“Everyone’s about to see your blood sprayed all over the trees.”

Perhaps Victoria should have come out here on her own. “Lauren, you’re gorgeous,” she said, holding out her arms to keep the two sniping females apart, just in case they decided to leap at each other and slap fight. Yes, they’d done it before, and it was humiliating for everyone. “Stephanie, you’re beautiful, too. Now, can I speak with my brother? Please?”

Sorin kissed Stephanie’s temple before setting her down. He motioned behind the group with a wave of his hand. “Sit. All of you.” So formal now. So polite.

“Sit wh-ere. Oh.” Victoria spun around, expecting to see only the brittle leaves and twigs she’d passed. Instead, she found four perfect tree stumps, two facing the other two. Exactly how distracted had she been?

Victoria eased onto the one closest to her. Sorin claimed the one across from her, and Stephanie claimed the one at his side, forcing Lauren to take the one facing her.

All but one of Sorin’s men had disappeared, but she knew they were nearby, watching, listening, protecting. Then one of them stepped from the shadows, proving her suspicions, holding a tray of blood-filled goblets.

Victoria accepted one and sipped. The blood was warm, rich and sweet. Not as sweet as Aden’s, but Chompers practically whimpered with relief.

“I’m surprised you came,” Sorin said, looking right at her.

She had so much to say to him, so much to ask. “Why did you never visit us?” was the first thing to escape her mouth. The question echoed, and she blushed, gulping down the rest of the blood to hide her face for a few precious seconds. She should have chosen to kick things off another way. Not accusing him of neglect right from the beginning and putting him on the defensive.

Amused rather than offended, he said, “I didn’t think you wished to risk Father’s wrath.” Getting comfortable, he removed the swords from his back and propped them against the side of his seat. “Was I wrong?”

Shoulders slumping, she set her empty goblet on the ground. “I could have risked his wrath to see you, so I suppose I must share the blame.”

Lauren rolled her eyes. “You’re always so quick to take the blame or forgive when you can’t. Well, I would have risked it, you backline reject, but still you didn’t try to meet with me. And let me tell you something else. If you despised Vlad half as much as you claimed, you would have. So guess what? You’re all talk and I’ll hate you forever for that. In fact, I might even decide to rip your throat out before I— No way! Is that blade curved?” She dropped her still-full goblet, blood spilling in the dirt, and pushed from her stump.

In the next blink, she was crouching in front of his weapons, studying them, running her fingers along the blades, oohing and aahing. “Can I have one? Or both? Please!”

He handled her jump from hatred to gimme-now-now-now with ease. “You may have both when I’m done with the human king.”

The sickness Victoria had experienced in her bathroom, just before shaving Aden’s head, returned full force.

“Awesome. Thanks.” Lauren dragged one of the blades back to her seat to continue her study.

Sorin peered at Victoria with eyes so similar to her own that she could have been drowning in her reflection. “And you? What would you have of me? My surrender to the human?”

Stephanie raised her free hand high in the air. “Me, me. I know. Pick me!”

“You asked me to come, and I did,” Victoria said. “Why did you ask me? To offer your surrender to the human?”

She expected the comment to enrage him. Had he been Vlad, it would have. Instead, he surprised her once again by grinning. “I see Father did not beat the fire out of you as I’d assumed.”

Vlad had certainly tried. “Well?” she prompted.

Sorin shrugged one of those wide shoulders. “I heard your Aden’s summons, and I came to remove him from the throne. I can tell you have great affection for him. I have also heard the reports. But we have become a joke among the races. Soon those races will swarm and attack us, hoping to destroy the vampires at long last.”

“How have we become a joke? He defeated the witches and the fae—in one night! Tell me the last time you did that. Or Father. You can’t,” she added before he could reply. “You’re simply making excuses because you desire the crown for yourself.”

He gave another shrug, unashamed and unabashed. “Very well. I do. That crown is my right. My birthright. The human seems nice enough—for food—but that’s all he is, Victoria. Food.”

No, Aden was far more than that. He was courageous, honorable, and had (almost) always made her feel better about herself. He’d never purposely hurt her, and he never would, even when he was at his worst. She could not say the same about Sorin.

So, this was one battle she would not back down from. “You should have taken the crown from Vlad yourself, but you didn’t. You struck at him from behind, waiting, biding your time.”

Finally, the reaction she’d expected since the first. Anger. “Your human did not strike at Vlad,” Sorin said with a glare. “Dmitri did. Aden merely finished off your betrothed.” True. But. “If Dmitri defeated Father, Dmitri was stronger than Father. And if Aden defeated Dmitri, that means Aden was stronger than both of them.”

“Logical, but wrong. He’ll not defeat Vlad. He’s too nice. More than that, Father was at his weakest when Dmitri attacked him. That will not happen again. He’ll be prepared now. And he’ll do anything, fair or foul, but mostly foul, to get what he wants. You know this. I can defeat him, however. I will defeat him. I’ve been preparing for this war for years.”

“Wait. What is all of this about defeating Vlad?” Lauren said. “He’s dead.”

Lauren looked like she wanted to protest, but a nod of confirmation from Sorin, then Stephanie, had her sputtering. “How did you guys know? Why did no one tell me? What does this mean for us? Our people?”

“Sorin told me,” Stephanie said. “And it means nothing. No matter what, Father cannot be allowed to rule again. He’s a tyrant.”

“You know I’m right. You hate him, you just don’t want a human in charge of us.” Stephanie twined her fingers with Sorin’s. “And you need to listen to me. Aden isn’t as nice as you think. I mean, he is, but he’s lived at a ranch for human baddies for months. He’s done stuff. He’ll not be easy to walk on.”

Sorin scoffed. “A baddie human isn’t the same as a baddie vampire warrior, now is it?”

“I’m with Steph,” Lauren said, abandoning her upset over Vlad’s defeat of the grave. Or, really, her upset over not being told. “You’re underestimating Aden, and it’ll cost you.” Metal vibrated and whistled as she ran her fingertip along the center of one of the swords. “You weren’t here when he had our beasts slobbering all over him.”

“Stop!” Victoria banged her fist against her thigh. “Giving Sorin information about Aden is akin to aiding him. Aiding him is a betrayal to your king.”

Sorin waved away her protest. “They’ve told me nothing I didn’t already know. And you can tell your human that I will be leaving my beast behind. He’ll not use mine against me.”

She absorbed his words, her eyes widening. “You can do that? Leave your beast behind? On purpose? And survive?”

He nodded proudly. “Unlike Father, I have never feared mine. I accept that part of myself—and use it to my advantage. My beast leaves me and returns to me at my discretion.”

“He doesn’t try to kill you?” Lauren asked, as shocked as Victoria was.

“He did. At first. Now, he accepts.” Sorin rested his elbows on his knees, his expression thoughtful. “Perhaps I’ll teach you how to release yours. He can fight alongside you. And believe me, you’ll never have a stronger, more vigilant partner.”

Victoria had never heard such excitement from her all-fighting-all-the-time sister. And, she thought with mounting dread, there went Aden’s best advantage. Controlling Sorin through his beast.

“Things will be much improved under my reign,” Sorin said, his gaze pinning her in place. “You’ll see.”

RAIN POURED ALL NIGHT LONG. Rain still poured at dawn and throughout the rest of the day. The sky was as black as an abyss, the clouds so thick Aden wasn’t sure they’d ever dissipate.

At the appropriate time, he made his way to the backyard of his new home. A home he would not give up easily. He stopped at the edge of the warded circle, quivering with energy. He was shirtless, wearing only jeans and boots, already soaked to the bone.

On his finger perched Vlad’s ring, filled with je la nune. At his ankles, his daggers were at the ready. Every vampire living in the home stood outside with him, some holding torches under the awning. Victoria stood with her sisters, wringing her hands together, bathed in flickering firelight.

They hadn’t spoken since she’d left him yesterday. She’d tried, she’d wanted to, but still he’d avoided her. His hunger for her would have deepened, and worse, he would have asked her to betray her brother.

He couldn’t ask her. Not if he wanted to like himself when this was over.

It would be hard to like himself, though, if he was dead.

He gave one clipped shake of his head. No, he hadn’t. He’d tried. A few hours after dismissing the slave she’d sent him, without taking a single drop of blood from the girl, his hunger had overwhelmed him and he’d marched to the slave quarters, an area that was more like a harem than anything, where the humans could roam freely, even though they didn’t want to roam.