There was no sign of him anyplace.
"Vane!" she tried again, even louder this time.
Only the damp, cool air answered her.
Her heart breaking, she stepped back into the house and collided with Tabitha. "I can’t believe I let him go."
"I can’t believe the idiot went."
Bride panicked as she heard that voice. It wasn’t Tabitha’s. It was the demon’s. In the blink of an eye, everything went black.
Vane walked down the street away from Kyrian’s house, doing his best to ignore Bride’s call. His heart was breaking into pieces at the thought of losing her.
He had done the right thing. He’d let her go. So why did it hurt so much?
And it did hurt. It ached and burned deep inside his heart until he was sure he couldn’t bear it.
It was for the best.
She was human and he was the wolf who loved her. Vane cursed at the reality of that statement. He wanted desperately to deny it and he couldn’t. She was everything to him.
There was nothing about her he would change. He loved the way she looked at him as if he were crazy. The way she hummed quietly to herself while she dusted her shelves. The way she always made sure to split her food with him.
The way she felt in his arms as she came for him, and the sound of her breathless voice as she said his name while in the throes of her orgasms.
Hell, he even liked the way she hogged the covers.
"Oh, f**k this," he snarled. He wasn’t going to just let her go. He loved her and he wasn’t going to just up and leave. Not without a fight and not without at least telling her.
He turned and headed back toward the house.
"Vane! Come quick."
He paused at Kyrian’s deep voice. At the urgency he heard in the former Dark-Hunter’s tone.
Flashing back to the house, Vane materialized in the foyer to find Kyrian there with his daughter and Tabitha. Bride was nowhere to be seen.
A bad feeling consumed him. "Where’s Bride?"
"The demon took her," Tabitha said.
The animal inside him snapped and snarled with vengeance. He reached out and found nothing in the air. No scent, no trace.
It didn’t matter. Alastor had taken his mate.
Vane would find her, and when he did, there would be one less demon in the universe. Bride wanted to scream, but couldn’t. Her vocal cords seemed to be paralyzed.
Sight came back to her so suddenly that it hurt her eyes.
She blinked to find herself inside what appeared to be an old cabin or house of some sort. It was long and narrow with an old-fashioned fire blazing out in the open with no fireplace or real confinement.
"Don’t be afraid," the demon said, releasing her.
He stepped around her. Instead of the good-looking blond he had been earlier, he was now hideous. His skin was a deep, dark purple shade and he had flaming red hair and eyes.
His feet were twisted and looked more like overgrown clubs. He limped as he walked toward the door and opened it.
"Bryani!" he called out, then he looked back at her and sniffed like an animal. His large teeth were too big for his mouth, and when he spoke he lisped. "No one is going to hurt you, bobbin."
Bride was getting seriously tired of people telling her that. "Where am I?"
He wiped at his nose. "Don’t worry yourself, bobbin. You’re safe here."
"I was safe where I was." Sort of, anyway.
What kind of screwed-up delusion was this? If she was going to lose her mind, she much preferred losing it with Vane than with an ugly monster thing who could barely speak.
The demon stepped back to make way for a beautiful woman who reminded Bride of a young Grace Kelly, only this woman had three vicious scars on her face and neck that made a mockery of Tabitha’s.
Underneath the scars, the woman bore a red tattoo very similar in design to Vane’s. She looked to be no older than her mid-twenties and yet the woman carried herself with the bearing of a regal queen. She entered the room as if she owned it and dared anyone to question her authority.
Blond braids were wrapped around her head in an elegant design that was held in place by a gold circlet decorated with what appeared to be very large diamonds, rubies, and sapphires.
Bride frowned at the woman’s clothes. She wore what appeared to be something out of an episode of Xena. It was gold body armor that covered her torso, but left her arms bare, except for gold arm- and wristbands. Her vibrant red and dark green plaid skirt was voluminous and many-layered.
Most impressive, the woman had a sword, bow, and quiver of arrows strapped to her back.
Oh yeah, Bride was definitely nuts, she decided. Her mind had snapped completely. Maybe she was even dead.
Right now, she was game for just about any explanation.
Grace Kelly, or Bryani as the demon had called her, scrutinized Bride. "Has he hurt you, child?"
Bride looked at the demon. "Define ‘hurt’? I mean, I didn’t really want to be brought here, wherever here is."
"Not Alastor," Bryani snapped in an accent unlike anything Bride had ever heard. "The other one. The bastard wolf. Did he hurt you?"
Bride was twice as confused. "You mean my pet wolf or my boyfriend who thinks he’s a wolf?"
Bryani grabbed her hand and held it up to her face. "The one whose hand matches yours. Did he rape you?"
"No," Bride said emphatically as she wrested her arm from the woman’s grasp. "He didn’t do anything."
Bryani let out a relieved breath, then nodded at the demon. "You got to her in time. Thank you, Alastor."
The demon inclined his head to Bryani. "We are done now." He vanished instantly and left them alone.
Bryani didn’t seem the least bit concerned by the oddity of that action.
She held her hand out to Bride. "Come, child. I would have you at the hall where we can all protect you while you bear the mating mark."
Her first instinct was to pull away, but Bride forced herself to take the woman’s hand. What the hell? She’d already lost her mind. The least she could do was see where this psychotic episode was going to take her.
Hopefully it would be someplace nicer and warmer than this spartan room. Bride laughed at the thought. "Have you ever seen that episode of Buffy where Sarah Michelle Gellar flashes between the insane asylum and her life in Sunnydale as the Slayer?"
Bryani cocked her head. "What is Buffy? Is she a Lykos too or another kind of Katagaria?"
Bride was a bit miffed that her conjured escort had no idea who Buffy was. "Never mind. Obviously this is my Sunnydale version and I’ll be waking up real soon in my padded cell."
Bryani released her as they left the room behind.
Bride followed her out of the hut only to find herself in the middle of what appeared to be a green valley with mountains rising up around them. It was lovely, albeit rather cold for her taste.
How she had gotten here, she had no idea. This wasn’t New Orleans, which was where she’d been five minutes ago.
Even odder, everyone around her was dressed in ancient clothing and spoke a language she couldn’t even begin to understand.
And every person near them paused to stare as they walked past. Silence settled instantly. Eerily. The women at the makeshift well. Those who were carrying baskets and chatting. Even the children stopped playing.
But it was the men who captured Bride’s attention, especially since every one of them stopped and turned to stare at her as if she were their target or prey.
She realized that with the exception of the demon, every person in this village was literally a gorgeous, stunning specimen of human physiology. This was definitely a dream or delusion of some kind.
Not even Chippendales had this much bodacious muscle. And never mind the women.
They were the epitome of why Bride refused to buy fashion magazines. If she didn’t know better, she’d think she’d fallen down the rabbit hole of Hollywood extras.
Bride followed Bryani into a large wooden building that reminded her of something out of a low-budget King Arthur movie. Made of wattle and daub, it was spartan inside except for the large fire blazing in the center of the hall, surrounded by long tables and wooden benches. Something that looked like dried weeds and herbs were scattered over the earthen floor.
As soon as Bride entered, she found herself surrounded by gorgeous men, some of whom actually sniffed her.
"Excuse me?" she said, brushing them away. "This is my fantasy and I’d rather you not do that."
A tall blond man cocked his head in a way that reminded her of a canine. He directed a cutting glare at Bryani. "Why would you bring a Katagari whore here?"
Bryani pulled Bride away from the men and put herself between them. "She is not a whore. She’s a terrified human female who doesn’t understand what has happened to her. She thinks herself mad."
The blond man laughed. "I think we should send her back to her mate the way the Katagaria send our mates back to us." He took a step toward them.
Bryani pulled the sword off her back and angled it at him. "Don’t make me slay you, Arnulf. I brought her here for protection."
"Then you made a mistake."
Bryani was aghast. "We are human."
"Aye," he agreed, sliding a dangerous smirk toward Bride. "And I quest for vengeance same as you, my princess. My mate lies dead from their abuse of her. I say we return it upon their females tenfold."
As the men started forward, a howl rang out.
Bride turned to see the door behind her open. An old man stepped through it. His hair was white and he wore a beard that reminded her of an old ZZ Top video. By his side was a large brown timber wolf.
Like Bryani, half of the old man’s face was covered with an eerie green tattoo.
"What goes here?"
"We beseech moral restitution," Arnulf said. "Your daughter has brought a Katagari mate into our pack. We want her."
The old man raked a censoring gaze over Bride, then looked to Bryani.
"I had to, Father," Bryani said as she lowered her sword. "There was no other way."
The old man ordered the others to leave them.
The men did so reluctantly. But before they left, some howled like animals. Others looked back with expressions that promised they intended to renew this discussion.
For the first time, Bride was scared. Something wasn’t right about this "fantasy."
If she didn’t know better, she’d swear it was real. But it couldn’t be.
Once they were alone, the old man led them toward the farthest table in the room; it stood high on a dais. Two chairs that looked like large, hand-carved thrones capped with wolfheads stood behind the table. "What are you thinking, Bry?" he asked her escort.
"I wanted to protect her, Father. Is that not what a Sentinel does? Are we not to protect the world from the Katagaria animals?"
He looked aggravated by her words. "But she is mated to one."
"They have not joined themselves. She is only marked. If we keep her here until the mark is gone, then she will be free of him."
The old man shook his head while his wolf came over to sniff at Bride.
Bride stared at it, wondering if it would stay a wolf or become something else.
"Why not just kill her mate?" the old man asked.
Bryani looked away.
The old man let out a tired breath. "I told you to kill them centuries ago, daughter."
Anger flared in her eyes. "I tried to kill him, remember? He grew too strong."
The old man made a disgusted sound in the back of his throat. "She is yours to guard. I will rally the others, and this time when he comes to us, we will finish what was started."
Bryani nodded, then motioned for Bride to follow her. She led her past the thrones, down a narrow corridor in back that led to a set of rooms off the hall.
The place was spartan for the most part, but it did have some interesting comforts, such as a large, padded bed and furs, and twenty-first-century novels.
Bride picked up Kinley MacGregor’s A Dark Champion and laughed. Oh yeah, good dream here. "Could you please conjure me a Coke?" she asked Bryani. "I’m feeling the need for one."
"Nay, I cannot. That would require my going forward in time to retrieve one and my powers for that were taken from me." Her tone was angry and bitter. "It is why I had to conjure the demon to fetch you."
"Who took your powers?"
"My mate." Bryani spat the words. "He stole much from me, but have no fear. His son will not violate you. I will see to it."
Bride returned the book to the small stack on the nightstand. "You know, none of that makes a bit of sense to me."
Bryani put her hands on her h*ps as she faced her. "Then how about this?
The so-called man who took you, Vane, is a wolf I was forced against my will to give birth to over four hundred years ago. And if I could, I would kill him for you."
Bryani ignored her as she explained herself. "Like many women, when I was young, I was stupid. On my first venture out with my Sentinel patrol to hunt the Katagaria wolves, I was captured by our enemies, who thought it would be great fun to take turns raping me."
Bride felt sick from hearing Bryani’s story. A wave of sympathetic ache consumed her.