“Are you all right?” she asked.
“As Riley says, I’ll pretend I believe that. And to answer your question, it’s dawn.”
He shook his head to clear the cobwebs, but they proved thick and stubborn. “Still?”
Okay, then. That made more sense.
Healing sleep. He’d never heard the term before, but just as he’d known the names of his vampires, he knew the meaning. A comalike state of total sensory deprivation, where vampire and beast merged into a single being. Blood cell count rose to extraordinary levels, speeding the curative process.
Healing sleep or not, however, he felt like he’d fought a few hundred bruisers and lost. Unfortunate, since he had stuff to do. He couldn’t snuggle up and go for round two of the mattress blackouts.
He threw his legs over the side of the bed. He would have stood, but Victoria placed a chilled hand on his shoulder and pressed. A puny move, but effective all the same. And necessary. With that one little movement of his, he’d set off a chain reaction of pain. And more pain.
“If I went into a healing sleep, why do I feel like crap?”
“Because the new tissue is untried. Don’t worry, though. Once you get up and stretch out, you’ll feel better.”
No room for doubt with such a confident tone. “How often have you had to endure this?”
He didn’t like that. At all. “Want to go into details?”
“I can have anyone you like punished.” Another mistake on his part. He’d meant the words as a joke, something to make her laugh, but she didn’t laugh, and he realized he’d told the truth. Anyone who hurt her, he wanted to hurt in turn.
Time to switch subjects before he started issuing demands and upsetting her.
Now would be the perfect opportunity to tell her what he’d seen. Her mom, Edina, trying to run away with her, her dad catching her, blaming her, whipping her. Would she be embarrassed? Probably. She shouldn’t be, but yeah, it would still kill her that he knew.
After all, he would have been embarrassed if the situation were reversed. He never wanted this girl to see him weak, at his worst. Like now. He could barely stand that she was seeing him bruised and swollen. And he had to be bruised and swollen, despite that healing sleep. Aches and pains were not exactly liars. But if he felt that way, she would, too. Vampires seemed to carry a thousand pounds more pride than their human counterparts. So. Okay. Yeah. Maybe this was one of those things he just needed to take to the grave. Knowing helped him understand her, and understanding caused him to toss a heap load of respect her way. No reason to ruin that by—what?—upsetting her.
Was that cowardly of him? His rationale to get him out of an uncomfortable situation? Maybe some would say so, but he honestly didn’t think so. Sometimes full disclosure was cruel and silence kind.
He was running with that.
“Have you had any visions of my past?” he asked, counteracting his decision in a snap. He’d just opened the door for her to ask if he had. And if she asked, he couldn’t lie.
“No. Let’s talk about that later, though. Okay? Yes? You need to see something.”
“This.” She turned, some kind of black remote outstretched in her hand. After pressing a few buttons, the wood panel over her dresser parted, revealing a large television screen. Colors flickered together, then images formed. She scrolled through the channels quickly, stopping when she reached a news station. “Listen.”
A somber-faced reporter stared out at him, an umbrella overhead, a light drizzle of rain falling. “—been dubbed the Red Robe Massacre of Tulsa,” she was saying. “Ten women, all brutally slain. Police are working diligently to find clues as to who could have committed such a heinous crime.”
“Tragic,” he said, “but why did I need to know it?”
Victoria hit Mute and fell onto the mattress beside him. “Females wearing red robes. In Tulsa. Where Riley is. Where Mary Ann is. They’re witches, Aden, and they must have been the ones chasing the pair. They were stabbed repeatedly, which means the fairies, vampires and wolves weren’t responsible.”
He jumped on the topic with the finesse of a freight train. “Are Riley and Mary Ann okay?”
Her hands wrung together, and when that wasn’t enough, she twisted the fabric of her robe, leaving wrinkles in her wake. “I don’t know. He hasn’t contacted me in a while.”
I don’t know, the soul said.
Okay. So the soul hadn’t seen anything bad. That beat the crap out of the alternative. “How can you be sure the creatures you named aren’t responsible?”
“Fairies would not have caused bloodshed. Vampires would have, but they would have licked up every drop of that blood. And the wolves would have left claw marks, not knife slashes.”
The moment the thought registered, he sank into a dark pit of humiliation. People had died. Violently, painfully, and he craved a snack?
Right. He needed to comment. See Aden discuss murder as casually as the weather. “Who does that leave?”
Wait, wait, wait, Caleb suddenly said. Go back. I was just waking up and had to have misheard. Did she just say a coven of witches was…murdered?
Victoria was talking, too, but Aden heard only Caleb, the soul’s upset giving him volume. “Yes,” he replied. “I’m so sorry.”
No. She’s wrong, she has to be wrong.
No! Elijah. Tell him she’s wrong. Tell him!
I’m sorry, too, Elijah said sadly.
No! A plaintive cry. A cry that must have opened a dam of heartache, because Caleb began sobbing.
The soul had liked the witches from day one, and had thought he was somehow connected to them, that he’d known them in his other life. The one before Aden.
You have to go back in time, Aden. You have to save them from this.
You mean you won’t.
“Too many things could go wrong. You know that.” It was the same answer he’d given Victoria, when she’d asked. The same answer he would give anyone, everyone, who asked. When you weighed the risks against the rewards, the risks always tipped the scale.
There was no reason good enough to tip the scale in the other direction.
While Elijah and Julian attempted to comfort their friend, Aden met Victoria’s curious gaze. “The news has…” destroyed “…disturbed Caleb.”
“Me, too.” And he was, even though Aden had never liked the witches himself. How could he? They’d cast the death spell over Riley, Mary Ann and Victoria, and nearly ruined the life he’d built for himself. But he hated for one of his souls to suffer, and he would have spared the witches for that alone.
“The best thing we can do for him is figure out what happened and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” he said.
“I agree. You asked me who could be responsible. I don’t think the goblins or zombies are smart enough, so that leaves…humans.”
All the commotion woke Junior. The beast stretched inside his head, making little mewling noises. Aden tensed. Exactly what he needed. Another fight. Then he recalled what Elijah said, that Junior responded to emotion. If he remained calm, the beast wouldn’t fight him.
Yeah, he could do that. Maybe.
“How could a few humans defeat a coven of witches?” he asked. Good. Right track. “We’ve seen the power of their spells firsthand. And humans, well, they’re uneducated when it comes to magic. Anyone who so much as approached the witches would have been defenseless.”
“Maybe one of the races you named wanted humans to be blamed and framed them.”
“It’s possible. But why do so? To send a message?”
“Yes. No. Maybe. I don’t know. Nothing like this has ever happened before. We clean up our battles. All of us. We rarely leave evidence for humans to find. That’s how we’re trained from birth. That’s how we survive.”
What did that mean? He’d changed, and she no longer liked him?
With a sigh, Aden fell back on the mattress, winced and draped his arm over his forehead. “I’m not thinking straight. Let’s talk about the murders after we eat, okay?”
“Did you already eat?” For that matter, “Where did you sleep last night?” He’d taken her room, and she had not been here. And he could have kicked his own butt for simply falling asleep on her, making her feel as if she didn’t belong in her own digs. He knew how important having personal space could be, having been denied his own for most of his life.
Before, Victoria would have felt comfortable enough to snuggle up to him. After the way he’d treated her lately, she probably hadn’t known if he would welcome her or reject her.
“I stayed in Riley’s room,” she said, her hand going back in her pocket to play with the wrapper or whatever it was.
A growl rose up in his throat before he even realized he was having an emotional reaction to those words. Calm down.
He recalled the first time he’d seen Victoria outside one of Elijah’s visions. She’d been standing in a forest clearing just beyond the D and M ranch, Riley towering behind her, protecting her. Aden had wondered what they were to each other—and even when he’d learned they were just friends, thrums of jealousy had refused to leave him.