"I have other concerns right now."
"Because of your brothers, you're alive to be here with me right now." She pressed her thumbs firmly into his shoulders, unraveling the coils of tension there. "Is it so bad?"
"Yes, I hate this."
His brothers had said life could be better, that all he'd needed was his Bride. And now, his life was in no way fixed, but sometimes he'd found himself feeling... hopeful. He wasn't assured of their happiness together - she was mortal and vulnerable and seemed determined to make no commitment to him; he was still half-mad and had numerous assassins competing for his head. But there was indeed possibility.
He owed them for that. "Would it please you if I said I'll concentrate on them when I finish with Tarut?"
"Yes, mon grand. It really would."
Conrad would do nothing else until he'd first secured N¨Ĥomi's safety. Life and death were beginning to have new meaning for Conrad. Instead of being only a taker of life, he was becoming a protector. The ease with which he was assuming the role surprised him.
No wonder all his foes had searched to discover if Conrad had a Bride. She was his sole weakness. And one he'd never anticipated having. Conrad hadn't exploited this vulnerability enough in his enemies, because he hadn't comprehended the unimaginable power of it.
Fear for her overruled everything.
Because if she died, he couldn't simply walk into the sun to join her. He had no delusions that they'd deserve to go to the same type of afterlife.
Again he saw three obstacles between them. Tarut's curse, her secret, and... his own dark needs. Each time they were together, he struggled not to take her neck.
It wasn't as if he hungered for her blood to nourish him - he'd been gulping back mugs of bagged blood to keep from biting her, drinking so much that he'd begun to put on more muscle. His body was strengthening even as his resolve was flagging.
No, his vampire nature made him resent that last barrier between them. He should know his own Bride's taste. His instinct was screaming within him that if they shared the connection of his bite, then she would cleave to him.
But he was strong - he could drain her so quickly. Her mortal body would cede its blood until she died with his fangs still in her neck. He shuddered with dread.
"Did I hurt you?" she asked, climbing off him.
"What? No, not at all." He turned to his back. "I was lost in thought." If he could just secure any kind of bond with her. "N¨Ĥomi, I want to speak with you about - "
"Massaging my front?" She reclined with her arms over her head and a seductive smile curling her lips. "Indeed, I would love that."
They'd stayed in bed the entire night.
Though Conrad had yet to sleep, he remained awake once she'd nodded off, musing that he'd spent so much time and energy hunting that he hadn't been able to focus on winning her over.
Holding her to his chest, he pondered what to do. He'd already bought her a ring, and awaited the right time to ask her to marry him.
Sometimes when she looked at him, he was confident her feelings for him ran deep, and that she would say yes. Other times, he got the opposite impression - that she was merely biding her time, planning to leave him soon. How to convince her to stay... ?
What if he'd already gotten her pregnant? That would bind them together as nothing else could. But then he'd become a father. He waited for the wave of aversion that idea should bring.
When none came, he explored the thought more, picturing N¨Ĥomi carrying their babe and Conrad protecting them against the world. The idea felt right. She'd nurture, and he'd provide. Very right.
He'd never wanted children before.
Now he wanted their children.
What if he hadn't already gotten her pregnant? An anxious feeling immediately seized him.
He set her on the bed, then rose to kneel between her thighs. When he spread them wide, she woke with a gasp. As she watched him with heavy-lidded eyes, he gripped his shaft, feeding it into her, then sank deep into her heat.
She gripped his hips, guiding him to thrust as she needed. With each slow plunge, her fingers tightened into his skin.
Her hair was shining, spread across the pillow. Her blue eyes gazed up at him with trust - and something more. He cupped her chin. "So beautiful, N¨Ĥomi."
"Conrad," she murmured. "I... I need you." She said the words the way she might tell him she loved him for the first time.
In answer, he rasped, "I need you, too." Realization struck him. His brows drew together, his breath shuddering out. N¨Ĥomi had once asked him if he'd ever been in love, and he'd easily answered no. Now he knew why he hadn't.
Because he'd never met her.
It somehow seemed right that he'd never loved before her. That she simply was the emotion for him, the two equaling each other.
I'm in love with her... .
In the hours remaining till dawn, he took her again and again. But when the sun began to rise, he left her sleeping and dragged himself from their bed. She turned with a whisper, seeming to seek him. When she wrapped her slim arms around his pillow, nuzzling it, his heart took up too much room in his chest.
He longed to stay here with her. To feel her breaths on his skin as she slept warm and soft against him.
But Conrad knew what he wanted. Knew the obstacles between them. Though he was exhausted, he rose and dressed, mindlessly pulling on his boots for another hunt.
I'll have her. Or I'll die trying.
My time's running out, N¨Ĥomi thought at the beginning of their third week together.
She didn't know how she knew this, but she sensed it strongly. Running out soon. She'd become convinced that she wouldn't last through even the first month with Conrad.
And she couldn't stop thinking that he would probably be there to see her meet her end. She'd known they would be in a relationship when it happened, but she hadn't truly comprehended that he would witness her death.
The death that promised to be violent.
The guilt was heavy. Why didn't I think of this before? Even knowing that, she couldn't force herself to part from Conrad to spare him. She was greedy for every possible moment with him, and she knew he was as well.
Last night, when she'd run the backs of her fingers over the scar on his torso, he'd said, "I used to hate that scar. But no longer." He'd met her gaze, and the words had seemed to spill from him. "N¨Ĥomi, it brought me to you. If I'd known what was in store for me, I'd have helped the Russian plunge his sword."
After hearing that, she'd become convinced that what he felt for her was more than just what a vampire felt for his Bride. He was as in love with her as she was with him.
Yet even with that realization, she felt like their little world was falling apart in general. He was so wearied, but tried to hide it, just as she tried to hide her growing tension and dread.
As though he sensed her foreboding, he seemed determined to make every moment count... .
That night his gift of a dazzling scarlet gown along with the promise of a surprise destination were enough to distract N¨Ĥomi's mind from her fears, at least for a short while.
When he'd traced her to Italy for dinner, she'd become genuinely excited.
Her vampire had reserved a private garden terrace at La Pergola, atop Monte Mario. "Conrad, the view is spectacular!" Below them lay Rome at night, lit like a dream. "Mon Dieu, is that St. Peter's dome? I've only ever seen it on a postcard. This is such an incredible surprise!"
"Oh, this?" When he gave a casual shrug, it drew her gaze to his dark dinner jacket, tailored to perfection over those broad shoulders. "This isn't it. This is just nourishing my mortal until it's time for the real surprise."
"Better than this? You must tell me!"
"Then it wouldn't be a surprise." He gave her a wry grin. "Also known as une surprise... ."
Once they were seated in plush chairs, the server brought by a trolley filled with chilled champagnes. As he poured, the man barely did a double take at Conrad's sunglasses, but Conrad still tensed. She wished his eyes didn't bother him so much.
When they were alone, he rubbed his hand over the back of his neck. "You must hate them. The blood red."
She shook her head. "I think they're the red of fire. And the color deepens and darkens when you look at me - which I love. Besides, with the sunglasses, you look like a movie star."
"Or a drug addict."
"I don't believe the two are mutually exclusive, mon grand," she said, coaxing a grin from him. As she sipped her champagne, she asked, "Wouldn't one have to reserve this spot months in advance?"
She quirked a brow. "But you wouldn't?"
"You should know by now that regarding you, I stint on nothing."
The meal bore this statement out. Dish after dish began to arrive, costly wines accompanying each course. As she savored some of the most delectable food and drink she'd ever tasted, she tried to get him to reveal the surprise. He sipped his whiskey, lazily forked some food around, and grinned smugly at her attempts to get him to crack... .
"You're so pleased with yourself, vampire."
"It's too good of a surprise to reveal. How's your food?"
Some dishes were bold, some subtle; each caressed her palate. She smiled over her wineglass. "C'est exquis comme tes l¨¨vres." Delicious like your lips. He shot upright when she rubbed her stocking-clad foot up his leg.
In a huskier voice, he said, "You can use your considerable wiles" - his gaze dropped to the low neckline of the dress he'd given her - "all you like, but I'll never break."
For dessert, the server brought to the table a miniature chest of drawers, handcrafted of silver. Inside each tiny drawer was a different kind of petit four.
"That's it," she said, sampling all the delights, "I'm never leaving,"
"Don't worry - we'll come back."
She forced herself to smile through the pang she felt. "At least once a week for the petit fours alone."
After their dinner, Conrad said, "Ready for your surprise?"
"Yes, I'm about to die!" she said, immediately wishing she could take back those words, but she masked her disquiet.
He covered her eyes, as he liked to, then traced her yet again. She sensed different weather, fresh smells. And she heard a new language - French.
With his other hand warm on her bared back, he led her toward a spot that sounded more crowded than where they'd arrived. Then he uncovered her eyes.
Her lips parted on a gasp. She was standing in front of L'Op¨Ĥra Garnier, the lavish home of the Paris Ballet. Shivers skipped up and down her arms. Tonight's performance? Rom¨Ĥo et Juliette.
It was one of her favorite Shakespeare plays, and one she'd always dreamed of seeing choreographed. To experience it here? In Paris? Her eyes watering, she said, "Conrad, this is the most wonderful thing anyone's ever done for me."
And the most desirable man she'd ever known was offering his big hand to take her there. "Come," he murmured. "Or we'll be late."
Dazed, she let him guide her up the steps inside the palace. With the sounds of the orchestra tuning in the background, she was overwhelmed by the splendor, gazing from the artistry gracing the ceilings down to the elaborate marble designs beneath her heels.
When they took their seats - in the best box - she purred, "Oh, vampire, you're gooood. It's almost as if... you stint on nothing?"
With a sexy grin, he removed his sunglasses and said, "I'm glad you approve."
From the instant the curtain rose, her heart pounded nonstop. During the performance, she was in heaven, struck by how much ballet had both evolved and remained the same. The medium of dance perfectly suited the tale, the music its sublime partner.
Yet Conrad sat with his arms crossed over his chest, a critical look on his face. "You shame them," he grated, which just made her love him more.
"Well, thank you for that, but I believe I'd be a bit short and busty compared to these modern dancers."
"I happen to have a thing for short and busty ballerinas."
She gave him a slow smile. "I'm glad you approve."
"Exceedingly so." A hank of thick black hair fell over one of his eyes. "Do you miss it?"
"I do. It was thrilling to perform for an audience. And I miss the camaraderie in the troupe." She even missed her muscles aching from the exertion of a taxing rehearsal. "But I'm happy that I get to share this with you." His hand found hers.
Once the curtain closed, she teared up at the tragic ending - though it was expected and accepted - because it had a new meaning for her now. N¨Ĥomi, too, would be separated from the man she loved. She didn't want to be, lamenting that she was in this position.
But it was expected. She'd accepted it. And she didn't regret a moment -
He slipped a felt-covered box into her hand. "What is this?" she asked, though she knew.
With a swallow, she opened the case. Inside lay an exquisite platinum ring, with a vibrant blue sapphire center stone flanked by diamonds.
"Be my wife, N¨Ĥomi."
When she could take her eyes from the ring, she gazed up at him. He'd asked her here. Awash in the beauty of this place, her heart was full with emotion from the dance - and from loving the man who'd given this night to her. Under any other circumstances, she would have been crying with joy.
"Conrad... " The need to confess everything burned within her. But she feared robbing herself of this time with him. It's running out. Their gazes held. And I can't tell you.
Giving the ring back would be one of the hardest things she'd ever done. Though it was tearing her apart, she handed him the box. "I'm so sorry," she whispered. "I can't."
He accepted it from her without a word. But a muscle ticked in his jaw.
When N¨Ĥomi refused his ring, the world tilted askew.
Like a punch in the gut, Conrad realized that even after everything - the time they'd shared, their enjoyment of each other - she still would make no commitment to him.
And she hadn't even needed a second to consider what he was offering.
The fatigue he'd ignored returned redoubled. The frustration from his stymied search mounted. He was failing at every turn.
Conrad couldn't find what he needed and couldn't secure what he had.
The more N¨Ĥomi pulled away, the more crazed he felt. He wanted her to the point of madness. Conrad was a man who knew exactly where that point lay.
He decided at that moment that he simply wouldn't let her go.
Conrad had feared that if he took this stand, he would remind her of Robicheaux. That bastard had demanded she stay with him as well.
Yet there was a difference between never letting her go when she actually wanted to stay and keeping her only because he couldn't live without her.
Conrad believed N¨Ĥomi wanted to be kept by him. He'd oblige her.
He was seething.
N¨Ĥomi felt as if she were sidling around an untamed animal - one wrong move could provoke it to attack.
Endeavoring not to reveal her dismay, she behaved as if nothing were amiss, readying for bed as usual. In the past, her feminine rituals had seemed to fascinate him, almost relaxing him. Maybe they would tonight.
She removed her jewelry, donned a nightgown and robe of crimson silk, and applied lotion to her hands and legs.
Taking a seat at her dresser, she raised her brush, glancing at him in the mirror. Usually he sat on the bed, rapt as she combed out her hair, as if awaiting his turn to run his fingers through it.
Now he was in his customary spot, but his expression was drawn. The weather outside seemed to mirror the turmoil she sensed inside him. The wind gusted all around the old manor, and the lightning was already dancing. Though the rain hadn't yet started, it would. N¨Ĥomi knew fall was turning to winter in the bayou's unique way - with overnight deluges, as if to beat the lingering heat into submission and batter the clinging leaves from the trees.
"What do I have to do, N¨Ĥomi?" He ran his hand over his wearied face. "Who do I have to kill to keep you? Tell me what to do, and it's done."
She turned to him. "Conrad, not again. I thought we settled this on the morning after the gathering."
"How could I forget about your conditions?" he asked, sneering the word. "Tell me your secret, damn you! Did you make some kind of deal with the devil? Why won't you marry me?"
He rose and crossed to her. With his broad shoulders back, every inch the officer, he said, "You might even now be carrying my babe. What if I refuse ever to let you go?"
"Let me go?" she asked softly. "I've been through that before."
"Don't you compare him to me!" Conrad pulled her up from her chair, then cupped the back of her neck. "There's a difference between keeping a woman who wants to be kept and one who doesn't."
"And you think I want to be kept?"
"You do. By me. You want me to make it so that we never part again."
She turned away, unable to deny it.
"So now I'm going to tell you how this will be with us." With a straightened arm, he swept the items from the dresser, setting her atop it. "You - are - mine. Nothing will change that."
He seemed on the very edge of control, and she felt her body already responding to his ferocity. "Body and soul - you're all mine." He was breathing heavily. And as soon as I kill the one I'm hunting, then you will wed me."
"What does Tarut have to do with us?"
"You know I bear the demon's mark." Conrad wedged his hips between her legs, forcing her gown to ride up. "You know that it won't heal until he's dead. But there's more to it. If I can't defeat him, then my most coveted dream and worst nightmare will come true. When you appeared that night at the gathering in flesh and blood - that was my dream."
He gave her a short nod. "My nightmare is that you die again."
"That's why you've hunted so relentlessly?" For her?
"And I'll continue to. But after that, N¨Ĥomi, I vow to you, the second I rid my body of this mark... from that moment on you'll be more than my Bride - you'll be my wife."
Again a male was demanding that she marry him with a wild look in his eyes. But there were such differences this time.
Conrad would never hurt her. He would rather die.
And N¨Ĥomi was just as crazed for him.
She knew her eyes were wild with wanting him, too. "Conrad... " She yearned so much to tell him everything. To tell him that she loved him, and that she was so selfish and greedy for him that she couldn't leave - even though she'd only end up hurting him. "It can't happen - "
Cutting off her words with his kiss, he groaned against her mouth and fisted his hands in her robe. Once he'd stripped it from her, he snatched the small case from his jacket and plucked the ring out. He seized her left hand and pressed the ring down her finger. "This shows my claim on you," he grated. "Take it off right now if you truly don't want to marry me."
The metal was hot like a brand, the ring fitting her perfectly. She could no more take it off than she could quit breathing.
"I want you, N¨Ĥomi. Forever." Just before he took her lips again, he rasped, "Want me, too."
As his kiss deepened, he yanked up her gown to her waist. When he sensuously palmed her sex, she responded as if he'd lit a fuse, growing damp in a rush. Her hands were desperately seeking all over his body.
When she unzipped his pants and tugged free his rigid shaft, the broad head nudged against her entrance.
With his hand splayed over her chest, he pressed her back to the mirror. She drew her bent legs up, placing her heels on the edge of the dresser, as open for him as she could be. With a groan, he swooped his arms under her knees, then leaned forward.
Caging her in, surrounding her, he entered her body. Possessing her. "I feel you pulling away from me." With a long, hard stroke, he murmured, "Don't... "
He watched her expression, the emotion in her eyes. This is a good-bye. Even as he was inside her, she was telling him good-bye. And I don't even know why.
With everything he felt for her, he took her, driving between her thighs. His shaft throbbed within her tight sheath as he struggled not to come, wanting this to last forever.
The more she pulls away... He would never let her go. Never.