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Inside, he knew it wasn’t right. None of this was right, and not just the arranged mating. None of this household, this bloodline he had been born into, was as it should be, and abruptly, as he contemplated the reality that he had been prepared to follow through on a lifelong commitment he knew was wrong for him, anger took hold.

Thank the Virgin Scribe Rochelle was braver than he.

“I am so sorry,” she said with a sniffle.

He shifted and took his handkerchief out of his inside pocket. “Here.”

“What a mess.” Taking what he offered, Rochelle dabbed carefully at her eyes. “What an . . . absolute mess I am making out of everything.”

More tears came for her, and he wished he could put a friendly arm around her shoulders for comfort. But he hadn’t touched her in any way yet, and now was hardly the time to start.

“We can choose not to do this.”

“But I want to. I truly do.” She pressed under one side of her nose and looked at him. “You’re amazing. You’re everything I should want, but I just don’t—oh, God. I shouldn’t say that.”

Boone smiled. “I take it as a compliment.”

“I mean it. I wish I could love you.”

“I know you do.”

Abruptly, she shook her head over and over again, her blond hair breaking across her shoulders in thick waves. “No, no, we have to press on. I don’t know why I came here. There is no getting out of this, Boone. Arranged matings can’t be broken.”

“The hell they can’t. Tell them all you do not find me acceptable. It’s your right. That’s how you—how we—take care of this.”

“Except that’s not fair to you.” Tears glistened in her eyes. “There will be all kinds of judgment on you, and—”

“I’ll handle it.”


He didn’t know. But what he was sure about was that having the glymera believe he was undesirable as a hellren for a fellow member of the upper classes seemed a better lot than forcing this mating. It wasn’t that he didn’t like Rochelle or that he found her unattractive. She was smart and funny, and she was classically beautiful. Over time, there was a possibility of things developing between them, but they were essentially strangers.

And as they sat here alone for the first time, the question he had been asking himself since night one was finally answered: The only reason he had gone down this path of expectation was because he’d thought maybe he could make it work better than his father had. In fact, he had been determined to succeed where his sire had failed by meeting the expectations of the glymera and yet still living a life that was authentic.

Except winning that kind of a race would only get him a hollow trophy, wouldn’t it—in the form of a mating to a female he wasn’t in love with . . . just so he could prove a point to a male who would undoubtedly not notice the nuances outside of “normal.”

“It’s going to be all right,” he repeated.

Rochelle took a deep breath. “I don’t want you to think I was being hasty in calling you. Or impulsive.”

Impulsive? he thought. What, like signing on for seven hundred years of mating, the possibility of young, and the certainty of death’s hard stop, even though the pair of them had shared just two supervised greeting teas, the required parental dinner, and the announcement cocktail party? All told, he had spent maybe five hours in Rochelle’s company, and until now, it had all been witnessed.

“Boone, I want to explain. I’m in love . . . with someone else.”

As he smiled, he wondered what that kind of connection felt like.

“I’m really happy for you. Love is a blessing.”

Rochelle looked away, her face turning into a mask of composure. “Thank you.”

Boone wanted to ask questions about the male. But again, even though they were technically engaged, as the humans would say, they were essentially strangers, and that was what made all this so crazy.

She thought it was hard breaking the engagement? Try ending a full-blown mating.

“Just tell them I am not worthy,” he insisted. “And then you’re free to mate the other male.”

As Rochelle’s eyes came back to him, he reflected that they were the same color blue as his own, and for some reason, that irritated him. Not that there was anything wrong with her; it was just . . . enough already with the proper-bloodline stuff. They were so alike in terms of coloring, save for his dark hair, that they could have been brother and sister, and how creepy was that.

Rochelle flattened the handkerchief he’d given her on her lap, smoothing the square, running her fingertip over his monogram in the center.

“So you . . . you don’t want to do this, either?”

“I think it would be better if we knew each other”—at all—“and we were choosing this. I know that’s not how our kind do the mating thing, but why? My sire and my birth mahmen were never happy with each other, and they had an arranged mating. After she died, my father went and did it all over again with the same result. A part of me thought maybe I could show him how it’s properly done, but honestly? Especially if you’re in love with someone else? Not only what are the chances of a happily ever after for us, but why bother.”

“I can’t leave you with all the social stigma. It’s not fair.”

“Don’t kid yourself. If we end this for any reason other than me being unacceptable, the social fallout on you is going to be downright brutal. That male you love? He will not be allowed to mate you. You will be considered ruined and ineligible for a proper hellren for the rest of your life. On top of that, your whole bloodline will be shamed and they will blame it all on you. Are you saying you’d rather enjoy that result?”

Rochelle winced. “You’re going to be shunned to some degree, though.”

“It will be nothing compared to what the glymera will do to you. I’d rather be the talk of the party circuit for a year and get side-eye for a decade than know I ruined your life and the life of your male.”

Rochelle shook her head. “You’re getting the bad end of this. Why would you do this for anyone?”

“I don’t know. I guess . . . love is worth sacrificing for. Even if it’s not my own.”

“You are such a male of worth,” she whispered. “And you are so brave.”

Was he really, though? Maybe in the context of the glymera, but the realist in him knew that true bravery was not facing the slings and arrows of haughty stares and disapproving comments. After the raids, after the Lessening Society had killed so many innocents in their homes, how could anybody suggest that arbitrary social mores were the be-all and end-all of anything worthwhile? Or that thwarting them for a good reason should get you the vampire equivalent of the Purple Heart?

Rochelle searched his face as if trying to assess whether he could handle the pressure. “You really don’t care about what they think of you, do you.”

Boone shrugged. “I’ve never been a big fan of the social scene. There are people here in Caldwell who don’t have any idea that Altamere even has a son, and I’m fine with that. My father will take some heat, but I assure you, after the way he’s dismissed me all my life, I’m perfectly comfortable with not worrying about his problems. And please don’t feel guilty. This is the best for both of us.”

Rochelle dabbed at fresh tears. “I wish I were like you. I’m a coward.”

“Are you kidding me? You’re being brave here. And don’t make a hero out of me.” He smiled bitterly. “I’ve got plenty of faults. Just ask my sire. He’ll give you a list longer than your driveway.”

As she fell silent, the sadness that came back into her eyes made him want to hold her. But Marquist was watching on the closed circuit—and more to the point, Rochelle was not his to comfort.

Calling off the arrangement was so the right thing to do—

“No,” she said in a stronger voice. “I will take responsibility for this. I am not going to let you—”

“Rochelle. I don’t know who your male is, but if he’s in our class? You cannot be the one who breaks things off. If you refuse to perform on this arrangement, his family will never allow you two to be together.

You know this. You will be sullied, and it will haunt you for the rest of your life. Let me take the hit.”

“I still don’t know why you would do this for me.”

“If I had someone to love, I would want to be with her. But I don’t.” He frowned and considered all of the females he knew or had met. They were all aristocrats. “And honestly, I can’t see where something like true love would come from for me. So I want to help the two of you.”

Rochelle dabbed her face with his handkerchief again. “I really wish I could love you. You are a male of true worth. But no, I can’t let you—”

The double doors burst open, the heavy panels thrown wide by Marquist.

Boone’s sire, Altamere, strode in, his wing tips clipping over the marble until they hit the carpet and were silenced. The male’s dark hair was brushed back from his finely boned face, and his pale eyes were the color of steel in his anger. Absently, Boone noted that the suit his father had on was made of the exact same fine wool his own was. The slate blue color was flecked with threads of heather and pale gray, the speckling so subtle that one could not notice it without pressing a nose to the lapels.

The cut of the jacket and slacks was not the same, however. Boone had always taken after his mahmen’s side of things, his shoulders broad, his arms thick, his legs long and muscled. He had always been aware that his father disapproved of his physique, and could remember a hushed comment after his transition, made under his sire’s breath, that Boone had the body of a laborer. As if that were a birth defect.

Or maybe something that made him doubt the fidelity of his shellan.

Boone had always wondered about that.

“Whate’er are you doing,” Altamere demanded.