Victoria focused on Aden. Were his lips curling into a grin? Surely not. That would mean she had amused him. “Yes. Sorry.”

She looked up, and sure enough, two females were pounding down the stairs, black robes dancing at their ankles. Victoria wanted to ask how he’d heard them when she had not but didn’t want to admit her observational skills were inferior.

“My king,” one of the girls said when she spotted him, stopping at the second to last step. She executed a perfect curtsy, pale hair falling over one shoulder.

“My…Aden.” The other girl stopped, as well. Her curtsy was less graceful, but maybe that was because she was eyeing Aden as if he were a slice of candy and she had a sweet fang.

She wasn’t attracted to him, Victoria knew. No, the dark-haired beauty was attracted to power. Which was why she’d challenged Victoria for rights to him.

According to their laws, any vampire could challenge any other vampire for rights to a human blood-slave. Though Aden was acting king, he was still human—or had been, at the time the challenge was issued—and Draven had used the loophole to her advantage, hoping she would take over his “care” and become queen.

They had yet to fight. Soon, though. Soon. Aden had only to announce when and where.

Victoria seethed with the need to put Draven in her place—the crypt outside. There was protecting your loved ones out of duty, and then there was protecting your loved ones for fun. Draven would be given a taste of the latter.

Perhaps Victoria was still like her father, after all.

“Is today my birthday? Look who decided to stop hiding in her room,” Draven said with a pointed look at Victoria. “How courageous of you.”

“You were welcome to knock on that door at any time. And yet you didn’t. I wonder why.”

“Maddie. Draven.” Aden nodded to them both, inserting himself into the “conversation” and taking it over. With no other preamble, he added, “Go to my throne room and await me. I wish to speak with everyone who lives here.”

Victoria’s hands fisted at her sides. He knew the sisters’ names, yet she didn’t think he’d ever before met Maddie the Lovely. Draven the Cunning, yes. Or as Victoria suddenly wanted to call her, Draven the Soon to Die Pain fully.

The vampire council had chosen the bitch—oops, was her anger showing again?—to date Aden, along with four others, one of whom had been Victoria’s sister Stephanie, hoping he would choose a wife, while at the same time pacifying mothers and fathers who wanted their daughters aligned with the royal house. Back then, Aden had claimed to desire only Victoria.

Had that changed like everything else?

“What is this meeting about?” Draven asked, batting her lashes at him.

“You will find out when everyone else does.”

While Victoria rejoiced over his abrupt answer, Draven struggled to hide her flare of anger.

When she succeeded, she propped her hip to one side and twirled a lock of hair around her finger. “May I stand on your dais?”

The forcefulness—the humanness—of the thought surprised her. At least Aden seemed as unaffected by Draven’s seduction attempt as he had about everything else.

“No, you may not,” he said, then added flatly, “But you may sit on the steps next to the dais. I want you close to me.”

She threw Victoria a smug glance. “Because I’m beautiful and you can’t keep your eyes off me?”

Maddie pinched her, clearly trying to shut her up, but Draven waved her hand away. She’d always been her own number one fan.

Aden frowned. “No. The fact is, I don’t trust you, don’t like you and want to make sure I can see your hands. If you go for a weapon, you will be deemed a traitor and imprisoned.”

Every bit of color drained from Draven’s cheeks. “Wh-what?”

All right, Victoria loved this new Aden.

“May we change our clothing before we enter the throne room, majesty?” Maddie asked softly, and when Aden nodded she pulled her sister away before the girl could say anything else.

Victoria’s mouth opened, snapped closed, opened again, yet no words escaped. Not that she knew what to say. That had been spectacular. Simply spectacular.

Back to business, Aden strode to the far wall and lifted the gold summoning horn hanging there. A thing of beauty, that horn. Solid gold, intricately carved, a dragon’s head curving from the top, scaled claws curving from the bottom and a mouthpiece rounding up into a tail. He placed that mouthpiece at his lips.

“Wait. What are you doing? Don’t—” Victoria raced toward him, only to stop when he blew. A loud wail echoed throughout the entire mansion, bouncing off the walls, vibrating against the floors, rattling the very foundation. “—do that,” she finished weakly.

He must have interpreted “don’t do that” as “do it again,” an easy mistake to make when you failed to listen, because he blew a second time, and another wail resounded.

Dread worked through her, and she pinched the bridge of her nose. Finally the wailing ceased, leaving a strange, deafening silence.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” she said.

Her hand fell to her side. “Uh, because I said not to?”

“Why not use the horn,” he continued, “when it’s out in the open, waiting to be used?”

“It’s out in the open for emergencies only.”

I will not scream at him. “How so?” Gritted, but not screamed. Good.

“I didn’t want to climb the stairs, call, text, email or wait for the grapevine to inform everyone about my meeting.”

I will not slap him. I absolutely will not. “Well, do you know what your laziness just did?”

Maybe one little slap wouldn’t hurt. “Yes. You also summoned your allies and let your enemies know you are in need of aid. Wait. Let me rephrase. You summoned my father’s allies, and—” she lowered her voice in case anyone was eavesdropping “—he wants you dead—in case you’ve forgotten—and now he’ll have help. Because when he shows up—and he will—they’ll offer their support to him rather than to you.”

Which meant… Her brother would return, she realized. Her brother would return and assist her father.

What would she do if her brother fought her boyfriend?

She’d always loathed the decree that kept her segregated from Sorin, had hoped he would one day seek her out, but he never had. Neither of them had been willing to risk their father’s ire. She’d spied on him a few times, though, watching him flirt with women before coldly maiming the vampires he trained with.

She’d come to think of him as half irreverent brat, half homicidal maniac, and to this day she wondered what he thought of her, or if he would even care to learn. He’d always been Vlad’s staunchest supporter.

Aden winning against her father was a long shot, but Aden winning against her father and her brother? Impossible. Because the only thing that would be sliced was Aden.

She would talk to Sorin—for the first time ever, and sweet mercy, she wanted to vomit from nerves at just the thought—and ask him not to fight. And when she asked him, he would…she didn’t know what he would do.

“If what you say is true,” Aden said, “your father would have snuck in here and used the horn himself. But he didn’t, which means he didn’t want anyone summoned.”

“I—” Had no argument, and he had a point. Still!

What would it take to shake him out of this emotionless stupor? “Some will teleport into the surrounding forest. Some will travel as humans travel, but all will make their way here to hurt you.”

“I know. And that’s a good thing. I want my opposition disposed of quickly, in one swoop.”

Back to spouting Vlad’s—her—philosophy, was he? “My brother will be among those who travel here.”

He knew? And he didn’t care?

No, he didn’t care. She stared up at him for a long, silent moment. “Who are you?” Her Aden never would have planned something so cruel.

“I’m your king.” His head tilted as his study of her intensified. “Unless you choose to serve your father now?”

“Why? Would you kill me, too?”

His expression became thoughtful, as if he were actually pondering his answer.

“Never mind,” she gritted out. The conversation was only making her angrier. “But my brother—”

“Is not up for discussion. Until Vlad develops the courage to show himself, our little war can’t begin. And it needs to begin, out in the open this time, so that it can end. We cannot have one without the other.”

He’d just spouted another facet of her beliefs. How many times had she said You cannot have an end without a beginning to Riley throughout the years? Countless. Of course, she’d been trying to talk the shifter into letting her misbehave, not trying to convince him to ramp up the hostilities. But here was a question to last the ages: had she been this annoying?

Aden shrugged, but underneath the casual, unconcerned action, she saw a glimmer of unease work through his expression. First thoughtful, now uneasy. He must not like frustrating her. She hoped.

Hope that was demolished when he said, “Enough. We have things to do,” and strode to the throne room to at last host his precious meeting.

Once again Victoria found herself trailing after him like a puppy. And she didn’t need Elijah to tell her bad, bad things were about to happen.