as if her answer was very significant to him.
"Oh, they didn't do anything wrong. I just never found my match."
"Did they... satisfy you?"
If they hadn't in the beginning, they had eventually. "I made sure of it. I wasn't shy about what I expected or needed from a man." He raised his brows. She could tell he was eager to question her about her words, but she wanted to refocus on him. "Conrad, how did you handle the physical need?" When his face flushed, she said, "Oh, I see."
"A lot," he admitted in a husky voice.
"Were you terribly curious about what it would feel like?"