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Biddle hadn’t destroyed the creature.

He’d kept it trapped and fed it blood, but only occasionally. Because what if by feeding the thing got stronger—just like Biddle did. What if it managed to break through the cage of silver?

And now Biddle stared at the semi-formed creature of shadow and tried to convince himself he was not held as captive as his prey.

Then the thing, moving restlessly, spoke in a strange singsong with more animation than it had shown in the fortnight he’d had it, repeating:

“Hear the truth this night:

If Dragon is allowed to burn bright

he will extinguish the Dark light.”

Biddle moved closer to the cage. “The Dark light. You mean the stuff you’re made of—the stuff that surrounds you.” The stuff I can sometimes siphon from you, he thought but didn’t say.

The creature’s red gaze met his, and Biddle knew it hadn’t mattered whether he’d said it aloud. The thing knew.

“Yesss, to keep the power you desire

you must kill his love, the Anastasia vampyre.”

Dragon was still blinking bright dots of flame away from his vision when he smiled at Anastasia and said, “Your spell seems to have worked.”

“Our spell,” she said softly, and gifted him with another smile. “Our spell was strong.” Anastasia paused and then asked, “Would you close the circle with me?”

A rush of unexpected pleasure had him not trusting his voice, so Dragon only nodded.

“Good, I’m glad. It’s only right that we close it together.” Anastasia tilted her head back and said, “Thank you, spirit, for joining our circle tonight.” Then she leaned down and blew out the purple candle.

Dragon went to the green candle, cleared the thickness from his throat, and said, “Thank you, earth, for joining our circle tonight.” He blew out the flame.

In turn, together, they thanked water, fire, and air. Then the young professor faced him, took both of his hands in hers, and said, “Thank you, Bryan Dragon Lankford, for joining my circle tonight.”

It was at that moment that Bryan Dragon Lankford realized that Anastasia wasn’t just a beautiful vampyre and a gifted priestess. She was the most beautiful vampyre and most amazing priestess he’d ever seen. And without thinking, he bent and kissed her smiling lips.

CHAPTER SIX

His kiss was so unexpected that Anastasia was surprised into complete stillness. She just stood there, holding his hands, while he pressed his lips to hers.

Had she realized he was going to kiss her she would have moved away.

But she hadn’t realized, so she didn’t move.

And then the oddest thing happened. His touch was nothing like she’d imagined. He should have been too forceful or too awkward or too demanding. He wasn’t. He was sweet and strong and just hesitant enough that she knew he, too, had been taken by surprise by the kiss.

Still, Anastasia was going to pull away. She should have pulled away. And she would have, had she not remembered the fully Changed vampyre with the kind, trustworthy eyes and the boyishly charming smile, and a kiss that was very, very similar—only this one she could truly feel. My own … he’d called her my own and her heart had responded before her mind could think to, which was exactly what was happening at that moment. Her body was responding to Bryan’s touch before her mind could think to stop it. So she leaned into him, and kissed him gently and completely back.

While her mind wasn’t thinking and her body was busy feeling, something bitterly cold brushed the back of Anastasia’s skirt and lifted her hair, causing real life to intrude upon their kiss. Confused about the strange sensations coming from behind her, Anastasia was just starting to pull away from Bryan when the sound of wings exploded from behind them.

The sound terrified her like nothing before.

Pure fear pulsed through her. Anastasia stared wildly up at Bryan. “Something terrible is coming!” she gasped.

The change that came over him was instant. He went from dreamy-eyed, gentle fledgling to a Warrior—sword drawn and body tense.

“Stay here, next to the boulder and behind me.” This time he didn’t shove her off her feet. Instead he led her quickly into a defensive position and then turned to face whatever was lurking in the predawn.

Heart pounding, Anastasia crouched behind him, peering out at the grayish gloaming. Filled with foreboding, she waited for it to attack.

Nothing moved.

No malevolent creature of nightmare fell down upon them. No marauders swarmed. Nothing bad happened at all. All around them was only the meadow and the distant scent of the river.

She saw his broad shoulders begin to relax and readied herself for his discounting comment. When he turned to her, Anastasia saw only an alert concern in his expression.

“Do you know what it was?” he asked.

“No.” She ran a shaky hand through her hair. “But I give you my word I wasn’t pretending.”

“I know that,” he said. “A Sword Master is not just good with a blade. He’s good with reading bodies and judging reactions. You were fearful.” He reached out, took her hand, and helped her to her feet. Their hands lingered together for a moment. He squeezed hers before he let it go, and then Bryan reached for the chalice that sat full and ready in the middle of the altar. “Drink this and eat some of the food. It’ll help. Plus, you should ground yourself after such a powerful spell.”

As she sipped the fortifying wine and nibbled on the bread and cheese, Bryan disassembled the altar quickly, while he kept watch around them.

“Did you feel it? The cold?” she asked.

“No.”

“Did you hear the wings?”

“No.” He met her gaze. “But I believe you felt it and heard it.”

“Some Indian tribes believe birds carry bad omens. Especially black birds,” she said.

“I like to believe Nyx wants us to make our own omens,” he said. Then he smiled and pointed at a clump of wildflowers not far from them and the brilliant blue bird with a splash of orange on its chest that fluttered there. “That is definitely not a bad omen.”

Anastasia found her smile again. “No, it’s a beautiful bird.”

“And it’s on those enormous yellow flowers. That has to be good, too.”

“They’re sunflowers. My favorite flowers actually,” she said, giving them a fond look that for some reason had Dragon scowling.

“Aren’t they like weeds?”

She shook her head in obvious disdain for his floral ignorance. “They aren’t weeds. They’re associated with love and passion. They’re strong and brilliant and fruitful—their seeds feed everything from birds to people.”

“So, you’d say they’re a good omen, too.”

“I would,” she said.

“And on that second good omen, let’s leave. We’re too exposed out here, and it is almost dawn.”

She nodded and, still sipping the wine, the two of them left the meadow. Bryan carried her basket in one hand and held his sword in the other.

“Thank you for believing me,” she said after they’d walked in companionable silence for a little while.

“You are welcome,” he said.

She glanced at him. “You’re not what I expected.”

He met her gaze and smiled. “I’m shorter, right?”

Anastasia smiled back at him. “Yes. You’re definitely shorter.”

After a few moments Bryan asked, “Do you like shorter?”

She just kept smiling.

“I think you don’t dislike me,” he said.

She raised a brow at him. “I already told you that.”

“Yes, but the spell proved it.”

“And how did it do that?” she said.

“It’s supposed to reveal the truth of me, and all of my,” he paused, thinking, then continued, “and all of my arrogant misdeeds.”

She felt her face get warm and she looked away from him.

“So, if I was really like that—all arrogant and full of myself and not caring about others—you’d see the truth of that and you’d dislike me.”

She did look at him then. “No, you’re wrong. Just because the truth of you is revealed, it doesn’t mean the person seeing it will automatically dislike you—even if you are arrogant and full of yourself.”

He laughed. “I think what you just said was nice, even though it didn’t sound like it.”

“And I think you’re better at spells and rituals than you let on,” she countered with.

“I think you’ll have to look up my records to see.”

“I’ll do that,” she said.

“You might be surprised by what you find,” he said.

She met his gaze. “Yes. I might be.”

The sun was just beginning to lift through the bluffs in the east when they reached the door that led to the professors’ quarters in the main house. Bryan handed her the basket.

“Thank you,” she said. “I–well–I suppose I will see you in class.”

“Not this semester. I took Spells and Rituals last semester. But you will see me.”

Anastasia drew a long breath and then said, “Dragon, about the kiss–”

He held up a hand to stop her words. “No,” he said quickly. “Do not tell me it was a mistake.”

“You’re a fledgling. I’m a professor.”

“Is that it? Is that the only problem you have with me?”

“That’s enough,” she said firmly.

Instead of being dissuaded, she watched a long, slow, triumphant smile tilt his lips. “Good, because that is only a temporary problem.” He took her hand, lifted it, and kissed her palm. Then, still smiling, he fisted a hand over his heart and with perfect respect bowed to her and said, “Merry meet, merry part, and merry meet again, Professor Anastasia.”

Before she could respond, he smacked her cheek with a quick kiss, turned, and strode away, whistling happily.

Dragon had been right—she was surprised when she looked up his records. “He’s practically a perfect student,” she muttered to herself as she thumbed through the files. She was also surprised by how the fledglings treated him, especially the ones who had come to her for love spells.

They didn’t dislike him.

Granted, none of them hung on him or fawned over him or flirted overtly with him. Well, none of the fledglings who had come to her for love spells flirted overtly with him. Others … yes.

Anastasia tried not to notice or care.

She couldn’t help noticing, though, that in general the fledglings looked up to him. He was popular with everyone, and that included his professors. And Dragon, in turn, was charming and arrogant, witty and mischievous. And kind.

He was kind.

Anastasia couldn’t even try not to care about that.

Whenever their paths crossed during the next several days, which they did frequently, his eyes found hers. His gaze lingered on her. Her gaze lingered on him.

And every morning she found a fresh sunflower in a crystal vase on her desk.

Anastasia was certain the entire House of Night would be commenting on the looks that passed between its newest Sword Master and its youngest professor. But it turned out they were completely distracted by a horrible human named Jesse Biddle.

“It’s as if he’s goading us,” Diana was saying as the Tower Hill Council Meeting convened in the drawing room of the professors’ quarters.

Anastasia, still feeling nervous about attending a Council Meeting, hastily took her seat and tried not to look surprised when Shaw, Leader of the school’s Sons of Erebus Warriors, entered the room followed by two of his most senior vampyres, as well as Dragon Lankford.

His eyes met hers for a heartbeat and he nodded briefly, before bowing and saluting the High Priestess.

“Good, everyone is here,” Pandeia said. “The Council Meeting can now formally begin.” She turned her attention to Shaw. “Explain exactly what took place last night.”

“It was just after midnight. The Dark Daughters had gone to Bloody Island to perform the Fautor per Fortuna Ritual for the Sixth Formers. As they were asking Nyx to bless them and help them to be favored by fate with the Change, Biddle stepped out of the shadows, knocking over the ritual candles and breaking the circle,” Shaw said, shaking his head with disgust. “The human forced them off the island. The High Priestess in Training said his gaze lingered hot and heavy on each of the girls, so much so that they felt tainted by it even after returning to their rooms.”

“She told me she believes him to be quite mad,” Diana said.

Pandeia spoke firmly, “I visited them today and I can tell you that I felt the echoes of fear and something dark and heavy lingering on them.” The High Priestess addressed Anastasia: “Did you smudge them?”

“I did, and almost immediately each of them reported feeling better—lighter was the word they used,” Anastasia said.

Diana’s gaze speared Shaw. “And why was there no Warrior present to protect our young fledglings?”

“The Dark Daughters decided the blessing would be their gift to the sixth-former male fledglings, so there were no males, fledgling or vampyre, present. You know that quite often the Dark Daughters perform rituals separate from the Dark Sons,” Shaw said, and Anastasia could see that he was trying to control his frustration. “That is why I have included Dragon Lankford at this Council Meeting. I propose that from now on, even if the ritual specifies only females be involved, male fledglings be present, if outside the circle.”

“Is that enough protection?” asked Lavinia, the literature professor. “Should our vampyre Warriors not protect our fledglings? Perhaps they should accompany them whenever they leave campus.”

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