Footsteps echoed as the warrioresses complied. They could look, but they wouldn’t find him. He was too determined. I will come back.
“And you,” the queen continued, “you know the punishment for stealing your sister’s slave?”
“Yes,” Nola repeated. The punishment—a savage, wish-you-were-dead whipping. Not that they could administer it. But even if she’d been tangible, she would have risked it. Zane’s freedom was worth losing the skin on her back. At the very least.
“Delilah returned and told us you lived still, but that did not stop our worry for you. And now I find you here, working against us. Why would you do such a thing?” the queen asked, sounding genuinely curious, slightly sad, rather than fully enraged.
“The vampire had endured enough at the hands of the Amazons. Like us, he is a living being with feelings. He is courageous, wild as the animals in this forest and fierce beyond imagining. We would have broken him.” Or tried to.
“Wise words.” Kreja arched a brow. “And yet, he left you here to endure punishment, even though you aided him. Do you find that a worthy trait?”
I will come back.
And he would. She had no doubt. Never before had she trusted a man, but she trusted Zane. Having watched him these past few months, she knew he was not the kind of man who made vows lightly. She knew he did not say things simply to placate his audience. Oh, yes. He would return.
What they would do when he reached her, she didn’t know. She only knew that she needed to be with him. To see his face and hear his voice. She could live with any curse, as long as he was alive and well and with her.
“I find him worthy,” she finally replied.
Kreja sighed. “That does not change what you have done. Not only did you free a slave, you freed your sister’s slave. For that, you will deal with Amelia in the battle arena. She will be armed. You will not. Afterward, if you survive, you will be whipped, as is our custom.”
The queen reached out—and wrapped her fingers around Nola’s suddenly solid forearm, dragging her toward the arena, Amelia marching close on her heels.
Nola gasped in shock. What…why…how was it possible? She could be touched now.
“I will not go easy on you,” Amelia snarled at her.
They can touch me. Which means they can hurt me, Nola realized, dread sweeping through her.
Would she be alive when Zane returned?
ZANE REACHED THE VAMPIRE stronghold and collapsed at its gates. His strength—gone. His wounds—unhealed. Followed as he’d been, he hadn’t been able to hunt for food. Broken as he was, he wouldn’t have been able to capture a single animal and feed himself.
Thankfully the guards recognized him. He was hefted over a shoulder and carted inside the palace. The touch disturbed him, but he didn’t fight it. He was in too much of a hurry and knew this was the best way. By the time they reached his personal chamber, there was a buzz of activity, his name being whispered from everyone’s lips.
“Blood,” he rasped as the guard lay him down on the bed.
That guard tilted his head, offering his own neck.
Zane shook his head and closed his eyes. “Glass.” He would not take from a living source. Still couldn’t stomach the thought—unless that living source was Nola. Once, when he’d ensured she would welcome him by invading her dreams, he had tasted her. The sweetness of her blood…the decadence of her moans…he’d reveled in every nuance of her. He would not overshadow that precious memory by taking from someone else, even in his desperation.
How did she affect him this way?
Would he always be forced to wonder?
Perhaps he did not mind her hands on him because he saw himself in her eyes. Every damned time he looked at her. He saw vulnerability and pain, fear and yearning.
Perhaps they shared a similar past; she’d alluded to such a thing once before, when they’d been pitted against each other on the island. Back then, he had been too wrapped in his newfound desire to pay much attention to her words. Never again, he vowed. What she said came first. Always. As did protecting her, defending her.
And maybe she would feel the same about him.
He suddenly wanted to hug her close and tell her everything that had happened to him. Admit that he’d once been the demon queen’s willing sexual toy. She might…she might understand rather than run.
How could anyone understand?
But for once, the taunt did not drive him to distraction. She might, and for now, that was enough.
Warm hands settled on his shoulders and shook him.
His eyelids fluttered open, a growl in his throat. When he saw that Layel loomed above him, glass in hand, he forced himself to relax against the feathered mattress. “My king, I—”
“No talking just yet. Drink,” Layel said, placing the glass to his lips. Tall and leanly muscled, with white hair and blue eyes, he was an eerily beautiful sight that reminded Zane of both his rescue from the demon queen and the horrors he’d later endured at the hands of the gods. “Drink.”
Zane opened his mouth, and the sweet nectar of life poured down his throat. He swallowed greedily. Once again, warmth spread through him. Warmth and strength and determination.
He had not lied to Nola. He was going back for her. He would conquer that damn camp and everyone inside it.
Nola will not like that. Those women are her sisters.
Well, they damn well should not have tried to enslave him, he thought darkly. But he knew deep down that he wouldn’t hurt them. Not really. For Nola, he would simply send them on their way, claiming the camp as his own and remaining there until she could leave it. And if she could never leave it, he would never leave it.
“Good now?” Layel asked.
“More,” he said when the supply ran out. He’d need every ounce of his strength to conquer the Amazons.
Layel cut his wrist, filled the glass with his own life force, and offered it up. This time, Zane was able to hold the glass on his own. Again, he drained every drop. When he finished, he licked his lips and faced the king.
“I am ready to talk,” he said.
“Good. I have questions.”
“Answer mine first. You escaped the gods and their island.” He grunted as his wrists and ankles popped back into place. “Did you win their game?”
The king’s lips slowly lifted in a grin. “Delilah did. She saved us both. We have been searching for you since the moment of our return, but the Amazons hid you well. We knew you were there, but we could find no sign of you.”
“Have you news of my sister?” a female voice asked.
Zane looked past his king and saw Delilah standing in the doorway. She was petite in appearance, but as fierce as Nola on a battlefield. Her blue hair was falling around her shoulders, and worry was etched in the violet depths of her eyes.
“She is alive,” he told her, and she expelled a relieved breath. “And she is mine.”
“And does she agree with that statement?” Delilah’s head tilted to the side as she rubbed at her slightly rounded belly. There was barely contained fury in her tone. She would slay him without mercy if he hurt Nola, that much was obvious.
Rather than plead his case, he focused on that belly. Slightly rounded. A baby? Layel was to become a father? An ache bloomed in Zane’s chest. He’d wanted children with Cassandra. Had dreamed of them. Yet that, too, had been denied him. Until…now?
With Nola… You cannot truly touch her, you fool. That dream is still dead. He couldn’t make himself care, however. As long as he had Nola, nothing else mattered.
“Well?” Delilah insisted.
Did Nola wish to belong to him? she’d asked. He thought so, yes. She had helped him. She had even wanted to go with him. But she was also a warrior to her core, an Amazon warrior at that, and they only tolerated men during mating season. He wanted far more than that. No matter the circumstances. He wanted what Layel and Delilah clearly had.
“We will see,” Zane said, kicking his legs over the bed.
“You only just returned,” Layel said. “Where are you going?”
“To get my woman.” This one, he wouldn’t let get away.
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 her, she loved them.
They had welcomed her into their fold when she’d had nowhere else to go. They had despised her mother for what the woman had done to her.
“You will die for this, vampires!” someone shouted.
“Not by your hand,” she heard a male voice say. The vampire king? That had sounded like his rough, cocky timbre.
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 as well as flayed.
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.