Oh, yes, she’d seen that male before, had a long and storied history with him.

She swallowed, spying as Thronos’s memory played on. . . .

Anticipation burned inside him. After years of searching, he’d scented his mate the minute he and Aristo had arrived in this valley. Hastening down a winding lane, he glanced up at every window.

“I still don’t understand your eagerness to reunite with her,” Aristo said, following him. “Every limping step I took and every league flown in agony would fill me with rage. How can you forgive her?”

Because Thronos had put himself in her shoes to understand that night. “She was only a little girl. Her parents had just been decapitated, her beloved sister killed.”

“As they should have been. The parents threatened Lore secrecy with their palpable sorcery outlays, and the sister murdered our father the king!”

Aristo thinks exactly like him.

“Why do you believe your mate will forgive you?”

“If I tell her how Father truly found out about the abbey, she’ll know I was blameless.” When they passed a tavern with a large window, Thronos spied his reflection, scowling at the scars.

Aristo caught his reaction. “She’d promised to be a little beauty, hadn’t she?”

“Yes. So?” Thronos knew she would be the most comely female he’d ever seen. She had already been. He’d spent endless hours imagining what she would look like now.

“Sorceri are fickle creatures, brother. In addition to all the pain between you, it might be that she forsakes you for your looks. Have you thought of that?”

Of course. Every time he saw his reflection. “She’s my mate; we’re fated, and she felt it too.” That last day, when she’d turned to him so sweetly and sighed—

“Mayhap you merely need to copulate?”

He did. With Melanthe. Gods, how he did! But Thronos had waited this long; somehow he’d wait the two more years until she turned eighteen and could be claimed. Twenty-four more months by Vrekener law. It seemed like an eternity, especially with the way his curiosity and lusts had been building.

He wondered if any other eighteen-year-old male could possibly think about intercourse as much as he did.

“I fear you set yourself up for disappointment,” Aristo said.

“So you think I should give her up, without even trying? Just forget it. You wouldn’t understand.”

His brother hadn’t found his mate, and likely wouldn’t for decades, if not centuries. Thronos had been an anomaly to find his so young.

“Melanthe is”—everything missing from my life—“my ideal female.” She wasn’t thus because she was faultless, but because he adored even her faults. He didn’t just want her; he needed her. They were each halves of a greater whole.

Why was that so difficult for others to understand? “She’s mine,” he said simply.

“We’re at war with them,” Aristo couldn’t resist pointing out.

“Then mayhap we shouldn’t be. . . .” He trailed off, homing in on her. “The building at the end of the lane,” he said over his shoulder, already hurrying forward. “There’s a dwelling above.”

Heartbeat pounding, he alighted on the windowsill. Melanthe! She was in a bed asleep. Holding his breath, he crept inside.

A sharp exhalation left him. Melanthe was a woman now.

He greedily took in every new detail. He’d known she would grow to be lovely, but she was beyond his wildest fantasies. Her lashes were thick against her pale face, her black hair a silken cloud around her head. The sheet gathered at her waist, allowing him to see the swells of her breasts beneath her filmy nightgown.

Her nipples strained against the thin material.

To see her like this made his heart twist in his chest—and blood pool in his groin. He no longer felt his old injuries.

To see her like this, he could forgive her anything.

How am I to wait two years?

He’d had no idea what to say or do once he finally found her. Now the answer was startlingly clear: sit beside her on the bed, wake her with a caress, and explain the truth of that night to her.

He hated the pain he was about to bring her, knew she would feel guilt for her actions. But he had to clear the air between them—

An older vampire traced into the room, carrying bottles of wine. Thronos tensed to attack, to protect his mate.

“Lanthe, I’m back,” the male said, unaware of him, gone motionless in the shadows.

She sat up, rubbing her eyes with a smile. “Marco.”

The vampire Marco smelled of her. And she . . . of him.

Thronos was frozen, unable to comprehend what he was seeing. Melanthe was too young to be bedding anyone!

The vampire caught sight of him then, eyes going wide. Both males leapt for her, but the leech traced, reaching her first. He teleported Melanthe across the room.

“Who the hell is this?” the vampire demanded.

Thronos found his voice. “Melanthe, I need to speak—”

“He’s an enemy,” she interrupted. “One I’d hoped never to see again.”

“As you wish, sweet.” The vampire traced them away.

To be this close! Frenzied, he scanned the room for some clue to where she might have been taken. He would find her again!

He frowned at the bed—at the blood on the sheets.

Her virgin’s blood? The room seemed to spin. Can’t . . . this cannot be . . .

But it was. She’d given that male her virtue on this very night. Despite belonging to me!

Clawing at his chest, he threw back his head and roared like an animal. All the physical pain in his body flared, nearly putting him to his knees.

Aristo yelled for him, arriving seconds later. His narrowed gaze took in the scene. “Another male?” He didn’t sound surprised.

The vampire’s skin had been unmarked and smooth.

Blood on the sheets. He claimed my Melanthe. Thronos turned away and vomited.

Dazed, he let his brother lead him away. Before long, he was swilling the spirits Aristo offered. Not long after that, Aristo suggested they enter a forbidden house of flesh. Thronos deemed this an excellent idea.

Offendments be damned; he was determined to drink his sorrows away—and to bury himself in another woman.

But he couldn’t. Any other female’s scent was repellent to him. He knew of no Vrekener who could stray from a mate.

Thronos would claim Melanthe. Or none at all.

As the months passed, he’d convinced himself that she had to have been pressured by the older vampire to surrender her virtue. Once he found her again, Thronos would take her away, tearing her from the male’s influence.

He’d been convinced—until he’d seen her the next year with a tall fey male. Laughing, the two had run through a portal rift. When the pair had kissed as they’d crossed, Melanthe had wounded Thronos far more than her command to jump ever had. . . .

Lanthe struggled to regulate her breathing after what she’d just witnessed: his memory of their first meeting after his fall.

She’d felt his devastation at finding her in Marco’s bed. She’d experienced firsthand the sickness that had taken hold in him, the disbelief. She’d been scalded by his violent jealousy and rocked from the agony of his injuries.

He hadn’t thought he could wait two years to claim her; he’d waited centuries.

Somehow she kept her lids half-closed, her breaths deep and even. The identity of his companion had shocked her as much as anything else she’d learned.

The male with the pitchfork, the one who’d dropped her sister upon cobblestones was . . . Aristo.

Obviously, Aristo hadn’t given a damn that Lanthe was Thronos’s mate. The king had wanted her and Sabine dead. If Thronos forced Lanthe to Skye Hall, would Aristo finish her once and for all? How the hell was she going to convince Thronos of this?

Well, Vrekener, I was scratching around inside your brain, and oops, I witnessed a memory that you would be humiliated for me to see. I realized the sadistic thug who reveled in my pain is your brother! Oh, and your king! He prolly helped raise you after my sis beheaded your dad.

She now understood why Thronos hadn’t known about the attacks. Who would rat out their leader?

Looking as sick as he’d been that night, Thronos sank back against a column, then slipped to the ground to sit with bent knees. He tipped his head back, staring at the ceiling, his striking eyes lost. He was wondering if he’d ever be free of her hold. Maybe in death, he thought.

She stared at his face, then the skin of his chest, both scarred because of her. How fiercely he hated those marks!

And she’d mauled his mind even worse.

She’d known his seeing her with another would have to hurt, but she hadn’t even plumbed the depths. Despite all the anguish she’d suffered at the hands of his kind, she ached for the young man he’d been.

At that age, he’d thought she was ideal. He’d planned to forgive her for his injuries.

Until she’d inadvertently dealt him a wound he’d never recovered from.

She still couldn’t wrap her head around all she’d learned. Had someone else told his father about the abbey? And what was the “truth of that night”? Thronos had been so certain she would forgive him.

It frightened her how badly she wanted him to be blameless, even as the truth struck her: if he was, then he hadn’t deserved any of the suffering she’d—purposely or unwittingly—caused.

When Lanthe woke again, night still clung to the realm, the battle ongoing. Perhaps both were endless here.

Thronos was gone, probably out sourcing food. Since she didn’t eat meat, she had scant hope for her own breakfast. Would he remember the time he’d tried to hunt for her?

She was surprised he’d left her alone, not that she could escape. She rose, testing her tongue—all healed!—and stretched her stiff muscles. If she felt this rough sleeping on the cold stone, she could only imagine how he’d felt. If he’d slept.

Eager to wash the grit from her skin and hair, she crossed to the cave opening, removing her gauntlets and boots along the way. Rain poured, spattering the lava on either side of the entrance, producing steam tendrils. Sidling near the very edge, she commanded herself not to look down as she reached for warm rainwater.

Most Lore species were fastidious. Yet she hadn’t had a shower in weeks, had been forced to bathe with freezing water from a sink.

She drank from her cupped hands, rinsing her mouth of residual blood, then removed her underwear and breastplate to clean them and as much of her body as she could. While she washed, she reflected on all she’d learned in the last two days and came to a startling realization: I have nothing to hate Thronos for.

At least from the past. He was innocent of the crimes she’d pegged him for. He hadn’t had a direct hand in Sabine’s deaths, had even taken pains to prevent them. She now believed he’d kept secret the location of the abbey.

Did she wish he’d given her a heads-up that his father was going to attack that night? Absolutely. And she wished Thronos had kept a better leash on his men—on his brother—but she couldn’t have expected him to. In no universe would he not have trusted the word of another Vrekener.

After last night, her chronic anxiety over surprise attacks had begun to fade at last. She now knew who her enemy was: Aristo. And where their next encounter would be: Skye Hell, if Thronos got his way.

If Lanthe could be freed of that overriding anxiety, would her powers bloom?

After unbraiding her hair, she smoothed water over it. Once she’d rinsed it clean, she painstakingly plaited it into braids around her face. The rest she left to curl down her back.

She was glad of this time alone to digest everything that had happened—and to consider her burgeoning interest in Thronos. After she’d fallen back asleep, still heartsick at his memory, she’d had vivid dreams of him.

In one, he’d kissed her in the rain. He’d grasped her face between his palms, brushing his thumbs along her cheekbones; then he’d set in, his pained groans rumbling along her lips as he’d taken her mouth with furious need—until they were sharing breaths, until he’d stoked her own desperation.

Lanthe had never been kissed like that. Like the male would die if she didn’t part her lips and return it.

In another, she’d traced her fingertips over every scar on his naked body, then followed her touches with her lips and tongue. He’d shuddered with sensitivity—but he’d bowed his rugged chest for more. . . .

She exhaled a breath, determined not to think about him like that—or to even acknowledge that her nipples were stiffening in the sultry air. She arched her back, letting rain patter over her, cooling her breasts. She wished she could say these were the first sensual dreams she’d had of him. They weren’t, and over the year since their last encounter, these reveries had grown more numerous.

She gazed out into the night. Surely Thronos would return soon. She dressed again, was reaching for her gauntlets—

A sound behind her. She whirled around.

The back wall of the cave was opening, directly where she’d sensed the gold. Thronos strode out, looking bored, while behind him was . . .

His mate had caught sight of the golden temple he’d found, and now looked like her legs were about to buckle. “Did I see correctly?”