Pain blossomed slowly as I lifted my head, a hot glow spreading out from the blade in slow waves of heat that quickly picked up intensity.

Shouts rang out through the trees, familiar voices calling to Kristoff and Alec.

"The light must have faded," I told Kristoff, who lay prone beneath me, the waves of heat starting to make thinking difficult. "I told you to have faith in me."

"I do," he said, the lovely teal of his eyes burning bright.

Frederic screamed as the vampires reached him.

Magda rushed over to me, gasping at the knife that I knew was protruding from my back. "Dear god in heaven, Pia. Dear god!"

"I'm all right," I said, my voice a croak as hands helped me off Kristoff and the stone. My head was swimming, but I made an effort to clear it. Alec, after having kicked the gun from Greta, sent her flying into Rowan's waiting arms, and staggered toward me, grabbing me in a careful but tight embrace.

"My love, my brave love. It is all over, my Beloved. Do not cry, it is over."

I wasn't crying, but I was shaking with the aftereffects of having been twice stabbed. I didn't complain, however, as Alec cradled me, murmuring words of comfort.

"What are you doing? You can't move her!" Magda ordered, trying to pry Alec's hands off of me. "She's been stabbed! We have to get her to a hospital! Dear god, don't any of you know how to treat someone who's been stabbed? Pia, sweetie, lie down. We'll call an aid unit."

"There is no need for mortal assistance," I heard Christian say. I lifted my head, looking at him. He eyed my back carefully for a moment, then, to my surprise, smiled.

"I realize you don't like me, and you'd probably like me dead at this very moment, but I would like to point out that I did not harm any of your people, and I am wounded."

"That doesn't matter anymore," he said, the odd smile still on his lips.

Alec suddenly stepped back, an indescribable expression on his face.

"There will be repercussions, Pia."

"What?" I dragged my attention from Alec to him.

"I'm sure you still want me dead, but I can assure you—"

"The council will speak to you later, after things have sorted themselves out."

"I must be in shock again," I said, shaking my head. "None of this is making any sense."

"If you are in shock, then so am I. Why are you standing around smiling?" Magda demanded to know.

"She is a Beloved. She is immortal," Christian said, and before I could say anything he plucked the knife from my back.

I yelped and spun around. "Hey!"

"The wound will heal by itself in a few minutes," he told me, glancing beyond to Alec. "I will leave you to Alec. He will no doubt wish to explain to you what it is to be a Beloved."

"But I thought…" I blinked a few times, but as usual, that didn't make things any clearer. "A Beloved? How can that be?"

"You sacrificed yourself," Alec said, his expression stunned. "You saved Kristoff. They would have killed me, too, after him, but you… I… I don't know…"

He stumbled off a few feet, looking as if the ground had been pulled out from under his feet.

I looked over to where Kristoff was being assisted to his feet by Rowan and Andreas.

"So I really am a Beloved after all?" I asked, feeling oddly empty inside.

"You are." Christian gave me a long look, then handed me a business card. "We will be in contact."

Then he turned and strode off to where the others were holding Frederic and his buddies.

"What is happening?" I asked no one in particular.

"I'd say your friends are all nutters, but you know, that guy is right—the wound has healed itself up," Magda said, examining my back.

"I'm Alec's Beloved," I said, trying to come to grips with the fact. Saying it aloud didn't seem to help.

Kristoff took a step toward me, hesitated, then walked past without saying a word.

Pain lanced through me. I saved his life and he couldn't even acknowledge that? More than ever I felt like crying. Kristoff might be upset that I was his friend's Beloved, but it hurt that he couldn't even face me.

"You're welcome," I said, fighting tears.

"He has been gravely wounded," Rowan said before he went over to help the others as they stood guard over the Brotherhood people.

Ulfur stood silently watching us, Ragnar behind him, both of them nearly invisible. They must have exhausted their reserves.

"Thank you," I told Ulfur, and he summoned up enough energy to materialize a physical form long enough for me to hug him. "You saved us all, but the time has come for you to go. Everyone is waiting for you."

He gave me a sad smile and faded back to a translucent state. "It's too late."

I turned to look at the entrance to Ostri, but it was gone. It must have disappeared when the ritual was stopped.

"No," I said, my shoulders drooping. "Oh, Ulfur—"

"It's all right," he said, lifting a hand to me. "I kind of like this world. It is interesting, at least. Be well, Zorya Pia. Go with the blessing of the village."

Pain spun through me, pain and regret so great I wanted to howl to the sky about the injustices of the world that couldn't be made right.

Magda touched my arm. "Is it over?"

"Yes." I couldn't move. My legs were like lead weights, as heavy as my spirits.

"The good guys won?"

"Yes."

She patted me gently, careful to avoid the two puncture points. "You did the right thing, but I never doubted you would. And hey, look at it this way—you not only got a new career and two husbands, now you have a vampire of your very own."

A vampire of my own. I stood numbly thinking about that as she wandered over to offer her help to the remaining vampires. Lucky me, bound for all eternity to man I didn't know.

But it didn't have to stay that way, did it? We were bound together now—Kristoff had said that Beloveds and their Dark Ones could talk together without words, use some sort of mental telepathy to communicate. It seemed to me that would offer a good way to learn about someone.

Are you out there? I asked, my eyes on the retreating figure of Alec as he caught up to Kristoff, the two of them about move out of sight into the trees. Can you hear me? Does this really work?

Yes, it does. The voice was instantly there in my head, as loud as if it had been spoken in my ear.

My delight was short-lived. The man who turned back to look at me with an expression of stunned surprise wasn't Alec… it was Kristoff.

Dear god. It wasn't Alec. My mind whirled around helplessly, trying to understand what had happened.

Kristoff's gaze met mine over the distance, and I realized that the pain and regret I felt originated from him. He didn't want me. He never had I was merely a warm body to feed him and satisfy a purely physical need. His heart was still bound in grief to the woman who'd been so cruelly killed, a woman who by all accounts should have been the one to redeem him.

Not me. But life is cruel, and we'd been bound together for the rest of our lives.

For eternity.

My heart cried out as he turned away and disappeared into the inky darkness of the forest.

Chapter 20

"You are free to go."

"What?" I roused myself out of the stupor that had claimed me several hours before, focusing on the square face of the policeman who sat opposite me. "I'm what?"

"Free to go. Unless there's something else you wish to tell us?" A blond eyebrow rose in question.

"No." I blinked a couple of times, looking around at the police station. It hadn't been busy at all when the vampires arrived with Denise, but that quickly changed.

"You mean you don't want me to tell you about Anniki and Denise anymore?"

The policeman, whose name I vaguely remembered was Jan, shook his head, gesturing toward a stack of paper. "Not unless you have something new to add. The woman you helped to catch has confessed to the murder of the Frenchwoman."

The woman I helped to catch. I rubbed my head, trying to process everything that had happened in the last few hours.

"Your friend is here, if you wish to leave." He turned to a computer terminal and began to tap on a keyboard.

I gathered together what wits remained me, and staggered out of the room to a reception area, where Magda was chatting with a familiar man.

"I didn't really think you would turn Denise over to the police," I told him.

Christian turned to face me. "I hadn't intended to at first, but then… well, let's just say that I felt a gesture was needed to thank you."

"For not killing Kristoff?" I shook my head. "I told you I wouldn't kill anyone."

"I realize now that I was mistaken in attributing motives to you that are not necessarily appropriate," he admitted. "It was not, I admit, an easy thing to do to give up a Zenith to the mortal police, but I trust that your name is now sufficiently cleared."

"Yes. I'm officially released and no longer a suspect."

"That is a good thing, yes?" he asked with a smile.

"Definitely," Magda answered for me, stretching. "You ready to go, Pia? There's a sweet policewoman outside who said she'd take us to our hotel."

"Yes, I will be in a minute." I bit my lip and eyed Christian.

Magda murmured something about visiting the bathroom, moving off to the hallway.

"She is a good friend," Christian said, nodding toward her. "She understands that you have something you wish to say to me."

I nodded, worrying the light material of my blouse as I tried to figure out how to ask what I wanted to know.

His hands stopped mine. "Perhaps I can save you a little grief and tell you that both Alec and Kristoff have left Iceland."

"They did?" My shoulders slumped. I knew they were going to leave now that everything with the Brotherhood group was over, but to leave without saying anything to me… that hurt.

Christian's black gaze was oddly compassionate. "It would seem that in addition to being wrong about you, I was incorrect in assuming you were Alec's Beloved. I understand now that it is to Kristoff you are bound."

I turned away and looked out the window. It was early evening. I'd been in the police station for almost twelve hours, and I was just about dropping. "So it would seem."

He was silent for a moment. "It is not my business to interfere, but if there is a message you would like to pass along to either man, I would see that it reached them."

"Thanks, but I don't have anything to say."

"Pia…" I turned around to face him again, too tired to feel much of anything anymore. He took my hand. "I have a Beloved. She is very dear to me. No, that is an understatement—she is everything to me. I would lay down my life for her in a heartbeat. I cannot conceive of it being any other way. I realize that our ways are new to you, but I believe that you would make Kristoff an excellent Beloved."

"Thanks," I said, smiling as I gently pulled my hand back. "I just don't think it was meant to be, that's all."

He said nothing, just bowed, and started to leave when Rowan threw open the doors and rushed in, looking around wildly. "Is he here?"

"Who?" Christian asked.

"The French reaper." Rowan turned to the side. The entire left side of his face and arm were bloodred, covered in blisters. "We were taking all the reapers to the plane when that bastard Frederic tripped me up, and got away while I was trying to get out of the sunlight. I chased him here. He got my gun."

Christian muttered something and bolted out of the door.

A horrible presentiment shook me. I turned on my heel, pausing to tell the woman at the desk, "I left something on Detective Jan's desk," before I hurried back toward the detective's room. By the time I reached it, I was running, skidding to a stop as before me, a drama opened in seeming slow motion.

From a side room, Denise was being escorted, handcuffed and manacled, a policewoman keeping a firm grip on her. To my left, out of a connecting hall, a voice called out, and Frederic appeared, sliding to a stop as he raised a gun.

"No!" I heard myself scream out, but it was too late. Shots reverberated loudly through the station. Denise stared at Frederic for a moment before throwing back her head and laughing, even as her body crumpled to the ground.

"No!" I cried again, clutching the wall for support.

Frederic let the gun drop from his hand as the police swarmed him. His gaze met mine for an instant, and I knew without any doubt that he had sought his own form of justice.

Justice for Anniki.

"What are those steps again?"

I looked out of the window of the hotel to the bright, glittering sea. It was almost, but not quite, the color of Kristoff's eyes.

"Does it matter?"

"Well, I'm kind of curious how you could think you were doing the steps with one guy, but really have done them with another. I know you had sex with both, but didn't you say there was something about a blood exchange?"

"Yes. Kristoff bit his tongue during one of our more passionate moments. I assume that and the fact that he drank my blood satisfied the exchange requirement." I turned away from the window and summoned up a little smile for my friend. "The steps are unimportant. Christian said that he knew the second I threw myself on top of Kristoff that I was a Beloved. Evidently we smell different, or something. That's why Alec was so taken aback—I didn't smell the same, and he knew something must have happened, and guessed it was Kristoff."

Magda watched me as I fussed with a flower arrangement that sat on a round glass table. "This is going to sound harsh, but I really don't see what you're moping about. Yeah, you didn't get the guy you were interested in, but come on, Pia! Kristoff is gorgeous! He's got those blue eyes, and that chin, and I bet you could talk him into some manly stubble—every man looks better with a smidgen of stubble, it makes them look all ruthless and dangerous—and yet you're walking around looking like life has just kicked you in the gut."

I slumped down onto the couch next to her. "Oh, I'd be doing backflips of joy but for one thing—Kristoff is in love with his girlfriend. His dead girlfriend. And as nice as our couple of romps in the sack were, sooner or later that's going to pale. I want a man in my life, Magda, not someone who swings by every month or so to get his jollies off and scoop up that month's batch of blood, and then leaves without a backward glance."

I was past tears, but the pain remained.

"So he got his soul back, but he doesn't want you?" Magda look thoughtful for a few minutes, then shook her head. "No. I don't believe that. I think you've got the wrong end of the stick here."

"You don't have to take my word for it," I said with a shaky laugh. I waved my hand around the room. "Do you see any vampire here, pledging his undying love to me in gratitude for redemption?"

She couldn't argue with that. In the end, she said simply, "He's a man. Sometimes they need some time to think things through. If he wasn't expecting you to be his Beloved any more than you were, the whole thing probably left him questioning everything in his life." She patted my knee and got up to pour another cup of coffee. "Be patient, Pia. I think with time you guys will work things out. I mean, he can't live without you, can he?"

"We'll see," I said, too heartsick to think about it anymore. I made an effort to pull myself out of a pit of self-pity. "So are you going ahead with the tour?"