Max’s jaw ached from gritting his teeth. Gabriel was powerful, considered handsome, as popular with women as Max was, but the other warlock stayed far away from the darker edge of magic. To Max it was a weakness. Gabriel had a line he wouldn’t cross and it opened him to failure. Weakness like that would give Victoria too much leeway. She needed an iron fist. Craved it. Max had only one vulnerability, and it was one he needed to control her.
There was no line he wouldn’t cross to achieve his aims.
And he proved it by abandoning his home, his ambitions, and the life he knew to go after her.
Victoria stared at her reflection as the handmaidens adjusted her robes for the ceremony ahead. Her eyes were red-rimmed, bloodshot, bruised from lack of sleep and too much crying.
She’d forgotten who Max was, seeing him only through smitten eyes, failing to remember that he was a Hunter and next in line to ascend to the Council. He’d spent centuries working toward his goal, and two weeks working on her—one of many assignments in his past, with more to come in his future. He would forget her in time.
The thought made her heart hurt, the pain so piercing she panted with it.
Waving her attendants away, Victoria caught the edge of the vanity and gulped down desperate breaths. She’d been out of the loop so long, she had no idea who Gabriel was, but the handmaidens raved about her luck. Yes, she would pine for the man who’d taken over her body and filled it with mind-numbing pleasure, but perhaps, in a decade or two, she could come to tolerate Gabriel’s touch . . .
“You’ll never know, kitten,” rumbled a deep, familiar voice behind her.
Her gaze lifted and met stormy gray.
“Max,” she breathed, her palms growing damp at the sight of him. Bare-chested, barefooted, wearing only trousers that hung low around his lean hips. His shoulders so broad, his golden skin stretched over beautifully defined muscles. A predator.
Her mouth dried, her br**sts swelled with desire, as if he hadn’t just f**ked her into exhaustion mere hours ago.
He came toward her with his sultry, long-legged stride. She was held motionless by his stare, forgetting to breathe until her lungs burned, then she gasped and cried out as his hand cupped the back of her head. His strong fingers pinched strands of her hair and tugged roughly, bending her to his will. She stared up at him in a haze of fear and desire, the flush of anger on his face enough to frighten her. And arouse her.
“I’m keeping you,” he rasped, just before he took her parted lips with possessive hunger.
Having thought him lost to her, she melted in his arms. He anchored her, even as he brought her to heel. His breathing labored, he turned his head, his cheek rubbing against hers, absorbing her tears.
“The Council will punish you,” she cried, her voice breaking. “I—I can’t bear to lose you.”
“But you were about to.” He licked deep into her mouth, making her moan and open to him, silently begging for more. He obliged her, groaning, his tongue stroking along hers with so much skill it left her breathless. One arm supported her back, the other hand cupped her breast and kneaded it with the aggressive pressure she’d come to relish and crave.
“Let me be the instrument of your revenge,” he whispered darkly, his lips moving against hers.
A gift. For her.
Victoria swallowed hard, stunned by his statement and the ramifications of it. “Max.”
He held her gaze. “You have your business interests to occupy your daylight hours, but your private hours are mine. You will serve, obey, and please me. You will never question an order or deny me anything. I’ll do things to your body that will test your limits. Sometimes, you’ll want to tell me ‘no,’ but you’ll do what I want regardless. That is your commitment to me.”
He hugged her tightly to him, burying his face in the tender space between her neck and shoulder. His voice lowered and came gruffly: “My commitment is to care for you, and provide for you in every way. If you need your revenge to be free of the past, I will deliver the means to you. You are my greatest treasure, Victoria. I will always value and treat you as such.”
Her arms came around him, her lashes wet and vision blurry. “I want the Triumvirate.”
To give her this, he would have to skirt the very Council he’d aspired to for so long. There was more to that long-ago night than she knew, and the danger was mortal.
Max nodded his understanding and agreement without hesitation, but the tic in his jaw betrayed him. “Will you love me like you loved him? Can you?”
She released a deep breath in an audible rush. Her heart reached out to him, revealing the many facets of her affection and adoration, the feelings she had for Max so different from what she’d felt for Darius, but just as powerful, and growing every day. She was beginning to see how much of herself she’d kept away from Darius, and how much of herself she’d already shared with Max—the man who’d shown her how to embrace her nature and revel in it. Safe in his embrace.
“Yes, Max,” she promised. “So much.”
His power swelled in response to her passion, flowing into her, and she enhanced it. The soul-deep thrumming that coursed through them was almost overwhelming. They would have to train, relearn everything they knew, find a way to control it. Together.
I can’t wait to get started. Max’s confident voice in her mind gave her courage.
The task ahead wouldn’t be easy . . .
You don’t like things easy, kitten.
Victoria offered her mouth to him and he took it, his chest rumbling with laughter as her lips curved against his in a catlike smile.
A quarter to midnight, the witching hour, Christmas Eve
There was an indefinable something about the tall, darkly clad man traversing the sidewalk. That mysterious quality compelled lingering glances from every window-seat reveler in Richie’s Diner. He appeared not to notice, his gaze direct and unwavering, his purpose set and immutable.
It was hard to pinpoint what it was that arrested attention. Was it the impressive breadth of his shoulders and the way his inky black locks hung past them like a mane? Was it the way he moved with sensual purpose, every stride elegant yet predatory? Or was it his face, classically yet brutally gorgeous, all hard planes and angles, rigid jaw combined with beautifully etched lips?
Perhaps it was simply that it was Christmas Eve, a time when he should be home, warm and safe with the ones he loved. Not out in the snow, alone and unsmiling.
He had eyes of gray, like a brewing storm, and an air of complete confidence that clearly stated he was not a man to be crossed without penalty.