Sometime during that second kiss, their clothes disappeared and their hands began exploring. He hurt, but he’d never felt so good. He needed more as she’d said, but couldn’t take much more. His thoughts were short-circuiting. This was everything he’d thought it would be, only better. So much better.

“C-condom,” he said. He didn’t have a condom. And he couldn’t be with her without one. He wouldn’t risk pregnancy. There were STDs out there, he knew that, too, and even though he knew she didn’t have one, that vampires were immune to human diseases, he wasn’t going to be stupid about that, either.

“I…brought one. After our conversation in the forest, I’ve been carrying one. All the time.”

The crinkling wrapper at last made sense. If only he’d known at the time.

She wiggled out from under him to get it, and he mourned the loss of her. She was back a few seconds later, and they picked up where they’d left off.

Not once did the souls comment. Not once did Junior roar. Or maybe Aden was simply too consumed with what he was doing to notice them. There was only Victoria, only here and now. Their first time. His first time.

DO YOU TRULY WISH to challenge me, boy?

Vlad’s words echoed in Tucker’s mind, menacing, as sharp as a blade. The very blade he held in his hands as he paced the floor of his motel room. He’d rented this crap hole in the same dump where the others were—or rather, had been—staying, and on the same floor. Not that they’d known it. He’d wanted to be close to Mary Ann, to feel at peace again, but it hadn’t worked. He could still feel Vlad pulling at him.

The bastard wanted his own daughter eliminated. Wanted all the players responsible for his downfall eliminated. And he was close to getting what he wanted. Those players were finally together and on the same board. Aden, the power. Riley, the security. Victoria, the eye candy. Fine, she was the intermediary. And Mary Ann, the brain.

Tucker should have offed them already.

At least Vlad had no idea Tucker had made a deal with them. A deal they had better honor.

After Aden had finished boning his vamp, the two-some had talked, all lovey-dovey and crap. Tucker was still shuddering. On the other hand, Mary Ann and Riley had sniped at each other, nearly drawing blood. He kinda preferred the cooing. Thankfully all that ended when the foursome had gathered together and left the comfort of the motel for the wide-open battleground of the outside world. They were still vulnerable to attack, and that’s exactly what Vlad wanted him to do. Attack.

Are you listening to me, boy? I don’t like being ignored. Bad things happen to those who irritate me.

Like Tucker didn’t know that already. Look what Vlad had already forced him to do to Aden. What Vlad had forced Ryder to do to Shannon.

The pace of his steps increased, his boots digging into the carpet. How was he going to get out of this mess? Without casualties? If he killed Aden, Aden couldn’t save his brother.

Tucker scraped a hand through his hair, the one holding the blade, the metal hilt leaving grooves in his scalp.

You’re going to do what I told you to do. There’s no fighting me.

There had to be a way.

I will kill your brother if you fail me. Have you forgotten?

“No, I haven’t. But if you kill him, you’ll have no way to control me,” he snapped.

Vlad might be getting stronger, but his hold on Tucker was not. Every hour, it weakened a little more. Tucker figured he was building up an immunity. Not quick enough, though. Not nearly quick enough. Vlad could still force him to walk up to anyone, hurt them—physically or mentally—and Tucker could only grin and bear it.

But Vlad had to know his grip was loosening, and that’s why he was threatening Tucker’s little brother. An insurance policy in the form of his innocent, sweet little brother, a six-year-old kid whose only friends were invisible and whose own father treated him like dog crap on the bottom of his shoes. Ethan deserved happiness, but everyone was always dumping on him.

Tucker loved him, yet he had been the worst offender, and now he wanted, needed, to make amends. To save that kid once and for all.

There’s always a way to control a puny human, Vlad said, laughing smugly. I always find a way.

Very, very true. But Tucker wasn’t exactly human, was he? “I don’t want to hurt anyone else.” Didn’t want to slay his…friends. Or frenemies, they’d probably say. They, however, would kill him in a heartbeat. With good reason. But they’d promised to help him save his brother, and Tucker had to believe they would try.

Would they succeed? Maybe. The way Aden had tamed those vampire beasts…maybe he could tame Vlad’s and use it against him. Yeah, maybe. All Tucker knew for sure was that he couldn’t defeat the former king on his own. He needed help. Aden was that help. So, kill him? No.

I don’t care what you do or do not want. Do it. Do what I told you. Destroy them. Now.

Tucker’s feet were moving toward the door before he could stop himself, the dagger at the ready once more. No. No, no, no. He ground his heels into the carpet, slowing his momentum. A few days ago, he would have been outside and doing as ordered immediately. He hadn’t lied to Victoria. The more evil he committed, the stronger he became. Hadn’t taken him long to figure that out.

A few days from now, and maybe Vlad would no longer be able to lead him around like this. But did he have a few days? Did his brother?

Tucker massaged the back of his neck. Right now, there was only one sure way to get what he wanted. He’d ignored the possibility before, but here, now, he couldn’t. And didn’t really want to anymore.

“Lead me to wherever they’ve gone,” he said, his tone devoid of all emotion.

Vlad’s glee practically slithered from the top of his head to the soles of his feet. That’s my good boy.

TRY AGAIN, Julian said.

Aden knocked on Tonya Smart’s door for the sixth time. She was home, no matter how much she might be wishing otherwise right now, and he wasn’t leaving until she answered. Or called the police and they escorted him off the premises.

Riley and Mary Ann were a few miles away, checking out the Stones’ place, making sure they were, in fact, his parents. Aden had declined to go, claiming it’d be easier and faster if they split up. In reality, he just wasn’t ready to face the two people who’d betrayed and forgotten him.

Because what if they were good, decent people? What if they knew nothing about his abilities? What if those abilities had nothing to do with the reason they’d given him up? What if they simply hadn’t wanted him?

Even the thought left him bleeding inside.

Victoria stood beside him, holding his hand. Now that he knew she was human, he wasn’t letting her out of his sight for any reason. Someone had to protect her, and he wanted to be that someone. Now, always. Not just because her blood tasted heavenly, and he still craved it, would probably always crave it, but also because she trusted him, looked out for him, wanted the best for him and still loved him, after everything he’d done, everything he’d taken from her.

After the loss of Eve, the souls had stopped pushing Aden to learn who they were. They’d been as scared about parting as Aden was. But now that the information was within reach, Julian’s fear had dissipated. He was all about the eagerness.

“Perhaps we should try again later.” Victoria scanned the yard.

“We’d get the same results.” Aden knocked again. “She’s home. I can…smell her.” He could even hear the rapid thump, thump of her heartbeat. And yeah, that was kind of freaking him out.

Junior, of course, liked the sound. Though it wasn’t a lullaby to him, as it would have been to any other newborn; it was a war drum. He heard, and he hungered, even though he’d been fed.

“If the woman is that determined to ignore us, we failed before we even arrived.” Victoria’s voice had dipped, becoming husky, like a pinup coming to sparkling life.

His intensified senses were picking up details he’d never before noticed. “All—”

“I just want to speak with you, Ms. Smart,” he called. “Please. You could save a life here.”

The next few minutes ticked by with no results.

“This isn’t working.” Victoria did her chew-on-the-lip thing. “I wish I could…but I can’t.” She blinked up at him. “You, however, can.”

“Summon her. You can make her talk to you.”

That’s right. He could. He kept forgetting.

His head fell back, and he peered up at the sky. Dark velvet with pinpricks of starlight. Vast, never-ending. Like his ability. He could make anyone do anything he wanted. The same way doctor after doctor had forced their wills on him, only with pills. The same way foster parent after foster parent had expected absolute, total compliance for the “gift” of taking him in. Anything for a check, he supposed.

To do that to others…to keep doing it…over and over again, when he knew the awfulness of being on the opposite side of that stick.

“I know.” The more he did it, though, the easier it’d be and the more he’d fall back on it, until he relied on the ability for everything. “Just…let me think for a bit.”

“Yeah.” He pulled her to the porch swing, and they sat down, the wood swaying and creaking underneath them.

“I’ve never met anyone who resisted using The Voice before. It’s admirable.”

Frustration gave way to pleasure, and he wanted to cuddle her close. Of course, that led to another thought: he wanted to be with her again.