Elena crashed into the man on the sidewalk. She’d been walking in the city gloom for the past hour, trying to get used to the sights and sounds of the mortal world. She knew she was far from the slopes of her home on Mount Olympus when she passed a fully nude, silver-painted street performer juggling three-headed baby dolls. She didn’t know what to make of him or anything else she’d seen in the short time she’d been visiting Earth.
And it didn’t help that she couldn’t shake the feeling she was being followed. From the second she left the courtyard of Roth and Lilah’s French chateau, she could feel a presence. Something that flitted around on the periphery, staying just out of sight. At first she guessed it might be one of her sisters, perhaps Iphi playing a trick. But she knew deep down this was not the case. The feeling of apprehension told her as much.
It was precisely this feeling of unease that caused her to stumble into the stranger on the sidewalk. She had turned her head, searching for whatever or whoever was giving her the odd sensation, when she collided with what felt like a brick wall.
But it wasn’t a wall; it was a man. She sized him up quickly while righting herself. He towered over even her tall frame, but she wasn’t worried. After all, she was Elena de Artemis, the pride of the goddess Artemis’s warrior maidens. Skilled in witchcraft and battle, she had no cause to fear any mortal, no matter his size.
“Pardon me,” she said and ignored his outstretched hand.
“No, it was my mistake. I didn’t see you there.” His voice was a smooth baritone, and his dark eyes watched her intently. The gaze was so direct that Elena felt a twinge of…something. She couldn’t quite put her finger on what it was. Something in the back of her mind.
She moved to step to his side and continue walking along her path next to the Seine. The waters flowed smoothly and reflected the moonlight that flooded the city. The scent of the flower market was heavy on the air, lilies and lavender demanding notice almost as much as the stranger before her.
“If you don’t mind.” He held out a well-manicured hand to pause her departure. “You see, I’m new to Paris
”—he said the word as if it were distasteful—“and wondered if you could help me find my way to the Champs-Élysées? My hotel is there, and I can’t seem to remember which side of the river I should be on.”
Elena did not want to stay and chat, especially since something about the stranger was giving her a faint sense of alarm. Having been in battle for most of her life with Artemis, she knew to trust her instincts. And her instincts were telling her things were not what they seemed.
“I’m afraid I can’t help. I’m new here too.”
He didn’t move, didn’t give even a hairsbreadth of space for her to pass. She could either step into traffic, dive into the river, retreat, or get him out of her way. Never one to turn tail, Elena chose the last option. She stepped toward him, expecting him to turn for her to pass. But he was unmoving. He was large and well-muscled, such that her first thought of him as a brick wall was proving to be more accurate by the second.
“Let me pass.” She felt the hairs stand on the nape of her neck as he stared down at her.
“Perhaps we could catch a late dinner?”
Elena wasn’t sure if she was speaking in a completely different language or if the man had a hearing problem. “I said ‘let me pass.’ I need to get home.”
A hail of honking horns drew her attention to the busy road. A sleek black limo cut through traffic and pulled up to the curb, blocking her in even more. “In that case, may I give you a ride back to your home?”
Now the alarm bells were ringing loud enough to awaken all her fighting senses. She backed up from him a pace, her green eyes no doubt flashing with annoyance and power. She was ready to cast at him if for no other reason than to get him out of her way. But then she looked around. There were dozens of people taking an evening stroll, enjoying the crisp Paris night. The nearest bridge was covered with lovers and locks, the former hoping for a bit of magic from the latter. A smattering of tourists were beneath them, walking along the quay next to the glittering river.
She could not cast here. Not in the open. Elena was Artemis’s master tactician, in charge of every battle, mindful of every move. If she used her powers, there would be a panic, which could put the mortals in danger. Though not particularly fond of mortals, Elena never took the life of an innocent. Not even in war.
The stranger did not back away, despite the fact that he must have noticed the shimmer of otherworldly power in her eyes. He held out his hand toward the waiting car. This was no mortal, she realized. He continued to assess her, but not as a stranger would. He seemed more like a merchant, checking his newly arrived merchandise to assure himself no damage had befallen it on its journey to him.
Never one to look away first or ignore a challenge, she studied him right back. He wore a black suit, formal, with a deep sapphire shirt that was unbuttoned at the top. Far more formal than the jeans and sweater she had borrowed from Lilah, her closest sister, for her stroll. Elena would have worn her customary forest-green tunic and pants, but Lilah’s commentary—“You can’t go out looking like a wood elf, Elena; people will notice”
—prevented that. The sweater proved itchy—even now, her back was irritated, almost burning, from the rough fibers.
The stranger’s face was a classical daydream of masculine splendor. Black hair cut to fall pleasingly across his olive forehead, with dark brows to match. Beauty had marked him, truly, but there was something else. His eyes. Instead of a window to his soul, they were a bottomless abyss. They did not speak of passion, love, or emotion. Instead, they were cold and dark, as if whatever light that had once lain within them had been snuffed out long ago.
She bristled at the thought of what a creature with eyes like those wanted with her. Elena had seen enough. She whirled on her heel, staring contest be damned. The sooner she got back to Roth, Lilah, and her sister maidens, the safer she and the city would be.
But what Elena saw behind her stopped her dead. It was Paris, the famed vampire, charging right at her. His fangs were bared, a look of raw fury on his face. The last she’d seen of him, he’d been fawning all over her mistress, Artemis.
Elena marveled at the rage in every one of his movements. It was as if he were giving off sparks of hate and anger. Then he disappeared and reappeared much closer, teleporting through the crowds.
If the stranger was a wall, Paris was an avalanche, his malice bearing down on her with a violent certainty. Elena couldn’t begin to guess why he was picking a fight with her, and in the mortal world of all places. He was a block away, no more, and closing fast. She felt her palms tingle, the beginnings of a vicious hex taking shape. But she still had the onlooker and collateral-damage problems.
“Please, allow me.” The stranger held the car door open for her. His gaze was still glued to Elena, as if he were totally unaware of the homicidal vampire charging right at them. With only seconds to make her decision, she glanced from the stranger to Paris, and chose.
* * * *
“Where can I have my driver drop you?”
Elena did not know the answer to his question and certainly wasn’t about to tell him the location of her sisters at the chateau. “Just drop me in front of Notre Dame.” She knew how to make it back to the chateau from there, at least.
“Surely not. Allow me to take you to your home.”
“I, ah, I am staying at a hotel near there. So that’s as good a place as any.” Elena shifted in her seat, leaning away from the stranger, who now seemed uncomfortably close in the confines of the car.
The second she’d stepped in, the stranger followed her and the car tore from the curb. But Paris had teleported again at the last second, covering the remaining distance in a heartbeat and fixing her in his dark glare as she sped away from him. Something told her it would not be the last she saw of the vampire prince. She kept checking behind the vehicle for any sign of him.
“Don’t worry about him,” the stranger snapped. He scowled, contorting his otherwise handsome face. “He is and has always been beneath you. Nothing more than a peasant.”
An icy trickle of fear dripped into her heart. She sensed she had been caught in a snare. Something about the stranger was familiar, and his words were a warning. All these events were more than simple happenstance. The run-in on the sidewalk was no accident, but she couldn’t tell how Paris fit into the picture.
Elena focused once again on the playing field, trying to determine how to gain the upper hand. But her heart sank when she realized how thoroughly trapped she was. Though not familiar with the City of Light, she knew the car was speeding away from the river, the center of town. Away from her sisters and safety. And the stranger was fully aware of what had gone on at the riverbank. He must have known Paris was following her. He also knew where she would be and how to get her where he wanted her—here, in his car, hurtling through the night, with no clear avenue of escape.
“This isn’t the way to Notre Dame.” She turned to face him directly. The darkness in his eyes made her wince inwardly. But she wasn’t afraid. This was a situation she could handle, though the stranger would be much the worse for wear. She wasn’t about to be the punchline of some kidnap plot retold by her enemies on Olympus at her expense. She kept calm and summoned her power. Her palms tingled again, the harbinger of the stranger’s death. He may have sprung the trap, but she was no ordinary quarry.
He raised a hand and rubbed a lock of her hair between his thumb and forefinger. He moved so fast she barely caught the flicker of his arm. Now she knew he was no ordinary hunter. He sifted the golden strands and looked at them with something edging on wonder. Her palms were no longer simply tingling, they were burning with the desire to strike the presumptuous stranger down. Never had a male dared to take such liberties with her. But she sat still, playing along until she saw the perfect opening to strike. Moves had to be made in their turn.
“I thought you were lost to me. Do you have any idea how long I have been searching for you?” He spoke softly now, but he stared past her, through her, as if in memory.
His voice. Now so close in the car, it was like a cold caress, and it was familiar
. Without understanding how or where or why, she realized she knew
this man. Elena’s heart sped to a rapid pace, a mix of terror and déjà vu washing over her. Goose bumps broke out along her skin, and a sense of dark foreboding cut deep. She was in danger, as sure as if she were in the midst of a battle of the gods.
“Stop the car. Let me out.” The coldness in her voice rivaled the chill of fear in her heart.
“I can’t do that, Helen. Not now that I have you again.”
“My name is Elena, not Helen. And if you don’t let me out, you are going to regret it in a multitude of painful ways.” Elena no longer bothered hiding her power. The palms of her hands glowed a deep orange as orbs of flame lit there, fire ready to rip from them and tear the stranger to pieces.
But something was different. Her magic was still powerful, could easily torch the stranger and the car—but the orbs were perhaps a little smaller, the fire a tinge darker. What was happening? It wasn’t just her magic—she
felt different, the low hum of the goddess’s influence no longer imbuing her body. Only one thing could cause such a shift—Artemis had abandoned her. Why?
The stranger, unaware of the change, glanced down at her hands for a moment before returning those dark eyes to her emerald ones. “I’m not afraid of you, Helen.”
Elena pushed past her panic about Artemis and focused her ire on the stranger. “That is a tactical mistake you won’t recover from.” The flaming orbs grew larger. One touch and he would burn. Both touches and he would be ashes. Then she could return to Olympus to beg forgiveness for whatever she’d done to displease her mistress. “Tell your driver to stop. Now.”
“I’m sorry to do this. I truly am, my love, but you leave me no choice,” he said with a note of false resignation tinged with exhilaration. He was enjoying
this. As if he were toying with her all along.
“That’s it. I gave you a chance.” Elena raised her hands and pressed them to the creature’s chest. The fire should have sent him up in a blaze of screaming agony.
The stranger suffered no injury. Her fire pierced him, yet did no damage. In fact, he smiled. Had Artemis truly abandoned her? Elena took her hands away and stared at them, wondering if she should shake them into working properly.
“You can’t hurt me, my love. But unfortunately,” he continued, and whisked out a pair of engraved silver bangles, “you could harm others in my employ.” He spared a glance toward the driver.
She drew back her palm to strike him, but he caught her wrist with ease and clapped a bangle around it. Then he captured her other hand and did the same as easily as the first. Her flames vanished. They were dispelling shackles, binding her magic.
She flung herself against the door of the car, trying to wrench it open and fall out into the street. She screamed with rage as the door did not give. She pounded on the glass, but it did not shatter. Artemis’s strength was truly gone from Elena’s veins. She kept struggling, fighting to escape him. She would not be taken like this. She could not. But as she told herself these things, the truth hit her hard. She had fallen. Artemis had abandoned her. She was in enemy hands.
“I planned for this, you see.” He watched her, his eyes alight with pleasure.
She was a caged bird, helplessly beating her wings against the bars.
“Stop struggling.” His voice grated on her ears as she focused her energy on breaking the rear window so she could make her escape. His arms closed around her like a vise. Pulling her to him, subduing her.
“Shhh, shhhhhh, don’t fight them. You couldn’t get them off if you tried.” He kept her stilled against him with one strong arm and ran his long fingers down the side of her neck, tracing the silver runes that had marked her as Artemis’s servant. “Your beautiful skin. How could she? It was so perfect.” He spoke as if she were a work of art on a wall in Artemis’s chambers, now marred. “And this,” he said with deep contempt while perusing the birthmark along her jugular, no doubt pulsing a bright red in her distress.
“Get off me.” But Elena knew she was outmaneuvered and under his control, for the time being.
He squeezed her closer, his breath in her ear. “For now.” The stranger relaxed his grip. He set her beside him once again and regarded her with his strangely familiar gaze.
He was powerful, far stronger than any ordinary immortal. Strong enough to subdue a warrior of the gods. She was not going to escape with brute force. She switched tactics—reconnaissance. Calming herself and slowing her heartbeat through sheer will, she began, “Who are you?”
“Don’t you know, Helen?” His eyes twinkled with some dark secret.
“Why are you calling me Helen?”
“Because that’s your name.”
“My name is Elena. You have the wrong person.”
He waved her comment away with a dismissive flick of his wrist. “She
changed your name to suit her own vanity. You are Helen. And, I assure you, I would know you anywhere. You, your body, your scent, your”—he glanced down at the apex of her thighs—“everything.”
Elena took a deep, shuddering breath. She had been kidnapped and muzzled by an insane creature of unimaginable power. She didn’t have a strategy for this situation tucked away in her mind. But she wouldn’t give up her chosen tactic, not until she got all the information she could.
“Who is it you think changed my name?”
“That bitch Artemis. She thought it would be fun to wipe your memory and make you more of her disciple. As if that would change you, make you somehow unrecognizable. For an all-powerful goddess, she truly is a simpleton.” He shook his head.
Her anger bubbled over at the slight. “When my mistress finds out what you’ve done, she will flay the skin from your bones, wait for it to grow back, and then do it again and again until you beg for death. If I’m lucky, she’ll allow me to be the one to do the flaying.”
He laughed, a rich sound that still managed to lack any true depth of feeling. “I sincerely doubt that.”
“How do you know me?”
“I already told you,” he said and sank back into the seat, confident she was no longer a danger or a flight risk. “I know everything there is to know about you.”
“Why didn’t my magic harm you?”
He smiled faintly, as if remembering something that amused him. “We made a deal, you and me, a long, long time ago.”
“A deal about my magic?” she asked, now utterly perplexed. Elena had no memory of this creature. But she couldn’t deny there was something
“Not exactly.” His gaze still raked over her, all of her, possessive.
Elena was tired of his games. “I demand to know why you think you know me.”
“Because I’m your husband.”