“I would not thank me, if I were you.” He latched onto her shoulder, and sharp pain lashed through her.
He forced the bone to pop back into place, and she discovered what true pain really was. A scream ripped from deep inside her. Birds took flight, probably desperate to escape the horrendous, ear-piercing sound.
She would take that to mean I’m really truly very sorry I hurt you, my love. “Next time—”
“There won’t be a next time. You won’t be jumping from the railing again. Promise me.”
When he offered nothing else, exasperating her, she rasped, “Why did you jump? You could have walked through the house to reach the bottom.” And saved her a panic attack and dislocated shoulder.
“This way was faster.” He pivoted on his heel and marched away. Again.
Cursing under her breath, Victoria gathered enough strength to stand. Her knees trembled and nearly buckled, but she somehow found the will to remain upright. She trailed after Aden, feeling like a puppy on a leash. A bad puppy who didn’t want to go on a walk and had to be dragged.
Aden never once glanced back to make sure she was okay or even to ascertain that she was there. He just didn’t care, and that hurt worse than her shoulder, cutting at her insides, making her cringe. To him, she either followed or she didn’t, and neither choice evoked emotion.
“Why do you want to talk to everyone?” she asked.
“A few things need to be straightened out.” He strode to the front of the house, up the porch steps and stopped at the towering, arched front doors. Few vampires were out and about at this time of day, even with the hazy milieu, but those who traipsed the grounds blinked in shock when they spotted him, then quickly bowed to show their respect.
“Um, Aden. You have to walk through a door to enter a house. Standing here won’t do anything.”
Once again, he sounded like her father—or Dmitri, her former betrothed—and she chewed at the inside of her cheek in disgust. She hadn’t been fond of either man. Please, please let Aden return to his normal self when the pills wear off.
What would she do if he didn’t?
She wouldn’t think about that right now. She would just get through the day, help Aden conduct his meeting, for whatever reason, guarding him all the while, and then, later, if necessary, she would worry.
“Do you like what you see?” she asked, recalling the first time she’d brought him here. He’d taken one look at the Queen Anne–style mansion—the asymmetrical towers, the gothic stones and glasswork, the narrow windows with their prominent eave brackets sharpened to deadly points and the steeply pitched roofs, all painted a grim black—and grimaced.
Finally he pushed the double doors open and entered. His gaze swept the spacious foyer, taking in the black walls, the crimson carpet, the antique furniture polished to a perfect shine, and he frowned.
“I know the layout of this place. There are thirty bedrooms, most of them upstairs. There are twenty ornate fireplaces, several rooms with parquet floors, several with red sandstone, a great hall, a throne room and two dining rooms. But I’ve never seen more than this room, your bedroom and the backyard. How is that possible?”
Excellent question. “Maybe…maybe when we exchanged memories all those times, some of mine stuck.”
“Maybe.” He flicked her a blank glance. “Do you recall anything about me?”
Oh, yes. Mostly she remembered the beatings he’d received in a few of the mental institutions he’d lived in—she wished to punish those responsible. She also remembered the isolation he’d endured in several of the foster homes he’d stayed in, the parents afraid of him but willing to take on his “care” for the paycheck that came with him. Not to mention the rejection he’d suffered time after time from peers who considered him too different to deal with. Too weird.
That was why she couldn’t walk away from him now. No matter how distant or unlike himself he was, she wouldn’t reject him.
“Yes, I do.” She didn’t tell him what, though. “Do you recall anything specific about me? Besides this home?”
“Oh.” A memory could have sparked compassion. Compassion could have sparked a thousand other emotions, one of them reminding him of just how much he freaking loved her. Or maybe this was for the best. There were some things a girl didn’t want her boyfriend to know about her.
“Wait,” he said, blinking. “I do remember something.”
“When you first came to Crossroads, summoned here because of the supernatural blast Mary Ann and I inadvertently created, you spotted me from a distance and thought, I should kill him.” Ouch. See? That was one of those things. “First, I told you about that. Second, taken out of context, the thought seems worse than it was.”
“You mean a desire to kill me is a good thing when in context?”
Her teeth gnashed. “No, but you’re forgetting how strange your pull was to us. We didn’t know why you’d summoned us here, what you had planned for us, or if you were helping our enemy. We—”
“You don’t have one, you have many. In fact, the only race you aren’t at war with is the wolves, and they’d be fighting you, too, if they weren’t so loyal by nature.”
Well, well. An emotion from him. Only, it wasn’t one she’d wanted. He was disappointed. She didn’t understand why. “You have no idea the things that have taken place between the races throughout the centuries. How could you? You’ve been living in your little humanity bubble, unaware of the creatures that stalk the night.”
“And yet I know alliances can be formed.”
“With who? The witches? They know we crave their blood and can’t control our hunger in their presence. They would laugh in your face if you offered a truce. So who does that leave? The fairies? We feed off the humans they consider their children. They would wipe us out if they could. Don’t forget the fairy prince you helped kill, and the fairy princess who then tried to kill you. What about the goblins? They are mindless beings, caring only about their next meal, which just so happens to be living flesh. Our flesh. Shall I go on?”
“Yes.” Glitter in his eyes, a twitch of his lips. “Explain to me why you war with other vampire factions.”
“Explain to me why humans war with other humans.”
He ran his tongue over his teeth. “Most humans desire peace.”
“And yet they still have not found a way to facilitate it.”
They stood there, simply staring at each other in the silence. She was panting again, her aching shoulder rousing her fervor for the subject and perhaps making her snappier than she should have been when Aden had so calmly stated his case.
“Aden,” she said, gentling her tone. “Peace is a wonderful thing. But that’s all it is. A thing—and sometimes the wrong thing. Will you roll over in the name of peace, allowing my father to reclaim his throne, or will you fight him?”
“Fight,” he said without hesitation. “Then I will wage war until the other vampire factions are brought to heel. And if they can’t be brought to heel, they will be annihilated. Examples will be made, and peace will finally reign.”
War at any cost was classic Vlad the Impaler ideology, and not something Aden Stone had ever before supported. Yet, this was the second time in the last five minutes that Aden had sounded exactly like her father. The third time that day.
An idea rolled through her mind, frightening her.
Were bits of her father somehow trapped inside him, driving him? If so, how? Aden had tangled with Victoria’s memories, not her father’s. Unless…were these her beliefs? Had they remained with him along with a few of her memories?
Vlad had always viewed humans as food and nothing more, even though he’d once been human himself, and he had taught his children to view them the same way. Power had gone to his head, she supposed. To all their heads. But more than thinking himself superior to humans, he’d thought himself superior to all races. King of Kings, Lord of Lords. Peace had been an afterthought, the road to that peace violent and gruesome.
Better others were wiped out than living and opposing every directive he gave them, Vlad had often said.
After meeting Aden and seeing what he was willing to endure for those he loved, her entire perspective had changed. Vlad shattered. Aden restored. Vlad enjoyed the downfall of others, Aden mourned it. Vlad was never satisfied. Aden found joy where he could.
She envied him for all of that. Not that she was now completely opposed to war. One day, she would have to face off with her father. One day, she would have to destroy him, for he would never allow Aden to rule. Vlad would fight until the end, and he would fight without mercy. Therefore, someone had to deliver that end, and she would rather that someone be her.
Having been inside Aden’s head, she knew just how deeply his past hacked at his joy. He’d hurt people. He’d possessed other bodies, forcing people to do what he wanted, rather than what they believed. All to protect himself or someone he cared about, true, yet the guilt had never left him.
I know the feeling. She still had no idea what she’d done to him, those last few minutes inside their cave, but the guilt was slicing at her, leaving raw, open wounds inside her.