Holly couldn't look back over their relationship and know if anything was real. How could he have left me behind -

When Nïx cleared her throat, Holly realized that she'd spaced as badly as her aunt usually did.

"Something on your mind, dearling?"

"Um...no, everything's great. Thanks for checking on me."

"I'm really glad you like it here." Nix smiled blankly. "But now you have to move."

49

He was nervous as he pulled into Rydstrom's estate. Why hadn't his brother called anyone to let them know he'd escaped? Cade's mind ran riot with theories.

Had Rydstrom been tortured? Had they done something to him so horrific that he was unable to face others?

Cade parked his old truck - which still chugged along despite water damage and bullet holes. With a glower, he collected the sword. He despised it, and was happy for the chance to get it away from him.

As he approached the main house, he noticed that all the shades were drawn. But as soon as Cade went to unlock the side door, Rydstrom cracked it open. He wore no shirt or shoes and was buttoning up his jeans as if he'd just slung them on.

Cade's brows rose at the sight of him. "Rydstrom?"

Advertisement..

His brother was...changed.

There was a mean set to his clenched jaw that had never been there before. The rigid muscles in his neck and shoulders were bunched with tension. His eyes were narrowed, and they looked crazed.

Four thin lines of blood ran down his chest and across his scarred cheek - as if someone had raked nails over his skin.

What the hell was going on? And what was done to him to make him like this?

"Are you going to make me stand out here all afternoon? Open the door."

His brother made no move to, only glanced back over his shoulder into the house.

"Rydstrom, you're worrying me, man. Let me in, and tell me what happened. The last I heard was that you'd been captured by Sabine."

No response.

"Were you taken to Tornin? Did you fight Omort to escape?"

Rydstrom finally shook his head.

"Then how the hell did you get free? No one escapes Tornin."

"I had an ace in my pocket," he said, his voice rough.

"You don't sound good. Are you all right?"

"I will be." Rydstrom looked back over his shoulder again. "Soon."

"I got the sword," Cade said, offering it to him. "Killed Groot, too."

Rydstrom nodded, accepting the weapon without interest, barely sparing it a glance.

Cade was confounded, saying slowly, "That's the sword that will defeat Omort."

"We go to war in the spring," Rydstrom grated. "Be ready."

"That's all you've got to say? So much for abject gratitude, or even a pat on the back." Cade's temper spiked. "If you knew what I went through to get to that goddamned thing, what I put my female through...Oh, and if you haven't noticed, your Veyron's missing, and it's never f**king coming home - "

"Is someone out there?" a woman suddenly screamed from inside. "Oh, God, help me!"

Cade distinctly heard a mattress squeaking.

And the rattling of chains.

"I'm being held against my will!"

His jaw dropped. "Is that...Sabine?" Had Rydstrom used his captor to escape? "Was she your ace?"

"Please help me!" she shrieked at the top of her lungs.

Rydstrom peered at him hard with those crazed eyes, as if he dared Cade to do something.

Striving for a casual tone, Cade said, "So, you've got an evil sorceress chained up in your bed, then?"

And he'd had no clothes on earlier.

"She's mine," Rydstrom seethed. "I'll do whatever the f**k I want to her. And it's nothing that wasn't done to me." His massive fists clenched.

"Hey, hey, no need to slug me, brother. To each his own, yeah?" Had Sabine done such a number on the noble-minded, kingly Rydstrom that he considered this a good idea? If so, then maybe a little tit for tat was in order.

"Once I'm done with her, I'll contact you." When Rydstrom shut the door, Cade stared at it for long moments.

At length, he turned for the steps. "Fuckall," he said on a stunned breath. Does this mean I'm no longer the bad brother...?

"You're really kicking me out?" Holly asked Nïx.

They were on their way to look at a home for sale, one that would be "perfect for Holly and the vamon."

"You can't raise a kid at Val Hall," Nïx said. "The lightning danger alone would make it mortally prohibitive."

Holly had gone along with her, too wearied to put up a fight. She'd even agreed to ride in Nïx's Bentley, which was still a mess. Though the clutter still affected her, it didn't bother Holly quite as much as before. "You got rid of the C-4?"

"Oh, gods, yes. That same night, too." She sighed. "Good times."

"How much farther is it?" Holly asked. It was late afternoon, and the winter sun would set in an hour. "We're already twenty minutes out of the parish."

"And we're already here," Nix said, turning into a gated entrance that opened at her approach.

Lined with oaks and magnolias, the drive was winding - and long. "How many acres is this?"

"I dunno. I'm thinking plus-or-minus lots and lots." When the drive opened up, Holly's lips parted. The estate was breathtaking.

Rich landscaping surrounded a three-story, cream-colored mansion. Built in the French Colonial style with steeply pitched slate roofs and arched dormers, it had galleries that ran along the front and sides, with ornate wrought iron rails in glossy black. Three-story-high Doric columns flanked the front entrance.

"It's called Nine Oaks." On each side of the mansion were three ancient oaks, with presumably three in the back. "It's got twelve rooms. Several potential nurseries."

It was weird to talk about things like nurseries. Weirder still: the fact that Holly actually needed one. Meh.

"What do you think?" Nïx asked, as she parked in front of the entry walk.

"It's amazing," Holly said honestly. A crisp breeze was blowing, fanning the damp banana trees and palms. "But don't you think it's a bit grand for me and one kid? The loft would be better."

"This feels like a great place to raise a vamon, no? Well, we're here, we might as well look around."

With a shrug, Holly followed her up the bricked walkway. It split, curving around a fountain - that had nine sprays of water.

They climbed up the six stairs to the porch and found the door was unlocked. "We can just walk in?" Holly asked.