I need to scare her, need to make her run from this place as far and as fast as she can. But the closer I get to her, the more I lean toward her, the more I want to do anything but scare her away.
She feels so good pressed against me, smells so good, that it’s hard to focus on the endgame. And when she moves, her body bumping into mine again and again, it’s even harder to remember what the endgame is.
“What are—?” Her breath catches in her throat. “What are you doing?”
I don’t answer right away—because I don’t have an answer beyond, The wrong thing. I’m doing the wrong thing. But knowing that doesn’t seem to matter when she’s right here in front of me, her brown eyes alive with a million different emotions that make me feel things I haven’t let myself feel in way too long.
But none of those is the answer I need to give her right now. None of them is even a thought I should have. So instead of saying what I want to say, I pick up one of the dragon pieces. Then hold it for her to see and answer, “You’re the one who wanted to see the monsters.”
She barely glances at the piece. Instead she sneers, “I’m not afraid of a three-inch dragon.”
Silly girl. “Yeah, well, you should be.”
“Yeah, well, I’m not.” Her voice is strained, and I start to think that maybe I’m getting through to her. Except right now, she doesn’t smell afraid. In fact, she smells— Fuck, no. I’m not going to go there, no matter how much I suddenly want to.
Instead, I pull back enough to put some space between us. And to watch her freak out a little as the silence between us grows longer and longer.
Eventually, I break the silence—and the tension building between us—because I know that she won’t. “So if you aren’t afraid of things that go bump in the night, what are you afraid of?” And then I work really hard to pretend that her answer doesn’t matter to me.
At least until she says, “There’s not much to be afraid of when you’ve already lost everything that matters.”
I freeze as her words slam into me like depth charges—sinking deep and then exploding so fast and hard that I’m afraid I’m going to shatter right here in front of her. Agony I thought I was long past rips through me, tearing me open. Making me bleed when I thought I had already hemorrhaged everything I had to lose.
I shove it back, shove it down. And can’t understand why it’s still right here in front of me—until I realize that this time, the pain I’m seeing is hers.
It’s terrible and terrifying to realize that she carries some of the same wounds, if not the same scars, that I do. Knowing that, recognizing it, makes it so much harder for me to back away. Makes it nearly impossible for me to do what I know I need to.
Instead, I reach out and gently take hold of one of her curls. I like them because there’s so much life there, so much energy, so much joy that touching one makes me forget all the reasons it’s impossible for me to let her stay.
I stretch out the curl, watching as it wraps itself around my fingers of its own volition. It’s silky and cool and just a little coarse, yet it warms me like nothing has in way too long. At least until she brings her hands up between us and pushes at my shoulders.
And still I don’t back away. I can’t. At least not until she whispers, “Please.”
It takes me a second—maybe two or three—before I finally find the will to move away. Before I finally find the strength to let that one, single curl, that one, single connection, go.
Frustrated with myself, with her, with this whole fucked-up situation, I shove a hand through my hair. Then wish I hadn’t when her eyes immediately go to my scar. I hate the fucking thing—hate what it is, hate where it came from, and hate even more what it represents.
I look away. Duck my head down so my hair quickly covers it up again.
But it’s too late. I can see it in her face and her eyes.
Can hear it in the breath that catches in her throat.
Can feel it in the way she moves toward me for the first time instead of away.
And when she reaches out, when she cups my scarred cheek in her cold, soft hand, it’s all I can do not to shove her away. Not to run as far and as fast as I can.
Only the irony holds me in place—the idea that I came down here to scare her away for her own safety and now am considering fleeing for mine.
But then our gazes connect, and I’m held in her thrall, completely captivated by the softness and the strength in her eyes as she strokes her thumb across my cheek over and over and over again.
I’ve never felt anything like it in my too-long life and nothing—nothing—could make me break the connection now.
At least until she whispers, “I’m sorry. This must have hurt horribly.”
The sound of her voice combined with the glide of her thumb across my skin sends electricity arcing through me. Has my every nerve ending screaming in a mixture of agony and ecstasy as one word washes through me over and over again.
This girl, this fragile human girl whose very life is even now balanced on the edge of a yawning precipice, is my mate.
For a moment, I let myself sink into the knowledge, into her. I close my eyes, press my cheek against her palm, take one long, shuddering breath, and imagine what it would feel like to be loved like that. Completely, irrevocably, unconditionally. Imagine what it would be like to build a life with this smart and snarky and brave and battered girl.
Nothing has ever felt so good.
But people are all around us, watching us—watching me—and there’s no way I can let this continue. So I do the one thing I don’t want to do, the one thing every cell in my body is screaming against. I step back, putting real distance between us for the first time since I walked down those stairs, what now feels like a lifetime ago.
“I don’t understand you.” They aren’t the words I need to say, but they are the ones I have to.
“‘There are more things in heaven and hell, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy,’” she answers, deliberately using my earlier misquote with a smile that slices right through me.
I shake my head in a vain effort to clear it. Take another deep breath and slowly blow it out. “If you won’t leave—”
“I can’t leave,” she interjects. “I have nowhere else to go. My parents—”
“Are dead. I know.” Rage burns inside me—for her, for what she’s suffered, and for all the things I want to do for her but can’t. “Fine. If you’re not going to leave, then you need to listen to me very, very carefully.”
Her eyes widen in confusion. “What do you—?”
“Keep your head down. Don’t look too closely at anyone or anything.” I lean forward until my lips are almost pressed against her ear, fighting the instincts roaring to life inside me with every breath we both take as I finish, “And always, always watch your back.”
Before she can answer, Foster and Macy come down the hall toward us. She turns to look at them, and I do what I have to do to keep her safe—do the only thing I can do in these ridiculous circumstances. I quickly fade to the stairs—the speed of it helping me pretend that each step away from her doesn’t cut like jagged, broken glass.
I plan on going back to my room, but I don’t make it that far. Instead, I stop just around the corner and listen to her voice as she talks to Foster. Not the words, just her voice, because I can’t get enough of her. Not now. Not yet.
Soon enough. I’m going to have to give this up.
Soon enough, I’m going to have to stay as far away from her as I possibly can. Because if I thought it was bad for her to be used as bait, that’s nothing compared to the danger of being a human mated to a vampire. And not just any vampire but one who holds the fate of the world in his hands.
It Only Takes
One Hot Vampire
to Win a Snowball Fight
I watch Grace head out the door with Flint and Macy and tell myself to walk away. That there’s nothing to worry about. That she’s going to be fine. And know, even as I say it to myself, that I’m going to follow them anyway.
Follow her anyway.
They’re out in the snow now, moving slowly enough that any predator with half a mind could catch them—while walking backward on a leisurely afternoon stroll. I wait for Flint to get fed up, to try to hurry Grace along, but he doesn’t do it. Instead, he walks close to her, laughing at whatever she’s saying, making her laugh in return.
It’s enough to make my blood boil, considering that’s my mate he’s trying to charm. And my mate he might very well be trying to kill. That thought does something way worse than make my blood boil. It makes every part of me freeze, every nerve in my body arrested with horror—and a rage so cold, it burns like ice.
Despite my determination to go unnoticed, I draw closer to them. Alarm bells are going off inside me, driving me to break all the rules I’ve held myself to for the last year. Making me do things that I normally wouldn’t even consider.
Then again, the last year has been all about doing things I wouldn’t have imagined. Things I wouldn’t wish on anyone, even a monster like myself. And now, here I am, trailing my ex-friend through the snow as I try to figure out exactly what Flint is up to.
There was a time not so long ago that I would have trusted him unconditionally, a time when he would have done the same for me. But that was a long time ago—in events if not in actual years. And now…now I don’t even trust him with a simple snowball fight.
I sure as shit don’t trust him with my mate.
The three of them finally make it out to the clearing where everyone is waiting. I stay in the trees, watching as Flint moves to the center of the group. He cracks a few jokes, loosens everyone up, then lays down the most ridiculous rules in existence—I should know. We made them up together years ago. Back when I got to at least pretend that I was like everyone else.
Grace watches him the whole time. It’s enough to set my teeth on edge…and more than enough to make me feel like some kind of stalker. I’m only here because every instinct I have is screaming at me that something is wrong, that my mate is in danger, but it’s still hard to justify peering at her from behind a tree like some kind of creep. Especially when she seems totally absorbed in another guy.