"Leave me!" Conrad bellowed, straining against his bonds so hard the manacles cut into his wrists.
Murdoch was baffled by this sudden change in his brother after two weeks of gradual - some would say plodding - improvement. He hesitated, contemplating whether he should try again to reach him, or to leave.
When blood began dripping down Conrad's wrists, Murdoch stood. "Things are heating up overseas," he finally said, "and none of us will be back until late tomorrow." Kristoff had warned that a league of Horde vampires might attack Mount Oblak soon. "Do you want to drink before I go?"
"Get out of my sight!"
"Conrad, calm yourself," Murdoch said, to little effect. Damn it, he'd thought they'd been making such progress with him. They'd gotten him to drink from a cup without spitting blood in their faces and even to shower. Lately, he'd had long spells of lucidity where he'd engaged the brothers in conversation.
But Conrad was still hallucinating, seeing scenes from all those memories he'd harvested, and more recently - an invisible "ghost woman," who he believed lived in Elancourt with him.
Then today had come this inexplicable setback. All Murdoch had done was try to talk to him about finding his own Bride, about all the benefits inherent in that - because the brothers had discovered that Conrad... had never been with a woman.
And they'd at last determined why he'd gone mad from the turning. Unbeknownst to the entire family, Conrad had been a vampire hunter for more than half his mortal life, had even secretly joined a monastic order sworn to wipe out the species. He'd given up everything - his freedom, his future, women - for this cause.
Then Murdoch and Nikolai had turned him into his starkest nightmare. No wonder he still struggled.
When Conrad began rocking on the bed in a snarling fury, Murdoch murmured, "I'm leaving," then traced downstairs. Christ, this was a piss day. Had he actually once lamented that life was too boring? Now it seemed a thousand demands were converging on him.
He couldn't reach Conrad.
Kristoff prepared for war. The three Wroth brothers were to be ready and on call, yet Murdoch couldn't shake the feeling that their king had become suspicious of what they'd been doing in their downtime.
And Daniela... Murdoch knew he'd been neglecting her. First he'd had to find Conrad, then capture him. Now Murdoch was investigating his brother's past for anything that might help him recover. Remarkably, Murdoch had yet to learn of a single instance when Conrad had slain an innocent.
But how many times had Murdoch told Daniela he'd be back at the lodge by a certain time, but then Conrad attempted an escape or went into a rage? Murdoch would call to explain, and oftentimes she wouldn't even answer. Would she tonight? He dialed her number. "Pick up, Danii," he muttered. No answer. He tried her again.
Murdoch was growing so weary of his double life. Can't talk about my Bride, can't bloody touch her. Even as part of him yearned to be near her, another part of him was growing to hate the temptation that was never satisfied. Having his lips a breath away from her flesh and being denied a taste... He didn't know how much longer he could hold on.
Where the hell is she?
He could simply trace to the lodge, but she might be out, anywhere within that vast forest. Besides, he'd planned to follow leads this eve.
Yet if he were honest, he'd admit he was reluctant to return to their freezing home. Earlier when he'd left, the first Siberian blizzard of the season had just begun raging, delighting her, and dismaying him. Tonight there would be no warm hearth, no warm wife to gather close to him. No warm body to lose himself in...
No answer. His fist shot out, slamming into the crumbling plaster wall.
Long hours passed before Murdoch returned to Daniela, and he arrived even later than he'd intended to. Surprisingly, she wasn't at work on her ice tablet - it sat idle against the wall. Nor was she outside.
He found her in bed, dressed in a wispy black gown with her hair loose. The ice crystals around her eyes glinted in the room's dimmed light. She's so beautiful.
"It's late," she quietly said.
"I tried to call you earlier, but you didn't answer. I had some things to look into."
"Murdoch, if I didn't know better, I'd swear you were looking for excuses to be away from me."
"You know how important this is to us," he hedged. "And we're running out of time. I'm asking for you to be understanding about this, and for your patience with me."
But she was still upset, lightning streaking outside. Luckily, he'd had the foresight a few nights ago to buy a get-out-of-jail-free card, an emerald comb he'd kept in his pocket for just such a time as this. "Just to show you that I've been thinking about you, I got you a surprise."
"A gift for me?" Her eyes instantly grew bright. "I love gifts!"
Grinning, he made a mental note always to have one of these on hand and dug into his coat pocket. Empty. "It's... not here?"
She cast him a sad, crestfallen look that seemed to rip into his chest. "That's fine. You didn't need to get me anything."
A piss day. "Damn it! It was an emerald comb. I just bought it the other night for your hair." He checked all his pockets, then tore through his things. Nothing.
He must have evinced his disappointment, because she sighed, and her tone softened. "We'll find it later, Murdoch. But for now, you look exhausted. Why don't you come to bed?" She patted the spot beside her, glancing up at him from under her icy lashes.
Undone. Just like that, he grew hard for her. "You don't have to ask me twice."
Ignoring the cold, he stripped off his clothes - everything but his gloves - as she pulled off her gown. Once he joined her in bed, he snagged a blanket. She nibbled her lip, her eyes excited, knowing what he wanted to do.
As she reclined, he drew the blanket over her, covering up to her breasts. Barrier in place, he eased above her, settling between her legs. He rested his upper body on his elbows, leaving his gloved palms free to fondle her luscious little breasts.
With his face buried in the flaxen hair spread over her pillow, he rocked his shaft against her, shuddering with pleasure.
This was his favorite position with her. At least like this, he could imagine he was actually inside her. And it made him recall his recurring dream of drinking her. The more tense their situation became, the more he dreamed of it. Now as he moved over her, he dragged his tongue across one of his sharpening fangs for a shot of blood, pretending it was hers, pretending he was truly taking her.
When he rolled his hips again, she wriggled her own, putting his shaft in just the right spot. "There, kallim?" he grated with another thrust.
"Ah, yes," she moaned, letting him know he'd rubbed directly over her clitoris.
Squeezing her breasts, he ground against her there, making her cry, "More!" He gave her more, harder and harder. As her moans grew louder, she writhed wildly, meeting him.
"Come for me," he rasped desperately, about to spill on her.
She arched her back, her body tensing beneath him as she neared her peak.
Suddenly he felt his ankle brush hers, skin to freezing skin. The blanket rode up? His eyes went wide, just as she cried out in agony.
"Murdoch, no!" She shoved him off her, scrambling away.
There she sat on one side of the bed, quivering with pain, while he moved to the other, sitting with his head in his hands. "Christ, I didn't mean to hurt you."
"W-we have to be more careful."
"Damn it! I need to touch you, or I'll go mad!"
She whispered, "Do you think this is any easier for me?"
He raised his head, staring at the wall as he said, "I want to make this better, I want to fix this for us. And I can't. There's nothing I can do."
He heard her pull on her gown before she walked on her knees toward him. "Murdoch, there might be a way. I didn't want to say anything because it's so uncertain, but there's a witch who is coming into her powers. The strongest one. In a mere fifty years, she could find the answer for us."
"A mere fifty years? Half a century of this?"
"We could get one of them to cast a spell and make us sleep, or - "
"Sleep? You mean hibernate?" He shot to his feet, yanking on his pants as he whirled around to face her. "Like goddamn animals? You expect me to lose five decades of my life?" he demanded, his frustration goading him. "Maybe this wasn't meant to be." As soon as the word left his lips, he regretted them.
But when she blinked at him as if he'd spoken blasphemy, his temper flared hotter. As if she's never thought that.
"Not meant to be?"
"What? You've never considered bailing on me?"
"No. I haven't."
"When we are together, all we do is fight. It just wasn't this hard..." He trailed off.
She stood as well, moving to face him. "What? What were you going to say?"
"It just wasn't this hard with other women?" When he didn't deny it, her lips parted. "I am so sick of you talking about your past conquests!"
"I can't do this anymore!" He kicked her latest ice tablet, shattering it.
She stood motionless, her eyes growing silver with hurt and confusion. A tear spilled, then another, each one a knife to his heart.
He wanted to comfort her, to take her in his arms and ease that confusion. Then he remembered he couldn't.
"If you don't think fighting for us is worth the trouble," she murmured, "then I'm not going to bother either." She strode from the room, down the stairs, then out into the night.
He gave a vile curse, fighting the impulse to go after her. He was still angry, still exhausted. They would only fight more.
So he dressed, then traced to Mount Oblak, seeking one of his brothers or Rurik. He needed to talk with someone, to unburden himself. But never to speak about Daniela. No, never about her. What would he say anyway? "Just looking at her wrecks me. I'm tempted every second by something that's dazzling and perfect - and always just out of reach."
Though his brothers weren't there, he found Rurik, Lukyan, and a few others gambling in the castle's common area.
"Murdoch, join us!" Rurik called. "Have a drink."
Lukyan gave a snide laugh. "He won't."
Clearly nothing had changed between Murdoch and him since the demon attack. Worse, Lukyan was right - Murdoch had been just about to decline. When had he become so domesticated? So predictably domesticated.
Why not stay here? He resented another night of not having her, resented the strife between them that had no end in sight. A stiff whiskey seemed just the thing.
He took off his gloves and settled in front of the great hearth fire, rebelliously basking in its warmth.
Numb the ache. One shot down.
Blunt the need. Then another.