Garreth MacRieve. With his firm lips and maddening touch...
Regin said, "If not the pain, then what gives with you? You're not thinking about MacRieve, are you?" She tossed up her dagger, catching the tip in her fore-claw. "Since you're his mate and all. And for the record, ewww."
Lucia drilled her knuckle into Regin's upper arm. "Take it back."
"How many times do I have to tell you? I'm not his mate! Full moon - no MacRieve. Case closed." To her everlasting confusion, he hadn't come for her the night it'd been full. Legend held that nothing could stop a male Lykae from reaching his mate on that night.
Lucia had been so sure she was his. Now she didn't know what to think.
Of course, she'd been pleased to confirm that she wasn't. Who would want a hulking male like that, one with a face that fell away, revealing a beast?
Yet, strangely, seeing him at his worst during the vampire attack hadn't been as bad as she'd imagined it. He'd been brutal and unsettling, but the terror she'd felt that night had ebbed - because once she got past her memories of Cruach, she saw how different MacRieve was from the Broken Bloody One.
That didn't mean she liked MacRieve's beast or anything; it just reminded her that nothing could be as bad as Cruach.
"Wait!" Nïx suddenly blurted. "Is anyone else seeing a pattern here?"
They all stared blankly at her.
She tilted her head. "Yeah, me neither." Then she grew enthralled with her palm. Nïx, crazy as ever.
Still rubbing her arm, Regin asked, "If you're not MacRieve's mate, then why does he keep following you?"
"I don't know," she lied. MacRieve had clearly ground out the words protect you. And she suspected he had been doing just that.
Just last night in the city, as she'd hunted back alleys for kobolds, an animus demon had been hunting her. Right when she'd been about to confront the colossal male, she heard a thud behind her. She'd whirled around and had seen the demon on the ground. Or at least his legs. The rest of his body had been concealed behind a building, but only for a split second, before he'd been yanked back out of her sight....
Annika hastened by then, with her blond brows drawn together, checking all the logistics of her trap, as meticulous as ever. Though she could motivate people and was a legendary strategist, she was never supposed to be leader of their coven - the missing Valkyrie queen Furie was.
Once Annika had buzzed past them, Regin said, "Things are getting intense around here, eh, Luce? With the vemon attacks - "
"Dempire," Nïx corrected, glancing up from her palm. "Demon vampire equals dempire, not vemon."
Regin shook her head hard. "Which sounds so lame. Say it in a sentence, Nïx. 'I got my ass kicked by a dempire.' Forget it! Vampire demon. Ve - mon."
"You're taking this stance just to be contrary," Nïx sniffed.
In truth, things were getting intense. The Valkyrie were on red alert. They'd hired the Wraiths, the Ancient Scourge, to protect Val Hall. That measure was drastic, but the vampire demon had shaken them.
Vemons were supposed to be truly mythical. The one they'd faced had been nearly invincible, which made them wonder how a creature like that had come to be - and how many more of them existed. They'd known Ivo was up to something nefarious.
"And now the long-lost werewolf king is in play as well," Regin said, tossing up her dagger.
Lucia herself had spoken to Lachlain, the werewolf king. That long-distance call had been so surreal, for more than one reason. She'd been standing in a room full of Valkyrie, and neither they, nor Lachlain, had any idea she'd been with his brother mere days ago, occupied with - oh, how had Garreth put it? - riding his crotch like a wanton as she sucked his tongue.
As the "reasonable" one in the coven, Lucia had entreated Lachlain to release Emma. He'd refused. She'd asked him to be gentle with her. He hadn't sounded capable of gentle.
At least he hadn't seemed to want to hurt Emma - and he had protected her from a vampire search party, killing the three who'd come for her.
Annika's own attempts to further negotiate with Lachlain had ended with his roared "She's mine!" and Annika's chilling vow to go hunting for "Celts' pelts."
Afterward, everyone in the coven had voiced disgust for the Lykae, calling them dogs, animals, or worse, subhuman. Making Lucia's guilt mount. Aside from her own personal reasons, she simply had no business being with a Lykae.
Regin leaned in. "Luce, what's really going on with you?"
"I just think this is a bad idea." She plucked her bowstring faster.
"He's an animal. One hunt among many."
But that "animal" had used his unimaginable strength and ferocity to save their lives. Another example of how different he was from Cruach.
Lowering her voice, Regin said, "We keep secrets from everyone else - not from each other. I know you're holding back from me. Haven't I proved that I'm a vault where your secrets are concerned?"
Guilt flared. "Yes, always." This was too true, and besides, could anything be as shameful as Cruach? "Look, in a moment of temporary insanity, I might have... MacRieve and I" - she paused, then added in a rush - "we might have fooled around a little."
Regin's glowing skin paled. "What?"
Remaining away from Lucia had taken everything in Garreth. He needed to ease her pain from the night of the vampire attack, was frenzied to slaughter more of their kind for her.
Never had he seen a being in agony like his mate after she'd missed a shot. When he'd stormed into Val Hall, she'd been curled on the floor, writhing with her fingers knotted.
Gazing up at me in horror. He was desperate to erase that image of himself, to remind her how he normally looked. But the Instinct warned him to take it slowly with her. - She will run. Be cautious. -
So he'd been shadowing her, camping in the bayou near Val Hall. As long as Ivo, Lothaire, and that demon vampire remained at large, still looking for a specific Valkyrie, Garreth refused to leave the area, not even to return to the Lykae compound.
Leaving behind his kinsmen hadn't been as disagreeable as he'd thought - especially not those Lykae who'd found their mates within the clan. They had it so easy, were nauseatingly content. How I envy them.
But Garreth could still safeguard his own mate. He hadn't been able to spare the rest of his loved ones from the Horde - but he'd be damned before they hurt his woman. Whether Lucia wanted it or not, he'd watched over her every second he could. Except for the night of the full moon.
When he'd made other arrangements.
Not that she needed protection within her home. The disquieting manor house at Val Hall had just grown more so. After the vampire attack, the Valkyrie had called upon the Wraiths, the Ancient Scourge, to protect them. Red-robed skeletal females flew in a circle around Val Hall, their guard impenetrable. Each time a Valkyrie exited or entered, she lopped off a lock of her hair, handing it to the Wraiths - as if in payment. The creatures would then cackle with glee over the token.
Tonight, Lucia and at least two others had gone out in the bayou. She'd peered keenly into the darkness as if she sensed him, so he'd been keeping his distance.
But for how much longer could he silently follow...?
"Keep your voice down!" Lucia hissed to Regin.
"And you didn't tell me this? I mean, it is gross, and I will rag you about this for the rest of our immortal lives."
"It's not that bad - "
Regin gave a mock shudder. "Dude must've been picking vampire flesh from his teeth for days. And you kissed him with that mouth? In any case, do you want Skathi to kick your ass? Or repo your powers? Who am I going to hang out with when you're a talentless nobody?"
"Wait! It all becomes clear - this is your chance to make up for that grossity, Luce. Bag and tag the Lykae!"
"Has everyone forgotten what he did for us?" Mac-Rieve could have escaped with Lucia but he'd stayed and defended them. He'd done that for her. And how was she about to repay him? With deceit.
Annika overheard that and crossed over to where Lucia was setting up her shot. "It seems you have forgotten his brother has my foster daughter." She punctuated her words by cocking her tranquilizer gun. "I know you don't feel right about this after what he did for us, but we need him to get my Emma back from that fiend."
"I'm here, aren't I?" Lucia said testily, making everyone stare. Levelheaded Lucia didn't get testy often. "Though I'm the one who's going to pay for this."
"No one wants you to get hurt," Annika said, then added more softly, "But, Lucia, you know Em must be terrified."
Cosseted Emma would in fact be losing her shit. Though Lachlain knew she was a half-vampire, and most of his family had been murdered by them, he hadn't sounded like he planned to hurt Emma. Didn't matter. Em would be terrified just by what he was. She didn't come by her name Emma the Timid lightly - she was afraid of her own shadow.
If only she'd been able to trace like other vampires, then she could've escaped Lachlain. They'd tried to teach her, but Emma had always been too weak....
"Yo, Annika. How much tranquilizer do you got in there?" Regin asked. "I don't want to merely piss MacRieve off. You didn't see him fight - because of the being covered in bricks and all - but he's brutal."
"I got the mixture from the witches," Annika said. "They swore it'd take down elephants."
Regin shook her head. "Dude's a werewolf, that won't be en - "
"Are you ready?" Annika asked Lucia.
Sure, Annika. I'm ready to go through agonizing pain, so you can catch my would-be lover. Why the hell not? Though her thoughts were crazed, Lucia evenly said, "I'll do what I have to in order to get Emma back."
"Good," Annika said with a firm nod, moving to stand at her side. "Then let's get this started."
As the others took their places, Lucia readied her bow, nocking an arrow. Duty to family. Loyalty to them and Emma. Gritting her teeth, she aimed for a distant cypress, drawing the bowstring. At the last millisecond, just as Lucia's fingers relaxed to release the string, Annika shoved her to the left. The arrow missed the tree.
At once, pain seared her - the agony of bones grinding, poisoned blood wrung from her body....
Lightning exploded, and she dropped to the ground, helpless not to scream.
Lucia's scream pierced the night.
Roaring in answer, Garreth raced in her direction. Vampires are hunting Valkyrie. And she'd just screamed. If they hurt his woman....
His fangs sharpened; rage burned hot. My mate in jeopardy. Somehow he charged faster. Tree limbs raked his face and body, animals skirting out of his way as he plunged deeper into the swamp.
He was already turning. Letting the beast out of the cage. He knew he horrified her like this but he couldn't help it - the need to protect overwhelmed him.
As Garreth ran for her, he scented other Valkyrie. There must be vampires, attacking in number. But as he neared, he smelled none.
He burst into a clearing, spied Lucia on the ground, twisting in pain.
Turning even more fully. He'd slaughter whoever did this.
- What you see is not so. -
He felt a prick on his neck, slapped at it. A dart? Oh, fuck no! Still struggling to reach her, he felt his body go boneless, his legs giving way.
Garreth crashed to the ground right beside Lucia, landing on his side. As Lucia gazed at him vacantly through tears, smirking Valkyrie surrounded them. Realization struck. Lucia had done this on purpose. She was the bait.
"You... helped them?" His words were slurred, rough.
She nodded. Despite the fact that she'd deceived him, he couldn't stand the sight of her tears. He reached forward to brush her face, but his arm went limp. "Why?" he rasped. "Why, Lousha?"
She whispered, "He took her... took Emma."
"You don't know?"
"Know... what?" He saw her lips moving but heard nothing as consciousness faded.
"For the love of all that's unholy, will he not shut up?"
Regin demanded, pausing her video game.
MacRieve had been roaring in his cage in the basement for hours now, keeping Lucia on the razor's edge - an uncomfortable place to be with her muscles still aching from the night before. Gods, how she paid for those missed shots.
And more unnerving, Nïx was perched on the back of the sofa, absently braiding her long sable hair, studying Lucia's reactions. Nïx, usually so vacant eyed, was watching her keenly. She knows how I feel about him....
Or how she'd felt about him - before Lucia had seen him turned, his face savage, his fangs so sharp.
"Let me the bluidy hell out of here!" sounded up from below.
Regin glared at Lucia, as if this were her fault. "He is harshing my buzz, and I am" - Regin turned to yell over her shoulder - "not interested!"
"Open this fucking cage, you glowing bluidy freak!" Gods, he was fierce.
Yet as soon as the thought arose, she recalled how he'd awkwardly patted her tears. And last night, even after realizing what she'd done to him, he'd still reached for her.
"Somebody needs to make Scooby a snack or something, 'cause this howling is freaking old!"
They could hear him banging against the bars, but he could never break them. Though the Lykae were the strongest species in all the Lore, the metal was indestructible, made so by spells purchased from the witches.
"You go, Luce," Regin said, eyeing her video game longingly.
"What do you think I can do?"
"He's attracted to you. Skeevy as that is... At least go try. Just don't lift tail for him or anything."
"Regin!" Lucia snapped, slanting a telling glance at Nïx.
With a roll of her eyes, Regin said, "Oh, yeah, like the soothsayer doesn't already have your number."
Nïx winked at her.
"Come on, I've never gotten this far in the game."
Lucia rose slowly, stifling a wince when her muscles protested. "Fine, I'll go," she said, acting put out over seeing MacRieve, though she'd wanted to since he'd awakened. She wanted to finally thank him for saving her life - for painstakingly hiding her away, then rising up like wrath embodied against the vampires who'd invaded her family's home.
Apparently, the beast could be tender. Or deadly. No matter what he was, or what was inside him, he deserved her gratitude.
And she wouldn't mind a chance to find out why she reacted so intensely to him. How could she still be so drawn to him, even after she'd seen what he was inside?
"You owe me one, Reege," Lucia added in an aggrieved tone.
Nïx easily saw through her act and winked again, growing happy, entertained by Lucia's behavior. But when the soothsayer followed her to the basement door, Lucia turned and said, "No, I want to talk to him alone."
"Even when I already know everything you're about to say? Just as I already knew about the saliva swap at the swamp you two attended weeks ago." Then, more gently, Nïx added, "You like him?"
Lucia sighed, leaning her shoulder against the wall. "I don't understand it. He's like my kryptonite. Just his brogue..."
"Makes your claws curl?"
"Big-time. When I was with him, it was like I had no defense. He got this look in his eyes, and my mind went blank," she admitted. "Have you ever fought an opponent you had no defense against? Like a fire breather or an acid spitter?"
"Once I faced a female with diamond skin," Nïx said breathlessly. "I was transfixed - even as she was choking the life out of me."
"No, I saw that character on X-Men. I just wanted to commiserate. Alas, I have no weaknesses."
"Except your insanity," Lucia pointed out.
Sigh. "Well played, Archer. Then carry on...."
With a deep breath, Lucia opened the door. When she descended the steps, MacRieve's gaze locked on her, his eyes ice blue, his dark brown hair disheveled. He wore another pair of worn jeans and a long-sleeve black sweater. Simple clothing. Though she might yearn for more elaborate garments for herself, she liked simple for men. Another grudging check in MacRieve's plus column.
He immediately clamped his hands on the bars, straining to break them, his arm and shoulder muscles rippling.
"You can't budge them, MacRieve. They've been reinforced by the witches."
He released them at once, with his lip curled in disgust. She'd always heard the Lykae had an aversion to witches. Evidently, that rumor was true.
"Why've you done this to me? You help them trap me after I saved your life from those vampires? You're bluidy welcome!"
And there went her plan to express gratitude to him. She averted her gaze, letting her hair fall over her face.
"In thanks you cage me in this shite hole."
She glanced around. Inside the cage were facilities and a nice cot. "It isn't that bad down here," she said, inwardly conceding that it might be a bit dank - the half-basement had been built before people realized cellars didn't really work in soggy southern Louisiana. "It's got a window," she muttered defensively.
"Lousha, you can free me."
"Bring that up again, and I'll leave."
"Then tell me what I'm doing here!"
"Would you believe me if I told you that Lachlain lived? And that he kidnapped my niece Emmaline, claiming she was his mate?"
He froze. "Nay, I would no'. You've made a mistake."
"There's no mistake." She frowned. "How is it that you wouldn't know this?"
"Have no' been back to the compound in a while. And now, conveniently, I canna to verify your tale. How long will I be down here?"
"Until we get Emma back," she answered.
"And you'd do this after I saved you - and your sisters?"
"I don't owe you an explanation. We're enemies."
"No, we're no'! We're..."
"Compatible," he answered so smoothly.
"Why did you come to Val Hall that night, anyway?"
He hiked those broad shoulders. "I was in the neighborhood."
"And you were last night as well? You've obviously been following me. You told me I wasn't your mate. Did you lie?"
"You're going to accuse me of dishonesty when you've just used yourself as bait to trap me, and then lied to my face?" When she was clearly unconvinced, he said, "Think about it - if you'd been my mate, then how would I have stayed away the night of the full moon?"
"A cage like this."
"Lykae do no' ally with witches." He seemed to stifle a shudder at the thought.
So I'm not his. "MacRieve, your brother is alive."
"You're saying he's come back from the dead after one hundred and fifty years, and his queen, this Emma, is a Valkyrie?"
"Not exactly." She's a halfling vampire. How would Garreth react to the fact that his brother's mate - though bashful and kind - was a blood drinker?
"Tell me what, exactly," Garreth demanded.
"Just forget it."
"Then I'll have to see Lachlain's return to believe it," he said, even as hope welled inside him. Though it was a fantastical tale, Garreth himself had never accepted Lachlain's death. For decades, he had searched to find the mystically hidden Horde capital. After the first thirty years of wondering and investigating, he'd admitted to himself that it might be better if Lachlain had been killed.
Demestriu was known to torture in unimaginable ways.
Now, if Garreth allowed himself to truly believe his brother had returned and then learned it was a mistake... he didn't think he could lose Lachlain twice.
"You weary my patience with this, Lousha." She did, and would have even more if his "capture" hadn't been somewhat voluntary - he'd woken briefly as they'd transported him here. Checking his bindings, about to rip free of them, he'd asked, "Where are you taking me?"
She'd been wan, her eyes glassy with lingering pain. "To Val Hall."
Garreth had stopped struggling. After all, he was a Lykae - no cage could hold him and she was taking him into her home. He'd thought this would prove to be a fortuitous turn. He'd be closer to her, better able to protect her. Now he was trapped. Bluidy witches!
Taking a seat on the floor, he leaned back against the wall, drawing a knee up. "Sit," he commanded, adding in a softer tone, "It's the least you can do."
With a glare, she drew a chair in front of the cage and gingerly sat. She's hurting still. He hardened himself against the concern he felt. "Why were you in agony the night of the vampire attack? I scented no blood on you, saw no injury."
"It's not your concern."
"So you do feel pain when you miss a shot?"
She looked startled, distinctly on edge, letting her hair fall over her face again. She was wearing thick braids over her pointed ears, but the rest of her shining mane flowed freely, locks tumbling over her forehead. "What could you possibly know about me?"
"More than you think. Made you my subject of study. Dinna find out all I'd aimed to, though. Most folks just know you're the Archer."
Seeming relieved, she said, "That's me. All there is to know."
"What about your family, your birth mother? Who were her people?"
She glanced over her shoulder at the stairs before facing him again. "I don't know who she was. I don't even know what she was."
"She could've been a Lykae?"
Lucia shrugged her slim shoulders. "For all I know."
"Ah, so that's why you're more reasonable with other factions. You could be related to them," he observed. "In any case, if your intent was to be mysterious, you've succeeded."
"Oh, I'm mysterious? You showed up out of nowhere to decapitate two vampires in my living room."
"Ask me anything, and I'll answer."
She raised her brows in challenge. "Really, Dark Prince?"
"Aye. That's what I was called." Garreth had never thought he'd be king, not with an immortal older brother, and he'd behaved accordingly, saying and doing things Lachlain never could have. Garreth had been a wild one, dubbed the Dark Prince before he'd reached twenty. And yes, the association with Lucifer was on purpose. Responsible Lachlain used to bail him out of scrape after scrape. "You've been digging for background on me?"
"Digging? Your background's pretty notorious."
"Maybe. I've doubtless made mistakes." Big ones. If he'd been more involved with the clan, and less involved with himself, perhaps his brother wouldn't have set off alone that fateful night. "But at least I own my actions when I bollix things up." Unlike you, little mate.
Ignoring his pointed comment, she asked, "Why have you brought your people here? To Louisiana?"
"After my brother went missing, many of the Lykae wanted to be as far away from the Horde as possible. This was no' the first place we picked, believe me." Once he'd inherited the crown, he'd cleaned his act up, then begun scouring the earth for a new home for them, wanting to do at least that for his people. "But in the end, it made sense."
After another glance over her shoulder, she said, "It made sense to trespass in Valkyrie territory?"
Aye, or I might no' ever have found you. "We're no' so bad as neighbors, lass. And the Valkyrie and Lykae are no' enemies."
"Except at the Accession. When we're all forced to fight."
Every five hundred years, pivotal events in the Lore began to take place, each one forcing conflicts between factions. Some said this concentration of incidents was a mystical mechanism to cull an ever-growing population of immortals.
There was no grand war to decide it all - at least there hadn't been in the past - but the battles and confrontations made for a war of attrition. Once the Accession had swept through, the faction with the most players still alive won. "The Lykae will no' be fighting any Valkyrie this Accession."
"You know what's driving all this. You won't have any control over it," she said with another glance over her shoulder.
"Would your sisters frown on the fact that you're attracted to me?"
She faced him at once. "I'm not!"
"Lie to yourself, Lousha. No' to me. I was there with you that night, remember? You might be trying no' to recall it, but it's seared into my head."
"No, actually I want to recall it - I like to remember my mistakes. So I don't repeat them."
"A mistake then? Is that what Valkyrie call scream-wrenching orgasms?"
Between gritted teeth, she said, "I asked you not to do certain things, and you just ignored me."
"Like not taking off my underwear. You ripped them from me, then stole them! Why would you ever?"
He cast her a shameless grin. "To do unseemly things with them."
She held up her hand. "I don't want to hear more. Again, MacRieve, why did you come to Val Hall that night?"
"Because you were screaming like a banshee? I saw scattered arrows on the floor. No' a one bloodied. Did you pay for missing? Maybe you did make a deal with the devil to shoot like that."
Her eyes flashed silver. "You know nothing!" She shot to her feet and ran, climbing the stairs without looking back.
"Come back here, Lousha!" The charade was over; he wanted out of the cage. Clenching his jaw, he tried to bend the bars - nothing. "Damn you, Valkyrie."
Once he got loose... all the witches in the world couldn't protect her.
Lucia had told MacRieve that she wasn't bound by his animalistic needs. And in that deep rasp, he'd replied, "After one night with me, Lousha, you will be."
He'd been right. She couldn't stop thinking about him, recalling how he'd touched her.
Now in the dead of night, she lay in her bed - a single bed because she was never supposed to be sharing it - puzzling over the male trapped downstairs. Desperate to determine his power over her, she stared up at the ceiling fan, as if it would have all the answers to the conundrum that was Garreth MacRieve.
Granted, the Lykae had obvious attributes: his golden eyes, his muscular body, his broad shoulders that seemed made for her to hold on to.
His firm lips. Not a minute passed without her remembering how they'd felt on hers. She didn't know how she'd gone so long without kissing. Or how she could ever go back.
Lucia even appreciated the ferocity she'd witnessed when he'd bitten that vampire's throat out. But something more was at work, some connection to him. Even during their exchange earlier tonight, he'd affected her. But he hadn't given her that look - the one that said he was about to do wicked things to her body - which was probably the only reason her mind hadn't gone blank.
She feared he was the type of man women got reckless over, made stupid decisions for. He made her think, Vows of chastity? What vows?
That night in the swamp - when she'd been so close to letting him take her - had been the first time she'd had an orgasm with a man. No wonder she was continually thinking about him - he'd made her climax. Of course. Naturally she'd want to experience it again.
Just recalling how his eyes had been filled with lust made her heart race all over again. She'd witnessed him almost completely naked, with only his jeans at his knees, and had seen tantalizing glimpses of his thick erection. If she'd had any hesitation about being with a male, or fears from her past, he'd quelled them with his toe-curling kisses against her panties.