Ever since morpho hit, Synjon had enjoyed the feeling of flashing. Flying in wind, the rush of air and speed, going anywhere he wanted-just as long as the sun wasn’t out. But as he moved from one country to the next, one city to the other, in search of his bride, he began to despise it. Bronwyn felt as far away as a lost thought now, and the tiny scraps of information he’d been able to gather from his many sources regarding Cruen and his whereabouts had made his mood foul, to say the least.
He touched down in a London street near Big Ben, hitting the pavement and walking away so fast that the mere mortals around him saw nothing but a breeze ruffling a few stray bits of garbage into the street. He was meeting with a female contact-an Impure he’d known for several decades, who was in the spy game like him. Most vampires looking for information went to the Eyes, but Syn didn’t trust those rats anymore. They were greedy little peckerheads with no sense of loyalty.
He spotted her on a park bench reading the London Times, her long red fingernails grasping the paper with a fierceness he understood. He slid down beside her and heard her inhale slightly.
“Need to be quick about this, Celestine,” he said.
“I’ve never seen you so tense, Synjon Wise.” She turned to him then and laughed, her blue eyes and oval face framed by long black hair.
“I’ve got a serious problem, or haven’t you heard?”
She smiled, her teeth and fangs the color of the moon over their heads. “I know whom you seek, and why. This paven is a difficult one to locate.”
“Yes, I’m starting to realize that.”
“However,” she said, still holding her newspaper aloft, “difficult does not mean impossible.”
Syn lifted one eyebrow. The woman may have appeared soft and gentle, but she was a tiger with terrible claws when she needed to be. “What can you tell me? Do you have the location of his laboratory?”
She leaned in closer, her breath scented with cinnamon and cloves. “I will give it to you with a warning. In this hunt, you may go looking for the thing you think you want, yet end up with the thing you hate.”
The way she spoke, the language of prophecy, had never bothered him before. Probably because her predictions had never been aimed at him before.
But he didn’t have time to heed her warnings-if that’s what they were. Bronwyn was out there, waiting for him to come to her rescue, and he was growing more apprehensive by the moment that he wouldn’t succeed. Just as he hadn’t succeeded with the last female who’d needed his care.
He stood. “The location now, Cellie dear. I must fly.”
Bronwyn was careful to remain close to the guards when they landed in the middle of a wild and beautiful countryside under the bright light of the moon. Somewhere in the distance, she heard the sounds of the sea and she wondered just where the Order had planted them.
“They’ve got to be kidding,” she heard Lucian growl, his voice filled with ire as he attempted to turn his pain-laced frame around, but was halted by the shackles that connected him to one of the guards. “I’m going to ring their ancient necks the moment I see them again.”
“What’s wrong?” Bronwyn asked, taking in the site before her, trying to see what was so vile to him. But she didn’t. The area was rural to be sure, with vast lands and heavily dotted with mature pine trees that stretched to the sky, but it was undeniably lovely, scented with earth and forest and clean life.
To their right, a dirt path stretched out like a garden snake before them, going so far into the distance the moonlight was no longer sufficient at showing her the way. But in this serene oasis, Lucian could see nothing beautiful. The poor paven vibrated with agitation so deep that he snarled both at her and the two guards bracketing him.
“This isn’t going to happen,” he said, his eyes wild, his fingers clenched and curled as a breeze picked up around them, sending his white hair across his chiseled face. “Take me back. Now!”
“This is the safest place for you, sir,” one of the guards said, his tone without sympathy.
“That is complete bullshit, Bel,” Lucian raged at the male. “I cannot imagine a worse credenti to drop my soon-to-be Breeding Male ass in. If you don’t take me back, I’ll have her do it.” He nodded at Bronwyn.
The black-haired, black-eyed guard said nothing, just stared at his employer, waiting for him to act or give an order that he could actually follow without risking the wrath of the ancient rulers of their breed. After all, the Order had given into Lucian’s demand, and agreed to allow the Romans’ own guards to accompany them, just as long as Lucian was contained, chained.
“What’s wrong with you?” Bronwyn asked him, totally confused by his hatred of their surroundings. “This is beautiful, and completely isolated.”
“Oh, nothing’s wrong, Princess,” Lucian muttered sarcastically, gripping his stomach. “It’s a perfect spot. It’s just great to be home.”
Bronwyn’s eyes widened. “Home? You mean…this is where…”
He cursed again. “That’s right. Where I took my first steps-where I took my first fist to the head and fangs to the neck. Welcome to motherfucking Banchory, Scotland.”
“Oh dear,” Bronwyn said, then turned to the guards. “What is the Order trying to prove with this? Did they tell you when they prepped you for the journey?”
Bel, the one guard who seemed to be the designated speaker explained. “According the Order, there is a natural defense against being found if you are in the credenti of your birth. According to the Order, he will be more protected here than anywhere else.”
Lucian grunted. “Bullshit.”
“The Order said they can anchor him here,” the guard continued, undeterred by Lucian’s ranting. “Where his body, his cells began.”
A hand reached out and grabbed Bronwyn’s wrist, and she gasped, but it was only Lucian. His eyes looked ghostly and desperate in the pale light. “Flash me back to the caves, Princess.”
Bronwyn stilled, her eyes locked with his. She hated seeing him like this, begging and so deep in pain. She hated seeing the past in his eyes. She knew his request had nothing to do with getting back home, getting himself caught and going after Cruen. This was about memories he had no desire to relive.
It was no shock to her that his early years had been rough ones, unhappy ones. With the stigma of who and what his father was, the teasing and torment from the “normal” balas must have been overwhelming. That was how it was for most Breeding Male offspring, she knew. And yet she was going to refuse to help him escape this new prison. It was ugly and unfair, but it was for his own protection. She wouldn’t let him be hunted, not like this-not defenseless. Alexander and Nicholas must have known where they were headed, and if they believed their brother was better off in the credenti of his birth, she would trust that.
She shook her head. “No, Luca.”
He closed his eyes and groaned. “Don’t call me that. Not if you’re going to deny me.”
She wouldn’t let him change her mind. “I’m denying you only this, the sure path to your demise. It’s only for a few days.”
“Come. Your cottage is this way,” Bel said, his hand close to Bronwyn’s back as he intended to get them moving.
Too close to Bronwyn’s back apparently. Lucian struck out at the male, his arm slashing, his fangs extending.
“Touch her again and I will rip the head from your body,” he snarled wildly. “No one touches her. Not you.” His eyes shrank. “Not me.”
Regret mingled with relief in Bronwyn’s blood. She wasn’t sure what awaited them during their stay here, but her fear didn’t stem from his attack, the Breeding Male’s attack. Not yet. Or perhaps not ever. It was the flash of heat in his eyes, the memory of his touch. And the acceptance and understanding that it would never happen again. Frustrated, she could only say, “Lucian, please.” And motion for him to walk with her. “Let’s go.”
The four of them pushed on, moving along the snake-shaped path, then up a hill and over as Lucian’s breathing sounded far too labored for her comfort.
“This is more isolated than I was hoping,” Bronwyn remarked drily, worried about Lucian’s state of health as he endured the change. “Are we still in the credenti?”
“The outskirts,” Lucian uttered, moving slowly and arduously, shaking his head every few minutes, perhaps to clear his vision. “Do they know?”
“Who?” Bronwyn said. Did he mean his family, the members of the credenti? Her concern for his mental stability jumped. It had to be devastating to come to this place as the reviled Breeding Male.
Lucian sneered at Bel and the other guard. “Do they know? Did the Order inform my kin I’m coming?”
The guard nodded sedately. “Yes.”
Cursing, Lucian stopped and doubled over, catching his breath. “Why the fuck don’t we flash closer?”
“The Order has put charms around the property that stretch far. We can only go by foot until our blood is given at the gates.”
“Fine,” Lucian said, clearly in pain. “How much farther, then?”
“I can carry you if that would be more comfortable, sir,” the guard said.
Lucian jerked upright, defiance radiating from his gaze. “No fucking way, Bel. Just keep your trap shut and your feet moving.”
They continued on for another few minutes and from the way Lucian groaned and gasped every step, Bronwyn knew he was near collapse. Her poor paven, she thought, then quickly realized he was not hers at all, and never would be. Her paven was missing, no doubt searching for her. Lord, she’d wanted so much to leave word for Syn with the Order, with her parents-and yet she couldn’t. Not if they were going to keep up this ruse and not attract suspicion.
A white fence appeared to her right, glowing brilliant and comforting under the moon. It stretched far into the distance, and they followed it all the way to a large clearing. It was lovely and ethereal in the evening light, and if it were any other moment in time, Bron would hope for fairies to appear, to rise from the field of thick, sweet-smelling grassland.
But the magic of the moment was vampire-made only, and when they came to a stone pillar shooting out of the ground, the guards were the first to stop and begin the ritual.
“We must use our blood to enter,” Bel informed them. “As the Order instructed.”
Each guard bit into their wrists and ran their red blood over the top of the pillar.
“Mistress Kettler.” Bel gestured for her to come forward. “If you please.”
“What about me?” Lucian rasped behind her.
“You do not need to bleed to enter, sir.” Bel bowed his head just a fraction. “The Order said it is your birthright.”
“My birthright,” Lucian said caustically. “I don’t want it. No choice in coming out of my dam here, no choice in coming back in.”
Bronwyn did as she was instructed, bit into her wrist and let the blood flow before pressing it over the cold stone.
“Oh,” she gasped as before her eyes the gates parted and a blanket of mist swirled, then evaporated in thin air. A few acres of grassland sloped to a hillock, and on the top sat a lovely one-story stone cottage. Torches were lit in several spots around the property, alighting the rustic home and the small loch in the distance.
Bronwyn glanced over at Lucian to see if he too was seeing what she was seeing, the charming little house on the hill. But his face was a mask of pain and disgust. Clearly the only thing he saw was his past coming back to haunt him.
The guards moved forward with them, and they crossed the large expanse of grounds, entering the cottage fast and furious. It was cold and dank inside, but there was plenty of firewood stacked in one corner of the moderately spacious room. Bronwyn had expected the place to be updated somewhat with all the amenities of the twenty-first century, as most homes were these days, but it wasn’t. Everything was ancient, from the furnishings to the homemade candles to the windows and their coverings. Granted, she had lived in a credenti that was more on the modern side, but she understood and respected the communities that embraced the old ways.
A massive fireplace took up one wall, and before it a long table and several chairs.
“He must remain tethered,” Bel said to her, nodding toward the corner by the fireplace.
It was a dark corner she hadn’t noticed before and as she walked toward it, she saw that the cottage was indeed a living, breathing thing from the past. There on a stone wall behind the hearth were two sets of chains and shackles.
Bronwyn covered her mouth. Was this really his fate? She had known in the abstract that this was what they had to do to keep him contained and safe and unable to harm anyone until help could be given, but to see the actual chains made it so horribly real.
“Yes, tie me up,” Lucian called behind her like a drunken man. “Tie me up and never release me.”
Turning, Bronwyn addressed the guards. “Perhaps we can wait until he…”
“Until I what, Princess?” Lucian interrupted blackly, stumbling over to the mantel and holding on for dear life. “Until I drag you beneath me and fuck you senseless… not stopping until you’re swelling with my seed?”
She shook her head at him. “Do you have to be so crude all the time?”
“Fuck yes!” he returned, then sucked air through his teeth. “It’s all I have. All that makes me me-still me…” He cursed and grabbed his belly. “My eyes aren’t clear. My head too…” He groaned. “My fucking head is breaking.”
“It is important that he is contained now,” Bel said to her. “He knows it.”
“Yes, he does,” whispered Lucian, his eyes flipping up and his foggy gaze trying to hold on to her, trying to hold her captive. “He knows what’s coming for you, for all of you-“
He went down like a stone, his body crumpling into a ball at the base of the fireplace.
“Lucian!” Bronwyn screamed. She ran to him, knelt beside him. Goddamn it, this was wrong, all wrong. He was a bastard, an asshole-a warrior. Not this male being tortured from the inside out. Not this paven who was being taken against his will…
She touched his face, patted the cold, clammy skin of his cheeks, but there was no reaction. He was completely passed out now, the pain no doubt having gotten the best of him.
“It’s better this way, Mistress Kettler,” Bel said softly. “He won’t fight us or his bindings now.”
“He wouldn’t have fought,” Bronwyn said, but she knew that wasn’t true-even though he may have known it was the right thing. Lucian was the epitome of a fighter.
The guard who had said nothing on their journey went to the fireplace and picked up Lucian, carried him over to the chains.
“Go, mistress,” said Bel, his eyes urging her not to remain and watch. “Find your quarters while we ready the room for him.”
“I…” She shook her head, but her eyes were fixed on his still frame. “I can’t…”
“He will be all right. We have a pallet for him to lie on, and he will have the constant warmth of the fire here.”
Her eyes broke with tears. For Lucian, for his future…and yes, for herself. Her life’s work…a foolish pursuit to avoid this very moment-a moment that she had walked into so freely. She had to look at herself now, and her lifelong hatred of the Breeding Male: all stupidity and fear, and a refusal to investigate further. God, she’d never realized that the creature she had reviled had once been a paven whose life had been ripped from him, his body and mind forced into an animalistic state. In truth, wasn’t he just as much a victim as her sister?
Perhaps it was time for her to use her work in a different way. If she could find a way to help him, use her results, her skills…use the research and information she had already gleaned from her private client-from Cruen…
“It is best to get him shackled now, mistress, please,” Bel said, interrupting her thoughts. “When he wakes, he may have completed the change.”
The guard’s words sank deep into Bronwyn’s mind, her heart, her guts. Perhaps it wouldn’t be the best thing for Lucian to see her when he woke, if that was the case. She didn’t want him hurting himself further.
She nodded and left the living area, headed down the hallway. Perhaps it would be a mistake to see him after the change, to get too close-but she, and her body, had unleashed this beast inside him, and she would care for him until she knew if he would ever have the chance to be a paven, her pain-in-the-ass paven, again.
Alexander and Nicholas stood at the mouth of the cave in the Hollow of Shadows. Letting their brother go, to be taken to his despised homeland where he would be chained and force-fed blood, while they searched for the monster who had turned him into the Breeding Male before his time, had made them both so angry, so vile-tempered, so on edge, they knew they’d better wait to venture home to their mates. Wait until their control returned.
“He will be all right.”
Or, Alexander mused, perhaps they needed to unleash some of that ire on the one who deserved it. Whirling around to face the ancient paven who had orchestrated the safe house and the transport to Scotland, Alexander snarled, “Will he? Will he be ‘all right’?”
Titus nodded, though his eyes were uneasy.
“And by all right,” Nicholas said, following his brother to stand before Titus and entering in the question-and-answer portion of their tirade, “do you mean he will go easily and gently into the Breeding Male state? Or is there more of this pain coming, long and arduous?”
“Pray, step back.” When they did no such thing, Titus sighed. “The pain is a curse, but it is not brought on by my hand.”
“No, not your hand,” Nicholas tossed out. “More like your cock.”
A low growl sounded from Titus’s throat. “There is no call for this, my son-“
“No.” Nicholas stuck a finger in the ancient one’s face. “Don’t you dare.”
“I was made into the Breeding Male,” Titus defended, his back close to the mouth of the cave. “I had no choice. I had no choice when it came to the females who were put before me. Your brother will understand this-“
“Our brother,” Nicholas said tightly, “will understand nothing when the gene completes its hold on him-and you know it.”
Alexander lifted his chin, asked, “Why didn’t you tell him, Titus?”
“I did tell him,” Titus said defensively, almost emotionally. “He knew the risks if he bedded the veana who had drunk from him.”
“No. Not that,” he snarled, fighting to get enough control to even speak. “Why didn’t you warn him of how this transition would be? The pain? The ongoing, tormenting pain?”
That made Titus pause. Alexander watched as the question went through the old paven’s mind, watched his eyes appear suddenly grieved; then he said softly, “What would’ve been the point?”
“He had a right to know!” Nicholas raged. “We all had a right to know the hellacious agony we would have to see him endure! There is no more point than that!”
Titus shook his head. “I didn’t think-“
“No, you don’t think,” Alexander said, moving closer, moving in. “I’m starting to believe you don’t really care either.”
“That is not true.”
Even if it had been only a fraction, they had begun to trust this paven, and now Lucian was paying the price. “I’m starting to think your motivations for helping him aren’t even remotely pure.”
Titus took a step back. “You can’t understand.”
Undeterred, Alexander kept at it. “The fact that your assistance seems to be inconsistent at best is suspect.” He cocked his head in his brother’s direction. “Don’t you agree, Duro?”
Nicholas nodded. “Abso-fucking-lutely.”
Titus found his voice. “I do what I am able to do.”
Nicholas snorted with derision. “Well, what you’re able to do isn’t cutting it, Dad.”
Nearly on top of his father now, Alexander asked, “Why are you a member of the Order?”
Lifting his chin, Titus warned, “Have a care, Paven.”
But Alexander was undeterred. “Perhaps the better question is, how are you a member of the Order?”
“I am one of the ten, one of the Eternal Order,” Titus said brusquely. “And that is all the answer you will be given.”
“Wrong. I need to know how the hell a Breeding Male defies his cursed gene, gains a sane mind and control of his body to ascend to the Order. That is what I need to know.” Alexander watched Titus’s eyes widen. “Did they cure you of your need to fuck anything in a skirt? Does this antidote really exist?”
Right beside his brother in both space and thought, Nicholas added, “And if it does, why the hell haven’t you given that magic pill to Lucian?”
A flicker of panic lit the ancient paven’s eyes before they went cold and dead. “I know of no antidote.”
Alexander leaped on the evasion. “But Cruen does, doesn’t he?”
Titus lifted his chin. “The Order has no idea where Cruen is. It is why we recruited your help-“
“This isn’t about the Order, Pops,” Nicholas said with venom. “This is about you. Do you know where Cruen is?”
Titus looked away, but his voice was level. “Ridiculous. If I did, I would inform the Order.”
Alexander sneered. “See that, Duro? The way our father won’t look us in the eyes?”
“He’s lying, covering his ass,” Nicholas said with a bitter chuckle. “He doesn’t give a shit about Lucian. Never did. Or he’d tell us where to find Cruen.”
Alexander pinned Titus with his glare. “Maybe it’s time we go to the Order with our suspicions. They might be interested in helping us learn what he’s hiding.”
“I’m all over that,” Nicholas said with a false bright smile. “And hey, we’re right here at the Hollow. No time like the present to send Daddy dear down the river like he did Lu-“
“Fine! You want Cruen so badly,” Titus interrupted fiercely, his eyes too large, his fangs dropped low, “why don’t you ask your little friend Dillon to take you to him?”
The moment the words were out of his mouth, Titus went as white as the small patches of snow still littered in the grass at their feet.
Alexander grabbed him by the throat. “What did you say?”
“You’re not going anywhere!”
But Titus was gone in an instant, flashed away from the Hollow of Shadows, flashed out from under Alexander Roman’s vise grip.
Alexander whirled around to face his brother, whose black eyes were heavy with confusion and concern.
“What the hell is going on?” he said. “What did he mean by that?”
Alexander shook his head calmly, but his insides were a raging sea of anxiety. Why would Titus mention Dillon? How would he even know her name? “Let’s get back to our mates.”
It was the last thing they uttered before flashing from the caves, the Hollow, and the memory of their brother’s face as he went to his fate.