“I lost her.” A muscle underneath his eye jerked, a sure sign of his upset.
“Wait. You, an expert tracker, lost a teenager who wouldn’t know how to hide if she were invisible?” Another sign that Mary Ann was more than she seemed.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” he said. “I’m here to talk about you. How are you? Seriously?”
“All right. I’ll pretend I believe that. Any word from your father?”
“No.” Vlad had ordered Aden’s execution while remaining in the shadows. Shadows he had yet to vacate.
She’d never been so grateful for her father’s vanity. He wanted to be seen as invincible, always. So, no one here knew Vlad was still alive, and if she had her way, they never would. The vampires might rebel against Aden before he was officially crowned king, and if they rebelled while he was in this condition, he would lose. Everything he’d already endured would have been for nothing.
Even healthy and whole, he needed every edge he could get. Not just to remain in charge, but to stay alive.
Right now, he had time. Victoria knew her father. Vlad would not return until he was at top strength. Then…well, then there would be a war. Vlad would punish those who’d submitted to Aden’s rule. Herself and Riley included. He would make an example of Aden. And his preferred method of “exampling,” as she’d come to call it, was placing a severed head on a pike and displaying that pike at his front door.
Would Aden fight him? If so, could Aden hope to win?
“How’s Aden?” Riley asked. The wolf could read auras and had probably sensed the direction of her thoughts. “Did he…survive?”
Yes and no. Her stomach twisted into thousands of little knots. She tugged from Riley’s hold, turned and motioned to the bed with a wave of her hand. “Behold. Our king.”
Green eyes narrowed as they lanced to the lump atop the mattress. Five sure steps, and the shifter was at the side of the bed, peering down. Victoria joined him, trying to see Aden as Riley must.
He lay on his back, as motionless as a corpse. His normally bronzed skin was pallid, the blue tracery of his veins evident. His cheeks were hollowed out, his lips chapped and cracked. His hair was soaked with sweat and plastered to his scalp.
“What’s wrong with him?” Riley demanded in a quiet, yet all the harsher for it, tone.
She gulped. “Well, I think I told you that Tucker stabbed him.”
“Yes, and Tucker will die for that.” A flat, cold statement of fact. “Soon.”
The homicidal confession didn’t surprise her. Retaliation was Riley’s way. Tit for tat, and never anything in between. That way, an enemy never tried to harm you twice. “I wanted to save him—save Aden I mean—so I…I tried to…” Just say it. “Tried to turn him. I told you that, too.”
“Well, I didn’t. I know I shouldn’t have done it, but I couldn’t… I didn’t want… I did what I had to do to keep him alive!”
“Aden told you the consequences of messing with one of Elijah’s predictions, Vic. The few times he did it, people suffered more than they would have if he’d left them alone.”
Her back went ramrod straight, her nose lifting in the air. “Yes, he did, and no, that didn’t stop me or change my mind. I fed him my blood, every drop I could, drank from him, and then he drank from me. We repeated the process, over and over again.”
Of course he knew there was more to the story. Her shoulders sagged. “And…somehow I absorbed his souls inside my head, and he absorbed my beast.”
“Not anymore. We kept switching back and forth, and we kept drinking from each other, even though we barely had anything left. I thought we would kill each other. We…almost…did.” Her chin trembled, breaking the words apart.
“There’s more. Tell me.” Riley was merciless when he wanted something, and right now he wanted information. He’d warned her she wouldn’t like him if he had to force her to talk, and she took the threat seriously.
“Our last day in the cave, I did something to him. I don’t know what, and it’s killing me! I blacked out, and when I came to, he was like this.”
“You just blacked out? For how long?”
“No.” Truth. But that didn’t mean she hadn’t injured him internally.
Why couldn’t she remember what happened?
“Why did you bring him here? In this condition, he’s weak and vulnerable. There’s no better time to strike at him. Your people could rise up and finally rid themselves of the human king they never wanted.”
Her nose went back into the air. “I’ve been guarding him, and no one has even tried to enter my room. I think they remember how much their beasts love him.” Every vampire possessed one, and without the wards they etched into their skin, those beasts could emerge, take solid form and attack. And when they attacked, no one, especially not their vampire “master,” was safe.
And yet, those same beasts acted like trained, slobbery house dogs in Aden’s presence, doing everything he commanded, protecting him against any and all threats.
“Or maybe the people haven’t yet realized Aden’s here,” she finished.
“Oh, they realize. Everyone I ran into was on edge. Their beasts want out of them and in here with Aden.”
That she could believe. The precious silence she’d experienced those last minutes in the cave had ended the moment she arrived home. Chompers wanted to move inside Aden’s mind permanently and wasn’t afraid to roar his displeasure about being stuck with Victoria.
After feeding him, she’d had to double up on her wards to quiet him.
“No. Yes. I don’t know. Before passing out, he craved blood. My blood.” All of my blood. She kept that little gem to herself. No telling how Riley would react.
He reached out and lifted Aden’s lips from his teeth. “No fangs.”
“Is like yours?” Frown deepening, Riley unleashed his claws, his nails lengthening and sharpening. Before Victoria could protest, he raked those claws over Aden’s cheek.
“Interesting.” A clear liquid—je la nune—beaded on the end of those claws, and Riley once more sliced at Aden’s cheek. This time, the skin sizzled as it split apart.
“Stop it!” With a screech, Victoria threw herself over Aden’s body, preventing Riley from making another pass at him. Not that he tried.
“You’re right. He has a vampire’s skin,” Riley said.
“Which is what I was trying to tell you!” What she wouldn’t admit, not yet, because she still couldn’t believe it herself, was that she now had human skin. Vulnerable, so easily harmed. Feeding hadn’t reversed the damage, either. She wasn’t sure anything would. “You didn’t need to hurt him like that. The je la nune would burn through a human, too.”
Riley ignored her. “How long has he been like this?”
“Three days.” She sat up, remaining beside Aden, and glared at her bodyguard, daring him to blame her.
“Give me a minute to mentally calculate.” With barely a pause, he added, “Yep, that’s three days too long. Has he fed recently?”
“Yes.” She’d tested every blood-slave she’d allowed him to drink from, then, when she knew they were safe, she’d given him a little at a time to gauge how he would respond. There’d been no reaction, good or bad, so she’d given him more and more, until the blood had practically seeped from his pores. Still there’d been no reaction.
For hours she had debated the wisdom of giving him more of her blood. What if he became addicted again? Then she’d thought, what if he was still addicted, and only her blood could help him?
So, she’d done it. She’d sliced her wrist—and oh, how that had hurt—pouring her blood straight down his throat. The wound had healed slowly for her, swiftly for a human, but Aden had gotten several mouthfuls in the interim. His cheeks had suddenly bloomed with color, and she’d been so hopeful—for both of them. But a few minutes later, the color had withered, then disappeared altogether, and his sleep had become fitful. Too fitful. He’d moaned in pain, writhed and finally vomited.
She explained all of that to Riley.
“Maybe that’s the problem, then,” he said. “Maybe he doesn’t need the blood.”
“I let him go twenty-four hours without it, and he got even worse. He only improved to this comalike state when I started feeding him again.”
A heavy sigh. “All right, here’s what we’re gonna do,” Riley said, taking charge. As always. “I’m gonna post guards at your door. No one but you and I are to enter this room. Understand?”
“No. Because I’m foolish. News flash, Riley. That’s why I threatened to disembowel anyone who entered.” Well, well. Stress and lack of rest were making her snappy.
He continued, unperturbed, “You’re going to feed him your blood, exactly as you’ve been doing, and you will alert me if there’s a change. Any change. I will go to the D and M ranch and grab his medication.”
The D and M ranch. Aden’s home. Well, perhaps former home now. Troubled teenagers lived there, and it was a last stop on the road to redemption—or damnation. One broken rule, and those teens were kicked out. Leaving without contacting Dan, the owner of that ranch, was probably the biggest no-no of all.