Anne Marie Andrus
At the peak of a rocky red outcropping, Draven paced, sat, leapt up to wander again and shouted into the empty darkness. “I should have saved you.” He stumbled, grabbed fistfuls of his blond hair and threw his head back to shout at the night sky. “I accept that I’m a failure.”
The only answer was the desert wind’s drone.
“Tonight, was my last. I’m done. I’m ready.” He spun to face the brightening horizon and stripped off his shirt. “I’m coming to join you, my beloved Gwynevere.”
Dawn’s light lingered below the jagged crests, slicing through the landscape one ray at a time. Pinholes of smoke erupted across Draven’s skin like a spray of bullets.
Gritting his teeth to muffle a scream, he stared at the patch of ground a few feet away, already bathed in killer sun. After a long exhale, he took two strides toward instant death. The final step was cut short by a missile dressed in a royal guard’s uniform. Two vampires tumbled down the back side of the butte into the cold safety of shadow.
“What the bloody hell?” Draven clawed his way back up the red rock, only to be yanked into a cliffside cave. He narrowed his eyes to focus in the pitch black. “Ronald?”
“Your highness.” Ronald bowed.
Draven lunged for the cave’s mouth and was knocked down again. “Have you gone insane?”
“Have you?” Ronald rolled a boulder across the opening. “On second thought, don’t answer that. When did you last feed?”
“What concern is that of yours?” Draven turned up his nose at the flask Ronald offered.
“It’s my job to keep you safe.”
“Then, you’re fired.”
“Unacceptable.” Ronald plunked a silver flask on the stone floor in between them.
“This is not how it works.” Draven charged toward Ronald and landed flat on his back. “I’m a damn prince!”
“Tackling you now, and on top of that rock,” Ronald dusted off his palms and held out a hand, “was easier than knocking a child down on the playground.”
“Blood would be wasted on me.” Draven swatted him away. “Doesn’t matter where I’m going.”
“And, your highness, where is that?”
“Not sure, exactly.” Draven puffed his cheeks and exhaled. “To find my beloved Gwyn.”
“I’m so very sorry for your loss.” Ronald rested his hands on his knees. “But burning yourself up in the desert isn’t going to bring her back.”
“I hate myself and I’m broken beyond repair.” Draven wrapped his arms around his chest. “How did you find me out here, anyway? I covered my tracks.”
“We’re blood.” Ronald dug through a canvas bag and tossed him a wrinkled shirt. “Can’t hide from me. To your credit, the search did take weeks.”
“I never really thought about that…your direct lineage, I mean.”
“If I remember correctly, you turned me vampire as a stunt to impress Sorcha.”
“I was rather taken with her back then. But the reason doesn’t matter.” Draven pulled on the shirt and buttoned it without looking down. “As my sole heir, when I’m gone, you’re next in line for my father’s throne. Should it ever come to that.”
“Well.” Ronald swallowed hard. “There’s extra incentive to keep you alive—”
“If you dare call me Daddy, I’ll rip your face off.”
“It will only grow back.” Ronald held out the flask again. “Sire.”
“I never believed in hell, but I’ve been there every night since Gwyn died.” Draven grabbed the flask and gulped. “Every damned night. Can’t you see that?”
“Yes, and I don’t pretend to know the pain of losing a fiancée.” Ronald settled down with his back against the cave wall.
“I remember saying something very similar once.” Draven sat down across from him, leaned his head back and closed his eyes. “To Raimond, after his Emily was murdered. He certainly handled it better than I have.”
Ronald rubbed his neck. “About Raimond—”
“I left my guards in Louisiana to watch over his house full of fools.” Draven looked up when Ronald didn’t answer. “What?”
“At first, I tried to find you…unsuccessfully. When I returned, it was too late.”
“I don’t understand.”
“After you left, there was an attack.” Ronald stared at his hands. “They burned it.”
“Who?” Draven tilted forward. “Who burned what?”
“The Victoires and others, foreign soldiers, witches. An army of mercenaries.” Ronald lifted his eyes to meet Draven’s. “Your royal guards are dead. Normandie Hall is ashes.”
“You must be mistaken.” Draven shook his head violently. “They were all upstairs—”
“After Sorcha and Vir crashed through the window, the entire house imploded.” Ronald bit the inside of his cheek. “Rumor has it that Steven Banitierre survived. I do know that Miss Rayna is on your island. I’ve spoken with her.”
“Julia?” Draven rubbed his face with both hands. “Lily?”
“Both dead.” Ronald frowned. “We should go back to New Orleans.”
“Raimond will be furious with me.”
“Never mind the house, though he did restore it from a ruin into a fortress.”
“But, his family is his whole life. Those girls—”
Draven froze in Ronald’s vacant gaze.
“I’m sorry, sire, about Raimond—”
“No.” Draven’s jaw dropped and his body convulsed. “No, no!” He stared at the flask in his hand and hurled it with enough force to cause a shower of rock dust to fall. “Not Raimond. He would have escaped the fire.”
“Not if he was murdered.”
Draven’s eyes flew open and he flashed in front of Ronald. “By whom?”
“Nicholas Victoire.” Ronald grabbed Draven’s quaking shoulders. “That criminal has seized power in New Orleans. We need to go back.”
“Sorcha will never forgive me. Never. She’ll try to kill me.” Draven staggered again. “Raimond. Are you sure? He’s the strongest…my best—”
“Sorcha won’t try to kill you in New Orleans.”
“She should!” Draven shivered and landed on his knees. “I left her and the whole…all of Raimond’s family to die?”
“Sorcha and Vir escaped, and haven’t been seen since. Rayna said they had help from locals, Crescent magic.” Ronald reached out but pulled his hands back. “Normandie Hall was an ambush. You couldn’t have known.”
“Murder, murder.” Draven slammed his head on the stone floor. “Failure, failure.”
“I want to die!” Draven flew into the jagged rock wall, fell and leapt up to do it again. “Why can’t I die?” He spun to Ronald with black blood streaming down his face.”
“You don’t look right, sire. A little rest, maybe?”
“Such a good man.” Draven patted Ronald’s cheek. “My blood…my son.”
“Whoa.” Ronald flinched. “Take it easy with the crazy eyes.”
Draven grabbed Ronald’s gold dagger and scampered back into the shadows.
“All right.” Ronald reached for the gold and fell back at Draven’s maniacal howl. “Enough of this nonsense. Hand it over.”
“I told you I was done.” Draven’s body shrunk. “It’s over. Put me out of my misery or I’ll do it myself. I swear on the souls of all the deaths I’ve caused.” He collapsed into a writhing heap with the dagger pointed at his own heart.
“I’ll help you, I promise. Just put it down.”
“Make it quick.” Draven nodded, squeezed the blade to his throat hard enough to draw blood, and handed it over. “I’m a coward.”
“You’re no such thing.”
“Don’t tell my father.”
Ronald spun the blade in his fingers.
“Though, we really should tell—”
“Save that thought for later.” He snapped Draven’s neck with military precision. “I’m sure you’ll be a royal pain in my ass when you wake up.” Ronald tucked a blanket around the limp body and drew a ragged breath. “Heal quickly, my prince. Raimond’s family desperately needs you.”
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