"When you haven't called? Wanna know the third major turnoff? Men who don't call after hitting it."
Her ire was clearly building. "I wasn't going to wait for you when you've been a no-show for two days. Last time we really talked, I recall you informing me that you were going to forsake me. The first vampire to renounce his Bride. Blah, bluh, blah."
"You must have known that I would come for you - Wait, you said two days?"
"Like I care, Sebastian, if you lost track of time - "
"I was in a jungle, slowly burning to death. Or I'd have been here."
"Wh-what did you say?"
"I traced there to help you that morning. But the Scot slammed a shovel across my face, then tossed me in the river." He narrowed his eyes. "Did he hurt you?"
"No. But he did seem to make a decision about me."
"I thought I'd only been out for a day. You've been out here for two days without me?" He squeezed her hands.
He peered down in horror to see he'd hurt her hands worse. They met eyes before they both lowered their gazes to her legs. Her pants were sliced through, her skin bitten and bloodied. She was injured worse than he'd ever seen. The sand around her was dark. It was blood... everywhere.
"My God, why didn't you say something?" he roared, furious again.
"Oh, pardon me for bleeding," she muttered when she saw his eyes glued to her legs. "Don't want to whet your appetite."
"You can be so coarse sometimes, wife."
"Not your sodding wife."
"Yet." Against her weak struggles, he scooped her up against his chest and pulled her tightly to him. In a gentler tone, he said, "I'll bring you home, and we'll bandage you."
The other Lore beings stopped in mid-stride to stare at the Valkyrie being held by a vampire. Cindey gaped at them in astonishment.
Kaderin didn't seem to care. She glanced at him and back at the horizon, biting her bottom lip, brows drawn. "The prize... "
Even after what she'd been through, her mind had seized again on the prize. He curled his finger under her chin, turning her to face him. Her eyes were luminous in her elfin face as she stared up at him. He wanted to give her anything she desired.
And he couldn't.
"Katja, I cannot retrieve it for you. I would. But I cannot see the destination."
"You figured out how to find me."
"If you can help me determine how to find a moving, living whirlpool and have it open for me, I will risk the sharks."
Her eyelids were getting heavy, and alarm rioted within him.
"I'm sorry, kena. I'll find another way." He traced her back to the flat, setting her on the bed. In a businesslike manner, he slipped her shirt off and set about cleaning and bandaging her hands and arms. But he was sweating, dreading hurting her any worse than she was.
When he ripped the remains of her pants from her, they both grew quiet at the damage. "Can you... you will not die from this?" he asked, his voice hoarse.
"No, not at all," she said in a sleepy tone. "Which is why I need you to trace me back to the beach at once."
Her words were ridiculous in the face of her injuries. "What truly drives you to do this? Why won't you tell me?"
She studied his face, gazing up into his eyes, as if searching his soul.
"You can trust me," he said.
She looked like she wanted to trust him, but couldn't will herself to. "I've known you less than a month, but I've... I've learned harsh lessons over the last two thousand years."
"I know. I've seen them in my dreams." He could admit to himself that in her place, he'd have a hard time trusting a vampire, too. But Sebastian knew his word was good - he just needed to persuade her. "I vow I will never be like those red-eyed fiends. There's no reason not to tell me."
"There's also no reason to tell you," she countered.
"I could help you."
"Won't you anyway?" she asked.
He scowled. "Of course. But there's got to be something that would make you trust me."
"Yes, my absolute belief that you would never use my trust against me."
"You know I would never hurt you!"
"I didn't say hurt me. I said use it against me." Her eyelids were getting heavy. "You do so love your leverage, vampire."
When she was safe with him, bandaged and sleeping soundly, he showered, his worry and fury finally beginning to dim. But he also became filled with a new resolve. He knew she couldn't die. But she could fucking hurt. And he was done allowing her to get strangled and stabbed and beaten each night. He wouldn't have it anymore.
After dressing, he slipped away, returning to the beach to see if he could do anything to help her finish this infernal competition. After her two days of competing without Sebastian, she was thirteen points away from the finals.
The exact number of points she'd sacrificed for him.
He still couldn't believe she'd given up that box. He'd checked his pockets for it but he'd lost it. Which was understandable, considering his fall and then his crawl across the riverbank.
At the beach, he spied an opportunity, and acted on it. If he couldn't remove the prize from the competition, he could remove the competition from the prize. He returned to Kaderin within fifteen minutes, shaking snow out of his hair.
When he joined her in bed, she nestled into the pillow and murmured, "You smell nice."
He carefully tucked her against him, reminded that she fit him so perfectly.
Her breaths grew light and quick, but they always did when she slept. She twitched and gave a soft moan. He petted her hair, soothing her.
When he finally slept, he dreamed her memories again. It was expected now. Yet these weren't memories from antiquity. Kaderin was clutching the phone with both hands, eyes watering, as one of her half-sisters delivered a death sentence.
Kaderin opened her eyes, confused to find herself still snuggled in her sheets that hinted at his sexy scent.
He sat on the edge of the bed, head in his hands, much as he had the first time she'd found him. She knew he'd gone from sorrow to elation that morning. She also knew that since then, he'd been disillusioned by her and hurt.
"How long have I been out?" she asked, her voice scratchy.
"What?" she shrieked, shooting upright.
He caught her shoulder when she swayed. "Easy, kena. You were injured worse than either of us thought. You lost a lot of blood. Let me check your bandages." He unwrapped her leg. "My God, you heal fast." By now, the gashes on her legs resembled old scars - pink and raised but seeming to fade right before their eyes.
"It's lost," she said, the words breaking. "Over." A tear slipped down her cheek, and she angrily swiped it away.
"Katja, it is not."
"With me out of the picture, Cindey has had all the time in the world. She could've gotten a stick of dynamite and stunned the sharks, or used diving equipment - "
He reached forward to tuck a curl behind her ear. "I don't believe there is much diving equipment in Siberia."
"I couldn't get the prize for you. But I could incapacitate your only real competition. I traced the siren to an abandoned coal mine in the Russian north."
Hope shot through her, warm and good. Had he protected her position in the contest? "Sh-she didn't sing to you?"
"Yes, she warbled frantically. But I remain immune." His eyes were intense, mesmerizing, as he brushed the backs of his fingers across her cheek. "It seems I am completely taken."
Emotion made her breathless and shaky. Before she could stop herself, she blurted, "I never intended to sleep with the Colombian."
Pain flashed in his eyes before he dropped his hand and stood. "It doesn't matter. You don't have to say that now."
He stabbed his fingers through his hair. "Damn it, you are supposed to insist and then explain anyway."
"Oh. Well, the truth is that I never planned to sleep with anyone that night."
"And your lack of underwear?" he asked with a scowl.
"Was the front line. I've found a well-timed glimpse can make men lose good judgment." She added, "You really need to rent Basic Instinct."
"Then how did you get the stone?"
"Gamboa had always wanted to be with a Valkyrie. So, I promised him a date with Regin - the one who tried to decapitate you in Antarctica - in exchange for the ring. And for the record, I chose that task for only one reason - the same reason Cindey did. Because we knew Bowen wouldn't."
"That is... good to know." Another one of his understatements. The relief he felt was evident on his face.
"Now that I'm back in it, I need to leave quickly," she said. "Cindey is clever." Kaderin wanted to cement her place in the finals. Bowen had earned his spot - she accepted that, but he was weakening, and with the siren out of it, Kaderin could win.
"Lucindeya's not going anywhere," Sebastian said. "She must climb out of a jagged frozen pit with slippery sheer-rock faces five hundred feet high, then walk two hundred miles through waist-deep snow to the nearest town. She was dressed for the equator and seemed to be limping, walking strangely."
Kaderin tried to stifle a laugh. And failed. She startled him and herself.
"That's the first time I've ever heard you laugh." He grinned. "What? What's so amusing?"
"Walking funny, huh? That's because she did truly earn Nereus's prize."
"You mean she - ?" When Kaderin nodded, he gave a chuckle and stroked his hand up and down her arm. She'd noticed he couldn't seem to stop touching her. "Do you want me to check and see if she's still there?"
She bit her lip and nodded. He disappeared, then returned seconds later, shaking snow from his head like a bear.
His face was perfectly deadpan as he said, "I fear Lucindeya and I are no longer friends."
She laughed again, and he grinned as if just enjoying the sight.
"I want to close this out," she finally said. "To go and get the next prize. Where's the scroll?"
He pulled it from his jacket pocket. "But, Kaderin, understand that we're doing this together." She parted her lips to argue, but he spoke over her in that officer tone. "I will not allow you to get hurt again."
She studied his face, and at length, she sighed. "Okay. We'll work together on the next one."
With a sharp nod, he joined her in bed, and they read the script together.
"Not the first one." At his questioning glance, she explained, "She's a succubus." Then Kaderin clucked her tongue. "Nereus is on here again? Three scrolls in a row. He must be hard up spawning. Poor siren."
"What about that one?" Sebastian asked about the third.
"Only if you like spiders the size of monster-trucks. Now, where's the highest point value?" She scanned the list, then frowned. "The Box of the Nagas again? Why does this say it's on a riverbank in the Congo Basin?"
"Because that's exactly where it is. I'd had it in my jacket that day."
She dropped the scroll and grabbed his hands. "Sebastian, it's worth thirteen points. That would get me to the finals! Can we - "
"I'll go there directly." He disappeared. Five minutes later, he returned.
With the box.
Her lips parted. "You really were there the morning after."
He drew his head back as if he wondered how she could doubt him. "Nothing else could have kept me from you."
Not only had he protected her spot in the Hie, he was giving her the finals, offering her the prize freely.
Their eyes met, and time seemed to stretch out. Momentous. He was offering her the chance to win her sisters back. And inadvertently ensuring she would never know him in the future.
She trembled as she accepted it, not knowing how to feel about the fact that she'd hesitated to reach for it. When she held the box above her heart and it disappeared, they checked the scroll. The script was fading, and in its place, the finalists were announced.
When she saw her name, her eyes watered and she murmured, "No one has ever given me anything so dear."
When Kaderin began running a bath, Sebastian decided to call Nikolai and ask him about his latest dream. He picked up her phone and studied it, about to make his first call - but she leapt forward.
"You don't want to use that one!" She handed him another phone that seemed to have been pried open and now had tape in places. "My coven will track where I am... and I'd rather not see them tonight." She smiled tightly, then dialed the number for him and connected the call. "And please don't tell your brother where we are, either. He'll likely inform Myst."
Sebastian raised his eyebrows, but nodded. Just when she'd walked out, Nikolai answered. Without preamble, Sebastian said, "I need to know anything you can tell me about a Valkyrie soothsayer. I think her name is Nïx."
"I've met her. She's the oldest Valkyrie, and definitely a soothsayer, though she prefers to be called 'predeterminationally abled.' " Sebastian could almost hear Nikolai shaking his head. "But, yes, I went to see her a few weeks ago to ask about you and Conrad."
"Does anything she foresees actually come true?"
"Well, we can determine this exactly," Nikolai said. "A few weeks ago, were you running from a castle into the morning sun, yelling for someone to come back to you? And then your skin caught fire?"
"My God," Sebastian bit out. "She foresaw Kaderin's death."
"How do you know this?" Nikolai asked. "It's usually impossible for her. That's the one thing she can't - or won't - see."
"I took Kaderin's memory of their conversation. She was badly shaken - and you must understand, few things leave that female shaken."
Nikolai added, "It might mean nothing, but Nïx also constructed these odd paper shapes while I was asking about you. There was a dragon, a wolf, a shark, and fire."
Sebastian swallowed. "We've faced all of those. Each one but for the fire."
"This would explain the uproar around Val Hall. Myst is secretive about coven business, but I've gathered that they are searching for Kaderin."
"No wonder she doesn't want them to know where she is." Sebastian ran an unsteady hand over his face. "Nïx predicted Kaderin's death before the next full moon. When is the next full moon?"
Nikolai's voice was grave. "Tonight."
Once she got out of the bath and threw on a robe, she found Sebastian sitting on the couch. He seemed in such deep thought, she almost felt awkward interrupting him. Kaderin shook it off. The scroll could update at any minute. She longed to experience him one more time, before she forgot him -
She hissed in a breath. Well, that pang freaking hurt.
Though she'd only been away from him for fifteen minutes, he stared at her as if he were seeing a ghost. Then without a word, he stood and crossed to her. He curled his finger under her chin and treated her to a kiss that was at once tender and passionate, making her melt.
When he drew back, she gazed up and found his eyes flickering over her, searching, she knew, for any hint of how he could bring her more pleasure. All he wanted was her happiness. She understood now. He would never turn - never change. She had, though.
She was falling for a vampire.
Looping her arms around his neck, she murmured, "I want you to make love to me." She'd clearly shocked him. "I want there to be more between us."
"Why now?" He had to clear his throat to continue. "What makes you say this tonight? Is it gratitude because of the box?"
She caught his eyes. "No. It's because you're not what I feared you'd be. And I finally see that you never will be. You're different."
He exhaled a breath. "What am I, then?"
Tonight, you were a hero. "You're a good man. You're good to me." She leaned up to whisper in his ear, "Bastian, I want to be good to you, too."
He shuddered, pulling her close against him, molding her body against his. The merest brush of his lips against hers built into a slanting feast.
She was lost in the sensation -
Did he just trace me?
Cold metal clenched her wrist. Her eyes widened when she found herself in her bed. She fought him, but he forced her other wrist up to be chained as well.
"What in the hell are you doing?" she cried.
"I'm making sure you can't leave."
"Sebastian, you're alarming me, and I don't understand why. I was going to make love to you - "
"One last toss before you die?" he bit out.
She glanced away and exhaled. "How did you find out about the premonition?"
"Dreamed it. Why didn't you tell me you were fated to die in this competition before the full moon? Tonight?"
"Damn you, let me free! Nïx's prediction could be wrong - "
"Though she never is," he said.
"She hasn't been in the past," Kaderin said. "Besides, whether she is or isn't is incidental. If I don't win that prize, I'll be dead in a month anyway."
"What does that mean?"
"I have to be there tonight." Her chained arm seemed to ache where Furie had broken it so long ago. "It's my destiny to go, and I'll meet it head on."
"It's your destiny to die. And I won't allow that. You will stay here, and I will win the competition for you."
"How, Sebastian? I'm the finalist! I have to be there."
"I will go to Riora. And ask her to let me compete in your stead."
"Even if you can take my place, how will you get to the prize before Bowen does? Unless you've figured out a way for vampires to trace directly to map coordinates, you can only trace to me or to places you've already been. Odds are, you won't have been there."
"Nikolai has offered to secure transportation, a plane - "
"Look, let's compromise," she said hastily, seeing how unyielding he was. "You could help me. We could work together."
He picked up the scroll. She could tell it had updated, because his expression grew menacing. "Work together by going to the pit of the Fyre Serp®¶nte tonight?" He gave a bitter laugh, then shoved the script at her face. "You will never go to a place known in the Lore as 'where immortals go to die' on the night you're fated to die!"
She memorized the coordinates before he took it away. "This isn't your call to make!" Kaderin had never doubted that her sacrifice could bring her sisters back, and he wanted to rob her of that. If she could save them and end this guilt... then she longed to die for it. "You're ignoring my wishes and my beliefs as though they were insane. It's galling to someone like me."
"Because they are insane! Goddamn it, tell me why you want this so badly!"
"Fine. Let me go, and I will. You asked me what you could do to make me trust you, and this is your chance. This is the test. Free me, and I'll tell you everything. No secrets between us. We'll work as a team."
He stabbed his fingers through his thick hair. "No. I can't let you go. Nïx predicted we'd face a fire, and she predicted that you would die. You know where the task is. Do you wish to die? If you go tonight, it's suicide - "
"You are going to talk to me about suicide? Oh, that's rich!"
"I had nothing to live for. But now we both do!" He knelt on the bed and clutched her nape. "I won't let you die!"
"Damn you!" she cried. "Sometimes living isn't everything!"
Her words made his lips part. "No. I used to believe that." He stood unsteadily. "Now I know I was wrong." Before he traced away, he rasped, "If you love something, you protect it ruthlessly. No matter what occurs."
After he'd gone, she lay for some time, sorting through what had just happened. He'd chained her down, intending to prevent her from bravely meeting her fate.
She'd meant what she said. If he'd freed her, she would have told him everything. She would have joined him. But she wouldn't trust his judgment when he refused to afford her the same faith.
Too bad whatever plane Sebastian was heading for could never get to those coordinates faster than the Augusta 109 helicopter she had on call.
And too bad the chains were only protected against vampires. She popped them open with ease.