“You’re my best friend. You can tell me anything–anything at all–and I won’t judge you or tell the others. Not even Sebastian if it was what you wanted.” We’ve always shared a bond that didn’t include the others and this is Curry reminding me of that.

It’s tempting to tell him because I feel so alone in this–whatever this is. I want to tell him what’s been going on in my head but I’m terrified. How do I explain the feelings I have for Avery when I don’t understand them myself?

“Chansey and the babies are out of harm’s way now. Their safety was the only thing holding me here.”

He interrupts me. “Don’t say you’re leaving Savannah.” He’s picked up on where this conversation is going.

“I can’t stay.” I can predict what he’s going to say but I won’t hear of it. “And I won’t have Avery leave this compound. She feels safe here and that’s something she deserves after everything she’s been through.”

“And what about you? Don’t you deserve to head up the compound you built?”

This is a repeat of the same conversation we had months ago when I was going to leave and the compound is still the least of my worries. “I don’t care about all of this. I can build another compound if I want.”

“When are you going to stop punishing yourself for something you couldn’t control?”

Let him think that is what’s going on here. It’s easier that way. “Leaving will be my atonement for what I did. This is me giving her some form of peace.”

“I don’t think you’re looking to give peace. I think you’re looking to find some.”

Maybe he’s a little more receptive than I imagined but I’ll roll with it. “Am I a terrible person for wanting distance from Avery because I don’t want to look at her every day and be reminded of what I did?”

He looks angry. “I never took you for a coward.”

I should be the angry one since he’s calling me a coward but I’m not. I sort of fall into the category. “Call me what you like but I’m still leaving. Sebastian and I have discussed it and we decided I’ll make the announcement tonight at dinner because we’ll need a new leader to step up.”

“I think you’re making a mistake.”

“It’s my mistake to make.”

“And I can’t talk you out of it?” he asks.

There’s only one person that could talk me out of leaving but it’s never going to happen. “No. My decision’s been made.” He gets up and walks toward the door. “I still can’t talk you into taking my place?”

He doesn’t even turn back to me as he replies on his way out of my office. “No. My decision has been made as well.”

I return to my bed after my conversation with Curry but I’m unable to sleep. How can I when I’m only able to think of Avery and how painful it will be when I’m parted from her? I absolutely dread telling her but not because I think she will be sad. She’s going to be thrilled and her joy is going to break my heart.

I enter the dining room late so the family is already there and waiting. Dining is something I look forward to each night but it has nothing to do with drinking blood. I love it because Avery’s seat is next to mine and it’s the only time I’m able to touch her.

Sometimes I think she likes the feel of her tiny hand inside mine but then I become certain I’m imagining it because I hear her heart pound with fear. I had hoped she would eventually come to trust me and we’d be able to reside under the same roof without her living in constant fear of me but I gave up on that dream a while ago.

I’m seated at the head of the table and I take Avery’s hand in mine when it’s time for the sacrament of thanksgiving. I hold it tighter tonight and caress my thumb across the top as I speak. She probably finds that bizarre but I don’t care. I’m a selfish bastard tonight and I’m doing it for myself because this is the last time I’ll ever touch her. “We, the Coven of Landra, give our humblest gratitude in recognition of the Blood Swan, Rebecca, for her selfless gift of sustenance.” As they do every night, the others join me in reciting the rest of the sacrament. “Thank you, Rebecca, for your gift of The Life, which sustains our existence and gives us strength to do the needed tasks before us.”

I don’t let go of Avery’s hand as I usually do when I finish leading the ritual. And neither does she. I look at our clasped hands for a moment before lifting my green eyes to the golden brown ones staring back at me. I’m certain she’s going to pull away any second so I brush my thumb over her fingers one last time while watching her face. For a moment, it almost feels like we’re friends. Or lovers. But then the moment is gone when too much time passes and we each pull our hands away.

I grasp the glass of blood in front of me but I have no appetite for it. I haven’t craved it in quite some time now–much longer than what any vampire young or old would consider normal. I try to remember the last time I nourished myself and realize it’s been too long. I should be starving by now. But I’m not.

Conversations are taking place between my family members around me but my attention is undivided for the beauty to my right although I don’t dare look in her direction. I drown out the idol chatter around me until I’m concentrating solely on the connection I share with her.

My bond to her hasn’t weakened in the least over the last three months. I think it could be even stronger than it was the night I took her life’s essence into my body as I drank from her.

I close my eyes and go to that dwelling where it’s only the two of us–like we’re suspended in a mysterious place lost in time. It’s my favorite spot to be because I feel her so closely–as if we are one–and she isn’t afraid of being so near. I’m able to hold her hand in this dream-like place because she isn’t frightened by my touch.

“Sol.” My fantasy is interrupted when I hear Sebastian call my name. I suspect by his tone that he probably said it more than once although I didn’t hear him. I’m suddenly aware that my hand has found Avery’s under the table but I don’t remember how it got there. I’m grasping it tightly–holding on for dear life–and probably hurting her.

“Yes?” Everyone’s attention is directed at me as I release the small delicate hand in mine.

Sebastian prompts me. “Your announcement? Would you like to make it now while everyone is together?”

Not really. I’m not prepared to see the relief on Avery’s face but I have to tell her–and everyone else–at some point. “Of course.” I cough and then swallow because the words feel like they’re stuck inside my throat. “I’ve decided to return to New Orleans with Sebastian. We’re leaving tomorrow night and I’ll need someone to take my place as leader here.”

No one utters a word or asks why I’m leaving and it’s all the confirmation I need to draw my own conclusion. They think they know exactly why I’m going away but they’d only be half-right. “Please don’t all volunteer at once.”

Lairah finishes off the last of her blood and places her empty glass on the table. “I think we all assumed that asking for volunteers was ceremonial. We were waiting for Curry to step up since it’s only natural that he would be next in line to take charge.”

My friend needed my support. “The timing is all wrong for Curry. He can’t take this on right now because Chansey is still recovering. She needs him full-time and this position would take away too much of the time he needs to spend with her and the babies. But if you want to choose a leader based on seniority then the next in line would be Thatcher.”

Gia and Thatcher look at one another–a clear indication that there is a concealed liaison between them–but it’s Thatcher that speaks up. “Can I have a little time to think it over?”

Gia and Thatcher’s relationship borders on being ridiculous. I wonder who they think they’re fooling because everyone in this family knows they have something going on. I don’t know when they’re going to figure out that they can have their little fling openly because no one here cares.

“Certainly but please be mindful that I need a volunteer before we leave tomorrow night. Otherwise, Sebastian will be forced to appoint someone and none of us want that.”

My hand has abandoned my full glass of blood. It’s resting on the table and Avery’s fingers brush mine as she rises. “I’m afraid I’m not feeling well so I’m going to retire to my room. Goodnight.”

Avery’s lying. She isn’t ill at all. She’s sad. But it can’t be about me leaving the compound. She’s happy about that–or at least I thought she would be–so why isn’t she jumping up and down with joy?

Chapter Two

I’m sitting in my office with the door closed. It’s the middle of the night when Avery is normally sleeping but I can sense her closing the distance between us with each step she takes in my direction. Even these twelve-inch steel walls surrounding me can’t block the fusion I have with her. I squeeze my eyes tightly, wishing all of it away: The connection. The desire. The love I have for her.

Avery Ferrand is a torture to my mind, my body and my soul like I’ve never known.

I silently pray she will pass quickly but she stops at my office door. I listen closely but then laugh to myself because it’s useless. I’m inside a soundproof room that won’t allow me to hear anything but it’s of little consequence. I don’t need to hear Avery to know her every move.

A moment later she rings the buzzer and I go completely stupid. I’m unsure of what to do so I remain motionless as I stare at the door hoping she’ll go away. Several seconds pass and I hear the sound again before she struggles to open the heavy door. “Sol?”

The door still separates us so I close my eyes a second time as I savor the way my name sounds coming from her lips. I’ve heard her say it so few times and I’m convinced she must be an angel because nothing has ever sounded sweeter. “Come in.”

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