27

Bedlam broke out in seconds.

The fight spread like a wildfire on parched grass. Beings began to change, eyes turning color, demeanors altering utterly, weapons appearing from seemingly nowhere.

The delicate nymphs had somehow concealed daggers beneath those gauzelike skirts and brandished them with battle cries. In the distance, she saw Cade and Rydstrom wielding broadswords. The Sirenae fiddled with something on their voice boxes that allowed them to dispatch concentrated shrieks, dropping their foes to the ground with bleeding ears.

N¨Ļomi caught sight of Mari and Bowen hastening to her. "Stay there!" Mari cried.

"Oui," she said faintly. She was too shocked to move.

But then Mari got hit by a stray elbow, sending her flying. Bowen went savage, beginning to turn to his werewolf form. N¨Ļomi gasped. Terrifying. She was glad she'd been forgotten by the Lykae - until the frenzied crowd engulfed her.

How had she thought she could handle this? An accidental jab of an elbow wouldn't kill the immortal Mari, but N¨Ļomi might not survive it. Was this how she'd get capped? So soon?

She tried to duck and run but kept getting caught back up in the current of beings. Each surge pressed her ever closer to the fire. The band played on, seeming as oblivious as the Titanic's.

Then she saw him.

He was hard to miss as he charged for her, towering over others. He had dark sunglasses on, but she knew his eyes were fixed on her.

Without ever turning from her, he dropped any being in his direct path to her. She'd never seen anyone who could fight like him, so methodical but vicious - so practiced. His fangs were razor sharp, his neck and chest muscles straining.

If warriors fought back, he twisted necks and backhanded them, sending them flying. Thank God his hand had regenerated -

A fist struck him in the face with crushing force. His sunglasses went flying, but he didn't even pause in his pursuit.

Fierce immortal, with his jet black hair whipping over his cheek. She felt an untimely surge of pride that a male like him was coming for her.

He wants me. Those burning, blood-filled irises were locked on her. He was looking at her as if she was his, only his. He'd talked of having new vampire instincts, animal-like instincts. There was no mistaking what his eyes said...

Anyone who kept him from what was his would die.

Conrad couldn't risk tracing to her - she was a moving target in the fray. Can't take my eyes from her for a split second. Sprinting faster, fighting harder -

He suddenly stumbled, feeling as if a mine had just gone off under his feet. Righting himself, chin down, he charged for her once more.

Another explosion; he tripped forward, losing sight of her for a moment. What the fuck is happening?

His lips parted as he comprehended. Thunderous bomb blasts again and again.

N¨Ļomi... it's her.

A rhythm to the echoing boom - his... heartbeat. Conrad was hearing his heartbeat for the first time in three hundred years.

Mine! Even as he ran, Conrad felt a savage triumph. His lungs began to expand, waking. She was bringing him back to life. Just ten feet away from her, one more obstacle -

His body was tackled to the ground with the force of a freight train. Strong hands gripped him, hauling him to his feet. Two demons had him. N¨Ļomi was watching agape. Safe for now.

Weak... can't shake them off. Vulnerable for precious seconds while he transitioned. Can't break free.

"A red-eyed Fallen in New Orleans," Cadeon the Kingmaker said as he stalked in front of Conrad. "You're the one who drained the warlock dry?"

Conrad's chest heaved as he sucked in air. With each breath, his strength returned and then some. Power such as he'd never imagined began erupting throughout his body. "Be more specific, Cadeon," he sneered. "There were several."

"We've been looking for you, vampire." The demon's eyes turned wholly black, and his horns enlarged and straightened with menace. But he wouldn't completely hit a rage state.

Conrad heard N¨Ļomi murmur, "M¨¨re de Dieu." And Cadeon wasn't even close to a full turning. Usually when one beheld this demonic sight, one was about to die. Yet Conrad was finally catching his breath, and his heart was thundering with readiness... .

He flung his arms out, hurling away the ones holding him. Then he lunged at Cadeon. He fixed his hands around the demon's throat, clenching with all his newly blooded strength.

Power roared through Conrad's veins. Red covered his vision. The need to drink and kill was undeniable. There was no going back from bloodlust - his brothers were wrong. He'd done evil; he always would. He slammed Cadeon to the ground, stunning him.

Conrad could smell the demon's blood, could hear his heart. More power, here for the taking. Instinct ruled him. He gripped Cadeon's forehead, yanking his head back to bare his neck.

Cadeon's skin began to darken to a deep red. His upper and lower fangs grew. The demon was finally turning, but it was too late... .

"Conrad, don't."

He glanced up to meet N¨Ļomi's wide-eyed gaze. Conrad knew exactly what he looked like to her, with his fangs dripping, his eyes glowing and frenzied as he craved blood. "Now you know what I am." He lowered his mouth to finish this.

"Now I know what you were. Conrad, please take me home."

The need to protect. He hesitated at the demon's neck. Stronger than the need to kill.

If you saw me in bloodlust, you'd think me a monster.

Conrad hadn't been exaggerating. If N¨Ļomi didn't know him, she would be terrified. But she did know him, and recognized that he'd restrained himself for her.

Here was Conrad at his most frightening, and all she felt for him was pride and tenderness -

Suddenly Cade took advantage, bashing his head against Conrad's so hard his skull had to be singing.

Then the other two demons were back, attacking him at once... .

Without her telekinesis, she was powerless to stop them. Others in the crowd had ceased their own sparring to watch this clash. They were abuzz that the fallen vampire wasn't drinking and that the rage demon hadn't turned fully.

As Rydstrom and four more rough-looking males closed in on the fight, he asked her, "You know this vampire?" Suddenly, the others with him had a sinister air, their eyes all turning black.

When they advanced, N¨Ļomi swallowed. "I... only s-socially."

"You're his Bride, aren't you?"

Am I his Bride? Whispers sounded all around her; beings scrutinized her with new interest. Why?

She retreated a few steps, and when Rydstrom's crew continued after her, she turned to Conrad. He was still contending with all three of his attackers. "Conrad!" she cried.

He was in front of her in an instant, arm shoved back to yank her into him. His body was a heated mass of muscle, his broad shoulders rising and falling with breaths -

Breaths?

She laid her ear against his back. His heart was pounding. I blooded him!

"A new liability, Wroth?" Cade asked, wiping his forearm over his bleeding face. "Introduce us to your Bride, then."

"If you think to harm her," Conrad grated, "then you invite your own end." He grasped her upper arm, pulling her beside him.

N¨Ļomi swallowed when some of the females gave her sympathetic looks. What do they know that I don't? What will he do to me?

This was an immortal assassin who'd just been denied a kill. Denied because of her. She could see a feral, possessive light to his eyes, along with a deep rage, as if not slaying those demons had taken something from him.

No one wanted to challenge him - a vampire protecting his Bride. He cupped his hand on the back of her neck in a show of possession for everyone to see. "Mine. And I protect what's mine."

Then... they disappeared.

28

When Conrad traced them to their room at Elancourt, he didn't say a word, just stared down at her. Rage mingled with desire in his expression, both so intense she shivered alternately with fear and need.

He released her, stalking around her, his gaze raking over her body. She turned as well, until they were circling each other.

"How did you come to be like this?"

"I have ways, Conrad. Maybe I'm not as friendless and pitiful as you thought me."

He gave a bitter laugh. "Pity is the last thing I'm feeling for you, koeri."

"What are you planning to do with me?" she asked.

"You're soon to see." His low voice rolled over her - she could swear she could feel it rumbling.

They continued circling, almost as if in a dance. Her long-dormant senses had already been flaring to life, and with every second, she grew more deeply aroused. "Why were some of the females regarding me with sympathy?"

"They think they know what's about to happen to you. You're the Bride of a fallen vampire denied a kill."

Things were going on in his mind that she couldn't understand. All she knew for certain was that he was more animalistic than any man she'd ever known. "What do they think will happen?" She believed Conrad would never intentionally hurt her. But he did alarm her. He was unspeakably strong, and her new body was so vulnerable.

"That I'll throw you to the ground and shove myself between your legs, taking your neck in a frenzy." He sounded as if the very idea excited him. Without warning, he seized her upper arms, dragging her to his body.

"Let me go, Conrad!" She could feel his erection growing, pressing against her belly. "What are you going to do?"

"I'm going to claim my Bride. You've been given to me - to me alone! It was you that I wanted." He fisted his hand in her hair, pulling her head to the side hard. Eyes riveted to her neck, he rubbed his tongue on his fang, then rasped, "I can see your beautiful pulse."

Stifling a cry, she said, "You're hurting me, Conrad." Try to sound calm. She intuitively knew she had one chance at this - one chance with him. She didn't believe he'd ever forgive himself for harming her. "Do you intend to punish me over the key? Or are you losing control again?"

Still staring at her neck, he drew his brows together. "Hurt you?" When she attempted to pry his hand from her hair, he released it. "Never hurt you." Even as he was saying this, his other hand was gripping her arm. "I was wrong about the key. Have regret for my words."

And just like that, with two simple, unmistakable sentiments, her anger dwindled. "If you want more with me, then don't proceed like this, when you're enraged and fresh from a fight." She twisted her arm from his fist. "Don't hurt the body I was just given."

He breathed in deeply, so clearly struggling for command of himself. "If I can get... can get control now" - his head jerked to the side and back - "you'll forgive me for losing it over the key. Say it!"

"Yes, if you can do this for us." N¨Ļomi dared to reach up and stroke the backs of her fingers along his jawline. She experienced a jolt of surprise - this was the first time their skin had touched.

And this vampire, so brutal and violent to others, leaned his handsome face into her touch. She laid her other hand over his thundering heart. "Conrad, je crois en toi. I believe in you. Go to the folly."

When he hesitated, she said, "I promise I'll be right here when you return."

He gave her a sharp nod, before vanishing.

Back to the foggy bayou, stalking his familiar path. His mind was in turmoil.

Now his body was as well.

He inhaled, shuddering as cool air continued to flood into his lungs. It felt just as his brother had said it would. Heavy... good.

Three hundred years he'd gone without this, but now...

Conrad had been blooded. By the lush little dancer he'd wanted above all other females. God, she'd smelled like fire and wine and woman. Too good to be true. Maybe this was all another dream, more madness.

He hadn't wanted to let her out of his sight, dreading she'd disappear, but if he hadn't left, he would've hurt her. The urge to rip away her clothes and plunge into her warm body had been nearly overwhelming.

She was so delicate - so mortal. He could break her bones with an absent touch.

And he would rather die than give her pain. He might be fallen and newly blooded. But this was N¨Ļomi, the woman he'd coveted for his Bride - and had been given in the flesh.

Though he burned to know how she'd come to be like this, all he could think about was the unbearable drag of his pants across his engorged cock.

With each heartbeat, his shaft grew thicker. This had to be truly happening. He grimaced from the pressure, unable to concentrate, to handle these shocking changes within himself.

It felt like three centuries of lust was building, as if his shaft would explode, it throbbed so hard. Just when he believed the pressure couldn't possibly build more...

... it did.

He should leave here for good. But could he give this night up? N¨Ļomi was actually in their room, waiting to be touched. To be taken.

She believes I can do this.

She'd said she wanted more with him. He could finally experience what this would be like. The only obstacle to his claiming her was the threat he posed to her. He had to make sure he didn't hurt her.

But then he had to pleasure her as well.

At least before, his anger and instinct had commanded him. Now he wondered how he could possibly satisfy her. He bit out a curse - he'd never even kissed a woman before.

She's waiting for me.

His eyes briefly widened. She'd told him exactly how to proceed with her, to make her want more, to make her desperate for him.

As Conrad stalked toward her, she studied his face. He seemed less frenzied. Or maybe he was only disguising it better, turning it inward.

Once he'd backed her to the wall, he raised his hand. What will he do? She swallowed with apprehension... .

Yet he only cupped her face. The gesture was gentle, tender. When he grated, "Put your arms around my neck," she realized what he planned. How hard he was trying for her!

And this is why I'm falling for you.

At this exact spot in the room, they'd practiced their kiss, both of them imagining it. It felt so natural when her arms looped around his neck. She'd longed to be able to twine her fingers in the hair at his nape. Now she did with delight.

"My N¨Ļomi," he rasped, rubbing his thumb over her bottom lip. "So soft." Her eyelids fluttered. "More than I'd ever imagined." His hand was shaking.

He's never touched a woman before me. All this was new to him. She needed to remember that.

"For three hundred years my sword hand has been steady. If I'm to be overcome, I'd want it to be by a little dancer."

His scent, his heat... God, he smelled so good. "Conrad, I want our kiss. Won't you brush your lips against mine?"

"What if I wanted to do something harder?"

"Think slow build," she forced herself to say - because he still was barely in control.

He stared down at her with eyes like fire, then leaned in to give her what she'd yearned for. When he slanted his lips over hers, a shock of heat rushed through her. She cried out, and he slipped his tongue in.

But he allowed her to lead. She lapped at his tongue, teasing and licking, making him groan. Soon he began deepening the kiss, stroking his tongue against hers.

She held onto his shoulders, reveling in the power she felt in his muscles, and whenever he did something she liked she gave a little squeeze.

He caught on handily. So much so, that he became the one who teased her now, flicking his tongue and stoking her desire. Clever vampire. His kiss was ardent, erotic... demanding.

When he glanced the backs of his fingers from her ear down past her collarbone, then lower to the beginning swell of her breast, she shivered. Simply experiencing contact was a delight to her starved senses, but Conrad's touch was mesmerizing... .

He broke away, leaving her breathless and dizzy. As his lips followed the same path as his fingers, she grew nearly frightened by how aroused she'd become, not with longing, but with pure lust for this male.

Her breasts grew heavy, her nipples stiffened. She could feel wetness between her legs.

"Want my mouth on you." He fisted her dress in both his hands, about to rip it apart.

"Conrad, let me." She shimmied, tugging it until it was wedged beneath her bare breasts.

A rough sound erupted from him as he gazed at her. Then he bent to her chest. Just as he'd said, he kissed all around her nipples, brushing his lips over her sensitive flesh.

She cradled his head, holding him to her. "Forget what I said... about a slow build."

He ran his face against her but still teased. When he finally dragged his tongue over one of her aching nipples, she cried out, "Oh, God!"

"You wanted me to suck on it hard?" he asked, cupping both of her breasts in his hands.

She whimpered in answer, and he returned his mouth, tugging her nipple between his lips to lick it at the same time. He gave a husky groan around the peak, then suckled her.

"Yes, yes... " Friction, moisture, bliss. Her fingers dug in his hair, pressing him closer as she arched wantonly.

When he switched to her other breast, squeezing as he sucked her, she couldn't stand it any longer. She clutched his hips. And he remembered. He eased his big hand under her dress, his skin deliciously abrasive against her tender thigh.

"Higher," she panted. "Touch me... ."

While he slowly raised his hand, she began frantically unbuttoning his shirt, shoving it from him. Placing her palms flat against him, she rubbed down his torso over rigid indentations and swells. His firm, smooth skin... the crisp hair in a trail just below his navel - heavenly.

His hand worked higher, hers drifting lower. He shot upright, standing fully when she clasped his erection outside his pants. The first woman to touch him there.

As she began fondling his shaft, his lids grew heavy, his jaw slackening. He bit out what sounded like an oath, then hooked his finger under the edge of her panties, pulling the silk aside.

At his first tentative foray of her sex, she quivered, and a harsh groan burst from his chest. "Ah, N¨Ļomi, you're so wet.... "

She moaned as he caressed her, spreading the moisture as if he was fascinated by her body's reaction. Stroking him, she murmured, "And you're so hard."

His hand stilled. Their gazes met. They both knew what came next.

"Can't even think about taking your neck... hanging on by a thread... "

"Then take me to bed."

Clasping her up into his arms, he carried her there and set her down.

She worked free his belt as he yanked off her boots, then his own. With a hissed-in breath, he eased his pants past his straining erection.

Oh, my. Her first sight of him aroused. His thick shaft jutted, pulsing in tandem with each new beat of his heart. The sleek skin of the crown was stretched taut, visibly slick. Even as part of her felt as if she'd just unwrapped a tantalizing present, another part of her felt a flare of alarm over his size.

But she shook away her fear. I'm the old N¨Ļomi once more, she reminded herself. She'd make sure they were both ready when he entered her. Confident, she lay back and opened her arms for him.

His brows drew together in an anguished expression as he followed her down. "Christ, I hope this is real."

29

"This is real," she murmured between kisses. "I'm really here."

"How?"

"I wanted to be with you like this so badly. And now I can." She placed his hand on her breast.

With a groan, he palmed one, then the other, his breaths growing ragged.

N¨Ļomi was aroused for him but overwhelmed, attracted yet anxious. His erection prodded against her hip, the wide head so hot and slick, seeming to scald her skin.

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