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The Return: Shadow Souls (Chapter 26)

"We have to keep our minds on saving Stefan," Elena was saying in the room Damon had taken over for his own, the old library in Lady Ulma's mansion.

"Where else would my mind be?" Damon said, never taking his eyes off her neck with its ornaments of mother-of-pearl and diamonds. Somehow the milk-white dress served to emphasize the slim soft column of Elena's throat, and Elena knew it.

She sighed.

"If we thought you really meant it, then we could all just relax."

"You mean be as relaxed as you are?"

Elena gave herself an inner shake. Damon might seem to be completely absorbed with one thing and one thing only, but his sense of self-preservation made sure that he was constantly on guard, and seeing not just what he wanted to see but everything that was around him.

And it was true that Elena was almost unbearably excited. Let the others think it was about her marvelous dress – and it was a marvelous dress, and Elena was profoundly grateful to Lady Ulma and her helpers for getting it done in time. What Elena was really excited about, though, was the chance – no, the certainty, she told herself firmly – that tonight she was going to find half of the key that would allow them to free Stefan. The thought of his face, of seeing him in the flesh was…

Was terrifying. Thinking about what Bonnie had said when she was asleep, Elena reached out for comfort and understanding, and somehow found that instead of holding Damon's hand, she was in Damon's arms.

The real question is: what will Stefan say about that night at the motel with Damon?

What would Stefan say? What was there to say?

"I'm frightened," she heard, and a minute too late, recognized her own voice.

"Well, don't think about it," Damon said. "It'll only make things worse."

But I've lied, Elena thought. You don't even remember it, or you'd be lying, too.

"Whatever happened, I promise I'll still be around for you," Damon said softly. "You've got my word on that, anyway."

Elena could feel his breath against her hair. "And on keeping your mind on the key?"

Yes, yes, but I haven't fed properly today. Elena started, then clasped Damon closer. For just an instant she'd felt, not merely a ravaging hunger, but a sharp pain that puzzled her. But now, before she could quite locate it in space, it was gone, and her connection to Damon had been abruptly cut off.

Damon.

"What?"

Don't shut me out.

"I'm not. I've just said all there is to say, that's all. You know I'll be looking for the key."

Thank you. Elena tried again. But you can't just starve –

Who said I was starving? Now Damon's telepathic connection was back, but something was missing. He was deliberately holding something back, and concentrating on assaulting her senses with something else – hunger. Elena could feel it rampaging in him, as if he were a tiger or wolf that had gone for days – for weeks – without making a kill.

The room did a slow spin around her.

"It's…all right," she whispered, amazed that Damon was able to stand and hold her at all, with his insides tearing at him that way. "Whatever…you need…take…"

And then she felt the most gentle probing at her throat of razor-sharp teeth.

She gave herself up to it, surrendering to the sensations.

In preparation for the Silver Nightingale's gala, where they would be searching for the first half of the double fox key to release Stefan, Meredith had been reading some of the hard copy she'd stuffed into her bag, from the huge amount of information she had downloaded from the Internet. She had done her best to describe everything that she'd learned to Elena and the others. But how could she be sure that she hadn't missed some vital clue, some vastly important thread of information that would make all the difference tonight between success and failure? Between finding a way to save Stefan and coming home defeated, while he languished in prison.

No, she thought, standing by a silvered mirror, almost afraid to look at the exotic beauty she had become. No, we can't even think of the word failure. For the sake of Stefan's life, we have to succeed. And we have to do it without getting caught.

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