Prince of Twilight (Page 10)
Footsteps in the hall let her know the others were on their way to begin the search. She was out of time to dwell on this, and she had to fight down the wave of nausea and the surreal feeling that made her dizzy. God, she'd been a fool sixteen years ago, to let herself fall in love with a man who didn't want her, except as a vessel for his dead lunatic of a wife.
But she'd been young then. She was older now, wiser, far stronger. And yet she was still a fool. She still wanted him. Still loved him.
She had never thought she would be one of those women she'd always secretly pitied. The type to fall for the wrong guy, to hold on to a man who didn't care a thing about her. Damn him, he was as stupid as she was, to cling for all these years to his obsession with a woman he'd barely even known.
She steadied herself, ejected the tape from the machine, shut the power off and took the video back to her room before going to join Melina and Lupe in Brooke's room.
Her entire day was spent searching. They searched every nook and cranny of Athena House, searched the grounds and the basement, searched the nearby towns for any sign of Brooke. They started to examine Brooke's computer, but it proved to be no easy task, since the entire machine was password protected.
In fact, they were still trying to break into her files when the sun went down.
The three women were huddled around a desk in the mansion's library-not the secret, hidden one, but the one in the house itself. They were leaning over Brooke's laptop as Stormy tried keying in everything anyone could think of as a potential password. She looked up from her work to see that dusk was painting the sky beyond the windows in muted tones of plum and purple. She nodded stiffly, her decision made, got to her feet, and made a show of stretching the kinks from her back and shoulders.
“I need a break,” she said.
Melina and Lupe frowned at her, but she stuck to her guns. “Keep trying if you want. I'm going to get some air.”
She left them there, thinking they surely had as good a chance of breaking the code without her as they did with her. They knew Brooke, after all. Stormy walked tiredly through the mansion, toward the back doors and out them. Then she circled the house until she stood on the grassy lawn underneath the bedroom she'd been using. Because that was where Vlad would come tonight. To her window. As soon as he woke, she thought.
She needed to talk to him. She needed to tell him about Brooke, and the missing ring and the rite. She had accused him of stealing the ring. Had even believed he might have been the one to leave it in her room, somehow stirring Elisabeta to life, knowing she herself would try to put it on. And though she knew that was his ultimate goal, she also knew he hadn't done it.
She wanted to tell him she'd been wrong about that. Despite everything, she felt compelled to tell him. And even if that wasn't logical, the rest was. She needed all the help she could get to find Brooke, and she knew that, with his powers, he would be more help than anyone else. Once they found the ring, she would find a way to keep it from him, to remove its curse and render it harmless. Right. All in the minuscule amount of time remaining.
She could keep her heart out of this and use her head. She could. She had to. Her life depended on it.
She hadn't explored this part of the lawn before. It bordered the gardens and featured a mammoth weeping willow tree whose tendrils dragged the ground on all sides. Curious, she parted the veil and stepped inside.
“I knew you'd come,” a voice whispered.
But it wasn't Vlad's voice. It wasn't the voice of a vampire, and it wasn't the voice of a man. It was a woman's voice.
She rose from the concrete bench that sat at the base of the tree. Around them, the tendrils of the willow moved with the breath of the wind, whispering their secrets, whispering a warning. It seemed to Stormy they were urging her to turn and run.
“Brooke?” she asked. But the woman who stood there wasn't Brooke, though it was Brooke's body. This woman didn't stand like Brooke, didn't hold herself the same way. And her eyes were black as jet.
“Not anymore,” she said. “Don't you recognize me, Tempest? I was sure you'd know me. We've been so close for so long, after all.”
Stormy felt a cold chill race down her spine, and her gaze slid down to the woman's hand, where the ruby ring glistened from her finger. She tried to swallow, but her throat was too dry and too tight. “Elisabeta?” she whispered. “But… how?”
“How is unimportant,” she said with a bright smile. “Aren't you relieved, Tempest? I didn't have to take your body from you after all.”
Stormy took a single step backward, sensing danger. “Yes. Very relieved.”
“Well, you shouldn't be.” Elisabeta took a step closer, and Stormy backed up again. “I'm going to kill you anyway, Tempest. You've been sleeping with my husband, after all. And I don't intend to let you continue being a distraction to him.”
She reached behind her and, in a flash, brought a huge blade around in front of her, then lunged.
Stormy dodged the blow but tripped over a root that thrust upward from the ground and fell on her back. A second later the other woman was straddling her, raising the blade over her head to bring it down on a collision course with Stormy's chest.
Vlad couldn't believe what he was seeing. A woman was leaning over Tempest, bringing a knife down toward her with furious force. He lunged toward them, even as Tempest jammed the heel of her hand into the woman's chin, snapping her jaw closed and her head backward so hard she tumbled off, rolling onto the ground, face down. And then Tempest scrambled to her feet. She kicked the woman in the rib cage as hard as she could, so hard the woman's body rose from the ground. Tempest delivered a second kick, flipping the woman onto her back. This time the knife went sailing through the air to land in the grass several yards away.
Tempest advanced, and Vlad thought she intended to kill the stranger. And then the woman on the ground spotted him, frozen there, amazed and unable to look away. She lifted a hand toward him. “Help me, Vlad. Please, don't let her kill me.”
That voice. And those eyes.
He blinked in shock; then, as Tempest surged forward, he gripped her shoulders from behind, stopping her.
Tempest whirled on him, her eyes blazing with anger. “She tried to kill me just now!”
“Who is she?” he asked, his voice a whisper.
The woman on the ground struggled to sit up. “It's me, Vlad. It's Elisabeta. Don't you know me? I'm your wife.”
He narrowed his eyes. “How… how could this… ?”
“Her name is Brooke,” Tempest said, and she was a little breathless. “She's part of the Athena group. Vlad-“
His gaze was drawn to the woman, the stranger. His bride? Could it be?
Tempest gripped his shoulders and jerked him around to face her. “Listen to me, Vlad. I took the ring from the museum. It was me.”
“Yes, but only because she was in control. Elisabeta took over. I didn't even know until I woke this morning to find her running the show again. She was about to put it on me.”
He frowned, searching her face.
“We were going to put it into the vault, where it would be safe. But Brooke stole it and also the rite, which was here all the time, locked away. Brooke thought somehow it could give her immortality for herself. She must have performed the rite.”
He couldn't stop looking from her to the strange woman with the familiar voice and eyes. “So my Beta lives… in that body. Not in yours.”
Tempest stared at him for a long, long moment. He felt her eyes on him but didn't meet them, because his gaze was focused on the other woman.
“Yeah, Vlad. She's not in my body anymore. She's not going to take over every time you get close to me.”
Elisabeta sent him a watery smile, and his heart contracted in his chest. It was a familiar smile. So much about her was familiar.
“It's been so long,” she whispered. “I love you, Vlad. I've always loved you. I need you now, more than ever before. Please don't desert me, not now.”
“I would never desert you, Beta.”
“I'm hurt. She hurt me.”
He moved forward, reaching out a hand, and Elisabeta took it and let him help her to her feet. She brushed herself off.
“Poor thing. I shouldn't have done that, huh, Vlad?” Stormy asked. The sarcasm in her tone was clear, and, finally, he looked her way. She was furious. “I suppose I should have just let her sink that blade into my heart.” She shrugged. “Then again, you're doing a pretty decent job of that all by yourself.”
She turned and started to walk away.
Vlad released Elisabeta's hand.
He glanced back to see his bride sinking to the ground again, bending nearly double and hugging her own middle, where Tempest had kicked her hard enough to fracture her ribs.
He looked to Tempest again, then back to Elisabeta.
“Go ahead,” Tempest said. “Look, this is over as far as I'm concerned. She's out of me. That's all I wanted. The rite has been performed-successfully, by the looks of things. I'm not going to die. What you do with her is totally up to you. I could care less.” She sent a glare back at Elisabeta. “But if you come near me again, I'll fucking kill you. No question. And no one, not even Dracula himself, will stop me. Got that, bitch?”
Elisabeta didn't answer, just sank to her knees, weeping.
“Yeah, that's what I thought. Brooke would have decked me for that.” She met Vlad's eyes. “Not that she doesn't deserve whatever your innocent little bride there did to her, Vlad, but you might want to find out what happened to Brooke before you two head off on your delayed honeymoon.”
She spun on her heel and strode toward the house.
Vlad needed time to process what was happening here. How could Elisabeta be alive in the body of this woman, this Brooke?
But right then, he could only focus on one thing. His wife was hurt, and she needed him. He couldn't just walk away and leave her lying there in the grass, bleeding and broken. He couldn't.
He let Tempest go and turned to Beta. He slid his arms beneath her, picked her up and carried her away, off the grounds of Athena House.
The pain lancing her heart was almost too much, Stormy thought, as she walked firmly and purposefully into the mansion. Just inside the doors, she stopped, then stood gripping the doorframe, waiting for the weakness to pass from her knees. She'd never wanted anything the way she wanted him. But she'd been deluding herself. For sixteen years she had hoped that Vlad would realize she was the one he wanted. That he would be with her if he could.
But now that he could, he had chosen to be with Elisabeta, instead.
“Fine,” she said, lifting her head and swiping away the tears with an angry hand. “I hope they fucking rot together. I'm done with this.”
“That's the tough little mortal I've grown to… tolerate.”
She blinked past the hot moisture in her eyes to focus on Rhiannon. The vampiress stood halfway across the sunroom, between two tropical plants, with the steam from the hot tub forming a misty backdrop. A photographer couldn't have posed her more effectively, as she stood there in a dress of paper-thin red silk, draping from her shoulders to the floor.
“Now stop the weeping and tell me what's happened.”
Stormy sniffed and shook her head. “It's over, that's all. I'm sorry you came all the way out here for nothing.”
Stormy nodded, stiffened her spine and lifted her chin. “Yeah. You were right about Brooke, Rhiannon. How did you know?”
“We'll get to that. What has the little traitor done this time?”
“Stolen the ring. And the scroll. Turns out the damned Sisterhood had it all along, locked up in a vault. I guess our pal Elisabeta decided Brooke was an easier mark, because she's taken over her body now.”
Rhiannon's eyebrows arched. “Elisabeta is corporeal?”
“Sure as hell felt corporeal when she tried to kill me a few minutes ago.”
Rhiannon gasped, but Stormy waved a hand. “Don't worry. I kicked her ass and sent her packing.”
“Well, that goes without saying, doesn't it? And where is Vlad?” Rhiannon asked.
“Last I saw him, he was carrying her away. Probably helping her lick her wounds. I'm done with the both of them.”
“I only wish that could be true. For your sake, if not for Vlad's.”
Stormy shook her head. “It is true. I'm packing my shit and leaving. I no longer have any reason to stay involved in this mess. Let him deal with her.”
“Stormy, it's not over.” Rhiannon stopped speaking then and turned toward the doorway from the sunroom to the main part of the house. “We have company.”
Before she finished speaking, Melina and Lupe appeared. They came to an abrupt halt when they spotted Rhiannon.
“Well,” she said in her menacing purr-a purr that could become a growl without warning. “We meet again. Hello, Melina.”
Lupe just stared, her eyes wide but watchful. Finally she managed to tear her gaze from Rhiannon's to focus on Stormy. Then she frowned. “What happened to you?”
“Later. Did you manage to get into Brooke's computer files?”
“Yeah. The password was immortality.”
Rhiannon sniffed. “Brooke has been obsessed with obtaining it for quite some time,” she said. “And I suppose part of the blame for this mess belongs with my friends and I, for not telling you of her duplicity long ago.”
“The Stiles incident,” Melina said. “We found her notes in her computer, only a few minutes ago. She had planned to steal the formula Frank Stiles developed-the one he believed would make an ordinary mortal, immortal.”
“Yes.” Rhiannon waited, saying no more.
“Would it have worked?”
It had worked. Stormy knew that, because the vampires had used it to save the life of Willem Stone. And they'd learned how to recreate the formula, so that he could live as long as any of them. But she hadn't known the Athena group had been involved in any way with that case.
“Stiles is dead now, according to all reports,” Rhiannon said. “So apparently his formula didn't work as he'd hoped.”
Melina nodded slowly, sensing, perhaps, that there was more to the story than what she was being told. Stormy knew instinctively that Rhiannon would never reveal the secret of Willem Stone. And she thought she knew why. The Sisterhood would likely see him as a breach of their precious supernatural order. They might decide to do something about it.
“Why didn't your friends tell me, if they knew Brooke was trying to steal the formula? They must have known that was a betrayal of everything our order stands for.”
Rhiannon shrugged. “You'd have to ask them.”
“Why didn't you tell me, Rhiannon?”
She shrugged. “Because I don't trust any of you any more than I trust Brooke,” Rhiannon said. “Besides, does it really matter at this point?”
“What else was in the files?” Stormy asked. “Anything about the ring or the scroll?” She told herself she no longer cared, but she thought a new topic might break some of the tension mounting in the room.
Melina nodded, allowing herself to be distracted for the moment. “Brooke believed that when Elisabeta returned to life, she would return with some means of gaining immortality. Speculated that she might somehow imbue the host body with the Belladonna antigen that Brooke believed Elisabeta had possessed during the course of her natural lifetime, enabling her to become a vampire.”
“That wouldn't do Brooke any good, though,” Stormy said.
“Brooke thought it would,” Lupe said. “She was convinced Elisabeta could co-exist with another soul in the same body. She was willing to share her own body in exchange for eternal life.” Lupe lowered her head. “My God, she intends to put on that ring and perform the rite. She means to bring Elisabeta into her own body.”
“She's already done it,” Stormy said.
The other two women gaped at her. She nodded and went on. “I just ran into her outside. Only she wasn't Brooke. She was one hundred percent Elisabeta. And I don't know about you, but I know that one. I've lived with her for a long time now, and I know damn well she has no intention of sharing that body with Brooke.”
“She couldn't if she wanted to,” Rhiannon said. “Two souls cannot long occupy the same body.”
“Mine did,” Stormy said. “She's been living in me for years.”
“Yes, because the ring kept her from moving on. Brooke has no such anchor. She's surrendered her own body. In your body, Tempest, Elisabeta could only lurk and wait and occasionally take control. She wasn't strong enough to drive you out, and the power of the ring kept her from moving on. But Brooke has given herself over. Her own soul will shrivel, weaken and fade.”
“How soon?” Melina asked.
“Melina?” Lupe was searching her mentor's eyes, her own huge and brown and full of questions.
“How soon?” Melina repeated, ignoring Lupe's unspoken question.
Rhiannon shrugged. “A few days, at most.”
“Can we save her?”
“Why would we want to?” Lupe all but shouted her question. “Melina, she betrayed us. She betrayed the Sisterhood. She hit you over the head and left you lying there. Why would you want to help her now?”
Melina lowered her eyes. “I don't expect you to understand.”
“No one could understand. It doesn't make any sense,” Lupe said.
“To me it does.” Melina looked to Rhiannon again. “Can we save Brooke?”
“Only by exorcising Elisabeta. And only after releasing the hold the ring has over her, so she can move on.” Rhiannon lowered her head.
“I thought the ring's hold was dead, now that Brooke has performed the rite,” Stormy said.
“Not entirely, I fear,” Rhiannon replied. “If we free Elisabeta from Brooke's body, chances are the ring would still keep her from moving on as she should. She might very well return to your body, Stormy. The ring's powers are that strong. We need to be sure.”
“What if we can't do it?” Stormy asked.
Rhiannon bit her lip. “Then they'll both die. Brooke will move on, and Elisabeta will once again be trapped by the power of that ring. Stormy, it's your body Elisabeta needs. You are her spiritual descendant, I am convinced of this. You're spun from the same collective soul. What she's done, it's like… like performing an organ transplant between two incompatible patients. It cannot take. It cannot last.”
Stormy lowered her head. “Well, good luck with that. I'm out of here. This no longer concerns me.”
“I'm afraid it does, Stormy.”
Stormy met Rhiannon's eyes, praying the vampiress had no rational argument to give.
“She'll realize soon enough that Brooke's body cannot hold her. And when she does, she'll come for yours. She still has the ring and the scroll.”
And Vlad, Stormy thought. She has Vlad, too. And if he realized his precious wife was dying in Brooke's body, that she needed hers to survive, he might very well come for it himself.
Tough as she was, she knew she wouldn't stand a chance. Not against both of them.
“And there's the deadline. If her soul isn't at peace, either fully re-established in a living body or fully relieved of the burden of physical life, she'll die. And so will you, Stormy. Tuesday. Midnight.”
Stormy closed her eyes, lowered her head. “Fine. I'm in. But I'm not interested in saving Brooke. She got what she asked for, as far as I'm concerned.” She recalled Lupe's words earlier, about her having no idea what would happen to her if Melina found out she had shared the Sisterhood's secrets with Stormy. “And from what I understand about the Sisterhood of Athena's rules and regs,” she went on, “she's going to end up being executed anyway. Am I right about that?”
Melina gaped briefly, then looked away, refusing to answer.
“So I'm right on that one. There's no point. No one leaves this organization. And I'm not interested in freeing Elisabeta, so her soul can move on to eternal bliss. All I want to do is kill the bitch. Once and for all. I want her dead.”
“It amounts to the same thing,” Rhiannon said.
“Then let's do it.”
“We're going to have to get her here,” Rhiannon said. “We need to convince Vlad. And I think, Stormy, that you are the only one who can do that.”
She lowered her head. “He won't listen to me.”
“I think he will.” The vampire shrugged. “I've been wondering, Stormy, why it is I like you, when I have little tolerance for most of your kind. And I've come to the reluctant conclusion that it's because you remind me of myself.”
Stormy met the woman's dark eyes. “Is that a compliment?”
“Well, it was. But I'm wondering now if I was wrong about that. Because, frankly, I would never stand by and let some other woman walk away with the man I loved. I would fight.”
Stormy sighed. “I've been fighting Elisabeta for sixteen years.”
“Yes, you have. So what's one more night?”
She thought about that for a long moment; then, finally, she nodded, knowing Rhiannon was right. She was going to love Vlad forever, win or lose. She might as well give it one last try. Pride be damned. Her life was on the line here. “What do you want me to do?”
“Go to him. He's staying at a house, a vacant one, two miles north along this very road. I sensed his presence there when I arrived. Go to him, Stormy. Talk to him. Make him see that this is the only way.”
She licked her lips, then nodded. “I think I'll walk. I could use the air.”