Derek paused his kissing and heaved a sigh. “I know. But I feel I’m ready. I’ve also had an idea… about Jeramiah. And it… well, it requires that I turn back. Back into my… former self. I don’t want to talk too much about it yet,” he went on as I opened my mouth to question him. “I’d rather not go into details until I’ve done it. But, after turning, I’m also going to need to be away for a while. Not long, just a day or two. I’m not entirely sure. I’ve asked Ibrahim to come with me.”

He paused, eyeing me closely, as if gauging my reaction.

I wasn’t really sure what to say. I accepted his wish to not discuss his plan. I’d never wanted to be the type of wife to put her husband on a leash. I trusted and respected Derek too much for that. Of course, that didn’t stop the curiosity burning within me, but I didn’t press. I knew that the whole Jeramiah episode was a very personal issue for Derek and if he wanted to do this alone, without my interference, that was his choice.

“Okay,” I began, still frowning. “Well, when would you leave?”

“Soon after turning,” he said. He cupped my face in his hands. “I won’t do anything to put myself in danger. I give you my word.”

I looked at him doubtfully. It felt like any time Derek embarked on a mission, there was always some kind of risk involved. Derek and danger were two peas in a pod.

“What?” he asked, picking up on my uncertainty.

I blew out a sigh. “Nothing. Just… be careful.”

A smile curved the corner of his lips. “Since when have I needed to be warned of that?”

I rolled my eyes. “Since forever.”

He growled softly, feigning indignation, before his arms slid beneath my knees and around my back. He scooped me up and began racing through the woods with me. I already knew where we were headed.

River

After Hero returned me to The Shade and then mysteriously disappeared, Jamil and I searched all over the island for him. But it was to no avail. He’d vanished into thin air.

I just couldn’t understand it. It was like he’d been some kind of guardian angel, appearing in my desperate time of need and then leaving when I was safe again. I still had no idea where he’d come from in the first place. And I’d been feeling strangely depressed in his absence. I’d come to like that griffin, and I had hoped that he might stay with us.

“River!” my mother called up the staircase as I stood in my room, dallying with making my bed.

“What is it?” I called back.

“Come down here. There’s a… a note for you.”

A note?

Dropping the duvet, I hurried out of the room and down the stairs. My mother stood by the open front door. She pointed to the ground outside the doorstep. I moved closer and found myself staring at a message, scratched onto the cobblestones.

“River,

This is Ben. I can’t explain how I was here, but I need you to know that I love you and I am trying to return.

Stay safe.”

What in heavens…

How? How could he have been here and left this message? Without even bothering to knock on my door and see me? Why would he do that?

I glanced left and right, half expecting to see him standing on our street. But it was empty. Leaping from the doorstep, I launched toward the town center and didn’t slow until I’d reached the main square. It was busy at this time of day; crowds of people milled about or sat by the fountains.

Clearing my throat, I bellowed, “Did any of you see the prince? Ben Novak?”

Silence descended on the square. It became so quiet one could have heard a penny drop. They all looked back at me blankly, confused.

“No,” some of them called back, while others merely shook their heads.

Then… how?

The thought that he might even still be here somewhere on the island was driving me crazy. I urgently needed to speak to Ben’s family. I’d been in such a hurry, I hadn’t even brought my shoes with me. But my mind was so preoccupied, I barely even felt the sharpness beneath my feet as I whizzed out of the Vale and into the woods with supernatural speed.

I arrived at the Residences and stopped outside Vivienne and Xavier’s penthouse, where Ben’s parents were supposed to be staying temporarily. I was about to rush into the elevator when another message caught my eye, this time etched into the damp soil. It was a similar note. Also signed by Ben. There were huge paw prints next to it.

What is going on?

It occurred to me that perhaps this was just some kind of prank. But I really couldn’t imagine who in The Shade would stage such a sick joke involving their prince.

Tearing my eyes away from the message, I hurried up to Vivienne’s penthouse. I knocked hard on the door. Nobody answered. When I peered through the windows, it was dark. It appeared that nobody was home. Breathing out in frustration, I returned to the forest ground. The next logical place to visit would be Rose and Caleb’s treehouse, which wasn’t far from here.

I glanced once more at the shaky note, then launched off in the opposite direction. As I ran, questions and doubts overwhelmed my brain. But then, as I’d almost reached Rose’s home, a moment of clarity came upon me.

Suddenly, I wondered why I hadn’t seen the connection before.

Hero… Ben?

Sofia

Ever since the beginning—when Rose and Ben had still been only five years old, and we had decided to leave California and move back to The Shade permanently—Derek had harbored a desire for me to turn him. The only reason I hadn’t at the time was because I had harbored a secret fantasy of my own; Derek turning me. But now, he was finally getting his wish.

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