I beat a hasty retreat to the rear of the room, passing Slayer on the way. I wanted to swipe it so bad, my palm itched. But the rules of the game were clear: no claws, no saber. The second I picked up the sword, I'd have signed my own death warrant.

He squared his shoulders. "Shall we continue?"

"It would be my pleasure."

He started toward me. I waited, light on me feet, ready to leap aside. He was stronger than a pair of oxen, and he'd try to grapple. If he got ahold of me, it would be over. If all else failed, I could always try the window. A forty-foot drop was a small price to pay to get away from him.

Curran grabbed at me. I twisted past him and kicked his knee from the side. It was a good solid kick; I'd turned into it. It would've broken the leg of any normal human.

"Cute," Curran said, grabbed my arm, and casually threw me across the room. I went airborne for a second, fell, rolled, and came to my feet to be greeted by Curran's smug face. "You're fun to play with. You make a good mouse."

Mouse?

"I was always kind of partial to toy mice." He smiled. "Sometimes they're filled with catnip. It's a nice bonus."

"I'm not filled with catnip."

"Let's find out."

He squared his shoulders and headed in my direction. Houston, we have a problem. Judging by the look in his eyes, a kick to the face simply wouldn't faze him.

"I can stop you with one word," I said.

He swiped me into a bear hug and I got an intimate insight into how a nut feels just before the nutcracker crushes it to pieces. "Do," he said.

"Wedding."

All humor fled his eyes. He let go and just like that, the game was over.

"You just don't give up, do you?"

"No."

The magic drained again. A dull ache flared across my back - must've landed harder than I thought. The ache spread to my biceps. Thank you for the squeeze of death, Your Majesty. I slumped against the wall.

"Why are you hell-bent on their wedding?"

I rubbed my forehead, trying to wipe away fatigue and this conversation. "You really want to know?"

"Yes. What is it, guilt, revenge, love, what?"

I swallowed. "I live alone."

"And your point is?"

"You have the Pack. You're surrounded by people who would fall over themselves for the pleasure of your company. I have no one. My parents are dead, my entire family is gone. I have no friends. Except Jim, and that's more of a working relationship than anything else. I have no lover. I can't even have a pet, because I'm not at the house often enough to keep it from starving. When I come crawling home, bleeding and filthy and exhausted, the house is dark and empty. Nobody keeps the porch light on for me. Nobody hugs me and says, 'Hey, I'm glad you made it. I'm glad you're okay. I was worried.' Nobody cares if I live or die. Nobody makes me coffee, nobody holds me before I go to bed, nobody fixes my medicine when I'm sick. I'm by myself."

I shrugged, trying to keep my voice nonchalant. "And most of the time, I like being by myself. But when I look into my future, I see no family, no husband, no children. No warmth. I just see myself getting older and more scarred. Fifteen years from now I'll still drag my beaten, bloody hide to my place and lick my wounds, all alone, in a dark house. I can't have love and family, but Crest and Myong have a shot at happiness. I don't want to stand in the way."

I glanced at Curran and saw something in his eyes - understanding? sympathy? - I couldn't tell. It was there for a brief moment and then he pulled his mask back on, and I was greeted with the impenetrable face of an alpha.

I looked away. I had left a lot out. I had left out the part that explained that being with me meant being in danger, because my blood made me a target. Having sex with me meant sharing some of my magic. Being with a normal person made me selfish, because I couldn't protect them if I was found. Hell, I couldn't protect myself if that happened.

Being with a powerful person made me stupid, because as soon as they figured out what I was, they would either kill me or try to use me to their advantage. I distinctly remembered the first time I realized this. His name was Derin. He was a wizard. I was seventeen and wanting very badly to jump into somebody's bed. His bed looked pretty good. Years later looking back at it, I had to admit Derin wasn't all that, but for my first time, well, it could've been worse.

And Greg did what any good guardian would do: he sat down with me and very gently explained to me why I could never see Derin again. A one-night stand in another town was the safest option for me. Hide your blood. Bide your time until you're strong enough. Trust no one. I had known all of that, I just failed to realize the complete implications of it. My guardian had enlightened me. I hated him so much for it, I had agreed to enter the Order's Academy just to get away from him.

The magic splashed us, strong, intoxicating. Curran's hair shifted and grew another inch.

I knew exactly what drew me to him: if we fought - really fought - I wasn't sure I could win. No, scratch that, I was sure I couldn't win. He'd kill me. Wouldn't even blink. He scared me, and the more scared I got, the louder my mouth became.

"Your turn," I told him.

"What?"

"Your turn. I told you why I wanted them together. Now you tell me why you want them apart." Jealousy, pride, love, all good enough reasons for an egomaniac like you. Take your pick.

He sighed. "She's weak and he's a selfish asshole. He'll use her. She's making a mistake."

I didn't expect that. "But it's her mistake to make."

"I know. I keep waiting for her to recognize she's making one."

I shook my head. "Curran, she begged the ex-girlfriend of her fiance to arrange her wedding. If she's willing to humiliate herself in that manner, she'll do anything for Crest's sake. She doesn't seem like a person who handles pressure well. If you keep delaying the wedding, you'll just drive her to suicide again."

"You saw the scars?"

I nodded. "People must make their own choices, no matter how wrong those choices are. Otherwise they can't be free."

A careful knock echoed through the room.

"Enter," Curran called.

A young man stuck his head into the door. "It's awake."

Curran rose. "I have something to show you."

Thank God it wasn't a pickup line.

As we followed the shapeshifter down the hall, Curran asked softly. "How are those arms? Sore a bit?"

"No," I lied. "How's your knee?"

A few steps later I decided to put my worry to rest. "You were joking about the whole please and thank you thing, right?"


Tags: Ilona Andrews Kate Daniels Vampires
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