He needs to cage her in with his body, to keep her from getting away from him, and finds himself backing her against the shower wall. She could have floated through it, but she lets him surround her. He raises his knee beside her and his chained hands over her head.
Positioned like this, he gazes down into the loveliest eyes he's ever seen. As if a breeze has swept a path through the fog of memories and confusion, he feels clearer as he beholds her face. He feels centered.
Feels... feels... felt...
He felt clearer. Conrad felt centered. His very thoughts seemed to arise differently. They were more focused, each one distinct in his mind.
And Conrad wanted to understand why.
Was it her, or the drugs? What exactly was she to him? A suspicion prodded at his consciousness, but he pushed it away.
Her lids grew heavy, her breathing faster, as if she was losing herself in the moment. She was small and perfect. Yet even with his red eyes and scarred, hulking body, she looked at him... hungrily. Could ghosts feel desire?
Not only was she a ghost, a creature he had no experience with, she was a sensual female - again, a creature he had no experience with.
Conrad wanted to try to touch her - because she was both.
With an audible swallow, he eased his hands toward her mouthwatering breasts.
Had she arched to him? He covered their outline with his big palms, but he only experienced the same electricity.
He saw her lower her gaze, as though to see if he'd reacted. He dropped his hands, shamed that he wasn't hard. At that instant, he wished he could be. "You can't get me aroused." He backed away from her, standing under the water. "I haven't been in three hundred years."
"Do you not wish to be?"
"Do you want me to be?"
"Yes," she began with a smile in her voice. "I was thinking that might be nice to see."
He'd once been so proud. Now a creature who didn't even have a body made him feel shame. If he was blooded, his shaft thick with lust, what would she think then? "It takes a special female to tempt me back to life. I'm thinking one with flesh and blood. So you're not her."
"You're speaking of your Bride?"
"Be glad you're not," he said, but with this new clarity, he began to wonder.
Tonight Conrad had recalled what he'd once coveted, what he'd been filled with regret never to possess.
I'd wanted a woman of my own.
One to claim and protect. One to pleasure. As a mortal, he'd longed for this constantly. What if this female was his?
His arm injury ached under the spray of the water. If the curse of that mark was true...
Was this little ghost the one his life had been leading toward? He recalled the chills he'd felt when Nikolai had merely uttered the name of her home.
Conrad had been forced here, sensing it was the first step on a doomed path. His dream... her doom.
"You need to stay away from me." I have to escape this place. "For your own good."
Her brows drew together. "Vampire, I don't know if I can."
Nikolai walked in then, Sebastian behind him. "What's going on in here?"
Conrad lunged in front of her, snapping his teeth at his brothers. Fury churned at the idea of her undressed and in the same room with them. His fangs sharpened with his aggression. To her he gave a half-growl, half-hiss over his shoulder. "Leave. Now."
"But they can't - "
"I said now!" he bellowed, making her squeeze her eyes shut. She flickered before she vanished.
He'd frightened her. He should frighten her.
"What the hell's going on, Conrad?" Nikolai had another syringe at the ready.
Can't have another. He needed to process what had just happened with the female. Clutching his forehead, he struggled to beat back the rage. To stifle the memories that accompanied the fury. Nikolai hesitated with the shot - he was the one who'd said mastering the memories was possible. Conrad endeavored to do it now... .
Time ticked by... Control it. He must have been succeeding because Nikolai ultimately pocketed the syringe.
"You brought it back, Conrad," Sebastian said proudly. "That's the first step."
Nikolai was more cautious. "Who were you talking to?"
"Just leave me to dress." Conrad's tone was weary now, his body fatigued from the battle in his mind. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
Now that the female was gone and her scent had faded, Conrad had doubts about what had just happened as well. His brothers didn't pursue it - because they probably knew they wouldn't believe him. Hesitantly, they left to wait outside.
After turning off the water, he dried himself. For the first time in perhaps three hundred years, he decided to study his reflection. Stubble, eyes blood red, hair too long and cut unevenly.
His appearance was disturbing even to him. And this was an improvement over the last several days. He bit out a curse. When human, he'd never given his looks more than a rare and passing thought.
But then, he'd never wanted to impress anyone before.
As he changed into the jeans his brothers had left for him - the shirt would be impossible to put on with the cuffs - he considered taking down Nikolai and Sebastian, but he was weakened.
Besides, he had a better idea... .
When Conrad exited the room, Sebastian said, "What made you so riled back there?"
Need to make them think I'm recovering. "Nothing." Am I recovering? He'd go along with his brothers for now, until he could escape them.
When Sebastian held up a roll of bandage gauze with his brows raised, Conrad hesitated, then extended his injured arm.
As Sebastian rebandaged it, Nikolai asked, "How'd you get this?"
Conrad muttered. "Occupational hazard." Courtesy of Tarut, an ancient and powerful dream demon who worked with the Kapsliga.
He and the demon had been trying to kill each other for centuries, but neither could quite manage it. Yet just two weeks ago, Tarut had scored a crucial victory.
He'd marked Conrad with his claws. If the tales about dream demons were true, then whenever he and the demon slumbered at the same time, Tarut could retrieve clues to his whereabouts.
Conrad had believed the curse of the mark was just folklore, the demons using tales of it to their advantage. But the injury refused to mend.
And that was only the first part of the curse. Legend held that Conrad couldn't heal until either the demon had been slain - or Conrad had had both his most fervent dream and most feared nightmare come true.
"You have to have a dream to lose it," Tarut had said at their last clash.
Conrad might actually be closing in on one. He stifled a shudder. His dream... her doom.
"You look a thousand times better after the shower," Sebastian said. "You're definitely getting more focused."
He shrugged. It wouldn't matter. Besides Tarut, Conrad was being hunted by at least half a dozen contingents that wanted him either captured or executed.
The Kapsliga, his former order, sought his death because he was an abomination to them - a vampire who wore their symbol on his back. They'd made him their priority, dispatching Tarut and other assassins after Conrad.
Then there were countless offspring of Conrad's victims, all seeking to avenge their fathers, swords in hand.
And it was only a matter of time before he became the target of Rydstrom Woede, the fallen king of the fierce rage demons, and Cadeon, his heir.
Conrad had come by information that they would kill for.
Dozens of demonarchies held Conrad as enemy number one; he worried about none of them - except for the Woede, as the pair was called.
None of these adversaries would hesitate to destroy anyone who stood in their way. It was possible that Conrad and his brothers could be taken down without his lifting a finger.
"Are you ready to drink?" Nikolai asked.
"The only thing I drink that's not fresh from the vein is whiskey," he lied.
In the past, Conrad had drunk bagged blood, but he refused now. Though he was getting thirstier, he didn't need nourishment as often as other vampires, and he'd be damned if he bent to their will in this.
Murdoch had called him stubborn, and Conrad couldn't deny it. After being captured, chained, and drugged, Conrad wouldn't prove obliging to their futile plans - especially when he wouldn't be here much longer.
He'd noted that each brother had a key to his chains. When the ghost returned, he would get her to steal one. And then he'd be gone.
Nothing could be simpler.
Two goddamned days. The female hadn't come back to his room for two days. For that time, Conrad alternated between a burning desire to get free and a need to discover what she was to him.
During the nights, his brothers had returned and tried to reach him, but he had no time for them. Even if he was improving, the part of him that might have responded to his family was dead.
Besides, his mind was consumed with thoughts of N¨Ĥomi.
Now he gritted his teeth, struggling to remain calm. He was trapped, unable to seek her out. If he went into another rage, his brothers might force him to leave this place, jailing him somewhere else.
And he wasn't through here, not yet, not until he figured out if she was affecting his mind. Though he was still having episodes of uncontrollable violence, his aggression and rage were becoming more manageable. Just the fact that he'd pulled back from the edge in the shower attested to that.
Maybe it's not her - maybe it's something about the house. After all, he was lucid now, and she wasn't here.
No, that didn't matter. He could still sense her constantly. Yesterday, it had drizzled all day, and he could swear he'd felt that she was... sad. He routinely heard her late in the night, roaming the hallways of her home. He could make out the ghostly rustle of her skirts or even an occasional sigh. When she passed his room's door, he perceived the change in the air and had learned to search for that faint scent of roses.
He'd called for her, but it was always Nikolai who'd hastened into the room. "Who are you talking to?" he'd asked in an anxious tone.
Now Conrad felt like he suffered a different kind of madness. Need to find her. Want her here. Questions about her plagued him. She wore jewelry - earrings, a choker, a wide band on her forefinger - but she'd had no wedding ring. If this had been her property, then she'd been wealthy, but apparently she wasn't wed. And he didn't think she'd been born well-off - there was something about her demeanor that spoke of a past with nothing to lose.
Would a dancer have made enough to afford this place?
Hell, with her sensuality and complete lack of inhibitions, she could have been a courtesan.
She'd have made a fortune.
Whoever this N¨Ĥomi had been in life, she was now dead. Was he sick to desire a woman's ghost so much? Over the past two days, he'd envisioned her nude form again and again. He might not have been hard for her before, but he'd wanted to be.
He was sick. Not only mad, but sick.
If Conrad was wise, he'd crush this growing obsession with the ghost and get on with his business, with his escape.
He was driven; he wouldn't be sidetracked because he couldn't stop recalling how she'd arched those pale breasts right to his hands.
At twilight, the last of the sun's rays painted the bayou in hazy hues. Along the cypress-cluttered banks, moss dripped from limbs. A rickety folly persisted near the water's edge.
Decades ago, this little inlet of Elancourt's had been navigable, but over the years, debris and grasses had choked the cove until the area looked more like a swamp.
Wildlife teemed. Snakes, alligators, and mink made their home here. Nutrias - large, aquatic rodents - frolicked among the lily pads, flashing their orange teeth.
This was one of N¨Ĥomi's favorite spots on the property. She'd spent the entire day on the bank, crouched at the edge of the water, watching tadpoles growing limbs.
It was the best she could come up with to occupy her so she wouldn't return to the vampire's room.
"Stay away from me," he'd warned. Bonne id¨Ĥe, N¨Ĥomi had decided.
Because she was attracted to him. Softened by the knowledge of his heroism in the past - and awed by the sight of his naked body - she'd begun feeling a strong pull toward him. Their interaction had been heady and addictive for N¨Ĥomi. Even his fearsome bellowing hadn't dampened it.
And it would only get worse.
So what would happen when he left? Again, she'd be all alone in her empty house, enduring her empty life. With no mad but sexy vampire to distract her from her existence.
For someone as sociable as N¨Ĥomi, getting used to the loneliness and the interminable days after her death had been grueling; it was even more devastating when the tenants left.
They always left.
Conrad Wroth will, too.
The idea so depressed her, she'd vowed to stay away from them all. I'd best not get accustomed to them being around.
Her battle to stay away this long had taken all her willpower, but she didn't foresee a victory this eve. Soon the sliver moon would rise like a pale rip in the fabric of the sky, and she was feeling vulnerable, as she always did.
N¨Ĥomi had told Conrad that she felt nothing, which wasn't entirely true. When she danced at midnight, she would feel the pain of her death, that agony relived.
I don't want to be alone. Not tonight...
At twilight, she found herself making her way to him as if pulled by an invisible string. When she hesitated just outside his door, he said, "Ghost, come to me!"
Enjoy the interaction, she commanded herself. Just don't get used to it!
"I know you're there." His voice sounded weary. "Are you frightened of me now?"
She'd never forget the terrifying sound he'd made, the aggressive growl that threatened pain, a sharp reminder of what he was. But she wasn't afraid of him.
She bit her lip. When I go inside, I won't find him as handsome as I've been thinking. She floated through the closed door and immediately glared. No, he was more handsome. Tr¨¨s beau.
Why was he so appealing to her? She'd always favored older men, established in their lives, with some of their fire already subdued by life's trials.
Conrad was all fire... . A beautiful madman.
"Where the fuck have you been?" he immediately snapped. His red eyes flickered over her face, her breasts, down her body and up again with a greedy gaze, surveying her as men had before she'd died.
How was she going to go another eighty years without smoldering looks like that?
Unaffected by his tone, she said, "Did you miss me?" Her demeanor was breezy. He'd never know about her struggle to remain away. "Should I have been here instead?"
"You'd come every day before," he said gruffly.
"You warned me away, remember? And then you bellowed at me like some rabid bear."
"Rabid bear? I didn't want my brothers to see you unclothed."
"Conrad, they couldn't see me at all."
He scowled. "I didn't... recall that! Not at the time. Sometimes, it's difficult for me... " He trailed off, then added, "Damn it, I'd just had a shot."
Unwelcome sympathy for him bloomed inside her - again. She wondered what it would take for him to actually rattle her unwavering attraction. "Why would you care if they saw me naked?"
He looked away and muttered, "I wish I knew."
N¨Ĥomi stifled a smile. He was becoming as attracted to her as she was to him.
"What were you doing outside the house earlier?" He sounded accusatory.
"How did you know I was outside?"
"Didn't hear you all day."
She frowned. "Do you ever sleep?"
"Not if I can help it."
N¨Ĥomi had noticed that he only slept about three or four hours in a twenty-four hour period. "And you never sleep at regular intervals. I can't see a pattern."
"Then no one else can either," he said, but before she could question his words, he said, "Now, tell me what you were doing."
"If you must know - I was studying tadpoles. I've decided to determine how long it takes their legs to grow. To the minute."
"Tadpoles. Why would you do this?"
"Give me an alternative, Conrad. What should I do?"
He was clearly at a loss.
"The one newspaper I was able to snare on the drive has been read. The house is empty of insatiable newlyweds or teenage thrill seekers with spray-paint cans, so I've no one to ogle or to frighten away. But I'm here now, so what did you want?"
Seeming not to know what to say for several moments, he opened and closed his mouth twice.
"Nothing?" she asked airily, waving him away. "Very well, have a good - "
"Stay!" he bit out. "I want you to stay."
"Why? Because you find me more stimulating than watching the paint peeling above the bed?"
He shook his head. "Want to talk to you."
With her chin up, she nonchalantly crossed to the window seat and floated atop it. "Perhaps I'll stay if you agree to answer some of my questions."
"I overhear your brothers talking, but a lot of times, I have no idea what they mean. You could explain some things."
As though put out, he gave a short nod.
"What do they mean about your memories?"
"If a vampire takes blood straight from the vein, it's live, laden with a lifetime of memories. The memories have accumulated, until I can't control them. I can't tell them from my own."
"Every night Murdoch returns with more information about you. He said you have all kinds of people who want you dead."
"He also said he suspects you played with your victims before you killed them."
"I did only what I was paid to do."
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