“Yes, of course,” she said, slurring the words. “Pen and paper.” She stood and stumbled off, unconcerned, unwitting and in a lot of danger.

Victoria made a play to follow her, but Joe shook the gun “no-no” as if he were shaking his head, and she remained in place. “Aren’t you afraid she’ll run?”

“No,” was all the man said. “The drug opens her mind to suggestion. She’ll do only what she’s told.”

Perhaps not the wisest thing to admit.

Victoria studied him for a moment. “You know, you’re worse than my father, and I didn’t think that was possible. He used to whip me with a cat-o’-nine-tails, you know. Just for fun.”

Aden squeezed her knee in another bid for silence. Much as Joe hated the creatures of the otherworld, he might try and punish Victoria for her origins or even the sins of others.

Joe offered him a small smile, content to let the mystery of her pass. “You picked a damaged girl with daddy issues. I guess we’re more alike than I ever thought possible.”

What was he saying? That Aden’s mother was damaged? That she, too, had daddy issues? So badly he wanted to ask. Despite everything, he was hungry for information about his mother.

The few times he’d allowed himself to think about her, he’d wondered what she looked like, if she’d been as eager to give him away as Joe had been, or if she’d wanted to keep him. Where was she now? What was she doing?

Was she the woman Riley and Mary Ann had seen with Joe that day in his truck?

“Don’t ask,” Joe said stiffly, sensing the direction of his thoughts.

He opened his mouth to do just that, but Tonya returned with the commanded paper and pen and handed them to Joe before reclaiming her seat beside him. Joe balanced the notepad on his thigh and began writing, his other hand never leaving the gun. When he finished he tore off the paper and slapped it against the coffee table.

His gaze met Aden’s, familiar and once again blank. “Now you can’t say I’ve never helped you.”

He couldn’t stop his heart from pounding in surprise or Junior’s consequent slamming against his skull. He slanted his head to the side, motioning to the paper. “What’s that?”

Truth or lie? Either way, “Father of the Year award, meet Joe Stone. Or not.”

Frowning, Joe leaned into the human. “Tonya, you’re going to be a good girl, sit still and listen to Aden. You’re going to do what he says, aren’t you?”

“Yes. I will do what he says.”

Those eyes lasered into Aden. “Spells are unbreakable unless the caster leaves himself a safe word, I guess is the best way to describe it. I can hear the spell this Daniel person cast inside my head, and he absolutely left himself a way out. Probably in case he stopped loving her and wanted to be rid of her. Or punish her. Or hurt her. There’s always a reason, but those I can’t interpret. Anyway, the words on the paper are her way out.”

He would not thank the man. Too little, too late.

“Don’t try to find me, Aden, and don’t try to find your mother. I’m sure your friends told you about the toys they found in the house. Yes, you have a little sister. No, you cannot see her. She’s not like you, and you’ll only bring her pain and suffering.”

Yeah, they’d told him about the girl, but hearing the words—little sister—and once again realizing he’d never get to see her, hold her, beat up the boys who hurt her feelings, well, Aden hadn’t cried the two times he’d been stabbed, but he wanted to cry now.

“That’s why I’m here,” Joe went on, uncaring of the injuries he inflicted. “To tell you nothing good will ever come of your search for them.”

“You didn’t kill me, and I didn’t kill you,” Joe said. “Let’s leave it at that and parts ways. Forever.”

“At least give him a picture of his mother, his sister,” Victoria said, sympathetic to Aden in a way only she could be.

“No. Cutting all ties is best. Believe me.” With that, Joe stood and strode from the living room. Though he did pause in the arched doorway for several heartbeats, as if he had something more to say, but in the end, he didn’t. He left, the front door slamming shut behind him.

How could Joe do that to him? Let him go like that? Again. The most disturbing question of all, though—what would life have been like if Joe had actually loved him and kept him around? If Joe had trained him?

Junior nearly busted his eardrums with his next screech.

Victoria threw her arms around him, settled herself in his lap and hugged him tight. “I’m so sorry. He doesn’t deserve you.”

Words she’d probably said to herself—or Riley had said to her—after her own father had broken her heart. Aden held her, letting her comfort him as only she was able, breathing her in, loving her scent, his mouth watering for a taste, not letting himself have a taste or think about tasting, not letting himself bite her but simply luxuriating in what she offered. Finally he calmed the rest of the way, and so did Junior.

Aden, please, Julian was saying.

Julian. His friend. Whom he would help, no matter the destruction to himself. He kissed Victoria on the temple, settled her on the couch, grabbed the paper, read it and stood. As he closed the distance between himself and Tonya, his hand fisted, crinkling the words. This was supposed to work?

He crouched in front of her. “Look at me, Tonya.”

Will this work? Julian asked. This has to work.

Aden wasn’t sure what his father had proposed, something so simple, so easy a freaking caveman could do it—too much TV?—would do anything more than embarrass him, but he said, “Tonya Smart, your heart is your own. Your soul is your own. Love may whither, love may die, but your truth will set you free.”

She blinked down at him.

Why hasn’t anything happened? Julian again.

“She’s still drugged,” Victoria said. “Maybe that’s preventing her from showing a reaction.”

“Fight your way from the drug’s influence,” Aden said, and just as before, she obeyed. Not because she’d been told to obey him, but because he’d used his vampire voice.

Her gaze cleared of that glassy sheen, revealing the shadows churning so violently behind them. A scream ripped from her, her entire body bowing, shaking her chair, then hunching over. She shook, she moaned, she writhed, her fingers gnarling.

Aden backed away from her, unsure how to help her.

“I can’t.” All he could do was watch, horrified, as those shadows seeped through her pores, rising from her, enveloping her in a dark mist and screams, so many screams, echoing through the room.

Her screams? The ones she’d trapped inside herself, every time the spell forced her to do something against her will?

Aden returned to Victoria—and the movement must have scared the shadows or something, because they shot up and out, disappearing through the ceiling. Leaving silence, such heavy silence.

Tonya sagged against her seat, slid to the floor and lay there panting. She was drenched with sweat, tears pouring down her cheeks, her skin flushed a deep red. “I…he…oh, dear Lord!” Sobs racked her entire body as she curled into herself.

Victoria slipped forward and reached out. Tonya caught the motion from the corner of her eye and reared backward.

“Don’t touch me! Get out! Get out of my house! I hate you. I hate you all. I hate him. Hate, hate, hate.” The sobs intensified, nearly choking her.

“Julian…Robert,” Aden said. “Is there anything you want me to tell her?”

A pause. Then, No. She wouldn’t listen now, and besides, I don’t know what I’d say. I don’t love her as I once did, I just couldn’t let her rot in the prison Daniel had built for her. She’s free, Julian said. She’s really free, and that’s all that matters.

With every word, his voice had become softer, quieter.

He was leaving, Aden realized, fighting a cry of his own. Just like that, without any other warning. Don’t go. I’m not ready. He held the words inside himself. No reason to burden Julian with them. “How—how much time do you have left?”

“Come on.” He was shaking as he led her out of the house. He could have teleported them, but he was too emotionally messed up and wasn’t sure where they’d land.

Cold air blustered around him, a storm clearly brewing. The sky was gray, the clouds bulky. The scenery fit his mood perfectly. He got them to a thick crop of trees before he dropped to his knees. “Julian?”

Still here. And I want you to know… I love you, Aden. Weaker still.

“I love you, too.” So much.

Thank you for everything. You were a great host, and I will never forget you.

Once again he wanted to shout, Don’t go, but he didn’t. He’d just lost Joe—not that he wanted to be a part of Joe’s life—but to lose Julian, too? Here and now, like this? His eyes were like twin coals just pulled from a fire.

Julian, Elijah said, sad and happy all at once. Aden understood. He was sad for himself but happy for his friend. We will never forget you, either.

Dude, Caleb said. I knew you were the one with the comb-over.

Julian laughed. I love you, guys. Even when you were being a pain in my ass.

Caleb was the one to laugh this time. You might want to rephrase that. You don’t have an ass.

“I’m going to miss you,” Aden said softly. His chin trembled so violently, he barely got the words out.