What facts? “So he threw the fight and allowed him self to become the indentured servant of the new king?”

“He would never throw a fight. Your brother is a good man, Princess Victoria. His goal has always been, and will always be, freedom for us all.”

People were staring at them, listening unabashedly. So, all right, then. Pleasantries were over, and a debate was not happening. “Release the boys. Now. Or I’ll be forced to—”

“Of course. You’ll be happy to note they are in the same condition as when we took them, and no worse for wear.”

She folded her arms over her middle. “And the bruises on their wrists? The ones from the rope you used on them?”

“I’m positive they had those already,” the other kitten-eating guard said.

Both men actually stepped aside, practically gift wrapping the boys for her. Too easy, she thought, mouth opening and closing as she floundered for a response.

Shannon and Ryder did not falter. They grabbed her hands and tugged her away. Shannon also latched onto Seth to propel him into motion. Midway, when her neurons began firing again, she took the lead. Where to take them, where to take them?

An older female vampire stepped in front of her. Older, but no less beautiful for it. Smooth skin, elegant features. “I wish to speak with you, princess.” Gray eyes slid over the boys as a pink tongue ran over sharp white fangs. “How much for the tattooed one?”

“He’s not for sale,” she said at the same time Seth, the tattooed one, said, “What did you have in mind?”

With an I-mean-business frown, Victoria slapped the back of his head. “Not another word from you.”

“Ow!” He glared at her. “What was that for?”

“He’s not for sale,” she repeated to the vampire. “For any price.”

That gray gaze switched focus, landing on Shannon. “What about the—”

“None of them are for sale.” Blood-slaves were traded all the time. For money, for clothes. For fun. Once that hadn’t bothered her, but the thought of these boys, so like Aden, being passed around like bags of potato chips did not settle well with her. “Such a pity.” The female tossed her rope of blond hair over her shoulder before gliding away.

Victoria was stopped three more times with different offers to buy the humans before she at last ushered her charges through one of the many secret passages at the far end of the room. Secret, even though everyone knew about them.

This one opened into a small room that looked into the ballroom with two-way glass. Of course a young vampire couple writhed on the couch, and Victoria had to clear her throat to gain their attention. They sprang apart, both of them blushing as they righted their clothes.

“Uh, hello, princess, what are you—” the male began.

“Out,” she said, and the pair scrambled to obey. She shut the door behind them. Squaring her shoulders, she turned to face the humans with the eagerness of a firing squad. “You have questions, I’m sure.”

All three spoke at once.

“I was s-sleeping, all right, and a-all of a sudden this g-giant vamp—”

“—minding my own business and then I notice fangs. Fangs! After I pissed my pants, they forced me to—”

“—spare room or something I could stay in? Because I’m sick of going back and forth, and did you happen to notice the hot redhead with the giant—”

“—w-was that thing that came o-out of Aden? A d-dragon? It just r-rose out of h-him—”

“—rope burns. If I scar, I’m suing. I might sue anyway. Dan is going to kill me. If your blood-hungry friends don’t snack on my organs first. I’m on my last strike, you know. And this time it’s not even my fault. Why the hell—”

“—or even the brunette. You kind of owe me. I don’t know if anyone’s ever told you this before, but there is such a thing as cock-blocking, and you’re proof.”

Okay. Where to begin? Guess she’d start with the basics. “I’m a vampire.” And it was odd, talking to humans about her race. It was an offense once punishable by death. Or, at the very least, eternal imprisonment, cutting you off from the rest of the world.

That would have been her mother’s fate if Victoria hadn’t arranged for her freedom. And what does she do? Refuse to visit me. That stung more and more every day. Maybe because Victoria kept thinking of new reasons for her mother’s refusal. She wasn’t good enough. Wasn’t liked anymore. Was a complete disappointment.

Was this how Aden felt when he thought about his parents? Abandoned, forgotten, unloved? Probably, and that was yet another thing they had in common.

“This house is full of vampires, as you saw for yourself,” she continued. “What you don’t know is that Aden is now our king. He fought my brother to defend his crown. He won.”

“Yeah, he did,” Seth said, raising his hand to high-five someone.

The other two just looked at him.

“The monster you saw is…” Very hard to explain. “Something all vampires carry inside themselves.”

“Oh, hell, no. Aden is a vampire?” Ryder’s eyes were as round as saucers.

A smirking Shannon held out his hand to Ryder. “T-told you. Y-you owe me a f-five spot.”

“You wagered on his race?” she gasped out.

“Not that. I s-suspected you were s-something different. The way you w-walk, talk, dead giveaways.” He flashed her a grin. “The way you sneak into o-our room at the ranch, more so.”

Once again she was in danger of falling into that spiral of depression. She’d worked hard to blend in, and yet, she’d failed royally. “How do I walk? Talk?”

“You glide,” Seth said, wiggling his brows in approval. “And your accent is…different.”

Different. A polite way of saying “creepy”? “How is Dan?” she asked. Still blaming himself?

Yes, he still blamed himself. “Maybe, when Aden returns you to the ranch, he’ll talk to Dan.” She knew Aden respected Dan, knew just how badly he had wanted to finish high school. And he’d planned to do so. Until she’d saved his life, changing the very fabric of who he was.

Would he look back later and regret the choices he’d made these past few days? She didn’t want that. More than anything else, she wanted him happy. Now, always. And if things progressed as she thought they would, he had a long “always” to look forward to—or a long always to dread.

“Hey, what’s happening out there?” Seth asked, pressing his face against the glass.

“What do you mean?” Beyond the two-way mirror, Victoria watched as everyone in the ballroom dropped to their knees, heads bowed. Voices tapered to quiet. She knew what that meant. “Aden has arrived,” she said, every cell in her body going on alert. And sure enough, a sweep of her gaze, and she could see Aden and Sorin towering in the arched double doors.

Aden’s hair no longer fell over his face, so she had a clear view of his swollen eyelids and discolored cheeks and jaw. The damage could have been worse, much worse, and should have been, considering the number of times her brother had introduced cartilage and bone to knuckles. At least he was steady on his feet. Not many would be, after receiving a beating like that.

He searched the room, his gaze sliding over vampires, wolves and humans, never pausing, completely determined. Was he…looking for her?

He was so hot and cold with her lately, she dared not hope. Best to think of something else. Something less upsetting. Like her brother. The moron.

Sorin had healed considerably but sported the same cuts and bruises Aden did. Especially in his neck, where the je la nune had burned away skin and muscle. Part of her wanted to shove her fingers into that wound and tug. He had used her. He hadn’t known her ability to teleport had vanished, and so he had drugged her. Reduced her to a bargaining chip. Yes, he had done so to prevent a fight to the death—Aden’s death—but he could have found another way. Aden had.

And there was reason number one Aden was the better choice for king.

“I can’t believe I used to give him a hard time about stuff,” Ryder muttered. “He could have kicked my ass and then some.”

“Dude, the only class you’ve got an A in is lunch. And we both know that A only stands for Appetite.”

“He’s g-got an A in recess, t-too,” Shannon said with a grin.

Seth gagged. “My eyes! My poor eyes. Dude-on-dude foreplay is just gross.”

Ryder lost his tolerant humor, balled his fist, about to take a swing, but Victoria stepped between them. “Enough.” But really? What could she do if they decided to go for a knock-down, drag-out? Nothing, that’s what. Not anymore.

More than that, if they hit her, they could inflict injuries she might not be able to recover from.

She’d never had to worry about such a thing before.

Suddenly Aden’s gaze latched onto the mirror as if glued there—as if he could see through the smoky glass. She hadn’t meant to look at him again, but it was habit now and she’d acted automatically.

When she realized they were peering at each other, she froze, helplessly trapped by his scrutiny. Could he see her? Impossible. But…

“You may rise,” he said to the crowd.

Clothing rustled as everyone stood, cutting Aden from her view. Murmurs arose. Giggles and jeers were thrown at Sorin. Right now, he was a laughingstock.

Perhaps that would change in a hundred years or so. Perhaps not.