He ran his hand over the back of his neck. "I'd . . . forgotten."
"Did she have to remind you?" When he reluctantly nodded, she burst out laughing.
"It's not funny," he said gruffly. "It was embarrassing as hell," he added, looking like he'd begun fighting a grin.
Still laughing, she said, "I would have given gold to hear that conversation!"
"I'd thought you'd be angry."
After another chuckle, she said, "Not at funny things. Hey, I have an idea! Maybe we should start a database and enter all the names of females you tagged, so you can keep up with them-"
"You think so, smart ass?" He swooped her up in his arms. "All I care about is the last entry." He charged down the pier, with her laughing the whole way.
At the entrance, he let her slide down his body. As they walked in, Rydstrom had his hand on her hip and his shoulders back, looking arrogant and every inch the king. She loved it.
The interior was dimly lit and crowded. In the cor­ner, an old-fashioned juke box played twangy songs. On the back wall, skulls framed a mirror, their eye sockets laced with Christmas tree lights.
The place had its charm.
They passed the bar where a pair of startlingly good-looking twins sat. She suspected the two males were Lykae, and was proven right when they spoke with a thick Scottish accent.
"Damnation, Rydstrom, where'd you get her?" one said as he shot to his feet off a stool. "And she's dressed up like a sorceress of yore." He whistled low.
The brother added, "Does the lass have a sister?"
Rydstrom acknowledged them with a cool nod, then said, "Sabine, this is Uilleam and Munro, Lykae soldiers."
"I do have a sister," Sabine eagerly said. "You'd love her, and she would certainly adore you-"
But Rydstrom steered her away before she could fin­ish, heading toward the back to the only empty table. Raucous females sat nearby, playing dice. All looked intoxicated on drink or intoxispells.
When Rydstrom muttered, "More witches," Sabine put out a light probe for powers. Again, finding noth­ing she'd get out of bed for. But one of the females with them had pointed ears and glowing skin.
"And Regin the Radiant," he said, shaking his head. "She's often Nix's partner in crime."
Once they reached the table, and he'd pulled out her chair for her, he was clearly reluctant to leave her to go get drinks. "Go, Rydstrom, I'll be fine."
He leaned down to say at her ear, "Just don't tell any­one your full name or your sorceress title, and we ought to be fine."
When Rydstrom hesitantly left her, Sabine glared at all the females sighing over him as he passed, though he seemed oblivious to their notice.
At the bar, he turned back to her, checking on her, those green eyes watchful.
Taking one on the chin for Team Evil? Try scoring one for Team Sabine.
He was so incredibly masculine. A dynamo in bed, on the couch, and in the shallow end of the pool. And he was good to her.
She'd been good to him for the most part, striving to be so for him. But old habits died hard. Whenever Rydstrom had unlocked his armory to view that sword, Sabine had made herself invisible.
And now she had the combination.. ..
This could get dicey. He'd brought Sabine here because she was going to have to get used to being in this soci­ety sooner or later. And the Lorekind were going to have to get used to seeing her.
But he also had another reason for coming here. Erol's was an excellent place to get information. And Rydstrom wanted Lothaire's whereabouts.
When Rydstrom had admitted to Sabine the terms of the deal struck with the vampire, she'd been under­standably worried. Lothaire could ask him for any one thing. At any time. "What if he wants your firstborn? We've got to kill him!"
"Our firstborn. And I'll take care of it"
At the bar, Rydstrom asked a nearby storm demon and then the barkeep for information, but the mere mention of the Enemy of Old had them shaking their heads.
As he waited for drinks, Rydstrom gazed back at Sabine. She was sitting with an innate grace, casually surveying the room with those amber eyes.
So bloody beautiful. And of course he wasn't the only one who thought so. Males were craning their heads to get a glimpse of her. Just as he'd predicted, Rydstrom's horns were flaring. He cast killing looks at some of the bastards, letting them know that the female was his.
But was she? According to Sabine, he had only two more days with her-then they would reconvene. He hadn't pressed her about it, because he'd simply assumed keeping her here was a function of making her want to stay with him. He was doing everything he could think of, and still he felt her slipping away. .. .
Just as he accepted her wine and his brew from the barkeep, Regin yelled across the tavern, "Yo, demon, who's the tartling?"
Rydstrom exhaled, turning to stride back to the table. He saw that some of the witches in the back were from the pool party. They must have recognized Sabine, because they were urgently trying to shut Regin up.
Though they whispered to her, Regin responded loudly, "Sabine? Who the hell is she? Still looks like a tartling to me."
When Sabine slowly turned toward Regin, Rydstrom hastened back to her, dropping the drinks at a random table-
"I am not a tartling. I am the Queen of Illusions," Sabine answered with silky menace, her palms at the ready.
"Sister to Omort?" Regin shot to her feet, knocking over her chair. As lightning streaked the sky outside, the Valkyrie snatched two short swords from holsters across her back. "How'd you like those no-handed fire demons that Nixie and I sent back to you? Did you get her note?"
At the mention of Omort, beings in the crowd began comprehending exactly who Rydstrom had brought to
this bar. He heard mutters and whispers about the sor­ceress, and people began filing toward the door.
As the Lykae twins reached the exit, one of them called to Rydstrom, "Damn, demon, that filly's no' yet been broken."
The other added, "Talk about goin' out and gettin' some strange."
Rydstrom stepped between Sabine and Regin. "Valky-rie, she's with me. Nïx wouldn't want you to fight with Sabine." Because Sabine would destroy Regin.
Regin frowned in confusion. "She must be the sorceress Nïx specifically told me not to off tonight." The Valkyrie shrugged, expertly holstering her swords behind her back. Her ire had left her as readily as it had arrived, and her attention drifted from Sabine and Ryd­strom. "Hey! Where's everybody going? Rocky Horror Picture Show's playing downtown!" Regin brushed past them toward the exit, her friends following.
In minutes every being in the entire tavern-includ­ing the barkeep-had cleared out.
Sabine regarded the empty area with an unreadable expression.
He wrapped his arms around her, curling his fingers under her chin. "Baby, I'm sorry. It'll take time."
"Are you kidding? I was very flattered." When he gave her a doubting expression, she said, "Rydstrom, don't for­get that I was raised to equate fear with respect. All those people just showed me an enormous amount of respect."
He still must have looked unconvinced because she added, "Demon, I didn't come here expecting to make friends. Now, is this still a date?"
"And we're still in a Lore bar?"
"That we are."
She crossed to the bar and hopped over. "So what will you have?" she asked with a grin. "Drinks are on the house."
They sat in companionable silence on the way home, both lost in their own thoughts.
Rydstrom had told her that demons loved nice cars, were fascinated by them, and now she could see the appeal. The scent of new leather surrounded her, the seats were toasty warm, and the lights on the dash illu­minated his handsome face.
And there was a marked confidence about the way he drove. He was good at this, and he knew it. Gods, there was something about a male who drove well that was so sexually attractive, though she'd only really seen it with horses and carriages before.
At every red light, he took his hand off the stick shift and rested his palm on her knee, as though he couldn't stand not touching her for even a few moments.
The anticipation of knowing that they were going back to their house to make love all night took her mind from any worries she might have harbored. And she felt his strength, palpable and reassuring. He'd vowed to protect her, had wanted to.
After they made love, she was going to tell him about the poison....
"You looked beautiful tonight," he said, his voice rumbling.
"You didn't look too bad yourself."
"I made the podium?"
"Demon, you'd get my gold. I was proud to be on your arm. For as long as it lasted." With the place all to themselves, Rydstrom had taught her to play pool. "And I had fun."
He grinned over at her. "Even though we didn't leave
any bodies behind?"
"Maybe you're wearing off on me," she said absently, gazing at his curling lips and intense green eyes. That feeling came over her again, so sharply that realization struck her like a stray punch.
I think I'm in love with the demon.
Later that night, Rydstrom sat in his den, staring into a glass of demon brew. He'd left Sabine sleep­ing soundly, after taking her more times than he could count.
She'd said she had something she wanted to talk to him about later, but she'd drifted off. He'd noticed her face had been pale, and he feared he'd exhausted her.
Sometimes when she was digging her nails into the backs of his thighs as he took her from behind, he forgot that she didn't have the strength of a demoness.
It was as if he were trying to bond her to him through bouts of sex-because his other efforts appeared to be failing. Though she'd seemed genuinely happy to be with him, like tonight at the bar, he'd sensed an under­lying urgency in her. And he had only two days left before her sister would return for her.
Rydstrom needed Nix's advice, but she'd been impos­sible to locate over the last few days. He had the sword, and it was time to strategize and to act. Yet he felt like
he could do nothing until he'd solidified things with Sabine-until he'd wed her and truly made her his queen. Which meant he had to come clean with her first....
Filled with doubts, he sat pounding demon brew as his brother often had-to Rydstrom's past censure.
As if any of that mattered now. He'd been so damn hard on Cadeon. And for what?
The side door opened then. Speak of the demon.
Shortly after, Cadeon strolled into the room. "You still look like shite warmed over. But better than that last time at least."
Though it had always been uncomfortable between the two brothers, now everything could be different. The past wasn't what they'd believed, and Cadeon had redeemed himself.
When Cadeon dropped onto the couch across from him, Rydstrom held up the bottle in offer.
"A dram, but not more."
Once Rydstrom splashed the dark brew into a glass, he accepted the drink, inhaled, then took a sip. "You alarmed the piss out of me the other day."
/ alarmed myself. "I've tried to contact you since then."
"I've been MIA," Cadeon said simply. "But I've been left to my own recognizance tonight, so I thought I'd stop by." He studied Rydstrom's face. "I think this is where I'm s'posed to ask if you want to talk about it."
Rydstrom gave a bitter laugh. "Maybe after another bottle."
"When did you start pounding demon brew?" Cadeon asked.
"When did you stop?"
"No more getting blotto. I'm responsible now, didn't you hear? I got hitched."
Rydstrom raised a glass. "Congratulations, brother," he said, relieved that things had worked out between Cadeon and his female.
"That's why I haven't answered. Been keeping time with the missus at the new estate I just bought her. Nïx informed me that I couldn't keep living in my 'pool house man-cave' I shared with Rok, not if I was going to have Holly."
Rok was a smoke demon, Cadeon's second in com­mand, and a fine soldier-except for the fact that he continually disappeared. "Where is Rok? I haven't seen him by."
"Told me cryptically that I might not be the only one settling down, then he blazed. Haven't seen him since." Rydstrom would relish seeing the bed-hopping demon domesticated.
'" I want you to officially meet Holly," Cadeon said. "So I figured I'd come by to see if you were up for company. It looked like you had some things to work through."
No kidding. "Why don't you tell me what happened when I was . .. gone."
"All right then." With his usual excitement, his brother told him of the journey to Groot's, details about checkpoints and near-death escapes, battles with rev--enants and fire demons.
But when Cadeon talked about his new wife, his entire demeanor changed. His glass of liquor went for-
gotten on the table. "We knew how smart she is. But who knew how sexy a mathematician could be?"
"How did you get the sword?"
"I had to give her to Groot for it. Thought you'd be proud of me for making a sacrifice for once in my life. I thought of you, of the kingdom, and the people. Still, I was planning on taking her right back, but the bastard tricked me...."
After Cadeon relayed everything that had happened. Rydstrom could hardly imagine how painful it would've been to see the betrayed look on the face of the woman he'd fallen for so completely.
Even though Cadeon had a plan to save her, Ryd­strom didn't know that he himself could have done the same.
Cadeon said Holly had . .. cried.
My brother's a stronger man than I am. It was difficult to swallow that truth, but Rydstrom was craven with his need for Sabine-the thought of even parting from her for a day made his fangs grow. "Holly's forgiven you?"
"Almost mostly. But she still gives me slack about it when she's sick. I take it as a husbandly badge," he said, puffing out his chest.
"Sick? You told me she was fully immortal."
"Yeah, but she throws up some, because, well, the thing of it is . . . Ah, fuck, Rydstrom, I knocked her
"You're going to be a father?" Gods help the world.
I'm going to be an uncle?
"I got Holly, like, on the first shot. Nïx is calling me Bull's-eye and the Womb Raider."
"Nïx is nothing if not subtle." A month ago, Rydstrom would've been uneasy with the idea that his brother had gotten a babe on the Vessel. Now he felt confident the female would bear a warrior of ultimate good.
"That's why I'm on my own tonight-cause Nïx and Holly are out shopping for baby swords or something." He scratched his head. "I'm kind of hoping they were joking about that, but with Valkyries, how can you know?"
"How do you feel about having a babe?"
"At first, I was happy, because I thought it'd mean Holly'd have to forgive me, like I'd smuggled an ally on the inside who'd help me," Cadeon said, still every bit the mercenary. "Then I got excited. If Holls thinks I drive her crazy, imagine little Cadeons running around all over the place."
"I have firsthand experience with one. And that was plenty."
An awkward silence fell over the room. Rydstrom took a drink, muttering over the rim, "Make sure you have wainscoting."
Rydstrom shook his head. "Nothing."
"No, tell me."
"When you were little and your horns were molt­ing, they itched so bad that you'd run them against the walls. Nylson and I used to burst out laughing to see every new three-foot-high gouge running the length of a hall. We wouldn't let anyone repair them." His lips curled until he noticed Cadeon's expression. "Why are you looking at me like that?"
"You're talking about me. And it sounds . . . fond." What the hell did Rydstrom have to lose? "It nearly broke me to send you away."
Cadeon scowled. "So much that you visited all the
This much resentment?. "I did every chance I could. At least once a week in the beginning." At Cadeon's dis­believing look, he said, "I was there watching over you, making sure you had everything you needed. I stayed out of the way because Zoe and Mia said I would inter­rupt your bonding with your new family."
"How about not sending me away at all?"
"After Nylson and our father had just been slain? Because they broke the custom? When you were little, I was still adjusting to being king. I'd just lost my older brother, who was my best friend. And my father, as well. Then you were to be in jeopardy, too? I couldn't stand the thought of it. I was tempted to take you and our sis­ters and start anew, turn our backs on wars and killing."
Cadeon gaped. "You considered giving up the
"If there'd been a worthy replacement for me. Yes. Then, just a few years later, I lost the kingdom to a vicious murderer. I'd wondered if I'd fought hard enough, or if I'd let go too easily. The guilt was unre­lenting, is unrelenting."
"But the crown was everything. That's why you've hated me all these years."
"I never hated you. And the crown had nothing to do with why I've been hard on you." At Cadeon's raised I brows, Rydstrom said, "All right, that was part of it.
But I was also angry because of the way you were liv­ing your life. You were selfish and uncaring." Rydstrom knew Cadeon wouldn't argue that. "Sabine's since told me that you would've been assassinated if you'd gone to Tornin. Omort had five hundred troops waiting for you."
"Sabine told you that?"
"She wanted to ease some of the strife between us."
"Kind of nice, for an evil bitch."
"Guard your words carefully, brother, that woman is going to be your queen." Just when Rydstrom thought they'd have another row, Cadeon raised his palms.
"Yeah, you're right. Sorry. But don't forget that she's part of the reason I gave up Holly. I thought if I got the sword, I could free you. It ate at me, thinking of you in a dungeon. Nïx told me the sorceress would ... use you."
The sorceress did.
With a nod at the now empty bottle, Cadeon said, "You've finished it-something I never thought I'd see-so are you ready to divvy what happened?"
Rydstrom exhaled. Then he told Cadeon almost everything, leaving out his false vow, ending with, ". . . I'm not making progress with her as I'd hoped. And I've only got another two days."
"Look, I know I'm the last person you want to take advice from, but you can't force this. You can't make her love you."
"Then what would you do?"
"You know, do nice shite for her. Buy her things. Really think about what she likes and what makes her happy and make it happen. She'll come around. And if
she doesn't, you can cut off your horns for her. Chicks
Rydstrom's gaze shot up. Sure enough, Cadeon's had been shorn. "What the hell did you do that for?"
"Holly wanted a normal life, so I was trying to give her normal. She's since berated me, and forbidden me from ever touching my 'rock-hard, sexy horns' again. Then she outlined what she was going to do to me when they grew back. Gods, brother, that woman quicks my wick." Then he frowned. "Wait a minute. Did you say Sabine was going to be my queen? What the hell is she now?"
A storm was coming, outside the house and within it as
Rydstrom was going to confess to Sabine about his sham vow. With a heavy heart, he made his way upstairs to their room, leaving Cadeon to finish his drink.
Though he'd been working to earn her trust, Ryd-strom was about to destroy it with one blow. But he had no choice. Every time she called him her husband was like a knife to the chest.
He sat beside her in the bed. "Sabine, there's some­thing I must confess to you."
She didn't answer, didn't turn to him, but her slim shoulders tensed, letting him know she'd awakened.
"All I ask is that you try to understand the circum­stances. Can you do that?"
No response. He laid his hand on her shoulder and tugged her over to face him. She opened her eyes.
They were filled with blood.
"What is this? Sabine, what's happening?"
"It's . . . here" Her words were slurred, her skin waxen.
He gathered her up in his arms. Her heartbeat was racing.
When a line of blood tracked from her nose and another from her ear, the sharpest fear he'd ever felt came over him. "Ah, gods, what is happening to you? Tell me, cwenal"
"Poison," she gasped.
"What are you saying? How? Who did this to you?"
Her back arched sharply, her hands fisting in Ryd­strom's shirt. When she coughed, blood misted from her mouth.
Have to get her help . . .
"Cadeon!" Rydstrom bellowed.
His brother came bounding up the stairs, barreling into the room with his sword drawn. "What the hell?"
"Sabine's sick-where is Nïx?"
"I can go get her."
"Do it, and then meet us at the witch's coven-"
"Nooo!" Sabine screamed, thrashing in his arms. "No .. . coven."
"Easy, baby, we'll stay. Easy . . ." To Cadeon, he snapped, "Bring Nïx here. If you can't find her, then hunt for Mariketa the Awaited. Or even Tera the Fey. She knows poisons."
Without a word, Cadeon bolted from the room. Rydstrom heard the side door slam shut, then Cadeon's truck peeling away.
Rydstrom laid his palm on her cheek, wincing in confusion as pain suddenly shot through him, as if he'd laid his hand on a flame. But then her nightgown and the bedclothes were cold.
"Hold on for me, Sabine. Help's coming."
Pain razored through her body, making her muscles knot. The coppery tang of blood flooded her mouth. Feels like blades are slicing through my veins, and pumping into my heart.
Rydstrom kept demanding to know what was wrong, staring down at the blood in horror, rocking her in his arms.
She panted in anguish, her eyes squeezed shut. She'd been wrong. There was no way she could withstand this. So stupid, so arrogant to think she could live through this.
And now she'd pay for it. Unless Rydstrom can bring himself to do what needs to be done.
Her body twisted as the excruciating waves built, her mind overrun with visions of drinking her poison. Yes, downing glass after glass of it. .. just dripping the sear­ing black granules straight onto her tongue, then swal-lowing them dry.
Ah, gods, she could accidentally poison Rydstrom with her skin, her blood. Must warn him. "Can't . . . touch me."
"Sabine, I have to get you to someone who can help!"
She shook her head violently. "No one here . . . can."
Another wave hit. Unthinkable ... unearthly agony. Her eyes flashed open when the manic pounding of her heart stopped.
Their gazes met. "Cwena?" he rasped, "your . . . heart?"
Over. Her mind went blank. Her lids eased shut. His unholy roar shook the room.
Her fucking heart had stopped . . .she'd almost died. He'd never forget how he'd felt when he'd heard that first dogged beat as her heart struggled on.
He sat with his back against the headboard, squeez­ing her in his arms, rocking her as they both sweated from pain. When she moaned, he murmured, "I'm with you, baby. I'm with you."
Whenever he touched her skin, he felt eviscerating pain, so he continually smoothed his palm over her forehead and face, hoping to draw it from her.
Her bloody coughing had subsided, but he sensed this was in no way over. He was grappling to keep the rage reined in so he could take care of her.
A storm had descended on them, with lightning streaking all around the house, thunder rattling the glass doors. With each lightning bolt, Sabine's face looked even more deathly pale.
When Cadeon squired Nïx into the bedroom half an hour later, the Valkyrie's gaze flickered over Rydstrom's
face, as if gauging his sanity. His horns were straight, and he knew his eyes were black, but he was holding on.
"What is going on here?" she asked. "All Cadeon would say is, 'Have you ever wanted to see a scene from The Exorcist in real life?'"
"She's sick," Rydstrom said. "She told me it was a poison. You know poisons. Tell me what to do."
In the darkened room, figments of Sabine's illusions began flashing in a delirious procession, like words babbled.