Then he frowned. She was acting as if he'd never praised her. He must have. Surely.
But he couldn't quite put his finger on an instance.
As someone who knew the importance of protecting one's ego, he was aghast at himself. That will be changing. Much will. . . .
"Lothaire, I don't suppose you had a chance to mark Balery out of the book when you fetched it from the safe?"
"What do you think?" he asked, in all seriousness.
"I think you . . . did."
Her face fell. "Oh."
"Yet I did manage to cross out a fey oracle named Hag."
"I knew you would!" She gave him that mind-scrambling smile of hers.
"It was meant as a gesture to you. Nothing more."
"Doesn't matter why, just that you did." But then her smile faltered. "Explain to me what happened earlier, with you and my . . . soul."
"Eventually, I will tell you all"-how I was blinded by prejudice and the thirst for vengeance-"but we have no time now." He held up his finger, brandishing the ring. "We must complete this one last step for you, and then plan for our future."
Lothaire would have to amend his strategy. With Saroya gone, the Horde would not fall under his thrall-but then, he'd spared a wish when freed of his vows. Spared Elizabeth. . . .
Now, plots and schemes began to unfold with a shocking clarity. His tasks, in order of importance: make Elizabeth undying, devise a way to trick Horde into submission, find and conquer Daci.
So I can kill Serghei.
He could still have his eternal mate, two thrones, and his revenge. All was yet well. . . .
But when Lothaire took Elizabeth in his arms, he frowned to find her trembling. "You're safe now, love. I restored the boundary. And you'll be tucked away at Hag's when Dorada and her Wendigos return. I intend for you never to see another one of those beasts as long as you live." He curled his finger under her chin. "And, Elizabeth, you're going to live for a very, very long time."
"I don't want this, Lothaire."
Inhaling for patience, he said, "To steal the ring from Dorada, I defeated cults and beasts of legend; to reclaim it once more, I survived the Order's prison, decimating armies. I've sacrificed my book. I did all these things for you! Can't you understand the gift you're about to receive?"
"I have a hard time viewing it as one. You told me I'll never be able to see my family again. I'll never be able to return to my old life. In the sun, hunting, hiking. Eating big family meals with loved ones."
Lothaire was growing angered . . . jealous once more. "You need to forget about those other mortals. They are in your past. I am your future."
"You can't just abandon your family!"
"Of course you can. I have."
"Yours are all dead!"
"Are they?" He raised his brows. "Elizabeth, remember what I told you-mortals and vampires don't mix."
"You and I did."
"If you knew how many times I came close to losing control . . . Besides, the gods rain down punishment on immortals who reveal themselves needlessly to humans. I didn't make this law, but even we must abide by it. Now, don't ruin this night for me, Bride."
"Make love to me first, Leo. One last time as a human."
"You'll delay this no longer."
"You're not listenin' to me! Just give me time. I'm not sayin' I won't agree to it, but just give me time to come to terms with this. An hour ago, you were gonna snuff out my soul! It's too much to get my mind around."
Tears slipped down her cheeks, and he didn't like the sight of them at all. They made him feel unsettled-like a failure. My Bride should never have cause to shed tears.
He tenderly brushed them away. "You vowed that you would let me make decisions for you for three weeks. My time's not yet up."
"Please. I am beggin' you not to do this to me. Let's just talk about this."
He paused. But even if he were the type of male who discussed decisions with his female, they didn't have time for it. She won't be safe-not until she's turned.
"Lothaire, if you care for me at all, you won't do this."
He clenched her upper arms. "That is the absolute worst thing you could have said. It's because I care for you that I must do this."
"You can't use that ring on me! You said yourself that you don't know what it will do."
"The first wish is the most accurate. So far, I've been granted none, so I'll start fresh with it."
"Do you understand how vague that sounds? This is my life! I read in the Book of Lore that the catalyst for transformation is death."
"We're not doing this in the customary way. Look at me, Elizabeth. Listen to my words: I have no doubt whatsoever that this will work exactly as I plan-or I would not risk you." When she began to shake harder, he said, "Do you think I haven't gone over my wish repeatedly, checking each iteration with Hag's foresight? In things like this, I am wise."
"You can't convince me of this!"
"Then you must trust me to know best, Elizabeth. The difficult part was in getting the ring, then devising the wish took skill, but the process will be effortless. In the blink of an eye, you will become a vampire, as if I'd sired you myself."
"You said people usually get turned because they're about to die. I'm not. I'm healthy. I'm young-"
"My enemies will target you. Even without the blood debts, I will still have foes seeking to harm me through my Bride. You are my most glaring vulnerability."
"Glaring vulnerability," she repeated softly.
Speaking to her as if she were a child, he said, "Think, love-if you could trace, you could have vanished in the face of those Wendigos. How can I bring you into my world if you don't have the strength to defend yourself or the ability to slip away from a threat in an instant?"
"Then I don't want to be in your violent, messed-up world! How about that? I wouldn't have to trace from Wendigos because I wouldn't see them in my apartment!"
He drew back his head. "You wouldn't accept this gift in order to be with me? You're in love with me-you would do anything I ask."
Women in love made sacrifices. That was simply what they did.
He'd watched the world over the span of his life, and for the great majority of it, women had yielded to the men they desired. Surely the last fifty years had been an anomaly. . . .
"You're askin' too much! If you use that ring, I will hate you."
"You'll get over it. Just as you have everything else."
Her brows drew together, her gaze stark. "I won't get past this, Lothaire."
"As Dorada said, I'll risk it."
He's really gonna do this! Panicked, Ellie whirled around, bolting from the room once more.
Behind her, she heard Lothaire's irritated sigh. Then he called out, "Prepare, Elizabeth."
As she dashed down the hall, she heard him saying something else, but couldn't make out the words-
Suddenly, a fire raged inside her. Clutching her chest, she slowed-yet she was still speeding through the apartment. She felt fangs growing in her mouth.
No, no, no!
He appeared in front of her, catching her against him. "It's done, Elizabeth. You are like me now. See how easy that was?"
She buried her face in her hands as dizziness hit her. Everything was too loud; her body felt light as air.
The scents . . . was that his blood she smelled? Against her ear, his heart sounded like the drum of a watchtower clock.
He peeled her hands away. She noted with horror that her nails were dark-and more like claws.
"No, let me see you, love. Your irises are black-lovely beyond words. But you must calm yourself. Everything's all right now, you're safe with me."
"I-I'm a vampire?" Open mind, open mind.
While she stood dumbly, he held her hands, pressing one of his fingertips against her claw, seeming delighted with its sharpness.
"And look at your little fangs." His voice went hoarse. "Ah, Lizvetta, I could come just looking at them. You are perfect in every way."
He sounded like a boy with a new toy-while she was raw with loss, sick with confusion.
Emotions erupted within her, impulses she didn't understand. Her thoughts raced. Hate him! Love him? Need to taste him. Drink me!
Never had her body felt less like her own. Not even when Saroya had lived inside it.
He could change me back with that ring. If she gave him reason to, if she scared him enough . . .
"Be at ease." He cradled her face. "Now nothing will separate us."
"Hold me?" she murmured.
"Ah, anything!" He drew her tight against him, tucking her head under his chin. "Now I don't have to fear hurting you."
Hate him. . . . Love him. . . . His scent! "Lothaire, I-I need you."
"You couldn't make me happier, Elizabeth." Now that she was undying, Lothaire could finally acknowledge what he felt for her, could stop fighting it at last.
When she twined her fingers behind his neck, pressing her breasts against his chest, he rasped, "This is just another sign that your transformation was flawless-vampires are notoriously lusty creatures."
She raised herself on her toes to kiss his chest in the V of his shirt, nuzzling-
Her fangs pierced him.
Pleasure such as he'd never known jolted through his body. "Uhn! Elizavetta!" When she moaned and sucked, his mind briefly blanked. . . .
"No!" he roared, prying her bite free. "You drank from the flesh, from me." He grabbed her shoulders, still hazy with lust after her bite-even as alarm filled him. "Do you not know how wrong my mind is? How poisoned with memories? And I've no doubt you're a cosaş like me!"
"Turn me back!" she screamed, her irises solid black with emotion, blood trailing from the corner of her lips. "Or I'll go insane!"
He shook his head hard. "I'd meant . . . I'd meant to ease you into drinking with a mere drop on your tongue. To teach you to love it. But you tapped the font your first time out."
"So change me back!"
"I'd considered this possibility, had played with the idea of using another wish to make you immune to my blood. After all, you were bound to take it directly from me sooner or later. But then, I'd also wanted both thrones." He exhaled. "I can't believe I'm about to do this." Raising his hand, he twisted the ring on his finger. "Whenever my Bride drinks from me, she will harvest only my memories made from this night forward. None of my victims' memories will ever affect her, nor mine from my past."
Her face fell, and she swayed on her feet.
"Well, Elizabeth, that just cost us a kingdom. And yet . . . the outcome is necessary. We don't usually feed from our own, but now you can drink from me. You will drink only from me."
His blood taken from the flesh would make her even stronger. And now they had a bridge between them. Unbreakable ties.
"I could have wished that you took no memories," he continued, "but I want you to know my acts, to see my bravery in battle as I fight for you and our young. I want you to be prideful of your male."
And every day, she would dream of his feelings for her-experiencing how sharp they were, how his obsession only continued to grow.
That bond would make his life easier. He had little knowledge of relationships, of going about a life united with another, of discussing his feelings. Now he would have no need to learn.
She'd simply know his mind as well as he did.
Her lips moved wordlessly.
"I will be everything you need, will nourish you." She'd had a meager sip before; now he intended to feed her thoroughly.
The thought of her taking her fill from his body, her new fangs sinking deeper into his flesh . . .
His cock swelled so swiftly he had to stifle a groan. Perhaps, he could revisit his plots and schemes after he'd claimed and fed his vampire Bride.
Her gaze darted as she cast about for another recourse. He would make sure she had none.
Yet then, her tongue daubed at the blood on her lips. The taste made her wild eyes grow hooded, her breaths shallowing. "L-Lothaire?"
He could hear her heart racing, could scent her arousal. But the hunger in her expression nearly felled him.
Everything you need, Elizabeth.
Ellie could hear the hypnotic pounding of Lothaire's heart, could perceive it speeding up as he gazed down at her face.
"So beautiful. Elizabeth, you've amply rewarded my long wait." Never releasing her hand, he traced her to his safe, tossing the ring inside. "It's done now." He led her to their bed. "Tonight we start our lives anew."
Already she throbbed all over-her sex dampened in the heat of her panties, her nipples strained against her top, her . . . fangs lanced her tongue.
That brief sample of his blood had tasted like a homecoming.
And yet she was so infuriated with him she could choke on it. "I-I didn't want this." These feelings were so intense, too much so. Frightening.
"You're angry. But this will pass."
She said nothing, just tried to keep her focus.
"After tonight, I will show you how much pleasure is yours for the taking, and you will forgive me."
She shook her head. "I've ruined your endgame-don't you want to forsake me? Disown me?"
He merely grinned, that sensual curl of his lips. "With you by my side, who knows what I can win? Together we will be invincible. Besides, I've no time for revenge at present. I must teach my Bride to trace, to feed. To know her own strength and control it." He drew her close. "But first, I must coax her to admit that I am her male and she loves me, so she'll accept it herself."
The satisfaction she sensed in him was heady. He seemed to be thrumming with it, even as she could tell how much he ached to claim her.
"I never told you that I loved you."
"You must," he said in a patronizing tone. "And now that you're of my kind, you'll feel even more bound to me." He cupped her nape, bringing her close to brush his lips along her neck. When his tongue flicked out, sensation bombarded her until she sagged against him.