"That was before you were involved. Now I have to find a way."

Salem said, "That's the thing about an assassin-wiv each kill, he risks capture or death himself. A long-lived assassin means he wins every single time."

Cas rubbed his throat again.

Bettina pressed her advantage. "There's only one course of action. Enter the tournament. Raum and Morgana guarantee each contestant's safety out of the ring. The vampire couldn't touch you. And you know you can beat anybody who enters."

Though he wasn't as powerful as he could be-death demons garnered strength from each kill and his job had been to track, not execute-Cas was an excellent swordsman, and he could trace.

A flicker of hope rose in his eyes. Then he shook his head. "And if I win? What then? Say I eliminate this assassin afterward and wed you. You would deprive my fated mate of her male? I'd be making both of our lives miserable."

Her mind cried, I might be your mate. "You can't know it's not me. And I'm free to love whoever I want to." Unlike many Lore species, Sorceri didn't have a mystical fated mate per se. But they did wed and form lifelong bonds.

"I'm sorry, Bettina." His expression looked genuinely remorseful, his blond brows drawn. "I can't enter."

Disappointment threatened to engulf her, but she strived for a calm tone. "I see. I could ask Morgana for help against the vampire." Bettina's godmother was just like a big sister.

That one did not ever, ever, ever want to cross.

Yet Bettina was desperate once more. "She doesn't arrive until this eve-won't stay on this 'wretched demonic plane' any longer than necessary-but I could ask her then."

Morgana reviled all demons, still couldn't believe her best friend Eleara-Bettina's late mother-had wed one. But the sorceress might actually agree to help Cas just to thwart the vampire.

Morgana would interpret Trehan Daciano's actions with Bettina as a trick, and Sorceri were supposed to be the tricksters-not the trickees. The great queen might kill the vampire for that alone.

Cas took her shoulders again. "You can't tell anyone else about this! No one is supposed to know the Dacians even exist. Already too many know. I'd be betraying Mirceo even more."

Mirceo? "But Morgana can help-"

"Vow to me, Tina. You would put the Sorceri at risk, put yourself more at risk!"

When he looked at her like this, with his blue eyes glowing with feeling, she could deny him nothing. She mumbled, "I vow it."

"This is all fine and good," Salem said, "worrying about Caspion. But you have plenty on your plate to be worrying about. Not every female in the brothel was lucky enough to be serviced by him. I saw other competitors inside. A trio of two-headed Ajatars. Cerunnos. Even a pus demon-oh, 'scuse me, an excretorian-was there."

Ajatars had metal teeth and breathed fire. Cerunnos were snakelike humanoids. Excretorians leaked pus from every pore. She turned to Cas. "Please don't leave me to this fate. They will cancel the tournament completely if I'm not a virgin. Can't you just . . . would it be so bad . . . ?"

"Bettina," he began gravely, "there's something you should know."

Show yourself," Trehan demanded of his seemingly empty apartments. He sensed danger looming. A regular occurrence for him in Dacia.

His gaze flickered over the shadowed corners of the gilded sitting area, then up to scan the vaulted ceilings. He stole a quick glance down the two adjoining corridors. One led to his bedchamber; the other opened up into a wing with unending bookshelves.

When only silence greeted him, he returned to his task: researching.

He'd assured his newfound Bride that he had no plans to return for her. True at the time. But now . . .

The idea of never seeing her again made him crazed.

She'd asked him, "What do you want from me?" He wanted to go back in time and answer: "Everything! Everything that is mine by right!"

But he'd done the rational thing-and left her. Never had he regretted a rational decision.

Might I now?

He'd told himself he simply didn't have enough information to conclude anything about her. He needed to contemplate this in a logical fashion, gathering facts.

So he'd turned to his books, retrieving a tome on vampire physiology, the weighty Book of Lore, and a recently published history of the various demonarchies. Laying the books out on one side of his large desk, he'd set the tournament invitation on the other.

In the physiology manual, Trehan confirmed the harsh realities of his situation. Unless a vampire claimed his Bride completely, he would be filled with aggression, irrational jealousy, and uncontrollable sexual urges.

Perhaps Trehan should have agreed to her offer and taken her. Aggression? Check. Irrational jealousy? When he thought of Bettina responding with such abandon to Caspion, Trehan traced to his feet, wrestling with a murderous rage. Check.

Uncontrollable sexual urges? Upon returning home to wash and change, he'd grown achingly hard just from the evidence of his release in his pants. After all, he hadn't scented or seen it for the better part of a millennium.

The book also said that a vampire must penetrate his mate with his fangs. As the demons and Lykae did. Which we consider barbaric.

But this book had been written about vampires-in general. Dacians were different, superior to other factions like the Horde and the Forbearers. He assured himself of this, even as he recalled how badly he'd craved biting her.

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