"Oh, my God, that's awful!" Ellie said, briefly clutching his brawny arm. "Why would they do those things to you?"
"They're called the Order. They consider immortals miscreats-miscreations. Abominations and all. They plan to exterminate every last one of us."
"How did you get taken?"
"It's the damnedest thing. I'd just gone to pick up a girl to take to the movies, worried about nothing more than Eagle Scouts, my curfew-and maybe stealing a kiss from my date." He winked at Ellie, and she felt like fanning herself. "Next thing I know, I'm waking up in a holding tank with all these creatures. That's when I flipped out."
"It must have been terrifying."
"Well, it wasn't a June picnic, that's for sure. And the cell! You can't imagine what it's like to be caged for days on end."
Can't I? Your friend put me in the big house for five years.
Rubber band snap. Snap!
"I only got one torture session, not too bad, but Mr. Lothaire? They
burned him until his skin charred away and you could see his bones.
They starved him. He just laughed, messing with the humans' minds and all."
Ellie could easily imagine him doing that.
"When all the prisoners broke loose, he saved my life, repeatedly. And all the while, he was desperate to get off the island. We figured he had someone to get back to. Didn't know it was you!" Clearly recollecting some memory, Thad said, "Mr. Lothaire sure is wild for you."
Not for me.
"So, what do you do, Ellie?" he asked.
Well, previously, I held a position on death row, but lately I've been a vampire's plaything. Soon I'll be sacrificed so the Soul Reaper and the Enemy of Old can make babies.
"What do I do?" Ellie caught Hag's look of warning. In a feigned bubbly tone, she said, "Hey, you want a drink, Thad? I could use a drink. I've gotta show you this chest. . . ."
Three hours later, Ellie slurred to the chest, "Hos-say Kvervo tee-killer, please."
Somehow she, Thad, and Hag had already finished two buckets of Coronas.
Thad had told her he'd never tasted tequila. Ellie scarcely remembered it. One way to remedy that!
"Lime. Salt. Another bucket of Coronas. And chips, thanks."
When Ellie dragged her score out to the deck, she found Thad buzzedly tightening a shutter hinge with a multipurpose pocket tool. So the Eagle Scout.
She and Hag were in bathing suits, and he'd removed his shirt. Though it was a cloudless day, Thad had no problem with the sun, and he had the tan to prove it. "Guess it's my phantom half," he'd explained with a shrug.
Behind his back, Ellie mimicked a kitty-cat clawing him; Hag grinned into her beer.
After popping open a round for the three of them, Ellie sank down on the lounge chair to watch sweat trickle along the rises and falls of Thad's cut torso muscles.
Am I feeling lust for him? Or just appreciating his amazing hotness?
It occurred to her that he was exactly the type of boy she'd always imagined herself with. Good-natured, handsome, considerate.
So why was she so attracted to a deadly, forbidding bloodsucker like Lothaire?
Because of mental trauma and sexual desperation?
Or because of his brilliant mind and seductive touch? That molten gaze . . .
Maybe she should test out whether she truly desired Lothaire or if she simply needed a male-any male.
Maybe test this with Thad? Countless Coronas said this was the best-plan-ever.
When her timer went off, Hag wobbled to her feet, pointing to the sky. "Potion!" she said, like she might say, "Eureka!" Then she veered off to the kitchen.
Alone with Thad, Ellie said, "Thank you so much for bringing me back this morning." Taking yet another swig of liquid courage, she stood, crossing over to him. "You're my hero."
Still concentrating on his chore, he drawled, "Anytime, darlin'." She'd found out that he was a born-and-bred Texan. A long, tall, gorgeous drink of Texas . . .
"You mind if I give you a hug in thanks?" Her voice had gone
He turned toward her with a frown, scrubbing his palm over his chin.
Before he could say anything, she laced her hands around his neck, her nails sifting through the hair curling at his nape.
God, he smells incredible. The muscles of his chest flexed against her breasts, his damp skin so hot she could feel it through her top. "Or how about a thank-you kiss?" She stood on her toes.
He blushed deeply. "Uh. You're Mr. Lothaire's female, which means you're taken. Really taken. And as for me, I'm-"
Ellie pressed her lips against his, tightening her embrace while he froze in shock.
But his lips were firm, tasting of lime with a hint of salt. Nice. She kissed harder, and his lips finally parted on a breath.
He smells, feels, and tastes wonderful.
So where's the lust?
Dang it! Now she could admit what she'd instinctively known. Without Lothaire, I'll never feel such passion again.
She was just about to break away when Hag walked out. "Dark gods! What is this, Elizabeth?" she cried. "You want this boy dead?"
Thad and Ellie both stumbled back mumbling apologies to Hag, to each other.
The fey pointed Ellie toward the bathroom. "Go wash your face now!" To Thad, Hag said, "Sit. You're next."
Inside the bathroom, Hag slammed the door behind Ellie. "Wash! Get his scent off you."
Ellie dutifully scrubbed her face. Okay, maybe the beers were wrong and that hadn't been the best idea. "You're not going to tell Lothaire?"
"This happened on my watch. I left two drunken, postpubescent beings alone. Lothaire can never know. Why in the gods' names would you do this?"
"I just . . . I had to know why I feel things so strongly with Lothaire. If it was me being straight out of prison, or if it's him."
Hag's disapproving mien softened. "No matter how ill-advised your experiment, I can't fault you for your curiosity." She exhaled. "I can only imagine what you must be feeling. But did you at least make a determination?"
"It's only Lothaire for me. Passion-wise, at least." Nobody's fool.
Then Ellie frowned. What if there was actually a future with a vampire like him? Somewhere-and somehow-to be found?
To save herself, she'd been seducing his body and his mind, with some success. But she'd left his heart out of it.
What if she set out to win the vampire-because she wanted to try a life with him?
"I'm gonna make Lothaire fall in love with me. I mean really in love." Gonna put his heart in my sights. Trace, vampire, but you can't hide.
"And what if he still sacrifices you for Saroya, for his crowns?" Hag asked. "All you'll be doing is making it hurt worse for both of you."
Ellie would be guarding her own heart the whole time, determined not to fall for Lothaire. And once she made up her mind, she couldn't be moved from her decisions. "Then I've got to make him love me more than two vampire kingdoms."
"And precisely how are you going to do that?"
Ellie grinned. "I'll figure it out over more tequila. Now, let me go smooth things over with poor Thad. . . ."
One love, one heart . . . let's get together and feel all right. . . ."
When Lothaire traced back to Hag's, reggae music and laughter sounded from her deck. A bottle popped open, glasses clinking.
Though the potion base bubbled at the ready, the kitchen area was empty. Was Elizabeth outside? Had she regained full consciousness without this concoction?
So much for his imaginings. Hag completing the potion, me administering it, Elizabeth's stubborn gray gaze coming into focus, her arms wrapping around me in gratitude. . . .
Ash vines clutched in his shaking fist, Lothaire rendered himself invisible, half-tracing to the opened patio doors to find Elizabeth, Hag, and Thaddeus doing tequila shooters on the deck.
Relief washed over him as he surveyed the scene. Elizabeth was awake, her eyes bright. She wore cutoffs and a bathing suit top; since Thaddeus wasn't ogling her body, Thaddeus got to live.
Elizabeth was safe, the boy was being a gentleman with her, and Lothaire could tell that Hag had changed the boundary code since he'd left. All was well.
Still, he was furious with the three of them. Though Lothaire didn't know for what. He just knew that his oracle, his woman, his . . . friend did not need to be drinking and laughing together without him around.
Lothaire's eyes narrowed. This felt vaguely like . . . mutiny, but he couldn't precisely say why.
He listened to them talking between shots. Thaddeus was telling tales about him? "Lothaire's the funniest guy you'll ever meet," he said.
"Yeah, right," Elizabeth scoffed. "I can process that as well I did the Cerunnos."
"I'm serious! In the middle of our escape, all the world was going to hell-fights everywhere, explosions going on left and right with bloodcurdling screams. And Lothaire shows up out of nowhere just as calm as he can be. The last we'd seen him, he'd been fighting this huge vampire gang. One of our group asked him how he could possibly have survived that battle. In this deadpan voice, he says three words: 'I'm that good.' "
As the females laughed, Lothaire leaned his shoulder against the doorway, still unseen, casting his mind back to that exchange. He remembered it because Thaddeus had shown him loyalty directly after.
The group had been about to take off in a plane with Declan Chase, bound for escape, but they hadn't wanted to include Lothaire. Yet Thaddeus had demanded that he be allowed on.
Lothaire had declined, of course. Then he'd ordered winged demons to crash the plane-to bring Chase to him.
But Lothaire would never forget that Thaddeus had stood up for him-though the boy would have gained nothing from it.
One of the first instances of true loyalty Lothaire had experienced since his mother had died. . . .
"Tell more," Elizabeth cried, swigging a beer chaser. The area around her lounge chair was covered with crushed snack chips, which made his lips curl. "More!"
"One night, we were taking a time-out in this creepy lab," Thaddeus began. "Torture tools were hanging everywhere, but Lothaire was completely unfazed. He just climbed on top of this cage to go to sleep, telling the rest of us, 'To anyone who contemplates even nearing me while I sleep: I will garrote you with your own viscera.' I mean, who says shit like that?"
By that time, I'd drunk Chase's blood, was already keen to get to the man's memories.
The boy pounded a shooter. "And out on the trail, Lothaire told this burly berserker to watch himself, 'else I'll revisit my juvenile skull-fucking phase.' "
Elizabeth snorted beer out of her nose, and Thaddeus threw back his head to laugh. Hag didn't join them; she knew Lothaire had been serious.
Ah, my mischievous youth . . .
"And he's crazy brave," Thaddeus averred, exhibiting that unmistakable case of hero worship.
But Elizabeth is hanging on every word he says about me. A satisfying feeling.
"Now, that I can believe," she said. "I know he killed a pack of Wendigos."
Thaddeus waved that away. "That was early in the fight. After that, he took on an army of them, saving all our lives. And all the time he was trying to get back to you."
Elizabeth's smile faded. Lothaire could almost hear her thoughts: Not trying to get back to me.
"On the island, I was the one who suspected he had a lady," Thaddeus continued. "When Lothaire got spacey, he'd murmur to me about his young Bride gazing up at him with fear, which, granted, is a little weird to hear-"
"I've returned," Lothaire interrupted. They all jumped, heads whipping in his direction.
He hadn't remembered telling Thaddeus those things. Young? Fear? Definitely not describing Saroya.
Have I always known deep down that Elizabeth is mine?
Her smile returned now. "Lothaire, you're safe."
As are you. After last night's tears-and this morning's terror-she was happy to see him unharmed? "Of course." To Thaddeus, he said, "You've made yourself at home."
The boy gazed down at his beer. "Thought I'd hang out, maybe give you a hand guarding your lady."
"Did you revive Elizabeth?"
"Just helped her along some."
Lothaire gave him a curt nod. "A word, Hag." He traced inside, tossing the vines on the counter.
She followed. "You secured them."
Barely. The guards had been as vicious as he'd expected. Somehow he'd breached their defenses to face Nereus. . . .
As the god handed over the vines with relief, he asked Lothaire about his new Bride, the one Loreans everywhere were speculating about. "Is she anyone I know?"
"She's no one," Lothaire answered truthfully.
"I really thought you'd demand my firstborn."
"As if I'd want your fucking guppy," Lothaire drawled, tracing away before Nereus could strike him down.
"The stock is ready," Hag said as she folded the vines into a bubbling pot. "Not that we need it now." Was the fey slurring?
"How did Thaddeus bring her back?"
"He talked to her, telling her she was protected. Amazing how well she responded to something so simple. I imagine feeling safe is a novelty for her."
Lothaire ignored her censorious tone, attributing it to the spirits, and focused on the outcome. Elizabeth was well, and Thaddeus had demonstrated loyalty yet again.
Maybe the halfling could be an ally of sorts. . . .
Now that Lothaire's worry for Elizabeth had been alleviated, he could finally assess the battle this morning-and its ramifications.
Had that Dacian male truly been his cousin? What other living family did he have on the Dacian side?
Perhaps he was getting closer to finding that kingdom, to finding Serghei. He had to be if they'd targeted Lothaire's Bride so aggressively.
Yet another enemy to contend with. After witnessing their skill with swords, Lothaire would not underestimate them.
And now that Tymur the Allegiant had been dispatched, political machinations among the vampires would ramp up once more. The Forbearers would likely make a play for the throne, led by the natural-born Kristoff-for whom Lothaire held a particularly lethal animosity, and who'd rebelled against the Horde in the past.