Her ears perked, but she didn’t hear anything.
He lifted from her and stood, and though she’d been on a downward spiral and had despised the direction of their conversation, she already mourned the separation, resented the interruption.
Without a word, he reached down and helped her do the same. Her knees almost buckled as she brushed the debris from her robe, her attention never leaving him. His skin was flushed, tension vibrating from him. While he didn’t have fangs, his teeth were bared in a fearsome scowl. His lips were swollen—perhaps she’d bitten too hard—and his hair nearly stood on end.
Someone was coming. How had Aden heard before she had? Again? She swung around and saw Maddie the Lovely rushing toward them, long blond hair flying behind her.
“Your majesty,” the girl called, grinding to a halt when she spotted him.
Aden stepped in front of Victoria. To shield her from a possible threat? Please, please, please. That would mean her Aden was returning, the parts of Victoria fading. Right?
“You have visitors.” Maddie focused on Victoria, worry in her eyes, before returning her attention to Aden. “The councilmen suggested you hurry.”
Dread slithered through Victoria, a snake determined to squeeze the life out of her. Visitors. Allies? Or enemies? Either way, Aden was hungry and hadn’t yet fed. Until he did, everyone in the mansion would be in danger. Because the longer he went without blood, the more he would weaken, the more the hunger would strengthen, until he just sort of snapped, attacking everyone around him.
“You need to feed first,” she said to him. Though it pained her, she added, “On Maddie.” The sooner the better. Vampires could satisfactorily feed on other vampires. It wasn’t ideal, not only because of the skin issue, but also because, when you drank from another vampire, you saw the world through their eyes. At least for a little while.
A distraction like that could cost Aden his life. But, he would have a few hours before his focus merged with Maddie’s. That should give him plenty of time to deal with the visitors. And later, Victoria could guard him in her bedroom.
“No. No vampires,” Aden said with a shake of his head. “Victoria, teleport to the stronghold and bring me a blood-slave.”
He wasn’t fighting her on the issue, and she wasn’t sure if that made her happy or sad. Or angry. “I…can’t,” she admitted quietly. She’d tried to teleport to him this morning, when Riley’s brothers had informed her of his summons, and she’d failed miserably.
Depression had nearly overwhelmed her. She wasn’t normal anymore. She was a freak among her own kind. And honest to God, walking from one place to the other, without the option of simply appearing, sucked.
Sucked. Another human word. When would the madness end?
He remained quiet for a moment, absorbing her claim. Whether he deduced what it meant or not, when even she wasn’t one hundred percent certain herself, he didn’t say. He just nodded. “All right, then. We’ll walk back to the stronghold together.”
“Maddie,” he said, cutting Victoria off. “Lead the way.”
The girl nodded and obeyed, and Aden followed after her. Victoria remained in place for several heartbeats of time. Neither Aden nor Maddie looked back at her. Or around for her. She wanted to do something to keep Aden from the house and whoever had come for him. She wanted to protect him. But how?
The farther away Aden got, the more the roaring in her head increased in volume, until she couldn’t concentrate. “Shut up, Chompers!”
“Fine.” And wouldn’t you know it? Now she was talking to the thing in her head like Aden often had. Gritting her teeth, she trudged after him.
MARY ANN WANTED TO SCREAM. In the end, she allowed herself only to snap, “That’s enough. Both of you.”
Ignoring her, Tucker and Riley faced off. Again. After running all night, stealing a car, stealing bleach for her hair—she was still rebelling about that and hadn’t used it—stealing tattoo equipment, breaking into a motel room, commandeering it, she needed a freaking moment of peace before the three of them had to leave and steal another car.
“I can’t believe you want this piece of crap to live,” Riley said.
“Apparently she likes pieces of crap. Look who she’s dating.” Tucker snickered at him.
“I do not like crap.” Geez! They were like children. Feral, rabies-infected children who needed to be put down. “And I was dating him. Was. Not anymore.” Sadly.
Riley growled low in his throat, a definite war cry, looking from Tucker to her, her to Tucker, as if he didn’t know who to be angrier at. Great. That was just great. If he turned that snarl on her, she’d be the one to do a little murdering!
“Just shut up, Tucker, before Riley stops listening to me and finally snacks on your bone marrow. Riley, I believe we have a few things to do before we head out.”
He considered her, the menace draining from him.
“Take off your shirt,” he said, clearly deciding to play nice, “and lie on the bed. And if you sneak a peek, T-man, I will break every bone in your body.”
“Oh, I’ll sneak a peek. I’ll sneak several.” Tucker rubbed his hands together with glee. “And guess what, R-man. There will be one more bone in my body for you to break.”
Another growl erupted from Riley. He stepped closer to Tucker, only a whisper of air separating them.
Mary Ann jumped between them and shoved, keeping both of her arms extended. A puny effort, but they were kind enough to pretend she could do some damage of her own and remained apart.
Of course, that didn’t stop the verbal sparring.
Silence—except for the harshness of Riley’s breathing.
“Very mature,” she said on a sigh.
“What are wards, anyway?” Tucker asked, as if he hadn’t just acted like a baby and Riley wasn’t once again planning his murder.
“Do you not care about the rabid dog about to chew off your face?” she muttered. Before he could answer with something snide, she replied, “Wards are protective spells. That way, the witches have less power over us. Now back off. Both of you.”
“No one can overpower me,” Tucker said, ignoring her demand.
“Underestimating them is a mistake,” she said. “They once cast a death curse over me, Riley and Victoria, and we barely survived.”
“Let’s not forget the witches are viewing you through magic,” Riley said. “We need to get on with this.”
Mary Ann watched Tucker raze a hand through his hair. “I always knew there were other…things out there,” he said. “Different, like me. I just didn’t know it’d be something lame like witches and wolves.”
She arched a brow. Her arms were shaking—note to self: start working out—but she kept them extended. “And demons are cool?”
“Hell, yeah.” Just then, his tone was too cocky. And she knew.
He was lying. For sure. He hated himself. And having heard tidbits of gossip about his abusive father, she knew Tucker hated him, too. “Anyway,” she went on, “once a spell is cast, not even the witches can stop it from being fulfilled. Whatever conditions they set have to be met. Like with the death curse, we had a week to make a meeting. If we failed to appear, or rather, if Aden did, we all died.”
“If Vlad had known you guys were cursed, he would have simply locked Aden away, allowing that week to tick by, rather than siccing me on him. The whole stabbing thing could have been avoided. So really, you guys carry the blame for the past. Had you told people—”
“Riley, Victoria and me would have died.”
Tucker shrugged. “That wouldn’t have been my problem.”
“He stopped summoning me after I stabbed Aden, so I took off. I didn’t like helping him, you know. And for the record, I apologized to Aden. Before and after I sliced his heart in two. Cut me some slack.”
Anger had Riley’s eyes snapping with green fire. “You apologized. Oh, well, then. That smoothes everything over.”
“Finally.” Tucker raised his arms, the last sane man in the world. “Someone understands.”
Riley stepped around Mary Ann and shoved the guy. Hard. “I’m sorry.” Shoved again. “Oops. Sorry. My bad. All smoothed? Forgive me?” Another shove.
Tucker took the abuse without striking back. Shocking.
Mary Ann maneuvered them back on track. “I’m not taking off my shirt. Okay? So just stand down, boys. And you can ward my arms, Riley. That’ll work just as well as my back and chest.”
“Fine.” At least he stopped pushing.
Already she had tattoos on her back to protect her against mind manipulation and mortal wounds. Now he wanted to ensure she was protected against another death curse, as well as magical illusions—he’d learned his lesson with Tucker—and pain and panic and spying spells.
“Wait, wait, wait. Back up.” Riley shook his head, the tension draining from him as he faced her. “Your dad will see your arms.”
Yes, she knew that. And that would absolutely matter if she ever planned to see her dad again.
A wave of homesickness hit her, tears suddenly welling in her eyes. She’d been gone only two weeks, but she already missed her dad like crazy. But she had to stay away from him, too. She would not bring a supernatural war to his doorstep.
Rather than offering a reply, however, she sat at the edge of the bed and rolled up her shirtsleeves. “Stop wasting time. Get to work.”
“You really don’t plan on going back, do you?” Tucker asked. For once, his tone was without sarcasm, flip pancy or pure meanness.