His expression was hard, completely blocking her out. “Nothing.”
Nothing. Oh, really? “Do you hate me now? Is that why you won’t talk to me or tell me the truth? Should I take off again?” The moment she realized what she’d said, she wanted to snatch the words back. What if his reply was an unwavering yes?
Wary, he scrubbed a hand down his face. “I don’t hate you.”
No mention of the other thing, she noted. “Do you resent me? Is that why you can barely look at me? Why you won’t talk to me? Why you offer Victoria comfort but not me?”
One of his brows arched. “Do you need comfort?”
Something else of note: that wasn’t an offer.
She’d hurt him. She’d destroyed his life. And there was nothing she could do to make it up to him. She knew that. But that didn’t stop her from loving him. From wishing things were different.
“No,” she lied. “I don’t need comfort.” She wanted to lean her head on his shoulder, that strong, strong shoulder, exactly as Victoria had done.
“You’ll want to answer differently in a few seconds,” a male voice said. A voice she recognized. Tucker’s voice.
Riley spun, but the demon was nowhere to be seen.
Before fear had time to set in, a strong arm wound around her waist, and another around her neck. Cold steel pressed into her vein. “Riley,” she gasped out.
He peered over her shoulder, his eyes narrowing. “Let her go.”
“We’ve gotta talk,” Tucker said. “All of us. Preferably alive, but I’m open to negotiation.”
Well, look again.
“How many times can we have this conversation, Julian?”
Let’s not find out. Let’s look. Again.
Aden ground his teeth. He’d left the toilet a few seconds ago, and now crouched on the floor. His head fell back, resting on the cool porcelain of the tub, and he stared up at the ceiling. Frustration was eating at him, but he once again thumbed through the papers he’d brought with him.
His ears twitched, picking up…something, a rustle of clothing maybe, then nothing.
Not those. I don’t like those. They give me the creeps.
Like the room at the hospital. That was something, at least. He read the spine of the book he held. Dark Arts of the Ages.
Show me the pictures again.
As promised, Elijah kept his figurative lips shut.
Aden heard another rustle of clothing beyond the bathroom door as he discarded the book and picked up the photos. What he saw as he shuffled through them: two little boys the same age, so alike they could have been twins. Yet, the older they got, the more dissimilar they became, Robert aging faster than Daniel. Also, the older they got, the unhappier their expressions became, until Robert—looking fortysomething—and Daniel—looking thirtysomething—were sullen and miserable.
And this was the man Tonya had loved so staunchly she hadn’t gotten over his death seventeen years later? Seemed obsessive. Weirdly obsessive.
That one, that one, that one, Julian chanted.
Aden stilled. The picture he held was not of the brothers, but of Tonya herself. Younger, blonder, prettier, sitting under a shade tree, staring off into the distance as little pink flower petals floated around her. “What about it?”
I dismissed it every time because it’s of a woman. Of her. But the more I see it, the more I think I was…there.
“Maybe you took the picture.”
If I did, that has to mean I was Daniel. Right? She wouldn’t have spent time with her brother-in-law.
Unless Robert loved her, too, Elijah said. Wait. Ignore that. I didn’t mean to say that out loud.
Hearing his voice perked Aden right up.
I think that’s something every baldy tells himself at some point, Caleb said.
“Okay, good. We’re working as a team again. I like this. Let’s keep this up.”
Let’s travel back in time, like Mary Ann suggested. To when the picture was taken, Julian said, practically rubbing hands together in glee. I’ll prove I had hair. Aden will open his eyes, and be in Daniel’s body. With hair. Did I mention that part yet?
Deep breath in, hold, hold. “Are you forgetting how many times we’ve woken up with new—worse—foster parents? Or in a mental institution we’d once been dismissed from? Or, the latest, with a new doctor in charge of our care—a doctor who wasn’t human but a fairy in disguise who hoped to kill us?”
“No buts. I told everyone else no, and now I’ll tell you.” Even if he wasn’t exactly happy with his present, he didn’t want to make it worse. “No, no, a thousand times no. And now that we’ve covered that. Who took this picture isn’t important.”
You don’t know that.
“You died in December. This picture was clearly taken in the spring. And we both know you only need to remember the day you died to make this work.”
A frustrated growl. Well, I’m not remembering. We have to do something. Try something.
No. I don’t want her hurt, Julian rushed out, only to pause. I mean, I know you won’t hurt her. I just…I don’t know. I don’t want her to suffer anymore.
Intrigue sparked. Were Julian’s past feelings coming to the surface? Had he loved the woman, as Elijah suspected? He—wait, wait, wait. Aden’s attention snagged on a single word. “You said anymore. You don’t want her to suffer anymore. Why was—is—she suffering?”
Maybe you’re thinking about this too hard, Caleb said. Maybe if we relax for a little bit, the answers will just come to us.
“What!” His head snapped up, his gaze automatically moving to the door. Unlike the mirror in the mansion, he couldn’t see past the wood. He was on his feet a heartbeat later. “What’s wrong with her?”
I know I’m breaking my promise to you, but Tucker’s out there and he has a knife he’s very determined to use. Mary Ann and Riley are there, too. I just thought you should know.
“Are they okay?” He never should have trusted that traitor.
As of right now, yes.
As of right now. Words that were like a noose around his neck. Exploding into action might cause Tucker to explode into action. Okay, okay. He had to think about this, plan how to strike. He might be upset with Victoria, but he didn’t want her hurt. Didn’t want any of them hurt.
Back and forth he paced. He tried to listen, but all he heard was that rustle of clothing. Why?
“Where’s everyone located in the room? Do you know?”
Two seconds passed. Four. The rustling increased in volume, but that was it.
He and Riley are knife fighting, Elijah suddenly announced. Both are cut up pretty badly. Blood is everywhere. A horrified gasp. Victoria just tried to get in the middle. Now she’s unconscious. Mary Ann is—
Junior slammed against Aden’s skull. Exploding into action, so not a problem anymore. Victoria was hurt. No one hurt Victoria. His mind was so focused on defending her, he didn’t stop to open the door. He simply burst through it, shards spraying everywhere.
Took a moment for him to make sense of what he was seeing, hearing. Or not hearing.
First thing he noticed, the room was a wreck, the nightstand in shambles, the lamp shattered into hundreds of pieces, the phone embedded in the wall, but Aden hadn’t heard anything more than that rustling through the paper-thin bathroom wall. Still didn’t. Yet, the boys were going it at like animals in human form, throwing each other onto the beds, the floors, into the dresser.
Tucker’s illusion could now control sound, he realized.
Second thing, Aden had fought Tucker before and knew the guy wasn’t giving the confrontation his all. He was actually spreading his arms, allowing Riley to pound those meaty fists into his face. Well, until survival instinct kicked in and Tucker probably reacted without thought, bucking the shifter off him.
Third, the metallic scent of blood coated the air, whipping Junior into more of a frenzy. The beast raced from one corner of his mind to the other, claws cutting deeply, making him grimace. Any minute now, and Aden’s brain would be ripped into tatters. Surely.
Fourth, Mary Ann was dodging the combatants as she raced around the room, searching for a weapon.
Fifth, Victoria was in an unconscious heap at the door. Blood trickled from her nose.
No one hurts her. No one. Such a killing rage…blooming inside him…so strong he wasn’t sure how he could contain it…had never experienced anything like it…not even when he’d fought Sorin…was going to detonate…
What’s happening to us? Julian asked, barely audible as Junior roared and roared and roared.
Aden threw himself into the fray, batting Riley away with one hand and grabbing Tucker by the shirt with the other. His momentum gave him strength, and he was able to spin, slamming Tucker against the wall, then the floor, and pinning him in place.
Sensing his opportunity to strike, Junior burst from his skin, the roaring now directed at Tucker. Junior wasn’t solid—yet—and caused no damage as he tried to bite. Tucker just lay there, taking the abuse. He looked as if he were smuggling golf balls under his eyelids, and a couple of his teeth were missing.
Riley must have gained his bearings because he was beside Aden a few seconds later. Junior had already decided Tucker belonged to him and wrenched around, snipping at Riley, teeth—solid now—slicing through his arm.
The shifter reared back, and Junior returned his attention to Tucker. Saliva dripped from sharpened fangs.
Tucker smiled. “Remember…promise…” he managed to get out. “Protect…brother.”