He nodded, resigned. "Very well. We can sit here till we fossilize. I can be as stubborn as you, Bride."
"So, you're to wait this out with me?" she asked. "Won't you have a problem with losing the prize?"
"I have no interest in winning this competition."
"I knew you entered just so I couldn't kill you."
"You couldn't kill me before I entered. Do you not wonder why you've destroyed so many of my kind before me and then were unable to swing your sword to my neck?"
"I don't know why that happened," she admitted. "But I've stopped questioning it."
"Why won't you let me win this competition for you? That was the only reason I entered."
"There's no one you would want to save from the past, no loved one?" she asked, noting that a shadow passed over his eyes. Who had he lost? "A deceased wife, perhaps?"
"You are well aware that I don't believe this key will work."
He hadn't answered her question. He's been married? "Why are you so certain?"
"Time travel is impossible," he answered in a tone that held zero doubt.
And the wife? "I bet you believed vampirism was impossible, too, till you woke with a marked hankering for blood."
"No, my culture was superstitious to the core. Even with my science background, belief came to me more easily than I would have thought. Besides, it isn't impossible according to the laws of nature."
And what about the wife?
"Anyway, I was never married."
She marveled that he hadn't been - and that she was somehow pleased by this fact. "At your age?" she asked, taking a seat. "You must have been thirty."
"Thirty-one. But I'd lived on a battlefront since I was nineteen. There was no way for me to have a woman for my own."
"But now you feel you're ready?"
As if giving her a vow, he met her eyes when he rumbled the word: "Yes." Her toes curled in her climbing shoes.
"And what about you, Kaderin? Will you finally tell me why you are bent on winning this?" He looked away when he asked, "Do you seek to retrieve a husband?"
When she didn't answer, he turned back.
After a moment, she grudgingly shook her head. "I was never wed." She would never tell him her real motivation - there was no reason to, even if she had the inclination - but she also wouldn't let him think she fought this hard for a lost husband or lover. "My covens and the Furies have done me a great honor in choosing me for this contest. I won't fail them." She shrugged and added honestly, "And I simply want to defeat everyone."
"So, all of this is about pride and ego?"
She made her tone bored when she asked, "Aren't those good enough reasons?"
"I don't believe so. There's more to life than winning this competition."
"I agree. There's also killing vampires. Those two things give my life purpose."
He said nothing in response to her comment, just gave her an inscrutable look. She knew he disapproved of her priorities and the way she lived her life, but at that look, she began to suspect he also felt sorry for her. She tilted her head. "Tell me, then, how would you envision our lives together?"
"We could see the world. Rebuild the castle, start a family."
A family? If she and Sebastian had children, they could be like her little half-vampire niece, Emmaline. Kaderin inwardly shook herself. "I live in New Orleans, I compete, and I kill vampires. You'd expect me to give up everything?" She drew her knees to her chest. "You want me to act like women you've known and it will never happen."
"No, I truly do not want you to act like women I've known," he said, so vehemently she was taken aback. "And I have no preference for where we would live. I'd go wherever you would be happy. Killing vampires? Fine. The Hie? Also acceptable - if I'm there with you."
"Acceptable." Is he joking? "The more I get to know you, the more I realize your being a vampire is only part of why I'm indifferent to you."
Acceptable? As soon as he'd said it, even before her eyes flashed, he'd known that perhaps that wasn't the best word to use with a daughter of gods. A fifth of any of his brothers' charm.
"Then lay out the other reasons you're indifferent," he said.
"Talking to you is like talking to a human."
He snapped, "I wish I were still a human - "
"But you're not. You're an enemy to my kind."
"I've told you, not by choice. Or by deed."
"It disgusts me that you drink blood. You live a parasitic existence."
It had always disgusted him as well. The only time it hadn't had been his one hot, rich taste of her. Now he found himself defending the vile act. "I get blood from a butcher. How is this different from humans getting meat from the same? Besides, what living thing isn't a parasite?"
"Do you eat meat? Drink wine?"
"No, and no. I ingest nothing."
"How is that possible?" he asked, incredulous, though the kobold had said as much that night at the Pole.
"Just the way I was engineered," she answered in a tone that made it clear she'd say no more on the subject.
Damn it, he'd have to return to Blachmount and ask Nikolai about this. "Engineered? As in designed?"
She narrowed her eyes. "Don't I look as if I could have been designed? Do you look at me and think, obviously an accident of nature?"
"No," he said, realizing he'd insulted her once more. "Not at all. I just - "
"Our kinds are going to war. Did you know that? A war like you've never imagined - "
"Yes, the Accession," he said in a dismissive tone.
"It's hardly something to wave away."
"My brother told me you would bring this up as an obstacle between us. He's assured me the Forbearers will ally with the Valkyrie." When she began to argue, he cut her off. "Whether the Valkyrie want them or not."
She pressed her lips together. "You seem quite iron-willed," she finally said. "Why not use that will to rid yourself of this compulsion for your puny, undesigned Bride?"
"Why would I put time and effort into attempting to forget you when I could spend that same time and effort to win you?"
"Because winning me is impossible. The other option may not be."
"I have to try." There was no way to rethink this. "I want you. In my life."
She tapped her chin. "And by 'in my life,' you clearly mean 'in my bed.' "
"I won't deny that I want both." He'd had a taste of her passion, and he wouldn't rest until he'd claimed her. "I constantly think about what it would be like to take you."
Pink flushed across her cheeks, and she nibbled her bottom lip. That habit of hers never failed to charm him. "But you don't love me any more than I love you."
"No, I don't," he admitted. She fascinated him, frustrated him. And every hour since she'd blooded him, he needed her, but even he understood that it wasn't love.
She rolled her eyes. "A hint, Sebastian? If you're courting a woman, you could pause a nanosecond before declaring that you don't love her. Maybe act as though you'd considered the possibility. Or you could lie. Or you could gloss over it by predicting that you will in the future."
"I won't lie to you. And about love? Unions have been built on far less than we have between us. We'd have passion. Attraction. Respect."
"You flatter yourself," she said, examining her broken claws.
"And one thing I can promise you. The next thousand years of your life will be nothing like the last. Not while I live."
Her gaze shot up. "What does that mean?" she asked in a measured tone.
"I know about your... blessing. You didn't feel emotion for a millennium."
At his words, her face paled. "Do you know why it happened?"
Had her voice quavered? "No. Nor how it came about. Only that you woke one morning, and there was just... nothing."
She gave him a sharp glare. "Don't you dare say it like that! As if I were lacking."
"Kaderin, not to be able to feel is to lack."
"You assume it's necessary to feel to get by? Or that I would want to, anyway?"
"No, I - "
"You know from my blood, right?" When he nodded, she said, "Because you stole my blood, you have my memories. Lovely. How much have you seen?"
"I've seen old battles, and hunts, and random flashes of conversation - like Riora telling you about a blind mystic's blade." He had seen her attacked by dozens of kobolds, barely defeating them, then peering down to find her leg from midcalf down was gone. No wonder she'd taken out the kobold in Antarctica. And I'd traced it to her prize.
"Now do you understand why I was incensed? You can know my secret thoughts. And deeds. Have you seen me with other men?"
"No, and my brother has told me that I won't, because you are my Bride," he said.
"Have you seen why my emotions have returned?"
He ran his fingers through his hair. "I believe I had something to do with it. You said as much that first morning."
"I spoke rashly." At his look, she added. "It was coincidental."
"Perhaps I could believe the timing coincidental had you not been my Bride."
"So you figure I awakened you physically and you awakened me emotionally?" she asked in a scoffing tone. "Tea for two?"
"Even if that were true, it doesn't mean we have a future together. I'm not what you need and will only make you miserable. This I can promise you. Besides, if I accepted you as mine, my family would ostracize me. I'd be shunned."
"Myst the Coveted doesn't seem to concern herself with that."
Kaderin tilted her head, then grew very still. "What are you talking about?"
"My brother's wife, Myst."
She shot to her feet. "Myst may have the morals of an alley cat, but even she wouldn't dare marry a leech."
"You do not know about this?" He frowned. "They've been wed for some time."
Kaderin was going to kick Regin's glowing ass so hard...
Myst had married... a vampire! Kaderin put her forehead in between her thumb and forefinger. "Your brother - he's the Forbearer general who freed her from the Horde prison. Wroth. Nikolai Wroth." I knew she wasn't over him!
"Yes. You've met him?" Sebastian asked.
"I've heard of him." And now that everything was becoming clearer, she realized she'd heard of Sebastian as well. The four Estonian brothers. Warlords so fierce and unyielding as humans they'd even drawn Lore attention.
They'd been fierce and unyielding - defending their people.
He studied her expression. "I wonder if this news helps my cause or hurts it?"
"I... I don't know... anything." Not anymore. So Forbearers were fair game? No, Dasha and Rika would never stand for her accepting a vampire.
"Then just tell me one thing, Kaderin. Do you ever think about me when I am away?"
Lie to him. Could she have an affair? Of the most illicit kind? Just to enjoy his responsive body for one night?
Myst had freaking married one! And Myst was a pagan like her! Kaderin doubted very seriously that General Nikolai Wroth had agreed to wed in accordance with orthodox paganism.
A bond like marriage was a huge deal for Valkyrie and for immortals in general. Until death do us part took on a whole new meaning when both parties could potentially live forever.
No, Kaderin couldn't have an affair. Not when she was Sebastian's Bride. Because he would never accept only that and she could never give him more. "Think about you? Sebastian, I'm a busy person. I don't spend a lot of time with introspection. How about I leave that up to you?"
"What does that mean?"
"Seems like all you did for three centuries was think."
He was furious, as she'd planned. "You know nothing - "
A roar sounded to their left, shaking the cave. And then, from their right, another one answered. Somewhere even farther in the distance, a third called.
They were nearing, gathering.
K aderin leapt forward, tackling him into the dirt.
A quick kiss, seal the deal. Get him to move the rocks. She grabbed his stunned face, then pressed her lips to him.
Quick. To get what she wanted. Stop lingering! "There. I kissed you," she said, sounding breathless. "Now, move the damned rocks - "
His hands landed heavily on her ass, forcing her against his already hard shaft. When she couldn't prevent a moan, he took one hand and clutched her nape, pulling her down. He took her mouth with his own, slipping his tongue between her lips, sweeping it against hers.
The hand on her ass moved between her legs, cupping her firmly. She gave a startled cry against his lips, and before she could stop herself, her knee shot up to allow him more access.
He groaned, rubbing and kneading her there with his big palm, his mouth slanting against hers over and over. His kiss was desperate, a night before the gallows kiss.
They were rolling in the dirt in the face of attack, both of them sweating, his sword hilt poking her hip bone, and she couldn't get enough of his taste.
He flipped her over, just as he had that morning in his castle. She wanted it as much now as she had then. "You drive me mad, Katja," he rasped. "I can think of nothing but you."
He rolled to his side, hand pinning hers above her head. He bent down to place an open-mouthed kiss on her collarbone. As his other hand dipped toward the waist of her pants, he said at her ear, "Tell me you think about me."
She might have murmured that she did think about him while he was inching that shaking hand down her belly. Was he shaking in anticipation of touching her flesh? He began pulling loose the tie on her pants, and she yanked her hands free - but not to stop him. No, she was letting him.
Only fair, she thought deliriously, since I'm stuffing my hand into his pants. With her first touch of him, she moaned. He threw his head back and yelled out, bucking into her fist. So hot, so smooth and hard. She thumbed the slit in a wet circle.
When he faced her again, his eyes were black with want.
"We've got to stop this," she whispered, even as she moved her fist on him. "These beasts... "
"Are suitably terrifying. Doubtless." He pressed a brief, hot kiss to her mouth, then met her eyes again. "Appreciate it if you'd keep... stroking."
She did. Her hand seemed magnetized to his shaft, loving when it pulsed and jerked in her palm. But even as he seemed to be losing control, he took his time with her, teasing her belly, then lower to her sex. She wanted passion, swift relief, but she got the impression that this was very important for him - that he wanted to savor every second.
Just as he was about to work his hand into her panties, he froze, palm resting low on her belly. She shimmied up to get his hand lower.
"Still," he murmured. He shook his head hard, as if clearing it. She arched her back and looked behind her.
Fifty yards away, slitted eyes the size of footballs glowed green in the dark.
He exhaled. "I've seen better timing."
"You have such a gift for understatement." Whose amused tone was that? She was in a sweltering cavern with vicious dragons about to be breathing down on them and a vampire's big fingers inches from being worked inside her. "And you don't seem suitably terrified."