Never before had something like this happened, and a scream of pain tore from her. A scream that died as quickly as it had begun. Her throat clogged as the dizziness returned, accompanied by a tidal wave of unexpected fatigue. Her muscles quivered, and she thought she heard Caleb moan.
Caleb. Reminded of his presence, she gasped out his name, willing to beg the soul to help her now. “Let me possess—”
His second moan cut her off. What’s happening to me?
Am I dying? I don’t want to die. I’m too young to die.
He and his babbling would be no help. Nor would the others. Julian and Elijah were moaning, too. But they weren’t leaving her, weren’t returning to Aden. And then their moans became shouts, fogging her mind, derailing her good sense.
Flashes in her mind, like a camera switching views. Her bodyguard, Riley—tall and dark-haired, smiling with wicked humor. Her sisters, Lauren and Stephanie, both blonde and beautiful, teasing her mercilessly. Her mother, Edina, with black-as-a-midnight-sky hair swinging as she twirled. Her long-lost brother, Sorin, a warrior she’d been commanded to forget, she’d tried to forget as he’d walked away and never looked back.
More flashes, the camera revealing only black and white now. Shannon, her roommate, kind, caring, concerned. No, not her roommate, but Aden’s. Ryder, the boy Shannon had wanted to date, even though he’d rejected him. Dan, beloved owner of the D and M ranch, her home for the last few months. No, not her home. Aden’s.
Her own thoughts and memories were blending with Aden’s, forming a hazy cloud around her. Then the flashes disappeared all together. She was weakening…fighting the need to sleep…
Come on, Tepes! You’re royalty. You can do this!
A pep talk courtesy of herself, one that worked. She could do this.
Determination driving her, she managed to tug on Aden’s hair, lifting his head. Unfortunately, she wasn’t strong enough to throw him. Not this time. And for a moment, their gazes clashed. His eyes were red now, glowing. Demonic. Blood dripped from his mouth—her blood—and splashed onto her chin. Blood she desperately needed to keep.
She should have been frightened. Because, as she looked up at the fiend she had created, she saw her death. A death that made sense. Elijah had claimed Aden was now lost to the beast, and Elijah was never wrong. And yet…
Blood…her own hunger rose again, filling her up, becoming all that she knew, strengthening her. She would not be taken down without feasting on him, she decided.
Her fangs sharpened as she surged up to bite. Only, she could not pierce his skin. Something blocked her. What blocked her? She looked, determined to remove the obstacle, but she saw only the bronze of Aden’s skin. Nothing covered that hammering pulse.
Taste, taste, must taste. A mantra she couldn’t blame on the souls.
Snarling, she released his hair and clawed at him. A tiny cut, that’s all she needed to make. So easy, but her nails failed her as thoroughly as her teeth.
“Feed.” Aden dove back down. Clearly, her jugular was his favorite chew toy.
TASTE. She surged back up, trying to bite him again.
“Taste,” the beast said, as if he’d heard her thought and mirrored it.
They rolled on the floor in a bid for dominance. Whenever she managed to toss him away, he always flew back in less than a blink. They crashed into the walls, slammed into the dais and splashed in the shallow puddles of water.
Whoever won would feed. Whoever lost would die, drained, the circle of life proven once again. For only the strongest could survive; everyone else became a snack. Until Aden, her every action had been motivated by that principle. After him, she had fought to protect those weaker than herself. Fought her instinct to take, to have. Now, she couldn’t fight. She wanted. She would have.
All too soon, however, Aden pinned her, and this time, he held her down so firmly, she was unable to wrestle her way free. Their bodies rubbed together as she still continued to struggle, their limbs tangling. Finally, he managed to grab her wrists and brace them over her head.
Game over. She had lost.
She took stock. She was panting, sweating, her neck throbbing, her mind locked on one thought: TASTETASTETASTE.
Above her, Aden stilled. He, too, was panting and sweating. His eyes were still glowing that bright crimson, but now there were flecks of amber mixed with the red. Amber, his natural color. That meant, for once, Elijah had been wrong. Aden was in there, still battling the beast for control.
She could do no less.
The thought was a lifeline, and she clung. Victoria concentrated on her breathing, in and out, slow and measured. Voices other than her own began to penetrate her awareness.
The dizziness had never been this bad before. And once the switch-switch-switch had begun, the souls should not have been able to stay put. Why hadn’t they left her?
We all have to stay calm, Elijah said. Okay? We’ll be fine. I know we’ll be fine.
You’re lying. Julian’s words were slurred. Hurts too badly for us to be fine.
Yes, lying. Panic drenched Caleb’s voice. This is terrible, I’m dying, and you’re dying, too. We’re all dying. I know we’re dying.
Stop saying the word dying and calm down, Elijah commanded. Now. Your little anxiety attacks are placing Aden and Victoria in more danger.
At last, concern. But it was too little, too late. They were already in danger.
Caleb! You’re placing all of us in danger, too. Please, calm down.
“Thirsty,” Aden said, his gravelly voice drawing her back to the hated present.
The amber was fading in his eyes, the red expanding. He was losing the battle…would soon attack her, his gaze already zeroing in on the still-seeping wound in her neck. He licked his lips, his eyes closing as he savored the lingering flavor of her.
This was the perfect time for her to strike, she thought, reverting to her baser urges. Her opponent was distracted. “Taste,” she said, the word garbled.
Victoria. You love him. You fought to save him. Don’t undermine your own efforts by succumbing to a hunger you can control. A voice of reason in the chaos of her mind. But of course, Elijah, the psychic, would know exactly what to say to reach her. All right? Okay? I can’t deal with both you and Caleb right now, on top of the dizziness. One of you has to act like a grown-up. And since you’re eighty-something years old, I pick you.
Aden’s eyelids popped open. Bright red, no longer any hint of his humanity.
Control herself, yes. She could. She would. “Aden, please.” Save him, yes. She would try that, too. He meant everything to her. “I know you can hear me. I know you don’t really want to hurt me.”
A pause, heavy and laden with tension. Then, miraculously, another flicker of amber, deep in those beloved eyes. “Can’t hurt…” he said. “Don’t want to hurt.”
Tears of relief pooled in her lashes, leaked onto her cheeks. “Let go of my hands, Aden. Please.”
Another pause, this one lasting an eternity. Slowly, so slowly, he uncurled his fingers from her wrists and lifted his arms away from her. He straightened until he was straddling her, his knees pressing into her hips.
“Victoria…sorry, so sorry. Your poor, beautiful neck.” The dual voice, one his, one the beast’s, tendrils of sympathy and smoke, blending together, wafting over her.
She offered him a soft smile. “Nothing to apologize for.” I did this to you.
I…need…you must… Caleb couldn’t quite catch his breath—and suddenly, Victoria couldn’t quite catch her breath, either. Something’s happening…I can’t…
Listen to me carefully, Caleb, Elijah lashed out. We can’t go back to Aden yet. We’ll be killed.
Killed? Caleb gasped. Figures. I knew we were going to die.
What do you mean, killed? Julian snarled.
I mean, we’ll be fine unless you two keep this up! Your panic is going to drive us out of Victoria, and we can’t leave Victoria. Not yet. So you have to calm down like I told you. Do you hear me? We can return to Aden later. After the…just after. So, Caleb, Julian, are you listening to—
His speech ended abruptly. Caleb screamed, then Julian screamed, the sounds blending with Elijah’s sudden groan of distress. No, they hadn’t listened.
Neither had she, apparently. Victoria was the next to scream, and the sound of that busted her eardrums. Loud, loud, so loud. Hurt, hurt, so hurt. Then, she didn’t care. The pain left, and her scream softened into a purr.
Somehow, some way, absolute power was birthed inside her, blasting through her, fusing with her. Now, a part of her. Good, good, so good.
Throughout the decades of her life, she had drained several witches. A bad thing for vampires. Witches were their drug of no-choice, and once sampled, it was difficult to think about anything else. She knew that very well. Though years had passed since her last bender, some days the cravings hit her, and she’d find herself running through the woods, searching, searching, desperate to find a witch. Any witch. And that was reason number one why witches and vampires usually avoided each other.
But, oh, this sudden burst of power…it was witchlike, intoxicating, warmth and sunlight, yet cold like a snowstorm. Dizzying, overwhelming, everything and nothing. She floated on clouds, swept away from the cave. She dozed on a beach, water lapping at her feet. She danced in the rain, as carefree as the child she’d never been allowed to be.
Such a beautiful eternity awaited her here. She never wanted to leave.
She thought she heard the souls crying, soft, almost childlike. Where they not experiencing this, too?
A roar cut through her euphoria. That roar stretched out wispy tentacles, and those tentacles wrapped around her, surprisingly strong, tugging her away. Frowning, she dug her heels into the ground. I’m staying!
A second roar inside her head, louder now, threatening, causing a chilled, clammy sheen of perspiration to coat her….