"Life with me," he rasped, his voice breaking low. "You said for eternity?"
"Absolutely, Garreth." She laid her palm against his stubbled cheek. "I'm in love with you. And I can't lose you again."
His eyes were warming to that intense gold once more. "This is like the deal you offered in the jungle - the sex or secrets deal," he said. "Except now it's eternity or secrets?"
"Basically, yes. I need some happiness. I need you to help me find it."
"You will tell me everything? Every secret you hold?"
"I will, in time."
Yet he dropped his hands, sitting back against the wall. "You canna know how much I've wanted to hear you tellin' me you love me." He stared at the ground, looking lost. "And I want to make you happy, crave to. But now that I've gone under like this, it's possible I will again. If you were ever endangered... I've got to be more susceptible to reverting."
She clutched his shoulder. "Then I won't let you." He was still shaking his head when she said, "Garreth MacRieve, you've gotten your way with me again and again. Now it's my turn! I want you to be my man - you and no other. Are you going to deny me?"
After long moments, he exhaled and faced her once more. "Nay, I canna. I love you too bluidy much." He gazed at her with so much yearning in his eyes it staggered her - as if now he would no longer hide it. "Tell me you love me again," he said, pulling her into his lap, holding her against his chest.
"I love you, Garreth. With all my heart."
"Then I'll take your eternity. You're tae marry me in the morn."
She gave a wry grin. "I thought you'd never... dogmatically order it." Then her smile faded. To wed him without Regin there for the assist? "Wait, I-I can't. Not yet."
"Why the hell no'?"
"Garreth, my sister's missing." She bit her bottom lip. "Regin's been gone for days - it's not like her to disappear. And I can't get married without her there with me."
"If she's missing, then we'll find her." He tipped her face up, gazing down at her "Especially if you will no' wed me till then. Love, we'll get her back, I swear it." He gently brushed his lips against hers. "But first things first. Do you have a key to our cell?"
"What's happened here, lass?" Garreth asked the next morning when he returned to their suite after a half-hour-long absence. Earlier, Lucia had been in high spirits, optimistic about finding Regin. She'd wanted to fit in a quick visit with Emma - and a Valkyrie raid on the queen's notoriously extensive wardrobe - so Garreth had fled to share a farewell scotch with Lachlain:
"You're off again?"
"Aye, afraid so, brother."
"Garreth, one thing before you go... you marked her hard, no?"
Now, Garreth found Lucia pensive. "What's got you upset, love? Is it because you've seen how pitiably Lachlain spoils Emma? Know that I've planned the same for you," he said, studying her face.
The faint smudges under her eyes had vanished, erased after a single stretch of dreamless sleep. Last night, as soon as Lucia and Garreth had been released from their cell by a delighted Lachlain and Emma, they'd begun recuperating in Garreth's old rooms - talking about the future, soaking in a bath together, talking some more - then she'd slumbered in his arms.
With no nightmares....
"There's been news," Lucia said, beginning to pace. "I just talked to Annika." Also not one of Garreth's favorite Valkyrie. "She told me Regin's not the only one missing."
"What do you mean? I thought some berserker had her." Garreth and Lucia had planned to head out for New Orleans, interrogate Nïx for leads, and find the berserker. Then Garreth would teach the male how ill-advised his actions had been.
"All morning news has been flying in from every corner of the Lore," Lucia said. "Creatures from across all factions have been taken. Which means it's not Aidan the Fierce who'd abducted her."
"Who else got grabbed, then?"
"Who hasn't? So far there've been confirmed reports of a siren, one of the fey, an arch fury - "
"Arch? You doona mean..."
"Yes, the ones with wings. They don't often rise from their nests, but when they do..." She gave a mock shudder. "A witch called Carrow Graie, also known as Carrow the Incarcerated, was taken around the same time as Regin. Carrow's best friend to Mariketa the Awaited - and Mari is displeased. The entire House of Witches is up in arms, yet they can't locate Carrow or Regin through scrying."
"So it's some contingent taking out the Valkyrie and their allies?" Which now meant the Lykae as well. Over the past year, Lachlain had made sure that all Loreans understood his clan was a steadfast ally to the Valkyrie - whether the Valkyrie wanted them to be or not. All the Lykae were in full support of this, especially since their queen and princess were from that faction.
Lucia shook her head. "That's just it. We were accused of taking out players from the other side. A couple of Sorceri, some fire demons, a centaur viceroy, even one of the Invidia are all missing, too."
The Invidia were female embodiments of discord, purely evil. The centaurs and fire demons had warred against the Valkyrie in Accessions past. The Sorceri were unknown entities who could slide either way on the evil scale.
Lucia added, "There are rumors that even Lothaire has gone missing."
"Now, that vampire could've been tagged by La Dorada, looking for payback - and a thumb," he pointed out. "Does Nïx have any ideas?"
"She hasn't been lucid. Annika told me she'd screamed like a banshee right after I spoke with her last. She's been muttering gibberish for days."
"Doona worry. We'll unravel all this," Garreth said. "And we'll find your sister."
She bit her bottom lip. "We've just finished one mission, and now we have to go searching again." She crossed to the balcony that overlooked the gardens.
Garreth followed - he would always follow her, as any wolf would his mate. He joined her at the marble railing, savoring the scene. A light Highland fog was rolling in, carrying the tang of the nearby sea.
"You were right all along, Scot. I am high-maintenance." She sounded remorseful, which wouldn't do.
"Aye, but you're high-output as well." He gave her arse a possessive squeeze.
"Werewolf!" she cried, but her lips had briefly curled.
He took her in his arms. "The truth is that I'd rather march into hell with you than bask in heaven without you." He curled his forefinger under her chin. "And lass, going to help Regin will be a little like hell for me."
She knuckle-punched his arm. "You didn't just say that!"
"I'm kidding," he said, then added in all seriousness, "It happens that I owe Regin one. You said you wanted to live out your immortality with her next door? Well, as much as it grieves me to say this, we will no' rest until the glowing one's our neighbor on some seashore." And until you're my wife....
Her dark eyes widened. "You promise?"
"Aye, but that does no' mean I canna tease."
She gazed away. "Still, I'm taking you from this. Look at this place." She waved over the misty grounds. "Deep down, you've got to be disappointed that my life is so complicated. I bet you wish things with me were easier."
He clutched her to him, hugging her tight to his chest before he finally eased his grip. If only she knew the depth of his feelings for her. But then, she'd given him her eternity, so he planned to show her. "Lousha, you're my lass. And I'm lovin' you dearly." When she gazed up at him with her silvery eyes glinting, he cupped her nape and brought her to him for a soft kiss. Against her lips he murmured, "Besides, nothing good ever came easy."
One week earlier...
Volga Uplands, Russia
Target: the Vampire
On a windswept and craggy plain, a lone cabin endured, buffeted by a gale. Inside, Lothaire the Enemy of Old stood before a broken hanging mirror, staring at his fragmented reflection. Through cracks in the grimy windows, chill drafts sieved in, welcome after the heat of the jungle.
Retrieving the finger and ring from his pocket, he slipped the gold band free, tossing the mummified thumb to the ground. With utter awe, he gazed at the band, knowing what it meant, knowing the power he'd just seized.
"With this," he grated, "I will be invincible." The winds howled, the cabin walls groaning. "I will be unstoppable." He raised his shaking hand, lowering the ring to his own finger, nearly groaning with expectation -
The cabin door exploded open; electricity surged in, hitting him in the back, shooting him forward. The ring clattered to the ground as his head crashed through one of the windows. A jutting shard raked down his forehead, deep across the surface of his eye.
Sightless in that eye, blood obscured his vision in the other. Trace. Leave this place.
Not without his ring....
His fangs sharpened, rage burning inside him. What enemy is this? Another bolt of electricity hit him, then another, each one draining him. He began blindly tracing throughout the cabin to evade them.
Through the red haze, he listened for his prey, sensing movement, striking. Appearing and vanishing, he plucked one heart from a male's chest, biting the throat of another. The floor grew slick with blood.
Get to the ring... get closer. Another flash shot toward him; he traced to dodge it, reappearing -
A short sword plunged into his side. Behind him, a tall shadowy form wielded the blade, twisting it deep within Lothaire's body. A mortal wound for a human.
An incapacitating one for an immortal. Whatever is here... doesn't want me dead.
Lothaire attempted to trace a retreat, but he'd grown too weak - as his foe obviously intended.
Holding him fast, the blademan twisted the sword again. "Bag him." Once the male drew the weapon free, Lothaire dropped to his knees in his own pool of blood.
Others besieged him, quelling his weak resistance, cuffing his wrists in unbreakable bindings. When he roared, they slapped duct tape over his mouth.
He'd just cleared his vision in his one good eye when more men approached with a black sack.
To put over his head.
He bellowed behind the tape, thrashing in the blood. But they shoved the cloth over his head, cinching it tight.
Lothaire heard the gold ring scraped over the floor as another collected his treasure. Seething wrath burned to a fury. When I get free, I will unleash hell....
Back streets of New Orleans
Target: the Valkyrie
"That all you got, muthafuckas?" Regin the Radiant cried after her third dose of electricity. "I like electricity, you dumbasses! Hit me with another."
Apparently not taking her at her word, they did. She sucked it in, and her skin glowed brighter in the night. The street lamps nearby flared from her radiant energy.
A smile of utter bliss lit her face.
"Know what else? I'm a freaking conduit." She caught a jolt in one hand and with her other, she funneled it back, hitting her attackers, blowing them into the air. "You want some of this?" She shot again. "How 'bout you?" And again.
They were feeding her - and it felt glorious! She glowed brighter, brighter, illuminating one city block, then two...
But within that blaze of light, a shadow moved behind her, a towering male with superhuman speed. Before she could defend herself, he struck with a sword, planting it into her side, twisting. Lightning speared close by, and she gasped at the pain, choking as blood bubbled at her lips.
Her light dimmed. When the man withdrew the blade, she collapsed. Curled up on the street, bleeding out, Regin gazed up at him. "You," she bit out. "You'll pay."
The male ordered, "Bag her."
Too late, she drew a breath to scream - duct tape slapped over her mouth. Eyes wide, shaking her head wildly, she watched as they neared with a black sack.
Orleans Parish Booking and Receiving Facility
Target: the witch
"Miss Carrow, what are you doing in here again?" Martin, her favorite guard, asked her. He was the youngest of the guards, cute, with a ruinous crush on Carrow. "When will you learn better?"
"Oh, I've learned better," she said, strutting to the bars. He swallowed to see how short her black leather skirt was. "I just choose not to use what I've learned in real world applications."
"Huh?" Martin scratched his head. "What'd you do this time?"
"Beat up a cop, stole his horse, and rode it into Pat O's." Before he could ask, she answered, "I needed an accessory."
At that, her repeat roommates, sex workers from the Quarter, cheered, whoop whoop whoop!
She curtsied for them, then turned back to Martin. Through the cell bars, she tickled him under his chin with her print-stained fingertips, sending him in raptures. "So, did you bring me and the girls some chow?" He often brought Popeye's to Carrow and the roommates. In a throaty voice, she asked, "Maybe some diiiirty rice?"
He swallowed hard. "N-no, ma'am. Came to tell you that you made bail."
"Really? No way!" She held out her flat palm behind her and someone gave her a low five in celebration. The sun had just set - Carrow would have the entire night for mayhem! "Who divvied the cash?"
"Dunno, ma'am," Martin said, sliding open the cell door.
She frowned. The House of Witches had vowed never to bail her out again. And Carrow hadn't even called Mariketa, not wanting to bother her best friend again. Twice in one week was too much for even the most committed bail buddy.
Carrow had actually been considering using her powers to liberate herself. Which was a big, freaking, honking no-no.
With a shrug, she turned to say farewell. "See ya, Moll, Candy Cane, Lexxxie, Chastity. And Exstacey, chin up, your ex is not going to bother you any more. I promise." Carrow made a mental note to cast a spell on that asshole, making him fall in love with clumping cat litter. Used clumping litter.
Once Carrow had collected her belongings, she donned her jewelry and light jacket, then strung her numerous plastic beads around her neck. Few outside the Big Easy could grasp what a hard-earned and valuable currency those beads were.
Martin gazed on longingly. "You want me to look up who posted you?"
"Hey, I'm not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. Night, Martin." She winked and blew him a kiss. "See you soon."
But as she sauntered to the front doors, she thought about that ole gift-horse saying. She'd lied to Martin - Carrow was exactly the kind of person who would look in its mouth.
She grew cautious, building energy in her palms to shoot an enemy if she had to. Mariketa had been teaching her tons of new spells and funneling power to her - since she was on the bench for five decades. Carrow was quite the badass, when she could concentrate.
Stepping outside onto the street, she gazed around warily. No one was out here.
Ah, but the city was just waking for another night. With sirens and food scents and throbbing music, it roused like a beast from slumber. She could sense all the emotions, the excitement suffusing her. Like a vampire, she wanted to drink from it. Wanted to be amidst the chaos, provoking it -
A frying surge of electricity hit her in the face, blasting her through the air. She shrieked until she landed on her back a block away. Her beads had melted all over her, sizzling plastic searing her skin, smoking.
Dazed, nearly sightless from the assault and the smoke, she drew energy in her palms once more. What the hell happened? Males nearing? Can't see... can't see to fire on them. They looked like shadows. She shot from her palm, might have hit one. Can't see...
She tried to rise, to blindly run, but only made it to her knees. No choice but to gasp out the reaper spell, hoping no bystanders were near: "Ooth sbell nooth latoret - "
"Gag her!" a deep voice interrupted.
"Ooth sbell - "
The shadowy hands seized her, shoving duct tape over her mouth. Though she resisted with all the strength in her body, they bound her wrists behind her. She flailed, defenseless, more terrified than she'd ever been.
Carrow's sight was just returning when she heard that same voice order, "Bag her."
"No, no!" she screamed behind the tape. They stalked closer with a black sack, rolling it up like hose to force over her head.
And her world went dark once more....