Grunts, groans and the clang of metal against metal roused Nola from her troubled sleep. She wanted to rise, to see what was happening, but could not force her body into action. Her back was a mass of agony, the skin flayed completely. The rest of her, well, it had not fared much better during her battle with Amelia. Nola had won, her determination stronger than any weapon, but she had not emerged unscathed. There were deep sword slices all down her arms, stomach and legs.
She lay on her bed, her stomach pressed into soft blankets. Alone, always alone. No one was allowed to help her. Not in any way. Amazons healed as slowly as humans, so she knew she would suffer like this for many weeks to come.
Outside, a scream echoed. Her muscles were heavy as stones, and she didn't have the strength to drag herself upright. Or gather food. Not that she even had the strength to eat. She wanted to help her sisters, though. Despite what had been done to them, she loved them.
"You will die for this, vampires!" someone shouted.
"Not by your hand," she heard a male voice say. The vampire king?
Despite her pain, Nola grinned. Relaxed. Zane was here.
For hours, the battle continued to rage. Nola didn't want her sisters injured, but neither did she want Zane to lose, and waiting proved difficult. She chewed at her cheeks, dug her nails into her palms and broke into a sweat, which caused her back to burn as if it had been set on fire.
Finally, the tent flap rose and light flooded inside. And then he was there, standing in front of her. Her vampire. Zane. Her heart knocked against her ribs.
"Knew you'd come," she said, her voice barely audible. She hadn't screamed during her whipping, hadn't made a sound, but holding her cries inside had scraped her throat raw.
"Nola...sweet..." He approached her slowly, as if she were a trapped animal. " What did they do to you?" There was horror in his tone. He crouched beside her, reached out and smoothed her hair from her damp forehead. Then he froze. "How is this possible? I'm touching you."
"Yes. Happened just after you'd left." Any other time, she would have been mortified for him to see her like this: broken, helpless, naked but for a sheet covering her lower half. Her relief at seeing him alive and well, however, was simply too great.
"I will destroy the gods for this. I will find a way to raid the heavens and I will - "
"No, no. This is a blessing. I've had time to think, and I believe I know what's happening. Each time I admit something about you, like the fact that you did not deserve what was done to you, and that I trust you, I've been given back a piece of my life."
His brows furrowed together, and a spark of hope entered his eyes. "Can you pass the camp boundary?"
"No. My sisters carried me there, meaning to toss me out, but that invisible wall blocked them."
Fury replaced the hope. "We didn't hurt your sisters - I knew you would hate it if we did, but now I wish I'd sliced each and every one of them to pieces. They abandoned camp or I would see to it now."
"You're here now. That's all that matters. But...how long will you be able to stay?" Her nervousness returned. His king would want him back. And the Amazons would one day come back. "You can't remain forever and I can't leave. We'll be forced to separate again and - "
"It's all right. It's all right, sweet. I'm here, and I'm not leaving without you. No matter what. You freed me. I will find a way to free you."
The burst of strength her nervousness had given her drained, and she expelled a breath. "As long as I have you, I'll be all right."
"Yes, you will." He stretched out beside her and angled his head, displaying his neck to her. The scent of him filled her nose. Dark spice and tree dew. She inhaled deeply, savoring.
"Drink," he said.
"Wh¨Cwhat?" Even when they'd been trapped on that island, he had not let anyone drink from him. Not from his wrist, and certainly not from his neck.
"Drink. I know biting and blood are distasteful to your kind, but you will heal faster if my blood flows inside your veins."
"No, you don't understand. I don't mind drinking from you. I just don't want to disgust you. I know you do not like such things being done to you."
"I want to give you everything, Nola. Even this. With you and no other. I need this, so please. Please."
Please, this proud, strong man had said. How could she deny him? She cried out as she edged toward him and sank her teeth into his neck, hard as she could, cutting past skin and hitting vein. Blood instantly trickled down her throat. Once, the thought of doing this would have been distasteful to her, as he'd claimed. But this was Zane. She wanted him inside her. Any part of him that she could get. And like him, she wanted him to have everything she had to give.
"I never thought to allow someone to take from me again," he said, petting her head. "The demon queen, I was her slave for many centuries and she took from me whenever and however she desired. Her methods sickened me, but I allowed them because she had something - someone - my compliance was supposed to purchase. Did I ever tell you that?"
He was trying to distract her from her task, she suspected, as the warmth of his blood spun through her, lighting her up from the inside out. But she did not stop, because she wanted to hear more.
"When she died and I was freed, I thought to never endure such things again. You, though, I think I would allow to do anything to me. It has been that way since the first. I don't understand it, either. Your presence doesn't drown out the memories or take away my revulsion for this act with others. My...need for you simply overrides it. But why do I need you, do you think?"
Finally she pulled from him. She didn't move away, but snuggled into his waiting embrace, head cradled in the hollow of his neck. The action pained her, but only a little. She could feel the flesh weaving together on her back.
"When I was a child, my mother mated with a man and left the Amazon camp to live with him. They had no money and so they...sold me, time and time again," she said, heat spreading over her cheeks. "I know the desire to never again be touched by another. But with you..."
"Oh, sweet. I am so sorry."
That gentle tone brought tears to her eyes.
He wrapped his arm around her, careful of her injuries. "You once told me your family had destroyed you, that you had killed them for it, but I had no idea they'd done such things to you," he said.
She flattened her palm against his chest, exactly as she'd wanted to do all these months while watching him. His heart beat, fast and hard. "Maybe we remind each other of what we were like, before. Unafraid, untainted. Maybe we see the future in each other and the past ceases to matter."
He didn't reply, which disappointed her. Instead, he settled her onto the blankets and sat up, which angered her. Did he not want a future with her? Was that what his silence signified? Did he -
He traced a fingertip along her spine, and she shivered. "All healed," he said huskily. "And now, all mine."
Thank the gods. She wasn't sure what she would have done if he'd rebuffed her as she'd once done him.
"Make love to me, Zane." She'd never been with a man of her choosing. Never given herself completely. She was suddenly desperate to know what that was like. With this man. Only this man, who was surely a gift from the heavens, even amid her curse. "Please."