Rehv parked the bentley at the southeast entrance of Black Snake State Park. The gravel lot was small, big enough for only ten cars, and whereas the other lots were chained off after hours, this one was always open because it had trails to the rentable cabins.

As he got out of the car, he took his cane, but not because he needed it for balance. His vision had gone red about halfway through the drive and now his body was alive and humming, warmed up, with sensation everywhere.

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Before he locked up the Bentley, he stashed his sable coat in the trunk, because the car was noticeable enough without twenty-five thousand dollars' worth of Russian fur in plain view. He also double-checked that he had the antivenom kit with him and plenty of dopamine.

Yup. Yup.

He shut the trunk, hit the alarm, and turned to the thick line of shorter trees that formed the park's outer boundaries. For no good reason, the birches and oaks and poplars around the man-made lot reminded him of a crowd penned in at a parade, all of them packed in tight at the edge of the gravel, their branches overlapping out-of-bounds even as their trunks stayed where they should.

The night was still except for a crisp, dry breeze that was all about fall's impending arrival. Funny, this far upstate, August could get downright cold, and as his body was now, he liked the chill. Thrived on it, even.

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He walked over to the main trailhead, going past an unmanned check-in and a series of signs for hikers. A quarter mile in there was an offshoot into the forest, and he took the dirt path deeper into the park. The log cabin was a mile farther, and he was about two hundred yards away from the thing when a tangle of leaves scampered by his feet. The shadow that carried them forward was tropical-hot around his ankles.

"Thanks, man," he said to Trez.

I'LL MEET YOU THERE.

"Good."

As his bodyguard misted across the ground, Rehv straightened his tie for no good reason. Shit knew the thing wasn't going to stay around his neck for much longer.

The clearing where the cabin was located was awash in moonlight, and he couldn't tell which of the shadows among the trees was Trez. But that was why his bodyguard was worth his tremendous weight in gold. Even a symphath couldn't tease him out of the landscape when he didn't want to be seen.

Rehv went up to the rough-hewn door and paused, looking around. The Princess was here already: All around the ostensibly bucolic spot was a dense, invisible cloud of dread¡ªthe kind that kids felt when they looked at abandoned houses on dark, windy nights. It was the symphath version of mhis, and it guaranteed that the two of them wouldn't be disturbed by humans. Or other animals, for that matter.

He wasn't surprised she'd come early. He could never predict whether she would be late, early, or on time, and therefore he was never off his game, no matter when she showed.

The cabin door opened with its familiar creak. As the sound went right into the cringe center of his brain, he covered up his emotions with the picture of a sunny beach he'd once seen on TV.

From out of the shadows in the corner of the open space, accented words drifted over thick and low. "You always do that. Makes me wonder what you hide from your love."

And she could keep guessing. He could not allow her to get into his head. Aside from the fact that self-protection was critical, shutting her out drove her crazy, and that made him glow with satisfaction like a fucking spotlight.

As he closed the door, he decided to play the jilted romantic tonight. She would expect him to be wondering what the hell had happened to their reg/sched and she'd hold him hostage for the info as long as she could. But charm worked, even on symphaths¡ªalthough naturally in a fucked-up, roundabout way. She knew he hated her and that it cost him to pretend to be in love with her. His grind and chafe at speaking pretty lies would be what would put him in her good graces, not the lies themselves.

"How I've missed you," he said in a deep, intent voice.

His fingers went to the tie he'd just straightened and slowly worked the knot free. Her response was instantaneous. Her eyes flashed like rubies in front of a bonfire, and she did nothing to hide the reaction. She knew it made him sick.

"You missed me? Of course you missed me." Her voice was like that of a snake, the S's lingering through long exhales. "But by how much?"

Rehv kept the beach scene in the forefront of his mind, nailing the sucker to his frontal lobe, keeping her out of him. "I missed you to distraction."

He put his cane aside, shed his jacket, and let loose the top button on his silk shirt...then the next...and the next, until he had to pull the tails out of his slacks to finish the job. As he shrugged his shoulders and let the silk fall to the floor, the Princess hissed for real and his cock swelled.

He hated her and he hated the sex, but he loved that he had the power over her that he did. Her weakness gave him a sexual thrill that was damn close to when you were actually attracted to someone. Which was how he managed to get it up even as his skin crawled like it was draped in a blanket of worms.

"Keep your clothes on," she said in a sharp voice.

"No." He always took them off when he wanted to, not when she said. His pride demanded it.

"Keep your clothes on, whore."

"No." He undid his belt and snapped it free from his hips, the supple leather cracking in the air. He dropped it as he had the shirt, without care.

"The clothes stay on..." Her words drifted because her strength was weakening. Which was the fucking point.

With a deliberate hand, he cupped himself, then unzipped his fly, freed the fastener, and felt his pants fall down to the rough floor in a rush. His erection stood straight out from his hips, and pretty much summed up their relationship. He was viciously angry at her, and he hated himself, and he despised the fact that Trez was outside witnessing this all.

And as a result his cock was rock-hard and glistening at the tip.

For symphaths, a trip into mental illness was better than any Agent Provocateur splurge, and that was why this whole thing worked. He could give that sick shit to her. He could give her something else, too. She craved the sexual combat they had. Symphath mating was a civil chess match with an exchange of body fluids at the end. She needed the carnal grunt and grind only his vampire side could give her.

"Touch yourself," she breathed. "Touch yourself for me."

He didn't do as she asked. With a growl, he kicked off his loafers and stepped away from the pile of his clothes. As he walked forward, he was damn aware of the picture he made, all hard and heavy. He stopped in the middle of the cabin, a slice of moonlight streaming through the window and running over the planes of his body.

He hated to admit it, but he craved this bad shit with her, too. It was the only time in his life that he could be who he really was, that he didn't have to lie to the people around him. The ugly truth of it was, part of him needed this sick, twisted relationship, and that, more than the threat to him and Xhex, was what kept him coming back month after month.

He wasn't sure whether the Princess knew his weakness. He was always careful not to tip his hand, but you could never be too sure what a symphath had on you. Which, of course, made the maneuvering all the more interesting because the stakes were higher.

"I thought we would start off tonight with a little show," he said, turning around. With his back to her, he started to pleasure himself, taking his thick cock into his big hand and stroking it.

"Boring," she said breathlessly.

"Liar." He squeezed the head of his arousal so hard a gasp shot out of him.

The Princess moaned at the sound he made, his pain drawing her even further into the game. As he looked down at what he was doing, he felt a brief, troubling displacement, like it was someone else's cock and someone else's arm moving up and down. But, then, the distance from the act was necessary, the only way his decent vampire nature could handle this thing they did. The good part of him wasn't here. He checked it at the door when he stepped inside.

This was the land of the Sin-eater.

"What are you doing," she groaned.

"Stroking myself. Hard. The moonlight looks good on my cock. I'm wet."

She sucked in sharply. "Turn around. Now."

"No."

Even though she made no sound, he knew she came forward at that moment, and the triumph he felt wiped out the disassociation. He lived for breaking her. It was fucking heroin in his veins, this power coursing through him. Yeah, afterward he would feel dirty as fuck, and, sure, he lived with nightmares because of all this, but right now he was seriously getting off.

The Princess came around in the shadows, and he knew when she saw what he was up to, because she moaned out loud, not even her symphath reserve strong enough to hold in her response.

"If you're going to look at me"¡ªhe squeezed the head of his cock again until it went purple and he had to arch his back from the pain¡ª"I want to see you."

She stepped into the moonlight, and he lost his rhythm for a moment.

The Princess was dressed in a brilliant red gown, the rubies at her throat glowing against her paper white skin. Her blue-black hair was coiled on her head, her eyes and lips the same color as the bloodred stones around her neck. From her earlobes, two albino scorpions hung from their stinger tails, watching him.

She was hideously beautiful. An upright reptile with hypnotic eyes.

Her arms were crossed in front of her waist and tucked into the floor-length sleeves of her dress, but she dropped them now, and he didn't look at her hands. Couldn't. They disgusted him too much, and if he caught sight of them he would lose his erection.

To keep himself aroused, he slipped his palm under his balls and stretched them up so they framed his cock. As he let both parts of his sex fall back into place, they bobbed with potency.

There was so much she wanted to see of him that her eyes didn't know where to go. As they traced over his chest, they lingered on the pair of red stars that marked his pecs. Vampires thought they were just decoration, but to symphaths , they were evidence of both his royal blood and the two murders he'd committed: Patricide got you stars, as opposed to matricide, which got you circles. Red ink meant he was a member of the royal family.

The Princess did away with her gown, and beneath its lush folds her body was covered in a red satin netting that dug into her skin. In keeping with the largely sexless appearance of her kind, her breasts were small and her hips smaller. The only way you could be sure she was female was the tiny slit between her legs. The males were likewise androgynous, with their long hair that they wore up as the females did and their identical gowns. Rehv had never seen one of the males naked, thank fuck, but he assumed their cocks had the same little anomaly his own did.

Oh, the joy.

His anomaly was, of course, another reason he liked fucking the Princess. He knew it hurt for her at the end.

"I'm going to touch you now," she said, coming up to him. "Whore."

Rehv steeled himself as her hand closed around his arousal, but he gave her only a moment of contact. Stepping back sharply, he popped his cock out of her grip.

"Are you going to end our relationship?" he drawled, hating the words he spoke. "Is that why you blew me off the other night? This shit too boring for you?"

She came forward, as he knew she would. "Come now, you're a toy of mine. I'd miss you terribly."

"Ah."

This time when she grabbed him, she dug her nails into his shaft. He held his gasp in by tightening his shoulders until his collarbones nearly snapped.

"So you wondered where I was?" she whispered as she leaned into him. Her mouth brushed his throat and the touch of her lips burned his skin. The lipstick she wore was made out of crushed peppers, carefully calibrated to sting. "You worried about me. Ached for me."

"Yeah. That's it," he said, because she would get off on the lie.

"I knew you did." The Princess sank down onto her knees and leaned in. The instant her lips met the head of his cock, the burning sensation from that lipstick made his balls squeeze up like fists. "Ask me."

"For what. A blow job or the why of the reschedule?"

"I'm thinking you need to beg for both." She took his arousal and pushed it up against his belly, then her tongue snaked out and teased the barb at the base of his erection. That barb was the part of him she liked best, the one that locked into place when he came and kept them linked. Personally, he hated the thing, but damn, it felt good to have it played with, even with the pain that came from what was on her mouth.

"Ask me." She let his cock fall back into place and took him deep into her mouth.

"Ah, shit, suck me," he groaned.

And holy hell, did she ever. She opened that throat of hers and took as much of him as she could. It was great, but the burning was a killer. To pay her back for her little Chanel No. Nightmare lipstick, he grabbed onto her hair and shoved his hips forward, making her choke.

In response, she dug one of her nails into his barb deeply enough to draw blood, and he cried out, tears spearing into his eyes. As one came out onto his cheek, she smiled, no doubt liking the color of the red against his face.

"You're going to say please," she said. "When you ask me to explain."

He was tempted to tell her to hold her breath for that, but instead he repeated the plunge into her mouth and she repeated the dig, and they did that back and forth for a while until they were both panting.

His sex was on fire at this point, raging with heat, pulsing with the need to come in that god-awful mouth of hers.

"Ask me why," she demanded. "Ask me why I didn't show."

He shook his head. "No... you'll tell me when you want to. But I will ask if you're just wasting our time here, or are you going to let me finish?"

She lifted herself up from the floor, went over to the window, and braced herself on the sill with those horrible hands. "You can come. But only inside me."

The bitch always did that. Always with the inside.

And always with the window. Clearly, even though she couldn't know for sure that he'd come with backup, on some level she knew they were being watched. And if they fucked in front of the panes of glass, his sentry would be forced to see.

"Finish inside me, damn you."

The Princess arched her back and lifted her ass. The netting she wore ran up her legs and in between her thighs, and he was going to have to rip part of it open to get into her. Which was why she wore it. If her lipstick was bad, the mesh shit on her body was worse.

Rehvenge moved in behind her and dug the fore- and middle fingers of both his hands into the mesh at the small of her back. With a yank, he split the weave free from her ass and her sex.

She was glossy and swollen and begging for him.

Looking over her shoulder, she smiled, revealing perfect, boxy white teeth. "I'm hungry. I saved myself for you. As always."

He couldn't hide his wince. He couldn't stand the idea that he was her only lover¡ªit would have been much better to be part of a grounds crew of males, so that what happened between them didn't loom so large. Plus the parity nauseated him. She was his only lover, too.

He shoved himself into her sex, knocking her forward until her head banged into the glass. Then he grabbed onto her hips and slid slowly out. Her legs quivered in a series of waves, and he hated that he was giving her what she wanted. So he pushed slowly back in, stopping halfway to home so she didn't get all of him.

Her red eyes spit fire over her shoulder. "More, thank you."

"Why didn't you show, my lovely bitch."

"Why don't you shut up and finish?"

Rehv leaned down and ran his fangs across her shoulder. The mesh was coated in scorpion venom, and he felt an instant numbing of his lips. That bad shit was going to be all over his hands and his body after the fucking was done, so he was going to have to shower at his safe house as soon as possible. It wasn't going to be fast enough. He was going to be viciously ill, as usual. Since she was a full-bred symphath, the venom didn't affect her; to her it was like perfume, an enhancement. To his vampire nature, which was especially susceptible, it was straight-up poison.

He slowly pulled out and eased back in a couple of inches. He knew he had her good when her three-knuckled fingers dug into the old, weathered wood of the sill.

God, those hands of hers, with their trio of joints and the fingernails that grew out red... they were something from a horror movie, the kind of thing that wrapped around the lip of a coffin before the undead came out and killed the good guy.

"Tell... me... why... bitch..." He punctuated the words with his rhythm. "Or no finish for either of us."

God, he hated this and he loved it, both of them struggling to maintain the power position, both pissed at the concessions they had to make. It was eating her alive that she'd had to come around to see him jerking off, and he despised what he was doing to her body, and she didn't want to tell him why she was two nights late, but she knew she was going to have to if she wanted to get off...

And around and around the merry-go-round went.

"Tell me," he growled.

"Your uncle grows strong."

"Does he." He rewarded her with a quick, nasty penetration, and she gasped. "Why's that?"

"Two nights ago..." Her breath sawed out of her mouth, as her spine torqued to accept him in the deepest way possible. "He was crowned."

Rehv lost his rhythm. Shit. A change in leadership was not good. The symphaths might be stuck in that colony, isolated from the real world, but any political instability there threatened what precious little control of them there was.

"We need you," she said, reaching behind her and sinking her nails into his ass. "To do what you do best."

No. Fucking. Way.

He'd killed enough relatives.

She glanced over her shoulder, and the scorpion in her ear stared at him hard, its spindly legs pinwheeling, reaching out to him. "I've given you the why. So get on with it."

Rehv put his brain on lockdown, focused on the scene of the beach, and let his body do its thing. Under his pounding rhythm, the Princess orgasmed, her body gripping him in a series of pulses that were like a fist twisting his cock in a vise.

Which was what made his sex catch hold of her inside and fill her up.

He pulled out as soon as he was able and started on the slide into hell. Already, he could feel the effect of the venom on that damn mesh. His body was tingling all over, the nerve endings in his skin blinking on and off in spasms of pain. It was only going to get worse.

The Princess righted herself and went to her gown. From a hidden pocket, she took out a long length of wide red satin, and with her eyes locked on him, she threaded the cloth between her legs and tied it in an elaborate series of bows.

Her ruby eyes gleamed with satisfaction as she made sure not a drop of him escaped her.

He hated that, and she knew it, which was why she never complained when he pulled out fast. She knew damn well he wanted to shove her in a bleach bath and make her wash until the sex was gone from her as if it had never been.

"Where is my tithe?" she said as she drew on her gown.

His vision was doubling up from the venom as he went over to his jacket and took out a small velvet bag. He tossed it over to her and she caught it.

Inside was two hundred and fifty thousand dollars in rubies. Cut. Ready to be set.

"You need to come home."

He was too tired to play the game. "That colony is not my home."

"Wrong. So very wrong. But you'll come around. I guarantee it." On that she disappeared into thin air.

Rehv sagged, planting his palm onto the cabin's wall as a black wave of exhaustion shot through him.

As the door opened, he righted himself and picked up his pants. Trez said nothing, just came over and steadied him.

Sick as he was, and would become, he himself put his clothes on. That was important to him. He always did that himself.

When his jacket was back in place and his tie looped around his neck and his cane in his hand, his best friend and bodyguard scooped him up and carried him like a child back to his car.

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