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The Mark of the Vampire Queen (Chapter Twenty-one)

The private airfield was quiet in the hour before dawn. As the limo pulled in and Elijah Ingram put it in park, he focused on the small plane waiting there. He had the Beretta ready, but lately he'd realized it might as well be a BB gun. So his hand also moved over the small crossbow that Jacob had given him. Thoughtful one, that boy. Jacob was first off the plane. Elijah's brow creased. He was mov- ing slowly, his face down. And he needed assistance. His brother was with him, but he was on point, keeping a lookout, not helping him walk. That was being done by a tall, elegant man with copper hair whose perfect beauty, even impossible for a comfortably straight man to deny, screamed vampire. Gideon walked a few paces away, an ax hefted in one hand, a crossbow in another. He was fairly relaxed–for Gideon. It told Ingram he didn't think they were being pursued, but it was obvious from the torn clothing and the blood all over them, as well as the weary expressions, that they'd been in one hell of a fight. Where was the lady? That boy didn't go anywhere she wasn't nearby. Almost as soon as he had the thought, a shadow passed over the windshield, a current of wind that had him touching the cross- bow, craning his head to see what had just moved over the limo.

When the men were within thirty feet of the car, a creature landed behind them. Ingram jumped out of the car with the weapon before his brain registered that neither Gideon nor the pretty one appeared startled by its appearance. Her appearance, on closer ex- amination. Jacob dragged them to a halt, managed to straighten and turn to face her. Gideon's lips tightened in that expression that suggested he wasn't entirely happy about matters. More than usual. The boy moved toward her unaided, the other two men standing back. When he went to his knees, it seemed a planned move, though it visibly cost him quite a bit of effort. But she was already there to catch him, her talons wrapping around the back of his vulnerable neck, drawing him into her, the wings balancing her at half-fold as she bent her smooth, hairless head over his. "Holy Mother, " Ingram breathed softly, for he knew those haughty, elegant mannerisms. Knowing about vampires, he had room in his mind now for other creatures not part of the human experience. While she was entirely frightening, there was a fascinating beauty to the lean, femi- nine muscle, the long pointed ears and intimidating fangs, the grace- ful way she tilted her head over Jacob and focused on him with large, almond-shaped, entirely dark eyes. Jacob's body slumped into unconsciousness. Lyssa lifted him, carry ing him to the grass running alongside the tarmac. The copper- haired vampire knelt on the other side of him, and Elijah came to join them as Gideon stood off to the side, still standing guard. "He's just passed out again, " Lady Lyssa said quietly. "He shouldn't have tried to kneel. Honorable knight. Foolish man. " Her voice cracked. When the tall man lifted his gaze to study Elijah, Elijah remem- bered a friend of his who had raised wolves from puppies. He'd as- sured him they were tame. But whenever Elijah went to see his friend, the wolves looked at him the way the vampire did now. The civilized veneer was just that, and he was tolerated only because it would upset his friend if they ate his company. "Elijah Ingram, " the limo driver said at last.

A faintly ironic smile crossed the vampire's face and he inclined his head. "Mason. " Bending his attention back to Jacob, Mason reached over him and gripped Lyssa's wrist. "We need to get him belowground and give the transition time to complete, build his strength, " he said in accented tones that whispered of deserts and trade caravans. "How about we start by getting him into the limo? It's close to dawn. " This from Gideon. Sharp, tense. He looked at Ingram, not at the others. "Gideon. " Lyssa drew his reluctant attention. "You need to stay with Mason awhile. Jacob will need your care and his connection to you as his brother. It helps, to keep a new vampire centered. After the first three days, newborn bloodlust will strike hard. The stron- gest reminder he has of his morality will be you. " She had something tied around her neck on a ribbon, and now she bent so Mason could untie it. "It's a vial of my blood, " she ex- plained at Gideon's narrow look. "The vial came from Brian's tempo- rary lab and Debra helped me fi ll it. Because I'm his sire, Jacob will need a drop of it once a day for the first thirty days after the full moon to manage the pain of the transition. If he needs restraining, use a cell. Not wrist restraints. " "I can't fucking believe this. " Gideon walked two paces away, turned in a circle, came back. "I can't . . . " "You can't what?" She raised a brow, her eyes narrowing. He closed his eyes, pinched the bridge of his nose. "I can't believe he let you in on that trick. " He said it as if from a great distance. "How he gets out of wrist restraints. " "I guessed. He didn't tell me. " She gazed up at him. "Gideon, do you remember the famous story of Gandhi telling a Hindu man how he could be forgiven for killing Muslims?" "You're not seriously going to compare–" "He told him to go find an orphaned Muslim child and raise him as his own. And that he must raise him as a Muslim. Hate isn't work- ing for you, Gideon. Your brother is a vampire now, and he needs you. He loves you more than anything. " "No, " Gideon said. The words came out thick, full of anguish.

"Not more than anything. " He squatted then and laid his hand on Jacob's brow with a surprising gentleness. At this moment, Lyssa could easily imagine Gideon many years ago, sitting on the edge of a bed, stroking the sleeping head of his eight-year-old brother, taking the place of their mother and father. She wished she could reach out to Jacob and touch his head, too, but the minute she raised her hand, saw the long claws, she remembered. Drawing back, she cleared her throat to continue, conscious of In- gram and Mason's regard. "After that, he can drink moderately from another, but chain his throat, waist and legs when he does, standing guard so you can pull the donor away when he's reached a pint. He needs no more than that, but he won't be able to control his hunger. It takes three moon cycles before they gain that ability, but only if he has a drop of this every day. Mason knows all of this, of course. " She shifted her gaze to the limo driver. "You won't see me again, Mr. Ingram. I need you to make that phone call for me as we planned, for I don't know what the Council will do about their vote. I suspect many of the lords who would have gone after my fugitives will have other priorities for a while. Mason will explain the details. Before I left Atlanta, I had Jacob make one last transfer to your account, enough to keep you comfortable a long while. I don't tell you that to obligate you. But if you would help Gideon with Jacob, I would be grateful. " Her voice broke a little as she brushed her knuckles along Jacob's brow again. "And don't tell him I carried him. You know how you men are about those things. " Mr. Ingram hesitated a moment, then he extended his hand. When she indicated the status of her own, he shook his head, reached out and circled her wrist. She watched, nonplussed as he bent and kissed the top of her mutated hand. "Ma'am, I don't know a man who hasn't been carried by a good woman at least once or twice in his life. " He paused, apparently think- ing before he took something from his pocket. Folding it in his hand- kerchief, he handed it to her. "This is something that belonged to my wife. I gave it to her to keep her safe and blessed when we fell in love, short though that was. I know you can't wear or touch it, but–"

Lyssa felt the metal through the cloth. She took a corner and shook the contents free of the fabric into the cup of her clawed hand. When she saw the silver cross, despite herself her gaze strayed down Jacob's bare chest, down to the waistband of the torn and blood- stained slacks, under which she knew the same symbol rested. It had a long chain fortunately, which made it easier to manage with the talons. Looping the chain around her neck, she let the talis- man drop between her bare breasts. "A final lesson for you, " she said at Elijah's surprised look, extend- ing the kerchief back to him. "A vampire with faith may embrace relics as much as anyone. I've never lost my soul. " She'd come close with Rex and the loss of Thomas, but Jacob had saved it. Carried it for her. Kept it safe. A good man was known to do that occasionally for a woman as well. In fact, he carried it now. My heart, and my soul. Everything that matters. "If you will all take care of him, I will owe you a debt I can never repay. " She gave an arch look to Mason. "And you perhaps will have absolved yourself of one or two of your many sins. " Then her gaze lowered. Looking at her servant, the trace of hu- mor fled. Bending, she pressed her lips to Jacob's brow. I shall miss you, Irishman. Sir Vagabond. Sir Lancelot of the purest heart. My life will be empty without your laughter, so be happy. When the sun shines more brightly, I will know you are still out there, laughing and smiling for me. She moved her mouth down to his, a featherlight touch. She couldn't bear more than that, because it reminded her too much of the size of her fangs. But suddenly, she didn't have a choice. A hand curved around her nape, his knowledgeable fingers teasing the sen- sitive skin there. His mouth was kissing her back, lips parting, tongue seeking hers,drawing her down more closely so her breasts pressed against his chest. The nipples drew up in aroused reaction, making her ravenous to lie upon him, press her sex to his, feel that searing connection, the affirmation that he was alive. Alive. She couldn't do that. For several reasons. But she couldn't find it in herself to immediately draw back either. Her tears spilled over her lashes, baptizing his face, and he murmured soft ly into her mouth, caressing her face, the three tight folds of skin molded beneath each of her eyes.

One hand slid down her shoulder to take a grip on the clawed elbow of one wing. Her tail curled around his calf, the barbed tip resting just inside the thigh. When at last she did draw back, her mouth was soft and wet as the expression in his eyes. Mason cleared his throat and rose. "We'll wait over there and give you a moment to say good-bye. Mr. Ingram, are there any spirits in your car?" Ingram frowned. "Not certain. Haven't felt any. " The vampire chuckled, and even Gideon's lips twitched. Both gestures went a long way to easing some of Elijah's tension about the odd band, their postbattle appearance. And the lady's unexpected metamorphosis. "You've been keeping too much paranormal com- pany, my friend. " "Booze, Ingram. He's wanting to know if you've got a drink. " Gideon grumbled it,shouldered the crossbow. "I could use a hit of the strongest thing you've got myself. " Ingram nodded. When he saw Mason exchange a significant look with Gideon, he reluctantly joined them in the walk back to the car, giving the man on the ground and his Mistress their privacy. Jacob watched Lyssa gracefully lower herself from her haunches to her knees next to him, the wings at half-spread to balance herself. So, you want to explain how Lord Mason can read your mind so well, my lady? The depths of her entirely dark eyes in this form were so deep he could lose himself in them. I don't answer to you, Sir Vagabond. And you once told me if I knew all of your secrets, I would tire of you in no time . . . Christ, his arms weighed a bloody ton. Regardless, he brought her down to him again and was even rougher this time, holding her fast, hands moving to her shoulders to grip. He could feel her strug- gling against the desire to curl her claws into him. When he growled at her she capitulated, biting into his skin, drawing blood. Her body was shaking. He splayed out his fingers, touching her throat, the ear. He wanted to hold her more tightly, but the moment felt fragile. As if their brush with death was still too close, and moving too quickly or wanting too much might shatter the fantasy and take them back to a horrible reality.

He let her ease back only because the grayness around his vision from the intensity of the embrace made him worry he'd pass out again. "I thought I'd lost you, " she said. "You very nearly did. I saw tunnels, white light. Relatives. " Her face grew still. "Should I have let you go?" He shook his head. "You weren't there. It isn't Heaven if you're not there. Plus, I think I saw my uncle Wilhelm, which means it must have been Purgatory at best. I can't imagine God wanting to put up with him on a daily basis. " She closed her eyes and lowered her head farther. His touch slid to the back of the small skull, fingering the pointed tip of one ear. There were no shields between their minds now, probably be- cause of the emotion of the moment. Since she was cured of the virus to all appearances, he was sure she'd regained the ability to block him at will. However, he was too tired to focus on the whirl going through her mind. He could sense she'd compressed emotions so strong inside her they were ready to detonate. "I've never seen you hold this form so long, " he said. As soon as he had the thought, the answer flashed through her mind, despite a tightening of her lips that told him she tried to block it. She wasn't choosing to not raise her shields. She couldn't. The significance of what Mason had said struck him then. Why did they need a moment now, when they could have all the moments they wanted somewhere protected–a hotel, her house in Atlanta, anywhere but in an open airfield? Must say good-bye . . . Though she tried to obscure it with other thoughts, she was too used to relying on her shields, and he had a whole new level of psy- chic clarity in addition to his own to defrost the window of her mind. Pushing his weariness aside, he concentrated and got it all dumped on him in one flood that hit him low in the gut.

She couldn't change back. Whether it was the effect of the serum on her Fey blood that Brian had not factored in, or the stress of turn- ing him when he was already well on the other side of the Veil, she'd lost her ability to return to the form she knew he loved so much. "Don't be daft, my lady. " He processed her thoughts and his own, separating them instantly. The shot of adrenaline at being alive had carried him far enough to dispatch Carnal, but no further. He cursed how weary his body was, how he could do little more than touch her face, grip her hand, but he marveled at this new hy- perclarity of his mind, as if he could process a hundred thoughts at once. He wondered if it was that way for all of them and wryly re- flected there might be some truth to the vampire sense of mental superiority. "I love you in any form. All of them are beautiful. I re- member a night in a forest when I gladly would have taken you like this. You denied me. " "I would have killed you. This form is not gentle when roused. " "I think I can handle it now. I'm invincible. " "You look ready to conquer the world. " Despite the dry tone, she hesitated, her long talons hovering. He captured her closed hand, took it to his face and turned into it, kissing her palm while her le- thal claws curled into his hair. "You'll regain your strength in three days, " she said unsteadily. "Or rather, a fledgling vampire's strength. Right now your body is regenerating for a vampire's unique physical attributes. Once you get that strength, Mason will teach you how to make the most of it, manage it. How to feed, how often. How to use the mind link, though as a servant you already have the basics of that. But I think, because you already had psychic ability, that Mason will be a good teacher of how to take greater advantage of that. Gideon is going to help, too. " Jacob shoved past the muzziness that was hatefully trying to draw him into a doze. "How? By pushing me into a murderous rage to test my control?" She wasn't able to keep the humor from her eyes this time. "I've rarely seen you in a murderous rage. That seems more his area than yours. " "And what are you talking about? Where are you going?" He circled her wrist with both of his hands, as if he could hold her there, when he knew she could shake him off like a clumsy infant.

Which at the moment he was. "I don't know yet. " Her lips twisted ironically. "Which is good, since I no longer have the ability to keep you out of my head. But I can't stay among you like this. Whether or not the Council comes after me, Belizar is right. They won't accept me like this, not as their queen. Even if times change, it will take time. Right now, in their minds, the line is ended. No more royalty in the vampire ranks. I'll go where I'm safe, never fear. " "I'll go with you. " "No. " She shook her head. "You need time to think. This is a whole new world for you, Jacob, and the punishment for making a vampire out of a servant is only against the maker. With Mason's backing, you'll be accepted. He'll find you a place in the Middle East, or you could even go to Lady Daniela's territory. You need time to figure out your place in your new world. " "I've always known my place. " He said it with heat. "It's with you. " The blaze of anger in his blue eyes shot longing through her. He was alive. So alive. She wanted to devour him. Hold him to her breast forever. "You stand a better chance with Mason. " If they did hunt her, she couldn't bear seeing him harmed, iso- lated, ostracized. If she was killed, she didn't want him seeing it. The anguish he would feel . . . She would feel it. Making it that much worse as she was shot from the sky like a poached eagle. Them truss- ing her lifeless body, hauling it back to Brian's lab to be cut up like a piece of meat. "No. " He sat up then, seized both of her wrists. She closed her eyes. Despite the seriousness of the moment, she teased him soft ly with his own words, from what seemed a long time ago, when he had thoughts he didn't want her to hear. "I forgot you could do that. " "You won't leave without me, my lady. " Jacob glanced behind him at a quiet step. Mason approaching again, his eyes locked on his lady's.

"He can't stop me forever. There's nowhere you can go that I won't follow. " "Think, Jacob. Please, for my sake"–for one breath, just one heartbeat–"don't think of me. Think of yourself. Learn from Ma- son. If you don't, you'll not live long as a vampire. I need to know you're alive and well. That's all I want. " "Like hell. " Did she think he couldn't feel the ache of her loneli- ness already? She'd never needed many around her, but those she chose, she chose carefully, loved fiercely. In less than two years, they'd all been taken from her. She would shut down, retreat from the world, let the animal part take her over as she lived in some cave. She'd willingly forget what it was to be humanoid because re- verting to animal instinct would be easier. That way when they hunted her down and killed her, she would only have an animal's confusion about what was happening. She wouldn't be tortured by the anguished remembrance of why. "Yang-Sun, my old teacher, told me a person who loses every- thing is being given a new beginning by the gods. This is what's best. " She freed one hand to trace his lips, then realized she couldn't without cutting him. Her face crumpled. That doesn't matter. Kiss me, my lady. Please. "I can't. " She couldn't stay another moment or her heart would disintegrate into pieces. She had to let him go. Good-bye, Jacob. "No!" Though he tried to hold on, she wrested away, tears gather- ing in her eyes again, and launched herself. "My lady . . . " He tried to struggle up, staggered. When Mason came to his aid, he threw him off with a snarl, managing it himself. As he watched her wing away, a dark shadow against the predawn sky, he swallowed over jagged glass. "My lady. " I release you from my service. Be happy. "Son of a bitch, " he swore, glaring at Mason as the man drew close again. The amber eyes were sympathetic, but implacable. "Come. We need to get you inside. " It hadn't occurred to him, but now Jacob realized he was getting warmer. A great deal warmer. Uncomfortably so, warning him of the dawn.

He would never feel a sunrise again, but knowing he could never feel his lady's touch eclipsed that loss, made it insignificant. No, he would see her again. He would learn the damn lessons, learn everything he needed to protect her, use his new strengths to do that, and to find her again. He had to. Not just because he loved her so much life wasn't worth living without her, but because she needed him in a way she'd never needed anyone since she'd matured into her adult vampire abilities. She'd not only lost the ability to shapeshift into human form. She'd sacrificed her vampire blood to save his life. When the dawn came, she wouldn't have to go to ground. Jacob had become a vam- pire, and she'd transformed fully into a Fey creature. Because of their link, or his new abilities mixed with his own natural ones, he'd picked it up from those last subconscious thoughts. While she was still immortal, she only possessed the strength and quickness commensurate to the musculature she bore. The way a lion or tiger had power. She was fast, but not so fast she couldn't be followed with the eye. If the vampire world learned that, she'd be as vulnerable to them as . . . A human. She was not strong enough to stand against even one of the lower echelon. It was possible even a human's tranquilizer dart could take her down. She might or might not have her unknown scope of magical Fey abilities to aid her, but in her mind she'd doubted it. Without that, Jacob knew even among the Fey she'd be considered little better than their lowest caste. An untouchable. She was his lady, his to protect. His to love. He was not going to lose her.

H e'd been in the Appalachians for two weeks now, hiking deeper and deeper beyond the touch of human civilization. The last evidence of human existence had been twenty miles ago, the remains of a camp for recreational hikers. By day he pitched his tent, made with special fiber to screen out light. By night he moved with silent, deadly grace through the wood, not even de- tected by the forest creatures until he was right upon them. He could place a hand on a deer's flank, feel the soft coarseness of her hair, smell her scent before she darted away, startled, crashing through the night. One evening he'd emerged from a creek where he'd been bathing to fi nd a wolf pack surveying his small camp. He'd snarled, baring fangs. They'd snarled back. But then they turned and loped on. Tonight, he'd been traveling for several hours before the moon managed to rise above the cloud cover. As he squatted by a stream, he dropped his head on his shoulders, enjoying the feel of the dark- ness, the way the breeze lifted his hair. The sounds of the night. The stars. He'd noticed them before of course, but until his lady, he'd al- ways been more of a daylight person. Now he knew the constella- tions,the phases of the moon, and studied with interest the way shadows moved over the silver face of the symbol of feminine power and mystery.

He'd realized the night wind was actually silent. It was what it passed through that gave it a voice. After months of nearly being driven mad by his own burning impatience, a calm had finally settled over him. She was near. Do you really think you can hide from me, my lady? I know you've been close for several days now. Staying just out of my sight. During the time he'd had to endure his full transition to a vam- pire form, sometimes they'd had to chain him to hold him. Chains that no fledgling should be able to break he shattered within three nights. So they doubled them, strengthened them. As he fought the bloodlust, he knew what was tearing at his vitals was not a hunger for blood, but for her. Knowing she had no one to protect her. Robbed of the great strength she had. Handicapped. Like him, she would be adapting to her new form, its capabilities. Only he was adapting to a strength and quickness far beyond a mortal's. She was adjusting to far less of those qualities than what she'd always known. Alone. He'd had the company of Mason, Gideon, Mr. Ingram and all the resources at their disposal. She was a fugitive. He did everything Mason told him he needed to learn and more. But there were things he could not rush. The ability to control the bloodlust only came with the full transformation and maturing of the systems in his body. Gideon made it clear he'd stake him if he tried to leave before then. Mason, while a little less vitriolic, had also made it clear he wouldn't be permitted to leave until he wasn't a dan- ger to innocents. "Once the transformation is complete, it will not completely rule you, " Mason had said. "But even during the first decade it's tempting at times of great stress or anger to let it take control. You must fight it whenever it arises until you are certain you can control it. You need that discipline even more than a normal fledgling, for your power is exponentially greater than one. " That anomaly had disturbed Mason enough that he talked Jacob into allowing Brian to study him to help them understand what had happened. Brian was amazed to discover that somehow Lyssa had given Jacob over a thousand years of matured vampire powers when she converted him.

Strength, quickness, compulsion. He would have traded some of that strength for his lady's experi- ence at reading minds over a great distance. While the ability to communicate with a human or vampire whose blood he'd taken was a common vampire skill, the ability to maintain the clarity of that communication over great distances was apparently something a vampire acquired with practice, not as part of conversion. A week after her departure, Jacob had panicked upon rising, for he could no longer discern her thoughts in his mind. While his precognitive ability had helped him adapt to the skill quickly as a servant, he hadn't realized how much of it was guided by Lyssa's own abilities. He could feel her. Locate her generally. But he couldn't hear her thoughts. Only a jumble, a puzzle of words, as if the signal was scrambled. Mason and Gideon both thought that was for the best. That it would make the passage of time easier. Instead, he kept wak- ing from nightmares in which she was locked in a coffin, screaming his name while he was unable to hear her. He had no interest in vampire politics or finding a place in vam- pire society. He knew where his place was. To help him elasticize the frayed wire of his patience, waiting for the damnable transformation to complete so he wouldn't be tempted to drain innocent Girl Scouts, he made the decision to let Brian study him to his heart's content, in return for a vital favor. As a result, in addition to his carefully rationed store of blood packed in his cooler backpack, he carried something even more im- portant. All he needed to use it was his lady. When he tracked her to the Appalachians with Mason's help and had Elijah drive him there, he began to read her thoughts again, once he was close enough. But she was elusive, so that he only heard snippets. Sharp, brittle pieces of thoughts, quick syllables cut off. Sometimes there was a stillness to her mind, so full of nothingness it was like she had found a way to compress it and make it tangible, keeping everything else crowded out of her brain. During one part of the drive, he'd felt her fear. A blast of fury fol- lowed by physical exertion. As if she was running . . . Being chased.

Knowing he was too far away to do anything to help her, he'd only been able to sit there in the second seat, frozen with rage, wanting to rend, to tear . . . Fighting for control as the sound of Elijah's blood pumping through his heart nearly drove him to madness. Now that he was in the forest, narrowing the distance between them, he still sometimes broke into a swift run on his treks at night, trying to get even closer. He felt her restlessness. Aching want. Some- times tiredness. Once or twice even illness, when it seemed she tried a food that wasn't the best source of prey. He began to feel her physical reactions. The way water moved smoothly down her throat as she swallowed it from a flowing creek. Leaves fluttering against her skin as she curled up in the most dense part of a tree to sleep. She was so close. She'd been watching him for several days now. He could have tried to see her, find her, but he had to be patient. The humanoid part of her kept her staying close. The instinctual part, the creature, was mistrustful, uncertain whether he was friend or foe. As he'd feared, she'd allowed that part of her to take over a sig- nificant part of her reasoning functions. Because she was close, he could wait, be still and silent. The na- ture of a vampire was not to rush. He understood it now. He could be patient, not only because he had time, but because there was nothing beyond his reach to acquire. The gift he wanted was her trust. Tonight would be the night. He was sure of it. There was a still- ness in him that was far from empty. It was filled with everything. "You seek the aberration among us. " Jacob's head snapped around. He came to his feet in a lithe, quick move as the man stepped out of the shadows of the forest on the other side of the creek. Not a man. Not exactly. A Fey male. Jacob had never seen a member of the Fey other than his lady and the depictions in the books given to her by her mother centuries be- fore. All of them were associated with an element. Like his lady, this one was a creature of the earth. His wings reminded Jacob of the brown leaves that drifted to the ground in fall, the edges curled.

The delicate inner web of veins was like gold thread against the smooth silk of the brown. His long black hair did not completely cover the point of his right ear, which was curved back. He was tall and lean, his face elegant and chiseled, reminding Jacob somewhat of Mason. The aura of magical power told Jacob not only was he facing a man of some class distinction, but a Fey who had nothing to fear from Jacob's speed, quickness and power. "The Fey can completely kick our asses any day of the week, " Brian had told him. "They consider us beneath their notice most of the time. An irritant. However, what's odd is your lady's Fey form is unknown to us and possibly to the Fey themselves. Quite frankly the two species, vampire and Fey, have never been able to procreate, be- fore or since Lady Lyssa's parents. " Irritant or not, Jacob wasn't going to let the insult pass. "I seek my lady. The Lady Elyssa Amaterasu Yamato Wentworth, Queen of the Far East Clan. Daughter of a Fey lord and a vampire princess. I seek no aberration. " The man cocked his head, his eyes gleaming like almond-shaped moonstones. "She has wandered this area for a week or so now. I have chosen not to drive her out as my kind have in other territories she's passed through. " Jacob took a step forward, anger flashing through him. Feelings of fear, pursuit . . . "She should be welcome anywhere. " The Fey ignored that. "She is liked by our little ones. Our pixie fairies are our more simple brethren, but their hearts are pure and playful. They will not tolerate proximity to anything that is not good. Well, except chocolate. " A faint smile touched his lips. "I do not suppose you brought any with you. " Jacob shook his head, nonplussed. "Pity, " the Fey male said. "They will likely wreak mischief with your belongings as a result. If they had not championed her, I would have killed her. " Then he was gone into the forest again, just like that. As if he'd never been, his words hanging in the air like a warning. Jacob stood silently, watching the movement of the trees where he'd disappeared.

He wondered how many Fey lands he'd passed over unmolested the past two weeks. Lands his lady had been driven out of as if she were unwelcome vermin. A queen. Control, Jacob. He remembered Mason's admonishment, though he didn't think the vampire lord would argue with his desire to go back through those same areas and pluck wings off the Fey as if they were oversized flies. Moments of great emotion will be the worst . . . Then the anger was gone. Everything was gone except his aware- ness of what was in this clearing. She was behind him. He knew it, because her proximity was like the brush of hands on his mind, moving outward onto his nape, his back. How he'd missed that touch. Even her touch as a Mistress. The mark of her nails, her hands restraining him. The vulnerable woman lying beneath him, her body open to him. She would not vanish on him this time. She would be there. Please, God. As he completed the turn, he stopped and gazed upon the one thing he'd wanted and needed to see more than anything else over the past four months. She sat in a tree, her wings at half-mast, gazing at him out of her luminescent dark eyes tinged with red, her fangs curving under her chin. She blinked at him. The tail curled once around the branch, the excess flicking slowly from side to side. The desire to touch her was so strong he had to fight it down like the bloodlust. He stood there, his hands clenched, counting, wait- ing, regaining control. She watched him curiously. Wary. "My lady? Are you there?" Her brow winged up and she cocked her head. A questioning croon came to her mouth. Rasping. The noise seemed to puzzle her, as if she'd meant to form words. "My lady. " Jacob controlled the compulsion to leap on her then and there and hold her fast. He wanted her to trust him. He didn't want to have to overpower her, even though he knew he might be being a fool. He'd missed her so much. There was no way to describe how much in words. It was all about feeling, and he was nearly choked with it now.

Mason had been surprised the serpentine mark on his back had not disappeared, for in the past the third mark had disappeared on the small handful of servants who had been illegally turned. Jacob's had simply turned more silver. It hadn't surprised him in the least. "Are you hungry?" Squatting carefully, he removed three of the strips of meat from his pack and laid them on the ground. When he looked up at her, she was studying them. As she raised her gaze to him, he felt her reac- tion. Contempt. Not a scavenger. His lady was definitely in there. While he bit back a smile, it drew tears to his eyes. "I've dreamed of you, my lady. Have you dreamed of me? Do you dream of your servant, or have you forgotten me? Tried to forget me?" Her eyes shifted back and forth. She was blinking, shaking her head, and she put a talon to her forehead, scraped. "Buzzing, " she rasped. "Music. Sweet. " Her voice was so rusty from disuse, it made his own throat close up in pain. "My lady. " She stayed in her tree though she tensed as Jacob rose, came to the trunk and put his hand on the bark, splaying his fingers. Her eyes rested on his hand, moved up his arm to his face. Lingered on his lips. Not . . . Serve me. No longer. Not call . . . My lady. "I couldn't imagine anyone who has seen you daring to call you anything else, my lady. And I am your servant. " His voice took on an edge of possessive command. "As you are my lady. " His eyes marked the shudder that ran through her as she re- sponded to it. Oh, she was definitely in there. It made him remember the night she'd allowed him to master her. Wanted him to master her. Jacob had thought waiting for four months would drive him to insanity. Suddenly four more minutes seemed more than he could bear. As if she sensed his mood, she shifted, got her haunches under her. Was he mistaken, or was that the light of challenge in her eyes?

"Come down here. " His eyes glinted. "Or I'll show off and come up. " She launched herself from the tree, taking flight, moving to the next clearing on the other side of the stream. And found him wait- ing for her there, crouched just below the branch she was on. He sprang and she took off again, but he anticipated her, caught her an- kle. She turned on him, hissing, and they spun through the air. While she was able to dislodge herself and soar free again, he managed to right himself and land on his feet half-crouched, as sinuous as a cat.

It was an impressive move, and Lyssa's heart stuttered in her chest confusingly. She leaped away again. But with each jump, things that had been nonspecific swirls of images were becoming clearer. Words and thoughts exploded in her mind, hurting her head because she'd denied herself thought. She hadn't wanted to think anymore, didn't want to be anything more than a creature of the forest, living by reaction and defense from day to day. The first day she'd allowed herself to get close enough to see him, not just feel him, she'd sat in the trees and yearned. A handsome man as a mortal, that handsomeness was now en- hanced by his otherworldly quality, the comfortable power of a man who'd fully embraced all the things he was, all the energy that was his to command. When he spoke out loud as he often had these past few days, sensing her near, his voice had been smooth, melodious. Words caressed her body as if they were kisses from his mouth, inti- mate touches of his tongue. It perhaps had been a sin beyond measure to turn him into a vam- pire. He'd already been devastating to female senses as a mortal. In the end, she didn't know if she was really trying to escape him, or make him prove himself to her. She led him on the chase for sev- eral miles, and he wasn't even winded. From tree to tree, path to path. Over water, up steep grades. As she evaded and he followed, the more he stayed with her, the more the wordless desire burning in her heart expanded through her body, kindling hot and steady in her loins until it almost became too difficult to maneuver, the rubbing of her thighs too much of a distraction because of the way they compressed swollen tissue.

When she came face-to-face with him on the next embankment, she perched precariously on the edge. He studied her from the other side of a dry gully. He could close the distance at any time. He'd proven it. He was letting her run, letting her know he was chasing only as an indul- gence, knowing he would have her in the end. He somehow knew letting that thought sink in slowly and sinuously, like a lover's tongue teasing her folds, would affect her this way. But he apparently realized she was ready for a change in the game. Or perhaps he was intending to change it regardless. Opening the shirt without care for the buttons, he yanked off the hiking shoes and stripped off his jeans to face her gloriously naked, one of the most potent weapons he could use against her. She couldn't take her eyes from him. All the rippling muscle, the hard and long cock stretching up toward his belly, the firm sac of his testicles. While she missed the thatch of hair that had been on his chest, the ability to touch the hard, smooth curves of him was tempting her fingertips. As her thighs trembled, his eyes registered it. He knew everything that was going through her mind, every reaction of her body. He sprang, making it across the wide gully without a running leap. Just as his foot landed on the opposite side, she took flight again. When she landed in the crotch of a live oak, she shrieked to find he'd used the mind link to anticipate where she would land. He was right above her. He dropped and seized her from behind, pinioning her wings against her, holding his wrist with a closed fist across her breasts, an effective lock. She could struggle but not gain a purchase with her taloned elbows. His vampire strength was fully developed, and she might as well have been a child struggling against a parent. Or a human against a vampire . . . The sly whisper inserted itself in her mind. You must have hated me, the way I reminded you of this, all the time.

"No, my lady. Sssh . . . Calm down. Hush. " Her breath was sobbing in her throat, or perhaps she was just sobbing, weeping at the way it felt to have his arms around her. His warm bare body pressed behind her, his erection against her but- tocks, fitting aggressively into the channel, making her want to rub herself up and down his length. Brushing his knuckles along the firm gray skin of her cheek, he traced the outline of her prominent brow, the bone of the eye socket and curve of the pointed ear. She twisted her head. "I know how much you love my touch, my lady. Need it. Don't deny yourself the pleasure I can give you. " "You're not my servant anymore. " "I am always your servant. Your lover. Your mate. I want no other. " Trust me, my lady. Please don't run. I've wanted to touch you for so long as well. God, you don't know how much . . . I hated you for leav-ing me, but I would forgive you anything. Don't you know that? She wanted to clutch at his wrists, but she would hurt him. Do it. I've missed the way you like to draw my blood. The way you like to watch me react to the pain you inflict. Feel how hard I am, just from remembering it. She gasped as he pressed against her back, lowering his hand to her abdomen, holding her there to feel his erection. She got wetter, her body slippery, begging for him. She couldn't hide her thoughts, any more than he'd been able to do when she'd given him the second mark. Every desire was his to tease and pluck, like the petals of a flower. His fingers descended, finding her. She arched up against him, crying out, the soft birdsong she made when aroused or dis- tressed in this form. "How I've dreamed of your cunt. I've had dreams that are all about it. Me fucking it, tasting it, putting my fingers deep into it, watching you do this . . . " His voice was rich music in her ears as her body bucked. He held her so easily. Almost violently, he yanked her around, easily balanc- ing them both on the oak's thick limb. Pulling her legs around him, latching his hands on her hips and staring into her eyes, he thrust into her, hard and deep, no foreplay, nothing but a rough, pleasur- able claiming.

A reconnection that had a cry wrenching from her throat. His eyes were priceless gems, mesmerizing, capturing her. Her pussy spasmed on him as she wrapped her tail around one of his legs, the barbed tip digging into his thigh. She had her arms around him, spearing him with her hooked talons. She felt the raised abrasion of his third mark beneath her palms. It didn't go away. "No, my lady, " he said hoarsely. "The powers that put it there know I am always yours, no matter what I am. I told you the only safe thing to tattoo on the outside of a body is what's branded on the soul. This is branded on my soul and will never change. I am marked as yours forever. "Mark me some more. " She hadn't talked in over six months, and so thinking was easier than speaking, but she wanted something from his lips. "Please . . . Call me . . . " "Lyssa. My lady. Mine. " When he tightened his arms around her, held her close, she clung this time, just absorbing his scent, his strength. Her warrior, her knight. Her lover. Her servant. The man she loved. In her Fey form, a climax could take minutes to be over, a pleas- urable torment beyond description that took all control beyond the reach of the senses. As it swept over her with just the first few strokes of his cock inside her, she arched back, screaming, her tal- ons ripping upward, tearing his flesh, muscle. She'd feared taking him in this form for just that reason. But she wasn't taking him. He was taking her. He held on, his cock getting even harder inside her, thrusting, his arms pounding her down on him, over and over, making the climax even more intense. His head dipped, his mouth capturing her nipple. He bit, drawing her blood from that excruciatingly sensitive area as she'd once bitten him to give him the second mark. The thought as well as the sensation pushed her even higher. No matter how she fought him in the throes of ecstasy, he held her easily, his face fierce with his own desire, his cock spurting inside her, claiming her again.

I'm here, my lady. You're mine, as I'm yours. I don't want you ever to forget it. My Mistress. My slave. My lover. My mate. My lady. Mine. With a sudden fierceness, he lifted her off him and turned her again, only this time he thrust his cock hard into her ass, collaring her, bringing her back against him and holding her still, making her suffer the ecstatic torment of shooting up the roller coaster again, taking as long as it needed, his hand coming forward to sink three fingers into her pussy as her heels hooked the outside of his knees, keeping herself open, wanting to take him deep. And when we're done with this, I will come in your mouth, my lady. You will take me in every orifice, so I feel I've come home to you . . . Marked you in every possible way. And I will eat your cunt until you come, and fuck you all over again,until you know you can never leave me, not for any reason . . . He was still her knight, her samurai warrior, her vagabond. But now he was also vampire. The natural dominance, combined with the alpha nature he'd always carried, had blended in a way that made her feel helpless to resist him . . . And she didn't want to resist. She wanted to trust, to not worry, to believe she could love him and not have to give him up . . . That he could be hers, and she could be his . . . Everything she'd wanted from Rex, but he'd been unable to give her. Jacob could now give her all of it. Believe it, my lady. You are a queen, but for once, believe that you can have someone for your own . . . Forever. She came again, the sensation almost too much to bear as he spurted again as well, shifting his grip to hold her breasts in his palms, the nipples hard against his touch. He went for a while, thrusting even past the point when she was lying against him, ex- hausted. He pressed a hand to the side of her face, a gentle lover's touch. It should have seemed at odds with the fierceness of the past few moments, but it was all part of the same. The emptiness was starting to fill. The hopeless wandering of the past few months, where she'd thought of nothing and didn't allow herself to want anything, proved itself a lie. She'd just numbed her-self against the pain of being without him in the only way she knew how, short of dying.

Jacob. Jacob. He turned her face slowly, inexorably, away from him, pressing her cheekbone into the firm muscle of his shoulder. She went com- pletely still as his thumb swept her delicate jaw. When Jacob brought his lips down to her throat, the whirl of thoughts she was having were not intelligible, but her emotions were like a storm building in force. Loneliness, wonder, need, all keeping her still as if she knew he had in his touch the answer to all of those things. Her thoughts made him close his eyes, overwhelmed. He sank his fangs into her bared throat, holding her. When he released the serums needed to give her all three marks, it was heaven. Heaven to feel her shudder with the knowledge of his claiming. There were no words for the feeling, this taking and marking of the woman he con- sidered his heart, his life, his . . . And at the same time, giving her back herself. Lyssa heard his thoughts, knowing they were interwoven with her own reaction as she allowed herself simply to be immersed in feeling, giving up thought with no regrets, no worries. Jacob was here. She knew something was wrong with it, that she should be sending him away to protect him, but here in this minute it felt as if she were the protected one . . . And she didn't have the strength to let that feeling go. Jacob had placed the false fang back behind his real one as Brian had instructed. He'd done it on one of the last jumps, right before he'd caught her. Now as he pressed down, it sent the elixir Brian had crafted from the remains of her vial of blood into her system with the marking serum. He had his face pressed against her throat, so he felt her stiffen, convulse in his arms. He held on, hoping Brian was as brilliant as Lyssa had believed him to be. The sharp bite of talons receded and abruptly there was the press of a woman's fingertips, the brush of her hair along his cheek. Reminding him of his first night with her when she'd curtained him with her hair. No . . . No . . .

He had just a second to realize he should have warned her, pre- pared her for the transformation. The wildness that had been with her so many months took over, panic and animal flight reaction shutting down rational thought. The jumble of her thoughts gave him some startling images, which he had no time to digest as she shoved away from him and tumbled from the tree, rolling and get- ting to her feet to run naked across the forest floor, a primal thing reacting to him as if he were a threat. Her disorientation boiled something up from the deepest level of her subconscious where she'd managed to bury the most important thing of all. The revelation stunned him, such that she managed to make it twenty steps before he caught her. He held her when she struggled, but he didn't know what to say as he bore her to the forest floor and lay upon her. His body between her thighs, arms hard around her, face buried in her neck. His heart was fair choking him. When he thought he couldn't bear her fighting him any longer, she broke into tears. Afraid . . . Missed you . . . Needed you . . . Love you. The words were magic, a chant in her mind. Her tears wouldn't stop even as he tried to catch every one of them with his lips. I missed you so much . . . Her voice, so soft, no longer holding any defenses against him. I died inside . . . I wanted to die, to just fade away. But you wouldn't let me. She laid her head back on the earth, and managed to move one of his hands between them, rest his palm on the slight round of her belly. Her eyes closed, and he felt the searing sweetness of her reac- tion reverberate through him. "You wouldn't let me. " Not only had she had to protect herself alone, she'd had to pro- tect their child. He should have told Mason and Gideon to go to Hell and go after her. What was the world with a few less Girl Scouts, anyway? "Oh, my lady. My sweet lady. " He pressed his lips to her temple, held it there as it all washed over him. "How could you do it? You gave me everything. " "You were worth everything. "

As the night waned, they sat by a creek, and he let her find her voice again. Find herself again. He managed to coax a smile out of her and had the bliss of holding her and their unborn baby in his lap. His family. He couldn't stop touching her, wanting her. It was easy to move her to straddle him, take them back up again until her cries shattered the forest's quiet. When they lay twined together, he felt her worries that they would be hunted, that she would face losing him. He rose to one elbow and pushed her to her back, leaning over her to cup her face, touch her lips. "My lady, I swore an oath to protect you. Thanks to you, I now find myself tremendously gifted to do just that. There are some vam- pires who tried to track you, other than me. " Before she could suffer a moment of worry, he pressed on. "I taught them the penalty for disloyalty to their queen. " "You've"–she wet her lips–"you've learned quickly to defend a territory. " "With great help from Mason. Even from Gideon. We had some squabbles. " He smiled and it took her breath. That smile always had, from the first time she'd seen it flash from a knight's dusty and blood-streaked face. "He goaded me into putting his head into a wall when I hadn't quite mastered my temper. I had a terrible moment thinking I'd killed him. I'd forgotten there's little you can do to break a head made of solid rock. He stabbed me in the thigh with a poison arrow and covered me in boils for three very miserable days. No one would ever accuse Gideon of having a nurturing soul. " "And is Mr. Ingram all right?" He was pleased to give her good news, and the warmth of it spread through her, reassuring her before he even voiced the thoughts. "Mr. Ingram is the majordomo of your estates now. Bran and his pack are entertaining his grandson regularly. Brian and his father spoke on your behalf before the Council, " he added. "As well as Mason and some others. As a result, your properties remain in your name, and I am a fascinating scientific subject. Brian is actively courting my favor. "

His voice teased her. She couldn't tease back, not yet. "Mason spoke quite eloquently on your behalf. You are going to tell me what kind of friends you are one day. " She closed her eyes, overwhelmed by the knowledge of it all. "So . . . " She didn't dare hope, or believe, but as he coaxed her to look into his mind, she saw the truth there. "They won't be coming after us. " "No, my lady. There is just you and me. And there are several ter- ritories in which we will be welcomed. We can fi nd a home, and you can be or do whatever you wish. " He traced a hand down her throat, making her open her eyes again. Her lower abdomen still quivered with the shock of having him here, of being in this form again. Physically and emotionally ex- hausted by their rough lovemaking, which she had yearned to expe- rience for so long, she'd let her tears wash so much out of her soul she'd been carry ing these many months. And while she was no lon- ger vampire, only Fey, her mate was vampire. It was too much to di- gest in one night. However, despite her postcoital exhaustion, an aroused growl rose in her throat again, inciting a matching red glint in his eyes. When he passed a hand over her rib cage, the lean flank as she quiv- ered under his touch, his fingers played at her still slippery cunt. "You haven't been eating, my lady. I think we'll have to punish you for that, make you eager to claim life again. " She shuddered. Abruptly, however, he tightened his grip on her there, making her arch up at the aggressiveness of the hold. "There is nothing you can do to hurt me, my lady, except leave me, " he said, his blue eyes intense, determined. "Don't tear a hole in my universe again. I need you to be with me. You're not alone anymore. " The words he'd said to her at the beginning. The words he im- printed on her soul as an eternal promise she'd never doubt again. This was the life that was theirs at last. "The day I lost my parents, " he said slowly, "Gideon and I were playing in the water, wrestling. We'd rolled out of the surf and into the wet sand. He was much bigger at the time, so he was trying to push my face in the sand and I was yelling at him. The sun was warm, and we weren't at school.

You don't think of it consciously, but it was all perfect, all good. We were starting to get hungry and I was thinking of the sandwiches Mom had packed for us. Sometimes I think, well, if they had to leave, I'm glad it was then, when they were laughing, treading water, watching us, and we all were together as a family, feeling good about that. " Leaning closer, he brought his lips to hers, grazing her with his fangs to make her part her lips. The heat shimmered between them such that she felt mesmerized by his resurrecting her heart and soul from the deep well in which she'd buried it. Soon she was responding with just as much desire. She shrugged off the dangerous lassitude of the past few months to embrace him fully. While she could transform easily in and out of her winged form again, Brian had confirmed that her blood held enough humanoid properties to nourish Jacob as only a fully marked servant could. Full circle once again. To rebuild strength, their games of cat and mouse became a nightly occurrence. As her endurance and agility improved, she ex- plored the full range of both and tested his as well, as was her nature. As of yet, he hadn't failed to catch her, though she was able to lead him on some merry chases that sent him cursing into briar patches and into a comical tussle with a displeased bear one night. When he caught her, he took out his revenge in ways that were searingly sweet, ways that sometimes made her wonder if she'd died and this was the illusion of Heaven, the real Jacob somewhere on Earth without her.

It didn't take long in their primal couplings for that thought to slide away in the face of erotic fires much too hot to be blazing among the clouds of Heaven. When she was in her winged form for hunting, he finally got to see the pixies who often followed her. It amused him how they perched on her proximity, wanting to stay in that warm enclosure forever. Give him herself; take everything he was offering. "If we ever are parted in such a terrible way, " she said soft ly, "we'll make sure it's that way. On a very good day we can carry into eternity forever. " "We'll carry each other into eternity, my lady. I shall never leave you. "

T here were caverns she'd been using for refuge. At times, before she realized she was pregnant, she hadn't emerged for days until hunger and thirst and the cursed desire to live that overrode the pain in her heart had brought her forth. She knew hearing that in her mind offended him anew. He made love to her often in those next few days, even waking during daylight hours to take her to the pinnacle of ecstasy, arousing not only her body, but shoulders and completely ignored her. They'd sit, feet dangling, heels tattooing her breasts as they chatted with each other in their odd birdlike language. She ignored them as well as she went about her business, though she was always careful not to dislodge them. "They're like spectators at the Elephant Man tent, " she scoffed. "Gauche creatures. " But Jacob sensed her affection for them. Since they were the only ones who had accepted her no matter her form, he always treated them as honored guests. By day Lyssa hunted for herself, though he preferred her to wait. She knew at first he'd been reluctant to have her more than a few feet from him for obvious reasons, and she couldn't say she dis- agreed or wanted anything differently. But her prey was easier to find during the day. As the link between them strengthened in fre- quent use again, he could always find her once he woke, if she wasn't already back at the cave by then. Oddly enough, Lyssa thought she'd never been so happy and content in her life. A tranquility fi lled her that she'd never had before, a sense of completion so absolute there were times she just sat in the sun on a branch outside the caves and did nothing but absorb the treasures of sun and wind, the aromas of earth and the nearby creek waters, anticipating the evening with Jacob. "What would you think about staying here for a while? Is it ter- rible for you?" He sat with her on the edge of their favored embankment one night, she curled against his side, they watching the moon to- gether. "Anywhere with you is not terrible, my lady. " He bent, brushed his lips over her ear.

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear. ' " "Thoreau, " she murmured, touched. " `I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life . . . ' " "Indeed, " he said quietly, putting his lips to her throat. Before she could arch back to give him better access for his din- ner, he was on his feet, taking a defensive posture in front of her so quickly it amazed Lyssa. While she knew he had all of her abilities, it still took her by surprise, how formidable and dangerous he could be. He used his powers as a vampire with a skill that should have taken much longer to acquire. But then he'd been a warrior in every life, and he adapted any resource he had at his fingertips, particu- larly to protect her and their baby. She stiffened when she saw it was the Fey lord. The one she'd seen several times before Jacob came, who'd discovered her while she was with the pixies. She'd sensed the threat of him, had been prepared to run as she'd had to do before, but he had merely moved on with his bow to do his hunting. When she'd discerned the disdain in his expression, she'd sum- moned enough of herself to eye him just as scornfully. She'd dealt with vampires with an overinflated sense of themselves for too long to be intimidated by him, his ability to drive her out of his territory notwithstanding. A grudging smile had pulled at his lips at her reac- tion, and he'd surprised her with a nod before he disappeared into the wood. Now he gave a slight bow, and extended his hand. "I have some- thing for you. " It took Lyssa a moment to realize what he was offering. Aware of Jacob's still watchfulness, she took a couple of steps toward the Fey lord. It was a rose bloom, which shimmered when he turned his long- fingered hand and carefully rolled it into her smaller one. The petals were fresh, soft, wet with dew.

"What you are holding is centuries old, preserved by old magic. As long as your love for your father lives, it will never dissolve. " She drew in a breath. "My father. " "It was plucked from the branches of his bush before the desert was allowed to turn him to dust. Those who felt the punishment to be too harsh wove the spell, with the intent of one day giving it to the daughter. Time passes fast or slow to the Fey folk, Lady Lyssa. "

The moonlit eyes gleamed. "It is all the same. A gift. You are welcome here, both of you, as long as you wish. " With a nod, he turned and vanished into the wood. "Oh, Jacob . . . " She touched the petals with one finger. "I think he recognizes a queen when he sees one. " Jacob stroked her hair, gazed after the man. "I'd planned my own surprise for you tonight, but I think he just stole my thunder. " Lyssa turned her attention to him. "No, I want to see it. I can't have too many surprises in one night. " "Eager for gifts, are you? Just like a woman. " He took off and let her chase him, staying just out of reach, letting himself be caught a couple of times to give him the opportunity to kiss, to bury his hands in her hair, to spin with her under a moonlit sky, where there were no Masters or Mistresses, just two souls too much in love to deny one another anything. He came to a stop abruptly. "Stay right here, my lady. " He disappeared. Lyssa spun around, looking. She started as feath- ers brushed against her skin, and then she realized they weren't feathers, but small disks of silken white. She looked up in time to be baptized by a shower of them, floating down on her with the fra- grant smell of cherry blossom petals. "You found a tree . . . " "Every once in a long while, you find a volunteer sapling deter- mined to survive the odds, even if it's not in its known environ- ment. " He smiled, joining her back on the ground now. "It's spring, my lady. Time for new beginnings. " She closed her eyes, leaning into the circle of his arms, feeling his palm over her stomach as he brought his lips to her throat, scraped her neck with his fangs, giving her a shiver of desire as the petals flowed down on her. As she cupped the rose bloom in her palm.

In the end it was a blessing. My lady? "I knew from the very beginning you wouldn't be able to accept your place as a human servant. " "My lady, I know my place. I've always known it. " He drew her chin up so he could meet her gaze with an intent one of his own, a look that pulled her in and was like that swirling cloud of petals . . . A handsome man dancing with her . . . Heaven. "My place is by your side. In front of you, behind you, wherever you most need me to be. That will always be my place, now and for- ever. "

THE END

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