She turned on Francesca with a hiss. "Don't you dare start on me. I thought you were my friend."
"I am your friend."
"Bullshit! You lied to me. Deceived me. You knew how I felt about Velkan and yet you never once told me that you serve him."
Francesca glared at her. "Yes, Retta. Prince Velkan sent me to watch over you because he was afraid for you to be alone. As you've said repeatedly over the centuries, you were young and naive. You spent the whole of your life behind a convent wall. The last thing he wanted was for you to be hurt again, so I was charged with your care. Is that really a crime after all we've been through together?"
"I didn't need a babysitter. How could you play both sides of the fence when you knew how much I hated him?"
Those blue eyes singed her with sincerity. "I never played you. Okay, so I didn't mention that he'd sent me to stay with you originally. So what? We are friends."
"Uh-huh. Friends don't lie to each other."
"You said you never met him."
"She has never met him," Raluca said quietly. "I am the one who sent my daughter after you at the prince's request. She was the one closest to your area when you left here. But Francesca has never met His Highness. Not once."
That made Retta feel better than she wanted to admit, but still it didn't rectify any of this.
They'd all deceived her and she was too tired to play this game anymore. "It doesn't matter.
I'm going home."
Andrei blocked her way again. "You are home, Princess."
"Like hell." She feinted to the right, then rushed left, past him.
He caught her in his arms before she could make it to the door.
"I don't want to hurt you, Andrei, but so help me, I will."
Before he complied, Francesca went to the door and locked it with a key. "You're not leaving."
"Look, spew at me all you want, but you need to be aware of why I brought you here."
Retta crossed her arms over her chest. "Let me guess. Velkan wants to see me?"
"No," Raluca said, joining them. "The only thing His Highness would like to see in regards to you, Princess, is your disembowelment."
Now that surprised her. "Since when?"
It was Andrei who answered. "Since about halfway through the sixteenth century when it became obvious that you had no intention of returning. He's been cursing your name ever since. Loudly, too, I might add."
Raluca nodded eagerly.
For some reason Retta didn't want to think about, that actually hurt her feelings. She'd assumed that all of his attempts to besmirch her father's name and reputation had been his way of getting her to contact him. Of course, she'd had no intention of ever doing that since she still wasn't convinced he hadn't intended to kill her the night he'd given her his sleeping potion.
"Then why am I here?"
Andrei took a deep breath before he answered. "Because of Stephen Corwin."
She was baffled by the name. How in the world could he fit into this madness? "The investment broker?"
"Among other things," Francesca said. "Remember when I told you I had a weird feeling about him?"
"You have weird feelings all the time. Nine times out of ten, they're attributable to either pizza or spoiled beer."
Francesca gave her an unamused stare. "Yeah, right. Remember when I told you that his scent bothered me? That I couldn't place it? Well, I did some checking and it turns out he's a member of the Order of the Dragon. Sound familiar?"
Retta rolled her eyes. Both her father and grandfather had been members. Their epitaphs of Dracul and Dracula had stemmed from their membership. "That order ceased to exist not long after Velkan killed my father."
Raluca shook her head. "No, Princess, it didn't. They merely went underground and wanted the rest of the world to think that. It was a cousin to Mathhias Corvinus who lost his wife to a Daimon. Horrified by the demon who claimed her life and soul, he reestablished the order to purge the world of the undead. They went on a killing spree of Daimons, and he called for his brethren to help him. But they didn't stop there. They killed our people and countless Dark-Hunters as well. They don't distinguish between us. To them, one preternatural being is the same as the other and all of us should be exterminated. Even now, centuries later, they hunt us without discrimination, brutally slaughtering all they find."
Retta felt terrible about that, but it still didn't explain why they wanted her to stay here. "What has this to do with me?"
Francesca took a deep breath before she answered. "I think Stephen was sent to kill you."
Retta scowled at her friend. "Are you insane? There's no way."
"Remember the tattoo on his arm you told me about? The one of a dragon coiled around the cross? It's their emblem. He's one of them, Ret, trust me."
"Trust you? After all these centuries when you were lying to me? Think again. Stephen wouldn't hurt me. He's had ample time to try."
Francesca gave her a deep, meaningful stare. "Are you sure?"
Retta hesitated, then hated herself for it. Stephen had never once given her an indication that he was anything more than an acquaintance who wanted to be more significant in her life. But since she was still technically married and an immortal, she'd kept him at bay. "Of course I'm sure."
"Then why has he been sniffing around you?" Francesca asked coldly.
"Because maybe he likes me?"
"Or he was trying to use you to get to Prince Velkan," Raluca said. "That has been my theory. It is why the prince made sure that all mentions of you and your mother were purged from historical records. He didn't want anyone to learn that Vlad Dracula had a daughter, and most especially he didn't want them to know that you had married him. He knew that the order would pursue you to the ends of the earth if they ever learned of your existence."
"It makes sense," Andrei added. "The Corvinuses and the Danestis have a long history of bad blood between them."
Still Retta discounted their argument. "This is not the Middle Ages, people. In case you haven't noticed, the wars are over."
"No," Andrei said, glancing past her, toward the door. "I think the war is only beginning."
Frowning at his dire tone, she turned her head to see what had his attention.
Her heart stopped beating as she saw the tall figure dressed in black armor, complete with helm and heraldry.
It was Velkan's.And he was heading straight for her.
Retta couldn't so much as draw a breath as Raluca opened the door and Velkan swaggered in. At six foot four, he'd seemed like a giant to her when she'd been human. And again, she remembered the first time she'd seen him. Blood had coated that black armor. The blood of those out to rape and kill her. She could still recall the sound of steel scraping steel as he moved. The sight of his dexterity even though every inch of his body had been covered by armor.
More than that, she remembered the beauty of his face… the tenderness of his callused hands as they caressed her bare skin. The way he'd held her as if she were unspeakably precious, as if he feared she would shatter in his arms and leave him alone again.
Those memories surged and buried all the anger and hatred she'd nursed against him.
There for a moment, she wanted to go back to the beginning of their marriage. Back to the days when she had lived and died for this man. When she had trusted him without question.
He had been her entire world.
She'd known this moment would come, and in her mind she'd practiced a thousand things to say to him.
A thousand and then some.
But every one of them fled her memory as he approached her and some foreign part wanted to embrace him after all these centuries. She wanted to rush into his arms and just feel him hold her again.
She'd expected him to curse her or kiss her. To stare at her as if he couldn't believe she was here. To try to strangle her. Something. Anything. But in all her imagined scenarios nothing had come close to what he did next.
He walked right past her as if he didn't know her and seized Francesca in a fierce hug before he danced around the room with her.
Baffled, Retta put her hands on her hips as a wave of rage whipped through her body. How dare he grab another woman and not even acknowledge her! She opened her mouth to speak only to be hushed as the knight started laughing in a tone that was nothing like Velkan's. It was light and almost boyish.
"Oh, my little sister! It's been far too long since I last saw you. How have you been?"
"Viktor," Raluca said with a laugh. "Put Francesca down before you bruise her."
Francesca pulled the bird-shaped helm from his head, exposing his laughing features, as opposed to Velkan's serious countenance. With brown hair and teasing blue eyes, Viktor quickly complied with his mother's orders and set Francesca back on her feet. Laughing, she hugged him close while Retta let out a long breath.
That had been close. Too close in fact and it made her realize that she didn't want to meet Velkan on his terms. She needed to make sure that she had control of their first meeting.
That her emotions and body didn't betray her again.
"It's so good to see you," Francesca laughed at her brother. "I've missed you so much."
And those words tugged at Retta's heart as she saw the affection her best friend shared with her family. Retta's own brothers had died hundreds of years ago, as had their entire lineage. There was no joyous homecoming for her. No parents.
That hurt most of all.
Viktor paused as he realized that they weren't alone. "Princess Esperetta?"
"Yes," Raluca answered for her.
Panic flickered in his blue eyes. "We must get her out of here before the prince sees her."
Finally someone who actually saw reason.
Raluca waved his words away. "He won't come here this early."
Viktor shook his head in denial. "She can stay the night, but come the morrow, she needs to leave before he learns that she is here."
Francesca argued with him, "I brought her here for protection. She must stay."
"No," Retta said, growing tired of the way they spoke about her like she was a lost puppy who was out in the garage. "I came here because Velkan is planning on putting my father's remains on display."
They exchanged a puzzled frown as Francesca turned a bit sheepish.
Absolute rage tore through Retta's entire being. "Don't tell me you lied."
Francesca cringed. "Only a little. I knew if I told you that, that it was the one thing that would get you to leave Chicago."
In all her life, Retta had never been more livid. "Unbelievable! Un-friggin'-believable. How could you do such a thing?"
Francesca was completely unrepentant. "I did it to protect you."
Retta held her hand up as pure disgust filled her. "Thanks, Frankie. It's not like I have a life as well as clients who need me."
"You can't have clients if you're dead. Besides, Trish is handling them. They won't even miss you."
"Save me the bullshit." She looked at Viktor. "Get me a cab and I'm out of here. Right now."
He started for the counter.
"Viktor," Raluca said in a thick, drawn-out accent. "Touch that phone and you will regret it for the rest of your existence."
He arched both brows as he froze in place. "But Mother… the prince will—"
"I will deal with the prince. You need to prepare yourself for the tour. Now go."
Retta could tell he wanted to argue but didn't dare. Instead, he cast a sullen look her way before he complied with his mother's orders.
"Where is Velkan?" Retta asked Raluca.
"Not to be flippant, Princess, but he is wherever it is he wishes to be."
"You won't tell me?"
Raluca hesitated before she answered. "I will not allow you to blindside him in his home after all he has suffered for you, Princess. I know of your feelings toward him from my daughter."
"And still you side with him?"
Raluca's gaze went toward the blunted spike tip on the wall. "I will protect His Highness with every breath I hold in my body. But for him, I would have been impaled, too." And with those words spoken, she turned around and left Retta alone with Francesca and Andrei.
Retta gave Andrei an expectant look.
"He will be in the Bloody Dungeon later."