Antonio chewed on his bottom lip, looking doubtful about the likelihood of that folk remedy working, but didn’t argue. He offered his hand to her. “Will you come with me, Claudia? We’re going to go for a walk. It’ll help clear your head. Fresh air always does.”
She turned a troubled gaze on me, and I smiled. “He’s right. A walk will make you feel better. And so will some herbal tea and rest. Are you ready to go?”
“Yes. But Domenico isn’t.” Claudia slipped her hand into Antonio’s, then cringed. “He said he’s not ready, and he will not move. Time is slipping like water through his hands. But still he waits. He waits and waits. He wants her to choose. He knows she will. Soon. Then he will take her heart, too. And her soul. He wants to kill again. The ultimate prize.”
“Domenico?” I asked, turning to Antonio when my friend retreated back into her own fractured world. “Was he here earlier?”
“I . . . I think so, but can’t remember for certain. He’s here most days. You don’t think . . .” He slid his attention to Claudia, who’d begun mumbling in that strange tongue again. Concern filled his expression. “You don’t think he hurt her, do you?”
“It’s dark. Dark and musty, and death is lurking. It’s gotten a taste and craves more.” Claudia blinked rapidly, suddenly seeming more like herself. “Is he still here?”
“No,” Antonio said, “Domenico’s gone.”
“But don’t worry.” I helped her to her feet. “I’ll find him.” I faced Antonio. “Do you know where he lives?” He shook his head. Of course things wouldn’t be easy; they never were. “I’ll check their arancini stand just in case they’re working late.”
“Alone?” Antonio’s mouth pressed into a tight line of worry. Brown hair fell across his brow. He looked so young and inexperienced compared to Wrath. “If he did something . . . maybe we should go together.”
I mustered up what I hoped was a reassuring smile. While I’d love to have him with me when I confronted Domenico, there were questions I needed to ask that he couldn’t be privy to. And not just because he was human. I wouldn’t be able to mention the dark arts, or toss around accusations of cavorting with demon princes in front of a member of the holy brotherhood.
“I’ll be all right. I don’t believe Domenico did anything sinister,” I lied. “He might know if she ingested any strange food or drink. Who knows? Maybe there was some mold, or other toxin present for one of her desiccations. Or maybe she had a bad bottle of wine. Valentina’s death is probably to blame if she drank too much. Murder isn’t easy to accept.”
That seemed to mollify Antonio. It was perfectly logical. And humans loved logic, especially when it explained away the unexplainable. “She did complain of the bay leaves being rotten earlier. I believe she burned them in the preparation room.”
“See?” I smiled. “I’m sure that’s all it is. She inhaled mold, or something equally bad. This will pass with some fresh air and sleep, you’ll see.”
With a polite nod good-bye, he escorted Claudia out of the courtyard. I waited until they were safely down the street and far away from the lingering brotherhood before I left, too. I tried not to think about the searing accusation burning in Brother Carmine’s gaze as I hurried away.
Since I still didn’t know where Domenico’s family lived, and I was fairly confident their arancini stall had long since closed for the night, confronting him would have to wait until morning.
I knew where to find Claudia’s aunt Carolina, though. And she and I were going to exchange some words. I understood how grief warped a person into doing things they’d normally never do—I’d prayed to the goddess of death and fury and had summoned a demon—but asking someone else to do that when she could have done it on her own . . . I hoped to reign my temper in before I saw Carolina.
I stomped off in the direction of her neighborhood, unable to wrap my mind around what she’d convinced her niece to do, and how dangerous it had been. I’d asked Claudia to use a powerful spell to ward our homes because I didn’t know how, and because not much could go wrong. What Carolina did was much more dangerous.
I rounded the corner and felt a prickle of energy between my shoulder blades. I kept walking, picking up my pace. The sensation continued, which meant I was being followed. And whoever they were, they were furious. I could think of at least one demon I made that angry on occasion.
Wrath probably returned from his visit with whomever he’d been trying to impress earlier than expected, and wasn’t happy I’d escaped my pretty cage. Good. Maybe his evening didn’t go as planned, either. I turned and glared into the shadows. I really hated the stupid magical ink that connected us, letting him find me when I didn’t wish to be found. I’d assumed when I broke the spell that bound us together, the tattoo would fade.
Apparently some gifts couldn’t be returned.
“Stop lurking, it’s beneath you. If you’ve got something to say, say it.”
“Bold for a witch.” The voice wasn’t familiar, and his accent was hard to place—almost English but not. I peered down the street, pulse racing. A few paces away, a dark figure peeled away from the building. I instinctually stepped back. He followed, his movements smooth and quick. “Your blood smells like spiced wine. Give us a taste?”
“Who are you?” I fumbled for my moon-blessed chalk, forgetting this dress was a gift from Wrath and wasn’t one from home with secret pockets. “What do you want?”
The man stepped into a shaft of moonlight. He wore a long duster that seemed to be cut from the thickest slice of night. Rings glittered on each of his knuckles. They made good weapons.
My gaze slowly traveled up. Ice-blond hair, eyes that looked like they’d been chipped from a glacier, a cruel slash of a mouth twisted up on one side. Human in appearance until he smiled wider, exposing a set of sharp fangs. Vampiro. I stopped moving. Stopped breathing. As a witch, I really needed to stop thinking some creatures were mere myths and legends.
“Y-you’re . . .” I snapped my mouth shut, hating the stammer that gave away my emotions. So much for working on keeping them hidden from my enemies. Wrath would knock himself in the head with the dull end of his dagger if he saw me now.
“It’s been so long since I drank deeply from one of your kind.” His gaze traveled to my neck. He was before me in an instant. “Venom is pleasurable. At least if I choose to grant such a gift. Would you like a present, little witch? Untold ecstasy while I feed on you?”
I swallowed hard. “N-no, thank you.”
He circled me, his long jacket blowing on a night breeze. My whole body tensed.
“Very well. Perhaps next time.”
I sincerely hoped there would never be a “next time” I encountered a vampire alone in a darkened alleyway. One time was enough to give me nightmares for the remainder of my mortal life. His jacket brushed the back of my calf, and I sucked in a sharp breath. The corners of his lips edged up. He stepped closer. Fear seemed to delight him.
“Apologies. I can see my proposition of pleasure has frightened you.”
He sketched a mock bow, but never took his attention from my throat. I thought quickly about the stories from childhood. In the legends Nonna shared with us, vampires weren’t known for impulse control. I felt my vein throbbing and willed it to stop, which only made it pulse harder. I didn’t want a slight temptation to turn into animalistic need.
“My name is Alexei. Prince Envy requests an audience with you. His highness has much to discuss. But first, let’s go on a little stroll, you and I. That should give them enough time.” He offered his arm like a perfect gentleman. I didn’t move to take it.
“Give who enough time for what? Envy?” I asked, losing patience. “Stop talking in riddles.”
The vampire’s fangs gleamed in the moonlight. “Mare e Vitigno. Such a lovely name. Rolls right off the tongue.”
Sea & Vine. I went very still. Blood roared in my ears. Envy knew about our restaurant. He would torture my parents and—I forced myself to calm down. There was no reason to panic anymore. Claudia had shielded our home against demons. It was late, and the restaurant was closed. Thank the goddess my family would be home by now and were protected. A dark smile touched the corners of my lips. I would very much like to have the demon test the deadly magic.
“Tell Prince Envy I decline his offer. And I dare him to try and enter my home.”
“My prince said I ought to mention that spells, like witch bones, are easily broken. If one knows where to apply the correct pressure. Or in this case, who to target.”
I went cold. “What are you talking about?”
“Did you think you could fool a prince of Hell, little witch? Do you truly believe Envy hasn’t had spies watching your home?” His smile was filled with malice. “Demon shields and wards are tricky, but can be broken. Especially by the witch who cast them.”
“That’s a lie.” I stepped back, shaking my head. Claudia was safe. Antonio had taken her to my house—my stomach flipped. They could have been intercepted or attacked on the way. Fear clawed its way into my heart. “That can’t be true. The wards . . .”
“Are down.” He offered his arm again. “Your family should be with the prince by now; the more you struggle, the harder it will be on them. He does not like to be kept waiting. Boredom is a terrible affliction in the Kingdom of the Wicked.”
“Envy is—he’s at Sea & Vine with my family now?”
I wasn’t going to simply take a vampire’s word for it. I offered him a hateful grin as I whispered a forbidden truth spell. Alexei wasn’t mortal, so I ignored the glimmer of wrongness I felt by invoking a forbidden power.
“Did Envy have Claudia break the ward on my family’s home?”