He moved through the city like the ghost he'd once been called-like the ghost he could've been if the ruddy gods had been merciful instead of perpetually cruel. The cover of night did little to shield him from the eyes of the millions who lived and worked in Manhattan, and so he took to the airways, flashing in and out of the crowds until he reached the quieter, less-populated parts of town.
SoHo, and particularly the street on which the Roman brothers lived, was devoid of pedestrian traffic, almost suburban in its cleanliness and drawn-curtained windows exposing the warm lamplight from inside. The brothers have done brilliantly well in choosing this location for their compound, he thought, abandoning all flash progression and heading toward his destination at an easy jog. Though the building they lived within wasn't difficult to find, if one was looking.
And he was definitely looking.
He rounded the corner of the warehouse, dropped to the ground just before the fence line, and planted five of his strongest military-grade magic deflectors. Minutes ticked by as he let the deflectors do their job, pulling in and defusing the magic. Then he gingerly stepped across the line and leaped over the fence.
They didn't know he was coming. Well, he'd never given them a bloody save-the-date card, had he? But the Roman brothers had offered him their allegiance that night in Cruen's laboratory nearly seven months ago, when the world had gone to rubbish-when his first love had been murdered by Cruen. He'd gone there to find Cruen, but had found his love in a cage, nude, starving for sex. Believing her a Breeding Female, Cruen had abducted her, kept her until he could bring Lucian Roman, the Breeding Male to her. Cruen had wished to force them to breed.
The thought, the memory, of her in that cage, in sexual pain, made his blood churn and heat in his veins. He was ready to call in his marker. For months he'd been trying to find Cruen, take him down, but that ancient bastard had managed to block him at every turn, using deeply powerful magic that both repelled him and destroyed his mind and body.
He didn't like having to ask for help, but it was becoming dire. He needed backup before Cruen's repelling magic killed him.
He beat his fist hard upon the wood, and in moments, the door opened. Lucian Roman stood there, framed in the wide entryway. The tall, near-albino Pureblood gave him a curious, fascinated, and annoyingly familiar assholelike glare.
"Been a while, Brit Boy?" Lucian said. "You look like hell."
"'Course I do, Frosty. I've been living in it for the past seven months." Synjon Wise nodded at the white-haired paven who had mated his good friend, Bronwyn, and was his chuffed equal at imparting insulting pet names. "Seven months and I've yet to capture the devil." He moved past the Roman brother and stepped inside without being asked. "Don't like asking for help, but it seems I have no other choice."
Hellen landed with a jolt, her feet smacking against hard earth, her teeth knocking together, and her hand automatically reaching back for her bow. But it wasn't there.
'Course it wasn't there.
She wasn't home. She wasn't in the carriage. And she wasn't in the arms of the bloodsucker she was promised to.
Her heart pounded hard and fast in her chest, but she forced herself to calm. Think. Assess.
Her eyes took a moment to adjust to the darkness surrounding her. She was still outside, but the landscape had changed. Beneath the cool moon, she saw rolling hills dotted with trees, and beyond, miles and miles of what appeared to be brown, spindly vines. Where was she? Flowing up through her nostrils, the scent of earth was strange and lovely and begged her system to calm, but that wasn't about to happen. She'd been stolen, ripped away from her destiny. And the thing, the tank with arms, who had done it was holding her still.
In fact, one of those arms was clamped around her middle, keeping her tight against the wall of muscle that was his chest.
Who is he? And how is he connected to Cruen? What did he want from the bloodsucker? And how far would he go to get it?
Every muscle inside her screamed to flex, to fight, but the shift of space and distance had slowed her reaction time. Her mind and body weren't as tightly fused as they normally were. It was only the years of disciplined battle in the Rain Fields that allowed her to push past these new and frustrating limits and begin the process of a competent struggle.
As the male moved forward, up the steep incline of a gray-green hillock, Hellen kicked and wriggled to get free. As she did, her body slowly realigned. Moans, grunts of pressure escaped her throat, and she slammed the back of her head into whatever she could make contact with. But instead of releasing her, the male cursed, then yanked her even tighter against him.
Panic threatened to waste her energy, make her muscles tired and useless, but she ignored their need, their protest. She hadn't given up everything: her life, her freedom, her future-shit, everything-for some asshole with a grudge to come in and take it away.
Gathering all the rage and heat and determination she had in her guts, she cried out in battle, arched her back, and slammed her elbow into the male's belly.
The pain came quick. But it wasn't his pain. "Shit!" she hissed as her bone met the granite wall of his abdominals.
"Cease fighting, woman," he growled, completely unfazed by her assault. "You will injure yourself."
His voice, a rough timbre of equal parts death and intrigue, echoed in the cold air he dragged her through. But she refused to heed his warning. Again, she screamed out her battle cry, again she thrust her elbow back, then twisted and snarled and fought like the demon she was to get free.
"Your struggle is useless," he said, his breathing unfettered, as though he carried an irritated child, not a fully grown, feral demon female.
"It will be of great use," she sputtered, refusing to stop fighting, "if I can get one good shot to your crotch."
He grunted as he moved swiftly down the steep slope of the hill. "Tell me where your betrothed is and perhaps I will release you."
She would sooner believe a rogue demon. "Bullshit." She swallowed the urge to ask him why he wanted Cruen. Had the bloodsucker she was to mate done something heinous to this male or his family? And did she care? "You're not about to let me go. You've risked too much in stealing me."
She could practically feel his satisfied grin. "True. But I could ease my hold on you."
"Oh, what a wondrous bargain," she spat out caustically. "And one I would certainly make, for your stench is most foul. But alas and once again, I do not know where my fiance resides."
"Perhaps a few days as my houseguest will cause that information to surface."
"Not a chance," she returned, then whipped her head to the side and hit his cheek with a resounding smack. It hurt like hell, but she didn't care. She reveled in his quick and pissed-off curses. She had to get away from him, get to Cruen, or get home. "I demand you return me to the forest! To my coach!"
A growl vibrated against her neck and the male came to a fierce halt at the bottom of the verdant valley. He released his hold on her waist, only to grab her shoulders and whirl her to face him. Her breath caught in her lungs as she hung there, a good foot off the ground.
"Demand?" he repeated caustically. "You demand from me?" His voice dropped to a deadly whisper. "Let's get one thing very clear, woman. There will be no demands and very few opportunities to bargain. From now until I decide otherwise, you belong to me. You are my prisoner and my bait. Only when I have back what was stolen from me will I even think about releasing you."
She stared at him, forced herself to hold his gaze. It was all she could do, as her throat and tongue refused to work. Gods, she was pathetic. She hung there, immobile and stunningly fearful. She had been raised by the most hideous of beasts-the king of all beasts, in fact. Abbadon was the Devil himself, massive, ugly, feral, and he loved to strike fear in every cell of everyone he encountered. But this male . . . this male was somehow worse. This fearsome creature with long black hair, severe catlike features, and silver eyes that smoldered with determined passion wasn't interested in intimidation or arrogant threats. No, this male's motivation for abducting her and holding her hostage was fueled by something far more dangerous. Deep emotional stakes. Cruen had taken something the fearsome creature desperately wanted, and Hellen knew down to her very core that he would stop at nothing, not even the promise of his own death, to get it back.
The male watched her, knew her mind raced with assessments and questions and perhaps even unhatched plots. His fingers dug into her skin as he stared at her. His lip curled and the muscles in his neck bulged.
"Shall we end this, woman?" he growled. "This dangerous game you're playing?"
Letting him know how fearful she was would be foolish at best. Forcing an attitude of confidence had always served her well in the past.
"I play at nothing," she said through gritted teeth.
He glared at her as if she were something to consume. "I will give you one chance. Tell me where your beloved is, where the location of your soon-to-be mating bed resides, and I will return you."
She shook her head, nostrils flaring. "I can't help you."
Fury glittered in his diamond eyes. "A liar and a hellion."
She didn't deny the latter, but he was kidding himself if he thought she was lying to him. "Do you really think I want to remain here, captive and treated like a rag doll? I have nothing to gain in that."
He sniffed arrogantly, as though the answer was as obvious as the sneer on his face. "If you would mate with Cruen, you would also protect him."
"You think Cruen needs protection?" she said with a trace of black humor. "Clearly you don't know him intimately. He is far more powerful than you can even imagine."
The corners of the male's full lips curled up into a demonic smile. He pulled her closer. The scent of him entered her nostrils, made the skin on her arms tingle, and perhaps something in her belly as well.
"You have seen this power up close, have you?" he asked, his face a mere half arrow's length from her own.
"Of course," she lied. She had no intention of letting him know she'd never met her fiance-that, in fact, she'd basically been sold to the bloodsucker. "And if you don't return me this very instant, that power shall be released on you. Are you and those you love prepared to die for this cause?"
His face turned to stone in an instant. His nostrils flared as he pinned her with a look so still, so cold, she thought her breath would be visible when she exhaled.
"Yes, woman," he said. "I am prepared to die."
Hellen didn't say another word. She never had the chance. Without warning, the male tossed her over one shoulder and started up the rise. Panic shot through her and she continued to fight, using every part of her body that wasn't contained. But even as she fought, she knew it was no use. He was impossibly strong and determined to have his way. Her chest grew tight, the air fighting to get in and out. If she didn't find her way to Cruen, mate with him, her father would punish her sisters, perhaps even force one of them to wed the bloodsucker in her stead. She'd sworn to their mother before the female died that she would care for her sisters, protect them from Abbadon, the male her own mother had been forced to wed. And Hellen had-she'd done everything she could to keep that promise. She had become the sacrifice. And now this bastard was getting in her way.
Facing backward, nearly immobile within his grasp, Hellen craned her neck, attempting to glance over her shoulder. She wanted to see where he was taking her. Under the bleak light of the mist-coated moon, a gray stone castle spread out across the land, its four turrets rising up to the clouds. With its slit windows and acres of grapevines in ruler-straight rows, it was impressive and oddly welcoming. Not at all what she thought her prison would look like.
An iron gate surrounded the property, and a pair of massive wooden double doors announced the entrance. When the male stopped before them, Hellen wondered if this was her chance to escape. Though her field of vision hadn't been optimal, during the quick surveillance over her shoulder, she'd seen no guards. The male would have to release her to open the gate, wouldn't he? She waited, slowed her breathing, and combed the landscape behind them for the best route once she broke from him-the thickest stand of trees, the darkest spots within the small forest.
It was in that moment, the moment she spied a heavy growth of trees in the distance, that her ears caught the sound of quick pain, and her nostrils the scent of blood.
She gasped, flinched, thinking that it was her own blood she scented. He had cut her. How had she missed it? How had she not felt it? She craned her neck again as her mind searched for the point of pain on her skin. But this time, what she saw over her shoulder killed the cool, thought-based awareness she was striving for and sent flares of sick panic coursing through her.
The male had bit into his wrist. He was lifting the wound toward the gate, blood dripping from the twin fang pricks onto the ground.
"You're a bloodsucker!" she cried, as he pressed the wound against the lock.
He hissed, perhaps at the pain of it or the coolness of the metal. Perhaps at her.
"You're a vampire," she continued, true fear within her now. How hadn't she guessed this? He wanted Cruen. It stood to reason whatever issue they had would stem from the fanged world.
"You sound horrified," he said with mild amusement.
There was a sharp click, and the double doors drew back at a slow, even pace.
"I am!" she said, feeling suddenly queasy. "Your fangs. The blood. You bit into your own flesh."
"Get used to it," he said, carrying her toward the front door of the castle. "The paven you are to wed will be biting into far more than his own wrist. If you get my meaning."
She didn't want to get his meaning, even though she saw it clearly in her mind. It was the one thing she feared about her mating. Not the sex; she could blank out and open her legs easily enough. But the bite of a vampire. The fangs breaking her skin, blood being sucked out of her. It sickened her. She began to struggle once again as he moved up the stone steps and entered the castle.
The space was solemn and, unlike the exterior, aesthetically unwelcoming. Barren of all furnishings, the foyer had only sparse light provided by a few candles. This was far more like the prison of her imaginings.
True panic gripped her, and the male must have felt it, for he tightened his hold on her as he left the foyer and headed down a long hallway. A few servants appeared out of nowhere and rushed toward them, but the male grunted something at them and they fell back immediately. Hellen assumed they were servants, but who knew? Whatever they were, they kept their eyes down and off of her-afraid to look, or maybe they'd seen such barbaric behavior before and had been warned against interfering.
How many times had he taken a female here?
How many times had that female been released?
Her lip curled. When she got free, he would die for this.
They traveled for many minutes deep inside the castle, through doorways and down one lonely corridor after the next. Hellen had ceased her struggle and curbed her panic after leaving the foyer, and instead was using her energy and keen awareness to keep close watch on which way they turned, which hallways they went down, and which doors they entered so she could find her way out again.
It seemed like forever before they finally stopped. As painful as it was in the hold he had her in, she craned her neck to see what was going on. The door they stood before was black wood with what appeared to be two streaks of blood crisscrossing in the center. Hellen's belly clenched with nerves and with the feeling one gets when one's soul-lifting plans for escape are suddenly drowned by a few head dunks into an icy bath of reality. This was bad. She wasn't sure what awaited her behind this door, but she was willing to guess it involved torture of the most gruesome kind.
Her skin tightened around her muscles, and she forced her mind to think beyond the immediate. Panic was out of the question; fight too, for she had no weapon that could match his brawn. What she did have were brains and-
The male yanked open the door and headed down a set of stairs. With each step, cold infused Hellen's skin, a dark, mean cold that threatened those brains she had been relying on a second ago. But she pressed against it. Again she craned her neck to see where they were going. It was brighter than it had been in the foyer, and when the male hit the last step, she could see the room that met them far too well. It was circular and damp, with stone walls that looked anything but clean. Her heart pounding against her ribs, she noticed that there were three doors cut into the rock, thick torches in ancient holders bracketing each. What the hell is behind those? she wondered. But the question floated away, became absolutely insignificant, when she saw what was bolted into the remaining wall.
A rusty set of shackles.
For both hands and feet.
Terror like she'd never known surged through her. But she forced it back. Fear would serve no purpose except to aid him. She had to remain calm and plot, plan.
"You think that's where you're going to put me, asshole?" she said, purposefully adding a hint of confident humor she didn't feel into her tone. He would not know how her belly clenched and her heart raced.
"If you don't play nice." The bloodsucker grabbed her shoulders and whirled her around, then set her on her feet. He called to someone to her left, "Take her-hold her, Cayman."
A large, pale-skinned, thin-lipped male crept out from the shadows near the base of the stairs and moved toward her. Shit. She tensed. What the hell was this? Were there more? More hiding in the shadows? Hellen hissed at him, flashed her demon eyes. Immediately, he slowed his pace, looking wary.
And if she was willing to venture a guess, not nearly as powerful as his master.
Hope snaked through her blood. Perhaps they were all this meek; perhaps she could manage an escape after all.
The bloodsucker whose chest brushed against her back growled at the male servant. "You hesitate over this insignificant female?"
Yes, she mused, staring at the guard, giving him her ugliest glare, her most fearsome expression. Come here and I'll show you insignificant.
The male backed up a foot.
"You embarrass yourself, Cayman, and me," the bloodsucker said tightly. "She is only a female. Do you wish the rest of the guards to know your shame?"
His words hit their mark with perfect accuracy. The guard's pale skin flushed with heat, and though he kept his eyes below her chin, he strode forward and took her by the shoulders. He yanked her against him in a display of masculine assholery, holding her far tighter than the brute male had. So tight, in fact, that she could feel his private parts against her belly. She glared at him, growled low in her throat, hoping he would take the hint and loosen his hold, but he didn't.
Satisfied that his servant had control, the bloodsucker walked away from them. He opened the door to one of the rooms cut into the stone wall and entered.
Now. Do it now.
Shit. Do something or you're done for. Make a move or you're not your father's daughter.
Hellen scoured every inch of the dungeon with her gaze. As she'd thought, this male, though he held her tightly, didn't have near the strength of the bloodsucker. She could sense it. But she would let him think he did. She would press against his inferior hold, make it seem as though she were attempting to fight, then sigh with frustration at being caught.
She studied each door, the stairs. She'd have to be quick. Who knew when the bloodsucker would be back? Her gaze caught a patch of pale light behind the stairs, and her heart pumped furiously. The light, it moved, changed. She started to struggle, inching them toward the light so she could get a better look.
The male gripped her arms shockingly tight.
"Move again, and I'll knock you out," he warned, though beneath his threat lay a tremble of insecurity.
The pain was nothing. She saw it fully now. A small window and the strange, erratic light. It was rain. Hope flared. Rain would make it harder for him to track her.
It's now or never.
Whimpering as if she was in pain, she sagged against the guard. When he loosened his hold to get a better one, she grabbed his arms and pushed herself back. Silent and fierce, she struck. Three solid moves: head butt, elbow to the neck, then her knee slamming up directly into those less-than formidable male parts she'd felt earlier.
The male was stunned, his face a drastic shock of pain, before he dropped to one knee on the stone.
Hellen didn't wait to see anything more. She bolted past him, sprinted across the floor, and leaped at the window, shoulder first.
The bargain had been struck centuries ago. Magic, powerful blood for a promise. Unsatisfied by the meager power of his race, Cruen had wanted to create the ultimate vampire. Something he could use and control. But his attempts to blend DNA within the vampire community had failed. He'd needed something more, someone who had what he lacked.
He'd found the Devil, Abbadon.
The trip into the Underworld so long ago had nearly cost him his life, but it had been worth it. The blood Cruen had consumed from Abbadon's veins had made him unstoppable, and the blood he'd extracted from himself, then mixed with shifter DNA, had made the Breeding Male. For decades it had been a happy bargain.
Until he'd accidentally infected himself and become mutore.
And until the Devil had called in his marker.
Inside his chamber, Cruen's nostrils flared with disgust. She was here. Abbadon's firstborn. The thing he had promised to mate. The creature he would take to his bed until the first child of both hell and earth was born.
The child Abbadon had never been able to create himself-the child he believed would have just the right magical balance in its DNA to be able to remain on either plane. A gene the Devil would extract and use to finally be able to remain on Earth.
Cruen gazed up at the portrait in his bedchamber, at the female he would kill to have in his bed. Yes, the veana who gazed down at him, Pureblood, pure vampire, ripe and beautiful, intelligent and wicked. He would do anything to possess her again. And, in fact, he was.
Mating with the demon female Hellen would grant him all the power of the Underworld, and once she bore the heir her father so desperately wanted, Cruen would finally be free to seek out the veana he'd always wanted.
They would live together, love as he'd always known they were meant to. As he continued his work with the Breeding Male and Female, she would be at his side. She would encourage him, support him, love him. And in return he would tell her of the daughter they'd made together-the daughter Celestine had always thought had died at birth.
Movement at the door drew Cruen's attention away from the portrait. "What is it, Gale?"
His servant hovered, his eyes not meeting his master's. "She has arrived, my lord."
"Very good. Bring her to my antechamber."
Cruen forced good humor as he left his private room and went next door to his offices. He would steel himself for what would come, both female and the power her presence brought forth. For if he failed to mate with her, Abbadon would cut him off completely. As it was, the demon king was granting him blood only sparingly until the match was made.
Cruen scented the demon female as she approached his office, scented her blood-after all, her father's blood was within him too.
A hooded figure appeared in his doorway.
"Come," Cruen said, keeping his tone amenable.
The figure did as she was instructed, stepping into the room. But once inside, she removed her hood and stood before him with a worried frown.
Cruen sneered. "You are not she," he uttered, his gaze running the length of her. This demon female was beautiful, demure, and nervous. He knew what awaited him, and this was not it.
The female paled. "No."
"What is this?" He stood, glanced behind her to his guard. "Where is the one I'm to mate?"
He could not risk Abbadon's wrath or his refusal to give his blood.
The guard stepped forward, but it was the female who spoke. "The coach brought us here, but without Hellen." She bit her lip. "My sister was taken, my lord. As we traveled. The coach was waylaid, and she was taken by . . . by-"
"By what?" Cruen said venomously, moving toward her.
Someone was about to die for interfering with this grand bargain.
"I'm not sure," she continued. "It was a male. Dark, powerful-something akin to the ones in the Underworld." She looked pained. "That cannot be possible, I know."
The room began to vibrate, and Cruen felt his blood, Abbadon's blood, heat in his veins. No. This could not be, and yet . . . How would the paven know about his demon female?
His gaze narrowed on the female. "Was this male dark-haired, with eyes like stars?"
"Yes! You know him, then." She seemed relieved.
Cruen's jaw tightened, and he said through gritted teeth, "I know him."
He is my son.
"Then he will bring her to you."
Yes. He will bring her. "For a price." Cruen cursed his foolish and impetuous decision. Taking Ladd from Erion had been meant only as a way to bring the eldest paven home to him, where he belonged. He could never have imagined the male getting his claws on Cruen's power source.
"I do not understand," the female before him said, her brows drawn together, her claim on relief gone.
Cruen gestured to the guard. "Take her away."
"No! Please. My sister."
Time was precious, and Hellen's sister was not. He owed her nothing. As the guard removed her, Cruen shut the door on her anxious pleas. Erion. How had the paven known about his impending nuptials? It was impossible. And now he had taken the demon female and was holding her ransom for the balas.
Cruen cursed and paced the room. He wanted his mutore children back home, but keeping his fangs inside the vein of the demon king would always come first. If he wished to regain his power, and the love of the veana he desired most, it must.
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