“No symptoms of losing too much blood?” Aden asked at the same time Victoria said, “Are you craving the bites?”
“What is this? National Interrogate Seth Day? No symptoms. And yes, I’m craving. Who could have guessed how fun those fangs could be?”
Aden heard her swallow a mouthful of crackling air, knew she was concerned and confused. “But your eyes are not glazed.”
“But…” Victoria twirled the ends of her hair around her finger. “How have you not become a blood-slave, addicted to the bite?”
Seth wiggled his brows. “Maybe I haven’t been bitten by the right girl. Hey, so, you want to give me a go?”
Victoria rolled her eyes, and Aden gnashed his teeth. Flirting with the princess was not allowed. Ever. “Does Dan know where you are?”
Seth shifted from one foot to the other, at last uncomfortable. “Not really.”
“So you disappeared, like me? Worried him?”
“Well, it’s not like I can tell him what I found, now, is it?”
More and more vampires were filing into the room. He could feel their eyes on him, their curiosity blistering him. More than that, he could feel the desires of their beasts. Those beasts wanted to be with him, to touch him. They’d missed him.
“What about the other boys?” he asked, continuing his conversation with Seth. He was king. He could do whatever he wished. “How are they?”
“Well, Terry and RJ are moving out as planned. Next week, in fact. Oh, and Dan caught Shannon and Ryder together.”
“What?” He’d known Shannon was gay. Known Shannon had thought—hoped—Ryder was gay. But Ryder had treated Shannon as if he had the plague ever since Shannon had made a pass at him. “And?”
“And, Dan was pretty cool about it. He told them the rest of us aren’t allowed to date while we’re on the ranch, so they aren’t allowed to, either. They can’t be alone together or anything like that.”
Dan was a better guy than Aden had given him credit for—and he’d given the guy a lot of credit. “You have to go back.”
“No. No way. This setup is too sweet. The chicks come on to me like they’re flies and I’m honey.” Seth pursed his lips. “I mean, like they’re bears and I’m honey.”
Aden didn’t want to know how many bears the boy had entertained. “Have there been fights over you?”
Seth’s chest puffed up. “Don’t mean to brag, but…hell, it’s not bragging if it’s true, right? Yeah, there’s been a fight. Just a few hours ago, in fact.”
And the loser was now enslaved. “You’re going back, and that’s final,” he said, something inside him—some kind of heat—wrapping around the words as they left his mouth.
Seth straightened abruptly, and his eyes glazed over. “Yes. Going back.” He spun on his heels and strode down the red carpet without another word.
“Wait,” Victoria called, a bit of panic in her voice.
Again, he kept walking.
Her desperation reached the core of him, and he found himself reacting, obeying. “Seth, stop,” he called, the heat still pulsing around the words.
“Tell him to forget his time here.” Her hand, which had never left his shoulder, tightened its grip, her fingertips digging into his muscle. “Tell him there’s no such thing as a vampire.”
“And he’ll believe me? Just like that?”
Doubtful. Still. Aden thought about it, wanting to please her in this, but unsure why he wanted to please her in this. In the end, he said, “Seth, return to Dan. Tell him you found me, that I’m alive and well and living somewhere else, but do not mention the vampires.”
That’s when realization struck. His heart beat a ragged tattoo in his chest. Voice Voodoo, Mary Ann called the vampire ability to speak and manipulate. Right now, Aden was using Voice Voodoo. He didn’t know how, wasn’t sure it would last, but damned if he wouldn’t enjoy it.
You hated when Victoria used Voice Voodoo on others.
Well, that was before.
Before you became an asshole? Power is going to your head, and if you don’t fight this, you’ll stay like this forever.
Great. He was still talking to himself. And wasn’t that a wonderful development. One half of him loathed the other half of him. At this rate, he’d soon be fist fighting himself.
Because Aden could use a human ally. Because having eyes and ears on the outside was a good thing. Because he’d said so. “Seth. Go.”
Seth went, leaving Aden alone with his vampires. The tiers were now overflowing with bodies. A sea of pale faces, both male and female. There was Draven at the front, a fake smile aimed up at him.
Lauren and Stephanie, Victoria’s sisters, were up front, as well. They were scowling at him. Scowls that did nothing to diminish their beauty. Both were blonde, but one had blue eyes and the other green. One was a warrior, the other a wannabe human.
And there were the silver-haired councilmen, paler than all the rest because they’d been alive so much longer and could no longer tolerate the sunlight.
Every vampire wore some type of black robe, and every slave wore some type of white robe. White and black, white and black, interspersed, hypnotizing.
Shifters in full wolf form lined the bottom of the rows, guarding their beloved vamps and watching him warily. While the vamps might follow him blindly, the wolves never would. Oh, they would serve whoever was crowned king, but he would have to work for their affection.
Affection was important to cultivate, for the wolves produced the substance that could slaughter Aden’s people.
“I brought you here for two reasons,” he said, not deigning to rise. Silence greeted the announcement. “The first, to remind you that I am alive and well.”
Now, murmurs arose. Whether they were of approval or disappointment, he wasn’t sure and didn’t care.
“The second reason is to remind you of what I can do. Beasts,” he called, ready to make his point. “Come to me.”
Expressions morphed to differing degrees of horror. Someone whimpered. Someone else groaned. Behind him, he heard a scream. Then, shadows began to rise over a few of the vampires. A few more. More. All. Dark wings expanded, flapping, filling empty air.
Slowly those shadows solidified, becoming monsters straight out of nightmares. Snouts formed and scarlet eyes glowed. Thick, dragonlike torsos rose…rose…and those solidified as well. Hoofed feet appeared next and stomped down the steps.
Vampires screeched and scrambled away. These monsters had been inside them, but when freed, even they couldn’t control them. And usually, a beast went for its host first, chomping and chewing until vampire organs were mush inside the supposedly indestructible skin. This time, the beasts raced for Aden.
He stood, cast a quick glance over his shoulder to ensure that Victoria was safe—she’d pressed herself against the far wall, her eyes wide with fear. Chompers stood beside her, clawed feet scraping at the dais as he tried to hold himself back, his nostrils flared, his fangs exposed, his saliva blowing at Victoria with every exhalation he made.
That beastly head swung around, and their gazes met. Like a favored pet who knew he’d get a treat, Chompers lost his air of aggression and clomped his way over. His tongue rolled out and his tail wagged. Then Aden was surrounded, being licked and nudged by others.
Chompers shoved his way to the front, snorting once, twice. He seemed to…frown?
The beast sniffed, sniffed, and yes, he was indeed frowning.
The cold part of Aden took offence. The other part of him, still buried so deeply, wanted to fix it. “Come on,” he said, scratching behind Chompers’ ear. “Let’s all go outside and play. Maybe that’ll help.”
None of the vampires protested as he led the beasts outside the throne room and through the hallway and foyer. The floor shook, and the furniture rattled. Knickknacks—probably priceless vases and things collected throughout the ages—fell and shattered.
Aden didn’t pause, didn’t ask them to be careful, and finally stepped into the gloomy morning, his army behind him, practically ripping the front door from its hinges as they hurried to once again surround him.
He picked up a few sticks and tossed them. Those sticks were chased and grabbed between strong jaws in seconds, then brought back to him. How surreal they must look out here, playing fetch. A true stranger-than-fiction moment.
For a while, he was able to forget his troubles. But deep down, he suspected that the moment he left this clearing, his life would change—again—and still not for the better.
RILEY OF THE MANY NAMES raced through forests, along paved, graveled and dirt roads, through neighborhoods, congested shop ways and back alleys, his stride never slowing. Not when the sun fought free of the patchwork sky and burned him despite the chill in the air, not when that same chill agonized his lungs, and not when the moon at last appeared, a half crescent of gold he so wanted to howl at. Hour after hour disappeared, the miles eaten up.
To distract himself, he let his mind roll with everything he’d been called throughout the years. His brothers called him Riley the Randy. Or Riley the Shut the Hell Up. Victoria had recently begun to call him Riley the Pain Who Never Lets Me Get Away With Anything. And it was usually said with a stomp of her royal foot.