When the crowd parted like the Red Sea, Victoria was offered another straight shot at Aden. He was striding forward and headed directly toward her.
Had he seen her?
Sorin stalked behind him, ignoring the barbs tossed his way.
A pair of soft, delicate hands reached out, caressing Aden, stopping him. Draven the So Going To Die, Victoria realized with a rising tide of anger. Again the crowd quieted, every ear in the room twitching and listening.
“Congratulations on your victory,” Draven said silkily. “My king.”
“Thank you. If you’ll excuse me—” He tried to move around her.
She jumped back in front of him. “A moment of your time, if you please.”
Indecision played over his features before he nodded. “A moment. Nothing more.”
Her eyes glittered with menace, revealing the bitch underneath the beauty. “Very well, I’ll jump right in. I don’t know if the wolf-shifter, Riley, or even Victoria herself, told you or not, but two weeks ago I challenged Victoria for rights to you.”
Every muscle in his body stiffened, and his narrowed gaze rose to the mirror for one second, two, before returning to Draven. “Go on.”
Perhaps the girl was stupid and didn’t hear the warning in his tone. Perhaps? Ha! She was, because she actually continued. “You are human, after all, and—”
“I realize that,” Draven replied. “Now.” Stupid was too kind. Obviously she had the IQ of a gutter rat. “But the challenge was issued and accepted weeks ago, as I said, when you were, in fact, human. So the law still applies. Victoria must fight me, as you fought Sorin. That is our way. That has always been our way.”
The whispered theories reignited. How had Aden turned? Could someone else be turned?
A grayish tint washed over Aden’s skin. “There will be no attempting to turn the humans,” he called to one and all.
Even Victoria didn’t know how or why Aden—and she herself—had survived when the only successful turnings had happened in the late 1400s. Bloody Mary—the original and not the former queen of England—was now the leader of the Scottish faction, and she had turned in that time frame as well.
Throughout the years, Victoria had heard rumors of a long-ago passionate affair between Vlad and Mary. That Vlad had chosen to turn her rather than his wife. And when Vlad later discarded Mary in favor of another, Mary had gathered her supporters and left, vowing revenge.
There had been battles, lives lost, but neither side had ever backed down. Amid both clans, people had tired of the constant bickering. Willing to abandon the only homes they’d ever known in the name of peace, they had broken all ties with both leaders, and more factions were created. So many, all over the world, each with a king or a queen, or both, if the more powerful of the pair was inclined to share.
Victoria thought of Sorin and his claim to have slaughtered Vlad’s allies. A claim she was inclined to believe, considering none had arrived after Aden’s summons.
A worrisome thought occurred to her. If word of that spread—hey, everyone, the new vampire king has no backup—well, he would become an even bigger target.
“As the king’s number one adviser,” Sorin said to Draven, “I have much to say about this.”
Aden tossed him a what-the-hell frown. Victoria hid a smile behind her hand. Number one adviser?
“I am advising him to schedule the fight later today. After the beating I just received, I look forward to seeing someone else receive one. Namely you, little girl. I have watched my sister fight—”
“—and she is very, very good.”
Draven buffed her fingernails. “I am agreeable to the time frame, and need only your approval, majesty.”
Victoria’s hand fell to her throat. Her oh-so-vulnerable throat. The chill inside her deepened, migrating into bone.
“What are you quaking about? You can take her.” Seth tapped her on the butt. “She’s straight-up bitch, but you’ve got a dark side. I can tell.”
“Thank you. I think.” She used to have a dark side. Now she just had a human side. Draven would tear her to pieces. And though she wanted to rush out there and stop the madness, she knew it was already too late. The fight had been accepted. To withdraw now was to admit defeat.
As Aden would soon learn, the loser of a challenge gave up everything to the winner. Their possessions…their lives. That’s why challenges were so rarely issued. Sorin was Aden’s property now. For the rest of his very long life.
Victoria did not want to be Draven’s.
“No, today is unacceptable,” Aden said. “I’ll set a time after I review my schedule, and an announcement will be made. Until then, stay away from her.” He brushed Draven aside and kicked back into motion, Sorin remaining at his side.
The girl watched his back the entire time, her eyes slitted.
When he reached the mirrored wall, he stopped, his gaze roving, searching for the handle. “Victoria,” he said. “Let me in.”
He did. He knew she was inside. And peering through objects had not been an ability she had ever possessed. Shocked, she opened the door for him.
Their gazes clashed as the boys poured out from behind her and rushed to him, surrounding him, whooping, grinning like loons and shouting. Aden endured everything with flushed cheeks and a frozen expression of disbelief.
She smiled at him, and he smiled back. A moment all their own, despite the chaos. Pleasure bloomed. She cherished every second, knowing the memory was one she’d coddle for a very long time.
“That’s the way it’s done, bitches,” Seth said, extending his arm through the doorway and flipping Sorin off.
Ryder drilled his knuckles into Seth’s arm and chortled. “Now who’s the one enjoying guy-on-guy foreplay?”
“Stephanie,” Aden called without turning away. “I need you.”
Her sister came rushing from the center of the crowd, chewing gum and twirling the end of her ponytail around her finger. “Present.”
“Do me a favor and take the boys back to the ranch.”
Frowning, she pointed to her chest. “Me?”
“Sweet! Really?” Jumping up and down, clapping her hands, she said, “I can drink them, right? Please, please, please tell me I get to drink them.”
Aden’s horror was instant. “No. Do not drink from them. I want them to arrive home in the same condition they’re in now.”
The bouncing stopped. She popped a bubble. “That’s all you want me to do, then? Escort them? That kind of sucks—without actually sucking.”
He glanced at Victoria for guidance. She shrugged.
“Yes, escort them only,” he said, massaging the back of his neck.
Next came the patented Princess Stephanie pout. A glower, a stomp of her foot, a puff of breath. “Fine. Next time, though, I want an important assignment. You should see my skills with nunchucks.”
Stephanie flattened her hands on Aden’s shoulders, rose on her tiptoes and kissed him on the cheek. “By the way, thanks for not killing my big bro.”
Aden cast Sorin a sideways glance, the same what’s happening around me glance he’d thrown Victoria a moment before. She liked that. Liked seeing them work as a unit. “I can’t say it was the wisest decision I’ve ever made, but he is growing on me. Like a fungus.”
Stephanie laughed, a tinkling sound. “Whatever. You like him. I can tell.” With that, she turned to the boys and waved them over. “Come on, pesky humans. Let’s get you home.”
“Yeah, yeah,” she replied, not turning back but throwing her hands in the air.
Shannon patted Aden on the shoulder before walking off, and Aden nodded at him. A silent communication. They would be talking soon.
“Pizza first,” Victoria heard Seth say as the foursome pushed through the enthralled throng, “then home.”
“And you’ll have to convince Dan we were there all along,” Ryder said. “Seth mentioned you guys have some kind of freaky voice.”
“We do, so it’s not a prob,” Stephanie replied. “But I could also nunchuck his head and he’ll—”
A growl of frustration pierced the air. “You take the fun out of everything!”
Chuckling, Aden focused on Victoria. “Now that that’s taken care of…” He reached out his hand, twined her fingers with his, and they left the party. Together.
RILEY HAD BEEN ON plenty of stakeouts in his life, but this was by far his fave. Even though it was a last minute change of plans and rushed.
First, he and Mary Ann had caught a glimpse of Aden’s parents as they drove a truck away from their house a few hours before. Or who they thought were Aden’s parents. Driver had been male, early to mid-forties, with brown hair, and from what Riley could tell with his superior wolf-vision, gunmetal gray eyes.
The passenger had been female, possibly in her late thirties, with blond hair, and from what he could tell, brown eyes. Both possessed muddy green auras. From guilt, maybe. Or fear. Hard to tell when the color was so murky, even with his superior wolf-vision.
Perhaps Joe and Paula Stone were living with regret for what they’d done to their son. Perhaps they’d simply been panicked ’cause they couldn’t pay their electric bill. Either was possible.
Riley and Mary Ann were waiting in another house, across the street from the small, slightly rundown one the Stones had left, hoping to catch another glimpse of the couple when they returned. Perhaps even listen in on a conversation or two when they did.
Riley would have searched the house while the couple was gone, but he’d spied cameras. The expensive kind with face-recognition software. Too expensive for a home as cheap as that one. And with that kind of cheese being spent on cameras, he’d bet good money there were motion detectors on every door and window. Not to mention special hinges and even silent alarms. So, if he didn’t have to do a smash and grab, he wasn’t going to do a smash and grab.