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Emery turned to me and slowly lay back down, but this time, he was on his side facing me. Shadows draped across his face and his expression was lost to the night. “Yes. It was a shock. But you’re the real shock, Penny.” He took a deep breath and leaned toward me slightly. “I’d thought my brother was the yin to my yang. We had an incredibly tight bond. We usually worked together excellently, and we’d been through hell together. But now I realize that we struggled to maintain our focus together. We fought for leadership. He often won, because he was better at it, and older, but we did fight for it. It made us topsy-turvy at times. Our magic was fire and brimstone, wild and powerful. But it lacked true balance. I see that now. I see that the struggle weakened us. Our bond made being dual-mages possible, but…” His shoulders sagged. When his next words came, they were lined with grief and sorrow. “We weren’t a natural dual-mage pair. We were too similar.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Dual-mages are like yin and yang—they work in opposites. When you combine two elements that seemingly contrast, the forces become complementary. When I’m strong, my partner can lean on me. When I’m weak, my partner takes the lead. There is no fighting for control. It’s a graceful dance. Rage and turmoil in one partner should be buffered by temperance and steadfastness in the other. The two halves merge to form an interconnected, unshakable, balanced bond. My brother and I had an unshakable bond, but not a balanced one.”

“But no one is temperate all the time.”

“Exactly. When one partner rages, the other must keep their head. And vice versa. The roles shift…”

“In the dance.”

“Yes.” The word wasn’t much more than a breath. “Now I see…”

The words lingered in the air, twisting and turning in the sudden silence between us.

Pressure pushed down on my chest. “What do you see?” I asked, my voice barely making it past my lips.

“I see you, Penny Bristol. With a magic as white as a dove. A soul as pure as my brother’s. Full of innocence and wonder and light. I wish I were good enough for you.”

Tears filled my eyes, and it wasn’t just the beauty of what he’d said—it was the feeling behind it. The aching rawness and absolute conviction that he wasn’t good enough. I knew it wasn’t me he didn’t feel good enough for. That line of thought was absurd. It was himself. He didn’t feel he warranted his own good opinion. Which was why he thought he was evil.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said, because it was the first thing that came to mind and something my mother would’ve said. I was freaking turning into my mother. “You have a grasp of magic that I can only wish for. You have friends that let you crash in their failed attempt at a man cave, even though it’s dangerous for them, which is loyalty at its finest, and chicks that want you to call them, which I can only assume is for a hookup, even though you’re a wanderer. You’ve had some bumps, some horrible losses, but the color of your magic doesn’t decide if you’re good or evil. You decide that. And an evil guy wouldn’t have put up a magical roadblock to keep innocent passersby safe before he killed his enemies. Evil people don’t think like that. You’re so much better than me. Experience rates ten times as high as innocence ever will. Trust me, I’ll be shedding this naivety as soon as possible. So stop with that line of—”

He wrapped his hand around the back of my neck and pulled me toward him. Despite the rush of movement, his touch was gentle. His lips connected with mine.

A shock of electricity ran my length. This time it wasn’t painful—it was pure pleasure.

I moaned into the kiss and ran my hand up his chest. I fell into the feeling of him. The deliciousness of his lips moving against mine. His thumb stroking my jaw.

He pulled back slowly, and my body rolled with his, wanting to linger. Wanting to spend the whole night glued to his kiss.

“I’m sorry,” he murmured against my lips. “I didn’t mean for that to happen. I’d intended to ask first.”

“If you’d asked, I would’ve made it awkward somehow.”

His lips grazed against mine again and his hand swept down over my shoulder. He gently pushed me away. Regret and relief washed through me in equal parts.

“We need to get some rest, Turdswallop, or we’ll be a danger to ourselves tomorrow.”

I released a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. He really knew how to kill the moment.

He rolled back, and the light slid over his smile. I chuckled and lay back down on his chest.

“Speaking of tomorrow, what’s the plan?” I asked, hearing his heart beat quickly against my ear. It matched the pace of mine.

“I need to visit someone that speaks Italian.”

“Do you know someone?”

“Yes.”

“But what if what’s written on that letter isn’t Italian? Do you know enough about the language to be sure?” Because I was pretty sure I didn’t. Though he did have a phone with internet. He could probably look it up.

I was about to say as much, but he answered.

“I’m going to this…person specifically because he speaks many languages. If it’s one of the other Romance languages, it won’t be a problem. If there are nuances there, hinted political maneuverings, he’ll suss it all out. I’ll also be able to trade my work for money and afford a nicer place to stay. I feel like this is the right move because…your mother said to ask for help from a friend I would rather not ask.”

“What about the guild? Can you trust him to keep knowledge of your—our—whereabouts safe?”

“There is no fear of him turning us over to the guild. The fear is how he’ll try to use the knowledge, and us, to his own ends. You can never trust a vampire.”

Chapter Twenty-Five

“Listen to me carefully,” Emery said the next evening as we turned a corner and our destination, an upscale hotel sitting on the water, spanned out to the side and in front of us. Lights twinkled along the sidewalk and the building, showing a red carpet at the front, leading into the hotel. An expensive car pulled up to the front and two people climbed out of the rear doors. Bellboys walked forward to help them. “He’ll be charming and captivating. He’ll seem civilized and cultivated. All the finery, his dress, his mannerisms—they’re intended to seduce you. His very smile will seduce you. But make no mistake, he is a predator. He’s above you on the food chain until you learn more of your magic. Keep your wits about you.”

I nodded as the energy around us twisted and boiled. It pushed at me in strange ways. Violent ways.

“Is he going to attack us?” I asked, trying to remember how I’d made that magical spear. Or even the lower-powered mouse zappers. Any defense was better than nothing if Emery needed help.

“No. But you should always keep your wits when dealing with a vampire. They’re smart and cunning. If a vampire can get one over on you, or use you, or…something else you probably wouldn’t even think of, they will. Without hesitation. They have no loyalty.”

“Yikes. They sound like a lovely sort of creature.”

“They are, in their human form. That’s part of the danger.”

I frowned, but before I could ask what other form they had, streams of magic—no, Emery would call them elements—drifted up around us.

“If the worst should happen…” Emery wiggled his fingers, and a weave started to form. “Do not try to fight them. Not until you have as thorough a working relationship with magic as I do. They are unbelievably fast and strong. Vicious beyond anything you’ve experienced thus far. If anything happens, now or down the road, try to find somewhere to hunker down until I can come for you.” Magic twisted through Emery’s hands, the weave so slow it tried to dissipate at every turn.

“No problem,” I said, studying what he was doing. “I excel at fortifying closets.”

“That was a spell for corrosive acid. I’ll do it again. It’s a good spell to throw right before you run.” He wiggled his fingers and went through the spell again, walking more slowly as he worked. We were drawing near the entrance now. When he was through, he let the spell dissipate. “Do you have it?”

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