“And that excuses your behavior with me?”
Joe continued as if he hadn’t spoken. “When I was old enough, I moved away from my dad and never looked back. He tried to contact me a few times before he died, killed by the same things that had killed the rest of my family, I’m sure, but I wanted nothing to do with him. I wasn’t going to live that way anymore. I had my own family to take care of.”
“You didn’t take care of me!” Aden shouted. “Why did you risk having kids, if you knew you could pass on your father’s abilities?”
“I didn’t know. He was the only one. I thought… I hoped… It wasn’t genetic, shouldn’t have been genetic. He did it to himself. Messed with things he shouldn’t have messed with.”
“Magic, science.” Joe leaned down, getting in his face. “As for abandoning you, how could I not? You were just like him. About a week after you were born, they started showing up. Stray goblins at first, trying to crawl through your window, then the wolves, then the witches. Rogues, all of them, without true ties to their race, but I knew it was only a matter of time until you drew them in groups. Just a matter of time until we were running…until your mother was dead. Me, you.”
“What about the girl?” Riley asked. Aden didn’t know, not yet, but didn’t betray his lack of knowledge by speaking.
“Well, I don’t believe you about your reasons,” Aden said. “I managed not to draw those monsters to me for over a decade.”
Aden balled his hand into a fist. “I got my first ward a few weeks ago.”
“No. You got your first ward as an infant.”
Aden rubbed at his head. “Then why did they stop working? For that matter, if you gave them to me, if they kept the monsters away, why not keep me with you?”
Joe closed his eyes, his spine sagging. He sighed. “Maybe the ink faded. Maybe the spell was somehow broken.”
Aden and Mary Ann shared a look, and Riley figured they were remembering the first time they’d met, when an atomic bomb of power had been unleashed, summoning everything Joe had named and more.
“And as for why we didn’t keep you with us,” Joe said, “I wasn’t willing to take the chance. I had to keep your mother safe.”
Riley refused to accept. “If you didn’t want to be found, you should have changed your names.”
Joe’s gaze met his for about half a second. “I did. For a while. But Paula…” He shrugged. “She insisted.” Had she wanted Aden to find her?
Aden straightened as if a board had just been strapped to his back. “I’ve heard enough.”
Actually, Riley thought he’d reached his limit. He might be veering close to a breakdown. Here was his dad—who still didn’t want him. Who didn’t want to help him, who didn’t so much as throw him a bone.
“Leave him. I’m done with him.” With that, Aden walked out of the room, out of the house.
Riley motioned for the girls to follow him. When they were out of view, he tossed the gun on the floor. Rather than make a move for it, Joe stayed on the bed. “He’s a good kid, and now he’s leader of the very world you despise. And guess what? The monsters of your nightmares obey his every command. He could have protected you unlike any ward, and in a way no one else in the world could have, yet you just tossed him away like garbage. Again.”
“Well, understand this—he deserved better than you. A lot better.”
Now Joe bolted to his feet. “You have no idea what I went through when—”
“Make all the excuses you want. It won’t change the facts. You didn’t protect your own son. You’re greedy, selfish and an all-around bastard. Now give me your shirt.”
The swift subject change threw the guy for a loop. “What?”
“You heard me. Give me your shirt. Don’t make me say it again. You won’t like the results.”
Joe jerked the material over his head and tossed it at him. “There. Happy?”
Riley caught it. “Not even.” There were thick scars all over Joe’s chest—scars in the pattern of claw marks. There were also other wards, and Riley recognized the biggest. It was an alert. Whenever danger approached, his entire body would vibrate. No wonder he’d known to run when Riley neared. “Understand this, Joe Stone. If we want to talk to you again, there’s no place you’ll be able to hide now.” He brought the shirt to his nose and sniffed. Though he could no longer shift and didn’t know if he could track, his brothers could still do both. “We’ve got your scent.”
With that, he, too, walked away.
THE REST OF THE DAY, the entire night, and most of the next morning, Aden spent locked inside another motel room with Victoria, Mary Ann and Riley. They pored through the photos and papers Tonya Smart had given them, taking only a few breaks to eat or stretch their legs.
Aden pounded back a pint of Victoria’s blood, appeasing Junior, Victoria downed a pint of his and a Big Mac, Mary Ann three Big Macs, and Riley a chicken nugget Happy Meal.
When teased, he’d said, “What? I like chicken,” then went back to scowling at everyone and generally acting as if he was on his period.
No one mentioned Riley’s wolf. Maybe because they knew the top of his head would explode. And no one mentioned Joe. Not even the souls. Maybe because they knew the top of Aden’s head would explode.
Joe. His father. He’d looked into those dark gray eyes, and he’d known. Part of him had even recognized the man. His father, he thought again. His. Father. The man who’d given him up. The man who hadn’t loved him enough to keep him. The man who had thrown him to the wolves—literally. The man who had admitted the truth only upon threat of death.
If he’d shown any hint of remorse…but no, Joe Stone was ashamed of who and what Aden was, even denying him the opportunity to see his mother, his sister. And now Aden felt as if he were bleeding inside. Bleeding and unable to suture the wound. There was a steady drip, drip inside him. He had a sister; Riley had seen her toys. Joe apparently loved the little girl in a way he’d never loved Aden.
For years he’d dreamed about meeting his parents. About his dad coming to his rescue, telling him how much of a mistake letting him go had been, about how loved he was. Then, when none of that had happened, the want had sharpened into indifference, and eventually the indifference into dislike.
One look at Joe and the want had returned.
Yet no matter what Aden had said, Joe had regarded him as a liability. I’ve made something of myself, he’d wanted to say. I’m king of the vampires now. More than that, I earned the title. It wasn’t handed to me. Would his father have regarded him with horror then? Probably.
That wouldn’t stop him from wanting to be king. Or acting as king. Already he’d gotten texts from Sorin and Seth. Shannon sat in his cell and stared at the wall—until someone entered with blood for him. Then he attacked. Ryder was on the mend, yet inconsolable about what he’d done, and begged everyone who approached him to kill him.
Sorin wanted to grant his request; Seth wanted to eliminate Sorin.
Aden had commanded them both to leave the boy alone and let him heal. Oh, yeah. And to suck it. They were supposed to help him, not hinder him.
Hey, I think I know them, Julian said excitedly, cutting into Aden’s thoughts.
Focus, he had to focus. He peered down at the photo in his hand and saw two men. Both were of average height. One had thinning dark hair and glasses, the other had a full head of dark hair and no glasses. They were standing side by side, though they weren’t touching. Or smiling. The back of the photo read Daniel and Robert.
So. Here were the Smart brothers.
Do you think that’s really me? Julian asked. The one with the hair and without glasses, I mean. I would not have sported a comb-over.
How do you know? Caleb asked. Or rather, grumbled. But at least he wasn’t crying. We don’t know anything about our former selves.
“I’m glad you recognize the guys, but do you remember anything about them?” Aden asked. “Or why there are spell books in this box?” Lots of spell books. And the papers? All about casting spells. Love spells, black magic spells. Spells to raise the dead. Spells to find the dead. Was that how Robert had done what he’d done?
If so, why didn’t Aden need spells to do what he did? Joe had claimed even his grandfather had used magic. Julian sighed. No. I don’t remember.
Eve hadn’t, either. Not at first.
Still. It was only a matter of time now.
“And the Boy King is back from la-la land,” Riley muttered.
Boy King? Aden flipped him off, and Victoria batted his hand to the mattress. They were on one bed, and Riley and Mary Ann were on the other. Since leaving Joe’s house, the pair hadn’t spoken a single word to each other. They were stiff, unwilling to even glance at each other.
“Julian thinks he knows these guys. So, who’s who?”
A yawning Mary Ann stood and clomped over to study the photo. “I saw pictures of Daniel on the internet. That’s him, and that’s Robert.”
No way, Julian said.
Caleb snickered, and Aden was heartened by the sound. If Julian was Robert, as Mary Ann suspected, then Julian had indeed been the guy with thinning hair and glasses.