“Insane yet clever. You are correct, Aden the Beast Tamer.”

“No.” Victoria shook her head violently. “Maybe we can talk this out. Maybe we can compromise.” Vampire battles of this magnitude were bloody and sadistic, and she couldn’t bear the thought of either of them hurt…or worse. And after witnessing Sorin’s skill, she wasn’t sure even Aden’s ability could save him.

Aden knew it, too. Hadn’t he predicted this wouldn’t end well? And yet still he said, “I accept your challenge, Sorin the Vicious. We fight for the crown at sunset tomorrow.”

“WHY DID YOU GIVE HIM so long to prepare?”

Aden sat on the lid of the toilet in Victoria’s private bathroom, hungry, so hungry, tired and unsure. Had he done the right thing?

He held clippers in one hand and a small trash bin in the other. He passed the first to Victoria and set the second on the floor between his feet before he replied. “I gave myself so long to prepare.”

She was paler than usual and shaky rather than sturdy. Agitated, even. He understood. He did. Aden had threatened her brother. Was going to fight her brother. She was probably confused, upset and unsure.

An hour ago, that might not have bothered him. But as they’d stood in the throne room, danger torpedoing toward him, she’d taken his hand and offered comfort. Somehow, some way, that contact had tugged him out of the cold, emotionless wasteland he’d been living in. He was feeling. Hope, admiration, affection, each like the warm rays from the sun.

Now he rested his elbows on his knees. “I’m going to ask you a question, Victoria, and I don’t mean anything by it, okay? So don’t get the wrong idea. I’m just curious.”

She stiffened, and he could feel the worry pouring off her already. “All right.”

“You’re helping me, but you obviously love your brother.” He’d felt her desire to run to the homicidal maniac. Only, instead of attacking him, she would have hugged him. Would Sorin have murdered her, too? “So, why are you here, helping me?”

Some of the worry faded. “Fishing for compliments? Or an I love you confession?” Before he could respond, not that he knew what to say, she added, “I don’t want the two of you to fight, that’s all.”

Did she expect him to walk away from this? “We will fight. That, I can promise you.” Blunt of him, perhaps, but he didn’t want any misunderstandings.

Her shoulders slumped a little. “I know you will. Believe me, if I thought I could talk sense into either one of you…”

He watched her, trying to gauge her reaction to his next words without looking like he was trying to gauge her reaction. “Do you want me to walk away?”

A moment passed. She sighed. “No. You can’t. He would come after you. Others would come after you. The challenge has been issued and accepted, and if it’s not followed through, everyone will think you are weak, that they can have what’s yours. You’ll never have peace. I just…”

Wanted them both to be okay. Understandable.

“And before you ask, I want you to win.”

“Because there’s a possibility you will spare him. He will not extend you the same courtesy. Do—do you know what’s going to happen?”

“I don’t know about the outcome of the fight, no.” Truth. Through Elijah, he’d seen it, but he’d seen several different versions of it. “I do know your brother won’t cause any trouble while he waits for the challenge. Meaning, no one else will try and attack him. Or me. If that helps. Elijah told me.”

She shuddered. “It doesn’t help. And I…I don’t think we should talk about this anymore. My body is reacting negatively to your every word. Any more, and I might throw up on your feet.”

Great. He’d meant to reassure her, not sicken her. “Is an upset stomach your only symptom?”

“My blood is chilled and thick, and my heart is drumming too forcefully against my ribs.”

Not as terrible as he’d feared. She’d just described a mild panic attack. “And you’ve never experienced this type of reaction before?”

“Not to this degree.” She frowned down at the clippers. “So what do you want me to do with these?”

If she wanted to topic switch, they’d topic switch. He wasn’t sure how else to calm her. “I’d like you to shave my head.”

He felt a small wave of amusement rush through him. “There are worse things.”

No, there are not! That will seriously affect our lady action, Caleb said. He’d been fuming since Aden had made the decision to say goodbye to his dye job.

“Anyway, I won’t be bald. I’ll be blond. There’s a guard on the clippers that’ll leave a couple inches of hair.”

“Oh,” she repeated, then fumbled around for a moment as she tried to turn them on. Finally the little motor revved to life. “And you’re sure about this? There’s no going back if you don’t like the results.”

“Then tell me why you want a cut.”

Yeah, Julian said. This is dumb. We’ll look like an idiot.

After everything that had happened, Aden felt like a new person. He was a new person. Yet every time he passed a mirror—and as a lot of the walls here were, in fact, mirrors, he saw more of himself than he wanted—he looked the same. That had to change, too.

“I just do,” was all he said.

“Very well, then.” Resigned, tentative, Victoria got to work, and he watched black lock after black lock fall to the floor.

Stop her, Caleb practically cried. Grab her hand and stop her.

For a moment, Aden felt something—a rope, maybe—pulling at his arm, lifting it, his fingers twitching, ready to close around Victoria’s wrist, and he frowned. A conscious effort was required to keep his arm at his side.

Come on, man, Caleb continued. All you have to do is lift your arm and grab her wrist.

Lift his arm. Grab her wrist. The answer popped into place. “You trying to take over the body, Caleb?”

Maybe, was the grumbled reply.

None of the souls had tried anything like that in years. Probably because they couldn’t take over without his permission. Or hadn’t been able to. But that tug…it was stronger than anything they’d done before. He wasn’t exactly sure what that meant.

“Don’t do that again,” he snapped.

Victoria had moved between his spread knees, and at his words, she stiffened. “I didn’t…I’m just…you told me to do this!”

Immediately repentant, he said, “Sorry. I wasn’t talking to you.”

“Oh. Good. You had me worried.” She returned her attention to the trim job.

Her scent hit him with the force of a swinging baseball bat. Aden forgot the souls as his mouth watered, and his stomach curled into itself. He’d been on the verge of starvation ever since her brother had maimed and killed those vampires, and he’d barely made it out of the throne room without falling to his face and licking the oh, so delicious-looking blood off the floor.

Only two things had stopped him. The desire for Victoria’s blood, and only Victoria’s blood, which fortified itself by the minute, and the knowledge that showing weakness of any kind would be used against him during the big battle. And the battle would happen, just as he’d promised Victoria.

Elijah might have seen several different outcomes, but circumventing the battle altogether hadn’t been one of them.

A few times, Aden had seen himself die, his head removed by a sword covered in je la nune. Victoria wouldn’t be able to save him from that. But then he’d thought, I won’t go low, I’ll dart to the side. And the visions had instantly changed. So, when the new outcome played through his mind, he’d seen Sorin swing, encountering air as Aden ducked and went in for his own attack.

He’d realized then that his future was uncertain. Completely changeable. And he could win—maybe—but at a price. His victory would mark the beginning of a downward spiral for Victoria. Maybe because she would see him standing over her brother’s body, vampires cheering his success while she cried.

He didn’t want that for her. Didn’t want her depressed or angry, or worse, hating him with every fiber of her being. Therefore, he had to figure out a solution.

“Did you know you have small black dots on your scalp?” she asked. “Freckles?”

Cute kicked the butt of hideous, but just barely. “Thanks.”

“Welcome.” A soft hum drifted from her as she finished up. “There,” she finally announced. “Done.” She cupped his cheeks in her less than warm hands and looked him over. “You are—” She gasped.

“What?” Was it that bad?

I don’t like to say I told you so, Caleb announced. But I freaking TOLD YOU SO.

While Victoria’s mouth opened and closed, Aden unfolded to a stand. His reflection in the mirror above the sink slowly came into view. He’d expected a real ugh-o to stare back at him, but that wasn’t the case. He had two inches of hair left, the strands spiked. They were a dirty blond, his natural color, and they made his skin appear a deeper bronze. And his eyes, which had once been black and had recently converted to violet, were now a golden brown.

Oh, Caleb breathed. Well, okay then. Will wonders never cease?

“Like it?” With a trembling hand, she reached up to run her fingers along his newly shorn scalp. “I love it. And I finally see the appeal of the bad boy.”