Was he feeling sorry for himself? Hell, yeah. He didn’t know who or what he was anymore. Only that he was no good. A failure. Worthless.
He couldn’t protect Mary Ann, but he could make sure her dad did. And he would. He just had to take care of something first.
Riley turned a corner, the rain falling harder now. One thing Vlad had taught him was how to stay off human radar and how to keep his true identity hidden. After using his one phone call to leave a message for his brothers, telling them that they weren’t to look for him, he’d busted his way free of lockup. An easy enough task. Staying out would be a little more difficult, considering he planned to drink himself into a stupor. And why not? He wanted to forget everything that had happened, just for a little while. And if he was human, why not do what humans did?
Aden couldn’t use him, and he couldn’t protect Princess Victoria as he’d done for so many decades any more than he could protect Mary Ann. He was useless. So, mini-vacation, here he came.
He continued walking, searching for a liquor store, until he spotted something else. A dealer. He didn’t mean to, but he stopped. The guy looked up and down and clearly judged him acceptable, since he didn’t take off running.
Why not? This could work just as well. “What do you got?” he asked.
ADEN WATCHED THE FLAMES. Felt their heat. Heard their crackle. Tucker was dead; this wasn’t an illusion.
He stood motionless. Disbelieving. Not an illusion, but this was a dream, a nightmare, surely. Surely the vampire mansion was not burning down before his eyes. Surely there was more than falling timber left.
He’d been gone only a few days. A while ago, Seth had texted him that things were okay. As okay as they could be, considering what had happened to Ryder and Shannon. But now…
“I don’t…this can’t be…” Victoria covered her mouth with her hand, her shock as deep as his.
The souls—the only two remaining souls—were shocked speechless.
Junior wasn’t roaring. Maybe because Aden was numb. So numb.
He and Victoria had searched for Riley and Mary Ann, the rain battering at them, but they’d found no trace of the pair. They’d decided to come home and recruit a few wolves. Nathan and Maxwell hadn’t picked up when he’d called.
Though his emotions had been raw, he’d somehow pulled himself together and teleported with Victoria, an ability that still amazed him. He just thought about where he wanted to be, and boom, he was there.
He’d expected to find Sorin, get a report about what had happened while he was gone, visit Ryder, make sure he was still on the mend, visit Shannon, gauge his condition for himself, visit Seth, maybe talk to Maxwell and find out if he’d learned anything new. The information he’d gathered in that secret room at the hospital might not have been important for Julian, but it could pertain to the other two souls. Then, Aden had planned to put the search party together. He’d felt no true urgency to do so, because he’d figured Riley and Mary Ann were still arguing. Or holed up somewhere making up.
He’d noticed the fire—how could he have missed it?—and at first, hadn’t realized what was happening. He’d thought he’d simply imagined the wrong place. But, no. That was the vampire mansion in front of him, the ward in the ground the only thing untouched by the flames.
There was no one running from the crackling remains, no one screaming. No one was trying to stop the inferno from spreading.
How many had burned to death inside?
How many were hiding and safe?
He was king, and he should have been here. Should have protected them. He hadn’t.
“I have no words,” Victoria whispered. Then, she found them. “My sisters…my brother…my friends…they’re all right. Tell me they’re all right.”
A whimper escaped her. “Who…who could have done this?”
Your father, he wanted to say but didn’t. Vlad had burned down the D and M ranch, so why not his former home, too? The vampire was that vindictive and wouldn’t hesitate to slaughter his own children to get what he wanted: revenge against Aden.
Victoria’s knees must have given out, because she crumbled to the ground. The dry ground. Rain hadn’t fallen here. Not yet. The sky was an expanse of black velvet, no twinkling stars in sight.
Fall, he thought. Help us.
A raindrop splashed against his nose. His chin. For several minutes, he felt a drop here, a drop there, then the heavens opened up and the storm descended with a fury. Soon, the fire sputtered to sparks, the sparks to smoke.
Maybe he could control the weather now, he thought with a bitter laugh.
How had things gotten this far? How had they come to this?
“What are we going to do?” Victoria asked shakily.
There were no viable answers to that question. Nothing he suggested would be good enough. Nothing he suggested would bring…everyone…back….
Light-headed, Aden eased beside her on the cold, now wet ground. There was a way. One he’d resisted. One he despised. Everyone always asked him to do it, and lately, he’d only said no.
He wasn’t going to say no this time.
“I—I can fix this,” he found himself saying.
No, Aden, Elijah said, pulling himself out of his stupor. I know what you’re thinking. Don’t do it.
Had the soul had a vision about this? “There’s no other way.” Flat, determined.
Victoria rubbed at her eyes with the back of her hand. “Aden?”
“Time travel,” he said. He wasn’t going to ask Elijah if, what, he’d seen. He wasn’t going to try and force a vision himself. He didn’t want to know, not now. He didn’t want to talk himself out of this. “I’m going to time travel. I’ll go back. I’ll make sure this doesn’t happen.”
“Yes! Yes, that’s perfect and…no.” She vehemently shook her head. “Too much can go wrong. You told me that yourself.”
And we don’t know if the vampires were killed, Elijah said. They could have run. They could have teleported like you. You might go back for nothing.
Yes, some could have run. Yes, some could have teleported. But not all of them. Not the humans who had been inside. One death was too many. Going back wouldn’t be for nothing.
The weight of this failure dragged him down so low he wasn’t sure he’d ever see the light of day. Even if he managed to change things, he would not forget what had happened, and would know what to do—and what not to do. He never forgot.
They would forget, though. All of them. Victoria, Mary Ann, Riley. They would have no idea what had once transpired, the fate that once awaited them.
And if this worked, Vlad would not war with Aden—he would war with Dmitri, because Dmitri would become king. Victoria would be forced to marry the man. The thought caused Aden’s hands to fist. He wasn’t going to change his mind, though. This was being proactive.
Riley would keep his wolf.
Mary Ann would not become a drainer.
Aden would never meet Mary Ann. Would never summon the creatures of the otherworld here.
Shannon would not become a zombie.
The D and M ranch would not burn to the ground, and Brian would not die inside it.
Aden would not become a vampire. Junior would not be created.
Victoria would not become a human, would not lose her abilities.
Perhaps Eve and Julian would even return to him.
“I have to do this,” he said. “I can’t leave things like this.” As Mary Ann had said, what could be worse than this?
Do you really want to find out? Elijah asked.
I should be on board for this, Caleb said. I thought I would be. But something seems off. Wrong.
“You’re not usually the voice of reason. Don’t start trying to be now.”
“Aden, listen to me. Answer me.” Victoria shook her head, wet hair slapping at his cheeks, then shook him. “Go back to when?”
Her eyes widened, the implications putting furious color in her cheeks. “Let’s talk about this. Think it through. If you go back, will Eve return to you? Will Julian? What about you? Your beast? Will you still be a vampire?”
“Probably. Maybe. I don’t know. Probably not. Definitely not. Maybe.”
“Will never have been applied.” He leaned over and pressed a soft kiss into her lips. “I love you. You know that, right?”
He should have done this a long time ago. Should have listened to everyone when they’d asked him to do it. Instead, he’d let fear and stubbornness rule him. And look where it had gotten him.
“Yes.” Blue eyes studied him, sad, almost defeated. “I love you, too. But there has to be another way to—”
“There’s not.” If things worked out the way he hoped they would, he and Victoria would never meet. Never get to know each other.
Never cause such a cataclysmic event.
He’d rather meet her and deal with this, but he wouldn’t. And that was love.
Like his parents had given him up, he was going to give Victoria up. Unlike his parents, he wasn’t doing it for himself but for her.
In the end, this was going to kill him. He could walk by her, and she would not know him, but he would know her.
“This is the only way. I know that now.” He kissed her again, a deeper kiss than he’d ever given her. A soul-shattering kiss. Their last kiss. He let her feel all of his longing, all of his dreams. All of his regrets. All of his prayers for the future.
And when he pulled back, he was trembling. She was crying. He tasted those tears in his mouth, a little salty, a lot heartbreaking.
He wiped those tears away with an unsteady hand, and then he did what was necessary. He closed his eyes and imagined the day he’d first met Mary Ann….