"Your taste . . . drives me mad," he snarled with a firm lick over her throbbing clitoris. His tongue snaked over it again and again, without mercy, until she was helplessly undulating to his mouth. Getting close . . . so close.
She could see he'd begun pumping his fist over his shaft, the gold band on his bulging bicep glimmering with his movements. The rhythm grew more furious with each flick of his clever tongue.
The demon was wild with her. The corded muscles of his body visibly tensed for his orgasm. He growled against her just before his semen began lashing over her hip.
"Hot. It's so hot," she gasped, on the brink of release herself.
But once he'd finally finished spending, he drew his head up from her. She gazed at him, realizing he was pleased that she'd watched him come, excited by that.
With a satisfied groan, he collapsed onto his back. As she watched his penis still pulsing over his rigid stomach, she hungered for it, shamelessly rolling her hips for it.
Had she actually wanted to forego sex? Now she was desperate for another try.
As soon as he'd caught his breath, he said, "Back to the business at hand," repeating her words from the first night she'd captured him. He leaned down to her once more. "I could do this all night. Think I will..."
"Yes!" He began devouring her again. "More," she moaned, going out of her head. Just when she was about to come, he pulled back.
"No, no, no." She stamped her feet. In a gasping voice, she said, "You are seriously . . . making me . . . want to kill you!"
"Uh-huh." He leisurely grazed the backs of his fingers all along her body, making her shiver. Just when her breaths had calmed somewhat, and she'd closed her legs, he said, "Wider."
Gritting her teeth, staring at the branches above, she let her knees fall open.
For hour after hour, Rydstrom kept her on the brink. He'd come twice more, but then he'd begun to pace himself, determined to outlast her.
He'd never seen a woman in this kind of frenzy. Her head thrashed, her mane of red hair drying and spread­ing out over the blanket. Her nipples strained up to the sky as her back arched.
Illusions of flames burned all around them.
Withholding her pleasure was punishing for him as well-it took all his will to disobey the driving instinct to sate his female. But her reaction also excited the hell out of him.
Yet she wouldn't break. Though he ached to mount her pale body, to ride her relentlessly, this was a battle of wills, and he simply didn't lose them....
By the time the moon had begun to set, she was panting, her body sheening with sweat. Her nipples were puckered and swollen.
As he lay beside her, she earnestly gazed into his eyes, whispering, "J-Just hold me, demon. I can move against you."
The image her words conjured made him want to groan. Him clasping her little body tight, with her rubbing her sex against his shaft-until she quivered in his arms....
He bent down and swirled his tongue around one of her nipples, murmuring against it, "Beg for me, sweet. And I'll make you come till your eyes roll back in your head."
"Never!" She thrashed her head, crying, "You don't understand-"
"Don't I?" he grated, sitting up.
Arms still tied above her, she collapsed over on her side, her small body trembling, her knees drawn to her chest. While he watched, her eyelids fluttered closed as she finally passed out in exhaustion.
It was still dark when she woke. She was alone on the pallet, with no idea how long she'd been out. She frowned down at her body. He'd released her from the tree and cleaned her?
When she glanced up, she found him naked, lean­ing back against a boulder, his arm on his raised knee. He was watching her with an inscrutable expression. Though he was still demonic, it was fading, his obsidian eyes not so frenzied.
She'd never forget the possessiveness in his gaze tonight. Shivers coursed over her skin when she recalled the pure masculine pride on his face when he'd realized she'd watched him spending.
He stood then, a magnificent male in the flesh-with a body made for sex. The demon belonged out here in the harsh wilderness, a being from myth, a male from legend.
And he was her husband.
When he joined her on the pallet, her body was still aching, but she was too exhausted even to contemplate
release. He drew her to his chest, then wrapped his arms around her, pulling her tight against him.
She stiffened at the unfamiliar embrace, realizing he meant for them to sleep together. Like this.
But when he rubbed his face against hers, her eyelids grew heavy. He was shockingly warm against her as he kissed her neck, her ear. His touches were tender again. It was as if he regretted that she hurt, even as he was the one punishing her. Gods, the demon confused her!
Though he hadn't released her hands, she could still cast scenes from her dreams. Right now, she would give her finest headdress for a stay-awake potion from the Hag. The idea of Rydstrom knowing her private thoughts, her memories....
Sabine worried what this demon would think about her past if it were laid bare for him to see. She didn't want him judging her, or worse pitying her. Her mother used to say, "Gods give me anything but a good man's pity."
Yes, Sabine was anxious, but her muscles were sore, and his body felt so incredibly good against hers. Warm, hard ... safe.
Don't dream . . . don't dream. . . .
Sabine drifted off once more, and then she slept like the dead.
Heat it, stroke it, beat and grow it. Rub it, twist it, love and kiss it. . ." Rydstrom shot upright, woken by a woman's eerie
He gazed over at Sabine, but she slept still, her eyes darting behind her lids. He was forced to leave her as he sprinted toward the sound.
"Gold is life . . . it is perfection," said the woman. Her laughter followed.
When he seemed to reach the source, he swung his head around.
No one is here. A decoy? Had he been tricked into leaving his female? He charged back to Sabine-
She was sleeping just as he'd left her, with her long lashes against her cheeks. Exhaling a relieved breath, he lowered himself beside her. As he gazed down at her stunning face, he realized that his rage and lust had faded enough so that he could reason once more. But he
could come to no conclusions when it came to Sabine and his confusing emotions.
Last night, his demon nature had demanded revenge, a reprisal to placate his wrath. Yet at the end of the night, the demon in him had ached to see his mate in pain.
He didn't know what to think about her, or about himself. Because he was actually considering breaking his vow for revenge. The one that had sustained him in that dungeon, had kept him from fully succumbing to rage.
He was in an impossible situation. If he gave her another two nights of torment, then he was no better than she'd been to him. But if he didn't, he would break his vow-and again, he'd be no better than she was.
Maybe he should accept her rationale that she'd only denied him for two nights total. . . yes, then he'd only have one remaining.
His gaze narrowed on her long mane of glossy hair. Among her red curls was a strand of shining white that he'd never seen before. He grasped the lock, brushing it between his thumb and forefinger. She'd hidden this- why?
The lock fell, forgotten when his eyes settled on her neck, on the scar that collared her. His lips parted as comprehension came. He clutched her shoulders, yank­ing her upright to inspect her skin.
"What?" She blinked against the rising sun. "What's wrong now?"
"What is this scar? Some kind of operation?" he asked, graying that it was. "Answer me!"
Her eyes briefly slid closed as if she were embarrassed. "Yes, Rydstrom, an operation."
"You're lying again!"
"No, I'm not," she said, her tone deadened. "It was an involuntary one, intended to amputate my head."
His mouth went dry. "You were young. How old?"
"What does it-"
"How old?" he bellowed, the sound echoing through the nearby canyons.
"Twelve, demon." She met his gaze. "I was twelve years old the day a soldier from the army of good slit my throat from ear to ear."
"Tell me what happened."
"A clan of the Vreken killed my parents. When I fought back, they tried for me. And before you say any­thing-yes, I did have to fight. You have no idea what they do to children like us."
He shook his head. "The Vrekeners adopt you, take you into their families."
"And separate siblings so their minds are more easily turned. They brainwash the females of our kind to be like theirs-biddable and grave, the exact opposite of our true nature. They brainwash us to think like you!"
"How could you have survived this wound?"
"It doesn't matter. Just that I did."
"You'll tell me!"
She thrashed, but he held her firm. "My sister, Lanthe used to be able to give mystickal commands. I was dead- my heart was still, and there was no blood left in it. But she somehow commanded me to live and to heal."
"Is that why your hair turned white?"
She gazed away. "I won't talk about this any longer." She struggled to get free again. "I don't understand what the big deal is." When he gaped at her, she gave him a look of disgust. "Demon, do you think that was the only time I was murdered?"
No amount of railing would get her to tell him the story of her deaths. The demon didn't deserve to know. He wouldn't understand it, not as he should, because he'd been conditioned to think differently than she'd been.
She glared up at him, and whatever he saw in her expression made him release her.
He ran a hand over his mouth. His appearance was almost back to normal, but he seemed a hair-trigger from turning. "We need to get going," he muttered.
Get going . . . Farther away from Tornin, from her morsus, from her sister. Starting on another intermi-nable day.
Her arms were asleep, pinpricks dancing from her shoulders to her wrists as she clenched and released her fists. Her breasts were aching, her unfulfilled desire from the night before hitting her body as hard and as alien as an illness.
And she'd slept for at least five hours. That hadn't happened since she was a girl! Which meant for all those hours, she'd been vulnerable, her safety com­pletely in Rydstrom's hands.
She resented that.
"I heard something this morning-a woman chant­ing," he-said as he doused the remains of the fire. "But when I went to investigate, no one was there."
"I didn't hear anything." Evidently, she'd been dreaming, but she couldn't remember of what. At least he hadn't seen her dream.
"We have to make good time today." As she watched in horror, he took his sword and lopped off the heels of her boots.
"Don't you think it's time you filled me in on the details of our situation?"
"I'm taking you with me to my home in Louisiana." He pulled her up to her feet. When she stood naked to his avid gaze, his jaw clenched, but he didn't touch her.
His manner brisk, he tugged her skirt up her legs. "We have to meet up with refugees who are going off-plane."
"Omort can tell who comes and goes."J
"Not this time."
"You're taking me to one of those illegal portals, aren't you? How long will we be walking?"
"A few more days."
"He'll find us before you can reach it," she said, mak­ing a muscle tic in his scarred cheek.
Once he'd redressed her in her metal bustier and | altered boots, she said, "What about my hose and j panties?"
"You won't wear them when you're with me."
She bit her tongue. "If you won't free me, then I need you to go fetch my collar and headdress for me."
"I didn't mean it like that."
"Not a chance, princess."
"But you have to!"
He stormed over to both, swooping them up. "What is so bloody important about them? They almost made you drown!" He twisted around to lob them into the water.
She shrieked, "No!" But it was too late. They were gone.
Her breath left her, and she rocked on her feet. Gold is life . . . The smooth water surface had erased them from the earth, like they'd never existed. Her bottom lip trembled, but she could do nothing to hide it, not emotionally, not mystickally.
"Come, then," he said, his voice gruff.
As he took her arm, she gazed over her shoulder. "I can't believe you did that." Losing gold to another was one thing, but to throw it away . . . ? Incomprehensible. "There's no excuse. None."
"It's worthless out here."
"Not worthless, you oaf! Those pieces protected my Head and neck!"
"Then you'll have to depend on me to do their job!" When he drew her along, she trudged forward in stony silence....
After that, hours passed without event. She found his green eyes constantly on her. He was becoming more attentive, helping her over rough patches in the ter­rain, holding her arm to steady her. But he still wouldn't release her bindings.
And any time she tried to convince him to let her go, he threatened the gag. She wondered how real that threat was, because he clearly wanted to talk to her
today-but only about one topic. He kept asking her how many times she'd died.
Finally she said, "Why do you care? Does it soften you to know terrible things were done to me when I was a girl?"
"I... don't know. Do you want my sympathy?"
She shrugged. "I don't deserve your sympathy." Though this could have been a maudlin statement, she said it as if it was a fact of life. Because it was.
"The strand of white in your hair. I've heard of that occurring when someone knows fear so bad, it shocks their system. What happened to you, Sabine? Did Omort hurt you?"
"He's never hurt me." Physically.
"You are still loyal to him?"
She couldn't tell the demon as much as she wanted to, or needed to. She couldn't tell Rydstrom how she hated her half brother, or how much she agreed with Rydstrom-that Omort had to be killed. Anything she said now could be seen by Omort later when they were recaptured. Her brother would force the demon to open his mind. And my betrayal would be there, plain for Omort to see.
"He's protected Lanthe and me for many years," she hedged. "And besides, should I be loyal to you over him? You keep me bound, risking my life in this danger-ous place. At least he cherishes my life. He'll be coming for me."
"I look forward to that."
"Speaking of loyalty-why would Lothaire betray
Omort for you anyway? Had you two been working together all this time?"
"The vampire wanted something I could give him, and we bargained for my freedom."
"He's the one who traced us out here?" At Rydstrom's curt nod, she said, "When would he ever have had a reason to be in Grave Realm before?"
Rydstrom shrugged. "He said he knew much about the kingdom."
"Is that so? Then maybe he could've gotten us closer to a portal instead of making us tromp through this gods forsaken place."
"The portal openers move constantly. Suck it up, sorceress."
When she stumbled once more, she said, "Demon, come on!"
"Unless you can tell me another way to render you powerless, the bindings stay."
"What if I vowed not to use my power?"
"Your vow?" He gave a cruel laugh. "You'd be gone in seconds."
"You said there'd be parity, but it's not like I tortured you. I never physically harmed you, yet you're killing me out here."
"Under your care," he sneered the word, "I had my spine severed and a hole punched in my chest."
"That wasn't my fault-I saved your life." Her expression lit with realization. "You're most upset about the three who bathed you, aren't you? I'd thought you might like it!"
She nodded easily. "Okay, that was a lie. But I didn't think you'd hate it, per se." When he narrowed his gaze, she said, "Yes, yes, that might be a lie as well."
"How would you feel if I had three women bathe you?"
She quirked a brow. "Like I was on a date gone well. And actually, according to your parity rule, you have to arrange for it. And they have to be ravishing, because I sent you choice Inferi-and they were all volunteers, believe me."
He snapped, "This is exactly why I will not do that to you-if it's not punishment to you, then it won't be like for like." He increased his pace.
"What exactly does your parity involve again?" she asked, hurrying to keep up. "I'm unclear."
He stopped and turned so suddenly she almost ran into him. Gazing down at her, he said, "You will have one more night where I am going to make you scream with need-unless you beg me to ease you. After that I won't take you again until you say, 'I beg you to claim me. I need you as my master and surrender my will to yours.' And Sabine, I can wait as long as it takes. You will lose if you match swords with me in a battle of wills."
"As long as it takes? Exactly how long are you plan­ning to keep me? When will you release me?"
He gave her a strange expression-part possessive, part aggressive. His eyes turned sharply from green to jet-black. "I won't."
Over the long day, the landscape gradually trans­formed again. The thickening underbrush tangled at their feet, and wind-whipped trees filled crowded groves. Rivers carved through plateaus, with cliffs over­looking all.
He and Sabine continued to ascend, crossing one shallow stream after another.
: She glared at every bramble, glared at the sun blazing overhead, glared at him whenever he helped her drink from the canteen.
Rydstrom couldn't stop thinking about what he'd learned this morning. Where had he been five hundred years ago when Sabine had been unprotected and tor­tured?
Maybe if he'd been able to let go of his quest for the crown and had searched for her instead, he could have spared her this. My female, slashed like that as a mere girl
Had she been afraid? Had she known what was about to befall her?
She'd said that wasn't the last time she'd been murdered, and, in this, he believed her. So how many deaths had she suffered? Exactly how else had she died? How old was she each time?
No wonder she held life in so little regard.
He'd yelled at her this morning, shaking her to get her to tell him. And something had happened. She'd gotten a look about her, and her eyes had darted. Her swagger had vanished.
As he'd suspected, whenever she was discomfited, she camouflaged her expressions with an illusion of either amusement or patronizing indulgence.
Now there were no illusions. And she was so used to mystickally hiding her expressions that she didn't remember to school them.
Angry, sarcastic Sabine had started blushing today, as well. Whenever she'd caught his gaze on her strand of white hair or her neck, a pink flush colored her high cheekbones. She acted as if he now knew a flaw in her character that she'd tried to keep hidden.
Sabine had become an open book. And what he was reading disturbed him greatly.
She'd asked him if the knowledge of her past had softened his anger. He almost felt numb to that anger, as if his confusion about her had overwhelmed it. At every turn, she confounded him. Like the most complicated puzzle he'd ever encountered.
This situation reminded him of when his Lykae friend Bowen had been trying to win the pretty witch Mariketa. The two had gotten off to a rocky start, since
he'd trapped her in a tomh of Incubi and hadn't rescued her for weeks.
Rydstrom remembered being perplexed by his friend's confusion and weird aggression. Rydstrom had been so smug, calmly advising Rowen to reason the situation out. He recalled Bowen snapping that he was going to enjoy it when Rydstrom found his own woman. She'll make your horns go ramrod straight every time she. saunters by. Bowen had been eager to see her shake Rydstrom's unflappable demeanor.
Was I once unflappable? It seemed a lifetime ago. Now
I comprehend what Bowen had gone through. But the Lykae had ultimately used his head to fig-ure out how to win the witch. Once they'd been wed, Bowen had told him, "I learned a lesson-with a mate, do nothing irrevocable. There are lines not to be crossed with a female, ones you can never come back from. And never for an immortal would suck in this case."
Do nothing irrevocable. But by leaving Sabine bound, Rhdstrom was earning her hatred. While he took his revenge, was he doing something she could never for-give? It didn't matter what actually was wrong or right or fair-only what she believed was. .. . As he helped her across another stream, she said,
"Why do you even want this kingdom back so badly?"
No one had ever asked him that specifically. Weeks ago, the Valkyrie Nïx had asked him, "Which would you prefer to have? Your queen or your crown?" He often thought back to that night. He'd answered his crown, a choice made so easily.
"It's my birthright," he finally answered. But it hadn't always been. Rydstrom hadn't been raised as the heir of Rothkalina. And as the second son of an immortal king, I he'd had no reason to think he'd ever be the ruler.
Fate had had other plans, and Rydstrom had changed his out of necessity. "I want to see my people prosper once more."
"Because I'm their king. Their well-being is my responsibility."
"At least you're honest and not spouting nonsense like 'Because I love them as a father loves his chil­dren.'"
Rydstrom feared that he didn't love his people-not enough. Sometimes he resented them, resented that he was trapped in a never-ending struggle to win a crown that should never have been his.
His older brother, Nylson, and their father, the great king, had gone to battle the Horde. They'd disregarded the custom to separate the king and heir in times of war, and they'd both died.
Leaving Rydstrom as a bewildered young ruler.
After that, he'd burned to get his brother Cadeon his own successor, out of harm's way, fostering him with another family as soon as he was old enough. Which Cadeon took a nine-hundred-year exception to. . . .
"I also want my home back," Rydstrom added. "'To restore it to its former glory." And to scour it clean.
Never had he felt at ease like he had at Tornin in ages past. He'd always held on to memories of his fam-| ily there, of Mia and Zoe playing hide-and-seek with
Cadeon when he was just a pup, of laughter echoing in those great halls.
But once Cadeon was grown, he had ignored Ryd-strom's summons to return to the castle and hold it against their foes. Cadeon had chosen to remain with his foster family. Tornin had fallen. . ..
If Rydstrom could win the kingdom back, then maybe some of the strain would fade between him and his siblings.
"Do you think you deserve this kingdom?" Sabine asked.
"It's mine by right."
"Might makes right," she countered. "In any case, were you such a great king that it would be right for you to have it back?"
"I believe I was." Of course, he'd only been ruler for very few years.
"You left this kingdom mired in the past. No advances even for the time. No roads, no tolls, no permanent portals connecting Rothkalina with other provinces."
"I didn't have time! I'd been at war with the Horde from the first day of my rule." When that crown had first sat so heavily on his head. "And you forget-many of my kind can trace. Beings shape their world by neces­sity. There wasn't a need for clunking metal contrap­tions or blowing up mountains to build roads."
"If you keep the kingdom without arteries, then only those who can teleport can prosper. I'll bet you're feel­ing the-sting of that right now since you can no longer trace."
"Because of Omort," he grated. In the past, Rydstrom had been able to effortlessly trace from Rothkalina to other planes and civilizations. Now he was in his own kingdom, traversing Grave Realm-by foot.
Just another reason to slay Omort. With his death, Rydstrom and Cade's ability to trace would be restored.
Sabine continued, "And what about other non-demon beings who might want to make Rothkalina home? You're hardly attracting them to settle here."
"Like the Sorceri?"
"Maybe." She raised her chin. "We're not without talents."
"Rothkalina has a dearth of wine drinkers and slave keepers."
She ignored his sarcastic comment. "Not that they'd want come to this medieval plane anyway. We're merry, and the rage demons are stodgy and stuck in old ways."
"Then what's your excuse for wanting to remain?"
"Here there are no Vrekeners and no humans. Demon, even an evil sorceress needs a safe home to call her own."
If you accepted me, I'd give you one. ...
"It's not like Tornin is a premium castle though," Sabine continued. "Don't you really want to get back in Tornin because of the well's power?"
He tensed. "Do you know what it does?" Because Rydstrom ... didn't.
"Maybe I do. But don't worry, I won't tell. I like that everyone's imagination runs wild. Some think it's a mystickal prison, a power base, a wish granter. Oh, and that it resurrects the dead. Do you even know?"
"I know that my breed of demon was created solely to protect that well. Tornin was constructed to house it. It's my duty to safeguard both."
"And you always do your duty. Doesn't it ever get boring? I think that's why you're so attracted to me, because I've shaken your reasonable, rational, ordered life. I'd wager that you've felt more excitement with me in the last week than in centuries."
That hit far too close to home. "And I think I've never known anyone as egotistical as you."
"Egotistical? Try self-confident. Should I be meek instead? Would you like me better then?"
"No. I've never wanted a meek woman for my own. I've wanted a queen-"
"And now you have one."
They carried on in silence as the terrain grew more punishing, leaving him to mull over her words. Even with their history, the fact remained that he had her.
The one he'd longed for... .
She began lagging behind again. Fortunately, the brush opened up just ahead, revealing a scene below them. The sun blazed down on a clear green pool fed by dozens of cascades.
"Do we have to cross this water, then?" She rubbed her forehead on her shoulder, trying to keep the sweat from her eyes. "I can't swim. Even if you released my hands."
He opened his canteen and helped her drink, then took a healthy swallow. "All Lore creatures can swim. It's instinctual."
She gave a bitter laugh. "I can't tell you how wrong that statement is."
"Have you drowned?"
"I don't know how to swim. Never learned. An out-doorswoman I am not."