Then he kisses me—long, slow, deep—before rolling away and sitting up, with his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. I sit up, too, and because I can’t leave him alone in this…whatever this turns out to be, I wrap myself around him from behind as I press soft, quick kisses to his shoulders and the back of his neck.
And then I say, “Tell me,” because I think he needs to hear me say that almost as much as he needs to tell me the story burning inside him.
I’m not sure how I expect the story to come out—whether in fits and starts or one smooth retelling—but I do know that I never could have anticipated what he says when he finally begins to speak.
“I killed Hudson.”
Shock rips through me. “Hudson? Your—”
“Brother. Yeah.” He wipes a hand over his face.
A million emotions go through me at those four words—shock that isn’t really shock, horror, sorrow, concern, pity, pain. The list goes on and on. But the one that stands head and shoulders above the others is disbelief. Dangerous as he is, I don’t believe Jaxon would ever deliberately harm someone he cares about. Everyone else might be open season, but not those he considers under his protection. If I’ve learned nothing else in the week I’ve been here, I’ve learned that.
Which means something really horrible must have happened. What must it be like to live with the kind of power he wields?
What must it be like to live with the knowledge that one careless moment, one slip of control, and he can lose everything?
“What happened?” I ask eventually, when minutes pass and he doesn’t say anything else.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“I think it does. I can’t imagine you hurting your brother on purpose.”
He turns on me then, eyes showing that yawning, empty blackness I’m coming to hate so much. “Then your imagination isn’t good enough.”
Fear skitters through me at the darkness in his voice. “Jaxon.” I lay a gentle hand on his arm.
“I didn’t set out to kill him, Grace. But do you really think intentions matter when someone’s dead? It’s not like you can just bring them back because you didn’t want to do it.”
“I know that better than most.” I’m still haunted by the fight my parents and I had right before they died.
“Do you?” Jaxon demands. “Do you know what it feels like to be able to wave a hand and do this?” Seconds later, everything in the room, except for the bed we’re sitting on, is floating in the air around us. “Or this?” Everything comes crashing to the ground. The guitar crumbles. One of the glass picture frames shatters into a million pieces.
I take a minute, let the shock cycle through before I try to say anything that makes sense.
“Maybe you’re right,” I eventually answer. “Maybe I don’t know what any of that feels like. But I know your brother wouldn’t want you beating yourself up over whatever happened to him. He wouldn’t want you torturing yourself.”
Jaxon’s answering laugh is filled with actual humor. “It’s pretty obvious you don’t know Hudson. Or my parents. Or Lia.”
“Lia blames you for Hudson’s death?” I ask, surprised.
“Lia blames everyone and everything for Hudson’s death. If she had the kind of power I do, her rage would burn down the world.” This time when he laughs, there’s only regret in the sound.
“What about your parents? Surely they don’t hold you responsible for something you had no control over?”
“Who said I had no control? I had a choice. And I made it. I killed him, Grace. On purpose. And I would do it again.”
My stomach churns at his admission—and the coldness in his voice as he makes it. But I’ve learned enough about Jaxon to know that he will always cast himself in the most awful light. That he will always choose to see himself as the villain, even if he’s the victim.
Especially if he’s the victim.
Pointing that out to him right now won’t do any good, though, so I wait for him to say more. And there is more. If there wasn’t, he wouldn’t be so concerned with losing control and hurting me.
“Hudson was the firstborn,” he eventually continues. “The prince who would be king. The perfect son who only grew more perfect after death.”
There’s no bitterness in the words, just a matter-of-factness that makes it way too easy to read between the lines. Still, I can’t resist asking, “And you are?”
“Very definitely not.” He laughs. “Which is fine. More than fine. Being king has never exactly been an aspiration of mine.”
“King?” I ask, because when he first said it, I thought it was a metaphor. His brother the prince. But now that he said it again, in reference to himself being king, I can’t not ask.
“Yes, king.” He lifts a brow. “Didn’t Macy tell you?”
“No.” King of what? I want to ask, but now doesn’t exactly seem like the time.
“Oh, well, here I am.” He does a mock little bow. “The next vampire liege at your service.”
“Ooookay.” I don’t know what else to say to that revelation. Except, “It was supposed to be Hudson? But now that he’s dead…”
“Exactly.” He makes a you guessed it clicking sound with the corner of his mouth. “I’m the replacement. The new heir apparent.”
And future king. My mind boggles at the mere idea. What does a vampire king do, anyway? And is that why everyone treats Jaxon with such deference? Because he’s royalty? But what does vampire royalty have to do with dragons? Or witches?
“I am, of course, also the murderer of the former heir apparent,” Jaxon continues, “which in another species might cause some problems. But in the vampire world, you’re only as strong as what you can defend…and what you can take. So all I had to do to become the most fearsome and revered vampire in the world was to kill my big brother.”
He gives a little shrug that is supposed to show how amusing he finds the whole thing, how much he doesn’t care.
I don’t buy it for a second.
“But that’s not why you killed him,” I add, because I think he needs to hear me say it.
“I thought we already covered that motive doesn’t matter? Perception becomes truth eventually, even when it’s wrong.” There’s a wealth of pain in those four words, even though the tone Jaxon uses is completely devoid of emotion. “Especially when it’s wrong. History is, after all, written by the winner.”
I rest my head on his shoulder in a small gesture of comfort. “But you’re the winner.”
I don’t have an answer for that, so I don’t even try. Instead, I ask for the truth. His truth. “Why did you kill Hudson?”
“Because he needed to be killed. And I’m the only one who could.”
The words hang in the air as I try to absorb them, to figure out what he means. “So Hudson was as powerful as you, then.”
“No one is as powerful as me.” He isn’t bragging. In fact, he sounds almost ashamed of the fact.
“Why is that exactly?” I ask.
He shrugs. “Genetics. Each generation of born vampires tends to be more powerful than the generation that came before them. There are exceptions, of course, but for the most part, that’s how it’s always been. It’s why there are so few of us—nature’s way of keeping the balance, I figure. And since my parents come from the strongest two families and wield incredible power themselves, it’s no surprise that when they mated, their offspring…”
“Can literally make the earth shake.”
He gives a half smile, the first I’ve seen from him since this conversation began. “Something like that, yeah.”
“So am I right in guessing that Hudson was not exactly responsible with his power?”
“A lot of young vampires aren’t.”
“That’s not an answer.” I raise a brow, wait for him to look at me. It takes longer than it should. “And you strike me as very responsible.”
He arches his own brows, takes a deliberate look around the disaster he made of the room when he was kissing me.
“You know what I mean.”
“I know what you think you mean. Hudson…” He sighs. “Hudson’s plans were always audacious. Always looking to give vampires more power, more money, more control, which isn’t bad in and of itself.”
I’m tempted to disagree. After all, if you plan on garnering more power, money, and control, it has to come from somewhere. And history has shown that taking any of those three things tends to be less than humane for the people it’s being taken from.
But that’s a discussion for another time, not now, when Jaxon is finally opening up.
“But somewhere along the line, he got lost in those plans,” Jaxon continues. “He got so concerned with what he could achieve and how he could achieve it that he never stopped to question if he should.
“I tried to pull him back, tried to talk reason to him, but with Lia and my mother whispering all kinds of Chosen One bullshit in his ear, it became impossible to reach him. Impossible to make him understand that his own brand of manifest destiny was not…acceptable, especially when those plans included…” His voice drifts off for a minute, and a look at his eyes tells me that mentally, Jaxon’s not here in this room anymore. He’s far away in another time and place.
“Things between vampires and shifters have always been tense,” he finally continues, a defensive note in his voice that I’ve never heard before. “We’ve never really gotten along with the wolves or the dragons; they don’t trust us and we sure as hell don’t trust them. So when Hudson worked up a plan to”—he curls the fingers of his free hand and makes air quotes—“‘put the shifters in their place,’ a lot of people thought he was onto something.”