He continues to debate the possibilities of fractured memory, hallucination, or ghost. As far as a fractured memory goes, she fits this place, this situation, too perfectly. And if she's a figment of his imagination, why would he imagine a woman the opposite of what he is normally attracted to?
He thought he liked tall, Nordic women with fair hair and their skin sun-pinkened from the outdoor life. But this female's tiny and pale, not much over five feet tall. Her hair is black as night.
During his harsh human life, he would've scarcely spared a pitying glance at her, predicting the delicate girl wouldn't last though the next winter in their war-torn country.
And she hadn't survived long. She appears to be no more than in her early twenties. If ghosts were born of violence, then how had she met her end so young?
She wouldn't have if she'd had a strong protector. I was strong. He stifles a low growl. I'd have kept her safe if she'd been mine.
Maybe he wouldn't have predicted her doom over the winter and turned away. Maybe he would've approached her. In his rough way, he could have attempted to garner the position as her protector. He was a skilled officer. He'd been born a nobleman - and at least before the Great War, that had meant something. Perhaps she would have accepted him.
My God, to have had such a woman in my keeping... to have taken her each night.
He can imagine what that would be like. During the day, his nightmares have been varied with strange new dreams of pinning her arms over her head and mounting her luscious little body.
There's a line... there's a line...
Could this woman possibly be real? This would mean that not only is the ghost not imagined - it would mean he's gone three days without a single hallucination. A hundred years have passed since that happened last.
Which would mean, he might be... healing.
Like a starburst between his eyes, he finally remembers what he'd regretted, what he'd coveted so badly -
Nikolai and Sebastian enter then, their expressions grim. Why is Nikolai holding a syringe? In a tone low with warning, he says, "What's the goddamned shot for? I haven't done anything."
"No, but we fear you will," Nikolai says. "We need to take you from the room - and this will keep you from getting hurt."
When Nikolai nears, he yells, "Get the fucking thing away from me, Nikolai!" He doesn't want to be mindless, can't have that happen again. "No!"
I don't want her to see me like that.
"Damn you, I said no!"
N¨¦omi was stunned anew at how viciously Conrad fought the two men, pounding his forehead against Sebastian's and nearly taking off Nikolai's hand with his fangs.
In the end, his resisting gained him no ground. They injected him once again. Just before it took hold, Conrad stared in her direction with his brows drawn and teeth gritted, and she found that so much harder to see now.
When did my curiosity turn to caring?
His brothers had treated him like an animal - because that was how he'd acted mere days ago. She understood the need to keep him contained, because he was so incredibly powerful and could be dangerous if freed.
But he'd been doing so much better. And they hadn't even given him a chance... .
As Nikolai and Sebastian led him, docile and barefooted, into the oversize master bathroom, Conrad's eyes were heavy-lidded, and he'd begun speaking in that low, unnerving voice. His wrists remained chained behind his back. They must be intent on washing him. Curious, she followed them in.
N¨¦omi's second dirty secret? As a ghost, she'd become quite the voyeur.
She'd watched men shower before, but she'd never been so intent to discover what a particular man's body would look like as she was now.
While Sebastian adjusted the water temperature and opened a bar of soap, Nikolai ripped away the remains of Conrad's tattered shirt.
From her spot halfway up the far wall, N¨¦omi sighed, admiring Conrad's powerful physique. She hadn't appreciated exactly how tall he was because he'd been lying down for so long. He would tower over her if she stood near him.
He had a narrow waist and hips and broad shoulders that looked tailor-made for a woman to hold on to during sex. With his hands behind his back, the corded muscles of those shoulders and his chest were stretched taut, displayed so attractively.
He was all male hardness, with so many scars marring his flesh, like the narrow one slashing up his torso. But she'd begun to find the evidence of his formidable life attractive, had begun imagining a scenario for each battle wound.
She'd seen Conrad fight with a ferocity that astonished her. She could all too easily see him brandishing a sword three hundred years ago, a massive warlord fearlessly storming a battlefield... .
A ragged bandage on his arm caught her attention. Sebastian too frowned at the gauze, tearing it off to reveal a peculiar, blackened injury. "What the hell is this?" It appeared as if he'd been attacked by a beast, and then the skin around the mark had died.
Why would Conrad have healed from the gashes across his chest, but not from another wound?
Nikolai narrowed his eyes. "With his strength, he should have mended that easily by now. Maybe if he cleans it, it will improve."
"Christ, look at all the scars, Nikolai."
"I had no idea he'd sustained this many hits during the war," he answered, moving behind Conrad to inspect his back.
"Maybe he had them before the war." Sebastian yanked free Conrad's belt. "Think about it - he never worked without his shirt, and he continually went off by himself. He could have been a highwayman for all we know... ." He trailed off at Nikolai's expression. "What?"
"Come look at this," Nikolai said, so N¨¦omi followed Sebastian around. All three of them frowned at an elaborate black tattoo covering his entire right shoulder blade. It was unusual, with its slashing lines, but compelling in a way. "Isn't that the mark of the Kapsliga Uur?"
What's the Kapsliga Uur? Why did their faces pale at the very idea?
"That can't be right," Sebastian said, an edge to his voice. "We'd have known. They recruit young. He couldn't have hidden his involvement for two decades."
Seeming lost in his own world, Conrad continued his rasping mutter, unaware of their discovery.
"He always did his own thing, always brushed off questions about where he'd been or with whom," Nikolai said. "My God. He'd been out hunting vampires with the Kapsliga. No wonder the turning maddened him."
Sebastian's face was grim. "He would have been trained to destroy vampires, his hatred of them stoked from the time he was a boy."
"And then I turned him into what he despised." Nikolai released a breath through his teeth as though he'd been kicked in the stomach. "It would have been unendurable."
"What about their vow?" What vow?
If possible, Nikolai paled even more. "For all his faults, Conrad never broke a vow in his life. Unless it happened before he'd turned thirteen... " Unless what happened?
The two were silent for long moments, Sebastian's expression grave while Nikolai's was filled with guilt. "His life had been given over to a cause greater than himself. I should have" - Nikolai ran his hand over his forehead - "I should have talked to him, given him, and you, the choice that night."
"I wouldn't have chosen the turning, and then I wouldn't be with Kaderin." He spoke as if he'd sidestepped the direst tragedy. Sebastian was lost for his Bride. "Besides, Conrad was too far gone. The soldiers gutted him before me, hours before you and Murdoch came. I don't believe he would ever have regained consciousness."
She floated in front of Conrad to face him. He'd been stabbed in the stomach, she in the heart. Then against their wills they'd both been changed into something else entirely. Neither of them had asked for their current existences.
He'd been a hero, his life given over to a greater cause. She sighed, waving her hand to send a gentle touch along his cheek. What happened to you out there, vampire?
Sebastian said, "But he'll never reconcile himself to our existence unless we can convince him that we aren't evil."
Shaking his head hard, Nikolai said, "We can't convince him of anything until his mind heals more. Let's get this over with."
They stripped off his pants, leaving him naked.
And she swayed weightlessly. Le d¨¦ment est exquis.
Her gaze slid from his navel, following that trail of black hair. Oh, my, my, my. Even flaccid, his size was brow-raising.
"Conrad, look at me." Nikolai waved in front of his vacant stare.
Conrad blinked as if he had no idea where he was or how he'd gotten there.
"Do you want to wash yourself?" Nikolai asked. "If we chain your hands in front of you?"
Seeming to shake off some of his confusion, Conrad eased his muttering. A flicker arose in those red eyes.
He's calculating. At length, Conrad grated, "Alone."
The brothers shared a glance, no doubt reviewing all the ways Conrad couldn't escape. "Very well," Nikolai said.
Conrad held his wrists up behind him, and all the rippling muscles of his torso flexed into sharp rises and indentations that spoke of a terrible strength.
After removing the cuffs, Nikolai refastened them in front, then pulled a pin to loosen the chain between the wrists so Conrad could have more freedom. When Conrad made no attempt to escape, they glanced at each other as if their brother was making outrageous progress. Which, she supposed, he was.
"I've left a towel and a change of clothes on the rack," Sebastian said. "They should fit. But if not, we've brought plenty more - "
"Alone!" Conrad snapped. When they finally left, he entered the spacious shower stall.
Still facing her direction, he stepped under the water and let it cascade over his back. He appeared exhausted from the medicine, as if his limbs felt heavy and ungainly, but he seemed to enjoy the simple pleasure of the water sluicing over his body.
I envy him every drop!
He picked up the bar of soap, smelled it. Finding it acceptable, he lathered his face, then leaned back against the tile so that the water ran over his front.
And all she could do was stare because, as the blood, plaster, and burn marks washed from his skin in thick, grimy rivulets, a handsome visage surfaced.
No, not merely handsome, more like extraordinary.
She'd known he had pleasing features but hadn't been able to look past the unnatural eyes and dirt to truly appreciate his firm lips and wide, masculine jaw, or how his nose was aristocratic and strong.
Punch-drunk. That's how she felt about seeing his clean face and unclothed body as a whole. She'd heard women talk about encountering a man so devastatingly gorgeous they'd felt breathless, dizzy. Now she understood.
It dawned on her that though she'd spied on men before, never had any male as sexually attractive as this graced her shower stall.
When he began to rub the soap over his chest and under his arms, the slick muscles in his torso bulged in a breathtaking display. It'd take her weeks to learn just those muscles alone - how they flexed, how his body could move... .
The soap went lower.
She didn't think she breathed when he lathered between his legs with his big, scarred hands, washing his long shaft and the flesh hanging behind it without interest, while she was dumbstruck.
Am I shaking? For eight decades, she'd never yearned to touch anything as much as his body. Even though she knew she couldn't feel him, it was everything she could do not to reach forward.
His hands abruptly stilled at his privates, and his handsome face flushed. His gaze landed directly on her, before skittering away. He acted the way a reserved, inexperienced man would when he'd realized he was washing himself in front of an audience of one.
Her eyes went wide. He damn well can see me. She frowned. Then that means I'm being... ignored.
"Vampire, look at me. Please talk to me."
But he gave no reaction. The one man on earth she could communicate with wouldn't talk to her.
"Do you think I'm pretty, Conrad? Beautiful, even? After all, you can see me, can't you? And I know you can hear me, too. Now I'm going to prove it. You dare throw down that gauntlet to a woman who entertained for a living? You can't simply shut me out."
Few knew there was a second reason that N¨¦omi had chosen her dream of ballet over following in her maman's footsteps, tempting crowds of men as a femme fatale: Turning males into frothing, gawking, mindless beasts had been too... easy.
With merely a throaty laugh and a dab of her tongue at her bottom lip, N¨¦omi could send a man diving for his hat - to cover his stirring lap.
Too easy. And N¨¦omi had always craved a challenge.
With a wicked grin, she decided it was time to draw on her shady background, time to put away the popguns and engage the cannons. And N¨¦omi had a hidden arsenal he couldn't even comprehend.
Perhaps I haven't been stimulating enough for you, vampire?" N¨¦omi made her voice a breathy murmur. "And didn't I promise that I'd show you more than a garter if you could only see me?"
She tugged her skirt up slowly, making the fabric appear to bunch in her hands. "I have a bit of experience with what men like to... be shown."
When she'd bared the tops of her thigh-high hose, she asked, "Still not stimulating enough? Maybe Conrad wants to see my panties instead?" Just before she revealed them, she floated into the corner, the one that was farthest from his vision. He'd have to turn fully to see her there.
"The line... the line... " he muttered urgently.
He must be talking about some line with her that shouldn't be crossed. "Yes, Conrad, the line! Let's cross it! Or am I going to have to up the ante? Very well," she sighed. "You drive a hard, hard bargain. But I feel overdressed anyway, and since you're so deliciously naked... " His body shot upright with tension, muscles bunching in his neck and shoulders. "Here I am, in the corner, unlacing my dress." She made her voice drip with sensuality and her dress rustle as she removed it. "I'm doing it slowly for my vampire. Oh... so... slowly."
Did he just growl?
She moved forward to dangle her dress in his line of vision. Like a lure for an animal, she eased it back toward the corner.
He gave a groan as if defeated and turned. His jaw slackened.
She stood with her back to him, peering over her shoulder, wearing only her garter belt, hose, and her tight black panties. "I knew it, vampire," she said with delight.
His riveted gaze lingered over her face, descending to her back, her ass, and her legs, then slowly back up again. His voice broke when he rasped, "Turn around for me." Had his accent ever sounded so heavy?
He was talking to her, the first person to address her in eight decades. She was trembling with happiness and gratitude, elated by the interaction - and helpless not to be excited by his heated looks. She faced him with her arms crossed over her breasts, not shyly, but provocatively.
He ran a palm over his mouth. "Y-your arms now."
Standing against the wall, she removed one arm, then the other, raising them above her, appearing to rest them against the wall. With his gaze locked on her breasts, he clenched and unclenched his hands as if he was imagining squeezing them. She felt a thrill when he subtly rubbed his tongue over a fang, those red eyes smoldering like embers.
"Did you think I was bluffing?"
Never glancing up, he gave her a sharp nod, as if he didn't trust himself to speak.
"I never bluff. If it took baring my body to prove you can see me, then look your fill, Conrad." When he finally raised his eyes to meet hers, she tilted her head and cast him a flirtatious smile. "But why have you ignored me?"
He said, "Because you're not... you weren't real," then winced as if he found his comment idiotic.
He'd thought she was a hallucination! Poor vampire! He hadn't ignored her for any reason other than the need for self-preservation. "Do you want me to be real?" Drifting away from the wall, she sauntered toward him, her eyes holding his. He didn't seem to realize that he was easing toward her, leaving the spray of the water. "I'm N¨¦omi," she purred.
"N¨¦omi," he repeated absently. "Does nothing abash you?"
She shook her head, and her hair bounced over her shoulders and lower. When the locks swayed across her nipples, his gaze dipped once more. "And it's difficult for me to regret undressing when my vampire's giving me a look that makes my toes curl."
He swallowed hard, his Adam's apple working. "I make your toes curl?"
She nodded. "Would you like me to come in with you?"
His brows drew together. "Why would you want to?"
She told him honestly, "Because right now you are my favorite man in the entire world."
A half-naked ghost with high, plump breasts wants to get into the shower with him.
And he has no idea how to go about processing this. He starts sweating, his teeth grinding. He has no experience like this to draw from.
He was born and raised in a conservative culture. As an adult, he's never been wholly unclothed in front of a woman, certainly has never washed himself in front of one.
Yet this female is standing before him, clad in only her hose, garters, and a pair of wicked panties. They're black and lined with a tight band of jet lace that cuts up across the generous curves of her ass. Her breasts are proudly bared.
She's acting as natural as if he and she were wed. I don't even know her last name.
Unable to help himself, he rakes another hungry gaze over her body. She's surprisingly defined, her legs taut and strong. The lines of her form are lithe - a dancer's body, with softly flaring hips and a tiny waist he can span with his hands.
And those breasts...
He shakes his head. She's too pretty. A half-naked beauty dropped into his shower? Into his life? This simply isn't in keeping with his fortunes over the centuries. "You're probably not real." When she grins, he curses his clumsiness with this. He wishes for Murdoch's ease with women - he never has before, even when he'd recognized at a young age that he lacked charm.
"Do you often see things that aren't real?"
"Daily." But if she is real... "Come in. If you wish to."
Her gaze holds his as she drifts toward him. She has sultry blue eyes, knowing eyes. Hypnotic. He finds his body arching toward her of its own will.
She floats into the stall with him. Inside, the water doesn't wet her, instead sparking off her like minuscule electrical flares, seeming like glitter.
A dream - an erotic one. Can he really be naked with an almost nude dancer? Enjoy it.
Bloody how? He can't feel lust. He isn't erect. And... she's a ghost!
That doesn't seem to be stopping her. He can sense her energy, as strong as it's ever felt to him. It radiates off her in waves, slingshotting from her to him and back again.
"Le d¨¦ment has a magnificent body, n'est-ce pas? So strong, virile."
He feels that increasingly familiar heat on the back of his neck. "Do not call me that again."
"So you speak French among all your many languages?" When he replies with a curt nod, she says, "Well, what shall I call you, then? Conrad the Mad? Conrad the Crazed? Or I could call you my vampire?" Softening her tone, she says, "I think you like that."
How can she read him so well?
She murmurs, "If you can hear me, and you can see me, I wonder what else is possible. Perhaps I can... maybe I can try to feel you?" The yearning in her voice staggers him. "I feel nothing, you see. My hands pass through everything."
She can't touch, and he can't get erect. But at least he still experiences pleasure - the tang of blood on his tongue, the exhilaration of a bracing wind.
"Maybe if I concentrate very hard, maybe with you... I could feel." Before him appears a fragile, pale hand with shining dark nails. A petal lies starkly on the back of her wrist, then tumbles away to vanish. "Can I try to touch you?"
At least she asks this time. His voice a rasp, he says, "Do as you will."
Her hand begins to tremble as she inches it closer to him. Electricity pricks his skin as she nears. Can she feel him? Does he truly want this? Yes, Christ, yes, he does. But it glides right through his chest. His skin tingles at the spot, making the muscles tense, but he has no perception of pressure.
She seems to sag with disappointment. Once more she attempts it, running her hand down his torso. He experiences the same electrical feel, which isn't unpleasurable.
"I suppose it's not meant to be." Her tone is wistful, and this bothers him - he feels as if he's disappointed her.
After coughing into his fist, he says, "I could try... to touch you."
In an instant, her expression brightens again. He's effected that. So easily?
"Where would you like to, Conrad?"
Before he can stop himself, he's peering hard at her breasts.
"Then touch them," she murmurs, each sultry word like a stroke.
Her energy begins to make him restless. Strange urges rack him. He wants not only to touch her there, but also to kiss her flesh until she clings to him, to drag his tongue over her jutting nipples. Would she like that? Could he make her moan?