Sebastian was striding toward her, eyes black with rage, forcing people to scurry out of the way. Kaderin jumped up, excusing herself to rush behind the dance floor before he made a scene.
When he caught up with her, he clenched her arm and dragged her to a shadowy spot near the back wall. "By Christ, what are you doing?" His voice was seething. "You allowed him to touch you!"
"What are you doing?" she cried. She'd known if he did show up here, he wouldn't be pleased, but she'd also thought she'd get a chance to explain, instead of being manhandled. He acted as if he'd caught her in bed with a hockey team.
At first she was bewildered by his crazed expression and palpable fury. But when he tried to trace her from here and almost succeeded, her own ire flared. "Let go of me!" She flung his hand off her arm. "So help me, if that Colombian leaves without me - "
"You plan to leave with him?" he roared, clutching her shoulders, attempting to trace her once more. When she fought him, he scanned the building for a private spot, then dragged her into a small boothlike room with two seats and a telephone on a shelf. He slammed the door behind them, but the low thrumming beat of the music still vibrated the walls.
"How can you think to go with him tonight?"
"What I do is none of your business," she said, gritting the words through clenched teeth.
"Goddamn it, it is! His hands were all over you - and you let him touch you?"
"If I answer you, I'm acknowledging that you have a right to know. You don't."
"I will get the ring from the Colombian," he said quickly. "Trace beside him, take it, and trace away."
"It's forbidden. Do you know what every myth is?" When he didn't answer, she said, "A glaring example of when some Lore creature got careless. Each myth equals failure. Riora won't just disqualify you for a stunt like that - she will punish you."
"So, that's it, then? You've told me you're going home with another man? And I've already seen him touching you." He looked like he wanted to throttle her.
When she put her chin in the air, his eyes narrowed. "You may have your feelings back, but you're still a cold woman, Kaderin. Heartless." He clutched her nape, dragging her close. For some reason, they were both breathing heavily, audible even over the pulsing music. Before she could resist, he'd lifted her to rest on the shelf, then shoved up her skirt. He groaned to find nothing under it, then stiffened, his face becoming a mask of rage.
"Did you come here to fuck him?" With both of his hands grasping her head, he shoved his lips to her hair. "Do you want to see me snap? To kill? Why would you think I would let the mortal live if he took you?"
"Sebastian, just wait - "
He gave her a hard, punishing kiss as he pressed his palms against her thighs. Her body was tensed, but then, slowly, she began to respond to him - against her will, against reason.
Her breaths were quick. "Don't do this."
Though he was shaking with rage and lust, his fingers were gentle when he skimmed them up her thigh.
"Do you want my touch, Kaderin? Do you want to feel?"
This shouldn't happen - not now, not here. Hell, not at all. Even as she commanded herself to remember the task, she found herself responding.
Fury burned in him and his fangs sharpened with the undeniable need to mark her, to claim her as his in some way. The blooding was working on him once more.
His fangs ached to pierce her neck, and he knew he couldn't resist for much longer, knew that soon he would take her flesh savagely.
Why should he resist? If she wants to leave with another man, she'll carry my mark...
He kissed up from her delicate collarbone, lips easing higher as his hands did on her thighs. He nuzzled her, fondling her sex, teasing her wetness again and again. When he pressed his finger inside her, she cried out, hands gripping his shoulders, clutching as her claws sank into his skin. He thrust a second into her, and she rolled her hips into his hand, fucking his fingers.
No more - he couldn't take this any longer.
He sank his fangs into her neck in a frenzied bite, almost coming instantly from the unbelievable pleasure. He was lost in the warmth of her blood, in the richness that was unique to her taste. He was lost in how tight her flesh was around his aching fangs - until he felt her body tensing around his fingers in a sudden orgasm.
From his bite.
He barely remembered to put his hand over her mouth, muffling her screams.
Her sex continued to tighten around his fingers so furiously he snarled against her skin, sucking her hard. The feel of drinking her was perfect. As if instinct was rewarding him for doing something that was unavoidable anyway.
But he stopped himself from drinking too deeply. Later, when he had her in his bed, he was going to take his release from her body while he drank her blood.
He slowly withdrew his fangs, licking the marks on her neck as he removed his fingers. When she shuddered as if with loss, he realized the bite he'd despised had made her his - even if only for a moment.
Eyes wide, lips parted, she brushed his mark with her fingertips. He'd shocked her. Good.
Then she seemed to wake up, drawing back from him. She hurriedly pulled her hair around to cover her neck, then yanked her skirt down.
When she gazed up at him, her eyes passed over his face as if she'd never seen him before. Her expression told him she was disgusted with what she found. "I don't care if you'll turn or not. You had no right to take my blood."
"Ah, Kaderin, you didn't seem to mind."
"Thank you," she murmured.
He scowled. "For what?"
Her tone was quiet, grave. "For making this so easy. For making me see that there is nothing about you to tempt me to accept a vampire."
"You wanted to know why I desired to die?" he grated. "Because I saw myself as you see me. You hate me for reasons I can't control. Reasons I'd hated myself for. But now, seeing your reaction to me makes it clear I was wrong. At least, you've saved me from my own self-loathing." After tonight, he would no longer be ashamed to walk down the street. He refused to look at himself the way she saw him.
"Do you think this is only about your thirst for blood? Give me one reason that I should choose you over every other man I've met in millennia and every one I'll meet in the eternity to come? You can't." She caught his eyes. "It's more than your being a vampire."
This struck home. Why would she see him any differently than other women had throughout his mortal life?
Because she was his Bride, he would be seduced into wanting her again and again, seeing things in her that didn't exist. Then her true nature would betray his hopes like this in an endless cycle.
He could not win her.
I'll be fighting with her for eternity. That's what faced him. The thought exhausted him.
"I'm weary of this. Of you." He put his hand above her against the wall, leaning over her. "You're right. About everything. There's no reason for you to accept me. And you were right in saying that I've been compelled to want you simply because you're my Bride. My desire for you has been forced on me. I've had no choice in the matter."
"You act as if I gave you reason to think differently," she said. "I told you all along that you shouldn't bother with me."
He clutched the back of her neck, forcing her face up to him. "You also told me on more than one occasion that you never wanted to see me again. I'll oblige you. I was the first vampire to trace to a person - and I'll be the first to forsake my Bride." Human females had begun gazing at him with open yearning, a marked contrast to the revulsion currently obvious on his Bride's face. He would take one of them. Or several.
He gave her a harsh, scalding kiss. "I will forget you, if I have to fuck a thousand women to do it." When he released her, there was nothing in her expression, infuriating him even more. "Perhaps I'll start with a female in the Lore."
Did he imagine the flicker of silver in her eyes? "Have fun with that."
"If you leave with the human, I won't leave alone, either."
As Kaderin marched back to the booth, she pulled her collar higher, feeling Sebastian's eyes on her. He'd bitten her. Not by accident. Not gently. Worse, in her position, she hadn't exactly been able to disguise her intense reaction to it.
Sebastian had bitten her.
And she'd delighted in it, coming with an intensity that staggered her.
She hated him for that. For her entire long life, she'd gone without being bitten, and he'd taken her neck in a phone booth in a sordid bar. She was disgusted with the situation and with her wanton response to him. She was sick of the entire night and eager to end it.
When she reached Gamboa's table, she found Cindey had taken her place beside him.
And that wouldn't do.
"You." She pointed at Gamboa. She knew that because of Sebastian's touch, her voice was husky, her hair tousled, and her nipples hard beneath the thin material of her blouse.
Gamboa stared, seeming dazed, then shrugged from Cindey's arm as he stood. Cindey shot her a bitter look, recognized defeat, and drained her drink.
When Gamboa crossed to Kaderin as though spellbound, she murmured to him, "Take me somewhere private."
His jaw slackened. "Of... course." He hastily drew away to order his car brought round, and Kaderin took the chance to murmur to Cindey as she passed, "Why didn't you just sing?"
"Five hundred men in here would hear my song," she impatiently answered. "Besides, I'd prefer not to have the head of the most powerful drug cartel in the world violently captivated with me for the rest of his life. But I really hope it works out for you two kids."
Right after she whirled away, Gamboa joined Kaderin again. As they walked out, she saw Sebastian leaning over one of the nymphs, his eyes black. He cast the Colombian a killing look, then stared Kaderin down. The nymph gave Kaderin a triumphant smile and clutched Sebastian's arm.
If Sebastian was trying to make her jealous... he'd succeeded. Was he still hard after their encounter? What would he do to the nymph when he was heated with Kaderin's blood and aroused from her body? Trace the tramp somewhere and begin forsaking Kaderin?
When Gamboa put his hand on her lower back, she turned from Sebastian, forcing herself to look straight ahead. She didn't glance back even when she slid into Gamboa's plush limo and they started away.
Inside, her emotions simmered. Gamboa was talking to her in a low-toned, accented voice, but she wasn't hearing a word.
Sebastian's bite still throbs...
She faced Gamboa, interrupting him to say, "Give me your opal ring, or I'll kill you."
He only smiled, even white teeth standing out against his tanned face. "Only the opal, mi cariña?" He glanced at a huge diamond ring he also wore, but she didn't follow his gaze. "You won't even look at the diamond?" he asked.
She raised an eyebrow. He already knows. "And why do you want me to?"
"Just to see if the rumors are true."
Kaderin exhaled. "You know what I am?"
He nodded. "My mother was a demon. I know all about the Lore."
"If you knew, then why did you let me go on?" she asked in an exasperated tone.
"Because I was curious why the opening of my club was filled with Lore beings."
"It's the Hie. The ring's a prize - a high-value prize. There were competitors and probably a score of local spectators."
He twisted the opal ring on his finger. "I've dreamed of seeing a Valkyrie all my life. This stone was predicted to bring one of your kind to it."
She didn't doubt that. Yet another example of the hand of fate at work. "Here. Behold the Valkyrie." She held out her palm. "The opal."
"It won't be that simple."
"Didn't figure you'd be the one drug dealer with a heart of gold."
"Why should I give it to you," he asked in a reasonable tone, "for nothing in return?"
A sudden thought arose. "It's not me you want. You just want a night with a Valkyrie, right?"
His eyes seemed to darken. "That's always been my fantasy."
"Then I will send another Valkyrie down here. One who's single." I'm not? "Her name is Regin the Radiant. She's a wild child. She glows. More important, she's a-sure-thing."
"How can I trust that you'll actually do this? Send her, and I'll give her the ring."
"I have to have that ring - now. And I'll vow to the Lore that she'll be here," she said, then amended that by saying, "Actually, I can't really vow that she'll sleep with you. And I would not recommend kissing her. But other than that, she's a party girl."
When he actually seemed to be considering the trade, she hid her surprise and said, "Just take the deal, Gamboa. I don't want to break your heart, or maul it, or pummel it tonight."
After a hesitation, he said, "How can I contact this Regin?"
Remembering that Regin had locked the Crazy Frog ring tone into Kaderin's favorite phone, she said, "How about I give you her private cell phone number?" Turnabout's a bitch, Regin.
He promptly handed her a card, and on the back she scratched down the area code and Regin's number - aptly, it was eight, six, seven, five, three, oh, nine. When Kaderin gave it to him, he removed the ring. He leaned closer, brushing her skin as he handed it to her. The touch did nothing for her, though he obviously thought it would. He should think that. Any woman would consider him sexy, and yet Kaderin felt no spark, no attraction.
"Tell the driver to stop the car at the next light."
"I'd give you the diamond as well if you'd stay tonight, cariña."
She should stay with him tonight. Sebastian was probably giving a nymph one of his fierce, heated kisses right now.
Instead, Kaderin murmured, "This sees me content."
Why not take the hot half-demon to bed? Because she wanted to go to her room. And cry.
Sebastian had hardly slept or drunk since the night in Colombia. For the last week, he'd struggled to get Kaderin out of his mind.
He was becoming obsessed with her. He gave a bitter laugh. Becoming? He was already obsessed with her.
Even after everything, he still wanted her.
Kaderin had gone to that club dressed for seduction, had fucked that male all night for all he knew - but at every opportunity, she'd told Sebastian she would never sleep with him.
For all his intentions, Sebastian hadn't touched another female, couldn't even imagine taking a woman who wasn't her. With that bite, he might have felt as though he were claiming her, but she'd claimed him as well. There was no way he was living his life without having it again.
No, he'd decided he'd settle for none but her. He needed to touch the body she withheld from him. He needed to hurt her as she'd hurt him.
She'd convinced him that her aversion to him wasn't merely because he was a vampire. And how could he not believe that, when he'd fared no better as a human?
Goddamn it, what is it about me?
That night all those years ago with the frigid widow had shaken him, crushed his already battered confidence. And even now it affected him. He hadn't been able to penetrate her. He was large, and she'd been completely cold. There'd been no arousal. No wonder - she wouldn't let him touch her body, not even her breasts. Just lifted her skirt in the bed without touching him, either.
She'd hissed in pain with each try, then finally beat against his back, screaming, "Enough, you bumbling oaf!"
He'd been twenty-three and bewildered by her sudden disgust. "Then... why?"
Every word enunciated, she'd said, "I lost a wager... "
Now, Kaderin, the woman he wanted more than he'd ever wanted anything, desired him just as little.
Without fail, he'd been kind to women. He'd shown them respect and courtesy. Without fail, he'd never had success with them.
When he found Kaderin next, he would steal the prize she sought. Then he'd strike another bargain with her - this time for another pleasure denied him as a mortal, one he'd fantasized about for so long.
He didn't recognize himself in the mirror. His face was pale and gaunt, his eyes constantly black.
He was becoming as ruthless as she was. Gone were the impulses to tenderness, the feeling of being charmed when she tucked her hair behind her pointed ear or blushed along her cheekbones.
Maybe when all was said and done and he'd turned as vicious as she was, he'd be a fitting mate for her.
Battambang Province, Cambodia
Prize: The Box of the Nagas, one ancient wooden box carved with the heads of five Nagas, worth thirteen points
In the darkened night, through pounding rain, Kaderin spied an odd treeless field. In this region, the sweeping jungle tumbled over everything stationary, from car chassis to carved temple, but not here. No homes were built in the field. Only piles of rusted junk littered it.
At the edge, a sign stood planted at an angle, with creeping vines weighing it down. She tugged the vines from it and found the square metal of the sign had been cut into an hourglass shape, most likely so the locals wouldn't use it for roofing material.
Emblazoned across the front was a skull-and-crossbones warning.
So this would be it - a boundary minefield clotted with explosives.
And somewhere in the center was buried a wooden box carved with Nagas, serpent gods. Inside that was a sapphire the size of her palm.
Riora didn't seek the sapphire; she wanted that box.
With the steady rain - May equaled monsoon season - the field was more of a morass, with soupy mud and splashing puddles. Kaderin exhaled. Mines hurt, but she needed some high-dollar points. She, the Lykae, and the siren continued to be neck-and-neck. There was only one prize here, and she had to have it.
At the edge, she swallowed. Easy to lose a foot here. She'd lost a foot before, and she had to say she'd enjoyed cheerier scenarios.
She flexed her fingers, then got to work, scanning for something heavy to toss into the quagmire. If she was quick, she could detonate quite a few -
Her ear twitched. Over the strengthening rain, she barely heard the stealthy movements of a predator. No... not the...
Son of a bitch. There was Bowen, and just to his right, the sodding siren.
The three grasped the situation at the same time. All dashed heedlessly past the warning sign, sprinting out into the muddy space. The Lykae was fast and ran as though crazed. He let his beast out of its cage, turning in the midst of the field, his body becoming bigger, fangs lengthening. His normally short, dark claws shot longer and grew stronger. When he glanced back to snarl at Kaderin, she saw his amber eyes had turned ice blue.
Though Kaderin was fast and Cindey was strong over the slogging terrain, they shouldn't be able to keep up with him as they were. He'd smoked her in the cave. The witch must really have cursed him.
Kaderin ran in his path, exactly where mud flew up in intervals, letting him take the risk. Cindey began gunning to pass Kaderin on the right.
An idea arose. Kaderin pumped her arms, darting forward. "Cindey!" she called. "The right leg!"
She nodded. A breath later, they both dove for him, tackling him into the mucky ground. He twisted around, white fangs bared, snapping at Cindey, who jammed her elbow into his throat. He slashed out at Kaderin with his deadly claws, but she sprang back. They whistled by just millimeters from her face. If Mariketa hadn't weakened him, they'd both be dead.
As the two wrestled to hold him, inflicting injuries to down the large male, he fought like the animal he was. The three covered a large area, yet they hadn't triggered a mine - there had to be one close by. "Kick, you idiot!" Kaderin screamed to Cindey.
They dodged claws, booting his chest to send him rolling over and over far back. All three heard the distinct metallic click. He had time only to grit his teeth.
Light flashed. Kaderin yanked the siren in front of herself for cover. Bowen flew in a hail of red mud fifty feet away, but the explosion caught them as well, catapulting them back.
When it ceased raining clumps of earth, Kaderin shoved Cindey off her. Moaning, Cindey staggered to her feet, holding her sensitive ears, blown from the percussion. She had blood splattered all over her, running down her bared arms and neck through runnels of mud.
As Kaderin scrambled to her feet, she saw Bowen, who had a short bar of shrapnel jutting out from his ribs. Claws digging into the ground, he rose to his hands and knees, then unsteadily to his feet. He must know that if he removed the metal, the blood loss would put him out of this.
Kaderin took inventory, assessing her own injuries. Apparently, she'd caught a good bounce for once, just a few scratches.
Incredibly, Bowen loped ahead, dripping blood, turning back toward the explosion. She yanked her head around, perceived a kind of fluorescence in one of the puddles. The explosion must have unearthed the box. She surged forward, darting through the mud, uncaring of the mines. She gained on Bowen.
The bar was skewered completely through him. His jostling run was no doubt agony, but he was still going. Soon they were side by side. There, glowing before them, was a wooden case, smaller than a cigar box. It was sealed and bobbing like flotsam.
Kaderin dove for it, just as Bowen did. Sliding through the mud, they collided, butting heads so hard her vision briefly blurred. The box went sloshing back.
His ice-blue eyes showed a complete loss of reason. His voice was guttural and breaking. "You're about to wish I could kill you."
They both dove forward once more, grappling for the prize. As it bobbed down, they rooted blindly for it, uncaring if they were about to have their hands and faces blown off. They each snagged it with one hand. She hissed, snapping her teeth, reaching over her shoulder for her sword just as he raised a hand spiked with those deadly claws -
Sebastian appeared, seizing the box from both of them.
Kaderin blinked up at Sebastian through the rain. Time seemed to stand still.
She was transfixed, awed, by the savagery in his jet eyes, the harsh lines of his face, his coal-black hair whipping over his chin.
Suddenly, she was desperate to be the female a male like that would always come for. Ached to be her.
He stood with one foot in front of the other. She understood why immediately - he was standing on a mine. Judging by the menacing look on his face, this was on purpose. He held out his hand. "Come to me." She lunged for him just as Bowen did. Sebastian snatched her away and traced them to the edge of the field.
The mine exploded. Sebastian pushed her back behind him, much as he had that night at Riora's assembly.
When the air cleared, she edged beside him and saw Bowen shuddering, lying on his front where he'd landed. Blood ran freely from his mouth. He mumbled what sounded like a woman's name. Of course, his mate's name.
He seemed to sense they were still there, and raised his face. She hissed in a breath at the sight. One eye was gone, and the left side of his forehead and temple had been burned away. But his wasted body and dazed mind were still desperate for the prize, for the mate he'd lost as she'd fled him so many years ago. Somehow he was digging those claws into the ground to drag himself forward.
"Trace me, Sebastian," she whispered. He did nothing. "He'll hit another mine if we stay."
"Exactly." Sebastian's eyes were dark as the night and chilling. "He deserves it for what he did to you."
Bowen was crawling toward them, and Cindey was walking in circles, blood pouring from her ears, mumbling something... something about a baby, and Kaderin couldn't watch any longer. In the past, she'd have looked on with satisfaction as her competitors suffered.
But she was different now. Or, more accurately, she was as she used to be from the very beginning.
"Please, Bastian," she cried, turning to grab his shirt with both hands. He tensed with surprise, studying her face. Whatever he saw in her expression had him wrapping her tightly in his arms and tracing her away.
Bowen's anguished roars echoed in her ears long after they'd disappeared.