To become queen of a vampire coven, Sylvia must endure the ritual of blood, a rite of passage in which she sacrifices her body, blood, and soul to the seductive vampire ruler. His gift to her is eternal life, but what she really wants is his eternal love.
As I stepped out of the cave, the heat from the roaring bonfire caressed my flesh. I had changed out of my jeans and t-shirt and into a rather skimpy dress that looked more like a slip than anything else. The black silk caught between my thighs as I walked and was shockingly cool in contrast to the nearby flames. Beneath my feet, the packed clay was warm, and all around me were the musical sounds of the night.
Halting, I dropped my head back and closed my eyes to take it all in. Insects clicked and chirped, small rodents scuffled about, and leaves rustled in the slight breeze.
The soft caress of my name invaded my calm, and I opened my eyes to focus on the moon through the wispy clouds. Somewhere in the distance a coyote howled, sending a shiver down my spine, and I couldn't help but think it was the perfect night for a blood ritual.
I shivered again. Only he had the power to say my name in a way that instantly tightened my skin and made my heart race.
Looking through the fire, my breath caught. There, on the other side, he waited, and emotions swelled within me. It was impossible to explain, but from the first moment I laid eyes on him standing in a circle of moonlight, looking like he should be the ruler of the night, I knew I'd spend the rest of my life loving him. The passing months had done nothing to dim my feelings, and eagerness swept through me.
Amidst the shadowy red rocks, his pale hair and light clothing stood out like a beacon, and although anxious to be at his side, I took a moment to drink in the sight. An ivory button-down shirt, undone to his waist, splayed open over his chest, while butterscotch leather molded across his muscular thighs. Dancing flames hid his features, but it had taken only one unforgettable night to emblazon them in my mind forever.
He held out his hand, and I went, as if pulled by an imaginary string. Behind him, cloaked in shadows, stood the coven. They watched me step around the fire to join their master, and I wondered what lay behind their blank expressions. Approval? Disapproval? Was I only one false step away from being ripped to shreds and feasted upon?
Their opinion of me, whatever it might be, ceased to matter the moment I placed my fingers in their master's cool palm. He tugged me forward and I fell against his hard chest. One leather clad thigh wedged itself between my legs, and sparks of awareness ricocheted low in my belly.
The fire blazed hot at my back, but it failed to singe like the intense sexual energy of the man before me. Taking advantage of his unbuttoned shirt, I placed my trembling fingers against his chest, above his heart. It if beat, I could not detect it.
He gazed down at me while brushing wayward curls back from my face. Fire illuminated his features. The blue of his eyes burned brighter than I'd ever seen, his skin glowed like smooth marble, and his sensual mouth was stained with blood.
Unable to stop myself, I reached up to brush the tips of my fingers over his full bottom lip. The blood was fresh enough to wet my skin, an indication his human servant was not too far away.
The soft caress of his hand over my cheek pulled my attention from his mouth. "You are so beautiful, Sylvia," he said in the dark seductive voice I could never tire of hearing. "In death you will be even more so."
I blinked at the choice of words. Tonight was indeed about death. My death. Was I truly ready to die for this man? If the roles were reversed, would he die for me?
"I would do anything you asked of me," he said, able to read my thoughts with no effort whatsoever. "Command me now, and I will gladly die all over again, just for you."
I couldn't breathe. The naked honesty in his eyes left little doubt as to the passion behind his words, and my reasons for being here were reaffirmed. In my heart I knew this man would never lie to me, just as I knew my safe haven was his strong embrace.
His touch flitted over my mouth, and he grinned just enough to show a flash of white teeth and a hint of fangs. "Are you ready?"
I wasn't afraid, but still my heart stuttered and my lungs burned. So transfixed by his stare, I failed to hear movement behind me until it was too late. Cold hands gripped my shoulders and pulled me back. The shock of no longer being pressed to comforting flesh and muscle left me feeling naked and vulnerable. Unsure of what my captor intended, I struggled, but the grip only tightened with renewed effort to keep me still.
"Bruise her flesh, and you will suffer for it." There was nothing seductive about his voice now as he issued the threat. Power oozed from every pore and his gaze clashed with the vampire at my back.
My captor's hands slackened. "Forgive me, master." The apology barely received a nod before his master's attention shifted toward the coven.
"If there is anyone present who disagrees with the choice I have made, speak now."
For a moment no one stirred as shock and unease distorted their features. Then suddenly a soft murmur rose among them, and a woman stepped forward. She was tall, elegant, and clad in a body-hugging white sheath that showed off her voluptuous curves. Long red hair snaked over her shoulders, seemingly alive with its own inner fire, and her skin glowed with an ethereal quality I would expect to encounter only in books. She lowered her head, but her focus remained fixed on her master.
Peering through thick sooty lashes, she licked her lips and waited for the rumbling voices behind her to cease. Eventually there was silence, and her voice rang out with a lyrical accent. "If I might speak, master?"
Her question earned her nothing more than a curt nod and an arched brow.
She appeared undeterred. "The coven believes your queen should be chosen from within."
"The coven, Nadia? Or you?"
If his question rankled, it failed to show on her lovely face. "To bring new blood inside will weaken us and make us vulnerable."
"And I assume you are prepared to offer yourself."
Nadia's face bloomed with hope, and she lifted her head to stare her master dead in the eyes. Again she licked her lips, drawing undue attention to their pouty fullness. "If you will have me, I'd be honored to serve as your queen."
Over my dead body!
I struggled to rip free of my captor, wanting to leap over the fire and claw out Nadia's exotic dark eyes. How dare she presume so much? I was his chosen queen, and he would be mine for all eternity. Nadia could take her hopes, dreams, and ambitions and go straight to hell.
Her gaze met mine, and my boiling emotions bled into my face. In a few hours I'd be her queen, surely that gave me the right to stare her down. For several tense moments she simply stared back. Finally, she tucked her chin to her chest and melted among the others with a quiet, "Forgive me, I misspoke."
Startled by, yet comfortable with my newfound authority, I turned to find approval stamped upon the face of my future king. "Let us do this now." The strength of my tone delighted me. "Make me your queen."
"Your eagerness pleases me," he said, closing the scant distance between us. He was near enough to touch, but I couldn't free my arms to do so. Inhaling deeply, I breathed in the essence of him instead. Mixed with the flavor of smoke, his musky scent almost made me groan out loud, and my body reacted with a fierceness that would have had me on my knees if not for my captor's grip.
I'd been denied my lover's touch for a full month in preparation for tonight's ritual, and I hungered for it ... for him, so desperately it hurt.
A knowing smirk played at the corner of his mouth as his gaze moved past me. "Take her to the altar," he ordered.