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Mona Lisa Awakening

Mona Lisa AwakeningGolden Leaf Award winner, Paranormal
Award of Excellence winner
Write Touch Readers’ Award winner
PRISM Award 2nd Place winner
National Readers Choice Award double finalist
Golden Quill Awards double finalist
Publisher: Berkley Trade
ISBN-10: 0425211606
ISBN-13: 978-0425211601
Release Date: September 5, 2006
Erotic Paranormal
Monére, Children of the Moon Series#1

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From the time she was an orphan child, Mona Lisa knew she was different—but she never knew how different until a man of otherworldly beauty arrived during her night shift in the ER. Gryphon is hurting and hunted…and he attracts her as no man ever has before. He is a Monère, one of the children of the moon—and what’s more, so is she…

Long exiled from the moon, the men of the Monère serve—and mate—with imperious Queens, who can channel the rays of their far-off homeland. Gryphon believes that Mona Lisa is a Queen—perhaps the first of Mixed Blood ever known. But her introduction to the nighttime court of the Monère, simmering with intrigue, casual lust, and calculated cruelty, is far from smooth. The other Queens are infuriated by her potential powers, and they are all menaced by a group of rogue males who have broken away from the women’s sway. Even as she battles threats from within and without, Mona Lisa is determined to discover who she is, and to explore the limits of her growing power—and her secret desires…

Reviews

“Fans of Laurell K. Hamilton will love Sunny and Mona Lisa Awakening.”
— Lori Foster, New York Times bestselling author of Causing Havoc

Mona Lisa Awakening is a terrific debut sure to appeal to fans of Anne Bishop or Laurell K. Hamilton – complete with yummy preternatural men…Great read.
— Patricia Briggs, NYT bestselling author of Blood Bound

“Darkly erotic. Wickedly clever and very original.”
— Bertrice Small, NYT bestselling author of Forbidden Pleasures

Sunny’s sizzling debut…much to like in this intrigue-filled erotic paranormal… Mona Lisa shares many traits with Laurell K. Hamilton’s heroines, including having lots of hot sex for good causes.”
— Publishers Weekly

“Mona Lisa Awakening is a touching, magical tale which puts this reviewer in mind of some of the greatest fairy and fantasy tales. The prose is lyrical, nearly poetic, and the world-building is performed in such a gradual and almost effortless way that the reader is soon drawn into the truths of the story before realizing that it’s fiction. The characters are appealing and well-drawn, and the background plot is compelling. Indeed, I found the author’s world-building skills excellent. This is the first of two stories and I can only hope that this will become a long-standing series. I know I have found a story suitable to be added to my keeper shelf of rereads.”
— Annie, The Romance Studio, 5 Hearts

“Doctor wife of author Da Chen tosses hat in the literary ring with steamy dark fantasy…unforgettable debut novel.”
Woodstock Times

“Oh my! What a fabulous story!…highly recommend
Coffee Time Romance, 5 Cups

MONA LISA AWAKENING is a fascinating start to this sizzling hot new series. Sunny is to be commended for her willingness to take chances. MONA LISA AWAKENING has a depth not always seen in books as she addresses some very stark issues in the context of a sexy and very creative paranormal tale.”
— Debbie, CK2S Kwips and Kritiques, 5 clovers

“Sunny takes command of MONA LISA AWAKENING in the first few sentences and the reader is at her mercy, immersed in the moonlight that glows as brightly as any flame throughout this new world. Add the fierceness and passions of the Monere warriors, and it will simply keep you humming all the way until the end. What a lovely way to burn. Sunny is able to spark your imagination to life in a true fairytale of a book.”
— Barb, TwoLips Reviews, 5 Kisses, Recommended Read


Excerpt

Chapter 1

Sickness and death was in the air—women crying, men cursing, unwashed bodies. The stink of suffering and anguish. It was a dwelling I’d deliberately chosen and placed myself within. A dwelling of desperate need that lured me to its bosom with the stench of fear and pain.

I was an ER nurse on the lonely island of Manhattan. Sickness called to me. Darkness and light lay within me. I’d always known it, sensed it…a dormant force that lay quiescent along with the latent ability to heal, untapped as yet—to my relief, to my despair. Waiting. Until then, sickness called to me and lured me with its invisible tendrils of aches and pain.

Around me in the emergency room of St. Vincent’s Hospital, in the heart of Greenwich Village, the hustle and bustle had already begun. In bed one, a young woman’s face was covered with blood, lacerated from temple to chin—a dear price for a fragile whore to pay walking the dark alleys of the street. Strapped down in bed two was a disheveled man stinking of alcohol, thrashing in delirium and withdrawal. In bed three, a child screeched with pain, tugging the tender cords of my heart. It was a cry I could not ignore.

I rushed over to bed three, to find Dr. Peter Thompson there. He was one of the good interns just starting his ER rotation, humble and grateful for help, unlike those jerk know-it-alls. Even better, he had a girlfriend and was faithful, not one of the grabbers.

“Oh, good. You’re here, Lisa,” Peter said, flashing me a smile of relief. “You’re great with kids. Can you help me with this?”

“What have we here?” I asked.

A young boy of about six with soft brown hair and lots of freckles was curled up into a tight ball, his thin arms holding his belly, tears wetting his face and shirt as he wailed with pain. His mother, a young brunette, gripped the stretcher rails with white knuckles and chewed her lower lip helplessly

“Kurt was fine until an hour ago when he said his stomach hurt,” the mother said, sizing me up, uncertainty in her brown eyes.

I knew that look. Why am I talking to you and not the doctor? it said.

It was entirely my fault. I’ve always looked younger than my age of twenty-one. No complaint here, but this was the medical profession. Credentials on the wall and silver in your hair went a long way with patients. But one thing I’ve learned: Don’t judge their judgment. Just do what you have to do.

“Kurt,” I said, stroking the child’s damp forehead. “Is that your name, honey?”

At my touch, Kurt opened his eyes. His big, brown, trusting eyes studied mine, unknowingly opening the window of his soul to me. Our souls bonded and he was mine. Calmness came over the boy’s face and his crying stopped.

“Now can you show me where it hurts, Kurt?”

His eyes fixed on me with wonderment and curiosity, Kurt uncurled his arms and pointed to a spot above his belly button. “It hurts here,” he said in a clear, high voice.

I touched the spot.

Kurt tensed, but didn’t resist. “It hurts when you touch it,” he said, tears spiking his long lashes.

“I’ll be very gentle,” I promised, and placed the heart of my palm over his abdomen.

The power within me stirred, coming to the fore from the depths within, taking over me entirely as if I was merely a vehicle through which it channeled itself into the world. When the boy opened the window of his soul, it was really the eye of my power that gazed through my lenses and reached out to the boy. It came forward at the call of pain, not at the urging of my will—a cycle of energy that stirred from its root within me but could only be completed by the beckoning of another.

My hand tingled with warmth as I sensed the radiation of heat rising from my core.

Kurt’s eyes widened. “Awesome. It doesn’t hurt anymore, Mommy!”

“I’m going to leave you to Dr. Peter. He’s a very good doctor and he’ll make sure your tummyache doesn’t come back again.” I winked at Kurt and he winked back.

I made my way to the staff bathroom and locked myself inside, resting on the toilet lid. That power of mine was a curse and a blessing all in one. One would think that to be equipped with such a thing would double, if not triple my own energy. But no, it always left me feeling drained and exhausted afterward. And I used it to merely diagnose ailment. The power to heal hadn’t come to me yet. I wondered if it ever would.

Minutes later, recovered, my composure regained, I shuffled back to the madhouse. Peter dropped down beside me as I made a pretense of charting down some notes. A fine tremor shook my hands. I set the pen down carefully.

“Thanks, Lisa,” Peter said as he took off his glasses and cleaned them with a coat corner. “I couldn’t have examined that kid without you. The mother was useless.” He peered sharply at me. “What’s with that touch of yours? That moment? I sensed something. Are you one of those?”

“Those what?” I gave him a look.

“Those secret healers?” he whispered.

“I wish. That moment that you sensed has a name.”

“What is it?”

“It’s called compassion, doctor.”

Peter laughed. “Right. Well, I’m going to order a CBC, Chem-20, urinalysis, and a quick strep. What do you think?”

“Don’t forget an abdominal X-ray, flat and upright.” That would pick up the stuck quarter that was troubling little Kurt.

“You know, you have incredible instincts. You picked up that appendicitis last week that I almost missed and there was that other thing you…”

“That also has a name. Experience.”

He snorted. “Yeah, eleven long months of experience, you old hag, you.”

At this point, a grabber would have reached out his paw, going for one of the usual localities, but not this one. “You’d make a great doctor, I bet.”

“Are you trying to get rid of me?”

“Do I sound like it? You should think about going to medical school. Really.” He walked away, flagging the orders in the chart.

He did have a nice butt, now that I was looking at it. Too bad there wasn’t any desire in me to do more than appreciate the view.

Medical school. Ha! Not for me, not in this life. Couldn’t afford it. The two years of nursing school had been a miracle already, the full scholarship and living stipend a true blessing. It had brought to fruition my childhood dream, a calling almost, to be near the sick and infirmed, the pained, the suffering.

The money also freed me from the confinement of my foster home, memories that I’d rather leave behind, buried and untouched. I still remember those first heady days of independence, free like a young bird just untangled from its nest, testing its wings, breathing fresh air. An exhale after a long, long inhale.

My thoughts of the past were suddenly disturbed by a tangible force. A force ringing in the air, penetrating through the throngs crowding the wards, through the chatter, the shouts, the din. Dense in the space, filtering past the generic furnishings, the white partitioning curtains. Reaching for me like an invisible arrow seeking its targeted prey.

I looked up into the path of that oncoming force and saw the air ripple like an invisible tidal wave rolling over all obstacles, big or small, pushing forward and burying me in its deluge.

I stood, stunned and dazzled by the invasion, trembling as I was hit by the seeking force. It was as if I had been electrocuted, my whole body tingling. The fine hair all over my body stood up on end. I shivered, feeling weakened and dizzy, and leaned on my desk.

God! What the hell was that?

The invisible grip suddenly softened and my body relaxed as if a burden had lifted from my chest. But before I could breathe once more, the force turned naughty. It explored me, touched me like a lover’s invisible fingers, caressing me, stirring foreign urges and feelings within me that I had never felt before. My body softened, grew moist and heated. I shivered. Then I smelled him. Blood.

My nostrils flared. I turned my head, tracking the scent, and saw him, the source. Bed Eight.

He was sitting alone on the stretcher all the way across the room, his blue eyes gazing intently at me. His long hair, darker than midnight, fell in soft waves to brush his shoulder. He had skin the color of ivory, luminescent and pure like the full moon against the ink-black sky, and a face that had the power to make his maker weep with joy or jealousy. An angel fallen from the sky. No, I thought, looking into predatory eyes as dark and endless as the night. Not fallen…kicked out.

The sight of him left me breathless. I watched as his nostrils flared, as he deliberately filled his lungs with air and knew as surely as I had smelled his blood that he was taking in my scent, smelling my arousal. His lashes dipped down then fanned back up like the graceful sweep of a butterfly’s wings. The power and heat that had come from his eyes intensified the caressing effects on me, penetrating through my outer self, pulling tautly at my core, calling up my own force to the fore in response. Our energies met and meshed. My nipples hardened to stone, my inner sheath quivered, and I wanted to go to him. Go to him and pull him to me.

The air crackled with such vibrancy that I was sure others had to see it. But the nurses were busy with their needles and notes, and the doctors were busily minding their patients.

The pull between us tightened like a rope. Desperately I fought that pull the only way I knew, wave against wave, tide against tide. I intensified my force, marshaling up my last ounce, countering it. The air between us practically sparked. Still, it took every ounce of my control to just sit there and not go to him. Perspiration sheened my skin and my trembling grew harsher.

I’d never felt anything like this before in my life. Was he like me? Was he one of my kind, whatever that may be? Or was he an enemy? One thing, though, I knew for certain. He was a bastard. My eyes narrowed in anger. How dare he try to use his powers on me.

I stalked over to where he sat on the stretcher, his legs dangling over the side, and stopped inches away from him. “Stop it!” I snarled.

His eyes widened. “It is not I who is doing it.” His deep, melodic voice was as beautiful as the rest of him. Unfair.

“Don’t lie to me!” I hissed.

“I would not dare.”

“Just…just stop it!”

He gave a Gaelic shrug, a fluid ripple of shoulder and chest, a simple movement that was not at all simple, for it touched something inside me like a literal caress, causing me to shudder and drop down my gaze to take note of the bulge that had risen between his legs. His eyes closed and still I felt the pull, undiminished. Confused, I suddenly noticed the careful stiffness with which he held himself, the whiteness of his knuckles as he clenched the metal frame of the stretcher, the dampness of his brow. He seemed to be fighting the attraction as much as I.

“You feel it, too,” I said, frowning.

“Yes.” His blue eyes flew open and speared mine with sudden intensity. “Where are your guards? I sense no one here other than you and I.”

“Guards?”

He frowned. “Surely you are…” Carefully, slowly, he reached out one hand, stopping just short of touching me, and stroked above the bare skin of my forearm. His force, though invisible and without contact, was palpable just above my skin. I felt his stroke as surely as if he had caressed me.

“You feel like a Queen,” he murmured.

I stepped back, wondering if he was one of those madmen who frequently found their way to St. Vincent’s, dehydrated, famished, and highly delirious. And yet there was something very different about him.

“What are you talking about?” I demanded sharply.

A plump tech bustled up, a bright smile creasing her matronly face. It was Sally, the ward clerk who took the vital signs of all the new patients, helping lighten the nurses’ loads. “My, my, aren’t you the pretty boy,” Sally murmured, glancing down at his data sheet. “David Michaels. Just what I needed to brighten my night.”

He smiled, a lethal combination of teeth and dimples.

She smiled back. “I’ll have his vitals for you in a sec, Lisa.” In so saying, she reached out to take his pulse.

It registered then—what should have registered immediately had I not been so stunned by his beauty and my body’s reaction to him. His heartbeat. His very, very slow heartbeat. Not more than thirty beats per minute. Far below the normal human rate of sixty and above. My own heart sped up from its usual sluggish fifty, hitting the sixty mark when Sally frowned and looked up.

He captured her gaze with his eyes and I felt then the gentle flow of his power. Shit. He really hadn’t been using it before now. What then was this peculiar, strong attraction between us?

Sally’s frown lines smoothed away like unrippled water. “A pulse of sixty and a blood pressure of 120 over 70.” She jotted down the numbers on his sheet, not seeming to notice the blood pressure cuff that lay unused beside her. She hadn’t touched it.

I swallowed. “Thank you, Sally.”

“No problem. He’s all yours.” She winked and bustled off to the next patient.

After Sally left, I turned to David Michaels, or whatever his name really was, with a stern look on my face. “You took control of her mind just now, didn’t you? She didn’t even measure your blood pressure.”

He leaned back on his pillow, his eyes closed, looking even paler than before, if that was possible, and laughed feebly. “Goddess, I can’t believe that so simple a task exhausted me…”

“What are you?” I whispered and pulled the privacy curtains tight around us.

His dark lashes fluttered up. “Never mind who I am, who are you?” he asked, shifting forward. The movement caused him to wince and his hand moved to cover his belly.

“You’re injured.” With only a slight tremor, I lifted his shirt. It was an inch-long gash. One drop of red blood gleamed like scarlet against the pearl white of his skin, alluring, irresistible. At the sight of his blood, something clicked open in me that I hadn’t known existed. As if in a dream, I watched my finger dip down and scoop up that tempting crimson pearl onto my fingertip. Watched him shudder as I touched him. Watched him shudder again as I licked the blood off my fingertip and tasted him.

It was sweet, so sweet, though tainted by an odd metallic tang.

What was he, this creature before me? And what had injured him?

Gently, I covered his wound with my palm. The center of my hand tingled and my hand strummed. My senses seeped deep down below his skin, revealing to me clearly the torn passage through his tissues.

“You were stabbed. With a stiletto. And I sense something more. There is a…poison within you.”

“Poison.” One corner of his lush mouth lifted in bitter wryness. “An accurate labeling. A blade dipped in liquid silver. Now that the liquid poison is within me, it will spread slowly. Already it weakens me greatly.”

“Who stabbed you?”

“My Queen, Mona Sera.”

“Of course, your queen,” I said, wondering once again if he was mad. “Is she visiting from a foreign country? And why did she stab you?”

“I was leaving her,” he said simply, “and this was her parting gift. Usually a wound like this would heal within several hours, but she punished me by using a silver blade.”

“Why is silver bad?”

“Because the inherent quality of silver runs afoul with our bodies, causing us to then heal like humans. Slowly.”

Like humans.

“Sure. So you’re not human.”

He flashed me a curious look. “Of course not.”

“Then what are you?”

“Do you truly not know?”

“Why should I know?”

“Because you are as I am.”

I swallowed. “Which is…”

“Monère. The children of the moon.”

“Of course,” I soothed. “Children of the moon.” This guy was a total wacko.

“I am not mad, as you think.” Frowning, he looked deep into me, probing with the dagger of his power so that I sensed again that arcing heat from before.

“Ah, that explains it,” he breathed, wonder in his eyes. “You are a Mixed Blood.”

“Mixed Blood?”

“Yes. A small part of you is human.”

“A small part?”

“A quarter, I believe.”

“I’m totally human as far as I’m concerned—a head, four limbs, two eyes…” I said, backing away.

“No, don’t go,” he said, reaching out his hand to me. “There is even more. You are a Queen.”

“A queen! That’s a bunch of crock. I’m not even a beauty queen in Queens. I’m just a nurse.”

“No, you don’t understand. You have aphidy, the unique halo of fragrance inherent only in a Queen. All Monère men are drawn to you because of this.”

“Talk about natural chemistry. And here I thought it was my dripping charm and striking beauty that attracted men to me,” I said sarcastically.

“All things you may doubt, but you must believe you are in danger now. I am being hunted by Mona Sera’s men. They are tracking me by my blood scent. And if they find me, they will find you. Are you protected?”

“What do mean ‘protected’? I protect myself.”

“No guards?”

I shook my head.

A genuinely pained expression swept across his face and I found my heart yielding to his deep concern. Although what he claimed was impossible, a part of me responded to his words. Somewhere deep within me, they resonated with rightness. And there was no denying his unusual power, so like mine. I started to believe him.

“Do you have anybody else like…” he waved his hand, searching for words, “…like you?”

“No,” I whispered. “You’re the first I’ve ever met.”

“Sweet Mother Moon.” His head sank down. His perfect shoulders slumped. He laughed without humor. “What am I going to do with you?” The last was whispered as if to himself. He sounded weak, defeated, and that bothered me. A lot.

“Will you recover with time?”

He shook his head. “Not without the antidote.”

“What is the antidote?”

“I was hoping you could possibly tell me,” he said with that bitter, wry smile. “But, of course, that would be too much to hope for. Some claim there is no antidote, but others whisper that only Queens have it. And so I am fleeing to the nearest Lady of Light, the nearest Queen, to beg mercy and seek aid.”

“You have more than one Queen?”

“Each territory is ruled by a Queen,” Gryphon answered. “And the land is divided into many territories.”

He said that I was a Queen, but I couldn’t be a true one or I would be able to help him.

“I’m sorry,” I said, deep regret in my words. “I would give you the antidote if I had it.”

“Would you really?” he asked with a little smile. “A rogue male injured by his own Queen’s hand? How curious. And yet I believe you really would.”

“Why did your Queen poison you? Why did you leave?”

He exhaled, sighed. “Mona Sera is among one of our worst queens. Those of us she takes in, no other Queen would have. Twenty years with her and I was sick to my very soul. But though she is a bad Queen, she is wise in matters of business and has accumulated vast wealth and power in her dealings with humans. She forces us to sleep with humans in return for concessions she desires in business. Humans are drawn to us by our uncommon beauty, even to the least of us. But we derive no pleasure in return. We are two different species. Our skin does not fill with light when we are with one of them.”

Fill with light? What was this light thing, I wondered.

“Our hearts are left with emptiness,” he continued. “Mona Sera created a caste of comfort women and men for these outside duties.”

“Were you one of them?” I asked quietly.

“Yes,” he said, shame lacing his voice. “I was one of her comfort men. This last time she sent out my half sister, Sonia, our beloved midwife, as punishment for her recent rebelliousness against this practice. These matings, though joyless and loveless, do bear fruit at times.”

“Like me.”

“Yes,” he nodded, “and it is Sonia’s duty to deal with such consequences. She delivers the babes and abandons them to the humans to keep the purity of our line. She has done so dutifully until her daughter’s recent miscarriage from one of these unfortunate unions with humans. Since then, Sonia could no longer look upon the practice of abandonment with detachment and petitioned the Queen to resign from such a task. As punishment, Mona Sera sent Sonia out to sleep with a human male notorious for his twisted enjoyment of sex. Sonia returned with bloody lashes, cuts and bruises upon her. I hunted the bastard down and killed him. I couldn’t stand for anyone to treat my sister so. The dead man was the son of a Louisiana billionaire senator, Mona Sera’s man in the human capitol of Washington, D.C. Instead of punishing me, Mona Sera had Sonia raped before my eyes by one of our most ferocious warriors, Amber. That broke me,” he said. “The tyranny, the cruelty, the malice. I denounced Mona Sera in front of our people and severed all my allegiance to her. It was something that had never been done before. Mona Sera became enraged. She had her guards bind me to the whipping post. But instead of killing me quickly, she wanted me to suffer a lingering, painful death, so she plunged her silver-poisoned dagger into my belly. Just before dawn, one of the comfort women cut me loose and I fled.”

“What is your real name?”

“My true name is Gryphon. What is your name?”

“Mona Lisa,” I heard myself say, and the name felt strange. Without conscious thought, I had given him my full name, the name etched on the back of the cross that I had worn as an infant when they found me—my most cherished possession, the only tangible tie to my mother.

“It is my honor and pleasure to meet you.” Gryphon bowed with a flourish, the gesture natural and graceful, until he winced.

“Stop that. You’ll aggravate your wound.”

“As you wish, Mona Lisa.” He said my name like a caress and the lilting utterance of my birth name from his beautiful lips touched a part of me, an empty part of me that I had not known existed until now.

“You must seal this wound with something not permeable to air,” Gryphon said, “or they shall continue to track me easily through my blood-spore scent.”

“A doctor should see…”

“I cannot wait for a doctor. I must leave quickly. Help me, please.”

How I wished I could heal him. Never before had I felt the lack of my untapped ability more keenly. “I’ll get the liquid bandage,” I said.

A swipe of liquid, a gust of paraffin spray and the wound was sealed. After it dried, I applied Steri-Strips. Over it, I applied a clear plastic adhesive dressing. The sharp smell of his blood dissipated. Disappeared.

“My thanks, Lady,” Gryphon said. For the first time, I felt him hesitate. “I know not if you would be better served with me, or alone here, unprotected. I am injured, weak, and hunted, and can only offer you poor protection. In truth, my chances of survival are quite dismal.”

“Will the Queen you are fleeing to help you?”

“I do not know.” Again that graceful shrug. “She is not so terrible as Mona Sera. I do not believe any of men have ever fled her.” He looked at me, tired, weak, clearly torn over what to do, and it gratified some tiny part of me that he could worry so about my safety when his own condition was so clearly desperate.

After a long, contemplative moment, he finally stood. He was a tall man, six feet. Four inches taller than me. “It will be in your best interest if I leave you now. The men hunting me perhaps may not come into this place of healing. It is their habit to avoid public domains such as this. But if they should come upon you, now or some day in the future, do not fight them, no matter what they do. They are full-blooded warriors, stronger and faster than you. Fear not, you will be drawn to them in the same manner as you are drawn to me,” he said gently. “Afterward, claim the High Council’s right of protection and demand that they take you to Bennington, Minnesota, where the Council’s Court resides. The men shall have no other choice then but to take you there if they desire to live.”

“Why could I not go to Mona Sera?” I asked.

“That you wish to avoid above all else,” Gryphon said adamantly. “If Mona Sera detects the intimate scent of her men upon you, she will slay you all. She will kill you because she will see you as attempting to take her territory, her men. She will destroy the men who dare touch you because she will view it as betrayal against herself, a rejection. And as you can see,” he grimaced and gestured to himself, “the lady does not take rejection well. If, in the unlikely event the men manage to constrain themselves, do what you can to seduce one or two—all would be best—and make them yours. Do not, at any cost, allow them to take you to Mona Sera. Competition or challenge by another Queen she will not tolerate.”

Gryphon bowed in farewell and swept open the privacy curtain.

He was going! In that short moment, I felt the room empty out, felt my heart sink with the rock of disappointment. My senses, my power, beyond my control, reached out for him. “Wait,” I blurted out.

He stopped, obedience to a Queen deeply ingrained.

“It is imperative now for both our safety that I leave quickly,” Gryphon said softly, regretfully.

It required no further thought. I was committed. A part of me that I could not deny knew what it wanted. I reached into my pocket and pressed my keys into his hand. “Go to my apartment. Wait for me there. I live two blocks away at 156 West 11th Street, apartment 7-B. I will be there in an hour when my shift ends.”

He looked at me, uncomprehendingly, dazed by the all too brief, pleasurable touch of my hand against his.

“Do you know what you are offering me?” he asked.

“No. I do not know and I do not care. I only know I wish to help you.”

“I cannot draw you into my plight. It is not safe…”

“It is my wish,” I interrupted, my voice firm. “And it is my command.”

He struggled against the need to obey. “It is not wise…”

“Please.” I begged him with my eyes, with everything in me.

“Ah, little one,” Gryphon sighed, his shoulders slumping in defeat, succumbing to my plea. He clutched the keys tightly in his fist. “You fight most unfairly with your eyes.” He bowed in acquiescence, a wry smile curving those beautiful lips. “As my Queen commands.”

Chapter 2

Darkness welcomed me. Cold wind licked across my skin, soothing me. The stars winked and the waxing moon, three-quarters full, beamed benevolently down, its invigorating rays caressing my face. I walked quickly down the street, alert, watching, searching with that extra sense. There was no one. No one else out there like me. They had either come and gone, or they had not yet come.

With Gryphon’s blood scent gone, there was no way to detect if he had passed this way. My heart clenched as I wondered if he had. Passed this way, that is. Perhaps he had changed his mind and fled. The thought of him weak and alone out there quickened my steps. I entered the apartment, a modest brick building, and passed by the elevator—it would be too slow. I walked to the stairwell and took the steps six at a time in that effortless strength that had always seemed a part of me, bounding up the seven flights of stairs in less than a minute. I stood before my door, hesitating. Then I heard it, that wonderfully slow heartbeat.

“It’s me,” I whispered and the door opened.

I slipped inside. The locks clicked loudly into place in the fluid silence and Gryphon stepped back quickly, careful not to touch me. The room was dark, no lights, but I saw him clearly. He was more beautiful than any man had a right to be. The alabaster white of his skin and deep red of those full lips were a siren’s call that I had no desire to resist, and his sad, blue eyes had a quiet allure I could not deny. He smelled like the night—a faint scent of trees, wind, and earth. He smelled like home.

Deliberately I breathed him in, taking the scent of him deep inside of me with a fierce, possessive joy. This was what I had been waiting over twenty long, parched years for. A messenger from my world, an initiator into my real life. This was what had been vitally missing in the few men that I had taken into my body. None that I had been intimate with was of my chemistry, my kind. I hadn’t known what was wrong with them, with me, until that moment when I had sensed Gryphon with primitive recognition in that sterile emergency room. Mate. Now he was here, in my apartment, waiting for me in my home.

Some strange malady possessed me. A bold, aggressive spirit that I had not known was within me came to the fore and controlled my next actions, and I succumbed to it because my body wanted him, and my heart desired him, too.

Gryphon stepped back as I approached, a hand held up in strained beseechment.

“No.” He shook his head as I advanced, retreating until his back was pressed against the wall. “It would not be wise. Mona Sera…”

“You left her.”

“But she still thinks of me as hers, to punish, to destroy.”

“But you are not hers.” I stopped, my body a mere whisper away from his. “Don’t you want to be mine?” My hot breath wafted over the pale sweep of his neck just above where that slow pulse pounded. “Don’t you want me to be yours?”

He shuddered and closed his eyes. “More than I wish to live.”

My eyes glittered in triumph.

“But it would not serve you well.”

I pushed away from him and he breathed deeply in relief until I pulled loose the elastic band, spilling my black hair to fall in an inky wash down my back, around my shoulders, the front strands teasing over the gentle rise of my breasts.

Gryphon froze in a stillness so deep he seemed like carved marble.

“You told me to seduce the men and make them mine.” I kicked off my shoes.

He swallowed, his jaw clenched. “So that they would be bound to you and protect you.”

I bent over. Watching him watch me, I pulled up one pant leg, smoothed down a sock. Both of us watched it fall to the ground.

“There is no need to seduce me.” His voice was gratifyingly strained. “I would protect you to the best of my ability without claiming you.”

“I know.” I pushed down the other sock. He stared, seemingly fascinated at the simple sight of my bare feet.

“You already have the benefit without the risk.” He breathed heavily as I untied my pants and let them pool around my feet.

“If you take me, Mona Sera’s rage will be great,” he said hoarsely but there was a wild inconsistency between his spoken words and what his eyes bespoke. He wanted me.

“Rage great or little, she’ll still want to kill us both, you said.” Slowly, oh so slowly, I lifted my top up. His eyes fastened on the smooth roundness of my belly and his breathing grew harsher.

He tore his eyes away from the yearning indentation of my belly and forced himself to look up into my eyes. “Your chance of surviving her will be greater if we restrain ourselves.”

I ignored his noble plea and pulled off my top and dropped it to the floor. No bra. Gryphon clenched his fists, his eyes falling irresistibly down to my small, high, firm breasts. The peaks stiffened and pebbled beneath his gaze and I felt a wave of triumphant satisfaction wash over me at the knowledge that the sight of my body could affect a man so powerfully, bringing a flush to his face and a tremor to his hands. It was glorious.

“Our chances of survival with Mona Sera are small either way,” I whispered. “Don’t you want to live now, fully? I do. I want to touch you. Have you touch me in return. I want to know what it’s like to take a man into my body and truly enjoy it.” I closed my eyes. “My body weeps for you. I want you so much. I’ve never felt like this before, ever.”

“You wear silver,” Gryphon said with surprise.

It took me a moment to comprehend what he was saying, so caught up was I in what I was feeling. My hand flew up to the cross I wore always around my neck, covering it. “I’m sorry. Does it hurt you?”

“Why would it hurt me? It lies against your skin, not mine.”

“Does the holy cross bother you in any way?” I undid the clasp, walked away from him and dropped it into the drawer of a credenza set against the wall. Then I turned back to him. With the distance of the room between us, I felt that peculiar possession leave me and felt myself reverting back to my old self, filled with trepidation and self-consciousness, remembering once again that pain, not pleasure, was all that I usually harvested when I tangled men upon my bedding sheets.

“We can touch and look at the holy cross and enter churches without impunity. It is only the silver content that irritates us. Does not the feel of silver against your flesh disturb you in any manner?”

I shook my head in denial and crossed my arms over my bosom, coldly naked, coldly aware that I inhabited a body men would never consider voluptuous. That awareness prompted me to venture the conclusion: “Perhaps you are not pleased with my body.”

“No,” Gryphon said gravely. “Your body is most pleasing to me.”

But in the sudden chaos of my emotions, I could not discern the truth of his words. I did not believe him. The pull between us was there and strong, but that seemed to be instinctive, something he couldn’t control. His willful choice, however, was clear. He hadn’t moved. He did not want me.

“I’m sorry.” I laughed brittlely. “I don’t seem to be too good of a seductress. Men are attracted to me at first but afterward they say I’m cold. And I am. Frozen inside.”

“We are not attracted to humans,” he explained again, quietly, patiently. “We do not feel with them what we would feel with another of our kind.”

The irony was that I wasn’t sure whether he included me in with those humans. “I see. You’re right, of course, about us. We shouldn’t…” I inched toward the haven of my bedroom. “I shouldn’t have tried to force myself on you. I’m sorry.”

Gryphon crossed the ten feet between us with one giant leap, moving so quickly, he wasn’t even a blur. He was just suddenly standing there, an inch away from me. I gasped.

“I’ve changed my mind,” he said softly, perverse man that he was.

Anger flared up, burning away my self-consciousness in a wonderful wash of cleansing heat. “I don’t want your pity,” I hissed, backing away from him, retreating into my bedroom, silently cursing the vagaries of all men, no matter what their kind.

“Good. Neither do I desire yours,” he said shortly, pursuing me until the back of my knees bumped up against the mattress. My bedroom was so small there was no room for anything other than the bed and bureau and a few feet of walking space.

“The last emotion I feel for you is pity,” Gryphon said, his eyes soft and luminous. Unbuttoning his top two buttons, he tore his shirt over his head and let it drop to the ground. The sound of a zipper rasped loudly in the tense silence. Gracefully, he stepped out of his pants and stood before me, baring even more of himself to me than I had to him. I still had my underwear on. All that adorned him now was the white bandage on his left side. It did nothing to hide his glory.

I sank down onto the bed, my knees suddenly weak, marveling at the revelation of how lovely the male form could be. Clothes had hid him, masking him in commonness. Unclothed, his full beauty was revealed. He was divine.

I let my eyes wander freely over him, to and fro, over the excessive loveliness of his form. Allowed my visual senses to gorge without restraint on the sensual feast that he was after a lifelong famine. His chest rippled, more muscular than I could have imagined, more than that brief, tantalizing glimpse of his abdomen had hinted of when I had tended to his wound.

He was sleek, powerful, dangerous. A graceful, deadly predator with wide shoulders that tapered down to slim hips, powerful thighs, and thick calves roped with muscle. The only soft thing about him was his swathe of dark hair that fell in thick waves to tease his shoulders. My hands itched with the need to bury themselves in the long strands, to discover if they would be as soft and silky to the touch as they promised to be. His chest was smooth perfection, needing no other adornment but the twin areolas that were the color of warm chestnuts and would no doubt be as tasty. Crisp strands of hair arrowed down his belly to bush in a dark frame around his stiff rampant rod that rose up eagerly to meet me, an elegant melding of form with function. It brushed against the hard ridges of his abdomen, bobbing almost as if in greeting. A nervous giggle escaped me and I clamped a hand over my mouth.

“Do you not still want me, Mona Lisa?” he asked softly, his eyes glowing.

I licked my dry lips. His sizzling eyes followed the movement.

“I will always want you,” was my simple, truthful reply.

His eyes squeezed shut, then opened, blazing like burning sapphire. “You are more than I ever hoped to find, a Queen I never dared to even dream of. Will you not lay your hands upon me? Grant me permission to lay my hands upon you?”

He crawled with sinuous grace onto the bed, his knees resting on either side of me, sinking down onto the mattress, moving carefully as if afraid of frightening me. He needn’t have bothered. The extreme lust I was feeling for him, the desperate control I was exerting to not fall ravenously on him and devour him up was scaring me near to death as it was. I scooted back a few inches and fell onto my back as he straddled me and lowered himself down, his arms braced on either side of my head, stopping just short of contact.

“Do you not wish to touch me?” he asked.

“Yes.” Oh, sweet mother may I, yes! Taking a deep breath, I reached out a trembling hand and lay my fingers upon his chest. His skin was cool and smooth, silken skin over living rock. It felt so good it edged toward pain. We both groaned with the thrill of the contact. I snatched my hand back.

He rolled in a fluid motion onto his left side. I turned to face him. He reached out his right hand and I was comforted, reassured when I saw its fine trembling. He touched me lightly in the same spot that I had touched him, just above the heart. I gasped at the pleasure of it. Nothing more, just that light touch, and liquid desire trickled down my thigh. The scent of my arousal thickened and permeated the room. Gryphon’s nostrils flared and he breathed harshly, deeply, but did nothing more. When I could stand it no longer, I reached out and placed my entire palm flat against his chest. He shuddered and grated, “Yes. More.”

I stroked him, unable to stop myself, not wanting to, and his hand moved as mine did. A light stroke along the collarbones, a second hand to trace along the line of his shoulder, down the slope of his arm. I buried both hands in the cool falling silk of his hair that felt even better than I had imagined, and made a surprising discovery at his nape. “You have soft, downy…feathers?”

He hummed an acknowledgment, absorbed in the feel and play of my own hair.

Suddenly, I had to taste him. I whispered my need, “Gryphon,” and rose up on my knees and lowered my lips to his. Satin smoothness. Sweet coolness. And soft. So soft. I brushed my lips against his, enjoying the smooth glide of skin against silken skin until he moaned his need for more and parted his lips. My tongue slipped into the shockingly warm cavern of his mouth and I lapped along his teeth, traced the wet lining of his cheeks, and brushed against the roughness of his tongue. Gryphon groaned again, slid my underwear down my legs, and pulled me to him. The pleasure-pain of flesh against flesh, the meeting of my peaked nipples against the smooth hardness of his chest, the brush of his warm, swollen member against my soft belly spurred him into action. He rolled, pinning me beneath him, his lips moving aggressively against mine, his tongue entwining with mine in a rub-slide-enter-retreat plunging motion that had me parting my legs and arching my hips against his. I pulled him to me, wanting more of his delicious weight. I slid my hands with frantic greed down his back, over his slender waist, to the succulent round globes of his bottom, urging him to come into me.

His hot mouth moved down my cheek, onto my neck, and I gave a keening cry as I felt the bite of his teeth there where my pulse pounded. He filled his mouth with my flesh, pressed his teeth down with restrained ferocity, growling with his desire to pierce the flesh and taste the sweet blood. But instead of biting me, he sucked hard and released me, laving me with his rough tongue, and dipped down to taste the hollow at the base of my neck.

“Tell me you want me,” he said roughly.

“Yes,” I cried.

He took my nipple into his mouth, laving the sensitive tip again and again.

“Please, Gryphon,” I gasped.

“Yes, say my name.” His voice rumbled in a pleasant sensation against my breast. “Tell me you need me.”

“I need you now. Please.”

He bit down gently on my nipple and I reared up, crying out as he tugged and sucked with leashed savagery, his other hand molding, caressing, squeezing my other breast, his thumb rubbing over the tip, sending thrilling sensations spearing through me.

“Oh, God. Oh, God. Gryphon…Gryphon!”

“Yes, yes. Say my name,” he said hoarsely, his other hand sliding down my stomach to brush through my curls. He parted my folds and slipped a finger into me and I stilled in shock at the wonderful, surprising sensation—such magnificent pleasure—not even daring to breathe as he stroked gently in and out.

“You’re so tight. Relax, yes. Let me…” He slid a second finger into me and I quivered uncontrollably and whimpered, my lashes fluttering shut. He stroked and soothed me with his other hand as he pushed in past the second knuckle, then further.

“Yes, that’s it,” he crooned. “How beautiful, how sweet you are. More than I ever dreamed.” He stretched me wide with his fingers then slid out. His weight lifted, and my eyes flew open with a cry of protest that stopped as he stood and pulled me forward until my hips hung over the edge of the bed, lifting my legs over his shoulders. His cheeks were slashed with color and his eyes glittered like blue diamonds. With his eyes locked on mine, he guided himself into me, filling me slowly as my eyes widened at the incredible feel of him, at the supreme agony of being stretched by him.

“Oh,” I breathed at the breathtaking miracle of wet pleasure instead of dry pain.

“You’re so hot. So hot,” he panted. “Yes, like that. Take me. Am I hurting you?”

“No. Your wound…”

“I’m fine.” He groaned and thrust in all the way. “Fine,” and started to move.

“Yes.” I moaned and held myself still for fear of aggravating his wound, of hurting him while he devastatingly destroyed me with his deeply measured strokes. I watched him, drank him in, the sight of him, the feel of him—the sweet agony of pleasure clenching his face, the rightness of his body sliding into mine, letting him control it all while I took him and held him tightly within.

He began to move faster, muscles rippling, straining, as he thrust deeper, more forcefully, destroying me, tearing me apart with such frightening pleasure. I felt myself tighten even more, moving toward something that grew and grew in power. And when I thought he could not be more savagely beautiful, he began to glow. We began to glow, a light that started at our joining and spread up our entire bodies, filling us with an incandescent glory that made his skin translucent and limed his mink-black hair with a halo of light, lighting him with a terrible beauty that brought tears of agony and joy to my eyes.

Yes, came the thought. This is what we were meant to be, and that power swept over me, flooded me, tore me apart, and rebuilt me even stronger. I convulsed, pulsing and pulsing and pulsing. Blindly above me, I heard Gryphon cry out, “Mona Lisa…mine!” and then he was pumping hotly inside me, groaning sorely, dearly, as he filled me with his seed.

Chapter 3

The gentle fingers of the moon caressed Gryphon with loving tenderness as he lay beside me, asleep, a creature so beautiful that he stopped my breath, his lovely perfection so unreal I would have doubted its true existence were I not touching him, my leg entwined with his. His arm was flung over me, chaining me to him in sleep, desiring as I desired, that skin-to-skin contact.

He was cool to the touch, cooler than I, and I didn’t know if that was his normal condition or a result of the poison within him. He had seemed better than in the hospital, more rested, his strength quite evident in the soreness I now felt in my thighs, between my legs. But his trembling, in the end, had been equal parts passion and exhaustion and he had fallen deeply asleep immediately afterward. I let him sleep, knowing it was the best therapy for him, content to lie there beside him, secure in his arms, and to listen to the soft soughing of his breath and the slow beating of his heart.

It was frightening. No, terrifying, in truth, the fierce possessiveness I now felt for him. I needed this quiet period of companioned solitude to absorb the changes and revelations he had wrought with his entry into my life.

He stirred several hours later, making the transition from sleep to total awareness with one blink of his piercing eyes. His arm tightened around me, then relaxed. “I didn’t dream you, did I?” he asked, pulling me closer.

“No.” I breathed my soft confirmation against his shoulder where my head nestled, my heart settled and happy once more as I inhaled the essence of him. “You smell so good.”

I felt him smile against me. “What do I smell like?”

“Like the night, the soaring wind, the verdant fields below…and of feathers.” I lifted up to gaze down at him. “Why do you have soft down at the base of your neck?”

“My other form is a falcon.”

“Your other form?” I tasted the strange phrase slowly, unable to prevent my voice from rising to a squeak. “You mean you can become a bird?”

Gryphon nodded, smiling as if I had amused him.

Gryphon. Gyrfalcon. A fierce bird of prey.

I could see it now in some of his features—his sharp, piercing eyes, the strong hooked blade of his nose, the wide shoulders, the long, slender fingers. Would they become talons? I wondered.

“What is your other form?” he asked.

I shook my head, dazed. Was that what it was, that wild thing caged within me that I suppressed? “I don’t know.”

“Do not worry. You are young. It will probably come to you later, although not all Monère possess the ability to transform into another creature.” He frowned and reached up to smooth back my hair with a gentle touch. “Exactly how old are you?”

“Twenty-one years old. When did you attain your other form?”

“When I reached puberty at eighteen. But you are a Mixed Blood. Part human. It may come later for you.”

“Do you know that for certain?”

He hesitated. “No. You are an entirely new entity.”

“What other forms have Mixed Bloods attained?”

“None of them have had other forms, as far as I know.”

“Bummer,” I said with relief. I did not wish to have another form. Not if it meant unleashing that scary, restless force that had prowled within me since puberty.

“But you are an entirely new territory, to all of our kind.”

“What do you mean?”

“That you are a Queen is a frank miracle in itself,” Gryphon said with grave solemnity. “There has never been a Mixed Blood Queen before.”

“Ever?”

“Never in our entire history since the Great Exodus from the moon.”

“The moon?”

“Four millennia ago, a disaster befell our Mother Moon. The seas dried up and mountains crumbled. Monère desperately departed their dying planet. Many came to this world, carving out an existence here, all hoping that one day the moon would return to its former glory and we could return to our home.”

“Where do others of your kind live?”

“We carved out colonies across the face of the earth, in the forests, amidst the deserts, on islands, along the high steppes. Most remain pure though some have lived among the humans, but it is not easy to live in isolation among them, away from our kind.”

“So just how old are you?” It had been a question that had bedeviled me since he first opened his mouth and those delightfully quaint words and phrases flowed from his lips.

Gryphon laughed, a rusty sound that twisted my heart. It made me want to entice it from him again and again until his laughter came freely with ease. “Not that old. I am only seventy-five years old.”

“Seventy-five! But you don’t look more than thirty.”

“What are you doing?” he asked as I bent over him and combed my fingers through the long, thick strands.

“Checking for white hair,” I muttered, then jerked and moaned as he nuzzled my breast and drew a nipple into the warm, wet cavern of his mouth. “Oh, no you don’t. I want some answers first.”

“I have no white hairs,” he said, giving my pert tip one last luscious laving of his tongue before drawing away. “Seventy-five is considered young among our people. A warrior is considered mature at one hundred and seasoned at two.”

“Two hundred?” I asked, squeaking like a mouse again, which drew a smile from Gryphon. He watched me, pleasure alighting his eyes as I walked naked to my closet. Drawing on a robe, I returned to the bed to perch beside him.

“Our average life span is three hundred years.”

“And Mixed Bloods?”

His smile faded, elusive once more. “They possess the lifespan of humans. One hundred years, mayhap.”

Again I felt a mixture of emotions. Pleasure at hearing that I would likely live until a hundred—a lengthy age that few humans reached—and pain that I would not live to three hundred. I felt cheated somehow.

“Do not worry. ’Tis my belief you shall live longer than that. More Monère blood flows within you instead of human blood, and your heart beats slower than those of your human kind.”

“Fifty beats per minute.”

“The few Mixed Bloods I have encountered have rhythms of sixty and higher, like other humans.”

“So?”

“So do you not see that the slower one’s heart beats, the longer one lives? A hummingbird’s heart beats more than three hundred times per minute and they live briefly, gloriously, for one year. A turtle, on the other hand, possesses a rhythm closer to mine. It is not unusual for them to see two hundred, sometimes even three hundred years of life.”

“So you’re saying I will live longer than most humans.”

He nodded, his eyes a quicksilver flash of crystal blueness. “That is my belief.”

I took his hand and lay it against my cheek, my smile bittersweet. It was all a moot point. Two hundred more years to live with him would be a lovely prospect, but a longer life would be pointless without him. An amorphous aloneness and gray solitude was all I had know up till now. I had not truly begun to live until my eyes first fastened upon him. I wondered if my new life, my life with him, would be even more fleeting than that of a hummingbird.

“How much time do you have before the poison kills you?” I asked.

“No longer than a full cycle of the moon.”

Thirty days. Shit. “When did she…”

“Yesterday.”

Just one day, and how weak it had made him in that short period of time.

“What is it?” he asked, his hand moving down to stroke my neck, his thumb brushing against my pulse.

“I was suddenly worried about the proper care and nourishment of my Moonie,” I said, forcing a smile to my lips.

“I wonder who your parents are,” Gryphon mused.

“The only thing I have from them is the silver cross you saw.” Retrieving the cross, I showed him the engraving etched on the back.

“Mona Lisa,” he read. “Your name.”

“Yes.”

I watched as his eyes narrowed. “May I?” At my consenting nod, he took it from me and held it by the chain. Very lightly, delicately, he grasped the cross and examined it more closely. There at the base was another word etched so tiny, so meticulously, that human eye could not have detected it without the aid of a microscope.

“Monère,” he read. Carefully, he released the cross and returned it to me, rubbing his fingers together absently where he had touched the silver.

“Where did you get this?” he asked.

“It hung upon my neck when they found me as a newborn, and the name engraved on the back was the name I was given at the orphanage.”

He gazed at the cross I clutched tightly in my hand and stilled into that sudden immobility, a deep stillness that was beyond human. “Your hand,” he said with odd carefulness. “May I see it?”

I set the cross down and gave him my right hand. He uncurled my fingers. With reverence, he touched the mole there in the center of my palm. It was just a slight roundness, like a pearl buried halfway in my flesh. He held out his other hand and I passed my left palm into his care. He looked down upon the slight rising there, also, then gazed from one hand to the other.

“What is it?” I asked.

He did not speak for a moment. When he finally did, it was with a question of his own. “What powers do you possess?”

I shrugged. “I can see through the darkness and hear miles around me, if I wish. My sense of smell is acute. I am fast like a cat, strong as a lion. With effort, I can control people’s minds with my gaze. With my hands, I can detect ailment within the body and, to a small degree, ease some of the pain, but I have yet to obtain the ability to heal.”

I waited for Gryphon to speak but he just stared down at my palms.

“Well?” I finally prompted.

He kissed each mole with careful deference and pulled me down until I lay beside him once more. “’Tis my belief that you bear the mark of the Moon Goddess, her tears.”

“The Moon Goddess?”

“Yes, a deity whom we worship. Our earliest ancestress, the mother of us all.”

“And why do you say ‘you believe’? As if you’re not sure,” I mumbled against the hollow of his neck.

“You are most uncommon, my young Queen. We have only heard of the mark of the Goddess’s tears through our lore and legends since the time of our Exodus. Those few Queens who were blessed with such marks were extraordinary healers and great warriors.”

“So what happened to these blessed Queens?”

“Great gifts beget great peril. They were both blessed and cursed by their gifts.”

“Sounds like a mixed review to me.”

My stomach suddenly growled and I jumped. Gryphon gave that rusty laugh again and I rewarded him with a grin. “I’m starving. Do you eat? Or do you need to drink blood?”

His brows rose. “And would you offer me your lovely neck if I did?”

“Sure, if you needed it.”

“Ah.” He sighed, his eyes growing soft. “You are like a fresh breath of wind. No, we do not drink blood. We partake of food as humans do. Did you think me vampyre?”

“Yes,” I blushed. “I craved your crimson blood the first time I saw it. I was overwhelmed with a desire to taste it. And when I did, my heart melted. It was the first time I’d ever felt such an urge.”

“That is because it was the first time you have been with one of your kind. The urge to taste each other only arises between Monère lovers, never with humans. The resulting bite mark is the highest form of honor, evidence of the deepest of passion.”

“You didn’t taste my blood.” I touched the unbroken skin of my neck where he had pressed his teeth.

His blue eyes sparkled with simmering heat. “I restrained myself because of those who hunt me. It would be my honor and even greater pleasure to taste you and leave my mark upon you when the time is right.”

I blushed. “So we’re not vampires by nature. Are there such things as vampires, then?”

A bare hesitation, then, “No, there is no such creature. The vampire stories originated from those of us who can take on the form of a rat or a bat.”

“How about werewolves? Are they real?”

“Again, that lore is based on those of us who can shift into wolf form. But as with the vampyre, there is a little truth and much misinformation that humans have concocted.”

“Like holy objects causing you to burst into flames. What about wooden stakes through the heart and garlic cloves?”

“Myth only. Stakes through the heart…that would not kill us. Our healing body would eventually spit the wood out.”

“So, what are our fatal vulnerabilities?”

“The usual ways. Cutting our hearts out. Severing our heads off. But the most painful and lingering deaths are through silver or sun poisoning.”

My eyes grew round at the gruesome methods he ticked off. “The sun can kill you?”

“Most definitely. Its hot rays burn us even at its weakest hours. Does it not burn you?”

“No, I have no such problems.”

“Ah,” he said, pleased, as if I had confirmed something he had already suspected. “The ability to withstand the sun is not unusual for Mixed Bloods.”

I swallowed. “Do you have to sleep in a coffin or in the ground?”

He kissed me, a light peck of affection. “No, a soft bed will do very well. We are nocturnal. We sleep during the daytime hours. Humans are made for the heat of the sun. We are cold-blooded creatures. The night,” he glanced longingly out the window, “is our domain. The darkness, the soothing air, when the world is shrouded in serenity, and our bodies, enlightened, are infused with energy from the moon. Don’t you feel that, too, when night falls and your soul awakens to the calling from above?”

“Yes, I have felt that way since my childhood, only I didn’t know then what it was, what made me so different from other children.”

“That must have been hard for you, not knowing what made the days dreary, the sun glaring, and your body leaden with fatigue.” He stroked my hair. “Tell me more about your childhood.”

“I will, later. Your well-being is what concerns my heart now. We must act to find the cure soon to stop this poisoning. Thirty days is not a long time.”

He smiled and whispered in a most gentle tone, “I care not that I live another moment. I care only that I am in your arms. I feel like a camel reaching an oasis after a long trek in the dry desert. I feel as if I have lived my life, that I could close my eyes and fall asleep and rest in your presence forever.”

“Don’t close your eyes now.” I pressed a kiss to his brow. “You are too young to die.”

He looked at me quietly for a moment. “I could just stay here and use the rest of my days, however short they may be, to pass you knowledge, teach you of our kind, acquaint you with people and names that may prove useful to you as a Queen,” he said gently.

He lay there in my arms and my vision was suddenly keener, more perceptive, allowing me to glimpse deep into his weary, battered, undernourished soul and see with sharp clarity what he had chosen—death. He wanted to rest, to die here in the comfort in my presence instead of fight to live. And I saw clearly that neither soft kindness nor sweet pleading would sway him from his chosen path. He needed something harsh, something stinging to wake him up; I knew this, somehow, deep in my heart. A core of hidden knowledge within me seemed to have cracked open with his entry into my life.

“You call me your Queen,” I said, my voice cracking like a whip, “but in your heart you do not truly mean it.”

“No—” He jerked back at my sudden attack and sat up.

I ruthlessly cut off his cry of bewildered protest and continued scornfully. “You have resigned yourself to death, even welcome that final rest, for you are tired of the pain and suffering of living. You lie when you call me your Queen, for you serve no one but yourself in giving in so easily to the death waiting to claim you.”

Gryphon tensed wildly beneath the lash of my words, unable to deny the sting of their truth.

“You appease yourself by offering to pass me a pittance of knowledge before you die in return for the comfort and ease I give you.” I smiled contemptuously. “You treat me no better than a whore if you believe I am willing and desperate enough to settle for so little in return.”

“No,” he choked in agonized denial, shaking his head furiously. “No, my Queen.”

“I will not settle for thirty days of your half-hearted service and then allow you to leave me alone and unprotected while you go to your rest,” I said harshly. “If I am truly your Queen, then I require and demand from you all that is due me from a male in my service.”

I glided to him and he watched me as if mesmerized, with something new in his eyes—a touch of fear and caution.

“You are mine. Every part of you belongs to me,” I said, caressing his chest just above that slow, steady beating, feeling him tremble and smiling because of it. “Your brave warrior heart, your poisoned body, your weary soul.” I breathed the words against his lips as I buried my hand in his hair and gripped his scalp hard. “Your brilliant mind,” I whispered and brought my lips against his in a chaste kiss. “By my right, I claim every part of you in my service, and demand and require that you desire to live with your entire breath and being, with your very heart and soul. I hold you to your duty to seek a cure for yourself and to not abandon me. You owe me two hundred and twenty-five more years of service and I will not be cheated with a paltry thirty days, do you understand?”

Gryphon sank to his knees before me, silent tears of shame coursing down his cheeks. “Yes, my Queen,” he said, yielding all because I demanded it.

“Your oath on it.”

“I swear it,” he said harshly.

“Swear it by that which you hold most dear.”

He lifted his eyes to me. “I swear it on milady’s heart,” he said, bowing his head.

I tenderly stroked Gryphon’s hair, a bittersweet smile twisting my lips. I had won. For now, I had won. I had seen what weapon to use and had used it ruthlessly to achieve my own end because I did not want to be alone, because I had only just begun to truly live and did not want to see that life die in its mere infancy. I smiled bittersweetly because I did not know that I was any better than that other terrible Queen, Mona Sera, in her calculated cruelty and, even more frightening, I did not care.

“I will not make it so easy for you to leave me.” It was a soft promise, a gentle threat.

Gryphon drew in a deep gulping breath. “No, my Queen,” he whispered.

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