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Flames licked at the restraints, crackling noisily as the smell of singed flesh filled the small space. My flesh. Burning, then healing—then burning again. At intervals, spikes pierced my sides, the jagged barbs tearing through skin and muscle and then retracting until the wounds healed over.
The searing pain was endless, relentless. I had no idea how long I’d been there in the torch-lit chamber beneath the Tribunal’s headquarters. Hours? Days? Weeks?
I swallowed hard, my elongated canines scraping my lower lip, drawing blood. Blood. I needed to feed. Denied my elixir, the thirst was driving me mad. I could smell it, somewhere up above, pulsing through veins and warming the skin of the living. The metallic tang made my mouth water, made me tremble with need. I closed my eyes, fighting the bloodlust, denying it.
When I opened my eyes again, she was there, standing before me.
The orange flames flickered across her face, throwing shadows across her cheekbones. Her mouth curved into a smile as she reached a hand out to me, beckoning me.
My heart thudded against my ribs as my hungry gaze swept over her, devouring her. I tried to call out her name, to beg her forgiveness.
I’m sorry, Vi. So very sorry.
She shook her head, her brows drawn over the emerald eyes that had haunted my days and nights in this miserable, agony-filled existence that was my life since I left her.
“Come back to me,” she begged, her voice a ragged whisper. “Please, Aidan. I need you.”
I tried to reach for her, raging against the restraints that dug into my wrists, manacling me. A sob tore from my parched throat as I struggled ineffectually, the metal bruising and biting my skin, breaking my bones.
And then she began to fade away, her form dissolving like wisps of smoke that looped and curled toward the ceiling before fading into nothingness.
Pure, undiluted rage filled me. Roaring like an animal, I redoubled my efforts, fighting against my restraints. It didn’t take long before I began to weaken, no match for the chains that bound me.
At last spent, I sank to my knees. The flames lapped at my thighs now, reaching toward my hips. My bare chest was slick with sweat, with blood mixed with tears. I didn’t even flinch when the spikes pierced my shoulders, tearing through muscle and bone.
My chin dropped toward my chest, my head bowed in defeat. I’d lost her. Lost us. Any humanity left inside this monstrous body was gone, ripped away like a useless limb.
I did not deserve her. I did not deserve to live. And yet I would live, trapped in this nightmare of pain and despair for an eternity.
Violet was nothing but a dream—the most beautiful dream imaginable—and I was just a broken, burning monster.
“It’s been ten days, Cece!” I paced back and forth, wearing a path in the rug at the foot of my bed. The hand that held my cell against my ear shook, the plastic case digging into my palm as I tried to tamp down the panic that crept into my voice. “C’mon. You’ve got to help me out here.”
Cece sighed. “I swear I’m trying. I’ve tried to project every single morning. I don’t know what else I can do, Violet. There’s got to be some sort of shield around Mrs. Girard or something—around all of them.” I could hear the frustration in her voice. “You tried calling Winterhaven, right? Someone there has to have a cell number for her.”
I shook my head. “No one at Winterhaven will tell me anything. I think she must be in Paris—Aidan says that’s where the Tribunal meets. They must have taken him there.” To punish him. Torture him. I inhaled sharply, trying to banish the horrible images from my mind.
“Well, they must have some sort of system to keep everything under wraps. I’m sorry, Violet. I’ll try again later, but don’t get your hopes up.”
I let out my breath in a rush. “It’s not your fault. It’s just . . . I don’t know what else to do.”
“Well, what about Dr. Byrne?”
I shook my head. “What about him?”
“She’s his boss. Doesn’t he have any idea how to get in touch with her?”
“No, and it gets worse. He says she’s left word that she’s taken a temporary leave of absence. Dr. Ackerman is acting headmistress until she gets back.”
“What? That’s crazy. What the heck is going on?”
“I have no idea. I’m losing my mind here, Cee. This past week has been a total disaster.”
That was putting it mildly. Understandably, it had taken a good three days to calm Whitney down. To say that she was completely freaked out would be the understatement of the century. I mean, c’mon—a vampire had attacked her, a vampire who happened to be her best friend’s boyfriend. It doesn’t get much more terrifying than that. Luckily, she’d managed to pull herself together enough to go to her audition at Juilliard.
Still, it had been a tense few days. After Aidan had left, intent on turning himself over to the Tribunal, I’d had all these grand plans to clear him by figuring out who’d tampered with his work. But I hadn’t been able to focus on Aidan’s situation, not until I’d put Whitney in a cab bound for Newark Airport.
But things weren’t any better after she’d left. I hadn’t been able to get in touch with Mrs. Girard—couldn’t locate her, not even with Cece’s help. And Trevors, the only one besides Mrs. Girard who might know where Aidan was, wasn’t returning my calls. I’d gone to Aidan’s town house several times and banged on the door till my knuckles bled. No response. If Trevors was there, he wasn’t answering.
I was at a complete and total loss, no closer to solving the mystery of what had turned Aidan into the murderous “Vampire Stalker” than I’d been a week ago.
“You still there?” Cece asked. I could hear laughter in the background. Someone was singing—very loudly and off-key.
I let out a sigh. “Yeah, I’m here. Sorry. I got lost in my thoughts. But hey, it sounds like there’s some family fun going on over there.”
“Those are my cousins. I told you they were crazy. I swear, the minute I get on the phone, they start acting up. Hey, watch it!” she called out. “You guys are going to knock over the tree!”
I couldn’t help but smile, imagining Cece there in New Orleans, surrounded by her extended family, everything all festive and cheery. Glancing around Patsy’s apartment, I took in my lame excuse for a Christmas tree sitting in the middle of the dining room table—a little potted fir, about two feet high and topped with a red velvet bow. That was it, the only sign that a major holiday had come and gone. Which was fine by me, as I certainly hadn’t felt like celebrating. Not this year. Not alone.
My phone beeped, and I glanced down at the screen. Matthew.
“Hey, my Megvéd’s beeping in,” I told Cece. “I better go see what he wants.” He was taking his job as my “protector” very seriously. Not a day had passed that he hadn’t either come by or called to check in. Which might be nice if it weren’t so freaking weird.
“Ooh, Matthew,” Cece said in the singsong voice she reserved for Dr. Byrne. “Yeah, you better go. Give him my love.”
I rolled my eyes. “Shut up.”
“Sorry. I couldn’t help myself.” Cece was laughing now. “Call me tomorrow, though, ’kay? I’ll try to project to Mrs. G. again in the morning.”
“Okay, thanks.” I hit end, then connected the call with Matthew. “Hey, what’s up?”
“Is Patsy back yet?” he asked without preamble. This had become typical Matthew over the past week. No “Hello, how are you” or anything mundane like that—he just cut right to the chase.
“No. I think she’s flying in tomorrow night.” Just as I’d seen in my vision, she’d gotten stung by a bee on a golf course the day before her scheduled flight home from Turks and Caicos. Thanks to my prodding, she’d been prepared with EpiPens. Still, her reaction had been bad—really bad. They’d kept her in the hospital for two nights, and she hadn’t been feeling well enough to fly. I didn’t care—didn’t even mind that she’d left me to spend Christmas alone. She was alive, and that was all that mattered. My vision had saved her.
“I’m coming over. I mean, if that’s okay,” Matthew added, his voice softening.
I shrugged, tapping my fingers against my thigh. “Sure.”
“Have you had dinner?”
“No.” I wasn’t hungry. I hadn’t been hungry in days.
“Okay. I’ll pick something up on my way over.” I could hear him jangling his keys. “How ’bout Thai?”
“Thai it is, then. See you in a few.”
I tossed down my phone and flopped onto my bed with a sigh. God, this was crazy. Aidan was off somewhere being tortured, and all I could do was sit around eating Thai food with one of my teachers. Okay, technically he wasn’t my teacher—I didn’t take any science classes—but he was Sophie’s, and that was weird enough.
Closing my eyes, I took a deep, calming breath—in through my nose, out through my mouth—but it didn’t help. This was wrong. I hated this feeling of complete and utter helplessness. More than anything, I wanted to take the credit card Patsy had given me for emergencies, hop a cab to JFK, and catch the first flight to Paris. I needed to find Aidan. I missed him so badly, I could barely stand it. I physically felt his absence, like a big, fat hole in my heart that grew larger with each passing second.
Reaching a hand to my temple, I focused everything I had on him, conjuring an image in my mind’s eye.
Come back to me, I called out telepathically. Please, Aidan. I need you.
I knew he couldn’t hear me, not with thousands of miles and an ocean between us. Still, I swear I felt the faintest flicker of a buzz in my head. A rush of hope made my heart race, my breath come faster. Rising, I hurried to the window that looked out on Park Avenue and laid one palm flat against the cool glass.
Aidan? I tried again. Can you hear me?
Nothing. I shook my head, confused. I could have sworn I felt . . . something. I took another deep breath, renewing my focus. My eyes still closed, I rolled my shoulders, trying to relax.
And then the traffic noise receded—just like that. The glass seemed to warm beneath my palm. Inexplicably, there was heat warming my ankles, lapping at my calves. The heat intensified, making my legs feel as if . . . as if they were on fire. And then a sharp, tearing pain stabbed at my side, making my breath catch as I doubled over in agony.
My eyes flew open, my focus gone. I blinked several times as I straightened, trying to get my bearings. Below, a siren blared. I watched as an ambulance came barreling down the street, its lights flashing as cars scattered around it. Chilled, I pulled my hand away from the window, cradling it against my body.
Had I imagined those sensations—the heat, the sharp pain? I must have, I reasoned. Unless . . . unless there was a vampire close by and I’d somehow breached its mind. I shook my head. Not likely. It didn’t work like that—at least, not unless the vampire was in the apartment next door. Nope. I’d imagined it. I was losing my mind. It was the only reasonable explanation.
Of course, since when were “reasonable explanations” a part of my life?
I glanced over at the clock by my bed, wondering how much time I had till Matthew showed up. Probably not much, I decided, thinking I should set out some plates and silverware. On my way out, I paused by my dresser, my gaze drawn to the clear plastic container tucked up against the framed picture of Aidan and me at the Halloween Fair dance, both of us decked out in attire circa 1905.
I popped open the case and reached inside for the silver circlet pin that had once held the fragrant orange blossoms Aidan had given me on that night. I inhaled deeply, almost sure I could smell a hint of the sweet citrus scent left behind. The overhead light glinted off the crystals as I ran a finger over them, the faceted stones forming a perfect, unbroken circle.
I flipped it over, examining the back side. It was perfect, as unblemished as the day I received it, the smooth, shiny surface reflecting the light. Silver would have tarnished by now, I realized with a start. Which meant it was probably white gold—maybe even platinum. Curious now, I tipped it this way and that, taking a closer look.
And then I noticed something that I hadn’t before—words, etched into the metal beneath the clasp. My fingers shaking, I clumsily unhooked it, swinging away the metal pin. My heart began to race as I read the engraving: Eternal love.
Tears flooded my eyes, blurring my vision. One spilled over, tracing a path down my cheek. As I wiped it away, I tried to remember what he’d said to me on that crisp, cool October night as he’d pinned the circlet to my dress—something about how flowers had meaning back in his day, that orange blossoms meant eternal love. He’d never given them to anyone before he’d given them to me.
And now? He never would again. I had to choke back the sob that threatened to topple my sanity.