Did he still need to know what had happened with her ghostly state? Of course. But when she placed his hand between her thighs to her feel her damp arousal, the need faded. They were together - that was all that mattered for now.
The rest was just details.
Within seconds of N¨Ļomi's tentative rap on the studio mirror, Mari appeared, diligently avoiding her own reflection on the other side. "Hold on, I've got to put you on screen. Okay, there you are!"
N¨Ļomi had known she couldn't go through the portal of the glass without Mari, but she'd figured she could knock at the door.
"It's about time you contacted me!" Mari held out her hand, breaching the surface of the mirror. "You want to come over?"
"Conrad will be back soon, and I wouldn't be able to hear him. Maybe you can come here?"
"Can't." Mari snapped her fingers to someone out of sight, and a teenage girl brought Mari an enormous cup that said Slurpee on the side. "We're hazing new witches at the coven house today. The innocent lambs are vying for my old room." She plopped into a cushy chair. "We'll have to teleconference via mirror."
N¨Ļomi dragged the cot closer to the glass and settled in. She was delighted to be able to talk to Mari, and not just for enjoyment. It would help take her mind off her worry over Conrad. Every time he left to hunt, she grew anxious.
"I see how you're going to be - use me for my spells, then I don't even get another nod for five whole days?"
"It's been so busy!" And the only times Conrad wasn't with her were when she slept. She'd happened to wake early this afternoon. "Are you all right from the gathering? I saw you get hit."
"Oh, yeah, just ducky. But you should see the other guy. He will never accidentally elbow another witch again. Even after his elbows grow back."
"That's good to know, I think. Was Nïx terribly disappointed that her gathering devolved into chaos?"
"I asked her the same thing, but she just laughed. I eventually got her to admit that she'd started it. Apparently you and the vampire weren't the only couple thrown together in the melee." She curled her legs under her. "So I take it you blooded the vamp?" When N¨Ļomi nodded happily, Mari tilted her head. "Wow, check you out - you look fantastic! A new haircut? And new duds."
She flushed from the praise. "Conrad's been taking me shopping. A lot." In the first few nights, she'd hit Paris with a frenzy, frothing at all the new styles to be had. And she'd had her hair trimmed in a boutique there, but only by a couple of inches, as each snip seemed to physically pain Conrad. "I offered to pay my own way, but he bristled. I tried to point out that I have scads of money, but he wouldn't listen."
"You have... scads of money?" Mari asked innocently.
N¨Ļomi stifled a grin, making her demeanor stern. "Yes. I looked up my certificates. Evidently thirty thousand dollars' worth of IBM and GE stock in the twenties equals approximately a hundred and fifty million today. Though a witch nabbed about twenty-five of it."
Eyes wide, Mari cried, "Who? What! Damn, those witches!"
N¨Ļomi couldn't stop a chuckle. She would've given Mari all of it.
"Speaking of witches - you missed girls' night out." Mari set down her Slurpee to cross her arms over her chest. "I don't know if Nïx explained this to you, but GNO is not optional. You will receive demerits for missed attendance. And by demerits, I mean you have to buy drinks for thirsty Wiccae."
"I'm still in the honeymoon phase. Don't I get a pass? Besides, I'm not supposed to go out in the city, not with Cade and Rydstrom in New Orleans."
Mari's expression turned serious. "They'd never hurt you, N¨Ļomi. They actually saved my life, back before I'd grown into my immortality."
"Would they hurt Conrad?"
"In a heartbeat," she admitted. "Most of Lorekind hate red-eyed vampires."
N¨Ļomi sighed. "Do you?"
"Ah, snap, put Mari in the hot seat! Well, I used to be very certain that I did. But everybody at the gathering was talking about how Conrad Wroth stopped himself from drinking Cade. Even Bowen is in a wait-and-see mode."
"Oh, that's a relief!"
"Still, I'd thought about checking on you anyway, dropping by with a type-A-positive pie or something."
"I'm glad you didn't - I don't want Conrad to learn that we know each other. He'd do nothing but hound you for my secret." Even now, she listened attentively for his return.
He always went straight to the kitchen to get a mug of blood. She'd hear him open the refrigerator door and close it with the side of his boot. Then he would sit for a spell on the porch steps, drinking and seeming to decompress from the night's hunt. All they were missing was the Honey, I'm home. "Speaking of which - I don't suppose Nïx is ever wrong?"
"That would be never."
"Bien. We'll keep the secret forever, and then I won't get capped." N¨Ļomi could speak Gang as well as the next former ghost from the Jazz Age.
"N¨Ļomi... " Mari was plainly troubled about her outlook.
"No, I know." She didn't want Mari to be. She was utterly grateful. "Every day I last is just a bonus. And really, I was born a mortal. That means any time I had on earth would always be uncertain."
Mari looked unconvinced.
"We just worked with what we had. I have absolutely no regrets."
"What'd you tell him when he asked how you came back?" Mari asked.
"I told him I had a secret, and that I wouldn't talk about it or we'd quarrel."
"And he just let it go? That's weird. Vampires are notoriously single-minded."
N¨Ļomi nibbled her bottom lip. "Well, I distract him... ."
"You distract - ? Ah, I got it." She snapped her fingers again, and another teenager briefly appeared bearing a pastry box. "Beignet?" Mari opened the box and offered it through the glass.
N¨Ļomi was hungry. This would be her breakfast. Though Conrad escorted her to restaurants for most meals - he pushed food around on his plate and sipped "inferior" whiskey neat - she occasionally had to scrounge in the refrigerator. The shelves were divided in half, with his blood on one side and her juices, leftovers, and fruit on the other. "Caf¨Ļ du Monde?"
N¨Ļomi eagerly accepted, plucking one from the box. Still hot! She took a bite, sighing in delight as it melted in her mouth.
"Well, then... tell me, what's it like living with a vampire? Is it everything you'd hoped?"
"Better than. Besides shopping, he's been taking me to new places all over the world."
Tracing came in very handy when one had limited time and no passport. Though vampires could only trace to destinations they'd been to previously, Conrad had traveled all over the world in the last three centuries. "For our first foray, he made me close my eyes. When I opened them, we were on a moonlit beach on the Indian Ocean." The wave crests had been bright with luminescence, the breeze a balmy kiss.
It had struck N¨Ļomi then that she might just pack in a lifetime of experiences if she could last a year.
"I've never been. Bowen and I have got to travel more," Mari said. "So how's the vamp doing with the rages you told us about?"
"Anytime a male casts an appreciative glance my way, I fear Conrad will attack him." He was still struggling to temper his aggression, still treading that path by the folly when he needed to cool off.
The men who regarded her had no idea they courted the wrath of a seventeenth-century warlord, ready to lash out over every long look... .
"Oh, you get used to that," Mari assured her. "Lore males can be really territorial with their females. But hey, aren't the females right back?"
Though N¨Ļomi wasn't of the Lore, she was extremely possessive of her vampire. With his towering, muscle-packed build and that jet black hair, Conrad's presence was beyond arresting. Add the sunglasses, and everyone mistook him for a celebrity. Women, young and old, stopped in their tracks to gape at him. "When one woman continued to leer at his backside, I wanted to pull her hair. Even though she was easily an octogenarian."
Mari snorted at that.
"Are all Lore males ridiculously overprotective as well?" N¨Ļomi asked.
"Don't even get me started."
Conrad could be so violent with others, but he'd proved to be protective of her to a fault. "At first I had trouble remembering that I can't float through doors anymore, and I kept butting my forehead - "
Mari thought that was hilarious, coughing on her Slurpee.
N¨Ļomi quirked a brow and continued, "But Conrad winces over each slight mark. And a splinter in my finger was rated as calamitous in his eyes."
Mari offered another beignet.
"Merci." N¨Ļomi stretched to reach it. "Unfortunately, he's getting more and more suspicious whenever I say or do anything that shows no concern for the future."
"Like what?" Mari asked, brushing powdered sugar from her hands.
"He'd wanted to repair some things around the house, like parts of this studio so I could start practicing again like I used to. I told him there were just so many things I wanted to see now that I can leave the property." She did want to dance, but she had to make choices with her remaining time. "And then, just yesterday, he asked me why I wasn't worried about birth control. It got me thinking - should I be?"
Mari frowned. "I truly don't know. I'll ask around, post it to the discussion board."
What if N¨Ļomi could get pregnant? What if she could have their baby before she died? Would she trust the mad vampire assassin with her only child after she was gone? She thought of that fierce, protective light in his eyes whenever he looked at her.
After a loud slurp, Mari said, "Tell me more... believe me, my minions are praying to Hekate that you'll keep me occupied all afternoon."
"Well, he's really intense. A few nights ago, he offered to desecrate the grave of the man who murdered me." Catching N¨Ļomi's gaze, he'd rumbled, "Bid me to do this, koeri, and it's done."
"Aw, that's kind of sweet," Mari said.
"I thought so, too." Eventually. At the time, her lips had parted, and she'd murmured, "Oh, how... thoughtful, Conrad." Again, she'd understood the offer was akin to an affectionate gesture from a male like him. "But let's leave the, er, grave alone for now. I just want to enjoy you... ."
Waggling her eyebrows, Mari asked, "So, is your vamp good in the sack?"
N¨Ļomi sighed, "Quite." Not only was Conrad insatiable, the male had stamina. He was discovering all the wonders of lovemaking, but she was rediscovering it with a virile male, forever in his prime. "I'd never been with anyone immortal before. There's certainly a difference."
By turns, he could be both gentle and fierce with sex. But he never hurt her, and she loved that she never knew what side of Conrad she'd get.
And the more self-assured in bed he became, the more domineering he grew. His growing confidence thrilled her, giving her delicious shivers because she knew it would only continue to get better and better.
Then she would remember she was leaving.
"I knew a witch who slept with a vamp once," Mari said in a lower tone. "I asked her what it was like, and she told me, 'You never forget for a second that you're with a vampire.'"
"C'est vrai. That is one hundred percent true. Conrad once told me of having new vampire instincts that overrode his human ones, and I can definitely see it."
Whenever he put his mouth on her, he held her down, until she felt like the caught lure he'd nicknamed her. If he kissed her mouth, he held her face and the back of her neck, as if he feared she'd get away. When he suckled her breasts, he'd greedily cup both of them from the sides, firmly gripping them. As he squeezed, she could almost hear him thinking, Mine.
Leaning forward in her chair, Mari asked, "Does he ever want to drink you? I've heard some chicks actually like it."
"I think he does want to, but he never has." Sometimes when they had sex, she sensed him skirting the edge of his control, especially now that he was growing so fatigued from hunting that demon. But she always pulled back from him, and he didn't press. "He's afraid of hurting me."
"He can't have your blood anyway. If he got your memories, then that'd be a surefire way to find out your secret. Think about it - you're never going to tell anyone. I'm not, and Nïx won't. How else could anyone find out unless Conrad drank you?"
"I know. Believe me, I know."
"So what are you going to do if he asks you to marry him or something? Isn't he from the seventeenth century? Guys from the past seem to get really weird about issues like marriage. And I should know, since I married one."
"I've thought and thought about it, and I've decided that I can't in any way promise my future when it's so uncertain." She didn't want Mari to think she was complaining, but pretending with Conrad was already difficult at times - N¨Ļomi didn't know how she could make it through even a short marriage ceremony. Till death do us part... possibly next week.
"Has he told you he loves you yet?"
"No, and I'm glad for it." N¨Ļomi knew he'd fallen for her as deeply as she had for him, but she dreaded that he would tell her he loved her. "Whenever I sense he's about to get serious, I keep the mood light."
"What would be so bad about him telling you that?"
"I wouldn't be able to stop myself from saying it back! And once he knows for certain how I feel about him, he'd never accept that I won't marry him."
"Yeah, that would be a strange conversation: 'I love you with all my heart!' 'Then you'll marry me!' 'Meh.'"
"Exactement - " She froze. "He's home! I must go!"
"Don't be a stranger, N¨Ļomi!" Mari made her tone ominous. "No. Really. Don't be. Or my crew and I will show you a bar tab you'll never forget."
Her worry for Conrad evaporating, N¨Ļomi laughed. As she dashed out of the studio and up the stairs to their room, she wondered what side of him she'd get tonight.
Vicious, eager to torture, and impatient to drink, he thought as he sank down onto the front steps with a weary exhalation, mug of blood in hand. So far, everyone he'd seized to question about Tarut had believed the notorious Conrad Wroth was the same as he'd always been.
Which was good - because he wasn't anything like he'd always been.
Staring into his mug, he reflected on his latest hunt. He'd chased down his final solid lead, and it hadn't generated any additional ones. Another failed search.
Conrad had nothing new to go on, and fatigue had begun setting in hard as he searched relentlessly for Tarut. When Conrad did sleep, his nightmares were grueling.
He dreamed of N¨Ļomi in ghostly black-and-white again, her cheeks and eyes shadowed. He saw her trapped somewhere in the dark, screaming in horror, choking on it.
The image was so agonizing to him, he wondered if it was some sort of dream demon's weapon that Tarut was wielding.
So Conrad had ceased sleeping for the most part, using the time to hunt longer in whatever part of the world was still night.
He'd gone to all of the demon's lairs, and to all of his comrades', mercilessly combing for leads. Conrad had been attacked twice so far, by human Kapsligas who didn't know better. He'd dealt them a lesson, but hadn't killed them - they weren't enough of a challenge to truthfully claim self-defense.
Yet no sign of Tarut.
Conrad had continually debated whether he was making things worse by staying with N¨Ļomi. Ultimately, he'd admitted what he'd always known: the damage had already been done. She'd been in danger since the night of the gathering. He'd been offered his dream - and he'd selfishly accepted it.
Even if Conrad was separated from her for a thousand years, she would still be what he treasured above all things - and what he feared losing most.
If only I could turn her into a vampire. Then she wouldn't be so utterly vulnerable. But he knew females never made it through the transition. Not one of his four sisters had risen... .
In a way, he'd always been relieved that they hadn't. They'd been sensitive girls - he couldn't imagine them waking from the dead with a cup of blood shoved in their faces. Now Conrad wondered if they would have grown from their childhood. Could they have adapted? He'd never know.
Once he'd finished the mug, he traced directly to the bathroom to shower and shave, allowing her to sleep longer. Under the hot water, he cursed under his breath. He'd forgotten to make plans for them tonight. Where in the world to take her... ?
Yet when he entered the room, he found her awake and smiling to see him. She made his heart speed up just to see her. "You're up and dressed? But not to go out?"
She was wearing a red negligee, with her creamy breasts spilling out. Her hair was long and free as she knew he liked it. Even his beaten body stirred behind his towel.
Every time he took her, he fell more deeply under her spell. After three hundred plus years of musing what sex would be like, he'd had high expectations. She continued to shatter them.
"I don't want to go out tonight," she said. "Maybe we could relax here?" She sat on the bed and patted the spot beside her. "I could rebandage your arm."
He eyed her suspiciously. "Are you intent on managing me for something?"
She plucked up the roll of gauze. "My intentions with your body are pure."
Once he sat beside her, she rose to her knees and wound the gauze around his arm.
"There's more to this hunt than merely striking first, isn't there?" When he nodded, she said, "Tell me."
"As soon as you tell me about your secret." Thoughts of what it could be plagued him.
"Are we to quarrel, Conrad? I'd rather spend the night massaging your back and making love, but if you insist... "
"You must know I'll only let this go for so long. I have unfinished business - but when I'm freed of that worry, I'll track down everything you keep from me."
Conrad had two theories. It was possible that she'd made a deal with a sorcerer - one of the very ones he'd had considered using to resurrect her. One like that could have embodied her, but they tended to extract devastating promises.
A witch could have done it as well, but Conrad didn't think this was the case. Though N¨Ļomi had said she had "lots of money," she probably hadn't factored in eight decades of inflation. Surely she didn't have the kind of money necessary to get even a meeting with a powerful witch. Conrad had heard of some turning their noses up at millions.
She sighed. "Quel dommage. What a pity, then. If you're after my secret, then we'll be quarreling often. So we might as well enjoy this night. Tell me, where did your hunt take you?"
"Were you careful?"
"Always," he said, which wasn't remotely true. To get to a demon snitch, Conrad had ambushed a subterranean demon lair, fending off two gangs to drag his howling prey by the horns up to the surface.
Even though he had a reason to be more careful, with an actual person waiting at home for him, Conrad couldn't allow others to think he'd changed.
God, how he'd changed.
Tonight, Conrad had given the snitch his standard threat: "Talk. Or I'll drink you, harvest your memories anyway, and slaughter everyone I see in them." But the snitch had smelled of fear and cheap gin. Conrad had not only been disinclined to drink the demon; he'd found the idea repugnant.
The last thing Conrad had tasted before he'd left had been N¨Ļomi's sweet lips. Drink the demon with the same mouth he kissed his Bride... ?
The rumors of his past brutality were helping him now, but one of these days, someone would call his bluff. Would he be forced to return to his old ways to protect his Bride?
If he had to, Conrad would once again become the thing they feared.
"There. All done." She finished his bandage by brushing a kiss on it.
Strange, he'd had no reservations about entering that lair, and yet, as his gaze flickered over N¨Ļomi's smiling face, he realized that this one-hundred-pound, mortal ballerina scared the living hell out of him.
She hailed the end of life as he knew it. Was his life so great before her? Hell, no. But at least he'd understood it. Now it seemed he could understand nothing, was having to rethink everything.
A future, a family, a real home. Were these things now possible for a man like him?
"Do you worry about me when I'm gone?" he asked.
"Always. From the tidbits of information you've given me, I've gleaned that you're seeking to kill an eight-foot-tall demon who'll be surrounded by a group of swordsmen, ready to lay down their lives to protect him. Do I have that right?"
She quirked a brow. "Oh, then what's to worry about?" She motioned for him to lie on his front. "How long will you hunt him?"
"Till I have his head," he said, stretching across the bed.
"How long will that take?"
"Considering our past pace - it could take weeks, months, even a year."
"That long?" she asked as she straddled him. "When you're out, do you ever come across information about your brothers?" Reaching forward, she began to knead his aching neck muscles.
He just stifled a groan. "No, nothing yet."
"Is there to be a war in the Lore?" she asked.
"There's always war in the Lore."
"But this concerns your family."