Elemental Issues by Shanda Adams by Shanda Adams - Read Online
Elemental Issues
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Summary

Failing to get Mari out of Springfield, Troy is starting to succumb to dream deprivation madness, but when he calls on Caron’s help, an unintended seeding leads to more than an exceptional future progeny as his blood also awakens something even more unexpected in her heritage. The war between the Colonies heating up, putting Mari’s foreshadowing ability to the test, when she discovers Christoph’s intentions to go renegade actually means severing ties to the clan’s true monarch in Italy, a kingpin in the vampire world, she finds herself also contending with his legendary foreshadower. And though Christoph begins allowing Troy visitation rights, the chance of regaining any kind of future with him grows more uncertain when every visit comes with news of his deeper involvement in the extraordinary life he’s building with Caron.
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Elemental Issues - Shanda Adams

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9781483504575

Chapter 1

It was one of those days.The ones when Mari felt like she’d completely lost control of her life somewhere. In fact, that happened over eight months ago, it was just more noticeable some days than others. And not six weeks later she’d lost her life, period. But a year ago today she was celebrating the anniversary of signing her divorce papers, feeling satisfied that her life was her own, no father dictating her behavior, no husband planning out their life.

Now, here she was, seven years after, engaged to a man who, in an abstract way, was her father. A man who’d compelled her parents to have another baby so he could have her once she was an adult—though not with a bride in mind. Far from the life she would have chosen, were she even to have imagined it possible, she wasn’t really complaining. It all just seemed so bizarre still.

She sat in what would be their new bedroom, still a bit dumbfounded she actually told Christoph ‘yes’. It was clear he adored her. Equally that he wanted her now for more than the foreshadowing abilities he’d always shown he appreciated and respected. And she loved him. Not the romanticized, fairy tale kind of love she thought she’d found with her ex, and then had with her benefactor, but a very secure and satisfying love. One he’d do his all to make happily ever after for her—which for a vampire could be literally forever after. She belonged to him, anyway, as long as he survived and, with her vision, she’d see to it he remained safe for a very long time as he built and reigned over his kingdom.

Their kingdom. She was to be his queen. His proposal had been a request to rule beside him as his bride. She didn’t intend to do much ruling; was content to stay in the background as his foreshadower. And she hadn’t done a lot of that in the past few weeks. Things had been fairly quiet since she enabled Christoph’s men to take out nearly all of that strike force from Joplin. Leo Canpelli was still regrouping apparently.

Well, here you are.

Mari startled and turned to see Christoph in the doorway.

He looked around at the empty room, save for the bare bed dropped in the center, her sitting cross-legged in the middle of it. What are you doing?

Just thinking about how much my life has changed.

With a light frown, he came over to sit on the edge of the mattress. Having second thoughts, my love?

That was the only thing it seemed could shake this otherwise solid mountain of sovereignty and self-confidence. She smiled back. When are you going to trust that I really intend to marry you?

He reached for her hand, rubbed his thumb across her ring. When I’ve heard you say ‘I do’. Until then I think I’ll still have trouble believing my good fortune. After all, you won’t move in with me yet.

She rolled her eyes with the little shake of her head. I live in your house.

You’ve lived in my house since I brought you here. At the opposite end.

"And I’m in your bed more often than mine. And whose idea was it to remodel the whole second floor on your wing for the royal suite? We don’t have a bedroom for me to move into yet."

He looked around again and sighed. Maybe I should have had them start here.

It won’t be long; it’s about all that’s left. Unbelievably, they’d been engaged for less than three weeks. You’re certainly not letting them waste any time.

Smiling now, he shifted positions to lie back with his head resting in her lap. Can’t give you too long to think. And you’re sure I can’t give you a formal wedding?

Sweetheart, we’ve both done that once before. And it’s not like there’s family I could invite. So, unless you just want to display to the enclave with all the pomp and circumstance that they have a new queen, it really doesn’t matter to me. And for the time being, they won’t recognize me as your queen. Not until you’re king.

Alright. He shrugged. A quiet official ceremony, it is. At least you can’t stall it off with wedding planning. But it’ll be nice when I don’t have to search the house for you anymore. I looked for you in the temple first. Got a surprise in your quarters, then; caught your bodyguard in Tiara’s bed.

Oops.

"Oops? Sitting up, he scooted in to sit across from her. You knew about this?"

They’ve been involved for a little while, yeah. You didn’t reprimand them, did you? It’s the first time I’ve known them to be alone in her room, but I did tell them I wasn’t planning to leave the house; their time is their own right now.

I’m not sure if I approve of this. His expression said as much. But I didn’t do anything about it yet. At least I knew, too, you must be in the house somewhere.

Why wouldn’t you approve?

Sweetheart, they’re the two people who watch over you. I don’t want them getting distracted by one another; don’t need your bodyguard torn over who to defend first.

Her turn to frown, Mari crawled over and sat astride his lap. "First of all, I’d think the more time you let him spend in her bed, the less likely that they’d be distracted by one another when they’re on the job. The little tip of his head conceded that possibility. And besides, generally, when Andy’s on the job with me out in the enclave, Ti isn’t with us. Since she doesn’t even have to be my babysitter around here anymore, is really just my attendant in my chambers, she hasn’t a lot to keep her busy these days. Taking care of her man gives her more to do, more purpose."

Alright. Christoph sighed and kissed her. I won’t say anything for now. But I’ll be watching. First sign either of them are neglecting you and I’ll reassign one of them.

Tyrant, she teased but returned a quick kiss. Actually, now that you know about them, I had an idea while I was sitting here. You still think I need a handmaiden, though I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself. And I’m not fighting you on that. You want me waited on, fine. Besides, she’s my best friend and a girl’s got to have someone to dish about her man with.

Mari had to grin at that frown. I was bragging to her about my lover long before he proposed. Though he drew breath, he didn’t seem to know how to respond. Oh, please, you have to know girls are a bit indiscreet with one another about their love lives. She’s not going to go gossiping around the enclave about your prowess—unless you want her to let slip that The Beast really knows how to keep Beauty very well satisfied.

He narrowed one eye on her as his head went aside, but a smile fought for a corner of his lips. She found the characterization a little embarrassing, personally, and doubted anyone had dared let him hear it before. Not necessary. Bad enough they know he has a heart.

I thought you gave that to me.

Indeed, I did. So what were you thinking earlier?

I was just wondering if you’d consider letting the two of them have the rooms right below us. A connecting stairway could be put in so Ti is just as handy as she’d be across the hall. And it would put Andy nearby as well.

You want to give them my private chambers. He looked a little nonplussed.

Not expecting to need them anymore, are you? Don’t tell me your old rooms would be too good for the queen’s handmaiden and the queen’s bodyguard.

No, no, you’re right. Christoph surrendered to the chiding with a little shake of his head as it truly processed. But I haven’t really approved of this little affair yet. And are you sure you’re not just trying to delay the end of the remodeling?

Of course not. That had been said with a smile, but that he’d even thought it showed he wasn’t entirely kidding. Why was he so insecure today? Do you want me to give you a date? Done or not, you’ll take your new bride into some bed that night?

It’d be nice. But I said I wouldn’t pressure you for a date. It was enough for now that you’d said yes. And I’m surprised we’re not completely preoccupied at the moment, anyway. As I said, I’d looked for you in the temple. Were you even in there last night?

Right after you went to the office. I’m still not seeing anything.

I don’t like it. He’s had those replacements for two weeks.

I keep looking ahead for his next move. But, sweetheart, until he has a fixed plan that he definitely will implement, there’s no event to see.

Did you at least see Canpelli was there?

Yeah, why?

He shifted beneath her; liked to pace in order to think as much as she did. She rose to her knees to move away, but he centered his weight from resting back on his hands to wrap his arms around her hips and settled her back down. I’ve just been wondering if he might be conferring with the clan.

Both their attentions were drawn to the doorway at a surprised, embarrassed noise when one of the workers started to enter. It was well after dawn, nighttime in the vampire world. Did he have work going on twenty-four hours? Probably, given the progress.

Baby, come downstairs with me.

Mari climbed off his lap and took his hand as they left the bedroom. See, a staircase would be handy right now.

Christoph looked aside at her, couldn’t help a little smile as he shook his head. It wasn’t a bad idea having those two in his chambers once Mari moved in with him up here. And he shouldn’t be so surprised they’d gotten together, really, the way they both looked after her. He wouldn’t be surprised to find that Mari had encouraged it. She’d always considered her handmaiden’s happiness and well-being to the point of spoiling her. Though her bodyguard appeared to be pandering to her a bit these days. And he’d given her several chances lately to come clean about it but she hadn’t said anything.

Unclenching his jaw, he checked a sigh. He hadn’t forbidden her visiting the cell block. It wasn’t that she’d disobeyed him. It just got under his skin. Worried him. She’d had an affair with the man once before. Not that she’d likely do much under the circumstances, knowing they were under surveillance. But she was really wanting to change that situation. And, anymore, his ability to sway her was what he distrusted most about that man.

It had caught him a bit off guard to discover what a potentially bad girl he had on his hands. He glanced aside at her, let go of her hand to put his arm around her as they went down the corridor. Kind of excited him, too. He just needed to be sure he channeled those naughty impulses his own way somehow.

Of course, he’d known before she was two years old that she was going to be headstrong. Charlotte’s weekly reports when she was growing up had shown her to be a very willful little girl, at times rather naughty as she’d test her nanny for what she could get away with. But also bright and inquisitive and playful. He’d become quite fond of his little progeny from afar. That had deepened through her adolescence, her development into an exceptional young woman, though all he had were written and verbal reports. He hadn’t wanted to be able to picture her in his mind since she was four. Afraid he’d grow impatient to awaken her and bring her home to him, he’d had to give her time to know herself first.

His first true look at her lying peaceably in her casket had been something of a shock. There was so much of her in Mari, but she was so not Yvonne in so many ways. He’d hated that he had to strike her the day she arrived, let her know he was in charge in this relationship if he was going to get her to work to develop her talent, hold his own focus on his intended goal with her.

It tightened his gut both times he’d hit her after that; shocked him at the intensity of his reaction when she’d mentioned her benefactor, that wistful look coming over her, and he’d lost his temper. Hurt him to see she’d formed a bond he’d been denied with the one who’d guided her passage into this world. His anger at her kidnapping had been in error, but that man was still his most grievous conflict right now and the discovery of the true depth of that bond. Though she hadn’t mentioned him since she’d accepted his ring.

He stopped them at the top of the stairs, wrapped her in his arms and kissed her. She looked startled by the impulse, but smiled at him and kissed him back. Christoph sighed. She’d always warmly returned his affection, even after learning such receptivity wasn’t mandatory. And he’d wanted to bestow it more with every passing day she’d been here, the prophecy ringing truer daily. His heart, his life, his destiny were all in her hands. And she held them all with such care, it should be enough. Why wasn’t it?

But he had bigger concerns right now to protect them both. When they reached his chambers, he sat her with him on the couch. Canpelli was a genuine threat and they had to deal with him somehow.

So, you’re worried about Leo strategizing with Dominic.

Christoph just wanted to kiss her again for her thoughts staying focused since they left their new bedroom. Baby, I’m going to ask something of you I never have before. I want you to go into Ouachita and look at how the clan’s reacting, see if it looks like the Colony’s preparing to join in this battle.

Mari’s brow furrowed. Understandably. He’d never asked her to betray any knowledge of her old Colony or any of its enclaves; had told her he wouldn’t go after the little enclave she’d adopted as her first home, her first vampire family. But his agenda wasn’t to the south. And taking on the Colony seat would be the ambitions of a madman, even with a foreshadower. It was a nigh on to impenetrable fortress. For centuries.

I don’t even know where the garrison is in Ouachita. I’ll find it for you, I’m not saying that. Of course, she would, his little darling. I’ve just never really thought about how there must be enormous forces there kind of invisibly; all the warriors, guards, those that monitor the cctv around the perimeter and entrances. It’s such a…city, whereas what struck me when I arrived here was how it seemed I was living on a military post.

He had to smile. He had pretty well restricted her movement to the military or Council wings. She still rarely saw the more cultural and commercial side of the enclave in the civilian levels. Maybe he should take her up there more. Maybe it was time, at least, for an enclave-wide invitation to a celebration of the engagement, a bit of social revelry for all. Especially if they were likely to be under siege before much longer. He’d give that some thought later as her pensive silence broke.

I’m not even sure what I should be looking for.

And I’m not exactly sure what to tell you, sweetheart. With neither of us familiar with normal activities and training there. I can give you a comparison with our military base, even have you go look at it. Mostly I want to know how Dominic is reacting, whether it looks like he’s orchestrating anything. It’s entirely possible the next attack will be coming directly from Ouachita, either at us or to take over Aurora, not risk weakening Joplin’s forces again.

I’ve been thinking Leo may be concerned about a mole in their midst, since we were so prepared for that last attack, had men in place to surround and take his out. He knows just how that went down from the three that got away.

Yes. There’s a fair chance that’s crossed his mind. He’d give this one more try. Any indications we might actually have a willing agent?

Mari stirred uneasily. It’s a more dangerous situation to put him in now. I haven’t pressured him about it; am still just letting him think about cooperating.

Also still wasn’t admitting to the time she was spending in the cell block. Should it worry him that she was keeping quiet about it? Or did she just worry about displeasing him by her concerns over the comfort and ‘unfair’ treatment of what really was just a friend now. Maybe I should talk to him again.

One shoulder skipped lightly. Couldn’t hurt.

His quiet huff drew out wearily. She seemed pretty confident that he wouldn’t hurt him now. Such interrogation should have been standard procedure given his knowledge of Joplin. Why did he have to end up being so instrumental in her development that he couldn’t bring himself to repay him that way? And to rend her little heart so in doing it. He’d never really make a warrior out of her. But that was okay. She grounded what humanity there was left in him, even restored some.

*

There was a fair chance he’d gone mad. But it seemed that awareness must mean he hadn’t entirely. Troy swept together some of the marble dust and flakes on the floor and gazed around at the sea of statuary that crowded the living room these days. It was nearly impassable. He needed to sell some of this and get it out of here. At least move a few out into the yard.

Parting with them was just unimaginable. Mari had become his sole model. And he’d done next to nothing twenty-four-seven but sculpt, always at hyperspeed, squeezing hours into minutes, since he tore down the campsite outside Springfield three weeks ago. He’d envision an image of her within the marble and couldn’t wait to release it.

Maybe he could just duplicate some of them to sell. The next delivery of marble should arrive tomorrow. His finances really did need a little attention since that nightmare with Hannah. Troy shuddered. Even though he had recouped the cost of most of the diamonds left behind when he handed her off. All but the ring. He shuddered again at the very idea.

And all he’d managed in all that was to piss her off enough to go after Mari. But his precious beauty had taken care of that. Lopped that conniving little blonde head off—ordered it, anyway. One of the benefits of being a first gen general’s prize progeny.

The table was pushed into the kitchen to open up the dining area to work. He scooped up the marble dust and strewed it over what was already accumulated there; traced ‘Bon Anniversaire’ in it with his finger. Oh, that was in French. Oh, well. She should understand. If she’d even noted the date and remembered. He hadn’t felt like she was there in the past couple of nights, but she might join him today for a little while.

It wasn’t fair that only she could see him, only he could leave messages. If only he could hear her voice again—outside his head. The mere echo of her laugh could still raise a smile. Even Glynis’s haunting him all those decades never did this to him. But in his heart, he’d known she was gone. Mari was merely absent; hope still on the horizon.

A reverie really was in order. He knew he was risking his sanity. It had been well over a week since his last one. But going into his subconscious and holding her just made returning to life without her outside his dreams too hard to bear. Especially knowing she was in someone else’s arms these days.

Feeding wouldn’t hurt, either. He’d been living on cold, packaged blood, and not a lot of the vile stuff. A mouthful or two every few days. Enough to keep from wholly desiccating. But he had to strictly ration his supply, anyway. He couldn’t leave the house; he might miss her.

What would happen if he called for his little playmate? She’d come running at the merest suggestion he needed her. And if he were to break this self-imposed diet, might as well be with the tastiest thing in the surrounding counties. Hell, the surrounding states.

Mari probably wouldn’t approve if she saw them. But she might understand. Who knew what her dining habits were like in that place? And what could she do about it? He didn’t think she was allowed any outside contact still. But she was dead and gone to her friends. No way she could warn Caron if she wanted to. Anyhow, what would she tell her? That she was under the spell of a vampire? Mari knew he wouldn’t harm her.

Though what it might do to him to have a warm body in his arms…the sensual bliss of feeding…. Might be more than he bargained for. Which Mari would no doubt have objections to seeing. Like she had a lot of room to object these days. Although she might fairly argue that Caron was married—to a man who was probably still having wet dreams about her. And there wasn’t a damned thing anyone but her could do about that. And she’d never have the chance to fix it. That marriage was pretty screwed up now, anyway.

Hunger started seriously clawing at him as the idea burrowed deeper in his mind. He could contain himself with Caron. He wasn’t so far gone that over two hundred years of restraint against taking liberties with feeders would just go out the window. Right?

No matter how sweet her blood was. No matter how her little heart would patter as she offered up that nectar to him. Or how soft and warm the skin he sank his fangs into and brought his heart to life.

Troy swallowed. He was nearly drooling, couldn’t even look at the refrigerator. His fangs ached. He had to have her. Here. Now. Couldn’t wait hours still until the sun set to track her down. He knew where she worked; would get her to leave early. She wouldn’t even be home late. Nothing to arouse suspicion from David, and he’d alter her memory of being with him. What could go wrong?

There were three statues in the way of the bookcase where the phone book was. Too much trouble. Too much time. Reaching out a hand, he pushed past with his mind, brought it sailing across the room into his grasp, then threw it aside. Screw that. That’s what directory assistance was for.

Voice mail. He growled and hung up on it without leaving a message. Okay. Cell phone. And hope she was in a position to answer it.

Photographic memory or not, it took a moment’s hard concentration to pull up the image of seeing the caller ID on Mari’s phone. Caron! he pounced, overtaking her ‘hello’. It’s Troy. Hope this isn’t a bad time to call.

No, not at all, came back the sweet, soft voice of dinner.

He caught his reflection in the widow, noticed with a start the slit pupils and forced his eyes back to normal. I need your help. Can you leave work?

I’m at home.

Shit. Can you get away? Please. I’m in trouble.

There was the barest fraction of a pause. I’m on my way.

He hung up and tossed the phone down on the loveseat. On her way still meant half an hour from the estates at Cane Creek Acres. Picking his way across the room, he entered the bedroom which made up the back half of the house and had been left wholly intact, went into the adjoining bathroom. He washed the marble dust from his hands and stood leaning on the sink, staring at his eyes in the mirror.

There was very tentative control at holding them steady. Long minutes passed as he took slow, deep, deliberate breaths, focused on rounded pupils, the tip of his tongue locked between his fangs, which he nearly trembled to keep from extending. He was so hungry; didn’t remember this kind of hunger since he first reawakened.

It had only been four days. He’d gone that long before. Many times. Never lost control. Though he’d only choked down three swallows then before the chill of the blood set his teeth on edge. And he was burning up fuel quickly with the speed in which he buried himself in his work.

Still, he had to get a grip before Caron got there; overall the reflection was a little scary, even so. He could throw himself back into his work. It was the only thing that made the time pass. Hours, days would get lost. He was so very nearly done with this one. If he pushed himself, he might have it finished before she arrived. It would take his mind off feeding so he didn’t attack her on sight.

Troy returned to the dining area of the front room and the Greek goddess he’d seen strolling outside the Springfield enclave that one night, hair and gown catching the breeze, and picked up his chisel. He’d like to have added the mountain lion but hadn’t had a large enough piece of marble left. Maybe tomorrow, with the new shipment, he’d start on an image he had in mind of Mari lounging with the beast.

In the frenzy of his work, he missed the sound of the car out on the county road; startled at the last scrunch of tires as they left the gravel, turning in to the long, rutted driveway through the woods. Fearing an error in the force of the blow, he jerked aside the strike of the mallet and hit his wrist. Shit. He dropped the chisel, shaking the pain from his hand. Good thing he’d averted that strike. With a caress of his hand then over Mari’s cheek and soft stroke along the marble folds of her gown, he turned away, hurried over to the door.

His little angel of mercy was just coming into sight.

Were he alive, his stomach would be rumbling; nevertheless, his mouth watered. Running the back of his hand across it to knock away a marble flake, he felt the drag of a fang, quickly withdrew them again and opened the door. As she pulled in on the shaded side of the house, but not quite into the shade, he fought rushing out to meet her. He was too weakened to withstand even that brief exposure to the sun without severe pain.

One glance at him as she stepped out of the car and, leaving the door wide open, she ran to him instead. My gods, Troy, what happened to you? She reached up to ruffle marble chips from his hair, ran her fingers softly over his pallid cheek.

Thank you for coming. He ignored the question and pulled her into a hug, stroked the long curtain of straight silky blonde hair. Mother of god, he’d forgotten how good she smelled. She was such a tiny little elf, didn’t come up to his chin, reminded him of Glynis and the most glorious days of his young life, reveling in this new existence.

Initially surprised, she returned his snug embrace. His eyes tightly closed, he was nearly panting as he held his fangs in check. He couldn’t delay this, had to drop into her mind now. As he eased his hold on her, she drew back and started sharply, pressed against the arm still around her.

Your eyes! Hers were big and anxious.

His pupils were vertical, snake-eyed slits; he’d lost control of them. Squeezing his eyes shut, he forced them back to rounded, sank into her gaze as he opened them. Don’t be afraid of me, Caron. All the tension in her body fell away, her expression shifting to confusion with the tilt of her head, exposing that soft, pale skin along her neck; the quick throb of her heart making him tremble. I won’t hurt you. I need you. I’m starving.

Her heartbeat jumped, tripped his fangs. He couldn’t stop it. Or hunger overtaking the shape of his pupils again. Her mouth fell open with the widening of her eyes. She didn’t resist his descent toward her neck. You’ll really enjoy this, little one, I promise. He sank his fangs in and the warm blood exploded in his mouth, setting his mind afire and switching on his heart. Sweet ambrosia. Caron drew a deep, ragged breath.

As she wilted, he picked her up and wrapped her legs around him; sank down to sit comfortably on the porch step with her in his lap, deeply slaking the thirst. Her breath came in little pants, soft whispers of ‘oh, god’ buried in her exhales. She ran her fingers through his hair and gripped it in both hands, holding his head to her neck as she pumped her life force into him. Oh, god, indeed. Why had he been denying himself this ecstasy?

He had to stop. Half a pint. He had to stop. Should be enough. He had to stop. The little rock of her hips undulated against him. Oh, to be inside that ride as she filled him. And she’d let him. He had to stop. He clamped onto her ribcage and pulled her back from him, breaking away from her neck.

No, please, she whispered. Not yet. More.

Caron, I shouldn’t, he panted. It was so easy to breathe when your heart beat. You don’t understand. He grabbed a handful of her hair in return to hold her back, counter her fight to return her neck to his mouth. It’s too easy. I could go too far.

There was a dreamy look in her eyes. You won’t hurt me. Take whatever you need. Months of conditioning his body to respond in the blood trading with Hannah reared its head, prepared him. He didn’t need that.

The stir of her weight felt him beneath her. She drew back one hand to hold his face and run her thumb back and forth against the tip of his fang. Whatever you need, she repeated, her head tilting to expose the other side of her neck, the throbbing pulse of her jugular vein, a heavier circling of her weight expanding the offer.

Angel of mercy. The hunger still gnawed ravenously, the pump merely primed; carnal gratification running red in his mind. Such entreaty to satisfy it. Such sweet nectar. She could easily spare another half pint. The ache in his groin competed with that of his fangs. Such entreaty to satisfy it. To wholly fill her with pleasure. Make her heart race. Really pump that flow of blood. Send her ecstasy over the edge. It was far too many years since he’d felt that quaking release of a naked body against his as he fed. She pleasured herself with the urging ride against him as she lay back against his arm, both hands still trying to return him to her neck. He shouldn’t even be thinking about this.

Angel, you can’t do this to David. He couldn’t do this to their vows. Her weight rose and fell. Troy blew out a sharp breath. Well, he could. No, he couldn’t.

He couldn’t care lately.

That jarred his thoughts. What? He slipped his arm up behind her shoulders to force her upright and make her look at him.

A little purr escaped with the forward shift of her weight. He startled when she continued forward and captured his mouth with hers. Oh, sweet angel. No. He doesn’t want it, she murmured against his lips when he pulled his head back, and then pursued him in a deepening, open kiss.

That tongue was as sweet as her blood. No. Too, too easily. He tore his face aside. Angel. Horny, unsatisfied little angel. Way too easily. What do you mean?

Her pert bosom heaved in a deep sigh. He left me. Her fingers still woven in his hair, she tried to pull him back in.

Left her? He took hold of her shoulders to hold her still, hold himself on track. What happened? Talk to me.

She let go with one hand to caress it over his cheek and along his jaw, her gaze darting back and forth between his eyes. Gods, you’re beautiful. In fact, he hadn’t looked worse in over a century. The tip of that sweet tongue played with her own incisor as her focus dropped to his fangs, her thumb stroking his lips when he hid them away.

Not helping. Feeder’s bliss ran rampant in her.

He could feel the current that raced through her skin, making her tingle all over. A surprisingly intense level; her entire bioelectric field seemed to pulse with the drum of her heartbeat. Caron, please. I don’t have a lot of control here. You have no idea. Don’t push me.

Not push you. Please you. Her gaze fell to the meeting of their laps, her thighs flexing. Let me take care of you. Her hand slipped to trail down his chest, his stomach.

He let go of one shoulder to grab her wrist. So easily. Bringing her hand back up and drawing her gaze with it, he pricked her finger with a lower fang, licked off the bead of blood that ran from it. Not till you talk to me, sweet angel. And not like that. He couldn’t. She stirred again. Okay, he shouldn’t. Wouldn’t be proper. He alternately nursed her fingertip and let her play with his fangs. What happened to you and David?

Her breath rapid and shallow, she still squirmed invitingly in his lap at the feel of his trickling feeding. Set afire, her racing blood undoubtedly swelling the crux of her passions, as well. But he couldn’t honestly quite plead insanity. He’s in Kansas City. Interviewing for a legal position with Layton Industries. I told him I don’t think I want to move, leave my job, the house. He said that was my decision, left two days ago.

He’d leave you to go to work for Mari’s family?

He left me months ago. Never got over her death. Her head shook lightly, a sadness in her tone, despite the hunger in her expression as she watched him feed and probed with her other fingers to feel his fangs. Did she know? Her gaze skipped up to the inquisitive rise of his brow. What you are.

Better than anyone. I can’t talk about her. He pulled her hand away as the pain swelled in his beating heart.

Tears clouded her eyes. You, either.

Damn. David had already rejected her because of Mari. I’m sorry, Angel. She’d loved Mari, too; hurt from the loss. He stood up, slipping a hand under her to hold her to him, her legs encircling his hips. Such a tiny little elf; couldn’t be a hundred pounds, soaking wet. Come with me. He opened the door and carried her inside, set her down amidst the collection of images of Mari.

Caron looked around, open-mouthed, then over at the one that was nearly finished; turned her gaze back to the dust that paled his clothes, the flakes no doubt still in his hair. These are yours? My gods, Troy, they’re exquisite. She caressed the one beside her. Oh, you haven’t gotten over her, either.

He couldn’t tell her about Mari, what really happened. Even though he’d have to erase a lot of this visit from her memory. Never will.

Her awed gaze continued to travel over them. I’d love to have one of these.

Of all the people he’d part with one for… Fair payment for a pint, angel?

These are worth far much more. She shook her head as she turned toward him, reached for his cheek and caressed it, ran her thumb across his lips. I should pay you in installments, maybe. Suddenly piercing her thumb with an upper fang, she slipped it in his mouth; gasped as he sucked the blood that rose, and ran her other hand down his stomach to pull him to her by her fingertips inside the waist of his pants. Take whatever I still owe you today.

A willing consort. He shouldn’t leave her cognizant. Not loose in the human world. It couldn’t be a good idea. Nor her willingness to more than feed him.

Chapter 2

Mari honestly wasn’t making any progress in her nightly visits. Even limited as discussion was, being on camera, Garlin still appeared undecided over cooperating for his freedom. But after conceding that Christoph might get farther with him, he hadn’t seemed in any hurry to talk to him. His main concern was Canpelli’s apparent lack of decision, the suspicious inactivity in Joplin. And even so, while he did continue to have leisure hours, he wanted to spend them more intimately with her. It wasn’t until he went to his Council chambers after sunset that Mari entered the temple.

But she had all night now to try to figure out why Leo hadn’t made a move yet. She dug down into the pile of satin pillows beside the stone scrying pool and retrieved the slightly rumpled piece of paper, unfolded it and lay back reading it once again.

Beloved,

I wish to cause you no anxiety over my safety, so am returning to our home, will leave you in peace. If ever comes a day you’d flee with me, you’ll know where to find me. Until then, be happy, my darling.

I hear you’re tenderly treated and fiercely protected as even I would. I bear no ill will at your loyalty, though I lament you could not remain mine and will hold you in my reveries. My love into eternity, my precious beneficiary, my only.

Troy

Tears trickled from the corners of her eyes as always when she read it, and she freely allowed this wellspring of pain to flow in chosen moments. Andy had passed the note to her the day after she’d accepted Christoph’s proposal. Tenderly treated. That was a kind way to put it. When she’d asked Andy what he’d heard, he admitted he felt Troy had the right to know she’d become Christoph’s lover to weigh into any further plans.

He was in their home. She’d willed it to him for safekeeping, never imagining he’d move in, that he’d stay there without her. Awaiting the day she might go on the run with him. But a fugitive life hounded by Christoph wasn’t the answer, especially since he’d probably kill Troy if he caught up to them. And Christoph had offered her an alternative. If Troy could live with the terms. The conditions still negotiable, she hadn’t brought it up again, just contented herself for now with the thought he might not be entirely lost to her.

She was ‘his only’, and ‘his one and only’ to two different men: benefactor, and progenitor. Two so very different. Equally devoted in his own way. The pure cougar-bait eighteenth century French romantique artisan and his muse. And the cougar-shifting seventeenth century hunk of warrior out to claim his kingdom, venerating and guided by his foreshadower.

It gave her a sort of split personality. Or an Athena complex. Goddess of war and the arts and her high priests.

Mari combed her fingers back through her hair. Buying into her own press much lately? The oracle and future queen. Seriously. She needed grounding. Only one place to go for that, her sanctuary in the inner sanctum of the temple.

Sitting up, she settled herself cross-legged in front of the scrying pool, buried the note back down in the pillows and leaned over slightly, bracing herself with widespread hands on the stone rim. The perpetual light of seven pillar candles circling the room reflected on the edge of the water. She lost her gaze in the gauzy curtain-draped milky whiteness of the room looking back at her, breathed in the never-ending scent of sandalwood and tea roses as the mists that arose in her mind blanketed out the world, detaching her from her body and senses.

The transparent projection of her visionary self immediately opened the fog at her feet in a sharp, low sweep of her hands, anchoring her on a mini version of the marble temple floor, with its mother-of-pearl inlaid ring of the phases of the moon. Her fixed point at the center, standing where the scrying pool would be, tethered her from being thrown unexpectedly into a vision.

It had been days since she’d seen her old home. It was too pleasurable and too painful to see him. He seemed to do little there but sculpt. She knew from their time together in Ouachita that embracing the artist in him kept Troy calmer, more fulfilled. Calm didn’t appear to describe him lately and he was looking less satisfied all the time.

He definitely had a singular muse these days, though. Viewing the ever expanding likenesses of herself each visit was a little eerie, a little embarrassing. Seeing her origins, though, humbled the goddess. And she had to see him again, even briefly.

Parting the fog before her and opening up her sight to her house was as easy as, well, going home. That was Caron’s car in the driveway. She stepped through the hole in the fog and felt the sideway tug of her mind being yanked to that location.

Although the straight line distance wasn’t much different, it always felt like a harder pull than when she went to view Joplin. It was going to be interesting to see what it felt like going as far as the Ouachita Colony seat. And that was up next. That vision wasn’t going to be any easier, anyway, for its trip down networks of memory lanes.

It was odd, Caron being here this late after dark. At a movement on the porch, Mari zoomed in from the aerial view. Or leaving at this time of night. She landed in the yard, between the porch and Caron’s car, had to suddenly sidestep them walking through her. Even if people wouldn’t feel her, or her them, that still creeped her out just a bit.

She turned to watch him stop her at the open car door. That mouth-to-mouth kiss was awfully friendly. She couldn’t see his face to lip read what he said but her smiling ‘okay’ with a nod of her head was clear enough before she got in and he closed the door.

A kind of wistful look followed her departure down the drive. Did he just sigh? What the hell was going on with those two? She followed him inside and stopped short. She may have to let him pass through her now and then along the strict path. There was precious little room elsewhere to stand. It was like being in a museum storage locker. She didn’t really mind with him the need to be so close they would pass through one another.

She trailed along behind him as he went to the kitchen table. Another message. How sweet. She couldn’t believe he remembered the date of her divorce. And she almost missed his well wishes as he swiped his hand across, obliterating it. He evened out the dust, threw another handful across from the pile on the floor and re-wrote ‘David in KC’.

What was David doing in Kansas City? And that looked a little like a warning. Why did she need to know that? What was that below it? It looked like CLI. One hundred fifty-one? Or a text message. See L I. Telling her to go look at Layton Industries. This was a little cloak and dagger from any message before.

There was nowhere to get out of the way when he turned, no real need to step into a statue as he moved away from the table. He twitched. It wasn’t the first time he seemed to react to her mind passing through him, but he never so much as blinked at her touch. He wove his way to the bedroom. Mari drifted along behind him. Room to move again. He’d still left this room mostly untouched.

But not unused. He stretched out on the rumpled bed, his hands behind his head. Dreamtime. She’d watched him ‘sleep’ the first night they’d blood traded, the peace and contentment on that sweet face. He didn’t close his eyes, though; just stared at the ceiling. And the contentment on his face flickered. Was that blood on his shirt?

He was pretty disheveled these days, really did look dreadful, worse it seemed every time she saw him. Vampires were naturally on the pale side, but his complexion looked… chalky best described it. His skin was lined lately, like an apple that was starting to dry up. Though perhaps his cheeks weren’t quite so shallow tonight.

Swinging his feet back down, he got up and started to pace. He didn’t do that much unless he was really disturbed, agitated. To get out of the way of his u-shaped circuit,