Nikolai finally said, "Go, Sebastian. Tell Myst I'll return after this."

When Sebastian traced away, Conrad said, "You believe me?"

"I... don't." Nikolai ran his hand over the back of his neck. "I don't know if I can accept everything you said."

"Then why?"

"For whatever reason, you need this badly, and you came to me for it." Nikolai cast him a stern look. "Because I'm still your goddamned brother."

42

St. Louis Cemetery #1,

New Orleans

In the third cemetery they traveled to, the tombs had seen better days. Many were storm-damaged, with crumbling stucco and rusted iron fences. Markings were eroded.

Spates of rain were sporadic; it was well after midnight. And still this haphazard maze of tombs was busy.

Drunken ghost tour patrons laughed raucously as they smoked cheap clove cigarettes and marked Xs on a tall pediment tomb.

Nikolai muttered, "That's not even Marie Laveau's crypt. Though Myst says that the priestess does get a kick out of it."

Conrad roared at the group. "Leave - us!"

After a moment of thunderstruck silence, tourists shoved each other down into the wet gravel as they fled.

Once the place was emptied, Nikolai said, "Conrad, you have to prepare for the possibility that you might not find what you're seeking. Or that you might locate her grave only to find what this woman... what she once was."

Her remains. Conrad shook his head hard. "I understand," he said, then he went still, holding his breath to listen for N¨Ļomi, willing his own heart to slow its furious pounding. He strained to hear over the cicadas and distant traffic -

He jerked his head to the left. There. The faintest rhythm. "I hear her!"

"How can you be sure it's her?" Nikolai asked.

"Know her heart." He homed in on the sound, tracking it to a vast, bleached white tomb, standing at least seven tiers high. Dread built like ice in Conrad's veins. Was she truly within this place? In one coffin among so many? How terrified she must be. I'd dreamed her choking on her terror...

No! Can't think about that now, need to keep my mind focused.

He pinpointed the sound to a third-level bay. The marble closure tablet was eroded beyond deciphering.

Swallowing hard, Conrad punched in the marble, crumbling it. Inside the vault was a small black coffin.

He slid it out from the space, easing it to the gravel path.

"Conrad!" Nikolai clamped his shoulder. "Just be prepared."

Conrad nodded, then gripped the lid, wrenching it free... .

"N¨Ļomi!" he rasped.

Her eyes were closed, her body still as if dead. Remnants of rotting lace and ribbon were scattered over her naked body. Dust marked her pale face and long hair. With a yell, Conrad snatched her out, clenching her to his chest.

"My God," Nikolai breathed. "You weren't... does your female live?"

"N¨Ļomi, say something to me!" Nothing. Conrad brushed the backs of his fingers over her face. No response. But why? He held her away from him. She looked perfectly formed. Her skin was warm and pinkened. Jostling her in his arms, he said, "Please, baby, anything - "

Her eyes fluttered open. So blue.

She coughed, gasping, "... knew you'd find me." Then she burst into tears.

With his gaze averted, Nikolai handed Conrad his jacket to wrap around her. Once he had her covered, Conrad cupped the back of her head, pressing her too tight to his chest, but he couldn't let up.

Trembling against him, she whispered, "I-I knew you'd come for me, Conrad."

"Always, koeri, always," he murmured, gently rocking her. "My brave, brave girl."

Then he met Nikolai's astonished gaze. "My vengeance is no more." His voice broke. "You have my gratitude, brother."

"I'm sorry I doubted you," Nikolai said sincerely. Then he asked, "But did you just call your female bait? That's an endearment for you, Conrad?" At Conrad's annoyed look, he held up his hands. "None of my business." To N¨Ļomi, he said, "Welcome to the family." Then he traced away.

Conrad took her from there as well, tracing her directly into their bathroom at Elancourt. Without releasing her for a second, he drew a bath, then lowered her into the steaming water.

As he washed the dust from her skin and hair, she sat with her eyes dazed, still steadily crying.

"Are you warming up?" She gave a nod. "N¨Ļomi, are you... hurt?"

"N-non, just shaken. Can't seem to stop crying."

"This is killing me, koeri. Tell me what to do to help you."

"I'm sorry. It's just... even when I knew you'd find me, being in the cof - being there was... difficult."

He tucked her hair behind her ear. "I know it must have been terrifying."

She frowned. "Was that Nikolai with you?" When Conrad nodded, she said, "How did he get free?"

"I... broke them out."

"Did you go alone?"

When he nodded, she gasped. "Were you injured? I haven't even checked you over."

"Not at all," he said, pleased that she'd become more animated at least.

"What were you thinking?"

"I needed Nikolai's help to find you. I would've done anything to get to you."

"He welcomed me to the family. Did you tell him we were getting married?" Her big blue eyes glistened with tears. "Because if the offer still stands... "

Conrad exhaled. "We can speak of this later. When you're feeling better."

"Wh-what do you mean?" N¨Ļomi asked, beginning to cry harder.

"Listen to me - shh, love." He sounded like she was tormenting him. "All of this is my fault. The demons will keep coming. If they find out you're alive, they'll never stop."

Relief flooded her, and her tears eased. If that was all he was worried about... "Then keep me safe. I'll never leave here without you. I learned my lesson. I'll stay inside the protection."

"I can't do this. N¨Ļomi, I... I love you. Far too much to see you hurt again."

He'd said he loved her. As soon as she realized she didn't have to dread hearing those words, it dawned on her that she'd truly been reborn.

We're going to be together... .

"And you could... you could do so much better than me," Conrad continued, having no idea that this was as good as decided. "You have your whole life in front of you - why should I think to be the one to intrude on it?"

"Do better? And precisely what's wrong with the man I love?"

"The man you love," he murmured, obviously enjoying hearing that. But then he seemed to force himself to explain, "I'll never walk in the sun with you or share a meal. The Kapsliga and other enemies will continue to dispatch killers. And I'm still not one hundred percent... right in the head."

She rose up out of the water to her knees and laid her hands on the sides of his face. "I like my pale skin and never share my food anyway. And we'll be ready for the Kapsliga. As for your mind, you'll keep getting better each day just as you had been."

"I took your neck. I could have killed you."

"But you didn't hurt me. Conrad, I loved it."

"Then why were you so angry?"

"Because Nïx told me that the day anyone learned how I came back was the day I would die. I couldn't tell you. I wanted to so much! When you took my blood, I thought you might be able to learn of it through my memories. I thought I'd been doomed to die even sooner."

He lowered his forehead to hers. "N¨Ļomi, I had no idea."

"Now, let me see your arm." When he frowned, she said, "You vowed that from the instant that mark healed, you'd make me your wife."

He drew back. "But that was before you... died. Again."

"It doesn't matter." She unbuttoned his shirt with trembling fingers. "Don't Wroths always keep their vows?"

When he shrugged from his shirt, she began tugging off the bandage. He swallowed, just before she revealed... smooth, healed skin.

He exhaled, defeated. "N¨Ļomi, I'll wed you at the earliest opportunity if you'll take a chance on me. I never want to be apart from you again."

"Even if I'm just a mortal?"

"I want you with me forever. I'll find a way to keep you with me - you have to know that." He pulled the ring from his pants pocket.

She cast him a watery smile to see it. "I do so love that ring." As he slid it on her finger again, she said, "And I love the man attached to it. Do you know how difficult it was to return it to you at the ballet?"

"About as difficult as it was to accept it back?"

"I'm so sorry, mon coeur. I had no choice. How could I promise a future I knew I didn't have? But now I can say how proud I'd be to marry you."

"N¨Ļomi, even if there was nothing to divide us, I... I fear I'll only disappoint you. I'll do the wrong thing or hurt your feelings. This won't come overnight - just know that I'll try not to."

"That's all I ask for." She frowned. "Actually, that's not all. I want us to live here, Conrad. Would you ever want to? Can we buy Elancourt from your brother?"

"I'll buy you an estate wherever you wish. Are you sure you want to be here? You were murdered here - how could you not be constantly reminded of it?"

"I've been here for eighty years. I've gotten used to it. Besides, if I hadn't been killed, I wouldn't have you. You told me you would've helped the Russian plunge his sword to be with me - I would've run into Louis's blade for a chance with you."

His brows drew together, the intensity of his emotion seeming to boil over. He kissed her then, a scalding possession. When they broke away, gasping, he rasped, "We'll stay. But only if I get to bring the place back to life for you."

"Why not?" She sighed, stroking his hair from his forehead. "You did with its mistress."

A crash sounded from downstairs, followed by a bellow.

N¨Ļomi gasped. "Was that Bowen? They're still here?"

"Oh, Christ, the witch!" Conrad said. "She got entranced."

"Take me to her, Conrad!" He helped her dry off and don a robe, then traced her to the studio.

They found Bowen clutching Mari to his chest. He was covered with blood and gaping wounds all over his body, while Mari was pale and dazed.

"It worked, then?" Bowen asked Conrad, but his attention was focused on the witch in his arms.

"Yes, you have our thanks - "

"I'm takin' the lass home." To Mari, he said, "And then you're on indefinite leave."

Mari nodded weakly. "Never glancing at a mirror again. Never."

As Bowen stood, carrying Mari into the glass, she peeked back from his arms, her expression pensive. Just before they disappeared, Mari put her forefinger over her lips, a warning to N¨Ļomi.

What does that mean? N¨Ļomi's brows drew together.

And then they were gone, leaving unbroken glass behind. As N¨Ļomi peered at the mirror, her reflection flashed to her ghostly visage and back.

43

The weeks that followed her embodying would have been the happiest of N¨Ļomi's life.

If not for the fact that I came back wrong, she thought, stroking Conrad's hair from his forehead as he slept... .

Shortly after her return, they'd married without fanfare. Initially, she'd been weak from the events of that turbulent night, but as soon as she'd recovered enough, Conrad had gotten a Lore officiate to perform the simple ceremony at Elancourt.

She'd felt guilty marrying Conrad without revealing her misgivings to him. Especially when she'd learned that Bowen had barely managed to pry Mari from the glass. The spell had somehow gone awry.

N¨Ļomi could feel it. She was altered.

She continued her new habit of sleeping during the day, but now she only needed about four hours. She could leave or take food, though Conrad had learned her favorite dishes and tempted her with delicacies from all over the world.

She'd tried to call Mari, but was told that she and Bowen were on an island off the coast of Belize or somewhere fantastic like that.

Though N¨Ļomi yearned to confess her new secret to Conrad, she didn't want to worry him - this was the best he'd ever done. He was just so excited, making plans for them, eager to start their life together. He'd already begun restoring Elancourt, and he was happy, genuinely satisfied with what he imagined the future held for them.

Yet when N¨Ļomi had healed from a small cut in under an hour, she'd been so confounded that she'd tentatively broached the subject. "I worry, Conrad. Sometimes, I don't think I'm... human," she'd told him.

"Of course, you are," he'd said, gathering her into his arms and spinning her around until she was forced to smile. "What else could you be?"

The morning after her embodying, N¨Ļomi had woken to the sound of hammering. Conrad had taken his task of restoring Elancourt very seriously. But once she was well on the road to recovery, his labors were hindered by the fact that she found his sweat-slicked body irresistible.

Whenever she came upon him with his shirt off and his muscles all hot and lathered, she had to have him. "I'm back to normal," she'd informed him. "And normal for me is quite lusty." He'd declared himself "eagerly at your service."

One day she'd found him in the studio, but hadn't thought he'd heard her. She'd gazed at him with pride and a desire so strong it had left her shaken.

As he'd lovingly oiled the mahogany barre, he'd said, "I'll see you dance here." His voice had been husky, as if he was imagining it even then. "I'll watch you for hours, then I'll taste your damp skin."

They hadn't made it even close to getting to the bed... .

His care had made her long to dance again, to use this studio as she'd never been able to. Once she'd gotten stronger, she'd begun practicing again, her love for it undimmed by time.

N¨Ļomi could never take the stage again, but she'd decided to open a Lore ballet school. There was not a single one in existence, and she'd been heartbroken to learn that many Lore children - with their horns and wings and siren screams - couldn't attend human classes.

When she'd asked Conrad what he thought about the idea of a N¨Ļomi Wroth School of Dance, he'd said, "If it makes you happy, then enroll every Lore pup who's willing to wear pink." Scratching his head, he'd added, "Though I'll need to figure out how to expand the studio... ."

Conrad stirred then - but not from a nightmare. Once he'd turned to her, she smoothed the backs of her fingers over his cheek, and he resumed sleeping deeply. Nightmares were rare these days.

Though he'd been apprehensive about taking her blood again, that one bite had already transferred her memories to him. N¨Ļomi had feared hers would be the ones that would send him over the edge, breaching the dam. Yet they actually seemed to be helping him. "I dream of music and laughter and warmth," he'd told her. "It's... soothing to be in your memories. Awake, I'm with you. And asleep, I'm with you. I like this."

She knew he wasn't yet cured. It would take time. She just wished she had even more time with him. Given a new chance at mortality, she'd become greedy for immortality.

Life held so much promise....

Except for the fact that she had no idea what she was.

Sometimes when she looked in the mirror, or if she caught her reflection in a window, she saw glimpses of her spectral self. The shadows around her eyes and under her cheekbones would appear in flashes.

Her night vision was as flawless as it had been when she'd been a ghost, and when she slept, she dreamed of floating and moving things with her mind.

This twilight, N¨Ļomi had awakened with a rose petal clutched in her fist... .

Nïx had visited N¨Ļomi on several occasions. Each time, the Valkyrie blatantly scrutinized N¨Ļomi with those golden eyes, seeming fascinated. Just yesterday Nïx had come to Elancourt and said nothing, only blankly staring at her.

"Nïx, what am I?" N¨Ļomi finally asked her.

"Complicated?"

"I came back wrong, didn't I?"

Nïx sighed. "I can't get a sense of you whatsoever."

N¨Ļomi had no sense of her own self. She didn't feel as she had when human - or as a ghost.

Awkward doesn't begin to describe this meeting.

"Have a seat. Please," Nikolai said, waving to one of the chairs in front of his office desk. Sebastian occupied the other.

Conrad had traced to Blachmount Castle, Nikolai's home, to meet with his brothers - at N¨Ļomi's insistence. It was day in New Orleans, and she'd wanted to nap for the afternoon, so he thought he'd get this over with.

His brothers had questions about the past - and Conrad wanted to formally purchase Elancourt from Nikolai.

With his neck knotted with tension, Conrad reluctantly sat. He was already on edge from leaving N¨Ļomi for the first time since her return, but being back here made his uneasiness ratchet to another level.

"I thought all three of you would be here," Conrad said. "Where's Murdoch?" He would leaven this tense atmosphere.

"Missing in action," Nikolai answered. "We presume it's concerning his 'secret' Bride. I think for the first time in his existence, he's having woman troubles."

"Might do him some good," Sebastian said, then asked Conrad, "Does it not feel surreal to be back here?"

He nodded. This castle was where Conrad and most of his family had died. His young sisters had wept here as they'd succumbed one by one. Blachmount was where Conrad had been born and raised - and raised from the dead.

For three hundred years, Conrad had hated Nikolai for his decision that fateful night. Now Conrad was beholden to him for N¨Ļomi. Without Nikolai's choices and Murdoch's determination, he would never have known his Bride. He would never watch her readying for bed, brushing her long hair.

Just yesterday, he'd thought, My Bride by fate, my wife by choice... .

"I felt the same way when I first returned," Sebastian said.

Nikolai made a scoffing sound. "No, you didn't - you were too busy decking me."

"The second time, then."

Uncomfortable silence ensued. Conrad peered around the paneled study. Nikolai tapped a pen against his desktop. Sebastian jogged his leg.

Eventually, Nikolai rose from his chair. "I have something of yours." He pulled a file from a cabinet, handing it to Conrad. Inside were the deed to Elancourt and the contracts of transferral.

"I signed the property over to you and your Bride the night you got her back."

Conrad's tension cranked up even more. "I can pay you for it."

"It's technically N¨Ļomi's anyway, right? Consider it a wedding gift."

Conrad hated feeling beholden. "Wait." He traced to Elancourt. There, he checked on N¨Ļomi, tugging her blanket higher with a kiss. Then he snagged a bottle of whiskey from the crate. She'd suggested bringing one, but Conrad had gruffly declined. Now he returned to Blachmount and gave it to Nikolai.

Nikolai brushed off the label. "My God, this is... this is... "

"As good as you're imagining," Conrad finished for him.

Sebastian wasted no time, rising for snifters from the sideboard. "Then stop staring at the bottle and let's drink it!"

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