Because he was drawn to her as no other woman before. And there was only one way to determine if she was truly his.
"You'll give your vow to me, demon. And I'll accept it."
The vow-the recitation that would bind a rage demon king to his queen. No ceremony, no witnesses, just a pact between two to become one. He would vocalize his claim on her, and if she accepted his right to her, then she would forever be his queen. "My people will never recognize a marriage coerced by sorcery-or a conception fueled by your notorious potions."
"Rydstrom, let's just be frank here. Considering your reaction to me"-she delicately pointed to his erection-"do you really think I'll need to use sorcery on you?" He clenched his jaw, unable to deny what was so obvi­ous."
"Of course you'd kill me after our babe is born?"
Our babe. He'd never said the phrase in his life. Even she tilted her head at the words.
But then she slowly smiled-and it was beguiling and took his breath away. Had she noticed? "Well, I wouldn't be a very good evil sorceress if I allowed you to live."
"Then there's one thing I can assure you. You will
never get my vow from me."
"Then, Rydstrom, I can't let you have me without it."
At that, everything became clear. She would tease him, sexually tormenting him until he gave up the words. Why did the thought make blood surge to his groin?
This creature taking him to the brink, over and over.
Imagining the power struggle between them, the complication of it . . . Fantasies arose in his mind, thoughts he usually buried at once. Secrets long kept- and forever denied. "Then all you're doing is wasting my time," he said, but his voice was roughened.
"What makes you so confident that I can't make you say or do anything to be inside me?"
Because so much is at stake. Never had Rydstrom been this close to all he wanted.
He had to escape to get to his brother before he did something monumentally selfish. Cadeon was a cut­throat mercenary who had just come into possession of what he'd yearned for most in the world. "You couldn't tempt me from my duty before-and I didn't even know who you were then." Bravado, Woede.
She stood, her shoulders back. "You haven't seen everything I have to tempt you with," she said, pull­ing a ribbon at her bodice. The gown slid over her pert
nipples down her narrow waist and shapely legs to pool at her feet.
All that remained on her exquisite body was a sheer scrap of white silk covering her breasts and the tiniest panties he had ever seen.
His lips parted, and his cock felt like it could rip through his pants. With her eyes flashing, she raised her chin, well aware of her effect on him and prideful of it.
If this female weren't so evil, she'd be glorious.
In that instant, he decided, I'll claim her as my war prize when I escape.
And he would use her to get free.
L anthe shuffled to court, listening to her iPod, deep in thought.
A few months ago, she'd been off-plane, sitting in an electronics store watching coveted cable. She'd caught a show about dolphins in captivity.
When the animals got lethargic and bored, their trainers would put fish into a container so that the crea-tures would have to work to get them, figuring out how to open it.
Lanthe remembered likening Sabine to one of those burned-out dolphins who couldn't swim freely or hunt for their meals.
Sabine had been made a killer but had no one to destroy, a survivor with no calamity to endure. Which made her a burned-out sorceress. She had been for centuries.
Yet tonight when Sabine had locked her gaze on the demon, Lanthe had realized her sister had just been given a demon-size container of fish. Finally . . .
To get from the dungeon to court, Lanthe had to walk outside, and the night sky above seemed to mock her, rekindling old fears-
What the hell was that? She'd thought she'd heard something swooping over her music.
With her gaze darting, she snatched her ear buds free, then froze for several heartbeats. Only silence. Losing it.
Her nerves were getting to her-that had to be it. It hadn't helped that the shuffle function had selected songs like "Don't Fear the Reaper" and Jem's "24."
"The sun's setting gold, thought I would grow old, it wasn't to be. ..."
She'd been pensive for weeks, fearing that Thronos would find them every time they'd gone off-plane. Or, gods forbid, he'd discover a way to cross over into the plane of Rothkalina.
When Sabine had created that extensive illusion tonight, Lanthe had wondered how it couldn't have drawn the Vrekeners.
Though her sister responded to fear with anger, Lanthe just got scared. Something was on the horizon for her, and she sensed her outlook wasn't good.
Once she reached the main hall, she hurried toward the entrance to court. There, two revenants stood guard outside the towering double doors. As she approached, they mindlessly opened them for her.
She hated going to court almost as much as she hated staying away from it. As she passed members of the Pravus, they whispered about her behind their hands, treating her like an outcast, though she was a blood relation to Omort.
Lanthe was a princess of the realm, and one of the six great towers of Castle Tornin was her own. Still, they followed her half brother's lead in deciding how to treat
The Invidia-with their wild antler headdresses, whips on their belts, and star patterns over their nipples- laughed at her. The Undines, evil nymphs with paint dusted bodies, openly scorned Lanthe.
The Libitinae, four raven-winged bringers of death, frowned at her with tilted heads. For fun, they forced men to self-castrate or die. They simply couldn't com-prehend Lanthe's need for male companionship.
Lanthe supposed she hadn't helped her respect quo­tient by doing ninety-four-point-seven percent of all the males present, excluding the revenants that lined the walls, of course. Mathematically, this meant that Lanthe was the equivalent of the high school slut.
She'd never been to high school, but she'd watched movies like Grease, The Craft, and Varsity Blues-and they all dealt with school sluttitude. I'm your girl.
She'd liked none of her ex-lovers, but she loved sex, I lots of it, and well, call her crazy but once a male stole her sorcery when she was in the throes, she didn't let him hit it again.
Sabine had begged her not to sleep with Sorceri, but vampires only wanted her blood, and demons and cen­taurs were considered animals. The rest of the breeds here? Creeeeeepy.
She passed the enigmatic vampire Lothaire, who served as a general in their army, commanding a regi-ment of vicious fallen vampires. Known as the Enemy of
Old, he was a chilling sight, from his white-blond hair to his eyes that were more pink than red to his impas­sive face.
He was one of the few vampires she'd encountered who might actually be interested in sex in addition to blood. But he could scarcely be arsed to give her the time of day.
There'd only been one male in her entire long life who'd ever looked at her with affection and perfect acceptance. Lanthe feared-and her precious self-help books indicated-that she bedded one male after another because she ached to see that look once more.
Contrary to what Sabine believed, the night of their parents' murder hadn't been the first time Lanthe had encountered that Vrekener boy.
But Thronos had grown up to be her worst enemy....
From his throne, Omort caught sight of her and glowered. Lanthe didn't know what she'd done to incur his lasting animosity, but it had become a fact of life for her. Sabine had said that he innately feared Lanthe. After all, if Lanthe could ever regain her ability, she could command Omort to lose his mind, to forget how to wield his powers.
Oracle number Three-Oh-Eight had told Lanthe that a "perilous inciting incident" would spark her per­suasion once more. Lanthe waited impatiently as nearly half a millennium passed by.
"What news?" Omort said when she reached the steps to the dais. As usual, Hettiah simpered by his side-a pale imitation of Sabine. Though her features
and Sabine's were similar, Hettiah's coloring was tepid in comparison to the glamorous and beautiful Sabine.
Lanthe cleared her throat. Sabine went demon-hunting and bagged a two-pointer! No, too blase. "Our sister was successful," she said instead. "She's taken the demon
At her words, Omort's fingers went white clutching the arms of the throne, bending the gold. Hettiah noted the reaction with a doleful look.
His eyes darted to the east wall of the throne room- which was covered with stone tablets. They were covenants, tablets made with the blood of those enter' ing into any of a variety of dark pacts, with the terms inscribed in the stone for all to see.
The four main players of the Pravus had signed one, vowing allegiance to each other-Omort, Lothaire, the viceroy centaur, and the king of the fire demonarchy.
But now, Omort's gaze was fixed on Sabine's tablet. It was a Sanctuary-an ancient Sorceri covenant that ensured as long as she kept her body "pure," no male could "taint" it. For centuries, she'd suffered her virginity instead of any intercourse unwanted or unnatural.
If a tablet fell from the wall and broke, all would know that someone had violated the terms of the agreement. Omort was waiting with dread for Sabine's to break- proof positive that she was having sex with Rydstrom.
"The demon's here in my dungeon?" Omort asked absently. "For how long?"
Lanthe shrugged. "Half an hour, I guess." "I see your sister isn't having as easy a time as she'd predicted," Hettiah said with a smirk.
"No, that's not true, Hettiah." It hadn't happened yet, but of course it would soon. "I'm sure Sabine is find­ing this diverting-playing with him like a cat with a winged bird... ."
The demon ran a shaking hand over his mouth, then seemed to catch himself doing it.
With his gaze raking Sabine's body, Rydstrom began stalking toward her with slow, menacing steps. His eyes were growing black once more, but with desire or rage or both?
She assumed that he would try to escape, would likely seek to use her as a hostage, unless she could
seduce him to forget himself. She thought she still had a chance-he couldn't hide his body's reaction to her. Yet the conflict was plain on his face.
Rydstrom didn't know whether to claim her or kill her. "What do you hope to gain from this?"
"I told you."
''No, you personally. Your kind looks down on mine. Why would you ever want to wed a demon, to bear one a child?" He narrowed his gaze. "Is Omort holding something over you to compel you to do this? Has he imprisoned a family member? A ... lover?"
Sabine could tell how much he hoped she was being forced into this. "No, he has no one that I hold dear imprisoned. I was quite eager to fulfill this duty." And to begin the prophecy.
Foretold centuries ago, it stated that if the Queen of Illusions bore the heir of the fallen king of the rage demons, that prince would unlock a source of incon-
ceivable power. If she didn't, the Pravus would fall to
"Eager?" he bit out.
Earlier the demon had inhaled deeply, exercising more patience than Sabine had seen in a male in ages. But she sensed that with the possibility of her coercion gone, Rydstrom had just given up reasoning with her and had reached the end of his patience.
She could see him shutting down. A muscle ticced in his scarred cheek, and his eyes glowed fully black. In a flash of insight, she realized she was seeing a side of] Rydstrom that few had encountered before.
"You have no idea what you're playing with," he said,
his tone cruel.
"You won't win this."
"No? Just imagine it, Rydstrom. I can give you what­ever you want. I'll fulfill every secret desire you have."
"What do you know of my secret desires?" Had his voice roughened? Again she probed his mind but couldn't get through.
When he was directly before her, he made no move to touch her. This close to him, she felt so small next to his great height. She could perceive the heat coming off
Without warning, his hands shot to her camisole, fisting the material. She stifled a gasp as he ripped it off her, exposing her breasts to him.
Collecting herself immediately, she asked in a femme fatale voice, "Do you think them pretty?"
As he peered hard at them, his brows drew together in answer.
"Won't you touch them? You've waited all your life to pet your female like this."
Just when she thought he would succumb, he wrapped her hair around his fist. He yanked her close until he was staring directly down at her.
"A little girl like you shouldn't toy with a demon like me," he said with another yank, until her hands flew to his broad chest. "You're going to lose, and when you do, I'll make you pay for this."
"Is that so-"
He cut off her words with a brutal kiss. It was so dif­ferent from the first time when he'd been striving to please her. Now he seemed intent on punishing her. But she liked how bold and firm his kiss was. She liked that he didn't fear her, though many males did.
She felt herself getting caught up, lowering her defenses. When she moaned, he seemed to be losing him­self as well, a growling sound breaking from his chest.
Grazing his torso with her bared breasts, she mur­mured against his lips, "Rydstrom, put your hands on them. You know you want to feel me once more."
With a defeated groan, he covered her flesh. The heat and texture of his palms shocked her. A warrior's hands, callused from his sword hilt. As he kneaded her, he took her mouth again, flicking her tongue with his.
When he pinched one nipple-hard, angrily-she gave a cry, anticipating pain; instead, pleasure flooded through her body.
What a surprise.
He pinched the other one until both peaks were plump and swollen. Then he grazed his flattened palms over them, up and down, his callused skin rasping her tender flesh.
He drew his head back. "Your eyes are turning blue." A timbre of pure masculine satisfaction marked his tone. "You like my touch, female."
I do. They were strangers, he knew nothing about her, but the way he stroked her was perfection.
Her breasts grew heavy under his ministrations, her sex damp. She'd waited so long for this. For him. She was so close to finally knowing what it would be like to have a man moving inside her. "More, demon."
He turned her so that her back was against his chest. Still fondling her breasts, he leaned in to run his face against hers, his breaths hot at her ear. When his big shaft prodded her, he ground it against her.
One of his hands trailed down her belly toward her sex. Her hips rocked up in invitation, but he teased his fingers at the line of her panties.
"Mmm. Touch me there, demon." She trembled with anticipation as his hand slowly inched inside her panties. Illusions of fire began to appear, but she extin-guished them .. . barely.
Finally his fingers smoothed through her small I triangle of curls. He hissed in a shocked breath to I find she was shaven everywhere below it. His voice I gravelly, he said, "So soft . . . will I find you wet, I sorceress?"
When he dipped into her slick folds, she moaned with pleasure. His body tensed against hers, and he muttered a harsh curse. "You're ready for me."
He spread her moisture to her swollen clitoris, then rubbed it with two fingers, circling again and again. There was no hesitation-he was deliberate, but agoniz­ingly slow.
"It wouldn't take much to make you come on my hand." As he fingered her flesh more aggressively, her eyes slid shut on a wordless cry. She was on the brink, scarcely noticing him raising the arm he held her with-
Until it was constricted around her neck in a choke-hold, cutting off her air.
She dug her nails into his arm. He didn't budge. Can't breathe . . . can't. . .
"I can play dirty, too." He let up his grip just enough for her to catch a gasping breath. "Scream for a guard."
"Don't need to ... one's here."
An illusion of a masked guard appeared from the shadows with his sword raised, swinging for the demon's neck. Rydstrom released her, shoving her away to defend himself.
Once clear, Sabine flipped her ring open, loosing her sleeping powder, then crept behind Rydstrom. As she let the illusion fade, she whispered, "Behind you."
When the demon twisted around, she blew the powder up into his eyes. "If you're going to act like an animal, then you'll be kept like one."
He gave her a blind look of pure hatred. "You little bitch!" Then he crashed to the floor.
ome see my new pet up close," Sabine told Lanthe when her sister returned from court, inviting her to pull up a chair as they watched her servants stripping
Only Sabine's most trusted attendants were here, Sorceri slaves that were known as Inferi-literally "those who dwell below." She had dozens of males and females at her disposal.
"Quickly!" Sabine clapped at them. "Before he i rouses." Two removed his jacket while one built a fire in the cell's grate. Still another poured sweet wine for Sabine and Lanthe. Out of habit the sisters both sniffed for poison before drinking.
"Did you tell everyone at court?" Sabine asked.
"I did," Lanthe said. "Now, what happened here? And why is he still dressed?"
Sabine summarized the events, ending with, "After he tried to strangle me, I dosed htm."
"You're a mistress of deception, and he got the drop on you?"
"He's an exceedingly clever kisser," she said defen­sively.
"You don't seem too angry about this."
"He only did what I would have done in the same situation. If anything, I was impressed that he'd been so ruthless," she said, ignoring the measuring glance Lanthe cast her over the rim of her goblet. "This demon's a tricky one," Sabine continued. "I suspect that both his mind and desires are complicated."
"No way. I can almost hear him saying, Me big demon, me lusty!"
Sabine shook her head. "No, he's .. . different."
"Try to get into his mind. Tap into his fantasies."
"I tried. Typical demon had it blocked like a bar­ricade."
"Does he believe you're his female?" Lanthe asked.
"I think he feels that I am but is in denial. He won't be able to deny it much longer." Which was important. Already she was running out of time. As a Sorceri female, she would repeat her reproductive cycle only every two months. And she was nearing the end of her fertile time.
To her attendants, she called, "Yes, put him on the bed now."
Consisting of a mattress atop a titanium platform, the bed had manacles attached by chains embedded in the solid head and footboards.
"Be careful with his horns when you lift him," she said, recalling that demons could emit poison from the points
that could paralyze an immortal and kill a human. Once they'd situated him, she pointed to his feet.
As they yanked off his shoes, Lanthe said, "I still can't believe he wouldn't willingly do the deed."
Sabine took a healthy swallow of her sweet wine. "Made some mention of obligations, responsibilities."
"How could he expect you to believe he turned down sex with a nubile female who's all but begging for it for responsibilities? I've never heard of anything like that. Could it be you're losing your touch, old mum?"
"Suck off, fister. He just hasn't had enough entice­ment."
"You want me to give you some pointers?"
This was a tense subject between them. Once Sabine had realized that for centuries to come she'd never fully know a man, she'd assumed Lanthe would remain a vir­gin as well, in solidarity. When Sabine had mentioned that, Lanthe had laughed. Loud. More of a guffaw.
"I'm not without skills." Though Sabine was hymen-ally intact, she'd made up with everything but.
"Ah, yes, Sabine, the Queen of III"-Lanthe paused- "icit BJs."
They were illicit; every encounter of Sabine's was. She'd long envied couples who lazed in bed all day, but she'd always had to worry about Vrekeners overhead or Omort discovering her.
Once the Inferi stripped the demon's thin sweater from him, Lanthe whistled low. "Not an ounce of fat on him."
When Sabine crossed to the bed for a better look, Lanthe eagerly followed.
The demon seemed to be all latent strength, with rises and falls of long, strapping muscles. But he wasn't bulky-thankfully not a no-necked bruiser.
Above his corded bicep was a wide band of matte gold. The piece was permanent, and he'd likely been wearing it for centuries.
"Look at the tattoo." Sabine pointed to a spot low on his side where jet-black ink marked his flesh. "It con­tinues on." When she shifted him to peek at his back, she found an image of a dragon that appeared to wind around his torso.
Basilisks, ancient dragons, were reputed to live in the plane of Rothkalina in a region called Grave Realm. Demons held them sacred.
Tattoos were common among demon males, but she hadn't expected Rydstrom to have one. When Sabine grazed a finger along the image, the rigid muscles beneath it flexed to her fingers.
"Your gaze looks covetous, Abie."
"So ... if you're his female, maybe you feel drawn to him as well. Maybe you could fall in love," she said, her big blue eyes wistful.
Lanthe was a contradiction-an evil sorceress who longed for love. Sabine had never known anyone so desperate for it as her sister. Ever since Lanthe was young, she'd seemed to be searching for it with her entire being. She read self-help books by the dozen and devoured tragic love stories on DVDs.
"The only love I'm capable of is sisterly," Sabine said. "Count yourself lucky."
If a romantic attachment hadn't happened in five centuries, Sabine didn't see it forthcoming. She'd long suspected that any part capable of loving a man had expired forever with one of her deaths.
Besides, she could never trust anyone but Lanthe, and according to popular wisdom and her sister's books, one couldn't have love without trust.
"In any case, just because I'm his, doesn't mean he's mine." The Sorceri didn't believe in fate, and so they didn't believe in a fated mate.
Still, Sabine would be cautious with her quarry. Get­ting attached to him, or rather to his body or his tempt' ing kiss, would make their situation . . . unfortunate when she was finished with him.
"Ready for the pants?" Lanthe slapped her hands and rubbed them together. "Let's see if the rumors about demon males are true."
"Oh, they're true. In fact, I think they're underre-ported." Sabine bit her bottom lip. He was still semi­hard, and she didn't know if she wanted anyone to see him like that. To her attendants, Sabine said, "Leave
When she and Lanthe were alone, Sabine grasped the waist of his low-hanging pants, but paused at the button above the fly. "Maybe I'll keep these on him. For effect, when I take them off."
Lanthe's brows rose at Sabine's proprietary behavior.
"What?" Sabine said defensively. "I merely don't want him to get cold." She began chaining his wrists
above his head.
"Uh-huh," Lanthe said. "I'll be monitoring this situ-
ation closely." She fastened the manacles at the foot of the bed around his ankles.
When he was secured, Sabine sidled up next to Lanthe, and they both gazed at the demon.
His broad shoulders seemed to take up the entire mattress, tapering beautifully to his narrow waist. The hair on his arms, chest, and the trail below his navel was black, but tipped with blond against his tanned skin.
"He's . . . Abie, he's magnificent" Lanthe breathed. "Your own demon love slave here for you to use when­ever you like. I want one, too!"
"Yes, but now I have to get him up to speed with his new role."
Lanthe nodded thoughtfully. "One thing we never considered . . . what if he is the sole male we've ever encountered who continually puts his duty above his lusts? What if he keeps his promises without fail?"
"There's no such male," Sabine said without hesita­tion.
"I wonder. Maybe he's so firmly on the side of good that someone from the Pravus can't tempt him."
"Are you doubting my skill as a seductress?" Hettiah had already publicly challenged her. "How about a side wager, then?"
"I'm game. If you can't seduce him in the next week, then I get your finest headdress."
Made of the rarest blue and white golds, Sabine's most treasured headdress was winged, arching back over the ears, with gossamer strands of gold cascading over the front.
Sabine had stolen it from the Queen of Clairsen-tience, along with her ability to touch objects and read their history. It had been a root power, and they'd fought to the death for it. But ultimately, Sabine had given the clairsentience to Lanthe, admitting to herself that she'd truly only wanted the headdress.
The sisters didn't wager gold lightly. Their mother had often rubbed sovereigns against her face as she lovingly said, "Gold is life! It is perfection! Band it in armor over thy heart and never will thy life's blood
But Sabine couldn't lose this bet. She was Rydstrom's fated female. "And when I win, you have to go without sex for a year. Maybe then you'll have more sympathy for my plight." At Lanthe's disbelieving look, she said, "Yes, I said a year. You know that the piece is of equal
Lanthe cast her a pained expression, but said, "Very
well, you have a wager."
Just then, Sabine's captive muttered in Demonish, his firm lips parting around each rough syllable.
"Then run along. I want to be here alone when he awakes once more."
When Lanthe had gone, Sabine climbed upon the bed beside his waist, tilting her head as she studied him up close. His horns fascinated her, how they curved back around his head and were mostly smooth, but had ridges toward the base. His thick hair could cover them almost completely, so he would be able to go out among humans, where many demons couldn't.
Recalling how much he'd loved her touching them,
she ran her fingers along them. He shuddered even when unconscious.
Next her eyes flitted over his face. He had chiseled good-looks-a strong nose and squared chin-marred only by his deep scar. The wound had obviously been severe, and she wondered how he'd gotten it.
She eased her gaze lower. This demon had a body like she'd never known.
Sabine had always preferred more dapper physiques. The men she was attracted to were almost always of the Sorceri, rarefied smooth operators. Rydstrom was no smooth-talking sorcerer-he was raw masculinity.
This didn't mean she was eager to bed him. Histori­cally, she'd proved averse to being bitten, and demons marked their females upon claiming them. And a demon's very looks changed during sex with a mate, his features becoming sharper, his skin deepening in color, his upper and lower fangs growing.
What would it be like to have Rydstrom turn fully demonic, growling and thrusting over her? To have this powerful body working hers to orgasm? She drank deeply of her wine.
Sabine hadn't been lying about wanting his pants to remain on for effect-naturally, she planned to take his zipper with her teeth-but that didn't mean she didn't want to see him, or, rather .. . it.
She set her goblet on the bedstand, then slowly unzipped his pants. What was revealed made her bite her bottom lip.
A pattern of scars ran along the length of his thick shaft. Though he wasn't now, he'd once been pierced.
Sabine had heard rumors of archaic male rites of passage among many of the Demonarchies, but she'd thought the rage demons had done away with them
Maybe Rydstrom had decreed it so-he had been in
the position to, after all.