I was still studying it when I heard someone walk into the room. When I saw who it was, my heart stopped. I set the photo back on the shelf with shaking hands and took a few steps back.
It was Dimitri.
He wore jeans and a casual red T-shirt that fit the lean muscles of his body perfectly. His hair was down loose and slightly damp, like he'd just gotten out of the shower. He held two mugs and chuckled when he saw me.
"Still not dressed?" he asked, shaking his head. "They're going to be here any minute."
I looked down and saw that I wore plaid flannel pajama bottoms and a tank top. He handed me the mug, and I was too stunned to do anything but take it. I peered into it-hot chocolate-and then looked up at him. There was no red in his eyes, no evil on his face. Only gorgeous warmth and affection. He was my Dimitri, the one who'd loved and protected me. The one with a pure heart and soul...
"Who... who's coming?" I asked.
"Lissa and Christian. They're coming for brunch." He gave me a puzzled look. "Are you okay?"
I looked around, again taking in the comforting room. Through a window, I saw a backyard filled with trees and flowers. Sunshine spilled through onto the carpet. I turned back to him and shook my head. "What is this? Where are we?"
His confused expression now turned into a frown. Stepping forward, he took my mug and set his and mine on the shelf. His hands rested on my hips, and I flinched but didn't break away-how could I when he looked so much like my Dimitri? "This is our house," he said, drawing me near. "In Pennsylvania."
"Pennsylvania... are we at the
He shrugged. "A few miles away."
I slowly shook my head. "No... that's not possible. We can't have a home together. And definitely not so close to the others. They'd never let us."
If in some crazy world Dimitri and I lived together, we'd have to do it in secret-somewhere remote, like Siberia.
"You insisted," he said with a small smile. "And none of them care. They accept it. Besides, you said we had to live near Lissa."
My mind reeled. What was going on? How was this possible? How could I be living with Dimitri-especially so near Moroi? This wasn't right... and yet, it felt right. Looking around, I could see how this was my home. I could feel the love in it, feel the connection Dimitri and I had to it. But... how could I actually be with Dimitri? Wasn't I supposed to be doing something else? Wasn't I supposed to be somewhere else? "You're a Strigoi," I said at last. "No... you're dead. I killed you."
He ran a finger along my cheek, still giving me that rueful smile. "Do I look like I'm dead? Do I look Strigoi?"
No. He looked wonderful and sexy and strong. He was all the things I remembered, all the things I loved. "But you were..." I trailed off, still confused. This wasn't right. There was something I had to do, but I still couldn't remember. "What happened?"
His hand returned to my hip, and he pulled me into a tight embrace. "You saved me," he murmured into my ear. "Your love saved me, Roza. You brought me back so that we could be together."
Had I? I had no memory of that, either. But this all seemed so real, and it felt so wonderful. I'd missed his arms around me. He'd held me as a Strigoi, but it had never felt like this. And when he leaned down and kissed me, I knew for sure he wasn't a Strigoi. I didn't know how I could have ever deluded myself back at Galina's. This kiss was alive. It burned within my soul, and as my lips pressed more eagerly into his, I felt that connection, the one that told me there was no one else in the world for me except him.
Only, I couldn't shake the feeling that I wasn't supposed to be here. But where was I supposed to be? Lissa... something with Lissa...
I broke the kiss but not the embrace. My head rested against his chest. "I really saved you?"
"Your love was too strong. Our love was too strong. Not even the undead could keep us apart."
I wanted to believe it. Desperately. But that voice still nagged in my head... Lissa. What about Lissa? Then, it came to me. Lissa and Avery. I had to save Lissa from Avery. I jerked away from Dimitri, and he stared in surprise.
"What are you doing?"
"This isn't real," I said. "This is a trick. You're still Strigoi. We can't be together-not here, not among the Moroi."
"Of course we can." There was hurt in his deep brown eyes, and it tore at my heart. "Don't you want to be with me?"
"I have to go back to Lissa..."
"Let her go," he said, approaching me again. "Let all of it go. Stay here with me-we can have everything we ever wanted, Rose. We can be together every day, wake up together every morning."
"No." I stepped further back. I knew if I didn't, he would kiss me again, and then I'd truly be lost. Lissa needed me. Lissa was trapped. With each passing second, the details about Avery were coming back to me. This was all an illusion.
"Rose?" he asked. There was so much pain in his voice. "What are you doing?"
"I'm sorry," I said, feeling on the verge of tears. Lissa. I had to get to Lissa. "This isn't real. You're gone. You and I can never be together, but I can still help her."
"You love her more than me?"
Lissa had asked me almost the same thing when I'd left to hunt Dimitri. My life was doomed to always be about choosing between them.
"I love you both," I replied.
And with that, I used all of my will to push myself back to Lissa, wherever she was, and tear away from this fantasy. Honestly, I could have spent the rest of my days in that make-believe world, being with Dimitri in that house, waking up with him each morning like he'd said. But it wasn't real.
It was too easy, and if I was learning anything, it was that life wasn't easy.
The effort was excruciating, but suddenly, I found myself looking back at the room at St. Vladimir's. I focused on Avery who was staring me and Lissa down. She'd pulled out the memory that tormented me most, attempting to confuse me and tear me from Lissa with a fantasy of what I wanted more than anything else in the world. I'd fought Avery's mind trap and felt pretty smug about it-despite the ache in my heart. I wished I could communicate directly with her and make a few comments about what I thought of her and her game. That was out of the question, so instead, I threw my will in with Lissa's once more, and together, we stepped down off the ledge and onto the room's floor.
Avery was visibly sweating, and when she realized she'd lost the psychic tug of war, her pretty face turned very ugly. "Fine," she said. "There are easier ways of killing you off."
Reed suddenly entered the room, looking as hostile as ever. I had no idea where he'd come from or how he'd known to show up right then, but he headed straight toward Lissa, hands reaching out. That open window loomed behind her, and it didn't take a genius to guess his intentions. Avery had tried to get Lissa to jump by using compulsion. Reed was just going to push her.
A mental conversation flew between Lissa and me in the space of a heartbeat.
Okay, I told her. Here's the situation. We're going to have to do a little role reversal.
What are you talking about? Fear flooded her, which was understandable, seeing as Reed's hands were seconds away from grabbing her.
Well, I said, I just did the psychic power struggle. Which means you've got to do the fighting. And I'm going to show you how.
Lissa didn't have to say anything to express her shock. The feelings of utter astonishment pouring into me said more than any words could have. I, however, had one important word for her:
I think it was her surprise that made her respond so quickly. She dropped to the floor. The movement was clumsy, but it removed her body from Reed's direct attack and put her (mostly) out of range of the window. He still collided with her shoulder and the side of her head, but it only bumped her and caused a little pain.
Of course, "a little pain" meant totally different things to us. Lissa had been tortured a couple of times, but most of her battles were mental. She'd never been in a one-on-one physical confrontation. Getting thrown against walls was an average occurrence for me, but for her, a small swipe to the head was monumental.
Crawl away, I ordered. Get away from him and the window. Head for the door if possible.
Lissa started moving on her hands and feet, but she was too slow. Reed caught hold of her hair. I kind of felt like we were playing a game of telephone. With the delay in me giving direction and her figuring out how to respond, I might as well have been passing the message through five people before it got to her. I wished I could control her body like a puppeteer, but I was no spirit user.