She wondered what had changed but was too hungry to unravel the pieces.
“Yeah.” He looked different. A lot different. Gone was his dark hair, and in its place was a short crop of blond. His face was harder, harsher, his shoulders wider. If she wasn’t mistaken, his legs were longer, too.
All that growth, in about two weeks time. Wow. But then, she probably looked different, too. She was tattooed, thinner, maybe even gaunt. “Where’s Riley?”
“Right beside you.” Victoria motioned to the other side of the bed with a tilt of her head.
Barely concealing her jolt of surprise, Mary Ann twisted on the mattress, the springs protesting. Sure enough. Riley was beside her. He was awake, propped up on pillows, and…in pain? His skin was pallid but for the dark circles under his eyes. The normally luminous glow of his green eyes had blunted.
She reached up to trace her fingertips along the edge of those circles, halfway hoping to brush them away, but he jerked his head to the side, preventing contact.
Astonishment? Yes, she experienced that. Then utter, absolute distress. He didn’t even glance in her direction, just kept staring over at Aden and Victoria. He didn’t offer an explanation, just kept his lips pressed together in a hard line.
What was wrong with him?
Had she done something, said something?
Or was he simply hurting too badly to be touched?
He was shirtless, his chest free of injuries, but his lower half was hidden under the covers. Maybe his legs were giving him fits, making the rest of him sensitive to any type of human contact. She wanted so badly to believe that was the answer, but deep down she suspected the worst.
He was done with her.
And if that was the case, well, she’d pushed for that, hadn’t she?
“I thought I heard Tucker earlier,” she croaked out, turning back to Aden and Victoria.
The vampire princess hadn’t budged from his lap. Why would she? It was probably the most comfortable seat in the room. Although…her back was straight, her posture perfect, her hands folded neatly atop her thighs. Anyone else would have thrown in the towel and sprawled. Aden had, though he was running one of his hands up and down Victoria’s spine.
They looked every inch the couple. In sync, together together. They might be having problems, as Riley had told her, but they were clearly working on them.
A pang of longing moved through her. Would she and Riley work things out? Did she want to?
No pondering necessary. Yes, she wanted to. Would she let herself be with him, though, placing him in even more danger than she already had?
Yes, she thought again. She would. After the kiss they’d shared, she would do anything to be with him. If he would have her. She’d run from him, yet he’d chased her. She’d tried to get rid of him, yet he’d stayed with her. And now…now she had no idea what was going through his guy brain.
Well, they would find a way around the draining thing. He’d always been so confident about that, and it was time she believed him.
“We don’t know.” Victoria pursed her lips. “Riley was about to kill him, so his disappearing act was for the best.”
“You should have let me do my job,” Riley snapped at Aden. “Majesty.”
Hearing the harsh rasp of his voice left her shivering. Or maybe shuddering. He hadn’t lost his ability to speak—he just didn’t want to speak to her. Ouch.
“Where’s the other guy?” she asked. “The one at the hospital? The one who carried me?”
“Did you hear—never mind. That was Nathan, Riley’s brother, but he didn’t travel with us. His presence upset Tucker.”
And they hadn’t wanted to upset Tucker? Shocker. “Will someone please tell me what’s going on?” Her stomach released another grumble, soliciting the return of her blush.
“I…yes.” Wait. She hadn’t been hungry for food, real food, for several weeks. Only energy. Magic. Power. Now, she would have killed for a hamburger.
All three sets of eyes regarded her strangely.
Her stomach protested the description with yet another growl. “That doesn’t change the facts. I’m starved!”
“Well, then, let’s feed you.” The princess popped to her feet, her expression a little too eager. “I’ll fetch you something.”
“No.” Aden shook his head. “Absolutely not. Tucker’s out there. I don’t want you—”
“I’ll be fine. If not, well, I’ll text you. As you’ve probably noticed, I’m getting good at using modern technology,” she said and bent down to kiss his cheek. “Besides, you can’t go. You have a lot to tell Mary Ann.”
“Impossible. I’ve already forgotten half of what you wanted her to know.”
“No way,” he said. “You and Riley did that joining hands and exchanging of memories thing. You know more than all of us.”
“True. Which means you’ve got some catching up to do, too.”
She didn’t wait for his reply, and shockingly, neither Aden nor Riley tried to stop her as they once would have done. The door shut with a soft snick behind her, sunlight pouring in for a moment, then vanishing like vapor.
“What do you have to tell me?” Mary Ann asked, dread blending with her hunger and leaving a thick coat of acid on her sternum.
“Brace yourself.” For the next half hour, Aden told her so many gruesome things, she wanted to scrub her ears with sandpaper.
A coven of witches, slaughtered. The D and M ranch, burned to the ground. Vlad the Impaler, possessing humans and forcing them to do despicable things. Tucker’s little brother, potential kidnap and murder victim.
Aden’s voice wobbled a few times, as if he was fighting tears, but he battled them back and continued. When he finished, she kinda wished he hadn’t.
“So much death,” she whispered. Poor, sweet Shannon, who would die all over again if something wasn’t done. Could anything be done, though? She wanted to sob for him, for what he’d lost. She wanted to bring him back as he’d been. Wanted to hug him. Wanted to punish Vlad in the most terrible way.
She wanted Riley to put his arm around her, to comfort her, to tell her everything was going to be okay.
Big shocker, she didn’t get any of that. Even worse, the silence that followed her horrified whisper acted like a thick cloud of oppression. No one knew where to look or how to respond.
Hinges squeaked, and light once again flooded the room. Victoria stepped inside, shut the door and chased that light away. She held a paper bag, the scent of bread, meat and greasy fries wafting from it. Mary Ann’s mouth watered, and she was ashamed of herself. After everything she’d just heard, she should have lost her appetite. For, like, ever.
But when Victoria handed her that oil-spotted bag, she was unable to help herself and dove in, devouring every crumb in record time. After swallowing the last nibble, she realized the hush hadn’t lifted from the room. In fact, everyone was staring at her. Great. She probably had food in her teeth and mustard smeared on her chin.
She wiped at her face with the back of her wrist, her shame intensifying.
“Do you feel sick?” Victoria asked. She’d reclaimed her perch on Aden’s lap. She wasn’t quite as pale as before, and was that a ketchup stain on her robe?
“No?” Mary Ann replied, her amazement making the word more of a question than a statement. Her stomach actually felt grateful. Before, when she’d even thought about eating, she had battled nausea. “What does this mean?”
Pensive, Victoria tugged at her earlobe. “You were shot with a witch’s arrow and lost a lot of blood.”
“And you were given a transfusion at the hospital.”
“Yes. At least, I think so.”
The princess started chewing on her bottom lip again. A nervous habit? “Maybe the new blood, the human blood, has made you human again. At least for a little while. Or maybe it has something to do with Riley? He’s always interfered with your ability to mute. Maybe he’s now interfering with your ability to drain.”
“If you keep the food down, and it seems like you will, magic and energy probably aren’t on your menu selection.”
“You won’t have to run anymore,” Aden said.
“Not if there’s a way to stay this way,” Mary Ann replied, trying not to leap off the bed and dance like a fool. There had to be.
“I don’t know. We could ward you against the draining of energy, but if, say, your hunger for it returns, you would then die.” Victoria studied Riley before returning her attention to Mary Ann. “I mean, we’ve warded drainers before. Not when they were without their ability, because, to my knowledge, that’s never happened before, but always they starved to death.”
If there was a worse way to die, she suddenly couldn’t think of it. Did that stop her from plowing ahead? No. “I don’t care. I want to try. I want a ward.” If there was a chance, well, she’d take it. Anything to return to her dad.
Anything to be with Riley.
She’d rather die than hurt her boys, so, she had no qualms about risking her life. “Do we have the equipment?”
“Yes. Nathan noticed your new wards, and the scabs forming on one of them, and thought Riley might want to correct the damage, so he commandeered what was needed before he took off.”