Pick Your Poison . . .
Searing pain raced through my nerve endings, lighting them on fire with each jolt of the moving car.
“Where are you taking me?” I bit out through a throat tight with anguish while attempting to shrug the silver net off my body.
I needed to get away, to get to my little bird before that hunter ruined her. She was mine. He had no claim on her.
No one answered me in the dark. The vehicle moved fast, flying across the road with such speed only a vampire could be driving. My own kind came for me. They found me. They were going to make me answer for my crimes.
“Answer me, you fucking asshole,” I yelled into the silence.
Still nothing. The scents all around me were clouded by industrial odors of oil and gasoline, steel and rubber. I couldn’t get a good sense of who it was I was dealing with, but from the words I’d heard before I was tossed into the back of this van, I assumed the council had found me. The council who was instrumental in the deaths of so many before me. Executions of all who were found to be traitors to the throne held by once formidable king, Elias Blackthorne—my father.
I faded in and out of consciousness during the drive, disoriented and miserable. A blinding light burned in my eyes, jolting me back to reality as I was pulled from the back of the van and into a courtyard I knew all too well. Hollybrook. We were standing in the executioner’s circle at Hollybrook estate, home to the vampire council. My stomach curled. They didn’t understand.
“Cashel Blackthorne,” a low voice rumbled. “You stand accused of murder, treason, and treachery upon your own blood. The penalty for these is death. What do you have to say in your defense?”
The silver net was dragged off me, skin going with it in small sizzling patches. I winced, not allowing myself to cry out as my raw body wanted me to. “He was mad. Driven insane by the final stages of sun sickness.”
“And yet you didn’t restrain him. You didn’t do anything to help him.”
My eyes grew accustomed to the surroundings, the effect of the silver dwindling with every passing moment. Seven hooded figures stood around me, all holding swords in their gloved hands. I could smell the deadly metal. A single strike of one of those sterling blades would burn straight through me. There would be no coming back from that.
“Answer, Blackthorne. Answer for your crimes.”
“I did what I could to save him.”
The figure in front of me shook his head. “I can taste the lie on your tongue. The council is well aware of what you did. You took the blood of the sun for yourself. Killed your father and brother. Planned to take the Blackthorne crown.”
Was he right? Possibly. My father had used me for far too long to get what he wanted. He abused Olivia, manipulated me, and there was no telling how far he’d have taken his obsession with breeding her.
“You know nothing,” I spat. My hands balled into fists as anger worked its way to the forefront of my mind.
“Tell us, where is the blood of the sun?”
“I don’t know.”
“You’ve hidden her away. Taken her from all of us for your own devices.”
“I have not.”
“You’d protect her to the death?”
“Kill me if you must, but know this, the hunters have her. There’s no telling what they’ll do with her, but none of it will be good for us.”
He laughed, face still obscured by that damn hood.“Death would be too easy. I intend to make you suffer for your crimes.” He turned his attention from me and focused on the rest of the council. “Take him to the dungeon where he will await the council’s decision and sentencing. We are not done with you yet, Cashel.”
“No!” I screamed the word, fighting for all I was worth as one of the hooded figures came for me. But I was weak. I hadn’t fed in too long and with the damage the silver had done to my body, I was in no shape to stop them. Hands closed around my arms, jerking me toward the forbidding structure that loomed ahead. Before we went inside, they covered my head once more and I was forced to blindly let them lead me.
“Stop struggling, Cashel, you’ll only make this worse.” The vampire hissed the words in my ear. All the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end as a chill ran down my spine. Her voice was familiar. A soft melody on the air. It was a voice I never thought I’d hear again in all my years.
“Eliana?” I whispered.
Her hand stiffened on my arm, a warning. “Don’t speak to me as though you know me, traitor.”
It was her. I’d never forget the sound of her because my guilty heart wouldn’t let me. “You…”
“Are nothing to you. As you are nothing to me.”
Conflicting emotions hit me in a rush. How could she be here? I saw her dead and buried. I caused her suicide. Hadn’t I? But with every step toward my imprisonment, I grew more certain I wasn’t wrong. The vampire escorting me to my cell was the very woman I lost so long ago. The woman I thought I loved until Olivia came into my life.
“You were never nothing.”
She didn’t respond. Her fingers dug into my arms with savage ferocity in reaction instead. For the rest of the long walk down to the dungeon, I remained silent, closing off my mind with every ounce of strength I had. When we reached the cell I knew would be mine, I remained calm, walking inside without a fight. I would escape this place with my life. I had to. Olivia needed me, and I would do anything for her. I had done everything for her.
“You did all the things you should have done for me, Cashel. You loved her. It seems only fitting you should be the one locked in a cage now.” Then slender hands reached up and pushed the hood away from her head. Eliana stared back at me, as beautiful as ever, but haunted. Her large dark eyes burned with hurt. “What is it about her?”
“I can’t…I can’t explain.”
“Does your heart still beat?” Her voice wobbled as she spoke.
“Mine doesn’t. Mine sits silent in my chest. A reminder of what you drove me to.”
I want to apologize, but truly don’t know any words that would be fitting. Her death has weighed heavy on my conscience, coloring every decision I’ve made. “Eliana—”
“Don’t cheapen this with your guilt.”
“How did this happen? You were beyond saving.”
“There was obviously a spark of life left inside me. Enough to turn me. I woke up here.”
She shook her head. “I don’t know who sired me. My first night as a vampire I called for you until my throat was raw. I begged them to let me go to you. I went mad.”
“And now you’re on the council?”
“I have no allegiance. I am loyal to my kind, not my sire. As are all council members.”
I sat on the hard bed, my limbs heavy from injury and hunger combined. “If I’d known—”
She slammed the bars closed and turned the key in the lock. “You’d have left me for her. Or, more likely, you’d have killed me for trying to kill her, because that’s what I’ll do if I find her. She’s ruined you.”
Rage clawed its way up my chest and I rush the bars. “You’ll keep your hands off her. She is mine. No one will touch her.”
Eliana grinned, wicked and cruel twist of her lips unlike any I’d seen from her. “I’m sure she is, but you’re in here. She’s got no one to protect her from us. When I find her, I’m going to make you watch as I drain her dry. I’ll take her blood until there’s no chance she could be turned. Then I’ll give her to you.”
I grabbed the bars and instantly regretted the action. Fire raced through my palms as what looked like iron began to burn its way into my skin.
Eliana tutted. “Silver, my love. Always silver. Can’t have you escaping.” She began to walk away, her long dark hair so reminiscent of Olivia’s it hurt.
“What happened to you, Eliana?”
She turned her gaze over her shoulder. “You happened, Cashel.”
Cashel didn’t come for me. I’d been gone for the last three days and he didn’t come. Everything in me screamed that this had to be wrong, that the hunters at this camp were keeping my scent masked, something had to be keeping us apart. But I knew my vampire could find me if he wanted. He’d had my blood time and time again. He had more of a link to me than anyone. And while three days seemed short in the grand scheme of forever, for Cashel and everything we’d been through, it was an impossible length of time.
“Olivia, are you awake?” Logan’s voice was low and gentle. He treated me with kid gloves, like I might fall to pieces if he raised his volume any higher.
I was on my side, resting on the thin bedroll in the tent I’d been given. I wasn’t sure where we were in relation to Blackthorne manor, or the cabin Cashel had taken me to—the place I’d thought was the beginning of our life together—but we were clearly in the mountains. I hadn’t allowed myself to explore since we’d arrived. I didn’t want to face these humans who so desperately wanted to kill the man I loved.
“Come on. You have to eat. A hunger strike isn’t going to get you anywhere,” he pressed.
“Take me back.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Did you kill him? Is that why he hasn’t come?”
He took my hands and tugged me to standing. “No. I promise.”
His warm brown gaze locked on mine and all I saw was truth. “Maybe he got what he needed from you. It’s not worth coming after you anymore.”
That stung. It was a slap in the face I couldn’t escape because I already had doubts. I took the cup of water he’d placed on the small camp table next to my cot and drank it in one long gulp. My stomach twisted and lurched, but I kept the liquid down.
“Where are we?”
“Our camp. In the Cascades for now. We’ll move on after a few more days. Can’t risk them catching your scent.”
“You still think they’ll come for me?” I couldn’t disguise the hope in my voice.
“Yes. But this time, they won’t be trying to protect you. This time, they’ll kill you for what you did.”
“He won’t let them.”
“You give him too much credit. Cashel is the worst of them all and you’re suffering from Stockholm syndrome. It’s not your fault.”
“I’m not. You don’t know him like I do.” Even to my own ears I sound pathetic. I could defend Cashel until I was blue in the face, but my words would fall flat.
“Have it your way. You’ll see, one day he’ll show his true colors.”
I needed to get away from Logan before I punched him. He didn’t understand. The man was simply trying to save me from a threat that up until recently, I thought was real as well. Cashel and I had something intense and destined. It burned in both of us without rhyme or reason, and I couldn’t deny it even if I tried. But the seed of doubt was there, and if I let him, Logan would cultivate that until it took hold.
Shoving the canvas tent flap aside, I stepped out into the world.
The air was colder here, thinner, and while the estate had been surrounded by thick trees, our encampment was in the middle of a dense forest. At least twenty tents were interspersed between tree trunks, and in the center of our camp was a large fire pit, complete with an iron spit with pots suspended over the flames. I half expected to find a skinned rabbit hanging on the nearest tree. Instead, I found groups of men and women alike participating in target practice with silver blades. They lined up and flung their knives one by one at a tree about the width of a man, each one embedding deep into the bark with heavy thunks that sent shivers down my spine.
“Is this what you all do?”
Logan was right behind me, I felt his presence, his warmth. “We train. Every day. And at night, we hunt them.”
“Wouldn’t it be better to hunt them during the day?”
He laughed and rested a gentle hand on my elbow. “No. Most of them have humans in their thralls, protecting their homes, putting on facades of normal lives. We won’t hurt other humans if we can help it.”
I cross my arms over my chest, my thoughts drifting to the confrontation at Blackthorne Manor. “Your people were going to kill me. Cashel took the bullet meant for me.”
“You were defending them even after watching them slaughter us. In that moment, Pan thought you were beyond saving.”
“So you think it’s fine? You would have let him kill me?” Anger bubbled to the surface. For all his talk of helping me, of saving me from vampires, he would’ve let it go.
“No. If things had been different, I would have stepped in front of that bullet instead of that monster. I would have saved you. You’re special, Olivia. In so many ways.” He turned to me, eyes holding nothing but sincerity. “But you deserve more than someone who might kill you if he has a bad day.”
My gut twisted. “Isn’t that always the case? Violence against women isn’t something isolated to vampires. Plenty of human men kill. That’s why Brenna is dead. It’s why my mother is dead.”
He gripped my hand and brought it close to his chest before pressing it to his heart. “Feel this? This is real. This is human. This is what you should want. A living, breathing man. Your mother isn’t dead because of me. Can you say the same for Cashel? Do you really know?”
A flash of her on the floor of her bedroom, blood drenching the rug, the front of her nightdress, the ragged tear at her throat, all hit me at once and I had to close my eyes against the memory. “It wasn’t him.”
“How do you know?”
“It…it just wasn’t. He wouldn’t lie.”
Logan laughed, low and bitter. “I thought you were smarter than this. I thought you were going to bring them all down and that’s why you went back to him.”
“I was. I killed Elias. What more do you want from me?”
“I want to know you’ll do what it takes to rid the world of vampires. You belong here with us.”
“I won’t help you hurt Cashel. If you can’t see that not all vampires are evil, you’re looking through too narrow of a lens.”
He tugged me forward, not responding to my statement. “Come on. There’s something you need to see. Maybe it will help clear this all up for you.”
We walked through the bramble, the tree branches catching on my clothes with every step until we reached an isolated tent at the top of a hill. From this vantage point I could see the entire camp, laundry lines hung between trees, couples sharing coffee and breakfast at their individual fires. It was all so…human. I’d forgotten what that felt like. I’d spent so much time the pet of the Blackthornes, I forgot how sharing conversation over breakfast used to begin my day.
The dirty cream canvas entrance parted and a tall man with thick, dark hair peppered with gray stepped out. His worn leather jacket and heavy boots made me think he was a biker in another life. He had a kind face though. Soft but with rough edges.
“Olivia, this is Hector Legunas, our leader.”
Hector looked me over, his gaze heavy but he didn’t look at me like I was a piece of meat, a prize, or even something he could play with. Hector looked at me like I was a person. He smiled, holding out a hand and making me feel like I was safe and where I belonged all in one gesture.
“We’re so glad you’re here, Olivia.”
I took his offer of a handshake, his large, warm palm engulfing my smaller one completely. “It wasn’t much of a choice. Logan threatened someone I care about.”
“Logan threatened a vampire who was holding you hostage.”
“He wasn’t holding me hostage…anymore.”
Hector shook his head and sighed. “I think it’s time for you to see the truth of Cashel Blackthorne’s betrayal, Olivia.”
“What are you talking about?”
He held out a hand and cocked his head toward the tent. “Come inside so I can tell you everything.”
I hesitated, not trusting anyone anymore. “I’m not an idiot. You could do anything in there.”
“I promise, I won’t hurt you.”
A laugh left my mouth before I could stop it. “I’ve heard that one before.”
He turned to the flaps of the tent and rolled each one up until the interior was completely visible from outside. “You’re free to leave whenever you want. I’m not going to force you to do anything. But if you give me a chance, I’ll show you the truth Cashel has been hiding from you.”
“If I’m right, you’re so clouded under the power of his compulsion, you don’t have any clue how much he’s influenced your mind. I’m going to break that and raise the curtain so you can see the truth. Then you can make your decision with a clear mind.”
My mind drifted to the conversation Logan and I had in the cabin. “It should hurt every time…” I whispered the words.
“See, part of you already knows. Come on. Let me show you. Don’t make your choice until you have all the information.”
Taking a heavy breath, I nodded and stepped inside the large tent, ready to find the truth.