Where do you think you're going?

“It’s freezing around here.” Huddling by the fire, Ylianor wrapped her arms around herself, thinking back over the distance she had traveled in just one day.

To be honest, the images were kind of blurred. Too fast she had sped northward, sometimes without any time to spare on Silcamore’s luxuriant farmland or on Rockyhorn’s inhospitable mountains. The name said it all anyway, so small wonder the high peaks that surrounded the Hall spelled colder climates and tall trees that replaced the flat green fields. Still, she would have liked to enjoy it a bit more, not rush through it like someone was chasing after her.

Which maybe someone was, considering how hard Duncan pushed to reach the Hall sooner rather than later.

Which to Ylianor was just another sign that something was terribly wrong, something that started and ended with the very obnoxious Lord Christopher Templeton and his rapid mood swings that went from good to bad in the blink of an eye.

But bad was all she perceived, despite Chris’s apparent good humor. Now shifting her gaze from the fireplace where she sat after having eaten a meager dinner, she focused on the striking blond creature half-sprawled on the couch. Not an open stare, the gods forbid, merely a peek from under her eyelashes to check on his lights.

Sure, on the surface, everything seemed fine, to the point he played it like he had accepted her and the tentative balance the prince had managed to establish. Deep down, though, it was a totally different thing, in spite of his opening up and allowing her to glimpse his core.

Or maybe because of it.

Either way, something was wrong. And if his erratic lights were not enough indication, Ylianor could tell from the unease gnawing at her stomach every time she sensed the demon’s enthusiasm as not quite genuine.

Yes, something was eating him, something she could not fathom. All she knew was that Chris’s true nature could lash out at any time, and the consequences would be anything but pleasant for her.

She was the intruder after all, the woman who had upset his plans for total control over the prince’s heart. She was the one who dared defy him and return to claim what had belonged to her long before he ever set foot in Black Rose. So only natural the hateful demon would direct his rage against her alone.

And somehow, Duncan knew it, too, which might explain his race to get to Rhapsen Hall before bad came to worse.

Shrugging away the ominous thoughts, Ylianor returned her gaze on the leaping flames dancing in front of her. “I hope it doesn’t get any colder than this, or I won’t have anything appropriate to wear.”

“You practically have no clothes at all, right?” Sitting on the couch behind her, Prince Caldwell circled her waist and tugged her backward in a tight hug. “Those you’re wearing are David’s.”

“It’s been a long time since anyone provided for my wardrobe.” She shivered in his embrace. “I’ve mostly lived on cast offs from my father and the little that remained of my mother’s dresses.” She glanced at her worn pants. “If she were alive, I’d probably wear something more feminine.” And better pleasing to her prince’s aristocratic taste. “As it is…”

“That’s all right, Princess.” Bending, Duncan buried his face in the nape of her neck, pressing his nose as if he wanted to inhale her scent to his lungs. “I rather prefer you without clothes anyway.” Then raising his head, he bit her neck. “When we get back to Black Rose, I’ll provide for your wardrobe.”

“Lover, don’t fall for that,” Chris scoffed irritated.

The demon’s icy tone made Ylianor sit up straighter.

“Fall for what?” Also on edge, Ylianor could tell how hard Duncan worked to keep his voice even and his tension at bay.

“In case you haven’t noticed, women love to play victims of circumstances.” The blue-gray eyes flashed in contempt.

“That’s not fair, Angel.” Lifting his shoulders, Duncan leveled his gaze to Chris’s. “I only excuse this kind of talk ‘cause you don’t know women at all.”

“Nor do I give a rat’s ass about knowing them,” Chris snapped, a look of intense dislike crossing his gaze as he lowered it on Ylianor.

“Don’t worry, Lord Templeton.” Angling her head behind a shoulder, Ylianor made sure to catch the impertinent blue-gray eyes. “The feeling is mutual!”

“Perhaps it’s this…” A malicious snarl twisted his thin lips. “Gift of mine that makes me despise women.” The cruel inflexion in his tone made Ylianor’s blood turn cold. “Can the expert confirm it?”

“Come on, Angel.” Letting her go, Duncan edged closer to the demon. “Do you honestly believe power can influence your taste and make you resent an entire gender?”

“Why not?” Cool headed in spite of his lights becoming progressively redder, Chris sounded as though nothing was wrong. “We don’t know anything about it after all, except what this witch turned expert has told us, so mine is a legitimate doubt that—”

“It might.” Nervously, Ylianor shifted away from him.

“Then perhaps it’s time I found out why the two are related.” His eyes blazed with a new flame. “My gift and my hate for your kind.”

Highly inflammable, such was Chris and his power. Highly dangerous, too, particularly now that it sparked all his lights to an undefinable hue.

“Now?” Since Duncan was not taking sides, she deliberately raised the stakes to force a reaction from him. “In front of the prince?”

“My lover needs to know.” Chris shrugged, his gaze never wavering from Ylianor. “So this is as good a time as any.”

“Stop!” Duncan ordered thickly.

“Why should I?” After one elegant jump, he wrenched Ylianor by the shoulders.

Captive and immobilized, she tensed like a defenseless prey caught by the most vicious of predators, a ferocious beast that would first play with her, then rip her apart.

And the bastard loved the taste of her fear for sure.

“You want her to share our life.” The blue-gray eyes fixed on the prince alone. “Well, to my point of view, she’s done enough spying as it is.” Raking a hand through her long hair, Chris avoided looking her way.

And damn him! His touch would have seduced her into blind compliance, had the irrationality of it all not paralyzed her senses.

“And damn her!” His touch deepened, trembling from repressed fury. “She’s also managed to make me reveal what I’d rather not.” To his way of seeing, this was unforgivable. “What I keep for you alone, lover. So you can understand how that might piss me off just a tiny bit.” Wrapping a hand around her neck, he squeezed.

And Ylianor wondered if he would snap it with one single blow.

“Still, I’ve been mighty patient with the likes of you.” Shifting his gaze to her, he snorted, “You can’t deny it.” He seemed to take pride in his self-restraint. “Now it’s time I show you what you and your snooping around are in for.” He eased the pressure on her neck. “And who knows?” A dark, threatening grin curved his thin lips. “You might even learn something useful besides those blasted power theories of yours.”

“I think I know enough as it is.” If he thought he would intimidate her, he was dead wrong. “And no thanks to you.” So she threw back her shoulders and glared at him.

“Wrong.” The fiendish creature had no trouble calling her bluff. “It’s all thanks to me.”

Hardly surprising. This demon did not just love provocations. He thrived on them, to the point he would make sure his intoxication lasted as long as it could.

“So it’s time you start admitting it.” A pocketknife appeared in his hand. “But mostly, it’s time I had some real fun with this worthless hide of yours.” Clamping her arm so she could not budge, he leaned over the fireplace and heated up the blade over the flames.

Now why did she have the impression he would be using it on her?

No, it was simply unthinkable! The mere idea shocked and revolted her, for her people had no business with violence of any kind. It was something so utterly estranged from their way of life, no one would ever, ever, even come close to fathom hurting an animal, much less a human being. Never an option! No matter how bad a situation could get, absolutely no one would ever resort to such extreme methods.

No one except for Christopher Templeton that is.

For that odious creature could be capable of the most horrendous deeds out of the blackness of his demon’s heart. She was sure of it, since she alone had witnessed it with her own eyes. So anything was possible with him, even that he dared go against every principle her people stood for, and—

“Angel, what are you doing?” His words oddly slurred, Duncan appeared to be out of it.

Out of the shelter for certain, for he seemed impenetrable to her attempts at reaching him.

“Nothing, lover.” The demon shrugged nonchalantly. “Just want to teach a simple lesson to our nosy Miss Know-It-All.” After checking the knife, he placed it back on the fire. “Don’t worry.”

Then she felt it, and her heart sank to her feet.

Damn! She should have guessed it sooner that Chris had cast a spell on the prince. Like a strong energy surge, it flowed from Chris to Duncan, trapping him in a fine web that prevented him from taking any action, powerful enough to isolate him from her.

Not entirely, though. If she managed somehow to touch him, he would snap back. So she stretched out her free arm, shifting her weight forward to reach him—

“Where do you think you’re going?” Crushing her to the ground, Chris waved the scalding blade in front of her face. “I thought you were interested in learning about my gift.” Deceptively sweet, he brushed the tip of the blade on her cheek.

“I already know all about it, Lord Templeton, so don’t waste your time.” She would probably regret it.

No doubt about it.

Still, she could not show weakness, or she would be truly finished.

“And let me go.” With a decisive jerk, she tried pulling away from him.

“You aren’t going anywhere, dearie, not until I’m done with you and with your miserable hide.” He gripped her harder to block her. “Because my gift is to hurt people,” his voice coldly detached as though it were another person speaking. “Because I get this urge to cause intolerable pain, and I can’t even begin to tell you how much pleasure I get from carving a person bit by bit.” Lowering the blade, he trailed it on her flesh. “Piece by piece.” Hypnotically, he circled her breasts before going down to her belly. “Just like this.” Without warning, he stabbed her thigh.

Ylianor gasped at the searing hot pain burning her leg. Then blood spilled on her pants. But at her squirms to get away, he pressed a knee on her chest and held her in place.

Completely disabled, she could offer no resistance while Chris removed all her clothes and stared in rapture at the cut. Then he made another incision next to it, tracing the blood mingling from the two wounds with a finger.

“Angel…” She heard Duncan’s voice as if it came from another dimension, but at least he was trying to re-emerge from whatever black pit Chris had flung him. “I think we understand now, so you can stop—”

“No, you don’t.” Another merciless slash bit Ylianor’s arm. “‘Cause I’ve tried telling you countless times before.” His attention shifted all to the prince. “Only you wouldn’t listen.”

Gaze fixing on the black one, Chris seemed to be pleading for something Ylianor knew Duncan must have denied him in the past.

Then again, why should she care? And why did the blade keep knifing her soft flesh as though it were made of butter?

“You never wanted to know what I need to do in order to survive.” Both her arms red from his gashes, Chris moved to strike her legs. “This is what I do, what I’ve been doing ever since you decided our phase was over.” With precise hits, he littered her skin with deep lacerations that smeared it with reddish streaks. “And I have no choice or control over it.”

“Liar!” If the pain was pure unbearable that everything throbbed violently, she refused to let it silence her. “You decide who and when to strike—”

“Damn right I do!” With calculated cruelty, he ripped through her skin. “When I get this craving, I can’t rest until I carve someone to pieces.”

Suddenly aware of what the demon’s power was all about, Ylianor raised her head to catch his gaze. “But then you heal them back.”

This was the only way she could fight him—keep him talking and defy him at every turn. If she surrendered to the pain, it would be the end of her.

“Don’t you?” She winced from his latest blow to her thigh.

“I do more than that, dearie.” Contemptuously, he sliced another straight, bloody red line down her leg. “I erase their memory once I’ve healed them. That’s how it works.” Again, he focused on Prince Caldwell alone, interested only to have his complete attention, while the blade seemed to slide by itself on Ylianor’s battered flesh. “After I’ve selected a victim, I may or may not fuck him, which all depends on my mood.”

So Ylianor perceived the erotic enticement that connected sex with blood for Christopher Templeton, and she might have climaxed on the sheer thrill of his pleasure every time he sank his knife in her, had he not been so bent on killing her first.

“But the sex is irrelevant.” One well-delivered blow and Ylianor jolted.

Not that she got anywhere.

Like all the previous times and as hard as she tried, his iron hold had such a clamping effect, she could barely move.

“What I really need is to cut his delicious body to a bloody pulp.” To emphasize his point, he stuck the tip of the blade in a fresh wound and tore it open.

Just like that.

Ripping through her skin as though it were some faulty seam of a worn-out fabric.

“Only when my bloodlust is sated, do I heal him and erase the memory of what happened.” A bitter snarl curved his lips. “And the fool loves it!” He laughed at their idiocy. “And thinks it’s been the best sex of his pitiful life.”

As if anybody could ever love this kind of torture.

Then again, regardless of his claims, Ylianor had the feeling that what Chris was doing to her was quite unique—partly because this was no play, partly because he probably never did it to a woman, mostly because it was in front of Duncan.

And that changed everything!

“First, he’s just a whimpering coward, begging for mercy and crying over the slightest scratch.” Probably wanting to prove his point on Ylianor, he dug deeper. “And I simply love to watch them bleed, squirm and beg for their miserable hides.”

She did not give him the satisfaction of a single moan. Rather, she kept her ears wide open to catch the tiniest clue that she could use against him.

If she survived that is.

For, besides the sharp pain, he was unwittingly giving her a key to understand how this worked, a key to beat him at his own game.

“The best thing is seeing terror mounting in their eyes.” Lowering his gaze, he peered in her eyes. “Almost like yours, honey, though do try to look a little more terrified.”

“Otherwise it’ll spoil your fun?” Ylianor sneered contemptuously.

“No, otherwise it’ll spoil yours.” The brutal stab was clear indication he planned to make it anything but. “And we wouldn’t want that, would we?” A cold gleam lit up his beautiful blue-gray eyes.

And she had the weird sensation he had caught on to her arousal and to how it was feeding off his excitement.

“If it’s so much fun, why have you never tried it on your lover?” Pulling herself together, Ylianor went all-offensive.

“‘Cause love held me back, or what I thought was love until a smart ass tells me he just recharges my energy, as if our love meant nothing.” Chris was getting angry now as he slit open another piece of flesh. “Silly me.” He shook his head in forced amusement. “I thought I wanted him because I loved him. Turns out we don’t love each other, just use our bodies for refills.” Furious at the thought, he slashed randomly, without bothering to look where he struck. “Because I keep…” He frowned. “How did you put it?” Then creasing his forehead, he made a show of concentrating. “Spreading my energy around, so I have to return to my lover when supplies run low.” He followed the blood covering Ylianor completely in an intricate network of small lacerations, all as evenly spaced as though part of a geometric pattern. “How about it, lover?” The knife stung Ylianor again and again. “Do you like this explanation to all we’ve shared since the first time we ever laid eyes on each other?”

By now, she was beyond feeling anything.

“Personally, it pisses me off.” As though sensing she was slipping away from him somehow, he intensified his blows, aiming to hurt her worse than he had so far.

“She might be wrong,” Prince Caldwell argued reasonably. “No one has enough knowledge in this matter, so why should we believe her?”

Prince, make him stop. Since she had caught a more decisive note in his tone, she hoped he could hear her now. I don’t think I can stand this much longer.

“No, the question is another.” Apparently in need of more blood, the odious demon stuck the tip of the knife under her breast. “What gives her the fucking right to barge into our lives and take them apart?” The blue-gray eyes locked on the velvety black ones. “Like she did when your father was still alive, and she seduced him into privileging her over his rightful heir?” With cold, calculated fury, Chris did not detain the blade sliding underneath the soft mound, piercing the very delicate flesh until blood seeped in heavy drops.

If it was unbearable, it was still nothing if compared to the tidal wave of pain drowning her. Not hers, however sore she was all over. It all came from Prince Caldwell himself, a load so heavy it silenced his sense of justice.

And Ylianor became furious, for that despicable demon was using whatever had provoked Duncan’s explosive rage against him, fueling it as part of his spell to keep the prince from regaining full control over himself. A spell that now looked awfully similar to a bridge of hate and fascination Chris had hooked on Prince Caldwell to keep him paralyzed.

“You see, dearie, until you came along, he and I were very happy.” Damn proud of his trick, Chris smiled smugly, cutting harder than before. “All he had to worry about was finding a suitable mate that would carry his beautiful children while still fucking with me.” Pausing briefly, he made it a point to capture her gaze. “A perfect plan, wouldn’t you agree, witch?” Another stab and the blade perforated deep inside her.

Just his bad luck she did not even whimper, everything hurting so much she found it difficult to concentrate on the single incision.

“Fuck you and your perfect plans, Lord Templeton.” If she had to die, it would be on her own terms. “Or did you really think you could keep him all to yourself?”

“I fucking did!” This definitely irked the demon the wrong way, at least judging from the very new and very deep gash on her belly. “With his pledge mate tucked away in Black Rose and him at the Hall to fill his permanent council seat, I’d have had him all to myself.”

“Then sorry to have spoiled your neat plans,” she retorted hotly, ignoring the terror that lurked behind every one of his damn blows. “But I’m here now, and I intend to stay.”

“Over your dead body!” He attacked her other breast, the only pink spot in a red-clotted pulp.

Minced meat! That was his final goal.

“I wouldn’t cry victory just yet.” Since this was sure to piss him off worse than he already was, she also shouted in Duncan’s head, Prince, you can’t allow your angel to feed off your guilt! If nothing else worked, maybe yelling might penetrate the honey-thick fog enveloping him.

“The lady still has spunk.” In spite of himself, the demon sounded impressed.

Enough to halt his assault.

“Not that it’s going to help you any.” Quickly resuming his carving, he added a more savage twist to his downward swings. “Not ‘cause you are the only available victim at the moment.” In a new escalation, he massacred the breast that had been whole only seconds before. “You’re also the only one who looks like my lover…no, wait, I believe energy charger is more appropriate,” he sniggered. “And has the further advantage of being a woman.” He smacked his lips. “So how could I resist this mouthwatering combination, especially if she insists on sticking her nose where it doesn’t belong?”

“You are just jealous he wants me back in his life.” This goading of him was turning out to be the best antidote to the excruciating pain Chris seemed to be a master in inflicting.

“Jealous of a sorry ass like you?” Deeper and deeper he dug her flesh until he reached the bone.

Which did not quell his anger at all.

Not one bit!

“Ha! That’ll be the day!” Not content in tearing her body apart, he moved his assault on a new level. “What I can’t stand is the bloody irony of it all.” Crushing her spirit while destroying her flesh—this seemed his new tactic. “It starts with a witch telling me love has nothing to do with my feelings.” The bottomless well of emotions Ylianor had glimpsed when he had opened up now lashed back at her. “Imagine that!” Wide-eyed, he made a show of looking surprised. “I’ve been kidding myself all these years.” The knife edged dangerously to her throat. “So if my love is a lie, what can I trust of my other feelings?” Luckily, the tip of the blade slipped away, targeting her arm instead.

“You are just a fool for taking my words the wrong way.” Somehow, she had to resist his attempts at smothering her under the sheer weight of his hate pressing on her chest. “‘Cause I never meant to say your love isn’t real.” At depleting her energy along with what remained of her air and blood. “I only mentioned the energy connection ‘cause I thought it enhanced your love.” And his ominous black cloud hovered over Duncan, too, which made it impossible for her to latch on to him. “Not because I wanted to demean it.” Since his darkness shut off all light, her breath now came in rapid gulps. “And you’re twice as foolish if you don’t realize how much this can add to—”

“Add?” Chris spat. “Do you know what it comes down to?” He bent his head until his hot breath played on her face. “That I’ve lived a lie for nineteen fucking years.”

“What you feel isn’t a lie.” Ylianor tried not to crumble under the pressure of having him so oppressive in every sense possible.

“Don’t tell me what I feel, bitch!” Chris bit back. “I’ve always distrusted women and for good reasons it seems.” Heaving, he calmed down a bit. “But perhaps I’m taking this out on the wrong person.” Turning his head, he fixed the prince. “Since it’s my phase mate who wants you in his bed and forces me to share my precious energy with the likes of you.” He swung back on her. “But guess what?”

Since he had not stopped pounding her flesh, Ylianor lost all sense of her body, to the point she could not tell what part of her he was torturing.

“I can’t harm him, ‘cause they tell me I need his energy.” He traced a finger over the jagged edges of her many wounds before licking the blood off it. “Which leaves you, dearie, to pay for all the consequences of his actions.”

“Also for your inability to satisfy him?” Ylianor shuddered as Chris tore off more flash. “In case you haven’t noticed, your prince needs a woman in his bed, no matter how good you are, and killing me isn’t going to change that.”

This going at him was pure folly now, now that a part of her was so tired she wished he would let her curl on herself to die in peace.

He hissed, “But it’ll be a good start—”

“All right,” Duncan’s firm tone blocked Chris’s arm swinging down on her. “That’s enough.”

Hey, Prince Caldwell was back, and his escape from the black web proved how superior his newly acquired power was to the demon’s.

“Now it’s time to heal her,” Duncan ordered quietly, expecting Chris’s full cooperation.

“All right, lover.” The enchantment gone, Ylianor knew the demon had no choice other than obeying. “But I comply only for your sake.” After a thorough examination, he began cleaning the bloody blade. “If it were up to me, I’d leave her to bleed to death.”