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The Mark of the Vampire Queen (Chapter Twelve)

Jacob watched Carl Ronin step out of the upscale sushi bar and bid his friends good night. Turning up the collar of his jacket, he began to stride down the cobblestone street that marked the down- town art district. It reminded Jacob that not six blocks away was the Eldar Salon, where he'd convinced his lady to consider taking him as her servant. Tonight he faced the most difficult part of being one. He would stand by, waiting as she took the life of a man who had done nothing to deserve his life being cut short. Then he would dis- pose of the body for her. Through his extensive research, he knew Carl worked for an ad agency. He was currently between girlfriends, though he'd been close to marrying the last one. If he had, it would have saved his life, for Lyssa didn't take married men as her annual kill. So thorough was his lady in her research, Jacob even knew that Carl had two dogs and he'd made provision in his will that they should be given to an old army buddy if he ever became unexpect-edly deceased. He had a downtown apartment within walking dis- tance of this bar that he visited twice a week. He had no idea his life would end tonight. His Mistress materialized so easily out of the shadows Jacob didn't even see from which direction she came. Wearing a black cocktail dress and a shawl, she looked as if she'd just come from a party.

She asked Ronin for directions to a small bistro not far from his apartment, so it was natural for them to fall into step together, him offering to show her there. Her hand lightly moved to his arm, drawing his attention there. She was already releasing her vampire pheromones. She'd apparently decided to do it early, not taking any chances of things going wrong. Carl's dick would be getting hard, making him believe he was feeling some type of instant attraction to her, a connection that would erode barriers typically held in place by commonsense suspi- cion. When she laughed at something he said, she took a more secure grip on his biceps as she apparently made a misstep in her skinny heel. His hand naturally slid around her waist. As she looked up at him through her lashes, Jacob knew Carl was thinking he'd walked into his best luck of the evening, maybe his entire life. When Gideon had taken him on his very first vampire hunt, Jacob had fought the anxiety and fear in all the usual ways. With denial, avoidance, acceptance, analysis. He hadn't realized how valu- able the privacy of his own thoughts was for that process. Several times over the past couple of days, when he hadn't been able to mask his building reaction to what was coming, she'd reiterated that he didn't need to come with her, that she'd do this on her own. He'd fi- nally asked her–begged her, actually–to just to stay out of his mind until it was over. He was her servant. He'd do what needed to be done. She wasn't going alone. Gideon's visit had been too recent. What if he was still out there with a team to interfere, to catch her unawares? What if Carl was more resourceful than expected? As long as she was at full strength and awareness, no one could sneak up on her. But therein lay his concern, and one of the reasons he himself had pushed her to do what she'd put off for months. The pheromones were doing their job, or maybe just her proxim- ity alone, which Jacob knew could play havoc with a man's senses. When Carl's hand slid lower, to the top of her buttock, she pressed closer to him, giving him a view of her cleavage. He should feel nothing but sympathy for the man, glad that he could take pleasure in a woman's body in his last moments of life.

Instead Jacob tamped down a desire to break his fingers for touching his Mistress. Jesus, jealous of a soon-to-be-dead man who was re- sponding to a chemical inducement, like a drug. Compared to previous annual kills, she was hurrying it along. From Thomas he knew that in earlier years she'd enjoyed her prey, even spent most of the evening with him, taking her own carnal plea- sure while giving him the sensual experience of his life. She hadn't used compulsion or pheromones to anesthetize him until the actual kill moment. He knew enough about vampires, let alone his Mistress, to know that dallying with prey fulfilled a vampire's fetish for power and control. Holding a life in her hand before extinguishing it. The same way she might part her red, wet lips to blow out a flame and leave a room in darkness. They're predators, not minions of evil. He remembered his words to Gideon and used them to balance him now. All predators, though having to kill to survive, took some pleasure in the kill, for lack of a better word. A predator's nature was one of dominance, power. Each kill confirmed that dominance, the fine line between predator and monster, murderer. He believed his lady when she said this one life was all she took for her survival each year, but she might be incapa- ble of not deriving some pleasure from the act. Jesus, what was the matter with him? She was taking a man's life in order to prolong her own, not for her own selfish reasons, but be- cause she knew the lives of the vamps in her territory and the whole structure of vampire society might rest on how long she could main- tain the illusion of her power and existence. He understood that. But could Carl please just remove his fucking hand from her ass? You will never be comfortable with how I view your species . . . He closed his eyes. He wished she'd get it over with so he could just act, do something other than sit here and think about what was about to happen. When she turned the corner, he eased the car off the side street. They would cut through the park. She would draw Carl into the shadows of the trees. At that point, he would want nothing more than to be inside her. And she'd bite him . . .

She'd opened her mind to him now so he could follow her. Carl made a joke, a fairly good one, about the type of things a lady might encounter in the park at night. He was still feeling lust, his mind alive with the things he wanted to do with her, but through his lady's eyes Jacob noticed Carl simultaneously kept a lookout around them. Protective. Protective of her, a woman he'd only met a few moments ago, because he'd been raised a gentleman. Chivalrous. Jacob noticed she asked Carl nothing about himself. She kept the conversation on the present, the bar he was just at, the beauty of the night, how far his apartment was . . .

Reaching up, Lyssa caressed Carl Ronin's jaw with her fingers. "You are perhaps a little too good, " she murmured. He raised a brow. "Then tell me how I can be not so good. " She smiled. "Kiss me. " Lyssa brought his head down to her, stood on her toes as he framed her face, closed his eyes and brought their mouths together. He didn't rush it, demonstrating the prowess of a good, experienced lover. Leaning into him, she rubbed her abdomen against his aroused cock, signaling what she wanted. When he broke the kiss, lifting his head, she moved to his throat, licking him, nibbling. His arms tight- ened around her back, moving down to mold his palms over her ass and discover that stockings were all she wore. "Jesus, " he muttered. "You're a gift from Heaven. " "Or Hell, " she said soft ly. When he smiled against her hair, Lyssa felt the pull of it against her temple. She sank her fangs, slow and easy, into his skin, increased the hold of her arm around his back and waist as he jumped, startled. She shot a full measure of phero- mones into his bloodstream so the alarm was brief, vanishing as if it had never been. He groaned, jerking against her touch, the flood pushing him to a hard, brutal orgasm, dampness spreading across his trousers. She massaged him through his clothes, giving him the full measure of satisfaction as she began to drink. "I . . . Jesus, I'm sorry . . . Oh, God . . . "

"Sssh . . . There will be time for more. Let me just touch you . . . " Lyssa slid one hand to the side of his skull and cradled his jaw with the other, tilting his chin up. She rose on her toes, her fingers sliding into his hair to take a tighter hold.

Though he knew it didn't make sense, Jacob shut his eyes again, wishing he could shut out the image. Pain. So excruciating he thought somehow he'd connected to the man's mind and was learning a snapped neck was not as painless as it had always been supposed. But this was not Carl Ronin's pain. It was Lyssa's. Blinding, rocketing through her head, so fast and brutal she'd been unable to close her shields, something she'd never let happen before. Jacob received it full force through his own temples, in his gut where it gnashed like one of those sharp-toothed parasites in a space movie, tearing through the lining, loosening his bowels. Lights flashing . . . "Shields, my lady . . . " He was out of the car and trying to run, though he could barely see, staggering. "My lady . . . Shields. So I can . . . Help you . . . " He gasped it, heard her cry out, a scream of agony. Adrenaline shot through him, diluting the hold of the pain. His will kicked in to carry him through the crimson mist, his mind telling him this was psychological. She was experiencing the pain, not him. Only when the end came would the pain be real, since he would die with her. And this was not that moment, damn it. But his lady never cried out. No matter the pain he'd seen her suffer thus far, she kept quiet. The way a wild animal in pain kept silent, not wanting to draw the attention of another predator. One only cried out when one preferred a predator to end the pain instead of prolonging it. Somehow though, she heard him. Suddenly the pain throbbed away like fading strobe light, the nausea pushing one last, lingering sick wave through his stomach before it, too, dissipated. He length- ened his strides, coming over the hill that overlooked the copse of trees in the park they'd specifically chosen for its isolation.

Lyssa was collapsed on the ground, trying to struggle to a sitting position. Her hair was disheveled, dress rucked up from her col- lapse. As she lifted her head, the moonlight shone on her elongated fangs and reflected the red of her eyes that came through most strongly when she fed. Even from his distance, anyone would know she wasn't human. He saw Carl's hand was on his neck, fingers soaked with blood. He stared down at his shirt where drops had splattered. The flowing stream of it had turned his collar bright red. Slowly he raised his head, his eyes widening as he saw her fangs, the preternatural light in her eyes. He backpedaled, stumbled, turned and began to run. Jacob's gaze darted between him and his lady. Her head dropped, her body shuddering. Her strength apparently deserted her, for her arms went out from under her and she rolled to her side. Convul- sions shuddered through her, but even amidst her fogged, pain-filled brain, her mind spoke to him. Let him go. It doesn't matter. The rejuvenating blood of an annual kill combined with the third mark would give her more time, widen the space between the epi- sodes again. Give her more time to protect her territory. Maybe give her more time for something to change. Even a cure. Debra had said Brian thought they were close to something. Something, anything that would give him more time with her. He could feel his soul hanging in the balance, but didn't know what decision would damn or absolve it. He'd made an oath to protect her with his life. An oath she'd just exonerated him from. But she'd also told him that no matter what, he had to put her desire to protect her territory, her people, first. Let him go . . . His attention went back to her, curled on the ground, suffering. His lady. His feet were in motion before he even realized he was moving, and then he was running. A lean, strong man, skimming low over the grass of the tended park where children came to play and lovers to tryst, lying on picnic blankets and drinking wine. Where people brought a book to read.

Where old women fed pigeons and business- men read their papers on their lunch hour. Things that had nothing to do with now, when the park belonged to things of the night, beings with dark intentions. He'd hoped Carl wouldn't see him coming, but the man's sur- vival instinct had kicked into high gear. As Jacob came out of the trees less than twenty feet from him, Ronin cursed, increased his stride. Panic made him jerky but adrenaline gave him a speed he'd probably never realized before. Jacob caught him anyway. Lyssa rose on one shaky arm in time to see her servant take Carl Ronin down, like a wolf single-mindedly pulling a stag to his knees by the scruff of the neck. He knocked Carl face-first into the turf, planted his knee into his back. Before Carl could speak more than one muffled plea into the grass, Jacob had jerked his head up with both hands. In one violent, powerful move he twisted it, cracking the spine, severing the connection to the brain. Just time for that one short, desperate cry. Less than a second of time, but one that seemed to echo through the park like it was a canyon. It was nothing Thomas could have done for her. Even if he had Jacob's strength or skills as a fighter, she wasn't sure he would have done it for her. Of the handful of servants she'd had throughout her life, she couldn't think of one that would have done this.

Rex would have, but it would have meant no more to him than picking up meat at the market. Where the life of the creature it had once been was neatly hidden away by precise cuts and cellophane packaging. Jacob rose to one knee, breathing hard, though she knew it wasn't physical exertion. Her head was pounding, making her too dizzy to read his thoughts, but she wondered if she would have had the cour- age to do so even if she could. He lifted Carl in a fireman's carry and brought him swift ly. His hands were shaking as he deposited the body next to her, easing him to the grass, cradling the back of his head. He closed the staring eyes. "My lady. You said you must drink within a few minutes of his death. So you must drink. It should help your pain as well. "

But what will help yours? She had no words for this moment. Not when he sat down on the grass and slid his thigh under the man's shoulder and head, holding Carl's neck at an easier angle for her to reach the important arteries. Lyssa lowered her head, fitted her fangs to the original bite mark and drew deep, filling her mouth with the warm, still vibrant blood. De- spite the agony rolling through her, she made herself do it, knowing Jacob was right. She made herself shut everything else out to do what she had to do. As he had done. I know you think our species is inferior . . . The words of Thomas's letter mocked her, made her want to spit out the blood and vomit into the grass. But she didn't. At length, she felt Jacob's sweat-dampened palm, the hand that had just taken a man's life, touch her head. Stroke once, then grip, grip hard as she continued to draw blood into her body. His hand followed the movement of her skull as she drank. Wet, warm drops splashed against her cheek, her temple, and she felt him shudder with his silent strangling sobs. It moved Carl's body in slight, dis- turbingly lifelike twitches. She didn't stop or look up, knowing Jacob wouldn't want her to do so. After tonight, he wouldn't want to speak of it again. There was nothing to be said. It was what she had to do to live, and he had helped her do it because he had sworn to serve her. She wouldn't forget it, while Jacob would always wish he could. As if he were a male vampire competing for her favor, he'd proven his strength and power to take down her kill. Brought it to her as a mate would. These were dangerous thoughts creeping into her mind, but this was her time, the dead of the night when she walked in full strength with fear of nothing. The crickets and frogs were silent. The smell of blood was in the air and a predator was close by. Her headache was gone as if it had never been, as if it had never knocked the strength from her so she could not finish the task she'd started. The nausea was gone as well. The vitality that came with an annual kill coursed hot and strong within her. Would it get her as far as she needed to go? It had to. Most importantly, it would get her through this moment. Her servant had no coherent thoughts right now. Just a hurricane of rage, grief, desperate energy.

A need to control something, bal- ance his world that was spinning out of control. Like the night with Melinda, but even more strongly. Primeval impulses rode close to the surface, and the rush of energy surging through her responded to them with a savage eagerness. When death and life joined hands and death prevailed, mortals had an irresistible need to do some- thing that defied it. Immortals in contrast would skirt as close as possible, absorbing its untouchable power. Rising to her feet, she straightened her dress, unpinned her hair and shook it down. Threading her hands through it, she let it fall away from her face, down her back, arching her throat so she knew it caught the moonlight. She knew its paleness and the rise of her breasts over the scooped neckline had drawn his gaze, even as his hands remained clutched on the man in his arms. "Jacob. " She met his haunted gaze. Reached out a hand. "Come to me, dearest. " She backed a step away, then another, moving even deeper into the shadows of the trees as he rose. As he stared at her, his eyes were a brilliant color, glittering with so much life and conflict she thought he might possess an electric force field capable of delivering voltage. His hands opened and closed, his body tense, his rational mind ar- guing with what his body and the darkest part of his soul knew they needed. Hungered for. Grounding. Connection. "Because you brought my kill to me as a mate would do, " she said soft ly, "tonight I offer you the rights of a mate. I submit to your de- sire. Your will. " He gave a harsh chuckle, ran a hand over his face. "You're a piece of work, " he said thickly. "I can't . . . I need to take care of him. " His eyes said something else entirely though, running with greedy de- sire over her body, conveying a consuming want that tingled over her skin like the electric brush of his mouth, the snap of his teeth. "We will. Together. I'm not dishonoring his sacrifice, Jacob. But I need you. I want you. Now. This very second. " "Do you, then?" His voice altered, became abruptly soft and deadly, so that she felt the sharpness of his attention like the prick of fangs in her vitals.

"You just said you owed me your submission. I'll make the demands. " She slid the straps of the dress off her shoulders and stood before him as it pooled around her ankles.

"Off. I want it all off. Even the jewels. " She complied, rolling one stocking off and then the other, peel- ing off the earbobs and necklace, dropping them on top of nylon carelessly, as if they didn't cost as much as they did. She knew that would inflame him further. Her hair fluttered over her shoulders, the tips of her breasts, tangling in her fingers. His breathing quickened, a laboring as if he'd been running. When she trembled, his gaze darkened. "Are you afraid of me, my lady?" He could overpower her with the force of his emotions where he couldn't with his strength. He could take her down and make her helpless to his mercy, though she knew he had no room for mercy in his current state of mind. "Yes, " she whispered. "Good, " he said, and closed the distance between them. The kiss was hot and brutal. His hands closed on her breasts with no intent to be gentle, though his violence was enough to arouse her. He squeezed, bringing pain with the spearing pleasure of it. Mine, the rough touch said. His fingers pinched her nipple, and when he bent her back over his arm and fastened his mouth over the other one, he bit hard, eliciting a gasp from her. He took her to the ground, dropping to one knee so he had her trapped between the one raised leg and the knee pressed to the grass. When she tried to rise and touch him, he seized her wrists and wrapped them in her stocking from elbow to wrists, knotting it be- tween her clenched fingers.

He pushed her arms over her head so he could thrust the fingers of his other hand into her cunt to tease her. She was soaked at his fierce possession, and he swore as she widened her trembling legs, opening to him. She understood in a way he didn't that something terrifying was roaring through him, some- thing that could only be relieved by pummeling into her, a receptacle for all his sins. She would gladly take them. He stripped off his jeans and shirt, becoming a pale, naked animal like herself in the moonlight.

Some of Carl's blood stained his neck at the collarbone. Another smudge over his pectoral showed that some had gotten down the shirt. Her pussy clenched, anticipat- ing, but she should have known his anger was not assuaged. He straddled her head, thrust himself deep into her mouth. He braced himself with one hand on her wrists so she had no way of control- ling his thrusts. When he pushed deep against her gag reflex, she had to quickly relax her throat muscles to accommodate him. She'd chosen to put her mouth on him before, but never had she ser viced him like this, and it was clear why he intended her to do so now. What wasn't so clear to her was her gushing response to the brutal taking, but noth- ing had to be rationalized. They were more animal than human or vampire at the moment, obeying some primal need to validate, bond. It was a war of Dominance and submission where she'd given him the reins, so effectively she didn't know if she'd really offered or he'd simply taken them. Her pussy was wet, ready. She growled against him, scoring him with her fangs even as she licked, suckled, swirled her tongue over him to taste his salt. As she writhed, he reached back and gave her clit some light swats that made her buck up to his touch, mewl with need against him. "Suck me well, my lady. I may come in your mouth, make you swallow every drop of me to earn the pleasure of being fucked. " Her cunt convulsed at the thought, and there was a savage part of her that wanted to fight him, wanted to rebel. But when she tried to lift her arms he shoved them back down, gave her a glaring, almost mean look that told her he would fight her if she crossed him. It only made the edge of her desire that much sharper. She didn't know if he was doing this to shred the edges of his soul or use it as fire to cauter- ize the wound the evening's events might have caused. She let go of the desire to care because she just needed him, the bloodlust and physical lust working so strongly together they were unable to be contained in her body. She was far past the bright edge of climax, on the knife edge of something far more powerful that might shatter them both.

His cock was pulsing in her mouth, his fingers clutching spas- modically on her arms, telling her he was close. She tried to push the issue by increasing the force of her suction, bringing her fangs into play to pierce his skin, just enough to make it difficult for him to pull out without pain, an effective cage as she worked against his length with her tongue. He thrust his fingers into the corners of her mouth, his thumbs pressing on either side of her throat to hold her as he wrenched open her jaw and withdrew. Faint rivulets of his own blood marked him, his size only increased by the challenge. His thickness was extraor- dinary, even for him, though she knew that life-and-death situations often had such an effect on men. Lifting her legs, he folded his own under him and tilted her hips up onto his lap. Straightening both of her legs against one of his broad shoulders, he banded his arm over them so they were held to- gether. Lowering her with the power of that single arm, he guided his cock into her ass, bringing her down on it with ruthless determi- nation, penetrating the area she'd never allowed him to penetrate except the night with Gideon. Even lubricated by her saliva and the juices of her pussy that had flowed into that area, he was a great deal to take, particularly in this state. She gasped at the invasion, the bruising fullness of him, a sound of distress in her throat. But desire was there, too, as her pussy spasmed, jealous of that channel, wanting him inside in a different place. He spoke through clenched teeth, seating her on him even fur- ther. "No, my lady. It's your ass I'll fuck tonight, reminding you that you're my Mistress. Mine alone. " The darkness made his eyes almost black, his face sharply etched. He began to rock her up and down on his length, abrading her sensitive tissues. She'd be aware of his presence there for days to come, healing powers notwithstanding. She'd shudder from de- sire at the mere memory, even as the pain kept her focused on the message he wanted her to understand. He'd killed for her. Served her. He was hers. Somehow he'd committed to that so deeply with this night's actions that it had all become a wall of mirrors. She was as much his as he was hers.

"Tell me I'm hurting you and you love it, that you want me to make you come. " She arched her throat, her body undulating, a simultaneous struggle and yet involuntary response at once. "You'll say the words. Call me what you never called him. Tonight . . . At least . . . I'll know it's true. " She trembled, shaking her head, fighting that even as her pussy convulsed. Despite the pain in her ass at the thrusting of his large cock, she was being provoked by his words toward the goal he was fiercely determined to achieve. "I'll never stop serving you, my lady. But you'll give me this truth. " He put his hand down and found her clit with his thumb, sliding all four other fingers into her. She screamed, and still his devilish knowledge kept the climax out of her reach. Telling her he held everything at this moment. "Please . . . Please . . . Let me . . . " "Say it, or you won't. I won't let you until you say it. " He was human. Human. Yet he had done what no man or vampire had ever done for her. Not just tonight, but in so many other ways. "I can't . . . " "You can. " He was ruthless, as ruthless as she'd ever thought of being. He pinched her clit so briefly, but it sent a spasm as strong as an orgasm rocketing through her. "Say it, and goddamn it, you'll look at me when you do. " She opened her eyes, met his furious ones. The hard jaw, his hair falling wild about his shoulders, his broad chest and shoulders dom- inating her vision. Looming over her against a cloudy sky now de- void of stars, a sky showing only the smoky hint of the yellow moon. Her trembling legs pressed against his shoulder. The guttural sounds coming from her lips and his harsh breath were the only sounds in the night as he increased his thrusts in her ass, taking a full measure of satisfaction there while he held hers out of reach with those im- mobile fingers. "Master. " It was a bare whisper on her lips, torn from a place deep inside her, a place she'd locked away from Rex and everyone else. She'd never trusted anyone enough to hand them her soul.

He closed his eyes then, an emotion passing over his expression so strong it closed her throat, made her almost unable to speak. But she did, even as she clutched him with her internal muscles in a way that brought his eyes back open. "Master, " she repeated. "Let me come for you. Serve you well, as you've served me. Always. " With a look that contained both fierce triumph and utter despair, he worked his thumb against her, began to thrust with his fingers. It hit her like a tidal wave rising undetected by radar directly offshore until too late, striking her hard in her midsection and spread- ing out from there. Tremors of earthquakes shimmered through her, intensified when he came inside her at the same time, thrusting up into her so roughly she was sure he tore her delicate opening, but she didn't care. She would heal physically in moments, while the rift in her defenses he'd created would remain that way forever. From here forward, she'd only have him to stand between that opening and the rest of the world. The conqueror and invader would serve as her defender and protector. As he always had.

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