To survive in it, Ellie would have to grow more aggressive, callous even. He'd told her that the ones who survived longest were the notorious ones, the immortals with reputations based on some bold coup or brave deed.
In prison, she'd worked so hard to hold on to her humanity. Now she would be expected to throw it away.
Did she want to be with him badly enough? To change herself so drastically?
If she loved him, she might. But she didn't. Not at all. Mind over mind. Only a fool would love him. . ..
Besides, every time she felt like she was in danger of falling for him, they'd have an argument over something.
A few nights ago, when he'd been obsessively poring over his prized account book, she'd cleaned up some debris from his various rages and washed their linens.
He'd been aghast. "You . . . you cleaned?"
"Someone had to. I don't like sleeping on dirty sheets."
"Until we can hire servants, we transfer to another room. Another property, even! No Bride of mine cleans."
"You keep trying to change me, the way I talk and act. You're gonna alter my very species to fit yours. When will you change something for me?"
"This ancient dog will learn no new tricks. Besides, it's a female's place to adjust to her male."
Ellie had bitten her tongue to keep from screaming at him. At times with him, she bit her tongue so hard it'd bleed.
And they'd quarreled because of his irrational jealousy. One night, he'd taken her to a creek she used to swim in when younger. "Why did you bring me here, Lothaire?"
"You once liked this place."
She'd loved it there. Yet her thrill over the thoughtful gesture had faded directly. "How'd you know that?" The vampire must have seen her here-at night. "You spied on me?"
"I spy on everyone. Why would you be different? Soon you will go spying with me."
Then realization had dawned. "Oh, my God, you're the one who hurt Davis, the boy I was with. You saw us together, and you threw him down a gully. He broke both of his legs!"
"He lived?" Gaze narrowing, Lothaire had murmured, "Not for much longer."
Ellie had barely kept him from searching out her old beau with intent to do murder.
Getting him to forgive Thaddeus was just as much of an uphill battle. "Come on, Lothaire," Ellie had said. "He only wants to visit us at Hag's. He can help guard me when you're away."
"He's your best friend." Not necessarily because Lothaire cared anything about Thaddeus, but because the boy cared more about Lothaire than anyone else in the Lore did.
"How do I know you won't mortify him with more of your kisses?"
"Because you know I'm infatuated only with you. Besides, you can trust him. Any other man would have kissed me back." When he remained unmoved, she'd cried, "You're jealous of an eighteen-year-old boy!"
Eventually, she'd won Lothaire over. Or so she'd thought. At Hag's, he'd backed the boy into a wall, expression brimming with malice. "Elizabeth Daciano is my woman."
Thad had swallowed. "And she sure is a nice one, Mr. Lothaire."
"Keep your mouth to yourself today, boy, or your spine will decorate our mantel. . . ."
But after her fights with Lothaire, whenever he found her pensive, he surprised her with new gifts. He'd brought her jewels from all over the world. Ellie's own jewels. She supposed the others were hers, too, but these new ones were special because he'd chosen them specifically for her.
Or he would surprise her with wicked sex. Her sensual vampire had so many tricks up his sleeve, and as he'd grown more comfortable controlling his strength with her, he'd unveiled one after another.
Yet each new move made her wonder how many stunning immortal females he'd practiced it on before her. He'd once told her he'd bedded a new one each night: fey courtesans, nymph barmaids, the occasional demon shepherdess.
But never a human of course-
He suddenly took her hand. Hers fit into his as if it were a glove made for her. She peeked up at him from under her lashes and sighed.
Lothaire was like a pale-haired god beside her.
He paused then, looking as if he'd say something, but he closed his mouth, walking on.
Would kill to know what you're thinking. . . . Ellie didn't want to break this tenuous truce with him, didn't want to spoil this honeymoon period. But at the earliest opportunity, she needed to know how they were going to evict the goddess.
The night that they'd exchanged their vows, Ellie had been too frazzled by all the developments to realize something critical. When she'd asked him how they would get rid of Saroya, Lothaire had answered, "The ring's still in play, is it not?"
She'd been just as disingenuous, promising him that she would get past all the things he'd done to her. At the time, she would've said anything. She'd recognized that she had him on the ropes, and damn it, she'd wanted to live.
Now, even as she held his hand and leaned into his strong arm, she wondered if she could keep her word.
She did truly want to work through her resentment-instead of just lying to him about it and snapping her mental rubber band.
But how could she get past his treatment of her when everything he was doing now only reminded her of it?
His telling her she'd never see her family again brought to mind how he'd threatened them so cruelly. Not to mention the fact that he'd stuck her on death row. She tried to reason that he'd prevented Saroya from killing by locking Ellie away. She told herself that he'd saved lives.
Ellie told herself that a lot.
And though she'd taken Hag's contraception potion, he still pulled out during sex. Not that she wanted to get pregnant right now or anything, but he must be horrified by the idea of a part-human heir.
Every time he left his seed anywhere but in her, he reminded her of all his many insults.
Weak mortal, stupid human. No one had ever made her feel so lacking.
It wasn't as if he'd changed his mind about what she was, accepting her; he was merely looking forward to the time when she'd be made different.
Take away the difference in their species and they were still worlds apart. He was royalty. She was . . . Ellie. Does he still consider me just a "backward and vulgar hillbilly"? He'll probably be embarrassed of me around others.
God, that hurts.
And how could she get comfortable with him, when she sensed how dangerous-and evil-he still was?
She'd been proud of him because he hadn't wanted to behead his
Way to set the bar there, Ellie. . . .
He stopped walking, drawing her close. "If you could have any gift, what would it be?" The breeze whipped his hair across his lean cheeks. "No expense is too great."
"Paying off my family's mountain. Maybe having a place near them."
"Elizabeth . . ." he said warningly. In the moonlight, his eyes gleamed like an animal's caught in a headlight.
"Alrighty then, maybe something for Balery? You could cross her out of your book!" Again and again, the fey had helped Ellie try to understand an enigma like Lothaire. The other night, Ellie had admitted that she'd be a goner for him if he could tweak just a few things.
Balery had replied, "You have to understand that he was born and raised in a world outside of the human realm, in a different time. Eons ago, he grew up in that ill-omened castle you saw, under the reign of a vicious despot-who was also his father. Even though Lothaire is one of the most intelligent males I've ever encountered, he has no wisdom about women's feelings. None. Yours will be the first relationship he's had with a lover, the learning curve precariously steep. . . ."
Now Lothaire said, "Hag's debt is not yet satisfied. In any case, I was talking about a gift for you." Plainly frustrated, he muttered, "Just forget it. You'll simply have to endure it when I bring you more jewels."
"Exactly how rich are you, Leo?"
He'd grown to like it when she called him that, because the name was theirs alone. Just as she'd grown to love being called Lizvetta in his raspy accent.
"We are obscenely rich. Befitting a king and queen. I will always provide for you."
And only for me. Maybe she could secretly pawn some of her jewelry in the future, mail some cash to her family.
He tugged on her hand. "The water's warm. Join me for a swim."
Smile, Ellie. "You've got that look on your face. I'm about to get laid, aren't I?"
After making short work of their clothes, he reached for her, palms landing on her ass with a measured slap.
She surprised herself by moaning throatily.
"Indeed," he rasped, kneading her spanked flesh as he lifted her, forcing her legs around his waist. "You are about to get laid. . . ."
Some time later, with the waves crashing around them, Ellie screamed with pleasure, crying out his name like a prayer as she clung to his wet shoulders.
Directly after, he gave a brutal yell and jerked his shaft out of her. Heaving his breaths against her ear, he pumped semen between their slippery bodies.
So careful not to get me pregnant. That connection she'd felt the first time they'd had sex was missing now.
When he finally released her, she drew away to wash off his seed, her eyes pricking with tears.
"Lizvetta?" He grazed the backs of his fingers along her cheek. Such strength in him, yet he could caress her so gently. "Look at me." When she did, his gaze seemed to burn with emotion. "Have I hurt you, love?"
How could he make her heart melt so easily? When he looked at her like this, all her defenses crumbled. "No, it's not that."
In a hoarse voice, he told her, "You are mine. Your life is with me. Do not fight this."
The tenderness in his tone made her want to throw her arms around him and admit how much she cared for him.
But she forced herself to tell the truth. "Sometimes I have doubts-"
"Doubts?" Like a shot, he coiled a length of her hair around his fist, his expression altered from longing to menace. "The time for doubts has ended. This is a done thing, Bride."
"Lothaire . . ."
"If we were ever parted, I would bring you back to me," he rasped. "There is nowhere on earth that I couldn't find you."
From any other man, these words might be a promise about their future. From Lothaire, they were nothing more than a threat.
Put it with the others.
"Nowhere, Elizavetta," he repeated, his eyes aflame. Such a contrast to his earlier heartfelt sentiments.
It was as if two men stood before her, one who needed to love and be loved, and one who only wanted the Bride he believed was his by fate. Neither version knew how to love.
"I do understand that, Lothaire."
Over the last couple of weeks, her rubber band had gotten so much play she had to wonder why it hadn't broken yet.
She isn't in love with me, Lothaire thought as he dropped Elizabeth off at Hag's.
This perplexed him exceedingly.
He'd pleasured his Bride, spoiled her, protected her. He wanted to give her immortality and make her royalty. He was the most handsome male she'd ever seen.
Yet she continued to hold something of herself back.
It maddened him to no end! Why would she cling to her wretched family? To her old life?
He had no answers-because he'd still dreamed none of his Bride's memories. . . .
In greeting, Hag said, "Thaddeus asked about you earlier." The fey sported streaks of purple paste on her hands and one cheek. "He wants to go on your revenge mission, to watch out for you."
"Do pizdy. He'd do well to forget he ever knew me."
Hag didn't disagree. "Have you tried explaining to the boy what you're really like?"
"I showed him. I tapped his neck within ten seconds of meeting him, directly after he helped me out of a tight spot."
And from those meager drops of blood, he'd stolen Thaddeus's memories easily enough. Lothaire had already experienced a couple of them, had dreamed of running in the sun, feeling the warmth on his skin.
No wonder his Bride dreaded the loss. "Why does no one believe I'm evil anymore?" he asked her.
"Oh, I do. Honest," Elizabeth said solemnly before turning toward the bathroom. "Gonna wash off the salt water. Don't leave till I get back!"
As he watched her saunter away, he thought, She doesn't believe I'm evil, not really.
Yesterday when he returned to Hag's to pick Elizabeth up, she'd been asleep. Carefully he'd lifted her into his arms, and she'd burrowed her face against his chest so trustingly. He'd gazed down at her, troubled, thinking, She still has no idea what I'm truly capable of, no idea what I've done.
What I would do to possess her forever.
Now he exhaled a gust of breath, sitting at the dining table. In a low tone, he asked the fey, "Does Elizabeth speak of me?" Hag gave a wary nod. "And? What are her feelings toward me?"
"They vary according to your behavior." She dropped leaves into a pot. "Amazing how that works out."
His gaze narrowed. "Watch yourself, Hag." Again his mood was foul. He'd spent the day uselessly dreaming his own memories once more.
"She hasn't told me that she loves you, if that's what you want to know."
It was. He needed Elizabeth to fall in love with him-because only then would he trust her loyalty to him.
Yet a lesser male might suspect that she still hated him for all his sins against her and merely bided her time until she could be free of him.
And free of Saroya.
Hag asked, "Do you not see her thoughts in dreams?"
He pinched the bridge of his nose. "None." Even though he continued to sip from her.
Whenever he slept, Elizabeth was like a quiet blank spot in his mind. And no matter how much he prompted, she'd never told him of her feelings.
Yet nightly, she said or did something to remind him of how much she longed for her family.
Though he felt like a petty, jealous lover, he knew that if she was loyal to them, then she couldn't be fully loyal to him. The situation would be ripe for betrayal, because she would choose their interests over his if a conflict ever arose.