Page 16

The last time she'd spoken with her mother, there'd been mutterings about the Peirce men returning to the mines. Mama had said, "Over my dead body, Ellie," then had grown embarrassed by her comment to her death-row daughter. . . .

When Lothaire turned on his back, Ellie's mouth went dry. His torso was hard as stone, with cut abs and pecs. Darker blond hair, almost golden in color, dashed the center of his chest, and a fine line of gold trailed down to his navel and lower.

Her starving senses drank him in, almost blunting her hatred for him. Dear God, the vampire was so . . . beautiful.

Masculine perfection. Especially with his eyes closed. I could look at him all day.

No! Rubber band snap. He was a murderer who wanted to do her in. He was partly responsible for her imprisonment.

She'd best not have any confusing attraction to him. In fact, she briefly considered opening the curtains to the morning sun, but decided against it. He was too fast, would just trace from the light.

Instead, Ellie dragged herself away, planning to shower, get dressed, and mentally prepare for her next go-round with him.

Inside her room, she locked the adjoining door between their suites from her side-as if that'd do anything to keep him out. Then she drew back the curtains to her balcony. Her lips parted.

Late afternoon? Exhausted or not, she couldn't believe she'd slept so long. In prison, she'd awakened at 6 a.m. on the dot for her entire sentence.

She headed for her bathroom, finding lavish toiletries inside. The promise of a shower with piping-hot water-and no guard's eyes on her-called to her.

Once the steaming water cascaded over her, she sighed with contentment, leisurely scrubbing her body with a scented soap.

Yet soon her sweeping hands slowed, bathing turned to stroking. It'd been so long since she'd been able to touch herself like this-fully naked and unobserved-that she'd forgotten what she felt like.

She blocked images of Lothaire's chiseled torso from her mind, telling herself she was just getting reacquainted with her body.

When she cupped one breast, a shaky breath escaped her. Damn, but she missed being caressed, missed masculine sounds of appreciation as she'd touched in turn.

Ellie had enjoyed men, had been an incurable flirt all her life. She'd fogged up so many truck cab windows that she'd gotten a reputation.

That was Ellie, the easy virgin-who was up for naughty talk, petting, grinding. As long as her jeans stayed zipped.

But then she'd been sent away, banished from flirting and laughing and touching.

In prison, she'd longed to feel the roughness of boys' hands on her breasts, to hear their desperate moans in her ear. "Let me have you, Ellie. . . . I'll only put the tip in, I swear."

She rested her forearm on the marble shower wall as her free hand descended down her belly and lower. Since she was now bare between her legs, Ellie perceived every different sensation-water drops running along her flesh, the rasp of one of her long nails. . . .

She was slick inside, so tempted to do more than explore. She bit her lip and glanced around, half-afraid Lothaire would trace into the room and catch her.

What would he do?

When he'd snatched her against his body yesterday, she'd felt the unyielding power of his muscles, had felt his impossibly large erection.

Her sex clenched at the memory of that hardness.

A spray of water misted over the graze on her neck, making her shiver. The vampire had sampled her there, had seemed to relish her taste, groaning as he took.

For some reason, the idea of that was so . . . erotic to her-as if he'd wanted her so much, he had to take a part of her into himself.

Her breath shuddered out.

What would've happened if Saroya hadn't risen? Would the vampire have cupped Ellie's breasts? She remembered how they'd ached. At that moment, she couldn't have stopped him, had been in a sensual stupor from his mouth.

Would he have trailed his kisses lower . . . and lower? She pictured those firm lips closing around one of her nipples, his blond brows drawn with pleasure as his pale hands kneaded-

No! What was wrong with her? She detested the vampire, yet she was fantasizing about him? She dropped her hands at once, turning off the water. Leaning back against the wall, she caught her breath, getting control of her need.

Vampires were always portrayed as hypnotically attractive in the movies. Surely he had some kind of uncanny sway over her-some supernatural quality about him.

Although the more likely explanation was that she was simply hard-up after her long prison stay.

After drying off, she padded to the closet, staggered anew at all the selections. She could spend hours mixing and matching. She'd never followed fashion in women's magazines because she'd known she would never possess enough choices to create outfits, to have a "personal style."

In fact, she'd vaguely resented the women who had the resources-and the time-to spend on fashion.

Still don't have the time. Reminding herself that she had only a month at the most, she quickly chose a pair of beige slacks and a blue sweater with a low cowl neck. The outfit looked silly without shoes, so she slipped on a pair of tobacco-colored pumps.

Would the vampire be up yet? Would they have another conversation-

or confrontation? She wondered if the fluttery feeling in her belly was hunger. Or nerves.

She quickly braided the crown of her hair, leaving the rest to curl past her shoulders. After debating makeup, she opted for a light sheen of lip gloss-

A thunderous bellow sounded from his room. Followed by another, and another. Louder, louder . . .

Then quiet.

Chapter 16

When Lothaire awakened, he lay in a bank of snow. Though it was surely still day in New York, the moon's yellow light streamed down over him.

Sleep-tracing. Again. Where the hell am I now? Was it to happen every time he slept?

He darted his gaze around, recognizing his whereabouts-because it was a property he returned to often, one he now owned.

The field where his mother had died.

How distinctly he recalled Ivana's death and the night that followed. On a still eve just like this one, he'd finally been able to rise from his snowy cocoon. . . .

The sun had barely set when he began clawing himself out of the snow. The humans had long since gone, but Lothaire had been forced to wait in agony for twilight.

At last he broke through the outer layer of ice and ran in search of his mother . . . hoping against hope. Then he spied all that was left of the proud Ivana-black ash against glaringly white snow.

With a choked yell, he reached for her remains, but a slight breeze soughed, scattering her ashes across the field.

"No, no, Mother!" Crying, frantic to touch even a fragment of her, he lunged for them-

And he traced instead, brushing his fingertips over disintegrating ash.

The first time he'd ever been able to teleport. Shock welled. Hours earlier, that skill would have prevented Ivana's sacrifice.

He sank to his knees, filled with a bitter hatred for himself. I failed her. Tears fell-until he perceived a presence.

The Daci, all around him, cloaked in mist.

His mother had told him that her family might come for him once the humans were gone. Indeed, they had.

"Lothaire," they whispered like the wind.

He shot to his feet, jerking around in circles. "Show yourselves!" He turned the hatred he'd felt for himself outward. He heard his mother's voice in his mind: "Rely on cold reason." But he couldn't.

Fury burned inside him just as the sun had burned her.

"You filthy cowards! Where were you last night? Where is Serghei?" he screamed till spittle sprayed from his lips, freezing there. "Let me see your faces!"

"Lothaire . . ."

He traced forward, flying into the mist with his fangs bared. Couldn't see them. Eyes wide, he realized they were the mist-and within it, so was he. "You let her burn!" he yelled, throat gone raw. "Fight me!"

From all around, he heard their broken murmurs: ". . . her curse . . ." ". . . he traces within the mist . . ." ". . . Horde blood . . ." ". . . lacking . . ." ". . . rage . . ."

"Yes, I've Horde blood! The better to destroy you with-"

They merely traced away, dissipating.

The night was still, utter silence. Utter aloneness. . . .

Over the centuries, Lothaire had returned here time and again, desperately seeking his mother's people, seeking Serghei.

But never had he sleep-traced this kind of distance. The snow bit into his bare feet, a chill breeze leaching the warmth from his uncovered torso.

Despise this place. Lothaire could still remember the smell of Ivana's flesh burning on that freezing dawn.

Because her father, Serghei, the king of the Daci, had forsaken her.

The grandfather Lothaire had never-in his endless life-been able to find.

When young, Lothaire hadn't comprehended the pain his mother had felt. Since then he'd known torture many times, had felt his own skin seared away in the sun.

Now he understood what Serghei had subjected Ivana to. I can still feel her brittle ashes against my fingertips. . . .

At the memory, rage seethed inside Lothaire, as fresh as that eve. Shouldn't it have dimmed?

He felt crazed, wanting to rip apart an enemy until steaming blood sprayed like rain and painted the snow. "Face me, Serghei!" he bellowed. "You fucking coward!"

For an instant, he thought he sensed their presence. Or was it only a lingering remnant from his dream? "Face me!" No one met him; no one answered his challenge. "Goddamn you all, fight me!"

This might be the moment when I topple off the razor's edge, irretrievably mad.

Another bellow erupted from his chest. Crave blood, carnage . . . bones shattering . . .

The rush when flesh gave way to his fangs.

Atop a razor, staring down at the abyss. And the abyss stares back.

Just when he realized he was about to lose this battle, he pictured his Bride's skin yielding, giving up that crimson wine of hers. Sink your fangs into her, plunge them deep. . . .

His eyes widened. She's alone. Unguarded.

In less than an instant, he'd returned to the apartment. Needing to protect her. Needing her. He would bury his face in her hair and inhale her intoxicating scent, could imagine it so clearly.

He found Elizabeth standing out on her balcony under the cover of sun.

Not her, not her. Saroya only. He grated, "Let Saroya rise."

She turned. "You're back- Oh, my God, your eyes."

"Let her rise!" Abyss.

"She's not trying to."

He threw back his head and yelled.

"Lothaire?" He heard the mortal swallow in fear, and yet she eased closer to him, hands out in front of her. "Wh-what's happened to you? Is that snow on your jeans?"

He narrowed his gaze on her, willing her, Yes, come to me. She took a step closer to the shadows, then another. Her hands trembled. Want them on me. Come and touch me, female.

Touch me, and I might last another night.

The vampire's eyes were more frightening than Ellie had ever seen them. They were filled with both rage-and anguish. Red forked out over the whites, giving him an even more sinister look.

Yet they were spellbinding to her.

His bared chest heaved with breaths, his hands clenched into fists, the promise of violence in every rippling muscle and whipcord tendon. His fangs glinted as if razor-sharp.

And still she found herself crossing to him, wanting to smooth his windblown hair off his brow, needing to feel his flawless skin.

When she joined him in the room, something began happening that Ellie didn't understand. He positioned himself closer to her, closer, with a silky, predatory grace.

It dawned on her; he didn't want to frighten away his prey. She shivered, commanding herself not to bolt.

Because she sensed that might . . . excite him.

Soon they were so close she had to crane her head up to meet his gaze. Her lips parted at the blatant need she saw there.

But what does he need? What does he want?

Why did she feel like she'd die if she didn't know what his pale skin felt like?

"Elizabeth," he bit out, his voice raw, his expression crazed.

Maybe she could touch him, could satisfy her curiosity, and he wouldn't even remember. "Can I . . . can I touch you?"

He shuddered, then hissed, "Yes. Touch. Me."

To test the waters, she brushed a straight length of hair from his face. When he merely moved closer to her, she tentatively laid her palms on

his chest, against his freezing skin. Where had he traced to? What snowy land?

He flinched, even as his muscles leapt to her touch. "Elizabeth," he rasped brokenly, "you scald me." She was about to drop her hands when he ordered, "More."

"O-okay." She fanned her fingers over his chest, inching her hands out until they lay over his rigid pecs, his flat nipples.

She didn't understand this man, this evil vampire with his anguished eyes. He still hadn't placed his hands on her. Because he feared to? "If I lose control . . ." he'd warned her.

But she sensed that she calmed him, that she affected him physically-and mentally.

Sure enough, his agitation began to ease, his lids going heavy.

Ellie was just as affected. She grew enthralled with the ridges flexing beneath her fingertips, begging to be explored.

When she sifted her nails through the golden hair on his chest, his hooded eyes closed.

"Is this better?" Her voice was embarrassingly throaty. But she'd been aching for contact for half a decade-how could she not appreciate a man like him?

All tousled hair and bulging muscles.

Seeming to wake, he gave her a hate-filled look. He swiped her hands away with a muttered curse, then strode toward the kitchen.

Since he didn't trace, she figured he wanted her to follow him.

She stared with reluctant awe at the sculpted planes of his back, the way they tapered down to those narrow hips. . . .

Even his walk is sexy. Lothaire walked like she imagined a powerful king would.

In the kitchen, he opened the refrigerator, leaning on the door as he withdrew a pitcher of blood. It looked like a cream pourer in his big hands.

He turned up the carafe, gulping its contents while Ellie sank into a chair, staring in fascination.

She saw him glance at her out of the corner of his eye, knew he noted her breaths shallowing, her cheeks flushing.

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