"Just so we're clear," she spit out, as Erion strapped her to the dungeon wall, snapping the ancient cuffs on her wrists one at a time. "My name is Hellen. Not 'bitch,' not 'woman,' not 'female,' 'ransom,' or 'prize.'"
"I'll try to remember that," Erion said, dropping down on his haunches and fastening the ankle shackles that would keep her from running away again.
"No, you won't," she said, her tone as coolly pissed as when he'd found her and stolen her back. "You have no feeling, no care for a poor, innocent female."
He grunted. "Perhaps I would if I saw a poor, innocent female."
Her lip curled. "You're a monster."
Erion inspected his work. The ancient cuffs had come with the house. They were solid and would hold her well without being too irritating on her wrists. The chains at her feet, however, were new. They weren't attached to the wall, so they would grant her some movement, just not enough to get her anywhere near the window or staircase. Escape was futile. He would not allow it again. Right now, he could walk away and wait for Cruen to contact him without worry. The problem was, he didn't want to walk away. Her scent bothered him. Made him snarl, made him hungry-made him more aggressive than normal. It was a good thing her attitude, personality, and verbal ways were so irritating, or he might be tempted to taste her.
"Why is that beast still here?" she said.
For a moment, Erion thought she meant him. But she spoke of the brown-and-white dog who lay on the floor behind him, the dog that had followed them into the woods, the mutt who had shown up at the castle gates twenty minutes after they'd flashed home. Erion wasn't sure what the canine wanted with him or with his prisoner, but at the very least he owed the mongrel a good meal for assisting him in her capture.
"I have a kindred spirit in that canine, I believe," he said, stepping back to admire his work.
She sniffed her irritation. "Fangs, fur, and a penchant for licking your own balls?"
His gaze roamed over her, the captive bride. "You have quite a mouth on you."
"So I've been told."
"By whom? Cruen?" He chuckled disdainfully. "Has he sampled your mouth already? Isn't that against the rules of engagement?"
"There are no rules in this engagement."
Erion's eyes met hers and he frowned. What did her words mean? And why did her voice grow quiet, morbid even, as she spoke them?
He moved closer, his nostrils flaring as her scent begged entrance. It was a diabolically wondrous scent, but it gave no clue as to her species.
"What are you?" he asked.
She smiled. "Cruen's woman."
"No. That is an unfortunate state of being, not an origin of blood."
"Whatever it is, it's all I'm giving you," she said, cocking her head to the side, exposing a long, pale column of neck. "Unless you choose to disclose your true species."
He shrugged gently. "I already have. The bloodsucker, remember?"
She shook her head. "No, you're more than that." Erion had no idea what she was talking about or what game she was playing, but he could continue to watch her mouth move for hours. In fact, if he leaned in one more inch, perhaps two, he could take it, taste it. That full, pink bottom lip between his teeth.
"Maybe I should guess," she continued, interrupting his thoughts. "You are part bloodsucker and part . . . hmmm, let's see . . . A very foolish little prick who has no idea what he's stolen."
Erion returned to reality with a jolt. "Little prick?" He burst out laughing. "That's amusing."
"Oh, of course," she said with obvious disdain. "I'm sorry. You are a big dick whose tiny brain resides in his ass. How's that? More accurate?"
Moving in, Erion reached for both her hands, pressed them flat against the dungeon wall with his weight. "The proof is in the pinning, female."
He heard her breath catch, felt the pulse at the base of her neck quicken. His hunger flared.
"The warden likes it rough," she uttered blackly.
"Yes, he does." He faced her, his eyes locking on to her emerald green fire. He would teach her not to goad him.
"Do you think Cruen likes it rough as well?" she asked.
"Probably. Most assholes do."
"Good to know." One pale auburn eyebrow lifted pointedly. "Asshole."
His eyes narrowed and he shook his head. "Such disrespect."
"I will gag you, if I must."
"Try it," she said dangerously, leaning toward him, struggling against the cuffs and his hands and his body. "My father will wipe you from the face of the Earth when he finds out what you've done."
"Stop squirming," he growled, but released her and eased back. "You will rip into your flesh."
She snorted. "As if you care."
"Oh, I care." His skin was on fire, the lower half of him responding to the nearness of her body, the scent of her. "I must have you exactly the same as when I stole you."
"You fear him," she said, her gaze searching his, looking for any whisper of weakness. "You fear Cruen."
Erion recognized a bright, quick, and possibly savage mind within this female. He would not underestimate her. Or his own attraction to her, for that matter. She was no blushing, sweet-hearted bride-to-be, just as he was no kind and compassionate jailer.
They both had reasons for being in their situations.
But his were far more dire.
"Make no mistake, female," he said. "I will do whatever I must to get back what was stolen from me."
She lifted her chin. "And what was that?"
"Not your concern."
Her eyes flashed with interest. "A woman?"
He angled his head. "Do I look as if I wear jewels?"
She leaned back against the wall, her lips thinning. "It must be something of great value."
In that moment, Ladd's face appeared before him. Frightened yet hopeful. Erion ground his teeth. Cruen would pay dearly for taking his son.
His lids flipped open and he narrowed his gaze on his bargaining chip. "What I must have returned is priceless."
For the first time since he'd taken her, the female appeared worried. "You won't tell me what it is?" she asked.
He remained silent.
The worry in her eyes intensified. "And how do you expect Cruen to find you? To make this trade?"
"I believe it was you who called him all-powerful. By now he knows you were taken and knows who has taken you. He will come for you. Have no fear. Very soon you will be in his arms, and he will make you his." His voice dropped to a whisper. "In every way."
Erion watched her closely, watched for her look of worry to morph into a look of desire or fear or contempt. Something he could understand, something that gave him a clue as to why she'd entered into a lifelong mating with that bastard. What he saw was ruthless determination. The woman was pure fight, pure venom-like her name, Hellen. She was giving nothing away but a battle, a struggle, and as much as he wanted to dislike that quality, he found her internal drive and strength most appealing.
He would have to watch that.
"In the meantime," he said. "You will find comfort down here."
She raised her arms as much as she was able. "This your idea of comfort?"
"When compared to the other scenarios I had in mind for you after you ran from me, yes."
Her gaze mocked him. "How romantic. The women must just swoon over you."
He ignored her jab, ignored the way his blood continually threatened to pool lower every time her scent pushed into his nostrils. "You will be clothed and well fed."
"Perhaps I will starve myself so you have nothing to negotiate with."
He shook his head slowly. "Don't make threats. I will force-feed you if I must."
"You don't even know what I eat."
She shook her head, her eyes flashing.
"The souls of innocent children?"
She grinned. "Close."
"Not to worry," he said, trying not to stare at her mouth. "We'll find you something that not only keeps you alive, but also keeps your mouth occupied."
Her eyes widened and her nostrils flared. "Barbarian," she uttered.
Grinning, he turned to leave, the dog scrambling to his feet and trotting after him.
He barely reached the stairs when she called out after him. "Are you truly one of them, Male?"
He paused, glanced over his shoulder. "One of whom?"
"If the vein beckons."
"Then how did you see it?" she demanded, pressing forward, straining at her ties.
"See what?" Erion asked brusquely, forcing his gaze from her jutting breasts to her flashing eyes.
"The light by the gravestone," she said.
Erion hesitated, one foot on the bottom step. Thoughtful, he searched his mind for the scenario that had prompted such a question. Then it hit him. The light she'd nearly walked into before he'd captured her. He shrugged with the noncomplexity of the answer. "Because it was there."
Her eyes narrowed and her lips parted. She looked as though she were about to say something, but decided to hold her tongue.
"Is that it?" he asked.
She nodded. "For now."
"Then welcome to my home, Hellen. May your stay be fruitful and short-lived."
He was up the stairs, had his hand around the door handle, when he swore he heard her voice on the air behind him. She'd uttered only one word, but a word that had him concerned.
Bronwyn had just put her infant daughter, Lucy, down for a nap and was going in search of Lucian. She wanted to see if her mate had returned, his brothers too, and if anyone had discovered a lead on Ladd's whereabouts. She was just entering the library after hearing voices down the hall when she stopped abruptly and backed up. If she had a heartbeat, it would be pounding like a jackhammer in her chest right about now. What the hell? She flattened herself against the wall outside the door and listened.
"You and Bron are happy, then?"
"As happy as I know how to be. But I try to make her happy-that's all that matters to me."
Bronwyn shook her head. What in the world was he doing here? The last person she expected to be sitting in the Romans' library was the paven she'd shared a Veracou ceremony with nearly a year ago talking to the paven who now owned her blood, her breath, her body.
This wasn't good.
"And the balas?" Synjon asked. His voice was different than she remembered. No longer jovial and confident. Now it rang cold and empty.
"My little bloodsucker, Lucy." Lucian chuckled. "She's beautiful and sweet. Shit, she's perfect."
"Who's the father, then?"
"Fuck you, Brit Boy."
Syn laughed, but the sound was anything but merry. "You know I'm bloody chuffed you're happy, Frosty."
"No, you're not," Lucian said, though his tone held no malice. "But I don't give a shit what anyone feels or what anyone thinks except for my veana."
Synjon grunted. "Your veana."
"Don't go there, man."
"Haven't you gone there? Over and over in your head?"
"Don't know what you're talking about. Kinda don't want to."
"That's rubbish and you know it," Synjon said. "What happens when her actual true mate shows up? When he claims her? No matter how she fights it, doesn't want it, she won't be able to stop her body's attraction to that chap. She'll be his veana."
The growl that blasted out into the hall made Bron jump. "No one will ever touch her," Lucian raged, sounding ever more the Breeding Male beast he carried within him. The beast that would never have a true mate, but loved his veana and balas more than his own life. "No one! I don't give a shit what calling card the male sports. I would kill anyone who laid a hand on what's mine."
Refusing to allow fear to anchor her, Bronwyn leaned in and glanced into the room. She found both males on their feet, aggressive in their stances. But it wasn't Lucian she worried about or even took the time to look over. It was the sight of her once close friend, the paven she'd protected when they were young and the paven who had agreed to mate with her when she was so afraid she'd be given over to the Breeding Male.
Oh, the irony. Now she was with the Breeding Male, her blood able to keep him sane, her unbeating heart filled with the hope that her real true mate would never find her.
Her gaze ran the length of her friend. In the seven months since she'd seen him last, Synjon Wise looked like a shell of his former self. He was tall and still shockingly handsome, but far too thin and pale. And his eyes . . . they were dark and sunken, and though they'd always flashed with a deadly fire, now they just looked dead, empty.
"What are we looking at?"
Bronwyn jumped at the whisper near her ear and whirled around to find two bright blue eyes staring curiously at her. "Jeez, Sara. You scared me."
Alexander's mate grimaced. "Sorry." She gestured to the library door with her chin. "Who's in there?"
"Lucian and Synjon."
Sara's eyes widened. "Synjon? Really. What's he doing here?"
"I don't know." She felt tired all of a sudden. "I didn't even know he was here."
Sara glanced past Bron's shoulder, her growing belly pressing against the veana's flat one. She gasped softly. "Oh, my gods. What's wrong with him? He looks like he hasn't fed in weeks."
More like months, Bron was willing to bet. That was long-term starvation. "I have no idea."
"Well, don't you want to go in and find out?"
Bronwyn couldn't blame the female for asking. Alexander's true mate was a psychiatrist who was used to getting to the root of people's problems, then fixing them. But Bronwyn didn't know if she wanted to go there with Syn. She cared for him deeply, always had, but the guilt she felt for mating him, then succumbing to her desire, her love, for Luca was still so strong within her. She'd never had his forgiveness-and she knew she didn't deserve it.
"Maybe later," she told Sara, who looked as though she were waiting for the right answer but had just gotten the wrong one.
"He's your friend, Bron."
Yes, exactly. Gods, Sara couldn't possibly understand this. Synjon Wise was her friend, had been her best friend, and she'd taken advantage of that friendship, betrayed him in every way possible.
No doubt seeing her internal struggle, Sara put her hand on Bron's shoulder and softened her tone. "You look miserable. What's wrong?"
She glanced up into her sister-in-law's gentle, encouraging face and crumpled. "All he went through, all that I put him through, and then the veana who died in Cruen's compound . . ."
"Synjon's veana," Sara finished for her, knowing the story. "The female he was in love with, thought he'd lost, thought was dead."
Bronwyn nodded. "It's my fault."
"Okay. Come here." Sara took her hand and led her down the hallway, away from the library and the pavens. "What you just said." She shook her head. "No, Bron. Not true."
"If I hadn't brought him into my drama, asked him to mate with me, he would never have known the truth." Tears pricked behind her eyes. "Juliet would still be alive."
"You don't know that."
"I know that, Sara. Just like I know he looks that way because he's consumed with hatred, is desperate for revenge. And maybe after he gets it he'll want to follow his veana into death."
Sara looked horrified. "Bron . . ."
Bronwyn couldn't stay under that microscope of shame. She didn't want to talk anymore. She turned away from Sara and ran down the hall toward the stairs. She needed her baby, needed to see Lucy, smell her hair, bury her face in the tiny one's neck, know that the one thing she'd created in this world was right and good and worth everything-even the slow death of the paven who at that very moment was standing in the Romans' library with the paven she'd left him for.
Day began in shards of pale light through the window across from her. In those first moments of dawn, Hellen didn't question how the glass she'd shattered so thoroughly the night before had been repaired or when. No. As she took in her first golden sunrise aboveground, she could think only about the heat that had been coming on slowly and continuously over the past several hours. It was a heat she hadn't felt in years, prayed she would never feel again, and it was going to ruin her if left unchecked.
At that moment, it remained focused on her feet and calves, but soon-very soon-it would travel upward. And once it hit her inner thighs, she would be a slave to it.
Terror filled her as she pulled against the chains that held her. Where was Cruen? Why hadn't he come for her? She was in such desperate trouble. The draft that had kept her cool, kept her chaste for so long, was bleeding out of her. She didn't know how to handle the shock of need that would hit her. Her body was used to the steady, even coldness the draft gave her. Relied on its protection from the insatiable need for sex, the sexual heat of the Underworld. This need was only one of the things her mother had called Unfortunate Gifts or Unwanted Inheritances for the Devil's firstborn. But the loving female had always made sure Hellen knew how to handle each one, while keeping Abbadon in the dark.
Through the window, the sky lightened to a pale blue. The true dawning of a new day.
If Cruen didn't come for her soon, bring her to his lair, where her draft sat cushioned within her clothing bags, she would need sexual gratification just as she needed air-and, gods help her, she wouldn't be able to stop herself from begging for it.
As a bubble of sweat trailed from her forehead down to her cheek, her lip curled. She would die before she was forced to ask that male-that strange, mixed-up bloodsucker who could see demon fire-for help.
She would beg him to kill her first.
She heard a door open and movement on the stairs. Her eyes instantly followed the sound and saw a male guard descending. He wasn't the same one she'd unleashed her fighting skills on the night before. No doubt the bloodsucker had requested a more powerful, less timorous guard to attend her. And this one certainly fit the bill. Tall, skull shaved, and bulging with muscle and a cocky attitude, he was the very model of intimidation.
As he neared, Hellen caught sight of the tray he carried and the scent of food within.
Her stomach lurched. It was the last thing she wanted-the last thing she wanted to fill her.
"Get out," she uttered without care. "And take that slop with you."
The guard didn't pause, didn't look wary in the least. Instead he kept coming, his gaze raking over her as he sauntered forward.
Hellen despised her body for reacting even in the slightest to his obvious and offensive perusal.
"You will eat," the male insisted, placing the tray on the floor beside her feet. "The master has given me strict instructions."
The master. That bloodsucker was one arrogant bastard. He'd get along with her father swimmingly. She tipped up her chin. "And did your master tell you how I am to consume this meal?"
The male appeared momentarily confused. It wasn't a good look for him.
A low growl escaped her lips. "No? That would be far too logical."
Unfortunately, the guard understood sarcasm, and he didn't appreciate it. "You would be wise to not insult Master Erion, female."
ERION. She perked up. Finally, a name. It suits the bloodsucker, she thought. Overpowering, dictatorial, and mysterious-the name of a male who lived by his own code of conduct. The heat licking at her toes and ankles seemed to flare in agreement. She pressed against the cool metal chains, trying to get some relief.
"Perhaps you could go and ask him," she said in a pained voice. "Maybe grab a knife and fork while you're at it."
"Master Erion is not at home." The male was staring at her intently, his nostrils flared.
A slow stream of unease went through Hellen. His master was gone, leaving him in charge of a creature who would tempt him in ways he couldn't possibly understand. His eyes raked her and he was sniffing.
"We don't need any help or implements," the guard said, a grin forming on his thin lips. He moved a foot closer, continuing to inhale. "I could feed it to you."
Panic prickled her skin. Was she really going to have to deal with this right now? With every guard her jailer would send her way?
She steadied her gaze and her breathing and recalled everything her mother had told her, taught her, begged her to use if she had no other choice. "Or you could just untie me."
The male's grin widened to the point of maniacal. "That would be the illogical choice. Don't you think?"
"So you wish to feed me like an infant?" she said quietly.
He chuckled. "You are far from an infant."
You have no idea how far.
His gaze pinned to her breasts, which were barely contained by the ravaged wedding gown, the guard moved closer, the tray at her feet all but forgotten.
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