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 café. 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 café 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 Archevêché 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.