Crouching Vampire, Hidden Fang (Page 12)

— Advertising —

I waited only until I'd changed into dry shoes before dialing the phone number Eve had given me.

Kristoff was on his cell phone to one of his cohorts, who evidently didn't believe him guilty of the crimes so wrongly tossed at his feet, giving a concise rundown of the events of the last few days.

I tapped my fingers in irritation on the table upon which the phone rested, mentally going over the things I wanted to say to the bastard who had ripped Ulfur's soul from him, but a click and the slightly mechanical note to the voice that spoke in my ear heralded voice mail rather than a live person. I listened with growing disbelief until the recording ended, then slowly hung up the phone.

Kristoff broke off in the middle of telling his friend about how we'd been charged with finding Alec, covering the lower half of the cell phone to ask, “What is it?”

“That phone number. It belongs to Alec.”

He frowned. “Are you sure?”

I nodded, waving at the phone. “The voice mail is his. His voice and everything. Kristoff, what the hell is going on? Alec isn't the Ilargi. Is he?”

I slid down the wall into the chair that stood next to the phone table, my mind whirling with disbelief.

Kristoff said nothing to me, switched to Italian, and continued speaking to his buddy. By the time he was finished and had come to squat at my feet, his hands on my knees, I was a mess.

Why do you cry?

Because nothing makes sense. Because I was so deceived by Alec. Because nothing is what it seems. You're not the horrible, evil monster I thought you were, and Alec isn't the nice, loving man he appeared. Ulfur wasn't happy we raised him as a lich-he was horrified. Honestly, Boo, at this point, I'm going to expect that Magda turns out to be the new Zenith, and Ray is her hired assassin!

Kristoff smiled into my head as he gently pulled me from the chair and into his arms, cradling me against his chest as I sniffled my tears of self-pity. “I do not believe your friends are anything but what they appear.”

“Yeah, but you don't know, do you? Look at Alec, Kristoff! Even you were fooled! If he can be your friend for so many centuries, if I can sense nothing bad about him to the point where I slept with him-kind of-and if your whole entire Moravian group didn't know he was an Ilargi on the side, then how on earth are we expected to know anything about anyone?” I wailed.

“You must trust this,” he said, sliding his hand into my bra, his hand warm on my breast.

“My boobs might like you a lot, but in general they're not very insightful about people,” I said, sniffling.

“I meant you must trust your heart, which you well know. Being a Dark One or his Beloved does not mean we suddenly possess all knowledge there is to know, Pia. We cannot see the future any more than we know the truth that is in others' hearts. Alec has served me as a friend for more than three hundred years, and although his actions confuse me, I am not convinced that he has become a traitor.”

I thought about this for a moment, idly kissing his Adam's apple. “Your brother and cousin didn't show any faith in you.”

“They must follow their hearts as well,” he said simply, hunger rising swiftly in him as I switched to nibbling his earlobe. “Beloved, if you start that now, we will never get to the Blue Lagoon, and I would very much like for you to see it.”

I sighed and released the earlobe I was sucking. “What are we going to do about Alec?”

He stood up, letting me slide down his body. “Rest first; then we will discuss plans.” He put a finger over my lips as I was about to protest. “Be assured we will take action.”

That was all I got out of him. He refused to talk more about Alec, repeating that I was exhausted and needed some rest and relaxation. So it was that a short time later I trotted down the hotel steps and stared with absolute surprise at the sight that met my eyes. “I don't believe it. Have we entered some sort of a warp where time is standing still?”

Magda stood next to me and stared at where I was pointing. “Good Lord. I think we have.”

“What's going on?” Raymond asked, coming up behind us, fussing with a camera. He looked up, a delighted smile blossoming on his face. “Is it another holiday?”

“I don't know, but look! Dancing! Ooh, Ray! Let's join!”

Raymond shot me a quasi-apologetic look as Magda grabbed his hand and hauled him off into the throng before us. The strains of “Unchained Melody” filled the soft summer evening air, reminding me of our first night in the nearby town of Dalkafjordhur. There'd been dancing the last time I was there, too.

“I just had a phone call from a friend,” Kristoff said as he emerged from the hotel. “He said that there has been a sudden increase of activity in the reaper headquarters in Los Angeles.”

“Sounds like something is definitely up. Extra security around Alec, do you think?”

He shrugged and tucked his cell phone away in the inner pocket of the soft leather jacket that I remembered him wearing the first time I'd seen him. “Possibly, but that assumes Alec is being held captive. At this point, we don't have any solid proof either way.”

“But it does give credence to what Rick said about him being there. I guess we'll be California bound, then. Although I wish we could stay here to search for the Ilargi who has Ulfur.”

“As the necromancer told you, he didn't have to be physically near in order to summon a lich under his control.”

“I know.” My shoulders slumped.

“I've told you that we will find him,” Kristoff said, his gaze slightly critical as he examined me. “Later, after you've had a rest.”

“We all could do with a break,” I said, shaking off the glum mood. Kristoff meant what he had said-he would help me find Ulfur and his soul, so there was no use in giving in to self-pity again.

As the music ended and people applauded, a memory flitted across my mind, the memory of him standing in the small square, cloaked in the shadows from a nearby building as he talked with Alec. For a moment, I was intensely glad that fate had thrown him my way.

“You look very pretty,” he said out of the blue.

“It's the dress. Magda insisted I buy it before we left for Vienna. She said it was flirty and would make you want to ravish me on the spot. Does it?”

He looked at me again, longer this time, his gaze lingering on the swell of my breasts as they threatened to overflow the fitted bodice of the simple yet elegant white dress. His gaze continued downward, stopping briefly on my hips, before proceeding down to the full skirt that flared out in graceful folds, ending just slightly below my knees. Kicky summer sandals and delicate shell pink toenail polish completed the ensemble. I held my breath for some reason, wanting him to find me sexy, yet unwilling for him to think I'd dressed with such care just to meet his approval.

No, it doesn't make me want to ravish you.

My heart dropped to the very same shell pink toenails.

It makes me want to worship you passionately, starting at your delectable toes and moving upward along legs that are both feminine and enticing to thighs that leave me feeling weak with need. It makes me want to take your essence into me. It makes the hunger rise in me until I'm nearly mad with desire. “Ravish” implies an impersonal act of sex. So ravish? No. Possess and consume and lose myself in you? Absolutely.

My heart, back in its accustomed place, melted into a great big puddle as I leaned into Kristoff, my lips teasing his. “I'm falling in love with you, you idiot man. You can't say things like that to me and not expect me to swoon entirely.”

Passion flared to life in the depths of his lovely eyes. He took my arm, and I thought he was going to kiss me until he pulled me after him, stopping at the edge of the bodies moving in time to the music. I caught a glimpse of a woman with a white veil, and a couple of men in tuxedoes, before Kristoff twirled me around and pulled me up into a close embrace, his hands on my hips.

“I didn't think you noticed the party,” I said, giggling a little as the music stopped again, ending our dance before it even got started.

“I may be distracted, but I'm not blind,” he answered, looking over the crowd to the band as they started in with a number from Dirty Dancing . Kristoff cocked an eyebrow as his gaze returned to me. Do you dance?

Not very well. But I love this song, and I've seen the movie about a hundred times.

A rare smile flirted with the corners of his mouth as he took my hand in his, putting the other on my waist.

You don't think you're going to… I stopped, suddenly breathless as he spun me away, pulling me back immediately, only to bend me backward. His mouth was hot on my chest for a moment before he pulled me back and started moving with the song, guiding me into dance moves that I never in a million years thought I could do.

Dear God, I'm dancing! I couldn't help but laugh . I never dance! Not like this!

You never had me to dance with, he answered, sending me into another twirl. Part of me felt self-conscious and clumsy, well aware that I lacked grace and coordination, but the other part of me, the part that touched Kristoff's mind, rejoiced at the spontaneous gesture on his part.

You're an excellent dancer, I said, giggling again when he pulled me up tight to his hips, grinding them against me in a highly suggestive manner.

You should see me do the cinque passi, he answered.

The what, now?

It was a dance step very popular about five hundred years ago.

I twirled away again, then returned, struggling with the odd sense his words brought. You really are four hundred years old, aren't you? I know you said you were born in the seventeenth century, but it just didn't really hit me until now. You lived during the Renaissance. You were alive when Galileo was alive! You must have seen popes and kings and even countries rise and fall.

Galileo was an old man, blind and sick, when I saw him.

I stopped dead in my tracks as I stared up at him. You actually met Galileo? You saw him in person?

Yes. For some reason, I felt him emotionally withdraw from me. His body still moved in time to the music, but the joy had gone out of the moment.

But you must have been a very young man, I said cautiously, wondering why suddenly his mental barriers were in place again, excluding me from some of his thoughts.


He said nothing else, and I debated pressing him for details, but I hesitated to do that. Neither of us had wanted this relationship, but he was clearly trying to make the best of it. I didn't want to aggravate a situation that was starting to become more and more painful, at least for me, by pressing him when he wished to withhold himself.

The music ended. I stood watching him for a moment, suddenly sad at the situation. How on earth was I going to get through a lifetime of being held emotionally at arm's length when just a couple of days had me wanting to shake him?

Behind me, women squealed and called out excitedly as a bride was helped onto a table in preparation for throwing her bouquet.

“Bah. Competition is nothing,” Magda said, fanning her face as she and Raymond returned. “I could blow those skinny Icelandic women down with one breath, but I don't need a bouquet that bad. What's wrong?”

She had addressed the last comment to me.

I shook my head. “Nothing. Let's go before someone of the fanged variety spots us. Our plane leaves in ten and a half hours, so that ought to give us enough time to visit the hot springs.”

“Amen,” she said, taking Raymond's arm.

Kristoff held out his hand for me, his eyes bright with passion, but it was not his sexual interest I doubted.

That thought remained, even two hours later when I found myself in heaven.

“I don't care how you ended up with this money. I don't care if you get to keep it. I don't care about anything right now, to be honest.” I heaved a blissful sigh and sank up to my neck in the warm, milky blue, algae- and mineral-laden water of the famed Blue Lagoon hot springs. “Other than the fact that we have three whole hours of this. Who needs sleep when we can soak here?”

“This is not a replacement for proper rest, but it is the best I can do, since you refuse to sleep. You will do so on the plane, however.” Kristoff's voice drifted out of the private lounge he'd reserved for us. Although the Blue Lagoon covered a large area shaped by the surrounding volcanic rocks, the main section did not offer privacy. The spa offered a couple of areas (for a hefty fee) that not only included personal changing rooms and a lounge where one could relax on some very modern-looking furniture, but also a tiny private lagoon.

“You said I was immortal now that I'm officially your Beloved.” I wriggled my toes into the soft mud, allowing myself to bob gently in the water. I had read in the spa brochure that the water was famed for its therapeutic qualities, and that the white silica mud was much sought after for its antiaging properties. I reached down and scooped up a handful of the mud, letting it slip through my fingers. It was chalky white, but smooth, like very fine sand.

“That doesn't mean you don't need sleep.” Kristoff emerged from the lounge behind us. He was still fully clothed. I frowned.

“Why am I here, naked, in our very own private watery paradise, and you're not molesting me as is my due?” I asked.

“We're here because I thought you would enjoy it. Also because it is likely that the Dark Ones will be canvassing hotels in the area. But mostly because you need somewhere to rest and are too stubborn to do so elsewhere.”



“You know full well what I mean. Why aren't you here in the water with me, naked, so I can ply my womanly wiles upon your fabulous, if still slightly too skinny, male body?”

“There are things that must be done, Pia. I have a few friends remaining upon whom I can call, and I have done so.”

That got my attention. I bobbed my way over to the wooden planking that edged one side of our pool. “Call for what?”

Kristoff squatted and ran his fingers across the top of the water. “Information regarding reaper movements in California. And to track Alec's last known movements.”

“Oh, excellent. What did you find out? Where did he go?” I asked.

He was silent for a moment. “Nothing has been discovered yet.”

I frowned. “Damn. What about the Brotherhood people? Is anything going on besides the fact that they're hunkering down for a fight?”

“Nothing that I haven't already mentioned.”

“Hmm. I was thinking about this on the ride out here.”

“You were not,” he countered. “You spent the trip out here fondling my leg and thinking the most erotic thoughts that a man can bear. And a couple I couldn't.”

“I did both. I'm a woman-I can multitask. Anyway, I was mulling over the situation with Alec and the reapers, and I think I see the truth. It all comes back to Frederic.”

One eyebrow went up.

“You have the most expressive eyebrows. I love that about you,” I said, smiling before I continued. “See if you follow my reasoning, which I admit right now might be the teensiest bit flawed, because I'm a bit rummy from lack of sleep. One.” I held up my fingers to tick off the items. “Denise was protecting someone.”

“You don't know that for certain.”

“I'm pretty sure of it. It's the only thing that makes sense. Two, Frederic killed her.”

He nodded.

“Three, with the Zenith gone, the director of the board of governors is more or less in charge of the whole shebang.”

His nod was slower in coming this time, but it came at last. “There is a new Zenith, though,” he pointed out.

“Sooner or later, yes. But what if the later is much, much later? What if Frederic wanted to be in charge but, because he's male, could never be a Zenith? What if he set up Denise, giving her some convincing line of bull that had her believing he was a good guy, but in reality he was setting her up for the fall? And then when she did fall, he shot her to keep her from talking? Voil¨¤. Instant leader of the reapers, with no witnesses and no questions asked.”

He thought about that for a few minutes. “It is possible, I grant you. But where does Alec fall in this theory of double cross and hidden agendas?”

“Oh, Alec.” I sank back into the water, enjoying its warm, silky feeling on my naked flesh. “Well, we know vampires can't be reapers, even if they're from the Ilargi side of the family, right?”

Kristoff made a vague gesture.

“Right, so, he can't be an Ilargi, but he can work for one.”

“Why would he wish to participate in the stealing of souls?” Kristoff asked.

“He doesn't want to. Or rather, it's a necessary evil in order for him to ingratiate himself with Frederic.”

“The director?”

“Yes! Frederic is the Ilargi! Don't you see? He's doing a double-cross thing, just like you said. He got Denise out of the way, and now he's going around eliminating ghosts so Zoryas can't do anything with them. Alec probably contacted him with some weird tale of wanting to help the reapers without letting him know he was a vampire, so Frederic set him up to appear to be the Ilargi, just in case anyone nosed around.”

“Less experienced reapers would not recognize a Dark One as being such on sight, but I assume the director would,” Kristoff pointed out. “Sooner or later he would come face-to-face with Alec and know that he was not what he appeared.”

“Exactly.” I back-kicked a couple of feet. “But by then the illusion of Alec being the Ilargi was in place. I don't doubt that he's innocent, as your gut instinct said. They probably have him in maximum security back in Brotherhood Central. The reason he's still alive is because they don't have a Zenith, so therefore, they can't fire up the local Zorya and get her to off him.”

“I hesitate to ask this, but my curiosity to hear your explanation outweighs my better judgment: Why would the director wish to effectively destroy the ghosts his organization was created to protect and aid?”

I smiled. “Because he's mad, of course. He doesn't care about ghosts anymore. All he wants is to rid the world of you guys, so he's eliminating any distractions that would keep Zoryas from performing his purposes-killing vampires.”

“But there is no Zenith, and thus the murders can't be performed.”

“That had me confused, too, until I realized something really obvious-the original purpose of the Zoryas was the ghost bit, right? And all the ceremonies and such were created around that. The stuff with the vampires came later, much later, so it's quite probable that the rules just got grandfathered in. I'm willing to bet you that if a group of Brotherhood guys got together and started that evil cleansing ceremony, so long as they had a Zorya present, she could smite the hell out of her victims. The Zenith thing is just a holdover from days long past. And before you say we have no proof of that, may I remind you of this?”

I summoned a tiny ball of light and let it dance in front of his feet.

He looked at it without moving.

“If I wanted to, I could probably pull down enough light to seriously harm you, Kristoff. It may take a ceremony with a couple of Brotherhood guys channeling their powers to finish you off, but I'm sure we wouldn't need a Zenith to do so. Frederic must have found this out. Remember that Denise was a Zorya before she was the Zenith. I bet somehow they found it out, and that started his convoluted plan.”

“Convoluted, indeed,” Kristoff said, still watching the light bobbing at his toes. I waved a hand and dissipated it.

“I just bet you that Frederic is making sure another Zenith isn't named. Which all points to one very clear conclusion.”

“Yes, it does. It says that you are more tired than either of us realizes.”

I made a face at him. “No, silly. It means we're going to have to deal with Frederic.”

“I agree. We will kill the director.”

I gawked at him. “How on earth did you jump from 'we need to give Frederic the third degree' to killing him?”

His eyes lightened a few shades. “He is manipulating you, Beloved. Your theory is interesting, but unproven at this time. It is more likely that if the director is not working with Alec, he is probably holding him prisoner. And since he is fortifying his defenses, he must expect an attack by us. You are my Beloved, a fact he knows. Do you honestly believe he will not attempt to destroy us should he be given the opportunity?”

I was silent for a moment, remembering the pain of the knife Frederic had wielded as it sank deep into my flesh. “I don't condone what Frederic has done in the past. And I don't appreciate him manipulating me, and he's definitely up to no good. God knows I certainly don't support the war between the Brotherhood and you vampires, but someone somewhere has to draw the line and end the war. Someone has to stop the killing. And I choose to be that person.”

To my surprise, a faint smile was visible on Kristoff's adorable lips. “My mother would have liked you. She was frequently in the stocks for what the local nobleman who ruled the town called gross impertinence to his position. She always championed the downtrodden, and more than once came close to the gallows for her attempts to right what she saw as wrongs.”

“She sounds like she was a marvelous woman,” I said, and, tempted as I was to continue that line of conversation, I set it aside for a bit. “You're not going to distract me from the discussion, Boo. Especially since you know I'm against unnecessary violence.”

He sighed, a weary expression on his face. “What would you have me do? Promise that no harm will come to any reaper?”

“No. I would like you to think about ways to get what we want without anyone dying.”

Water lapping gently at the rocks was the only sound for a few moments.

“I will not risk your life,” he said finally.

“Nor would I expect you to. Just don't go into this with a no-quarter stance, OK?”

His expression was sour, as if he'd tasted something bad. “I do this under protest.”

“So noted.” I swam backward a couple of feet, determined to enjoy the few hours of respite granted to us. I allowed myself a few smutty thoughts about what I'd like to do to him before continuing. “Back to my original question-why aren't you soaking in here with me?”

“My friend is continuing to track Alec's last-known movements.” He glanced at his watch. “I expect the answer to come in shortly. Much as I would like to make love to you, Beloved, I must attend to this first.”

“You know what I say to that?” I asked, reaching beneath me to scoop up another handful of the white silica mud.

“Something that's intended to irritate me, I'm sure,” he said with a mock sigh.

“No. I say: incoming!” I hefted the handful of dripping wet, slippery mud and flung it at his head.

The mud hit him full in the face with a wet splatting noise. He stood stunned for a moment before turning a really top-quality glare on me. “That was uncalled for,” he snapped, reaching for a towel.

“Oh, come on, Kristoff! Just come have a little dip with me, and then you can do all the tracking down that you like. I'll help.”

He just continued to wipe the mud off his face and upper part of his shirt.

I scooped up another handful, and thought about pelting him until he gave up and came after me. But I didn't want to force him into having a little fun. That would defeat the purpose of him having a few hours of relaxation. No, he just needed a little persuasion, something that would convince him of the benefits of taking a little time away from the burdens we both bore.

I smiled to myself, swimming toward the stone steps that led out of our private lagoon to the lounge. When I was close enough that the water was about waist-deep, I stood up.

Kristoff, dabbing off the last smidgen of mud, froze. I arched my back a little, thrusting my bare breasts forward.

“It's too bad you can't find a little time to relax,” I said, caressing my breasts with the chalky white mud, allowing it to slide slowly down my chest, trailing my fingers down after it with long, sweeping strokes.

His eyes glittered with blue fire as he watched me.

“According to the spa brochure, this water is supposed to do all sorts of good things for you,” I cooed, scooping up two handfuls, pouring them over my now white breasts. “They have all sorts of treatment and massages available in the water, for a variety of ailments.”

His eyes widened, but he didn't otherwise move.

I bent and got another handful of mud, slowly walking forward toward the stairs until the water was at my pubic bone. I slathered my belly with the mud, making little swirls and circles in it as I spread it lower.

I thought Kristoff's eyes were going to bug right out of his head.

I dipped my fingers even lower. “But if you don't want to experience the benefits and pleasures it is sure to give you, I'll just have to enjoy it all by myself.”

A splash momentarily blinded me, water flying everywhere. I laughed when Kristoff, still fully clothed, stood before me with two handfuls of white mud.

“It would be a shame to miss such a natural phenomenon,” he agreed, his voice husky as he spread the mud on my breasts.

“You still have your clothes on,” I pointed out, then gasped as his head dipped and he took the tip of one breast into his mouth. “Oh, dear God. Kristoff!”

The last was in response to his hands, which had gone beneath the water and were busy with hidden parts of me. My knees threatened to buckle as his fingers danced along sensitive flesh.

You taste salty, he said, his mouth moving along my breastbone. I could swear his tongue was made of fire as it swirled and lapped.

It's the water. It's two-thirds seawater and one-third fresh. I read that in the brochure…. Boo!

He smiled into my neck as two fingers suddenly dipped inside me. Hundreds of normally dormant nerve endings suddenly sat up and took notice of him, tingling with delight at his touch.

You have too many clothes on. I whimpered, trying to get my hands to strip the wet clothes off him, but my body was too involved in the sensations his mouth and hands were generating for me to do much but stand and quiver with rapture.

Yes. I have clothing on, and you do not. It's very wicked, is it not?

Definitely, but it also is keeping me from touching you, I said, groaning as a third finger joined the other two, his thumb making little swirls that almost had me sobbing. My brain didn't know whether it should focus on the wonderful feeling his fingers were generating, the sensation of my breasts rubbing against the slightly abrasive wet cloth of his shirt, or the fire that his mouth was trailing as he kissed a wet path along my shoulder.

Perhaps I do not wish to be touched, he answered, his teeth nipping the flesh of my upper arm.

I let him see a mental picture of what exactly I wanted to do to him. He froze for a moment, then in a move that was literally too fast for me to see, he stripped off all his clothing, the dull thud of his shoes hitting the stone floor of the lounge the last thing I heard before he was back in my arms, his body, wet and warm and hard as the lava rocks around us, holding my entire attention.

Where were we? he said, then smiled into my mind. Here, I think…

I squealed as his fingers resumed their previous activity. “Two can play at that, mister.”

I had a handful of mud ready, and slid it down his chest and stomach, gently biting his shoulder as I let my hands go even lower, down to his erection. “Now, see? I knew this would benefit you. Sparky is all happy.”

“Sparky?” he asked, nipping my earlobe. “I can live with a pet name for me, but I draw the line at naming body parts.”

“Oh, really?” I asked, taking him in both hands, gently exploring the territory. “So you wouldn't approve of my calling your penis 'Raging Stallion'?”

His eyes crossed for a moment as I discovered a particularly sensitive spot. “Raging Stallion works for me,” he said with a gasp.

“I thought so. Now, why don't you go sit over there on that bottom step, and I think we'll be far enough out of the water so I won't drown while I perform a therapeutic genital massage.”

The fire in his eyes kicked up a couple of notches. “Did you read about that in the brochure, too?”

“No, that's something I thought of on my own. You look like you need a little personal attention. Sit.”

An oddly obstinate look crossed his face. “I prefer to stand. It is you who will receive the personal attention.”

His hands slid up my hips to my breasts. I stopped them before they could go any farther. “I want to give you pleasure, Kristoff.”

“As I do you.” His eyes lightened a smidgen, which I was beginning to realize meant he was annoyed.

We stared at each other for a few seconds.

“I can't believe we're having an argument over who gets to do what first,” I said.

“Neither can I.”

A few more seconds of staring passed, while we both waited for the other person to give in.

“One of us is going to have to let the other one have her way,” I pointed out.

“Yes, you will.”

I narrowed my eyes at him. “You get your way an awful lot. I think you've used up all of your bossy points. Therefore, you will sit and I will give you a blow job so incredible, you won't be able to think straight.”

He stood up a bit straighter. All of him. “I am a Dark One,” he declared, projecting into my mind mental images so carnal, I'm surprised the water around us didn't start to boil. “You are my Beloved. You will bend over that rock and let me make love to you in such a manner that will not only keep you from thinking straight. You will also walk funny for a week.”

My jaw dropped at his pseudothreat. “Oh! That is so… so…”

“Truthful?” he asked smoothly.

“Underhanded! Sending me smutty images like that. Well. Two can play at that game.” I crossed my arms and thought of the most erotic acts I could perform upon his body.

His Adam's apple bobbed a couple of times, and when he spoke, his voice was hoarse. “I did not include massage oils in my mental imaging! Or ice cubes. If anyone is being underhanded, it's you.”

I smiled. “You want underhanded? Try this.” I dwelled in loving detail on a plan to use not only slick, warmed lotion on him, but on my breasts as well, rubbing myself along his body until he exploded with pleasure.

“Exploded?” he said, his eyes as black as midnight.

“You heard me, buster.”

He trembled with strain for a moment, just a moment, and then he had himself in control again. “This is a waste of time. Submit to me so that I may make you walk funny, and then you can explode me.”

“Boo!” I said, slapping my hands down on the water. “I want to do this for you!”

“No more so than I want to provide pleasure for you,” he said, still obstinate.

“Argh!” I yelled, thinking furiously, but the images he kept sending me about just what he wanted to do were weakening my resolve. “Oh, this is stupid,” I said, wading over to him, wiggling against his body so that my breasts rubbed against his wet, slick chest.

“Exceedingly so,” he answered, his head dipping to my neck. He breathed on the spot that never failed to send all my nerves into tingly overtime.

“We'll both do it, all right?”

“That would seem fair. I get to go first, though.”

“You, sir, are a bully, and nothing but a bully,” I said, poking my finger into his chest. I stopped, eyed the chest, then spread my fingers along the wet skin, stroking the lovely muscled curves. He sucked in a lungful of breath. “What the hell. You go first; then it'll be my turn.”

“Agreed.” He spun me around so that my back was to him, pushing me slightly forward so I had to catch myself on the rough lava rocks that lined our little lagoon. If you have the strength after I'm through with you, came an echoed thought.

“I heard that!” I said, but before I could protest any dirty tricks, all sane thought left my head as his teeth pierced the flesh of my shoulder at the same time he thrust hard into my body.

The warm water swirling around us, the sensation of bone-deep satisfaction that filled Kristoff and spilled out into me as he drank, the ever-increasing tension that wound inside me combining with his, pushing us both higher, joining with a million other sensations, threatened to overload my senses as I clutched the sharp lava rocks. But it was the more profound merging, the blending of souls as he both took life from me and returned it, that sent my spirit soaring. All the dark places inside him, all the inky despair, and pain, and shadows of loneliness that still remained were obliterated at that moment. I fed him not just my blood, but my very sense of being, filling him with light and hope and happiness. And as his tongue swirled a path of flame over my shoulder, as his body tensed in mine, I gave him the last thing I had.

“I love you,” I cried as he spun me around, his mouth muffling the words. I wrapped my legs around him when he hoisted me up, clutching his shoulders as his hips flexed with short, forceful thrusts, the muscles in his neck and shoulders as tight as steel. He growled deep in his chest, a primitive, earthy noise that pushed me over the edge. My muscles rippled around him as he gave in to his own climax, an echoed sense of wonderment filling my mind as he stood, legs braced apart, the water lapping at his hips, both our bodies trembling with delightful little aftershocks.

I gave his lower lip one last fond little nibble, then released it and looked down at him, my mind still swimming with our combined emotions.

He was flushed, his eyes glittering with heat hotter than any fire, and on the edges of his adorable lips was the beginning of a smile. No, not a smile, a smirk. Wholly male, utterly arrogant, and completely knowing.

“All right,” I admitted as I let my legs drop, aware that he could feel how the muscles in them trembled. “You win. I'm going to walk funny. But I'd like to point out that you did a fair bit of exploding, too.”

“Agreed. Where did you learn to do that?”

“Do what?” I asked, wondering if he thought Americans went to school to learn lovemaking techniques.

“When you gripped me like a vise.”

I took one step, stumbled, and glared when he snickered. The only thing that saved him from another faceful of mud was the fact that he scooped me up and carried me to the lounge.

“That, Boo, is the result of years of Kegeling. My mother told me to start young so that when I was an old lady I wouldn't have to wear bladder pants like my granny.”

“That may be the result of years of intimate exercise, but you haven't been quite so vigorous in the past.”

I grinned over the towel I was using to dry myself off. “Just so I know-are we thumbs-up or thumbs-down on the Kegel vigor?”

“Thumbs-up. Definitely thumbs-up,” he said, looking down at himself ruefully. Even quiescent, he was still impressive. “Although if you keep it up, you won't be the only one walking funny.”

An unexpected sense of peace and happiness filled our remaining hours at the spa.

“How did your parents meet?” I asked after I had recovered enough wits to kick-start my brain into functioning again. I lay draped across Kristoff as he lounged on a plush red curved sofa, clad in one of the spa's thick bathrobes. Kristoff was clad only in me, a fact I much appreciated as I traced the lines of muscles in his chest and upper arm. He was still too skinny for my taste, but I was happy to notice he was filling out nicely with regular meals.

He opened one eye. His hands were lazily tracing shapes on the outside of one of my thighs, the touch casual, but so sweetly intimate it made my eyes burn for a moment. “My parents?”

“Yes. You know, the people who gave birth to you and raised you?”

An odd sense of withdrawal touched my mind. I stopped stroking the muscle of his biceps and looked up at him. Both his eyes were open now, looking at me with suspicion.

“Why do you want to know about my parents?”

“Why shouldn't I want to know about them? We're bound together for the rest of time, Kristoff. I'd like to know more about you, that's all. Is there something about your parents you don't want to talk about?”

He sensed me sensing his emotional withdrawal, and stopped, but there was a wary edge to him, as if he were walking on the blade of a razor. “I've told you about my mother. My father was a tanner. He died when I was very young.”

“I'm sorry. That must have been hard for your mom. Were there any kids other than you and Andreas?”

He shook his head, and once again I felt a spike of awareness inside him. He was watching me closely as he spoke. “No. He was born later than me.”

“I gathered you were older than him,” I said lightly, continuing to stroke his arm with long, soothing touches, but wondering all the while what it was about his parents that had him so keyed up. “How much older are you?”

“Twenty-two years.”

“Really? Wow. That's quite a difference.” I was silent for a moment, very aware of his now still fingers on my leg. “You said you were born human. How did you come to be a vampire?”

“I was cursed to it.”

“Cursed? Someone can do that?”

“It takes a demon lord, but yes, you can make a Dark One.” His voice was suddenly flinty hard. “Why are you questioning me about this?”

“All right,” I said, pushing myself up. I swung my leg over until I was straddling his thighs. “What is it that bothers you so much about me asking about your past?”

“Why do you care how I became a Dark One?” he countered, his eyes lightening a smidgen.

I pointed a finger at him. “Don't you dare lighten your eyes at me, Boo! I have no ulterior motive in asking you about your origins other than curiosity about you. It may have escaped your notice, but I just announced to you that I'm in love with you.”

“It didn't escape my notice,” he said quickly.

Pain stung me. Of course he hadn't missed what I said, but being an honest man, he hadn't lied to me and told me the feeling was mutual. “I'm interested in people I love. I want to know things about them, what they like and what they don't like, and how their childhood was, that sort of thing. And you're just going to have to deal with a whole lot of curiosity about Dark Ones, because up until two months ago, I didn't believe vampires really existed.”

Mollified, he released the grip he had on my legs. “I am interested in you, too.”

“Good. I'll tell you all about my boring life and family another time. Right now I want to know what happened that had you ending up a vampire.”

He was silent for a moment, reluctance thick inside him. “It was an act of revenge. Someone I knew injured another person.”

“Someone you knew?” I asked, puzzled why he would be the victim of revenge.

“My wife.”

I sat up straighter at that, my mouth hanging open in astonishment for a moment. “Your wife? You were married before me? That is… we're not really married, but you thought we were getting married, so it counts.”

“We are really married, and yes, I was married before. In 1640, so you can stop pretending you're jealous. My first wife is long dead.”

There was no pretense about the quick spurt of jealousy that riddled me, but I ignored that comment just as I ignored the emotion, instead doing a quick calculation in my head. “You were married when you were seventeen?”

“Yes. It was a reasonable age for marriage then. I was apprenticed to a cobbler, and wed his daughter.”

A question rose up on my tongue. I tried to fight it, tried to keep my lips from forming the words, but my brain gave the go-ahead without my permission. “Did you love her?”

He looked somewhat startled by the question. “I wanted to bed her.”

“Lust and love aren't the same thing,” I pointed out.

“No, they aren't.” He was silent for a moment. “I suppose I loved her. She was pretty and we enjoyed each other in bed.”

“Oh, that really does my self-confidence a lot of good,” I said somewhat acidly.

The corner of his lip twitched. “I enjoy you in bed, too.”

“Not even remotely near as much reassurance as you're going to have to provide in order to erase the memory of you hitting it off with another woman,” I told him. “But I am nothing if not magnanimous, and am willing to move past your lustful ways, so long as you provide the reassurances later, preferably in tangible form. So your wife hurt someone?”

The closed feeling was back in his mind. “Yes. A woman. Ruth said it was an accident, that an ox she was driving in a cart went mad and ran the woman down, but her companion would not listen. He killed Ruth, and because I was her husband, and thus must suffer as he suffered, invoked a demon lord to curse me forever.”

“I'm so sorry,” I said, putting my hand over his heart at the sensation of pain deep inside him. “That was truly horrible. I can only imagine what you experienced trying to cope with your own tragedy as well as suddenly finding yourself soulless and a vampire.”

His lips tightened. “It was not pleasant. My mother was furious when she found out, and traveled all over the country looking for help, but she was shunned by the Dark Ones she met. After years of searching, she finally found one who would talk to her. He told her there was no hope for me other than a Beloved, but neither of us really believed I'd find one.” A wistful note entered his voice. “I would have liked my mother to know that I did, in fact, find you.”

“She knows,” I said, leaning forward to kiss him. “Just because she's dead doesn't mean she's not still with you.”

He said nothing, but his fingers were back to stroking patterns on my thighs.

“How did Andreas come about?”

“The Dark One who consented to speak with my mother is his father.” His lips twisted with a wry smile. “My mother was quite attractive, and he always had an eye for women. Something he shares with his son.”

“Andreas is a ladies' man, eh?” I said, musing on the irony to be found in life. “I'll remember that. Maybe he would stop being a bastard to you if we found his Beloved.”

“I doubt it.” Kristoff lifted me off him and set me on the couch, rising to pull on a pair of pants. “Most Dark Ones don't find their Beloveds. It's not as if you can order one up.”

I puzzled over Kristoff's unease and reluctance to speak of his past during the subsequent hours, even onto the plane that sent us winging back to the United States. Part of it could be attributed to the mention of his previous wife; he was obviously astute enough to recognize that I was not yet comfortable enough with our relationship to discuss his past loves, which was one reason why he shunned the mention of his late girlfriend. But even given that, there was something else that he was keeping from me, something that mattered so much, he kept it locked up tight inside him.

Something that I was pretty sure I wasn't going to like.