The massive hawk shifter touched down outside the gates of the castle and waited patiently for her female passenger to slide from her back.
Seven months pregnant and living in a state of perpetual anxiety, Petra was so grateful, and wrapped her arms around the neck of her best friend. "Thanks, Dani."
"Anytime, Pets," the female shifter replied, her hawk's eyes filled with concern. "And I mean that. I'm so glad you called. We've been so worried about you."
Guilt snaked through Petra's blood and she pulled her coat closer around her, protecting the growing babe. She'd hated these past seven months away from the Rain Forest, away from her mother and father and brothers. Especially in her condition. But the compulsion to find the one who had given her life, protected her, was impossibly strong.
Now that need had increased with the shocking revelation that her birth mother was alive.
She had so many questions, and she hoped the male who was purported to be inside the castle on the hill before her could answer them.
"Dani, will you tell my family I will come to them soon?" She glanced up at the foreboding landscape she'd found through Celestine and Alexander's whispered conversations. "But please don't reveal my condition. I want to tell them myself."
"Of course," Dani said behind her. "I must get back, Pets. It's nearly dawn and I don't want to be seen. Or shot at."
Petra glanced over her shoulder and smiled at her best friend. "Yes, you have enough holes in your feathers as is."
Dani laughed. "Pinprick little nothings. No one can see them anymore. But you were a cracker shot with a blowgun when we were young."
"It's a wonder we became friends."
Grinning, Dani didn't wait for a response. She kicked off the ground and sailed beautifully and effortlessly into the air.
Petra watched until she was out of sight, then hurried to the lock at the gate. But to her surprise and her concern, it was drawn open a good two inches. It should never be that easy. Does Cruen know I'm coming? she wondered as she hurried up the hill to the door. But how could that be possible? She had been searching for him for months. If he could sense her, he would've called for her by now, come and found her.
No, this had to be a mistake, the gate left open by accident.
But when the grand wood door drew back before she even had a chance to knock and the male guard inclined his head and said, "You wish to see Cruen?" she knew her father must have sensed her approach.
As she followed the guard down a long, dimly lit corridor, fear gripped her insides. She'd waited so long, been searching so long . . . she wasn't sure what she expected from him. Would he be glad to see her? Or had he placed her with the shifters for more than just the reasons her adoptive parents had claimed?
The guard came to a stop near another heavy wooden door. He said nothing as he drew it back, just gestured to a flight of stairs that led into a dimly lit space.
A few steps down, her mind warned her to retreat, but where would she go? She was all alone in France. Dani was gone. This is what she'd come to do: talk with her father, know the truth about her birth, and warn him about the male who wished him dead.
But she never got that chance.
Before her foot hit the bottom step, she was swept off her feet and dragged back into the shadows. She tried to fight, to struggle, but the wall of male muscle that had claimed her wouldn't relent.
"Who are you?" he whispered in her ear.
She couldn't speak. She could barely breathe. Her mind swam with questions and fears for the child inside her.
She gasped when she felt a blade at her neck. But oh . . . her senses were going wild. As her mind screamed at her to speak, to scream, her nostrils flared.
She knew that scent.
Oh, gods, she knew that scent.
The male at her back stiffened. Then after a second or two, lowered the blade.
"Petra?" He grabbed her shoulders and spun her around. "What the hell are you doing here?"
It was dim in the lamplight, but she saw his eyes, sunken and feral though they were, and recognized him as the male she had saved from the sun, the male she had spent one glorious night with.
Her gaze flickered to his right, to a barely conscious figure pinned to the wall. Her skin began to prickle; her belly clenched with pain. It was her father, and he was shackled to the stone. Burns covered his face and neck.
"Oh, my gods," she uttered. "Father? Are you all right?"
It was Syn who spoke, but his voice was different than she remembered, otherworldly and terrifyingly cold. She looked back at him, her gaze imploring him, but she saw nothing of the male she'd known. Only a shell, a hate-filled shell.
"Please, Syn," she begged. "Please let him go."
"Let him go? Cruen?" He burst out laughing. "I will remain here until he's dead."
"Until I have my revenge."
Several pairs of footsteps raced down the stairs and into the dungeon. Voices, loud and angry; a warning. Petra felt herself being spun to face the stairs, then yanked back against Synjon, the knife at her throat once again.
"Synjon, stop now!"
"Jesus, what is he doing?"
The room was so dimly lit, Petra could make out only white hair among the crowd.
"Christ, Syn," said another male. "You are out of your fucking mind."
"That's right, Frosty," Synjon said against Petra's ear. "Mad as a hatter."
"Put the knife down," ordered a female voice Petra had never heard before.
"Why should I?" Synjon rasped, his tone pained and bitter.
"Because she's my sister," said the female, softer now, imploring. "Please, Synjon."
Syn gathered Petra tighter around the breasts. "Fuck you all! Juliet was a sister too. She could've been a mother, a mate . . . so much more. This vampire bastard used her." Synjon's voice broke. "Put her in a cage, doped her with drugs, and wanted Frosty here to fuck her until she bred another balas he could experiment on."
His words, the ache in his voice, the truth in it, stilled Petra. Her father had done all of that? It wasn't possible.
"He killed the one I loved," Synjon ground out. "Perhaps I should return the favor. Perhaps I should kill the one he loves."
Petra whimpered, whispered to him, "Please don't do this."
"Why?" Suddenly, Synjon lowered his blade and whirled her around to face him again. His eyes were wild and filled with unshed tears. She'd never seen anyone in so much pain. "Why should I let you live, Petra?"
"Because . . . oh, gods, Syn . . ." Her eyes pricked with tears too as she grabbed the edges of her coat, yanked it back, and revealed her swollen belly. "I'm carrying your child."
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