“You might as well come out of hiding,” he said, scanning the darkness. The command agitated the doorway, the churning now so frantic a hard breeze hit him.

A laugh echoed a split second before a woman appeared out of nowhere, leaning against the cracked brick of Ava’s building. Red curls hung down her back, and she wore another robe, this one blue and streaked with dirt. In fact, there was dirt on her face and arms, too.

Not a single guard appeared. Did that mean they were still hiding, or that they weren’t even here?

McKell. Come. Never had the doorway sounded more desperate.

No, he projected. Never.

“I like you, McKell,” the queen said, seemingly oblivious.

Like everyone else, she probably was. “I can’t say the same about you.”

McKell. Please.

I hear nothing. Know nothing. “I don’t like that you came here. I don’t like that you stalked my woman. And do you know what I do to people I don’t like?”

“You hurt them,” she replied with a smile.

Please! Now.

Silence, ignornace. “Yes.” He lifted the necklace he wore, the human bones clinking together. “Your fingers would look nice resting beside the others.”

“You cannot hurt me,” she said confidently. “You can’t make me bleed without severe consequences.”

“There are other ways,” he said. Don’t consider them, he reminded himself. “And I guess it’s up to me to save the day. I’d prefer you left this planet, but if I have to kill you and everyone who serves you to do it, that’ll just be a bonus.”

McKell. The danger … too great …

Another feminine laugh chimed from her. “Others have tried to scare me away, too. Ask me if they succeeded.”

Such smugness. He should choke the life from her. In fact, nothing was stopping him from doing so. He closed the distance between them, and if she knew what he planned, she didn’t react. Not even when he reached out and wrapped his big hands around her small throat. “Leave, or you will die.”

McKell!

Wind danced the strands of his hair together.

Unaffected, she said, “You think you’ll be the one to finally fell me? You think there’ll be no consequences for doing so? You think my men won’t want revenge? You think I’m not the only reason Ava’s alive, right. This. Second?”

Her threats … He tightened his grip, relaxed his grip.

Danger, so much danger.

“The moment I’m dead, they’ll attack your girlfriend first,” she continued, voice strong, as if his lethal intention meant nothing. The wind kicked up. “There’s so many of them, you won’t be able to stop them all. Won’t be able to get to her fast enough. Not even with your ability. We adapt to abilities such as yours, after all. We learn to override them. Do you really want to risk that? What if we’ve already adapted?”

Intimidation. He’d used that tactic himself. When it came to Ava’s well being, however, he had no defenses.

“Go ahead and freeze time,” the queen said, taunting now. “See if I lie. Only, know that the moment you do so, I will consider this little truce over.”

Truce? She called this a truce? “What do you want from me, female?” God, the wind. If the queen didn’t kill him, the mind just might.

“I’m surprised Dallas didn’t tell you, didn’t try to help you figure out how to deal with me.” The grin returned. “Maybe he wants you to fail.”

If you won’t come with me, leave the area.

Can’t leave Ava with such a threat hanging over her head. McKell’s eyes narrowed. Damn it. No more communicating with the door.

“So … how much do you love your Ava?” she asked silkily.

The sun was slowly rising, warming the restless air, heating his skin. Beads of sweat formed on his brow, and he could feel blisters already trying to form on the back of his neck. Not by word or deed did he act as if he was bothered, though. “I don’t. Love her, that is.” True or not, he didn’t know, but he wouldn’t think about his feelings for her right now. He couldn’t. Too much was at stake.

“What would you be willing to do to save her?”

“That, you will never know, because you won’t touch her.” His hands fell to his sides, fisted. Just like that, the wind died.

“Maybe I already have.”

That. Was. It. The need to act exploded through him. She claimed her men would attack Ava the moment McKell killed her. She claimed he wouldn’t be able to reach Ava in time. Could be lies. Could be truth. Either way, he couldn’t allow this woman to walk away.

Ava was in danger either way. If the queen died, she had a chance. If the queen lived, she didn’t, and that was where this Schön had made her biggest mistake. Anything else, and he might have walked away.

With only a thought, McKell froze time. Froze the queen, as well. And she was frozen, he was sure of it. She didn’t move as he once again wrapped his hands around her neck, as he squeezed hard enough to smash her trachea.

Oh, McKell. No, the doorway said.

Except, before he could snap her neck, she broke free of his hold. Both physically and time-wise, throwing herself backward, gasping for air. Her skin was pallid, revealing the thick gray of her veins. Clearly, no mask. The sores he’d only glimpsed before popped up all over her, and he could see where patches of her hair had fallen out.

The doorway wavered, cried with a pain of its own, then vanished.

He froze time again, but she pulled herself out once again, faster this time, before he even reached her. Desperation flooded him, and still he approached. She hissed at him, baring her teeth, sharper and longer than his, and backed away.

When he reached her, his steps quicker than hers, she snapped at him, trying to bite. He jerked backward, avoiding contact—but just barely.

“Mistake, vampire. Big mistake. You’ll … pay … for … that,” she gasped out, and a second later, she disappeared.

The scent of rot didn’t fade, though. Which meant her men were still here. Why hadn’t they helped her—

They appeared out of nowhere, just as she had done, and they were scowling at him. Only three in total, but each held a pyre-gun.

He stopped time, intending to choke the ones in front of him as he’d tried to do to the queen, then race to Ava, wherever she was. He couldn’t believe this was happening, that he’d failed, but just before he reached the guards, just as they too jerked themselves out of his time-hold, blue stun beams erupted, dozens of them. Not at him, but at the guards.

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