No longer in the manor, she found herself in the small cottage where she’d taken refuge with Velkan after their families had learned of their marriage. His family had disowned him and her father had vowed to see Velkan dead. And it’d been her father who’d found them first.
Completely disembodied, she stood in the corner where she could watch Velkan, who was kneeling beside her comatose body. Because they were in hiding, he didn’t wear the armor of a warrior. He was dressed in a simple tunic and hose. To her utter shock, there were tears in his eyes as he held her hand in his and kissed her fingertips. She’d never seen him look so vulnerable.
“I won’t let anyone hurt you,” he whispered, lowering her hand from his face. “Raluca will see you safe for me. Please don’t be angry that I’m leaving you. It’s the only way I know to free you to live the life you deserve.” He rose up so that his lips were only an inch above her own. “I love you, Esperetta. Always.” And then he pressed his lips to hers before he tore away with a growl.
Still, she saw the lone tear that slid from the corner of his eye, down his whiskered cheek. He brushed it away before he turned and opened the door to their cottage.
There before him was her father with his army. Dressed in armor, her father wore no helm to cover his stern, chiseled features. His long black hair brushed his shoulders as he narrowed his black eyes on her husband. She winced at the rage that contorted her father’s face. Never once had she seen this side of him. To her, her father had only been loving and indulgent. Kind. Velkan drew his sword and stood there as if to take all of them on.
“You’re outnumbered, boy,” her father snarled. “Is this how you would die?”
“In battle, aye. It’s what I prefer.” Velkan glanced back over his shoulder. “But you promised me that you’d allow my servants to take Esperetta home for a proper burial. Do you still swear it?”
Her father’s lip curled before he nodded.
Velkan planted the blade of his sword into the ground beside his foot. “Then I surrender to your…” he paused before he said, “mercy,” from between gritted teeth.
Two of her father’s men dismounted before they came to take Velkan. As soon as they held him, her father slid from his horse. He came forward with an angry swagger.
“She’s dead,” Velkan spat, trying to free himself. “Leave her in peace.”
Her father scoffed as he entered the cottage and moved to stand beside her. Retta held her breath as she saw the pain that darkened his brow. His lips quivered ever so slightly as he looked down on her body. He lifted his hand to press it against her mouth and nose so that he could hold them closed.
“I told you,” Velkan said, his voice rife with anger. “She’s dead.”
Her father jerked the dagger from his waist as he turned on Velkan with a fierce curse. “She’s nothing but a Danesti whore.” And then her father plunged the dagger straight into her heart.
Velkan let loose a cry so anguished that it made every hair on her body stand up as he shook off the men who held him and grabbed his sword. Before he could pull it free, two arrows were shot into his back – one striking his shoulder, the other to the left of his spine. Velkan stumbled to the side, and when he failed to go down, another arrow was shot into his leg. He cried out, reaching for the fallen sword. Until another arrow was embedded into his forearm.
“Don’t kill him!” her father roared. “Not yet!” He kicked Velkan’s sword out of reach before he shoved the arrow at the small of Velkan’s back deeper into his body. Velkan growled, trying to move, but there was nothing he could do.
Instead, he looked to where she lay inside. “Esperetta,” he breathed in a tone that was filled with tragedy and loss.
Her father seized Velkan by the hair and pulled him back. “She’s the least of your concerns, you bastard.”
Velkan tried to fight, but he was too wounded to have much effect on the knights who were better armed.
Unable to bear it, Retta turned away. “Take me out of here, Raluca. Now.”
She did, but still she didn’t take Retta back to the manor. Instead, Raluca took her to where her father was torturing her husband. Retta’s breath caught in her throat as she saw him bleeding and bruised as they laid hot pokers over his skin.
“Stop!” she screamed, closing her eyes and covering her ears. “Take me home. Now!”
To her instant relief, Raluca obeyed her.
Retta glared at her in anger. “What was the point of that?”
“I got it, okay? I was willing to – ”
“No, not for you. I know you were ready to start over. But now you know why Prince Velkan isn’t. You couldn’t even look at what your father did to him and you didn’t even see the worst of it.” Raluca’s eyes blazed in anger as she glared at her. “What do you think he’d have given if he could have simply closed his eyes and told me to take him home?”
Retta swallowed against the knot in her throat. Raluca was right. He’d endured hell for her.
“I can’t undo what I did and he won’t forgive me. If you have some magic trick in your bag that will give us common ground, then by all means pull it out. But at this point, I’m not the one being stubborn here. And I’m not the one who has to forgive. I’ve apologized. There’s nothing more I can do.”
Raluca let go her hand before she gave a curt nod. “You are absolutely correct, Princess. Forgive me.”
And before she could even blink, Raluca vanished from the room.
Velkan tensed as he felt a presence behind him. He turned quickly in bed to find Raluca staring at him with a gimlet look that was unsettling.
“Is something wrong?”
“Yes.” She reached out and touched his arm.
Velkan sucked his breath in sharply between his teeth as his vision dimmed. Suddenly he wasn’t in his room. He was in complete darkness with an awful weight pushing down on his chest. It was hot and stifling. Oppressive. Something smelled like rotten earth. Damp and cold. It choked him. He couldn’t breathe as a putrid terror coursed through his body. Desperate, he pushed against the darkness.
It wouldn’t budge.
More desperate than before, he shoved even harder. Only this time, it caused something to rush in on him. He coughed and choked as his entire face was covered with heavy black dirt. The weight of it was excruciating. The thick, grainy taste filled his mouth and nostrils as he kept pushing and digging, trying to free himself of it.
He’d never felt anything like this. Every movement only made it worse. Every second ticked by with an excruciating slowness as he fought against his prison. Eternity seemed to have passed before he finally broke free of it. Wheezing and vomiting earth, he found himself climbing out of a grave that bore a single name and date.
ESPERETTA D. 1476
Confused, he looked down at his hands, only they weren’t his. They were feminine and they were torn and ravaged from the digging. They were Esperetta’s.
Still coughing, he tried to move free of the grave, but the weight of his dress pulled him back toward the coffin. Afraid of falling, he kicked his feet, tearing the hem, and used his trembling arms to get his weight out of the grave.
And as he lay on the ground, trying to remove the taste of dirt from his mouth, his thoughts whirled.
What had happened?
We’ll be together, Esperetta. Trust me. When you awaken, I’ll be there by your side. We shall go to Paris, just the two of us, and start our lives over. No one will ever know who we are.
Only they weren’t together. There was no sign of Velkan now. Panic set in as Esperetta looked about the cold, desolate cemetery. Where could he be?
A wave of terror went through her as she feared for him. Surely he wasn’t dead. Not her Velkan. He’d always been so strong. So fierce.
“Please,” she begged as tears gathered in her eyes. She had to find him. The last thing she wanted was to live without him. He meant everything to her.
Unsure of where to go, she headed through the cold darkness toward the town lights, desperate for him. It wasn’t until she’d reached the street that she realized she wasn’t far from her father’s home.
Why was she here? She’d taken her serum far away from this place.
With nowhere else to go, she headed for her father’s palace. But she never reached the doors. Before she could do more than slip inside the gate, she’d heard the sound of swords clashing.
And then she’d heard her father cry out.
Without a clear thought, she’d run toward the sound only to skid to a stop as she saw her father lying dead at Velkan’s feet. Her mouth worked a soundless scream as she watched her husband kick at her father’s body and curse him. But that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst came from the single sword stroke that separated her father’s head from his body.
The cold satisfaction on Velkan’s face burned her eyes as he gripped her father’s head by the hair and pulled it up from the ground. “Death to the house of Dracul. May you all burn in hell.” Those words rang in her head.
Velkan was a monster!
This time her scream came from deep within her soul.
Velkan jerked as that scream resonated through his memory. He tried to free himself of Raluca’s tight grip, but she refused to let him go.
“Enough!” he roared. “I don’t want to see any more.”
She finally released him.
Velkan’s breathing was ragged as he stared at the Were-Hunter. “How can you do that?”
She folded her arms over her chest. “My father was a Dream-Hunter. I inherited a few of his abilities, such as manipulating reality so that you could experience that night as Esperetta.”
“Why would you do this?”
“Because I lost my mate to the hatred of an Order that should have never existed. There’s nothing I can do about that, but you two have lost each other because you’re both too prideful and stubborn to admit you’re wrong.”
“How could I ever tru – ”
“Velkan!” Raluca snapped in a tone he’d never heard before as she called him by his name. “You have seen that night through her eyes. It wasn’t her fault. You kept the truth of her father from her. You never once let her know as a mortal how demented Vlad was. No one did. To her, he was a decent and caring father. She never saw his brutality. But you… you she saw. On the night you met, you beheaded a man on top of her. She was just a young woman who’d been sequestered in a convent. Can you imagine the horror of that?”
He looked away as he remembered just how scared Esperetta had been. Her entire body had quaked in his arms the whole way home and she’d been racked with nightmares for months on end. He’d held her in the darkness and sworn to her that he’d never allow anyone else to ever hurt her again.
Until her father had killed her.
But that changed nothing. Esperetta didn’t love him and he would never expose himself to that kind of pain again. “You ask more than I can give.”
“Very well, but know this. The princess hasn’t left your side since you were brought here. She could have tried to escape us, but she hasn’t. She’s stood watch over you like a lioness guarding her pride. And for five hundred years I have sacrificed my daughter and her happiness to watch over Esperetta for you. I’ve had enough of that. If the princess leaves, she leaves alone.”
“I forbid it.”
“I am your servant, my lord. My daughter isn’t. If you want the princess guarded, then I suggest you do it yourself.”
Velkan gaped at her words. She’d never spoken to him like this. Never once. “You’re not serious.”
“Oh, but I am. Francesca isn’t getting any younger and I want grandchildren. It’s time she was free to find her mate. You threw yours away by choice. Francesca should at least have the chance to be so stupid, no?”
He honestly had no response to that. What could he say? He was a fool. But how could he put aside the centuries?
How could you not?
“You lie there, Prince, in your bed alone. I’m going to book a flight out for the princess. She’s a big girl. We’ll let her find her own way in the world.” And with that Raluca left him alone.
“Good riddance,” he said sullenly under his breath, but even as the words left him, he knew better. He couldn’t allow Esperetta to leave here. Not while the Order was out there. She wasn’t strong enough to protect herself from them.
They were a cunning bunch.
He would simply go to her and…
Beg her to stay.
He flinched at the voice in his head. He’d never begged for anything – not even mercy while her father had tortured him. He would order her to stay. And she would… laugh in his face most likely.
You’ll have to beg.
“Then she can leave.” But he knew better than that. In fact, he was already stepping out of his bed. His emotions torn, he quickly dressed in a pair of pants and a loose-fitting button-down shirt.