Behind him, Aden heard Victoria shift from one foot to the other. The fine hairs on the back of his neck lifted, his skin doing that tingling thing. He scowled. He was that aware of her? “There’s nothing wrong with me. There, we talked. Now, gather my people in the great hall.”
The words echoed with threat, surprising Aden as much as they did Riley. Only recently had he accepted his right to rule, but never once had he thought of the vampires as “my people.” But they were, and now he had plenty to say to them. “There is something wrong with you, Aden,” Riley insisted. “You haven’t even asked about Mary Ann. She’s out there somewhere, on her own, perhaps in danger. Do you not care about her anymore?”
A flicker of emotion sparked in his chest, extinguished before he could figure out what it was. Or what it meant. “She’ll be fine,” he said.
“Are you sure about that? Has Elijah told you?”
“Yes, I’m sure. And no, he hasn’t.”
Hope bloomed and died in Riley’s eyes. “Then how are you sure?”
Because he wanted to be, and in that moment Aden was certain he got what he wanted. Always. And if he didn’t, he did whatever was necessary to change the circumstances.
Wait. Was that true? He couldn’t think of a specific example, buuut…he simply knew. He shrugged. That was good enough for him. Maybe there was something wrong with him. Not that he cared about that, either, he realized. He would talk to his people, as planned.
“Perhaps you didn’t hear me,” Aden said. “You’ve got some gathering to do.”
“Gather them yourself, majesty.” Riley huffed and puffed, his shoulders straightening, squaring. Aden’s lips twitched in renewed humor, but he wasn’t sure why that would be funny to him. “I’m going after Mary Ann. Victoria?”
“She stays,” Aden said, the words leaving him before he could stop them. Despite everything, or maybe because of it, he wanted her with him.
“I did this to him,” she said softly. “I have to stay with him and make sure…you know.”
Aden didn’t know what “you know” was, and he still didn’t care. He was getting what he wanted: her presence. That was enough. For now.
Riley popped his jaw. “Very well. Keep your cell with you at all times, and call if you need anything. Anything at all. And I’ll call you if I learn anything. Be careful.”
A stiff nod in Aden’s direction, and then Riley was turning on his heel, marching away.
Aden didn’t spare Victoria a glance and certainly didn’t thank her. He wasn’t one to say thanks, ever. Right? Even though the desire to do so sparked and died in the same place as that unnameable emotion for Mary Ann. He simply strode to the room’s only window, a bay that opened on to a balcony, determined to call his people together on his own.
VICTORIA REMAINED IN PLACE AS Aden stood on her balcony, doing nothing…waiting for…she wasn’t sure. He wasn’t “chatting with his people,” though. He was alone, barefoot and unconcerned by everything around him. Oh, and someone else’s blood flowed in his veins. The knowledge irritated her when it should have delighted her. He was alive. He was awake.
She was still irritated. Despite everything, she wanted her blood in his veins. Her blood making him stronger.
Get over yourself already. The open balcony doors let the chilled morning air inside the room, and she shivered. For the first time in her life, she would have welcomed a coat. Something, anything, to melt the frost practically glossing her exposed skin.
How was Aden not shivering? He was bare-chested, deliciously so. Rope after rope of muscle lined his stomach and neatly patterned his back. Tragically, he wore jeans. Clean jeans, at least. She’d washed and changed him while he’d slept. And she hadn’t looked at anything improper. Except for those two—four—times. Riley had been too distracted to ask about those sponge baths, for which she was grateful.
Looking where she shouldn’t, how very human of her. Once, Aden would have been proud about that. Now…she had no idea what was going on inside his head or how he’d react to, well, anything. She knew only that Riley was right. Something was wrong with Aden. He wasn’t himself. He was colder, harsher.
Vampires were all about tossing challenges at the weak and vulnerable. And the weak and vulnerable accepted those challenges or they endured an eternity of slavery by declining. Then, when they lost, they endured an eternity of slavery anyway. Difference was, by accepting and losing, they weren’t teased and tormented, too.
Vlad had set the rules, of course. He despised weakness and cowardice, he’d claimed, and the challenges were a way to weed out the “unworthy.”
Did Aden plan to challenge everyone?
A movement in the sky captured her attention, and she watched a black bird soar past. The sun was hidden behind gray clouds, and perhaps even a thick layer of glassy rime. The angels were ice-skating up there, her mother would have said.
Her mother. How Victoria missed her. For the past seven years, her mother had been locked away in Romania, a prisoner charged with sharing information about vampires with humans. Vlad had even forbidden his people from speaking her name. Edina the Swan.
Even thinking it gave Victoria a thrill. Rebellion was new to her.
Then, when Aden was dubbed the man in charge, he’d freed the woman at Victoria’s behest. She had expected her mother to teleport to Crossroads so they could be together again. Only, Edina had decided to remain in her homeland.
As if Victoria wasn’t important enough to bother with.
She wanted to be important to someone. And had been. To Aden. Since the first moment he’d spotted her, he’d made her feel special. Now…
Her stomach jumbled as she stepped beside him. His attention never strayed from the surrounding forest. Large oaks knifed toward that icy sky, a smattering of blood-red leaves hanging on for dear life. Mostly gnarled limbs stretched out and interlocked, as if the trees were holding hands, bracing themselves for the coming winter.
She wanted to take Aden’s hand but wasn’t sure how he would react.
“I think you should travel back in time,” she said, breaking the silence. She’d given this some thought. If he traveled back to the night Tucker stabbed him, he could prevent all of this. Not just the stabbing, but her attempt to turn him. Their week of feeding, of nearly draining each other, their fighting, this…none of this would happen.
That’s it? That’s all her intense pondering got? “No? Just like that?”
“But Aden, you can stop Tucker, once and for all.”
“Too many things could go wrong, and we don’t know what would happen in the new reality. Could be far worse than this one.”
She doubted that. “There’s only one way to know for sure.” Her new favorite phrase.
So adamant. He couldn’t like this reality. Could he?
“This is mine,” he said matter-of-factly, reminding her of her father.
All right, maybe he could. “Yes,” she said with a shudder.
His gaze moved to the ground below them, and hers followed, seeing the hidden stretch of land as he must. Bleak, yet fighting to survive. Not a single bloom colored the garden, but the bushes were yellow and orange. Ivy still clung to each trellis, though the leaves were light and brittle.
In the center of the yard was a large metal circle, a ward welded into the dirt, seemingly innocuous whirls intersecting through every inch. The metal could move and open, creating a platform that lowered into the crypt where her father had been buried.
Without a word, Aden climbed the balcony railing and straightened, his balance precarious at best.
“What are you doing? We’re too many stories up. Come down! You—”
A yelp escaped her as she bent over the rail, her heart stopping as she watched him fall…fall…land. He didn’t splat or crumple as expected. He simply uncoiled from a crouch and walked out of the backyard, all liquid grace and lethal determination.
Victoria had done the same a thousand times before. Perhaps that was why she didn’t hesitate to follow him over. “Aden, wait!” Cold, biting air lifted her hair and robe.
As she tumbled toward the flat, hard surface, she remembered her new, human skin. She flailed, trying to claw her way back up. Then it was too late. She—
Her knees vibrated from impact, and she collapsed, slamming into one of the ward’s metal bars. During that impact, oxygen heaved from her lungs. Worse, her shoulder popped out of place and the agony nearly undid her. For hours—maybe just a few minutes—she lay panting, shivering from cold and shock, tears scalding her eyes and catching in her lashes. “Stupid, stupid, stupid,” she said through chattering teeth. Though the sun was hidden behind those clouds, though the air seemed layered with frost, her skin began to prickle as if she were close to reaching vampire maturity and burning.
What was wrong with her? Besides the thousand other things she’d been dealing with lately?
Footsteps reverberated, and suddenly she could scent Aden in the air. That amazing fragrance of—she sniffed, frowned. He smelled different. Still amazing, but different. Familiar. Like sandalwood and evergreen. A mystic from long ago, yet coldly alive, and now as spicy as the human girl had been.
I will not let jealousy overtake me.
Victoria opened her eyes, unsure when she’d closed them. Aden was leaning down, spotlighted by rogue rays of light that had escaped their cloudy prison. His expression was as impassive as before. Dark hair fell over his eyes—eyes of startling violet.
Since she’d known him, she’d seen him with eyes of gold, green, brown, blue and black, but the violet had not appeared until their time in the cave.
When he reached out, she thought he meant to help her up. She offered him a small, waxen smile. “Thank you.”