Bill’s voice startled her. “I met Maria for the first time over forty years ago.”
She smiled at Bill in gratitude. He had started the discussion for her.
Justin glanced at his father with a question in his eyes. “She was an infant?”
Bill laughed. “No. No, she looked pretty much like she does now. Except,” he cocked his head to the side and focused on her, “your hair color has changed. It was red then, wasn’t it?”
She grinned. “Yeah, I think I like the black better. Thank God for hair color. It must be one of the best inventions of the modern world. I always hated my dishwater blonde—”
Justin cut in. “But what you are saying is impossible, Maria isn’t…”
She could hear Justin’s irritation as he spoke. Knew he wondered what kind of crap they fed him.
“Maria isn’t a lot of things. You’re going to have to listen, son. It won’t be an easy thing to believe but let me tell you my part of this story and then you can ask your questions in a minute.”
Bill looked at his son and waited for him to nod. “When I met Maria, I was a beat cop. I had bit off more than I could chew when I decided to chase a man instead of letting him go. I knew the man was running drugs and I wanted to stop him. The chase got turned around and he eventually cornered me in an alley. Before I could get my gun out of the holster, he opened fire with an automatic pistol. Maria just seemed to fall from the sky. Suddenly she appeared right in front of me and used her body to shield me. You got hit with what, six bullets that night?” He looked to her for confirmation.
Justin glared at his father and snorted.
She nodded and sighed. She knew this wouldn’t go well. Justin looked as if he wanted to leave them all to their little fairy tale.
Well, the only fairy tails she knew were in the other room making phone calls.
“I don’t understand,” Justin said, looking from his father to her in apparent confusion and growing irritation.
She could see his hold on the beer bottle tighten.
Maria smiled. There was no easy way to do this. “Justin. I think we were remiss with the introductions tonight. My full name is Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna Antoinette. My French husband didn’t like the name Maria—as it reminded him that I wasn’t a native of his country—so he called me Marie. I never liked that name, so since I now have a choice, I use Maria.”
“Are you trying to tell me you think you’re Marie Antoinette?” Justin looked at her in disbelief and the dawning of concern. “Are you okay? Did you hit your head sometime tonight without realizing it?” He started to stand.
His father waved him back down.
“You’re kidding, right?” Justin tried to laugh.
When she and Bill just looked at him, with no hint of humor in their eyes, he became very serious.
“I’ve seen this before when people are confronted with a violent and horrible death,” he said with serious intent. “I am sure the crime scene tonight upset you. Maybe you should both lie down. Matt! Brian! Bring me some blankets. I think Maria and my father are going into shock,” he raised his voice enough to carry into the other room.
“It’s okay, I’ve been trained to handle this,” he reassured them.
Before Maria could comment, Matt and Brian came running into the room. “What? What’s happening? Don’t get your man-marbles in a twist. Maria, are you alright? What do you need?” Matt kept babbling.
“I just told him my full name and he thinks I’m in shock or in need of a straitjacket. Or both. Everything’s okay,” she assured them.
“Oh! Can we stay and watch? I love this part when people realize—”
“Brian, hush. You can stay—just sit and be quiet.” Maria watched in silence as Justin looked at his father in obvious concern.
Bill sat calmly drinking his scotch and then he looked up at her and winked. He turned to his son. “It takes some getting used to, the thought of Maria as Marie Antoinette—the legendary Queen of France. Look at her neck. She still has a faint scar from the guillotine,” Bill said smugly.
She could tell he got some perverse pleasure out of their revelations. She winced.
Justin rolled his eyes but obediently got up to look at Maria’s neck. A lightning bolt of lust hit her as he placed his hands on her shoulder. Tipping her head back slightly, her gaze caught his and held. He felt it too. Great to know they shared this mad impulse to shut out the rest of the world, lock themselves in a room, and have at each other.
She wanted him naked and moaning in pleasure. Not looking at old scars.
She knew he saw a thin line running straight across her neck. Allowing him to bend her head forward, she shuddered as his fingers skimmed the back of her neck as he lifted her hair out of the way.
She loved the feel of his hands on her skin, the rough slide of heat as he traced his fingers over her flesh. She wanted to concentrate on the forgotten pleasure, not on the fact that he could see the thin scar as it continued all the way around her neck.
Justin dropped the silky mane of her hair and stepped back. What the scar could be from he didn’t know. He had seen people beheaded or at least seen the aftermath while serving time in the Mid-East as part of a special anti-terrorist force.
What the scar from a beheading would look like he couldn’t imagine. It seemed beyond his scope of understanding. But how did you explain…
“Unknowingly, someone saved my life when they buried me. They made sure that when I was put in the casket my head was in perfect alignment with my body. I was also lucky that the beheading took place in a darkly shaded courtyard and that the viewing was held indoors, which kept almost all the effects of the sun off my fragile flesh.”
He watched the expressions on her face. She believed what she said.
“It wasn’t done on purpose, I’m sure all the revolutionaries wanted was a pretty statement for their cause. So, they were meticulous when they put the pieces of me together. They didn’t know I was a vampire, but their actions ensured I would rise again. Eventually.”
She sighed, staring at the fire. It took a few moments before she could continue, “I don’t want to discuss the months it takes to repair such damage. Suffice to say, it isn’t an immediate process and it’s a very painful one. But vampires can regenerate the blood, bone, and muscle connections if you quickly put everything back where it belongs.”
“Vampires.” Justin just shook his head. A quick glance at his father made him wonder how long it had been since his old man had seen a doctor. Maybe he was suffering from dementia? Or brainwashing might be the answer. He just couldn’t understand why Maria would want his father to believe this fantasy. Justin had seen some very bizarre things in his life. But vampires?
“Do the roof thing,” Brian’s excited voice broke into his thoughts as the man practically jumped up and down with excitement. “If anything, other than donating blood, will convince him that should do it.”
“The roof thing?” Justin asked politely. Maybe he should humor them all and quickly get his father out of here.
“Oh, yes!” his dad said with obvious relish, getting to his feet. “A feat I’ve always enjoyed seeing you perform.”
Maria shook her head but also stood.
Justin wondered at the glimpse of amusement in her eyes as she traipsed behind the group, out the patio door, and onto the roof.
“Guys, I am not sure this is a good idea. We could push Justin into a full-blown hissy fit, or scare the crap out of him,” she muttered.
“So, your choice is to sink fang into his neck? You know sweetie, alpha males very rarely enjoy being used for a late-night snack. Well, that kind of snack. I wouldn’t want you to kill the sparks—”
“Enough chitchat, Brian. We don’t need to review all the options,” she hissed.
Justin realized that at least one of the other men had noticed his fascinated interest in Maria. Well, it didn’t matter now, the woman was delusional.
He frowned when Maria moved over to the wall enclosing her patio and climbed on the ledge. Her penthouse took up the entire twentieth floor. What did she think she was doing?
He moved to hold onto her, crying out in horror as she dove off, spiraling into the night.
Justin lunged to the brick wall, but he moved too slow to catch her.
He looked over the side with dread. And saw her drifting there, floating in the air as she called up to him, “I’m okay, I do this a lot. It’s one of the perks of being a—”
“A vampire,” he finished for her. “Get back on the roof!” he demanded.
He lost what little sense of humor he possessed about this whole thing. He was furious. The adrenaline rush coursing through his body threatened to take him to his knees, now that the danger was over.
When she took that nosedive off the roof his fear for her life pushed him over the edge. In all the years he spent fighting terrorists, he never once felt the pure terror of helplessness and sorrow that he experienced in the split-second she hung in the air, just out of his reach, before dropping to what he had been certain was death.
No one mattered enough to him for that kind of panic. Not even he, himself. He didn’t matter enough to panic when someone tried to kill him. Up to this point in his life, he fought against any meaningful ties other than the ones he shared with his parents.
The realization that this might be changing, combined with his body’s overtly sexual reaction to the woman—acted as a kick to his gut.
Intently he watched Maria drift up, sail over the ledge, and land lightly on her feet. His hands were on her waist in moments. He didn’t care if she could goddamn fly. He wanted her now!
“No. Don’t say another word.” Like a man possessed, he pulled her into his arms and fused his mouth to hers. He kissed her with anger and desperation, in fear for her safety, and with an instinctive need to claim her. The kiss was essential. A desperate bid to hold on to his sanity.
“Franco, I’m not sitting on the sidelines for this one.” Tehya glared at him.
“Yes. You are. You’re mortal, Tehya. You can be killed very easily. I won’t risk your life.” Franco ignored the narrowed eyes and questions on her family’s faces.
“What? I can be killed, and you can’t? That’s just stupid, Franco. If I can’t go, you can’t go, and I refuse to let those poor souls suffer any more torture.”
“You. Are. Not. Going. Into. That. Cavern.” He bit out each word.
For a moment, the silence in the room was thick. Then Tehya exploded. “How do you expect to get into the cave? Walk right in the front door?”
“I’ll take the passage you created with your magic!” he snapped, missing the look of surprise on her parents’ faces.
“Hah! No, you won’t. When we left, I touched the wall thanking Mother Earth for sheltering us. I asked her to erase all traces of our passage. The earth reverted to how it was before I showed up. The tunnels are gone.”
“Then I’ll take you back there, let you touch the damn dirt and you can get your wolf butt back here!”
This time it was Jefferson and Naomi who exploded.
“Wolf? Tehya, explain what he’s saying!”
Tehya’s head dropped. She played with the backpack in her lap. Jason sat back in his chair with a smug look on his face and Naomi began circling the table. Everyone waited for Tehya to speak.
Franco felt Naomi’s hand on his shoulder as if in sympathy. Surprisingly, he felt a wonderful warmth and happiness seep into his bones. Everything would work out fine.
“Mother!” Tehya said sharply.
Franco returned to being upset when Naomi moved away. Before he could question what just happened, Jefferson broke the silence.
“Who is Sasha?”
Tehya didn’t answer so Franco asked a question of his own. “When you came into the cave why did you say, ‘I should kill you where you sleep, wolf?”
“Daddy!” Tehya exclaimed in horror.
Franco reached out to cover her hands with his. “If we had a daughter and I found her the way he discovered us, I might be tempted to kill first and ask questions later, Tehya. I don’t blame him.”
Franco watched her eyes widen, her hands go to her stomach in a protective gesture and he fought to keep his expression from revealing his shock.
Shit! They hadn’t used any protection last night, something impossible to do in wolf form anyway. Once they returned to their human forms, they were so hungry for each other he never considered slowing down long enough to put on a condom.
Not now. He would deal with that later.
When he looked away from Tehya he caught Naomi’s eye and realized she knew exactly where his and Tehya’s thoughts went. She raised one eyebrow and allowed a half-smile to touch her lips.
Thank god and goddess Jefferson had no clue.
“I called you wolf because, well…” Tehya’s father looked at her, then back at Franco with a question blazing in his eyes. He didn’t know if his daughter knew Franco’s secret.
“You said wolf because you somehow realized I carry one inside me.”
As Franco said the words, Jefferson watched his daughter for her reaction to the statement. He seemed puzzled when she didn’t react.
“How is it you know of my wolf, but don’t know about Tehya’s?”
“What?” both Naomi and Jefferson exclaimed again.
Franco noticed Jason wasn’t surprised.
Tehya sighed. “The wolf came to me as a spirit totem.”
“Which is convenient, since my wolf has claimed her as his mate. And so, have I.”
“Are you telling us you have a wolf spirit totem, too?” Naomi asked.
“Nah, I’m just your garden-variety werewolf,” Franco replied.
Tehya rolled her eyes at his comment and turned her attention back to her family. “My spirit wolf is called Sasha.” She didn’t add a lot of detail.
“How long?” Naomi asked.
“Since I was twelve.”
“Why haven’t you told us?” Naomi asked. Both she and Jefferson looked hurt.
“You’ve excluded me from the family secrets! I only know what I’ve been able to piece together by listening at doors and snooping around.” She waved her hand at her father. “Dad goes out into a field and makes lightning. I’ve seen him do it.”
Before her father could answer, she glared at her mother. “You touch souls—sensing goodness or evil. Did either of you bother telling me? No. I had to discover all this on my own. I still don’t know why we even have magical powers.”
Franco realized Naomi was touching his soul when she put her hand on his shoulder. He squirmed uncomfortably in his seat. What had she seen?
Jason began to speak. “In a normal Native American family, animal totems act as guides throughout your life. They’re used to help us get in touch with our feelings, to grow emotionally and spiritually. We can pray for a specific animal to guide us, or a certain animal may come to us because of our need. The wolf is a teacher and a pathfinder. His presence signifies a person needs help or guidance in his or her life. Fortunate enough to be visited by the wolf, you would go on to teach others many of life’s lessons. He can also be helpful in building personal strength, teaching us to value our inner voice.”
He paused for a moment to study Tehya. “As you’ve noticed, in this family spirit totems are much more.”
Tehya couldn’t stop the snort of laughter.
At Dragon Home…
Startled awake by Jade’s tentative voice in her head, Midnight stretched for a moment and tried to get her thoughts together before responding. Her three fledglings had finally convinced her they could handle themselves on a summer trip to Europe. Before she agreed, she had insisted on updates about their welfare and location every couple of days.
The girls had been gone about a month and stuck to their bargain. She heard from Jade yesterday and wasn’t expecting another check-in this soon. Up to this point, Jade was careful to calculate the time difference between Europe and North America so she wouldn’t disturb Midnight’s rest. Something had to be wrong.
Standing, she started throwing on clothes. She couldn’t put her hands on her leather pants, so she settled for the thong she was wearing and her midriff armor. I’m here, Jade. What’s wrong?
Do you want the good news first, or the bad?
Midnight could sense laughter in Jade’s voice, so that meant no one was hurt. You know, I’ve always hated conversations that started with that question. But I’ll play. Give me the good news first.
Well, my little Tulip spoke today. But before you get excited about my dragon talking—we seem to have found a Dragon Lord. Or, I guess more to the point, he found us. Tulip spoke when she saw him…she distinctly said, “He’s not ours.” And then went back to her incessant humming of Eensy Weensy Spider.
Jade wouldn’t have shocked her more if she said the fledglings somehow landed on the moon. Not at what Jade’s baby dragon said, that was typical for newly awakened dragons…but a Dragon Lord?
For several seconds, there was nothing but dead silence in her mind.
Dragon Lord? You found a…where are you? she demanded.
Well, you see that is the bad news. We’re in Romania. In the Dragon Lord’s castle, in a little town called Hunedoara. And he won’t let us go.
With that pronouncement, Midnight stood to her full height and narrowed her eyes in lethal concentration. Very softly and succinctly she asked, What do you mean he won’t let you go?
She could feel Jade’s amusement and sense of anticipation when she started to explain. Without going into details about how we met him, he invited us to lunch. We didn’t know he was a Dragon Lord, but he knew about us. A few minutes after we got to his castle, he told us he knew that we’re fledglings. Then he informed us that he is prepared to make the supreme sacrifice and look after us for the rest of all time. He turned deaf when we told him we didn’t need a dragon-sitter. Seems he has a couple of brothers as well. As he explained it, his plan is to train us to become proper dragon-mates...whatever the hell he means by that. And then when we “mature” he and his brothers will somehow figure out if they can mate with us. Isn’t that gross?
Midnight growled, Did you tell him you belonged to a coven and are already under my protection?
Nah. We thought it would make a bigger impression if you told him. With that, Jade mentally giggled.
Oh, yeah. I’ll make an impression all right. Hold on.
By this time, Midnight had dressed in her fighting leathers and gathered up just about every blade she had. Leaving her room, she strode down the long hall and loudly beat on Winter’s bedroom door. “Winter. Are you in here?”
“Sleeping. Go away.”
Midnight rolled her eyes. Winter loved to fight. There was no way she would sleep through this. “Okay, I just thought you’d like to help rescue the fledglings from a Dragon Lord that wants to keep them and train—“
Before she could finish her sentence, Winter threw open her bedroom door, and a blast of cold air interrupted Midnight’s ramblings.
“What! Did you just say a Dragon Lord has our fledglings?” Winter scowled.
Quickly Midnight threw up her hand and covered her eyes. “Jeez, Winter! I do not need to see you naked. But, yes, I did say that. Get dressed and ready to go to Romania and kick some dragon’s ass.”
Sifting through the different time and space lines that circled the Earth, it took less than a half-hour before Midnight and her friends were gathered below a very impressive castle. Surrounded by high battlements, they eyed the closed drawbridge. Midnight counted three huge, pointed towers in this gothic monstrosity.
She snorted, and sent her disgust mentally to the women, A working drawbridge? How utterly medieval of them.
Winter smirked. Bullshit. You’ve always wished our castle had one. You just couldn’t get the magic to agree.
Midnight ignored her friend’s irritating truth. This time speaking out loud, “I want Dawn to take the girls to the European safe house while we deal with the Dragon Lord. Jade said the idiot has brothers, so I don’t know what we’ll be dealing with.”
Midnight felt Lushy shudder inside her. I want out, her dragon demanded.
Not now, Lushy. I need to concentrate. She knew her dragon loved to fight, but she wasn’t about to let her out until the fledglings were safe. She didn’t want them hurt if this turned into a battle.
But it isn’t just the Dragon Lord, you will need me…
Hush. I’ve got this handled. I’ll let you out if I need you. Midnight could feel her dragon roll her eyes and sulk. Not now, Lushy.
You’ll be sorry…
Midnight shrugged off her dragon’s warning and looked at her sister. “Are you okay with getting the three of them to Paris?”
When Midnight woke her sister earlier, Dawn had quickly dressed and grabbed a bag of her healing herbs and ointments. She was prepared for just about any injury. Midnight couldn’t help wishing that Summer had been home, but the other third of her Trinity was half-way around the world. She had to trust Dawn to handle this.
While Winter and Midnight took care of the man or men...Dawn would get the girls to a safe location and make sure they hadn’t been harmed.
Jade told her no one was hurt, but Midnight wanted to be sure.
Concentrating on the castle, Midnight considered her options. Jade had said the three fledglings were sitting in a large room called the Knight’s Hall, on the main level. The Dragon Lord was seated in front of them, intent on watching their every move. He was trying to get them to talk about where they came from, why they were in Europe, or if they knew of the existence of any other Dragon Witches. Her fledglings would never talk, they had been taught well.
But he was about to get the answers to his questions.
“So. Any idea of how you want to do this?” Winter drawled.
“Painfully, comes to mind. Dragon Lords are almost impossible to kill, but then so are we. And really, do we want him dead? No. To capture him I think the element of surprise will work best, so that cancels out just knocking on the door. This castle hasn’t been protected by blood-rite, which is good for us. Give me a minute here, let me see if I can use Jade for a moment. She’s never sight-swapped before, but I think I can walk her through it.”
Oh, goody. You’re here.
At this pronouncement, Midnight smiled. She could hear the eagerness in Jade’s voice. This girl was going to make an excellent warrior someday.
Yes. I need you to relax for a moment. I want to use your eyes to see the layout of the room and figure out how we’re going to do this. If you don’t resist me, I can use your vision and see what you’re looking at. I want you to do a sweep of the room without drawing attention to yourself.
And try not to look directly at the Dragon Lord. I don’t want him to see your eyes change color. If your eyes are suddenly russet instead of green, he is going to know what we’re doing.
Matei. His name is Matei. Jade transferred the information helpfully while she scanned the room.
Midnight shook her head as she concentrated on seeing into the large chamber. As far as she was concerned his name was mud.
The room the girls were being kept in was huge, with marble columns standing about four feet from the wall. Perfect. When Jade’s gaze passed quickly over the dark-haired man seated a few feet in front of her, Midnight held her breath. Dragon’s-blood the man was gorgeous. And very, very big. For a second she just stared, relieved when Jade looked away. This was so not the time to snag her thoughts on a pretty face.
Breaking her connection with Jade, she turned to see Winter looking at her with a question on her face. Evidently, she noticed Midnight’s sharp inhale. Shaking it off, she explained the setup of the room to both Dawn and Winter.
“Let’s do this,” she said, and the three of them waved a hand and transported through the solid rock walls.
“What in the dragon-hell!” The Dragon Lord jumped to his feet in a battle stance as soon as the three Dragon Witches appeared in the hall.
Midnight didn’t wait around to see if the man had any weapons. Instead, she threw up her arm and sent a blast of power toward him.
Unprepared for the assault, he went sailing across the room to slam into one of the marble pillars.
Winter followed with a binding spell, wrapping the man in witch-chains. He wouldn’t be going anywhere.
Nicholae was quiet as they went up the stairs from the dungeon. The Dragon Lord was right behind her as they wound through the kitchen and pantries and climbed two more flights of stairs to the main floor. Just before the last stairwell, she turned to him and groused, “You need a damn elevator in this monstrosity.”
He looked at her and frowned. “Why?”
She narrowed her eyes at him. He wasn’t really breathing hard but there was a bead of sweat over his upper lip and a faraway look in his eyes. She frowned and waved up the stairs. “You go first.”
He didn’t question her choice, just started up. She stayed a stair or two behind him and tried not to get lost in the motion of that tight ass in pressed black pants. She needed to ask him how long he’d been asleep. Did he even know about jeans or lightweight, breathable fabric? Those clothes had to be killing him. His body was ninety percent covered.
Autumn kept her sigh to herself. He didn’t look like he felt well. She had no idea what hibernation did to dragonkynd because her coven didn’t try to sleep away their freaking lives. Did a sleeping dragon wake up and eat once and awhile? Or hydrate? She thought about animals that hibernated. One of the first things they did when they woke—was to eat. Nicholae had been playing with her for over an hour and then was thrown against the cement wall of the dungeon by her dragon.
When they walked into the main hall, she smirked and guided Nicholae to a chair at the table. She was a little worried that he didn’t react to the vampire who had made himself right at home in Nico’s family castle.
It didn’t surprise her that it was Vlad and Veronica upstairs. It explained why no one came down into the dungeon to find them.
Vlad simply made enough noise to let her know he was here—expecting her to handle any issues and get upstairs to report.
She smiled and shrugged her shoulders. “Hey Vlad, hello Veronica. So glad you could come.” The Supernatural Council leader was sitting at the head of the big dining table in the main hall. He was obviously in a chair meant for the lord of the household, irreverently slouched back with his legs draped over one of the large arms on the chair. He looked perfectly at ease. And if you didn’t know him, you would think he was harmless.
Which was probably his intent. Autumn turned so Vlad couldn’t see her roll her eyes.
She glanced at Nicholae who was ignoring the vampire. He acted as if he were thinking of times past, glancing around the room and looking a little lost.
She waved her hand and conjured a couple of water bottles and some jerky and handed them to him. When Nico stared at the bottle, she took it back and unscrewed the lid, handing it back. “Drink it,” she ordered.
He didn’t ask her why or give her shit, he just raised the bottle to his lips and drank.
Autumn looked at Veronica and grinned. The tall, leggy blonde looked like a model no matter what she wore. She had beautiful skin and eyes, perfect hair, and if you didn’t notice the sweet soul peeking out from those eyes, you’d hate her for being so well put together. The woman was watching them carefully and smiled with relief at Autumn’s attitude. The way Ronnie acted verified Autumn’s thought that the others had paid attention to how long she’d been gone and that she didn’t answer their mental check-ins.
Veronica frowned once more at Nico and then turned her eyes to Autumn in question. Autumn knew Veronica had been a nurse in the Victorian area. When she became a vampire, her natural abilities increased and eventually, she became one of the supernatural community’s strongest healers.
Autumn shrugged. “Nicholae has been hibernating a long time. I’m not sure how long.”
Nico looked at her then. “What year is it?” His voice was a little weak.
Vlad had long black hair swinging to his shoulders. He was a stocky, muscular, fireplug of a man who was a little under six feet tall. He turned his dark brown eyes on Nico and frowned.
Autumn shivered a bit. She’d had those eyes turned on her and they made her feel as if the man could see every one of her secrets and misdeeds. Then he made her feel like they were insignificant. That she wasn’t mean enough, crazy enough, interesting enough to suit him. It was weird. Throughout her long life, she had met lots of people who could make her feel like she didn’t measure up to their standards. Vlad made her feel as if she honored too many rules and regulations and wasn’t wicked enough for him to really notice her.
It made her want to tell him all her evil deeds.
Maybe that was the point. And how the hell did you impress someone who used to put their enemies’ heads on a pike? She didn’t think she had that in her.
In a deep voice, Vlad answered Nicholae’s question, “It is 2205. How long have you been wasting away?”
Nicholae didn’t respond to the dig. He frowned and lifted the bottle of water to his lips. His hand was shaking a bit. He took a small sip and said, “I think over a hundred years. Maybe a hundred and ten? It feels like too long.”
Before Vlad could say anything else, Veronica walked over and put her hand on her mate’s shoulder. Effectively silencing the man.
Yeah, it was becoming pretty apparent that Nicholae was sinking fast.
So, Vlad changed the subject. He scowled down the table at them while Veronica went back to circling the room, trying to look out the windows and poking in drawers. Vlad bounced one leg on the chair arm and grumbled, “This place is depressing. I don’t know if it can be fixed. There are centuries of pain and unhappiness in the walls. Maybe you should burn it down.”
Autumn thought he wanted an argument, but she grinned at him and agreed, “I know right? I could feel the same thing. Although I think burning it down is a little much. Your castle had to be worse when you met Veronica. How did you exorcise your demons, Vlad? You can give Matei and his family some pointers.”
Vlad glared at her and Nicholae reacted enough to lift his head and scowl at the man. Autumn realized that the very tired and little bit broken dragon would try to protect her from Vlad if he needed too. Wasn’t that sweet? He’d probably get killed, but it was sweet.
Veronica looked back from one of the windows, laughing. “She got you there, sweetheart. Your castle was a lot worse in the creepy vibes category. Although this one is right up there. Is it just me, or is there something evil moving in the walls of this place?”
Vlad’s body jerked upright, he lowered his legs and immediately zipped to Veronica’s side. “What do you mean? You need to go home, or back to Dragon Home. Get away from that wall and into the middle of the room.” He used his body as a shield—crowding Ronnie to the center, close to the table.
Veronica shook her head at him. “I don’t think the evil in this room is targeted at us. It feels…specific.”
Autumn nodded. “I felt the same thing. Something has been done to this place. To the castle. To make it, well… I was going to say uninhabitable but that’s not it. I think whatever it is wants people to live here so it can ruin anything that makes them happy. It is as if the castle feeds on misery.”
Vlad took a deep breath and closed his eyes. Within a few moments, Ricardo and Jane popped in. Vlad pointed a finger at the Druid Mage. “Veronica and Autumn think there is something in the walls of this place feeding misery. Do you feel it?”
Jane pulled her long blue-black hair over her shoulder and fastened it in a ponytail. Once that was done, she shifted her hands to her side and slid the leather off the short sword hilt, so she could draw it quickly. She moved a few steps away from her husband to give herself room to fight. Then she rolled her vivid blue eyes at the man at the head of the table and smirked, “Hi Vlad, hello girls.” She turned those big blue eyes on Nicholae, batted her lashes and let out a cheery, involved wolf-whistle, “Hello big buff, hunk. Who are you?”
Autumn laughed at the expression of concern on Nico’s face. He scooted closer to her and again, the movement was kind of sweet. Jane was irreverent and a vampire hunter. She’d been a very effective one even when she was human. As a magical slayer, she was incredibly lethal. Vlad loved her. Which was kind of weird.
Her husband Ricardo had blonde hair down to his shoulders, lots of muscles for a man who spent a great deal of time in his lab, and spooky moss-green eyes that always seemed focused on another world. Ricardo was a Druid Mage. He was Vlad’s expert on all things mystical and magic.
He spent a few minutes looking at the walls and walking around the room. He didn’t ask any questions, nor did he complain about Vlad interrupting his life to have Ricardo check out the walls in the castle.
Autumn also noticed he didn’t touch anything.
Within moments Ricardo let out a wolf-whistle that was an exact replica of his wife’s notes. “This is that dark mage, that demon Darcy Ifrinn. He did something here. Some magic.” He frowned and shook his head. “No. What is in these walls is more like a demonic presence.”
He snapped his fingers. “That’s it. He left something in the house, watching. It is waiting for someone to be happy so measures can be taken to ruin that happiness. I can feel it waiting to push out the fear and hatred, loneliness. It’s definitely not safe to be here and if you’ve touched anything you need to be cleansed.”
Vlad glared at Nico. “What if you’ve been asleep in this place for over a century?” he demanded, moving even closer to his wife. He laid his hands over Veronica’s arms and pulled her against his body.
Nico lifted his head to glare at Vlad.
Autumn was a little relieved that he made the effort.
Ricardo frowned and looked at the Dragon Lord. “Were you sleeping in this room?”
When Nicholae didn’t answer the Druid Mage, Autumn shook her head. “No, he was in the dungeon. It has some suppression stuff in the walls, but I think the magic down there is targeted to Witches, kind of like the Dracovin Mountain Home. That means the spell would have been done by Nicholae’s father. Winter and I fixed the little house after we rescued Midnight from Matei and then dealt with Darcy the first time. So, I have a pretty good feel for their father’s magic. We stripped the spell and added safeguards so the magic in the mountain house can’t be used against a Witch ever again. Something similar will need to be done to the dungeon here. I’ve walked through the castle and most of the dungeons. I can tell you the evil presence seems to be concentrated in this room. I felt a touch of madness in some of the other areas but to a lesser degree.”
Nicholae offered, “We all had to meet in this room for breakfast and for dinner. Every day, and we were never excused from that duty even if we were sick. If you wanted to target the entire family this is the room you’d use.”
Vlad shook his head and sighed, “This family has some serious issues.”
Autumn nodded and grinned. “Yes, they do. Their only saving grace is they are so pretty.” She ran a hand down Nico’s arm and laced her fingers with his for a few moments. She smiled at him and turned back to Vlad. “We also know that the damn demon played with their dad’s mind. So really the issues aren’t their fault. Unless they don’t learn from their mistakes and keep doing it.”
Nicholae frowned. He didn’t understand much of what they said or why there was evil in his house. However, now that they mentioned it, the walls of the room seemed to press in on him. The presence was taunting him, letting him know he couldn’t have the Witch. There was a voice telling him that these men would take her from him and lock him away.
His body was hot, and he was sweating. Having his dragon-tats covered for so long always made him feel sick. He understood why Autumn didn’t cover hers.
He turned and looked at her body, at all that luscious skin exposed to the air with the blue and red fighting dragons entwined around each leg and covering her ass, her back, her stomach and part of her chest, and her arms. He drank more of the water as he eyed the men in the room. The man who had been sitting in The Father’s chair was mocking him. Watching him with those deep brown vampire eyes while he hid behind one of the women.
A voice in his ear said it wouldn’t matter. He could kill the vampire and the woman. He could kill everyone.
Nico blinked and looked over at Autumn. Well, not her. He didn’t want to kill her. She smelled like peaches. Flame. Autumn. His. Even if her body was exposed to the room, exposed to the men. She shouldn’t be dressed like this. Father said the Witches were to be covered and chaste.
He needed to take Autumn and run, kill the men. Hurt them for trying to take his Dragon Witch. He would take her back to the dungeon. No. No, he didn’t want to go there.
He would take her and run. Maybe to the Dracovin Mountain Home. No. He couldn’t go there. They said it had been stripped of the magic used to bind the Dragon Witches. He needed to talk to Matei. But his head hurt so bad he couldn’t make it work.
He pushed back his chair, getting to his feet, intending to kill them all and take Autumn with him.
Starting with the damn vampire.
Before he could make a move toward the men, Fire popped in and blasted him with dragon fire. The dragon’s deep red scales looked so pettable. Nico reached out a hand, wanting to stroke the smooth, bright orange skin on her belly. The two little horns on the top of her head were so cute. And yet the row of sharp spines running along the backbone to the tip of her tail were deadly. Cute and deadly, all in one package. Just like Autumn.
The fire felt good. It cleansed his skin and stopped the nagging voices in his head.
He looked over and smiled at the Witch he wanted for a mate and crumbled to the floor.
Vlad looked over and frowned at the man on the floor. “He wanted to disembowel us.”
Veronica started in his arms. She turned and pushed him. “Thanks for the charming visual, Vlad. Couldn’t you just say he wanted to kill us?”
Vlad shrugged. “It would have been a lie. That look was all about torture. I know that look,” he said almost sadly.
Veronica turned and rolled her eyes.
Autumn had to keep from laughing when Fire popped back into her body. Her dragon immediately let her know what had been going on with Nico. Evidently, Vlad was right. Nicholae had wanted to kill them all in the most painful way he could think of. By roasting them in dragon fire.
“My dragon says that he did want to kill us. That he was hearing voices that told him to kill everyone, that you all would take me away and keep me from him. Fire also said that he was feeling really sick and he kept fighting the voices, but he didn’t have the strength.”
Ricardo came over and put his hand on Nicholae’s head. He closed his eyes and stayed still for a few minutes.
Autumn noticed that both Jane and Vlad had taken up space close to Nico. They could overpower the Dragon Lord if he regained consciousness and threatened Ricardo.
She didn’t think that would happen anytime soon. Fire said he was really sick.
Before she could suggest they move him, Ricardo opened his eyes.
“It is the demonic presence that was left here. We need to get him out of the castle. This evil is targeted directly at the Dragon Lords. None of them should come here, including Maricara. Because I think there is a family element to what feels a lot like a curse. Until I can see if the dark magic can be traced back to Adramelech, we won’t be able to cleanse the castle of this evil taint.
Vlad pushed a finger toward him. “You don’t come alone. You bring your warrior wife and someone with magic to work with you or to just be here if the thing tries to attack. Franco would be good.”
Autumn thought it was telling that Ricardo didn’t try to argue, he just agreed. What the hell was in this house?
Vlad turned and pointed that finger at her. “Leave Maricara’s things. Ricardo needs to look at it all and burn or save it. Don’t bring something of this evil place to Dragon Home.” He looked down and toed Nico on the floor. “Except this. This you bring.” And he disappeared with Veronica.
Autumn had no intention of arguing.