my real, live Viking.
Many, many thanks to Beth Kendrick, who rightfully dubbed us primal scream buddies. Without you and a telephone, there would be no word count. Thank you to the wonderful Sally Fairchild for all her much appreciated continued support. And my heartfelt thanks to Pocket Books own Megan McKeever, who is, at this very moment, most likely plucking me out of some book-related crisis.
Sometimes the fire that licks the skin from his bones dies down.
It is his fire. In a recess of his mind still capable of rational thought, he believes this. His fire because he's fed it for centuries with his destroyed body and decaying mind.
Long ago - and who knows how much time has toiled past - the Vampire Horde trapped him in these catacombs deep beneath Paris. He stands chained against a rock, pinned at two places on each limb and once around his neck. Before him - an opening into hell that spews fire.
Here he waits and suffers, offered to a column of fire that may weaken but is never-ending - never-ending, just like his life. His existence is to burn to death repeatedly, only to have his dogged immortality revive him again.
Detailed fantasies of retribution have gotten him this far; nursing the rage in his heart is all he has.
Over the centuries, he has sometimes heard uncanny new things in the streets above, occasionally smelled Paris changing seasons. But now he has scented her, his mate, the one woman made for him alone.
The one woman he'd searched for without cease for a thousand years - up until the day of his capture.
The flames have ebbed. At this moment, she lingers somewhere above. It is enough. One arm strains against its bonds until the thick metal cuts into his skin. Blood drips, then pours. Every muscle in his weakened body works in concert, striving to do what he's never been able to for an eternity before. For her, he can do this. He must... His yell turns to a choking cough as he rips two bonds free.
He doesn't have time to disbelieve what he's accomplished. She is so close, he can almost feel her. Need her. Another arm wrenches free.
With both hands he clenches the metal biting into his neck, vaguely remembering the day the thick, long pin was hammered into place. He knows its two ends are embedded at least three feet down. His strength is waning, but nothing will stop him when she's so close. In a rush of rock and dust, the metal comes loose, the recoil making him fling it across the cavernous space.
He yanks at the bond wrapped tight around his thigh. He wrests it and the one at his ankle free, then begins on the last two holding his other leg. Already envisioning his escape, not even glancing down, he pulls. Nothing. Brows drawn in confusion, he tries again. Straining, groaning with desperation. Nothing.
Her scent is fading - there is no time. He pitilessly regards his trapped leg. Imagining how he can bury himself in her and forget the pain, he reaches above his knee with shaking hands. Yearning for that oblivion within her, he attempts to crack the bone. His weakness ensures that this takes half a dozen tries.
His claws slice his skin and muscle, but the nerve running the length of his femur is taut as a piano wire. When he even nears it, unimaginable pain stabs up its length and explodes in his upper body, making his vision go black.
Too weak. Bleeding too freely. The fire will build again soon. The vampires return periodically. Will he lose her just when he's found her?
"Never," he grates. He surrenders himself to the beast inside him, the beast that will take its freedom with its teeth, drink water from the gutters, and scavenge refuse to survive. He sees the frenzied amputation as though watching a misery from a distance.
Crawling from his torture, abandoning his leg, he pulls himself through the shadows of the dank catacombs until he spies a passageway. Ever watchful for his enemies, he creeps through the bones littering the floor to reach it. He has no idea how far it is to escape, but he finds his way - and the strength - by following her scent. He regrets the pain he will give her. She will be so connected to him, she'll feel his suffering and horror as her own.
It can't be helped. He is escaping. Doing his part. Can she save him from his memories when his skin still burns?
He finally inches his way to the surface, then into a darkened alley. But her scent has faltered.
Fate has given her to him when he needs her most, and God help him - and this city - if he can't find her. His brutality had been legendary, and he will unleash it without measure for her.
He fights to sit up against a wall. Clawing tracks into the brick street, he struggles to calm his ragged breaths so he can scent her once more.
Need her. Bury myself in her. Waited so long...
Her scent is gone.
His eyes go wet and he shudders violently at the loss. An anguished roar makes the city tremble.
In all of us, even in good men, there is a lawless
wild-beast nature, which peers out in sleep.
- Socrates (469-399 BCE)
One week later...
On an island in the Seine, against the nighttime backdrop of an ageless cathedral, the denizens of Paris came out to play. Emmaline Troy wound around fire-eaters, pickpockets, and chanteurs de rue. She meandered through the tribes of black-clad Goths who swarmed Notre Dame like it was the Gothic mother ship calling them home. And still she attracted attention.
The human males she passed turned their heads slowly to regard her, frowns in place, sensing something, but unsure. Probably some genetic memory from long ago that signaled her as their wildest fantasy or their darkest nightmare.
Emma was neither.
She was a co-ed - a recent Tulane grad - alone in Paris and hungry. Weary from another failed search for blood, she sank onto a rustic bench beneath a chestnut tree, eyes riveted to a waitress drawing espresso at a caf��. If only blood poured so easily, Emma thought. Yes, if it came warm and rich from a bottomless tap, then her stomach wouldn't be clenched in hunger at the mere idea.
Starving in Paris. And friendless. Was there ever such a predicament?
Couples strolling hand in hand along the gravel walk seemed to mock her loneliness. Was it just her, or did lovers look more adoringly at each other in this city? Especially in the springtime. Die, bastards.
She sighed. It wasn't their fault that they were bastards who should die.
She'd been spurred to enter this fray by the prospect of her echoing hotel room and the idea that she might find another blood pusher in the City of Light. Her former hookup had gone south - literally - fleeing Paris for Ibiza. He'd given little explanation for abandoning his job, saying only that with the "arrival of the risen king," some "serious epic shit" was brewing in "gay Paree." Whatever that meant.
As a vampire, she was a member of the Lore, that stratum of beings who'd convinced humans they existed only in imagination. Yet though the Lore was thick here, Emma had been unable to replace her pusher. Any creatures she could scout out to ask fled her solely because she was a vampire. They scurried without knowing that she wasn't even a full-blooded one, nor that Emma was a wuss who'd never bitten another living being. As her fierce adoptive aunts loved to tell everyone, "Emma cries her pink tears if she dusts a moth's wings."
Emma had accomplished nothing during this trip that she'd insisted on taking. Her quest to uncover information about her deceased parents - her Valkyrie mother and her unknown vampire father - was a failure. A failure that would culminate in a call to her aunts to get them to retrieve her. Because she couldn't feed herself. Pitiful. She sighed. She'd be razzed about this for another seventy years -
She heard a crash, and before she even had time to feel bad for the waitress getting docked, another crash and then another followed. She tilted her head in curiosity - just as a table umbrella across the walk shot fifteen feet up to be batted high in the sky, fluttering all the way to the Seine. A cruise boat honked and Gallic curses erupted.
Half-lit by the walk's torchlights, a towering man turned over caf�� tables, artists' easels, and book stands selling century-old pornography. Tourists screamed and fled in the wake of destruction. Emma shot to her feet with a gasp, looping her satchel over her shoulder.
He was cutting a path directly to her, his black trench coat trailing behind him. His size and his unnaturally fluid movements made her wonder if he could possibly be human. His hair was thick and long, concealing half his face, and several days' growth of beard shadowed his jaw.
He pointed a shaking hand at her. "You," he growled.
She jerked glances over both of her shoulders looking for the unfortunate you he was addressing. Her. Holy shite, this madman had settled on her.
He turned his palm up and beckoned her to come to him - as if he was confident she would.
"Uh, I-I don't know you," she squeaked, trying to back up, but her legs immediately met the bench.
He continued stalking her, ignoring the tables between them, tossing them aside like toys instead of varying his direct pursuit of her. Furious intent burned in his pale blue eyes. She could sense his rage more sharply as he neared, unsettling her, because her kind were considered the predators in the night - never the prey. And because, at heart, she was a coward.
"Come." He bit out the word as though with difficulty and motioned for her again.
Eyes wide, she shook her head, then leapt backward over the bench, twisting in the air. She landed facing away from him and began speeding down the quay. She was weak, more than two days without blood, but terror made her quick as she crossed the Archev��ch�� Bridge to exit the island.
Three...four blocks covered. She chanced a look behind her. Didn't see him. Had she lost him - ? Sudden glaring music from her purse made her cry out.
Who in the hell had programmed the Crazy Frog ring tone into her cell phone? Her eyes narrowed. Aunt Regin. The world's most immature immortal, who looked like a siren and behaved like a frat pledge.
Cell phones in their coven were for dire emergency only. Ringers would disturb their hunting in the back alleys of New Orleans, and even a vibration would be enough to trigger a twitching ear in a low creature.
She flipped it open. Speak of the devil: Regin the Radiant.
"Little busy right now," Emma snapped, taking another peek over her shoulder.
"Drop your things. Don't take time to pack. Annika wants you at the executive airport immediately. You're in danger."
Click. That wasn't a warning - that was narration.
She'd ask the details once she was on the plane. As if she'd needed a reason to return home. Just the mention of danger and she would scamper back to her coven, to her Valkyrie aunts who would kill anything that threatened her and keep malice at bay.
As she tried to remember her way to the airport where she'd landed, the rain started to fall, warm and light at first - April lovers still laughing as they ran under awnings - but swiftly turning to pounding cold. She came to a crowded avenue, feeling safer as she wound through traffic. She dodged cars with their wipers and horns going full-force. She didn't see her pursuer.
With only the satchel slung around her neck, she traveled quickly, miles passing beneath her feet before she spied an open park and then the airfield just beyond it. She could see the diffused air around the jet engines as they warmed, could see the shades on every window already drawn tight. Almost there.
Emma convinced herself she'd lost him, because she was fast. She was also adept at convincing herself of things that might not be - good at pretending. She could pretend she took classes at night by choice, and that blushing didn't make her thirsty -
A vicious growl sounded. Her eyes widened, but she didn't turn back, just sprinted across the field. She felt claws sink into her ankle a second before she was dragged to the muddy ground and thrown onto her back. A hand covered her mouth, though she'd been trained not to scream.
"Never run from one such as me." Her attacker didn't sound human. "You will no' get away. And we like it." His voice was guttural like a beast's, breaking, yet his accent was...Scottish?
As she peered up at him through the rain, he examined her with eyes that were golden in color one moment, then flickering that eerie blue the next. No, not human.
Up close, she could see his features were even, masculine. A strong chin and jaw complemented the chiseled planes. He was beautiful, so much so that she thought he had to be a fallen angel. Possible. How could she rule out anything?
The hand that had been covering her mouth roughly grasped her chin. He narrowed his eyes, focusing on her lips - on her barely noticeable fangs. "No," he choked out. "No' possible..." He yanked her head side to side, running his face down her neck, smelling her, then growled in fury, "Goddamn you."
When his eyes turned blue sharply, she cried out, her breath seeming to leave her body.
"Can you trace?" he grated as though speech was difficult. "Answer me!"
She shook her head, uncomprehending. Tracing was how vampires teleported, disappearing and reappearing in thin air. Then he knows I'm a vampire?
"N-no." She'd never been strong or skilled enough. "Please." She blinked against the rain, pleading with her eyes. "You have the wrong woman."
"Think I'd know you. Make sure, if you insist." He raised a hand - to touch her? Strike her? She fought, hissing desperately.
A callused palm grasped the back of her neck, his other hand clenching her wrists as he bent down to her neck. Her body jerked from the feel of his tongue against her skin. His mouth was hot in the chill, wet air, making her shudder until her muscles knotted. He groaned while kissing her, his hand squeezing her wrists hard. Below her skirt, drops of rain tracked down her thighs, shocking her with cold.
"Don't do this! Please..." When her last word ended with a whimper, he seemed to come out of a trance, his brows drawing together as his eyes met hers, but he didn't release her hands.
He flicked his claw down her blouse and sliced it and the flimsy bra beneath open, then slowly brushed the halves past her breasts. She struggled, but it was useless against his strength. He studied her with a greedy gaze as rain splattered down, stinging her naked breasts. She was shivering uncontrollably.
His pain was so sharp it nauseated her. He could take her or he could tear open her unprotected belly and kill her...
Instead he ripped open his own shirt, then placed his huge palms against her back to draw her to his chest. He groaned when their skin touched, and electricity seemed to flash through her. Lightning split the sky.
He rumbled foreign words against her ear. She felt they were...tender words, making her think she'd lost her mind. She went limp, her arms hanging while he shuddered against her, his lips so hot in the pouring rain as he ran them down her neck, across her face, even brushing them over her eyelids. There he knelt, clutching her; there she lay, boneless and dazed, as she watched the lightning slash above them.
His hand cradled the back of her head as he moved her to face him.
He seemed torn as he watched her with some fierce emotion - she'd never been looked at so...consumingly. Confusion overwhelmed her. Would he attack or let her go? Let me go...
A tear slipped down her face, warmth streaking down amidst the drops of rain.
The look disappeared. "Blood for tears?" he roared, clearly revolted by her pink tears. He turned away as if he couldn't stand to look upon her, then blindly swatted at her shirt to close it. "Take me to your home, vampire."
"I-I don't live here," she said in a strangled tone, staggered by what had just occurred, and by the fact that he knew what she was.
"Take me to where you stay," he ordered, finally facing her as he stood before her.
"No," she amazed herself by saying.
He, too, looked surprised. "Because you doona want me to stop? Good. I'll take you here on the grass on your hands and knees" - he lifted her easily until she was kneeling - "till well after the sun rises."
He must have seen her resignation because he hauled her to her feet and pushed at her to get her moving. "Who stays with you?"
My husband, she wanted to snap. The linebacker who's going to kick your ass. Yet she couldn't lie, even now, and never would have had the nerve to provoke him anyway. "I am alone."
"Your man lets you travel by yourself?" he asked over the downpour. His voice was beginning to sound human again. When she didn't answer, he said with a sneer, "You've a careless male for yourself. His loss."
She stumbled in a pothole and he gently steadied her, then seemed angry with himself that he'd helped her. But when he led them in front of a car a moment later, he threw her out of the way, leaping back at the sound of the horn. He swiped at the side of the car, claws crumpling the metal like tinfoil, sending it skidding. When it finally stopped, the engine block dropped to the street with a thud. The driver threw open the door, dived for the street, then darted away.
Mouth open in shock, she frantically scrambled backward, realizing her captor looked as though he'd...never seen a car.
He crossed to her, looming over her. In a low, deadly tone, he grated, "I only hope you run from me again."
He snatched her hand and again lifted her to her feet. "How much farther?"
With a limp finger, she pointed out the Crillon on Place de la Concorde.
He gave her a look of pure hatred. "Your kind always had money." His tone was scathing. "Nothing's changed." He knew she was a vampire. Did he know who or what her aunts were? He must - otherwise how could Regin have known to warn her about him? How could he know her coven was well-off?
After ten minutes of her being dragged across avenues, they pushed past the doorman of the hotel, garnering stares as they entered the palatial lobby. At least the lights were dimmed. She pulled her soaked jacket over her ruined blouse and kept her head down, thankful that she'd braided her hair over her ears.
He released the vise-grip on her arm in front of these people. He must know that she wouldn't attract attention. Never scream, never draw the attention of humans. They were always more dangerous in the end than any of the thousands of creatures of the Lore.
When he draped his heavy arm across her shoulders as if they were together, she glanced up at him from under a wet lock of hair. Though he walked with his broad shoulders back, like he owned this place, he was examining everything as if it was new to him. The phone ringing made him tense. The revolving doors had done the same. Though he hid it well, she could tell he was unfamiliar with the elevator and hesitated to enter. Inside the lift, his size and his energy made the generous space seem cramped.
The short walk down the hall to her room was the longest of her life, as she devised and rejected plan after plan of escape. She hesitated outside the door, taking her time retrieving the key card from the inch-deep puddle in the bottom of her purse.
"Key," he demanded.
With a deep exhalation, she handed it to him. When his eyes narrowed, she thought he was about to demand "key" again, but he studied the door lever and gave it back to her. "You do it."
With a shaking hand, she slid it in. The mechanized buzz and then the click of the lock were like knells to her.
Once inside her room, he checked every inch of it as though to make sure she was in fact alone. He searched under the brocade-covered bed, then tore back the heavy silk drapes to reveal one of the best views in Paris. He moved like an animal, with aggression at every turn, though she'd noticed he favored one leg.
When he slowly limped to her in the hallway, her eyes widened and she eased backward. Still he continued toward her, studying her, weighing...before his gaze settled on her lips.
"I've waited a long time for you."
He continued to behave as if he knew her. She would never forget a man like him.
"I need you. No matter what you are. And I'll wait no longer."
At his baffling words, her body inexplicably softened, relaxing. Her claws curled as if to clutch him to her, and her fangs receded to ready for his kiss. Frantic, she rapped her nails against the wall behind her and tapped her tongue against her left fang. Her defenses remained dormant. She was terrified of him. Why wasn't her body?
He placed his hands against the wall on either side of her face. Unhurriedly, he leaned in, brushing his mouth against hers. He groaned from the small contact and pressed harder, flicking her lips with his tongue. She froze, not knowing what to do.
Against her mouth, he growled, "Kiss me back, witch, while I decide if I should spare your life."
With a cry, she moved her lips against his. When he stilled completely as if to force her to do all the work, she slanted her head and brushed his lips lightly again.
"Kiss me like you want to live."
She did. Not because she wanted to live overmuch, but because she thought he would make sure her death was slow and torturing. No pain. Never pain.
When she darted her tongue against his as he had done to her, he groaned and took over, cupping her neck and head so he could hold her as though for the taking. His tongue stroked hers desperately, and she was shocked to find it was...not unpleasant. How many times had she dreamed about her first kiss, even knowing she would never receive one? But she was. Now.
She didn't even know his name.
When she began shivering again, he stopped and broke away. "You're cold."
She was freezing. Being low on blood did that to her. Being tackled into the wet earth and soaked through hadn't helped. But she feared that wasn't why she shivered. "Y-yes."
He raked his gaze over her, then gave her a disgusted look. "And filthy. Mud all over you."
"But you..." She trailed off under his lethal glare.
He found the bathroom, yanked her inside, then tilted his head at the fixtures. "Clean yourself."
"P-privacy?" she croaked.
Amusement. "You have none." He leaned his shoulder against the wall and crossed his muscled arms, as if awaiting a show. "Now, undress for me and let me see what's mine."
Mine? Bewildered, she was about to protest again, but he jerked his head up as though he'd heard something, then bolted out of the room. She slammed the bathroom door, locking herself in - another laughable gesture - then turned on the shower.
She sank down on the floor, head in her hands, and wondered how she would get away from this lunatic. The Crillon boasted foot-thick walls between the rooms - a rock band had stayed next door to her and she'd never heard them. Of course, she didn't envision calling for anyone - never scream for a human's help - but she was contemplating digging her way out through the bathroom wall.
Soundproof walls, ten floors up. The luxurious room that had been a haven, protecting her from the sun and nosy humans, was now a gilded cage. She was trapped by some being, and Freya only knew what.
How could she get away when she had no one to help her?
Lachlain heard a scarcely squeaking wheel, smelled meat, and limped for the room's door. In the hallway, an old man pushing a cart yelped with fright at the sight of him, then stared wordlessly as Lachlain snatched two covered plates from the cart.
Lachlain kicked the door closed. Found steaks and devoured them. Then pounded a hole in the wall at a sharp memory.
Flexing his now bleeding fingers, he sat on the edge of the strange bed, in a strange place and time. He was weary and his leg pained him after running the vampire down. He pulled up his stolen pants and inspected his regenerating leg. The flesh was sunken and wasted.
He tried to push away memories of that loss. But what other recent memories did he have? Only those of being burned to death repeatedly. For what he now knew had been a hundred and fifty years...
He shuddered, sweating, and retched between his knees, but kept himself from vomiting the food he needed so badly. Instead, he ripped his claws through a table by the bed, just preventing himself from destroying everything in sight.
In the last week since his escape, he would be doing well, focusing on his hunt for her and his recovery, seeming to acclimate; then something would put him in a rage. He'd broken into a manor to steal clothes - then destroyed everything inside. Anything he didn't recognize and understand, destroyed.
Tonight, he'd been weak, thinking unclearly, his leg still regenerating, and still he'd gone to his knees when he'd finally picked up her scent once more.
But instead of the mate he'd expected, he'd found a vampire. A small, fragile female vampire. He hadn't heard of a female being alive in centuries. The males must have been secretive about them, cloistering them all these years. Apparently the Horde hadn't killed off all of their own women, as the Lore told.
And Christ help him, his instincts still said this pale-haired, ethereal creature was...his.
The Instinct screamed inside him to touch her, to claim her. He'd waited for so long...
He put his head in his hands, trying not to lash out again - to get the beast back in its cage. But how could fate rob him once more? For more than a thousand years, he'd searched for her.
And he'd found her in what he despised with a hatred so virulent he couldn't control it.
A vampire. The way she existed disgusted him. Her weakness disgusted him. Her pale body was too small, too thin, and looked like she'd break with her first stiff fucking.
He'd waited a millennium for a helpless parasite.
He heard the squeaking wheel, going much faster past his door, but his hunger was sated for the first time since the ordeal began. With food like tonight's, he would shake off any physical trace of the torture. But his mind...
He'd been with the female for an hour. Yet it had been an hour during which he'd only had to push the beast back twice. Which was a considerable improvement, since his entire existence was of constant bleakness interrupted only by sharp rages. Everyone said a Lykae's mate could soothe his any woe - if she really was his, she had her bloody work cut out for her.
She couldn't be. He must be delusional. He seized on that idea. The last thing he'd regretted before they forced him to the fire was that he'd never found her. Perhaps this was a damaged mind playing tricks. Of course, that was it. He'd always pictured his mate as a buxom redheaded lass with wolven blood who could handle his lusts, who would revel in the raw ferocity with him - not this fearful wisp of a vampire. Damaged mind. Of course.
He limped to the door to the bathing chamber and found it locked. He shook his head as he broke the knob easily, then entered a room so thick with steam he could hardly spy her balled up against the opposite wall. He lifted her up by her arms, scowling to find her still wet and dirty.
"You've no' cleaned yourself?" When she only stared down at the ground, he demanded, "Why?"
She shrugged miserably.