Poor Mary Ann. She was an unwanted casualty.

Tucker waited as the witches who’d just annihilated her congregated under his tree. Red Robed Bitches, that’s what he called them. They were glaring up at him, pissed that they’d failed and blaming him. Even though he hadn’t been the one to freaking fail.

“You said we’d have the pair cornered if we waited until they were inside the house,” the blonde in charge said. Marie, he thought was her name. She was a pretty thing but vicious in her determination.

Having rifled through Mary Ann’s things, he’d found the address she’d tried so hard to hide. Had known exactly where she would go, if not when. So, he’d cast an illusion when she and the wolf left the café and followed them. “That’s when I thought you were competent,” he replied. “Why didn’t you give chase?”

“Again I’m struck by the words thought you were competent.”

They spat expletives at him.

He shoved from the branch and fell…fell…and landed on his feet. In the center of the RRBs now, he spun, his arms splayed wide, his vibe all about daring them to try something with him.

He really wanted them to try something with him.

He deserved punishment, but then, so did they. Only difference was, he knew he deserved it. They’d be the first to tell you how righteous their cause, how they were on the holy path, blah, blah, blah.

They had lost Mary Ann’s trail after Riley warded her, but they hadn’t lost Tucker’s. Apparently they’d magically locked onto him, too, but Riley had refused to ward him, so there you go. Because of Riley’s refusal, they’d never really lost the girl. Tucker would not take the blame for that.

The fae had been trailing Mary Ann and Tucker, as well. They would have been here, extracting their pound of flesh like the witches, only the witches had…politely asked them to leave, sending the other race home to their mamas.

After that, Tucker had thrown the witches an illusion—one of Mary Ann and Riley talking, arguing, tossing out names and info Tucker had pulled out of his ass—hoping to send the little RRBs running in a thousand different directions. Of course, that’s when Vlad had called him.

Just. Like. That.

He shuddered as that eerie, commanding voice continued to shove its way into his head, leading him around like a puppet on a string. Wasn’t difficult to do, either. The darkest part of Tucker’s nature—the part that enjoyed verbally ripping his little brother to pieces, kicking puppies, fist fighting his friends, cheating on his girlfriend, watching the girl pregnant with his baby lose the respect of her family—that part craved the vampire’s guidance.

The other part of him was curled up in a little ball, weeping like a stupid kid, sad about all the pain he’d caused—all the destruction he would soon cause. But Tucker hated that side of himself, too, so really, there wasn’t any part of himself that he liked.

The king’s voice was stronger than before, louder, more…everything. Every day he healed a little more, and one day soon, he would be the man, the warrior, he’d once been.

Vlad had commanded Tucker to approach the witches, told him what image to show them, told him what to say and how to act. And he had. He’d done all of it. Assumed the image of someone they knew—who he was supposed to be, he still wasn’t sure—and they’d believed him and done everything he’d wanted without question.

“Argh! You were always frustrating, but now you’re just a bastard.”

“You can’t blame your failure on me,” he said. “I gift wrapped the pair and handed them to you like it was your birthday.” Just saying those words caused guilt to claw at him.

Tucker…you know what to do. Kill the witches, find the wolf and the drainer, and finish them off.

Kill the witches? Fine, no problem. Consider it done. But… You wanted the wolf and Mary—the drainer’s deaths blamed on the witches. He shoved the words out of his mind, into the air, and knew Vlad heard him. Wherever he was. If the witches are dead, how can they be blamed?

I’m sure you’ll think of a way. Now, do what I told you.

No sense in fighting Vlad. He’d come out the loser. Tucker squared his shoulders, his gaze narrowing on the gaggle of females around him. He shook his arms, just barely, but enough. The blades he’d stashed under his shirt sleeves slid into his palms. He gripped the hilts.

“Why don’t you gift wrap them again,” Marie said primly. “And we’ll go from there.”

Cleary she did not like to be thwarted. She stomped her foot, saying, “Why not?”

“You’re not gonna be around to accept any more presents.” Without another word, he struck.

RILEY LEFT MARY ANN behind a Dumpster, shifted to human, didn’t care that he was naked, stole a bottle of vodka and a pass key to a motel room from the clerk at the desk, a bag from one of the guests and went back for Mary Ann. He carried her inside the empty room without being seen or dropping her. A shocker and a miracle, considering he was as twitchy as a junkie in need of a fix.

He settled his bundle on the bed as gently as he could, then ransacked the bag for something to wear.

“Don’t move,” he told her when she thrashed against the mattress.

“Yes, we’re going to be okay,” he lied.

Only thing he found that would come close to fitting was a pair of shorts that had the word Princess stamped across the ass in glittery pink. Now wasn’t the time to care about fashion—or the lack thereof. Or the fact that the shorts were too snug and he might never be able to have children. He might need to do another endless dash, and he had to be prepared.

He peered down at his leg. The arrow had been pounded out of him when he’d accidentally run into a tree, but he could feel the wood shards embedded in the muscle, cutting at him, making him bleed harder rather than heal. He applied pressure to force the shards out, grimaced, but wasn’t going to let the pain stop him. If he didn’t staunch the flow, he wouldn’t be able to care for Mary Ann.

So he doctored himself as fast as he could, using one of the T-shirts in the bag, and raced back to the bed, where he crouched in front of Mary Ann. Her skin was chalk white, the blue tracery of her veins evident. There were bruises under her eyes, and her lips were chapped. All cosmetic—until you looked at her chest. There was so much blood caking her skin, she looked like she was wearing a red sweater. Worse, the arrow still protruded from the front and the back.

She was on her side, her shoulders slumped, and her head lolling forward. She was fighting sleep, her teeth chattering. Never had he seen her this weak and helpless. And he never wanted to see her like this again.

What he did want to do was panic the hell out, but he wasn’t going to let himself. Someone needed to stay calm, and bottom line, he was the only option.

“No!” he shouted, then more quietly added, “No. I won’t let you.” He pressed his fingers into her carotid and counted the beats that jumped up to meet him. One hundred and sixty-eight a minute. God. The speed at which her heart hammered was a testament to how much blood she had lost. If she reached one hundred and eighty thumps a minute, there’d be no saving her.

He had to act fast. “I’ve got to leave you here for a minute, okay? I have to get a few supplies so I can remove the arrow.”

That’d make her bleed even more, but he couldn’t patch her up with it there.

“O…kay.” Her eyelashes fluttered, as if she were trying to focus on him but couldn’t quite manage it. He needed to go, now, now, now, but if he released her, she would fall on her face or on her back, and both options would do more damage to her already fragile body.

Moving like he was on a racetrack being timed, he propped pillows in front and behind her, holding her in that position all the while, and tucked the blanket around her legs to keep her warm. Then he washed the blood off himself and zipped out the door, stealing money from the front desk, then zooming to the convenience store across the street to gather up gauze, disinfectant and anything else he could find that he might need.

Yeah, his shorts got a few looks. When he had what he needed, he just sort of threw the money on the counter and left.

Mary Ann hadn’t moved. Her eyes were closed, her entire body shaking violently. Not a good sign. He counted her pulse again. One hundred and seventy-three beats a minute.

He was trembling as he uncapped the half-gone vodka, held Mary Ann’s mouth open and poured the contents inside. He worked her throat with his free hand, ensuring she swallowed as much as possible.

She didn’t choke, didn’t protest, hell, didn’t notice anything was being done to her. Good for her, since he was about to hurt her worse than she’d ever been hurt, but a bad sign. A really bad sign.

“You will not die on me,” he told her. “Understand?” He splashed a bit of the alcohol over the wound. Then, still trembling, he gripped the front end, breathed in and out, trying to stop his trembling, and snapped the wood in two, removing the tip.

He threw the piece on the floor, lifted Mary Ann into the light of the lamp, and studied what remained. The shaft had gone all the way through, so the wood was peeking out both sides of her. Okay. Good. The damage had already been done. The danger now was leaving shards inside her when he pushed the rest of the arrow out. Which he had to do quickly, smoothly.

Like that was possible when he looked like he had advanced Parkinson’s. Riley claimed the bottle of vodka and downed the rest in three gulps. The liquid burned a path along his throat, scalded his stomach, then blistered through his veins. He’d had to do this kind of triage before. To himself, to his brothers and to his friends. Why was he breaking down now?