Paradise City, New Florida 2067
As the car pulled alongside the gates to Chrysabelle’s estate, Mal stared through the metal bars at the stucco-and-glass fortress she lived in. Eight days she’d refused to see him. With good reason. His patience with the situation was worn paperthin. Not just because of the waiting to find out if the Aurelian had given her a way to remove his curse – and knowing what a monster he was, why would the Aurelian do that? No, that wasn’t it, although that question was a constant presence in his head, alongside the voices that constantly mocked and tormented him. His lack of patience came from not knowing how Chrysabelle was recovering from the physical damage that had been done to her. That was the worst of it. That part gnawed at him with gut-deep pain.
Doc, the leopard varcolai who’d become the closest thing he had to a friend, threw the old sedan into park, tossed his arm over the bench seat, and twisted to look at Mal in the back. ‘You sure you don’t want me and Fi to talk to her? I’m sure she’d let us in.’ Fi, the first of Mal’s voices to manifest as a ghost, turned to look at Mal, too.
‘No. If I have to knock on her door all night, she’s going to see me this time.’ That’s it. Force your way in. Drain her dry like you know you want to. Mal ignored the voices and held tightly to the little calm he had left. Since Chrysabelle had regained consciousness, she’d refused to see him or Creek. Mal could understand her not wanting to see the Kubai Mata, but Mal’s blood had healed her. Ruined her. He’d gotten her out of Corvinestri and back to her own home. That had to count for something, even if Creek had helped.
Doc shrugged. ‘Suit yourself, bro. Fi and I will swing by after the movie to see if you need a ride home.’
‘It’s going to rain.’
‘Don’t care.’ If things went right, he’d be inside anyway. They won’t go right. Not for you.
‘Stubborn as always.’ Fi smiled. ‘Don’t forget the cookies I made. She’s gotta let you in with those. Double chocolate chip!’
Mal nodded. It was a little scary how domestic Fi had become since she and Doc had coupled up in a serious way. Or maybe she was just happy not to be stuck in the nightmare loop of reliving her death night after night. He grabbed the plate Fi offered and got out of the car. He waited until they pulled away, then jumped the wall surrounding Chrysabelle’s estate and walked to the front door.
Velimai, Chrysabelle’s inherited assistant and deadly wysper fae, opened it before he could knock. At the sight of her, the voices ramped up into an irritating whine. Chrysabelle’s everpresent scent didn’t help matters either. Velimai shook her head no, anticipating his question.
‘At least tell me how she is.’
Velimai started to sign something Mal wouldn’t understand, when a soft voice broke the silence. ‘Let him in.’ Chrysabelle. At last. Just the sound of her voice relaxed him and helped him fight the chaos in his head.
Velimai looked to one side, then signed a few words and nodded. She held a finger up, making Mal wait. Footsteps receded. At last the wysper fae opened the door and moved out of the way.
She led him down a hall and into a library – a part of the house he’d never been in before. He gave her the plate of cookies and went in. The room was the first he’d seen that had any color besides white or ivory. The pale blue was subdued, but in a house so serene, it might as well have been red. He inhaled. Fresh paint. Interesting. Maybe Chrysabelle was finally coming to terms with living here.
Chrysabelle stood at the far end, facing the wall of windows that seemed to dominate the back of the first floor. Her beautiful sunlight-colored hair was unbraided, another rare sight. The ever-present glow around her, something all comarré had but visible only to vampires, seemed darker somehow. More alluring. More biteable.
The window coverings were pulled back, and beyond the grounds and pool, the bay shimmered in an endless black mass that reflected the stormy night sky. Only a reading lamp illuminated the space, but she’d still angled herself in such a way that the small portion of her face visible in the glass was distorted and hard to see, even with vampire eyes.
‘Rain again.’ Great. Start with the weather. That was safe. And boring. Like you. What he wanted to do was crush her in his arms and tell her how damn glad he was that she was still alive. Or just crush her. Then ask her what the Aurelian had said. ‘Good for the new sod you had put in.’ Sod meant to cover the pressure sensors installed as part of a new beefed-up security system. He knew only because he’d watched the workers leaving after dusk, not because she’d told him. Had Creek been behind that? If so, good for him. The upgrade was long past due.
‘Mmm-hmm.’ She shifted slightly, revealing a slim white cane held against her side. Her knuckles were pale from gripping it.
He wanted to reach for her. Help her. But he refrained, sensing it wouldn’t be welcome. Nor are you. ‘You should sit.’
‘You should stop telling me what to do.’
The voices cheered. He dropped his head, studying the pattern of the wool rug covering the dark wood floors. Anger he could deal with. He’d been the target of her ire more than once. For good reason. ‘Not much chance of that.’
She shook her head. ‘You’ve seen me. Are you satisfied? Is there anything else you require from me?’
Yes, but she’d yet to look at him directly, and something told him asking her about the Aurelian now wasn’t going to get him an answer anyway. He took a seat in one of the ivory silk club chairs. It was the exact opposite of what he felt like doing, which was charging to her side and holding her against him. Maybe it would confuse her as much as she was confusing him. ‘How about you explain what’s going on?’
‘I don’t need to explain myself to you or anyone else.’
This approach wasn’t working. He got up and walked to her, stopping a couple yards away. Like her glow, her scent had changed as well. It was deeper and sharper, but just as seductive. The perfume wrapped around him, teasing him with the promise of blood. Blood he could taste by memory. Blood the voices howled for. ‘I know you’re angry. What I don’t get is why.’
She barked out a short laugh and, at last, faced him. ‘Are you kidding? Velimai told me what you and Creek did to me.’ She grabbed the back of the nearest chair as she approached. Using the chair for support, she stabbed her cane into his chest. ‘You put your blood into me.’
‘I saved your life.’ This attitude from her, this sharp tongue and verbal biting, wasn’t something he was entirely used to, but he understood she had a right to be angry after what Rennata did to her. He just hadn’t expected it to be aimed at him. Get used to it.
‘You had no right to defile me that way. It wasn’t your place.’
‘Defile? Is that what I did to you?’ He knocked the cane away. ‘You would have died.’
‘I doubt that. The comarré ability to heal is more than sufficient.’
He wanted to grab her by the shoulders and shake some sense into her. Do it. Bite her. Drain her. ‘Your signum had been stripped off your back in two bloody filets. By Rennata. You were bleeding out faster than any of us knew how to deal with. And then there’s that whole thing where you’re not comarré anymore.’
Her clear, blue gaze pierced him. ‘Not with your blood in me.’ She pulled herself up a little taller. ‘I may be disavowed, but I am as much comarré as you are vampire. If you’ve ruined things for me, I will kill you myself.’
‘Ruined what things? Is this some fever madness?’ Maybe he should call Velimai, get Chrysabelle back to bed.
‘I have to go back to the Aurelian.’
‘Yes on the fever, then. Why would you go back to her? She’s the reason you almost died.’
‘No.’ She walked around him and took a seat on the edge of a chaise, resting the cane beneath the folds of her flowing white robe. ‘You and Creek are. Following me to the Aurelian was what got me disavowed. Now I have to find a way back to her to ask who my brother is.’
‘Following you was an accident. You know that. And we’ll find your brother together. Creek isn’t without skills. Dominic might know someone to talk to as well. The man’s better connected than anyone I know. You can’t go back to her. It’s too dangerous.’ Not as dangerous as you.
‘There you go again, telling me what to do.’ She shook her head and looked away but not before the reading lamp caught the glitter of angry tears in her eyes. ‘I hate this life. Always on guard, always waiting for the next attack. It’s no way to live. I’m done with it. Done waiting for Tatiana to show up again. I’m taking control and doing things my way, and you can’t stop me.’
‘Shut up, Mal. Every time you patronize me, I just want to stick something sharp through you.’
Smart girl. ‘I wasn’t patronizing you.’ He backed up a step, her demeanor more serious than he’d seen before. ‘There’s not a sword hidden in that cane, is there?’
‘Maybe. Maybe not.’
‘I’ll put money on maybe.’
The shadow of a smile danced across her face, quickly replaced by stern determination again.
It was enough of an opening for him. He kneeled at her feet. The position grated against every fiber of his being but seemed the perfect way to show his sincerity. It also put him in striking range. If she chose to lash out with a hidden blade, she could do him real harm. Even kill him. ‘I am sorry that putting my blood into your body has upset you so much. My intention was to save your life, not further complicate it. You must know that.’ An apology. Someone’s in love.
‘I do,’ she said with a heavy sigh. She lifted her hand like she might touch him, then dropped it back to her lap. ‘I appreciate that you and Creek saved my life, but I wish you’d found another way. What happened to me happened because you two interfered, plain and simple. And now, once again, I am left to deal with the consequences of your actions. You don’t think. You just do. Both of you.’
At least she was mad at Creek, too. ‘I don’t blame you for being upset, but as far as saving your life . . . there was no other way that we could see. So you know, I would have done anything to make sure you lived that night.’
She stared intently into his eyes. Almost challenging him. ‘Why is my life so important to you?’
The true answer that came into his head made him dizzy. He couldn’t say what he felt. Wouldn’t give it words like the voices in his head. She’d threatened to kill him once already. She didn’t need ammunition. ‘For the same reasons you wouldn’t let me remain mortal and age to death. We’re . . . friends.’ What a strange way to describe what they were. ‘More than friends. There was no way I was going to watch you die knowing I could have prevented it.’
She narrowed her eyes, assessing him. ‘Dominic’s mortality potion made you soft.’
Yes, the voices chimed. No, he wanted to say. Knowing you has given me a heart again. It was a weakness, but one he was willing to bear. Fool. Fool in love. ‘Then he’s the one to blame for giving it to me in the first place.’
She stared at him as if she were seeing him for the first time. ‘I refuse to be scared anymore.’
‘You shouldn’t have to be.’ He hated that she was. Then stay away from her.
‘I need to find my brother. He’s the only family I have.’
‘I know.’ An impossible task, the way he saw it.
‘I need the Aurelian for that.’
She was too determined for him to keep her from doing it. ‘If you think you’re going without me—’
‘After what happened last time, you shouldn’t even ask.’
‘So what’s your plan?’ He almost didn’t want to know.
She held up one finger. ‘First, to see the Aurelian.’
‘How are you going to get there without the signum on your back?’
‘Dominic has a signumist. I’ve already sent him a message that I’m coming to talk to him tonight. I don’t know if the man’s any good, but I’m hoping he can put the correct sequence of signum into my skin again.’
Mal’s jaw dropped open and he sank back onto his heels. ‘Bloody hell. You’re in no shape to undergo something like that. Are you crazy?’
‘Crazy mad, and I’m in fine shape.’ Her hands tightened into fists, and a tarnished spark lit her eyes. ‘Once I get to the Aurelian, I’ll obtain the information I need, then slip out of the Primoris Domus undetected and find Tatiana.’
The name of his ex-wife and the woman who’d put him under his curse was like salt on an open wound. ‘Why would you want to find Tatiana?’
‘Why else?’ She held up a second finger. ‘To kill her.’
Mal ground his back teeth together. ‘I’m going with you—’
‘I already said—’
He pushed to his feet and held up his hands. ‘Try to stop me and I’ll prevent you from going at all. You’d insist the same of me. You know you would.’
Chrysabelle was silent for an uncomfortably long time. ‘Fine.’ She stared up at him expectantly. ‘I’m surprised you haven’t asked about the Aurelian’s answer.’
‘I’m biding my time.’
‘Because you think I’m not going to tell you?’
‘The possibility had occurred to me.’
She eased back into the chaise, her chest rising slowly with a lengthy inhale. She let the air out again before she spoke. ‘She had a way to remove your curse, but’ – a second sigh and she shook her head – ‘it’s almost not an answer at all.’
Tremors of possibility ran through him. ‘What? Tell me.’ He’d do anything, anything at all to break free of the hellish weight pressing him into darkness. Even kill your pretty little blood whore? His jaw tightened, his anger at the voices almost unbearable. He forced the emotion off his face as her head came up.
Her eyes focused on him and yet looked emptier than he’d ever seen them. An unnatural coldness settled in his belly as she began to speak. ‘You must right a number of wrongs equal to the names on your skin. One for every life you’ve taken.’
He reached for something to steady himself. Finding nothing, he collapsed into the chaise beside her. ‘It’s impossible,’ he whispered. A hurricane of laughter shook his bones. Even the voices knew what a Herculean task that was. ‘I am never going to be free.’
‘Mal, stop.’ She grabbed his hands, her touch white-hot on his freezing skin.
He looked down. Beneath her pale fingers, blood seeped from his tightly clenched fists. He opened them. Deep gouges marked his palms. They healed as he watched, but the blood that dripped onto the carpet was there to stay. Like his curse.
‘You vow not to prevent me from getting to the Aurelian and to Tatiana, and I will do everything I can to help you with this.’
Focusing on her was the best thing he could do right now. ‘I have a better plan. You go alone to see the Aurelian then come back through the portal and give yourself time to heal properly. Then, when you’re ready, we go together to Corvinestri and take care of Tatiana.’ If Chrysabelle meant to kill his ex-wife, there was no way he wasn’t going to help. The voices cried out. He knew they believed Tatiana to be the cure to his curse. He knew better. ‘You know how dangerous she is. This isn’t something you should do alone. Not to mention I have enough of my own reasons to want her dead.’
She was quiet for a few moments, probably thinking. ‘Agreed. But we will also find a way to remove your curse.’
He closed his hands again, looking away from her. ‘No. We won’t. Because there isn’t one.’ He stood and walked to the door. ‘Let’s go see Dominic about this signumist.’