Nola cuddled against Zane's body, happier than she'd ever been in her life. She'd just made love. Truly made love. And it had been amazing. Her body had hummed with pleasure, and her mind had soared to the heavens.
Only once had she considered her past, and Zane had quickly defeated the memories, as only a strong, fierce warrior could. No one had ever made her feel as protected or as prized as this man had. She hadn't thought such feelings possible, actually.
"Zane," she said, grinning. She was buzzing with joy, drunk with it, and just might smile for the rest of her life. "Thank you."
"I did do a good job, didn't I?"
It was the first time he'd ever teased her, and she liked it. A laugh bubbled from her; she couldn't hold it back. Soon she was laughing so hard, tears were streaming down her cheeks.
Zane's lips were twitching. "Some men would take this as a criticism of their performance."
"But as you know you did a good job..."
"I'm not one of them," he agreed.
They shared a grin.
His arms tightened around her. "You said every time you admitted something about me, you were freed from some part of your curse."
"Yes." Reminded of her plight, some of the happiness drained from her.
"Then do you have something else to admit to me?"
"Oh. Well...I-I - " Nola sat up and peered down at him. No longer did he appear so confident and joyous. His expression was blank. No, not blank. Fear was sparking in the depths of his eyes. For some reason, seeing it gave her courage. "I love you. I love you so much I ache with it." The words tumbled from her; she couldn't stop them. "I can't imagine my life without you in it. I want to make love to you every night and wake up to you every morning. And I don't want you to think I'm saying this only because I wish to lift the curse. I'm not."
"You are too honest for such a trick." He grabbed her and rolled her under him. "And just so you know, I love you, too. So much I would die without you. You are my life, my heart, my everything. Wherever you are, that's where I want to be."
She hadn't dared dream of having a man like him, or a life like they would surely lead, not even as a child. It had seemed too much to ask, too unattainable, and she had preferred to wallow in her sorrows rather than risk hope.
"The gods didn't take your ability from you," she said. "You can still create dreams. For the first time in my life, I see joy in my future."
"Oh, Nola. You are my joy."
With another laugh, she threw her arms around him and rolled him to his back. Her dark hair fell around him, forming a curtain that left only the two of them - just the way she liked it.
They made love twice more and spent several hours simply talking and getting to know each other better, before dressing and emerging from the tent. Night had fallen, but vampire warriors still patrolled the area.
Nola spotted the king and her sister in front of the fire. There was no love lost between herself and Delilah. Nola had once tried to murder Layel, after all. She marched on, determined. Anything for Zane. Still...
"Will they...what if..."
Zane captured her hand with his own and squeezed. "They will love and welcome you or we will find somewhere else to live."
She shook her head. "I don't want you to lose everything you hold dear because of me."
"Nola," he said, stopping her and forcing her to look up at him. "You are all that I hold dear. Nothing else matters to me."
Tears burned her eyes. "What did I ever do to deserve you?"
"It is I who is undeserving. But you have my word, I will do everything in my power to prove myself worthy of you."
She pressed a soft kiss to his lips. "You already have."
"Nola," she heard Delilah call.
Nola turned and Zane wrapped his arms around her, keeping her in the protection of his embrace. The blue-haired warrioress was walking toward her, expression blank. Layel stayed close on her heels, a blade in his hand, as protective of his woman as Zane was of Nola.
"You are well," Delilah said.
"Yes. And you?"
"Yes." And then Delilah was there, grinning, pushing Zane aside to hug her tightly. "I've been so worried about you."
Nola glanced at Zane and he gave her a nod of encouragement. Biting her lip, Nola hugged her back.
"I thought I was going to have to burst into that tent and give Zane a stern talking to," Delilah said, pulling back and grinning. "But the moans were of pleasure rather than rebuke, so Layel was able to hold me back."
Nola's cheeks heated.
So did Zane's, she noticed. And for some reason, that eased her own embarrassment.
Layel slapped him on the back. Zane stiffened for a moment, then relaxed against Nola. "Good man," the king said with a laugh. "Doing our people proud."
"Well, shall we go home?" Delilah asked. She rubbed her belly, which Nola suddenly realized was not quite as flat as she remembered. "As protector of this little hellion, I am not the soldier I once was and prefer the comfort of my own bed."
A baby. Nola again glanced at Zane. He offered a soft smile - one that promised they, too, would one day experience such a joy. "Congratulations, Delilah. I am so happy for you."
Delilah beamed. "Thank you."
The warrioress and her husband shared a tender smile before Layel escorted her a few feet away, to where the horses were chewing on grass. "Zane? Will you be joining us?"
"We will try," he said, but didn't explain further.
Whether the king understood or not, he merely nodded. "Back to the palace, men," he called.
Zane helped Nola atop his horse, then swooped up behind her. Nervousness skidded through her when they started forward. First Layel and Delilah disappeared beyond the trees, then the vampire troops. Soon their turn would come...soon she would know if she was still bound to the camp.
"Zane," she said, unable to keep the tremor from her voice.
He didn't say a word, just urged the horse into a quicker pace. And then they were past the trees, just like everyone else. They were in the forest, heading away from their captivity.
"We did it! We're free!"
"As I knew we would be." He kissed the top of her head. "The gods are not the cruel monsters I imagined. How can they be, when they paired us together?"
Thank you, she mouthed to the top of the dome. Not once did she look back. There was too much to look forward to. "I love you, Zane."
"And I love you. It will be my pleasure to prove it to you, over and over again."
"Even when mating season ends?" she teased.
He squeezed her tight. "I have a feeling our mating season will last for eternity, sweet."