“She say why she needs me?” I asked, frowning. I was getting sick and tired of her beckoning me night and day just to yell at me.
“No, sir,” Jackson replied, walking behind me.
“Thank you,” I said, dismissing him. He nodded before turning off. I didn’t bother to knock on her door. I entered to see her sitting at her vanity, brushing her hair.
“What do you want from me this time?” I asked, and she didn’t bother to look at me.
“You can hole up in your room with that skank you call a guard, and you can bring her along to little trips to do god knows what, and you can fight with me all you want, but nothing you do or say will change the fact that you and I are bound to each other, now and forever.”
“We may be bound, you and I, but I don’t love you. I will never love you again.”
“Again,” Valentina said fondly, placing her brush down on the vanity with purpose. “So you admit that you loved me once.”
“A long time ago,” I replied. “Before you became a monster.”
“We were always monsters,” she quipped, still not looking at me.
“No. We were vampires, that much is true. You had love in you once, though. You had goodness inside of you, but you lost it along the way. I fell in love with the girl who swore to beat the world, not crush it in her fist.”
“Can’t we pretend that I’m still that person?” She asked, finally turning to me. The words sounded nice, but her eyes gave her away. I could see nothing I recognized when her eyes met mine. “Can’t you just come back to me, and we call this a lover’s quarrel, and go back to the way we were?”
“I can’t come back to a person who no longer exists,” I replied, and her eyes narrowed.
“Don’t, then. But you’ll never leave, either.” She didn’t bother to disguise the malice in her tone. “I still remember the day we met, you know. I remember the way you approached me in the market, the way you said you’d absolutely die if you could not have me, the way you promised you’d do anything to win my affections. Who knew that centuries later, you’d despise me just because you fell out of love and wanted to break your sacred vows to me.” I don’t know why her words hurt me as they did, but it felt like she knew just where to stab and twist the knife. Before I could stop myself, I spit out the cruelest words I could think of.
“Do you know why we met that day?” I hissed. “My friends and I were looking to have some fun. They bet me that I couldn’t get you home with me, that I couldn’t bed you before they could bed their choice of women. Two weeks and a cheap ring later, and I had won their fortunes.” I actually regretted what I said when I saw her face after she had processed my words. Tears streamed down her face, and she clutched her chest as if I’d stabbed it with a stake. It was the first time in half a millennium that I had seen her cry. I took a step toward her, unsure of what to do, when she screamed and stood, knocking her chair backward. Her eyes locked with mine, and I had never seen her so angry. She fiddled with her hand and took off the same promise ring I’d given her all those years ago, throwing it at me hard enough to make it hurt when it collided with my chest.
“I hate you!” Valentina screamed amidst the tears. “Take it and go.”
“GO!” She screamed even louder, grabbing the chair she’d knocked over to throw at me. I ducked and picked up the ring as the chair broke against the wall. I left without looking back, my heart aching. I felt angry at the way she could be so cruel toward me, but the second I was cruel back, I became the bad guy in all of this. I returned to my room, expecting to see Lennox waiting for me. I was upset when she was nowhere to be found. I passed by my desk and saw a note with my name on it.
Needed some fresh air. Be back soon. -L
I set the note down, unsure of what to do with myself now. I was about to grab a book to read for leisure when my phone rang.
“Hey, Niall,” I said, having read the caller ID.
“Hey, Elias. I’ll be dropping by soon to check on the progress and to save you for a little bit from the wicked witch of the north,” he joked, making me smile. “How’s Ramsey doing?” I paused, not sure if I should tell him about the attack or not. I settled for the latter, knowing he would be furious.
“She’s good. She’s been really helpful with the tasks. We’ve completed three-” I paused again, thinking. “I guess four, now, out of five tasks. She’s just got to find us the last one and then get us that meeting with Camrina.”
“That’s my girl,” he chuckled.
“Sounds like you like her,” I jabbed, and he protested.
“What are you, a fourth-grader?” Niall asked, and we laughed. “Anyway, I’ve got some business to attend to, so I better go. Try to stay sane,” he advised before hanging up. With nothing left to do, I took a shower and laid down, deciding to nap.
“Elias!” Lennox screamed as I ran down the maze-like halls of the mansion, trying to find her. I could hear Valentina’s laughter echoing throughout the halls, full of venom. I burst into the throne room and fell to my knees at the sight before me. Blood covered the room, in dripping streaks on the walls, in puddles on the floor. Ramsey lay near the door, her eyes lifeless and her body impossibly pale. Hunched over my throne, Valentina chuckled at something, and I realized then that she stood over a body. I tried to speak but it came out as a strangled cry. Valentina turned to me, her hand and forearm coated in crimson. She held a heart in her hand, squeezing it so hard it began to give under the pressure.
“See if she can love you now,” she giggled, moving to show me who she was speaking about. Lennox’s body lay sideways in the chair, her legs draped over the armrest, her head turned toward me at an impossible angle. Her face was frozen with horror, and her white shirt was soaked red, a gaping hole in her chest where her heart once was.
I screamed, sitting straight up in bed. My chest ached as if I was the one who’d had my heart ripped out. I panted as the sweat dripped down my face and neck, trying to catch my breath. I looked at the clock, surprised to see that hours had passed and that it had turned dark out already. I sighed, wiping the sweat out of my eyes before moving to sit on the edge of my bed. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw Lennox’s face, her mouth frozen open in a scream, her beautiful blue eyes cloudy with death. I couldn’t shake the image as hard as I tried.
I showered quickly, not wanting to be alone with that image in my mind. I dressed in a hurry, racing out of my room to find her. The nightmare replayed in my mind, running down the hall trying to find her. I ran to her barrack but didn’t find her there, my heart aching harder. I checked the library, Ramsey’s room, and the garden, all with no success. I ran toward the throne room, fear choking me. I was almost there when I heard music coming from the ballroom, the sound of a sad melody being played on a piano. I threw open the door to find Lennox sitting on the bench, her fingers swiftly traversing the keys as if she’d been playing for eons. She didn’t notice me until a choked cry escaped my lips.
“Elias?” She asked, quickly running to my side. I fell into her arms, not even bothering to hold back the tears anymore. “Elias, what’s wrong?”
“You were… I thought… I thought I’d lost you,” I sobbed as she stroked my hair and let me cry on her shoulder. “You screamed and I couldn’t find you and then… and she…” I couldn’t put into words what I’d seen, the vision of her face coming back to make me cry harder. Lennox just held me, shushing me and rubbing small circles into my back. I rested my head on her chest, the thrum of her heart beneath my ear calming me. When I was calm enough, I pulled away just far enough to frame her face with my hands and pull her into a kiss. I kissed her as if I’d never get to again, breathing in her scent until it was all I could smell. She pulled away, out of breath, her eyes searching mine.
“How about we walk somewhere together?” Lennox asked, holding my hand. The warmth of her skin helped chase the dream away. “Let’s go see if Ramsey’s got anything for us.” I nodded my head and she let go of my hand as we walked out, so no one would see. It sucked, having to hide everything, but it was safer for everyone this way.
We got to the library just in time to see Ramsey slam a book down on the table, the frustration clear in the string of expletives she spat out.
“Hey, what’s wrong?” Lennox asked, approaching cautiously.
“It isn’t here,” Ramsey practically shouted, turning to thumb through the books on the shelf behind her.
“What isn’t?” I asked, and she huffed loudly.
“The final task… I can’t find it. Lennox and I already used up all my energy on the fourth, and usually, there’s a hint on where to look for the next one, but all I got was a quick glimpse at a dusty cover of a book that I can’t find on these shelves. It’s not here,” she repeated, throwing books off the shelf.
“Hey,” Lennox said, picking the books up off the floor. “Just take a deep breath. Just relax. We can take a break, come back to this later.”
“We really can’t,” Ramsey insisted. “Time is running out. The longer we are here, the more chances Valentina has to find out what is going on. I got attacked by her, almost killed. Who knows when she will strike again?” I didn’t want to admit it, but she was right. After centuries of being trapped with her, I knew Valentina like I knew the back of my hand, and I knew how unpredictable she could be.
“What are you looking for?” I asked, moving beside her to help look through the books.
“Something I don’t think your library has. I’ve been all up and down the shelves but I can’t find it. It’s this really old book, looked like it was bound in leather. Had some kind of carving on the cover, a tree I think.” I didn’t have a chance to say that I hadn’t seen that book before, because Lennox paused.
“Wait. You saw a tree on it?”
“Yeah,” Ramsey replied.
“Like a dead one, with no leaves, and a hook and string closure?”
“You know that book?”
“It belongs to me,” Lennox said in disbelief. “I used to journal in it sometimes. It’s at my old house, the one I lived in before I got taken by the guards to train here.”
I had looked at that book every day for centuries, but never in a million years did I ever think it would be needed for something as important as this.
“Where were you before this place?” Ramsey asked.
“Russia,” I whispered under my breath, hoping they wouldn’t hear it. Home meant answering all those questions, like how do you speak perfect English if you are from Russia, or how did you ever wind up in Russia, or the million-dollar question: how were you created? I knew sooner or later Elias and I would have to have that conversation, and although I was very forthcoming with Arina, I wasn't sure how well Elias would take hearing about a previous lover and not just any lover... my first vampire hunting love.
“Russia?” Elias questioned and there it was. I watched all of those questions and more cloud up in his eyes. “When were you changed?” His face contorted and I wondered why.
“We used to live in Russia before...” He paused, deep in thought before shaking it off. “Never mind about that, now is not the time. For now, let’s focus on the book. Looks like another trip for you, Rams.”
“Rams?” Ramsey questioned.
“Yeah, don’t ask: just know it's your new nickname.” Elias winked and I think my knees almost caved in.
“Well alrighty then, I think that calls for nicknames all around.”
“I don’t need a name; Lennox is fine,” I commented. Elias walked over, wrapping me in his arms, pulling me close.
“I think you do. I think you need a name that only I can call you... well that, and a name your closest friends can call you.”
“Lennox is fine, really,” I said again, trying to keep my breathing at a normal pace. I had seen that look before: it was the look that said if we were alone you wouldn’t stand a chance.
“What about Noxx?” Ramsey chimed in, bringing us both back to the reality of the situation.
“I think Noxx is perfect,” Elias agreed.
“Whatever you say, Eli.” I laughed, but his face stayed serious. “What? Did I say something wrong?” I slightly panicked.
“My mum was the only person to call me that. Everyone else has used Li.” Tears started to form again and I was beginning to wonder if I would always be the one to make him cry. “When she died, I swore no one would call me that again.” He fell silent.
“I am so sorry... I didn’t know,” I frantically replied, pulling out of his arms. “We won't speak of it again.”
“Hey, no. Don’t pull away.”
“I just made you cry, and you were crying because of me earlier.” I watched Ramsey sit down and prop her feet up as she watched the show that was happening before her.
“You brought back good memories, and earlier, I thought you were dead. You are the only person that has called me Eli in 800 years. Not even Valentina dared. She tried to once, but she learned quickly to never do it again. But with you it's different... with you everything's different.” He paused again, the tears drying up and being replaced with a sun that made those dark tormented eyes shine. “I want to say it, but I can’t... so instead I will say this: I never loved anyone the way I loved my mother. That was her special name for me, and now it can be yours.”
“If that is the closest I can get right now, I will take it.” I pulled him in, attaching our lips. I knew that was the only way he could truly tell me how he felt and I wondered what was so special about me that out of all the people he has now, family included, I was the one that was given the privilege to call him something his late mother used to.
“You two should be a soap opera, you know that? We could call it: Till the Heart Changes,” Ramsey poked. “Or, or I got it: Guarded - The Forbidden Love.” We quickly broke apart, laughing. “Now, back to business, shall we?”
“Right... leaving again is going to look bad, especially since we just left only a couple days ago. The queen was livid. We need a better plan; a reason to leave.” I chimed in, breaking the silence.
“Well, what if we told her that we needed to take Ramsey back to my brother? I can tell her that she isn't safe here, and she misses Niall and wants to return home. We can take the plane to Niall's, then board a commercial flight to Russia. That way if she checks flight plans, we won’t be lying.”
“Uhh... am I the only one who thinks a 20 plus hour trip on a plane with humans is a bad idea?” Ramsey interjected.
“She’s right, Elias... it's too risky, even if we're fully fed for the whole ride. One knick could send this whole mission up in flames... we need a better way.”
“I’ll make some calls. You guys just get started packing. Lennox, what part of Russia?” Elias questioned, his eyes beginning to storm again at the thought.
“Vladivostok,” I commented. I waited for a reaction, but there wasn’t one. He just turned around and walked out. With a quick nod to Ramsey, we headed to our rooms to do as planned and pack for the long trip home. I wondered what it would be like after 10 years of being away. Would cobwebs have surfaced in the kitchen? Did the stray cat find a new home? Would the beach and sun still feel the same and fill me with a sense of warmness it always did? Would the middle of town still haunt me? All these questions played over and over in my head until a voice snapped me out of my trance.
“Going somewhere?” Valentina’s voice rang through the air.
“The king told me to pack, and before you ask, he didn’t say where we were going, only that we would be gone a little while.”
“I get it, you know. I see what he sees in you.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Yes, you do. It's better, to tell the truth.”
“The king and I are friends, nothing more.” Even I didn’t believe that, but I wasn’t about to let Valentina know any differently.
“You are strong and beautiful. You don’t back down from a challenge and you care deeply about those around you, which is why you are still lying about your relationship with Elias. You are everything I used to be.” The words stung at the fact that they could be true, but surely there had to be a better reason than that. “But as I am sure you have already heard, he can’t and won’t love you. He will try, and you will fall, but his heart is dead, even if it is bound to me. He was supposed to love me forever and look at him now. He loves no one. Be careful: from one girl to the next, his intentions may seem true, but they are laced with lies. Safe travels.” With that, Valentina walked out of my room leaving me with my thoughts.