“Actually, it’s very possible.” Thanks to Caleb, Aden had possessed other people himself. Many times. He’d simply stepped inside their bodies and taken over their minds. Was that what Vlad had done? Was Vlad inside Ryder’s mind, even now? Would killing Ryder end them both? “As for now, I’m gonna help Ryder as best I can.”
“You believe her? Just like that?” Seth banged a fist into the car, cracking the already abused glass. “You saw what she was doing. She had her teeth in his neck. And. You. Believe. Her?”
“Yeah, I do,” Aden replied as he climbed inside the car. “Don’t speak when you don’t understand.”
“Oh, I understand plenty,” Seth said. “She’s a murderer, and you don’t care.”
“She’s not a murderer,” he snarled from his post. There was one subject guaranteed to hurtle him into a fight. Victoria’s honor. She wasn’t a liar, and she was broken about this. He wouldn’t have her hurt further.
Tucker didn’t try to stop him as he whipped off his T-shirt and wound it around Ryder’s gushing neck. He didn’t let himself think about Shannon, who lay behind him, gone, unsavable. Or rather, he tried not to let himself.
Shannon, the first boy at the ranch to be nice to him.
Shannon, whose body might rise from the dead and attack him.
Shannon, whom he’d have to kill all over again.
The scent of blood was overpowering. Moisture pooled around his tongue, and his gums ached. Junior’s roars laced with fury, and the banging against his skull became more pronounced.
“Keep an eye on Shannon,” Aden said to no one in particular. “Tell me if he so much as twitches.”
“And don’t worry,” Tucker piped up. “No one but us can see what’s going on here. I’ve made sure of it.”
Good Samaritan Award, meet Tucker. Or not. “You’ll pay for this,” Aden told him. “All of it. I hope you know that.”
“Oh, yeah,” the boy said, sadder than Aden had ever heard him. “I know.”
I could possess him right now, Caleb growled. I could make him hurt himself.
No. You heard him, and you heard Vic. Julian, a voice of reason. We need his illusion.
Aden lifted one of Ryder’s limp arms and felt for a pulse. Weak, thready, but there. The ring Aden still wore, Vlad’s ring, glinted in the sunlight. He’d had the thing refilled, so there was plenty of je la nune inside.
Best I can included cutting himself open and feeding the boy his blood. So that’s exactly what Aden did. With the pad of his thumb, he slid the glittering jewel out of the way. The clear liquid swirling inside, so innocent-looking. He tilted his hand to the side, allowing a single drop to splash against his other.
The burn and sizzle were instantaneous, and he hissed between his teeth. But blood welled, and he let the ensuing stream fall over Ryder’s neck, into his mouth.
Aden’s heart gave a little leap. Maybe, despite everything, he’d wanted Shannon to rise. He wasn’t ready to say goodbye.
If that were true, Aden had just committed his most dishonorable deed of the week. What he wanted shouldn’t have mattered. Turning his friend into a zombie, that was low, even for him.
“Hold him down,” he said.
The shifter jumped on top of the body the moment Shannon’s eyelids popped apart. Dull green eyes locked on Aden, and blood-soaked hands reached out.
Seth reached in and batted Maxwell away in an attempt to prevent the shifter from hurting his friend. A friend who was now a zombie, a fresh corpse who would know only a hunger for living flesh. Whose saliva would poison Aden and make him crave a death of his own.
“He’s alive and needs medical help. Let me take him inside the hospital,” Seth said with a mix of panic and relief.
“He’s not alive,” Aden said, much as he wished otherwise. No, he shouldn’t have done this to his friend. Either friend. He’d given Seth hope.
Tucker clapped, a round of applause meant to gain everyone’s attention. It got their attention, all right, but it also upped the tension another thousand degrees. “You’re all playing right into Vlad’s hands. You’re distracted and pulling in opposite directions.”
“As if you care.” Maxwell didn’t budge from his perch atop the now-struggling Shannon.
“You have no idea what I feel! Vlad has threatened my brother. I’ll do whatever it takes to save him. And yes, that includes murdering each of you if it proves necessary. I’m hoping you won’t prove it necessary.”
Whether the brother thing was the truth or a lie, Aden didn’t know. He did know Vlad was capable of using anyone.
“Including,” Tucker continued, “make a deal with you, when I know you’ll kill me afterward. So here it is. Save my brother, protect him, and I’ll help you save Mary Ann and Riley.”
Yeah, they’d get right on that. Because everyone here was borderline certifiable. “And give you the chance to betray us? Again? No.”
Tucker launched forward, in Aden’s face a heartbeat later. “I hate what that bastard makes me do. I like Mary Ann. Do you think I enjoyed watching her suffer?”
From the corner of his eye, he could see that Maxwell had to stretch out his arm to hold Nathan back. Good thing he did. Otherwise the wolf’s pearly whites would have been embedded in Tucker’s cheeks.
Aden’s wound hadn’t yet closed when he shoved Tucker backward, the action ripping his skin farther. “Yes. I do.”
“I want Vlad to suffer. Do you understand that? I hate him. I hate what he makes me do.” Tucker’s nostrils flared with the force of his breathing, but he remained in his seat. “I can’t act against him until I make sure my brother’s okay.”
His concern seemed genuine, and much as Aden loathed admitting it, Tucker was the best way to get his friends out of St. Mary’s. But. “You want my help with your bro, you help me with Mary Ann and Riley. First.”
“First? No way. You’ll get what you want from me and dispose of me. No, help me first, I help you second.”
He studied Ryder’s face, expecting some kind of change but seeing nothing. His blood would work, or it wouldn’t, but there was nothing else he could do. He emerged from the car, Junior immediately calming down, and opened his arms to Victoria. She threw herself against him, her body still quaking.
“I’d rather kill you now,” he said to Tucker, “and send your brother a Hope All’s Well card.” Cold of him, and he wouldn’t let himself ponder whether he was bluffing or not. Not here, not now.
Tucker ground his molars together. “How can I trust you?”
More grinding. Then, “We have a deal. I’ll help you now, you help me later.”
No more argument than that? Huh. Was Aden playing right into some kind of plan? And Tucker had one, he would bet money on it. Hell, he was betting the lives of his people. “If I think, even for a second, that you’re doing this for Vlad, I will…” What? There was no threat vile enough.
“I’m not. Not at this time,” Tucker added. “He comes and goes, and right now he’s gone.”
“He possesses you like he did Ryder?”
Tucker jerked at the collar of his shirt. “You don’t understand. I can’t resist.”
“Free will, dude. You should try it.” His gaze flipped back to Ryder. The flesh in his neck actually appeared to be weaving back together, and his features were contorted in a pain-filled grimace.
“Maxwell, drive Ryder and Shannon back to the house,” Aden said, issuing orders to get things rolling. Victoria had saved Aden; Aden would save his friends. Hopefully the consequences would not be as severe. Hopefully he could find a way to prevent Shannon from—don’t think it—rotting. “Lock them in separate rooms, doctor Ryder up, and ignore everything he says, just in case Vlad tries to take him over. Have a vampire, Stephanie maybe, feed them both a little blood.”
“Shannon’s already dead, so okay, but Ryder won’t survive transport,” the wolf said, and after restraining Shannon with the seat belt, knotting the length around his wrists and chest, he moved to the driver’s seat.
Very well. He’d move forward without the soul’s aid.
“Why don’t you go with them, Seth? You can help take care of both.” What he didn’t say: Seth was fully human, and Vlad could now possess humans. Aden didn’t know how the former king was doing it—he himself had to touch a body to step into it—so he had to take every precaution.
Red suffused the boy’s cheeks as he braced his legs apart in a classic attack position. “I’ll go. But if either one dies…” His narrowed gaze lanced at Victoria.
“It won’t be Victoria’s fault, and you won’t touch her. Ever.” He did, and they’d become enemies. Aden didn’t want that.
There was no backing down on Seth’s part.
A bowl full of cherries right there, but they’d have to deal with it later—if Seth made that necessary. “Victoria will stay with me.” He didn’t like the thought of her around Tucker, but he also didn’t like the thought of her out of his sight. Look what had happened last time.
He reached into the waist of his jeans and tugged out the papers that hadn’t flown the coop. He tossed them on a clean section of the floorboard. “Read everything. Call and tell me what you find.”
Tucker emerged and moved to stand behind the car in the next slot over, using it as a shield. Seth took his place in the passenger seat.