Aden tried to rise, but it was too late. Junior had slipped from him completely, and attacked, feasting. Not once did Tucker struggle. And then, his head lulled to the side. His eyes were open, staring into nothing. Glassy, dull. His pulse stopped thumping—because he had no neck left.
Suddenly sound whooshed back. Aden heard a male scream—a bloodcurdling sound that echoed throughout the room, though no one in the room was screaming. He could hear Junior’s snarls as he ate. Could hear Riley panting. Could hear Mary Ann fighting sobs. Could hear Victoria’s shallow breaths.
He couldn’t face any of them. Not yet. If Junior decided to turn on them…
“Riley, get the girls out of here.” Aden wrapped his arms around his beast, holding for all he was worth. “Now.”
“Where and when should we meet you?”
“I’ll call you and let you know. Now go.” Before it was too late.
A pause. Footsteps. The squeak of door hinges. He stayed where he was until Junior had eaten everything. He could feel the beast’s pleasure and satisfaction. Then the beast’s discomfort from overindulgence.
“What did I just let happen?” he whispered, even as he petted Junior behind the ears.
Tucker wanted to die, Elijah said, sadness dripping from the words. Vlad can’t use his brother against him if he’s dead.
“I know. And Tucker needed to be stopped, but not this way.” All Aden’s threats aside, not this way.
These things happen, Caleb said. He didn’t sound sorry or upset but vindicated.
Really? Julian sniped, because I don’t remember anything like this happening before.
Aden continued to pet Junior, and the beast allowed it, not even trying to attack. Junior even fell asleep, his body misting before seeping back into Aden’s pores.
He lay there for a long while, Tucker’s blood pooling around him, soaking into his clothes, his hair. He’d known Junior was dangerous. But this…there’d been no controlling him, no reining him in.
You can ward yourself, as the other vampires do, Elijah said. The ward will help keep Junior inside you. Help keep him calm, quiet.
Uh, why are you so despondent? Julian asked. Controlling that monster is a good thing.
Yes, but the ward will quiet us, too.
We will be aware, as Junior will be aware, but we will have no voice. Not any longer. No, don’t protest, any of you. I knew we would reach this point. And I wanted to be sure Aden could exist without us. He can. You’re strong enough, Aden. Smart enough.
So we’ll just fade into the background? Caleb asked, incredulous. Upset.
So. Aden was supposed to choose between controlling his beast—who could emerge and kill everyone he loved—and destroying his dearest friends. No, life wasn’t fair.
He sat up, saying grimly, “Right now, Junior’s content and maybe even battling a case of indigestion. Nothing needs to be decided right now.”
What do you mean, nothing needs to be decided? There shouldn’t be anything to decide, Caleb said.
Aden ignored him, couldn’t yet deal with him. “Let’s get cleaned up, find the others and pay Tonya another visit.”
We don’t have a car, Julian said, everything else forgotten at the mention of his…wife’s?…name.
We don’t need one, Elijah replied. Not anymore.
BY THE TIME ADEN TEXTED to set the meeting place and time, Riley had already procured another room, was cleaned and bandaged, Victoria was awake, showered and changed, and she was pretty bruised up. Mary Ann was showered, changed and pissed. At herself, as well as everyone around her.
Tucker was dead, killed in the most violent, vile way, and no one seemed to care. She hadn’t thought she would care. He’d caused so much pain and suffering—and would have caused more. But part of her mourned him. Mourned the boy she’d once known. The boy who had treated her with respect and kindness and made her feel pretty. The boy who would never know his kid.
How was she going to break this to Penny? She’d have to call, have to tell her. Just not now. Maybe after her own grief had settled.
Mary Ann didn’t blame Aden for what had happened. If he hadn’t killed the boy, Riley would have. There was simply no middle ground with these creatures. It was either kill or be killed.
What had happened to a good old-fashioned locked-away-for-the-rest-of-eternity punishment?
Adding to her sense of anger was Riley’s treatment of her. Yes, he’d offered his beast, but she never would have taken it had she been coherent.
If Riley wanted to end things with her, he could end things with her. However, he was going to have to tell her straight out. No more giving her the silent treatment, then defending her “honor” with such fury, as if he still cared. No more keeping her at a distance, then looking at her as if she’d make a tasty snack.
If things were over, things were over. She needed to know—and cut all ties.
She loved him, she wanted him in her life, but she deserved to be treated right. That’s why she’d broken up with Tucker, because he hadn’t treated her right. She couldn’t change her mind about that now, just because she craved Riley more than her next breath.
She wouldn’t die without him. She knew that. She would miss him, yes, and would probably cry herself to sleep for weeks. But in the end, she would be okay. Right?
Next time she got Riley alone, they were going to hash this out.
They walked the few blocks to the meeting place, the parking lot of a deserted warehouse. Not much traffic this way, which was always a good thing. The sun was setting, shadows cast in every direction. Another good thing.
“I wonder if Aden is—” Victoria began, then stopped on a gasp.
Aden simply appeared. In a blink, he was hunched over and fighting for breath.
He could teleport. He. Could. Teleport. When the heck had that happened?
“That’s…a little more…difficult than I…imagined,” he panted.
He straightened, and by the time she reached him, his arms were open to her. She threw herself at him, and he hugged her tight, burying his face in her neck. She winced a little, obviously hurting from her injuries.
“Are you okay?” he asked her. Having almost lost each other must have trumped whatever he’d been angry about.
“Yes. Just a little bump on the head when Tucker threw me into the wall. Are you?”
“I’m fine. I’m sorry I was so mad at you. I should have—”
“No. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you before. I can’t believe—”
“I was jealous, but if I’d just stopped—”
Lord above, they were talking over each other, making eavesdropping very difficult.
Victoria cupped his cheeks. “You have no reason to be jealous, I promise. It was a onetime thing, and it will never happen again. It wasn’t even very good.”
Mary Ann had no idea what they were blabbering about, but Riley must have because he mumbled something about “not his fault” and “better than good, as always.”
Took a moment, but something clicked inside Mary Ann’s head. Onetime thing. Never happen again. Not very good. Better than good.
Glaring, she wheeled around. The wind blew, causing several strands of hair to Swan Lake over his eyes. He had his arms crossed over his chest, the pose casual and unconcerned.
“You told me the two of you had never been involved!” She threw the words at him as if they were weapons.
To his credit, he didn’t pretend not to know what she was asking. “We slept together one time. That’s not exactly an involvement.”
Then what was? “Is there anyone you haven’t slept with?”
There was no change in his blasé expression. He shrugged. “Just an unlucky few, but that just means I haven’t met them yet.”
“What do you want me to say, Mary Ann?”
“When did it happen? Tell me that much.”
And that made it okay? “What about before you dated her sister?”
A nod, as if he didn’t hear—or didn’t care—about her disgust. “Yes. Before then. I’ve never cheated on a girlfriend, and I never will, so this argument is pointless.” Pointless.
“Screw you,” she said. Then, “Oh, wait. Fifty percent of the people in this circle already have!” Her math was off, but she didn’t care. No wonder she’d always been so jealous when she watched him with Victoria. No wonder the pair was always at ease with each other. They’d seen each other naked! And once tasted, forbidden fruit was that much easier to taste a second time. And a third.
Mary Ann was proof of that. How many times had she made out with Riley when she shouldn’t have?
“Look, it was awkward, all right?” Now he was the one throwing words like weapons. “Like she said, there’s not going to be a repeat performance.”
Again, as if that made everything okay. “Why don’t I sleep with Aden, then, and we’ll see how pointless—”
Riley leaned down, getting in her face, all hint of placating her gone. “You will not sleep with Aden.” There was so much fury in the undercurrents of his rasping voice, she felt the brush of it all the way to the bone.
She could only blink in surprise. Now, here was a reaction she hadn’t expected from him. It meant he still cared about what she did—and who she did it with. “Why? Because I’m still your girlfriend?”
A moment passed. The fury melted, and he straightened, gathered his wits. “I…I don’t know. Neither one of us is the same person we were a few weeks ago.” Honesty. Well, that she had expected, and now she wanted more. “Just say it,” she said, forcing the issue despite their rapt audience. Please don’t. Please don’t say we’re through. That we’re over, done.