The next day, just as Carvalla commanded Dante, he went to find Isaac and Valeria. On the way to their home, Dante hid in the forest by the road, keeping himself hidden in the trees.
Halfway to their house from his, Dante saw the two siblings on their automobile. He almost approached them, until he heard their conversation and saw Valeria withhold sobs—for him. So he hung back, watching from a distance as their vehicle entered the town square. He saw as the two siblings bantered and headed toward the pharmacy, only to turn around after a moment of glancing into the crowded shop, and freeze.
They saw something in the middle of the square that spooked them. Isaac rushed Valeria back to their automobile, whispering to her.
Dante only caught a glimpse of what they saw: a black shadow, feminine in shape, and quick. It blurred toward him, until it disappeared.
And then her voice: “It has begun.”
Carvalla’s laugh echoed in his ears as her presence vanished, leaving Dante in his hideaway in the forest, flushed with his heart racing and an icy chunk forming in his chest.
Dante watched as the Castro siblings left town, biting his lips. Blood trickled from the wound and before he realized, Dante licked it up and groaned.
Already, it was starting. The thirst, the cumbersome need to eat—and he was not clueless to what his body craved. The ecstasy of tasting his own blood was proof enough, even if it didn’t fulfill his need.
He headed into the town square, biding time for the Castro siblings. The day was still young, as noon had yet to come. He figured he would give them a few hours to themselves to fret over the vampire sighting before he ruined their day and settled into a park bench in town square.
Dante didn’t take into account his changing body. As a half-vampire, he would slowly fall into an animalistic state of mind—and the longer he was around the prey, the more predator he would become.
By waiting in town, he surrounded himself with heartbeats and bodies rushing with delectable blood.
After an hour or two of torture, Dante hurried out of town and into the woods surrounding Independence. He thought about approaching the cabin, but was unsure of who would be there, and instead opted to go to the Castro’s home like he originally planned. Doing this, he risked exposure to his Turning, but Carvalla had given him the order to go to their home.
His heart pounded up into his throat as he approached the Castro’s estate. Their home came into view over the horizon of the road. Maddox ran outside, following after one of their dogs. He ignored the pulsing sounds of their heartbeats as he passed them.
Maddox waved at him as he walked up the steps of their front porch. He waved back, saying nothing, and knocked on the door.
It opened a minute later, revealing a red-eyed Valeria.
Had she been crying? Dante blinked and cleared his throat, swallowing saliva as her fresh scent hit him. Sweet…heavy, like he stuffed his face full of blooming roses.
Valeria blinked, surprised at the sight of him standing on her porch, before she stepped outside and closed the door behind her.
“What are you doing here?” she asked. “You…you’re not supposed to be here.”
“I know—I needed to talk to you,” Dante said. “And Isaac. Alone.”
“But…” Valeria dropped her gaze. “But—we’re not supposed to—”
“I know…just, please, Val.” Swallowing, he forced down the urge to step closer and wrap his arms around her. She looked on the verge of crying.
“Just this last time,” Dante continued. “And then…I’ll leave you guys alone.” Lie. He swallowed again, as if choking down the lie.
“Okay,” Valeria whispered and still kept her gaze on the ground. “I’ll talk to him.”
“Let’s…meet at the cabin,” Dante said.
Valeria looked up finally, chewing on her lip, and nodded. It looked like she wanted to say something, but all she did was open her mouth and then close it before giving another nod and turning away from him.
“Tonight,” she said over her shoulder as she opened the door.
“Okay. Oh, and Val?”
“Yeah?” She met his eyes.
“I love you.”
● ● ●
Dante watched Valeria as she slept, waiting for the witch to arrive.
What Conner said was true — her heart gradually weakened. There wasn’t a sure time when she would die; it could be any minute to any hour now.
He sat down beside her body and laid a hand on her hip. It was bony, whereas just a few hours ago her skin was full and smooth.
Whatever this mystical disease was, it worked too quickly. How could anyone save her when she was withering so fast?
“Val,” Dante breathed her name and moved his hand to touch her face. “Wake up.”
She groaned and shifted onto her back, but didn’t wake up. Her lips cracked open as she let out a sigh.
Dante smiled at her. The action was weak and bittersweet, like an old man would smile at his dying wife in the hospital. He leaned over her and swept some stray hairs from her face, studying every detail of her he could.
Her eyes fluttered and slid open.
For several long beats, all they did was stare at one another. Dante caressed her cheek, still smiling with that bitter sweetness.
“Hi,” Valeria breathed.
Dante swallowed. “Hi.”
“What’re you doing?”
Dante stopped touching her and leaned back. “Saying goodbye.”
“Why?” She sat halfway, holding herself up by her elbows. “Where are you going?”
“I have to stop Isaac – before any humans get harmed or someone more important than me finds out he’s escaped.”
Valeria paled. “But…but – why you? He’ll kill you if you can’t kill him!”
“I know that.” Dante rubbed his eyes. He didn’t know what was more stressful: saying goodbye to Valeria or approaching Isaac.
“Darling…” Dante stopped himself and huffed.
She trembled as she shoved herself to her knees and crept toward him.
Whatever past grievances that plagued the back of their minds didn’t matter.
As she gripped his face in her hands, Valeria forgave him, and landed her lips on his.
Dante, surprised, gasped into Valeria’s mouth, then moaned as she crawled onto his lap. She left his lips and peppered kisses across his cheeks and jaw, muttering, “Please, don’t go to him. He’ll kill you – he’ll kill you.”
Dante gripped her hands gently and held her at a short distance. He stared deep in her eyes, seeing the unshed tears, and sighed. “Baby…please.”
“He’ll kill you,” she whispered. Her body went slack in his arms in defeat. A sigh shook through her body as she leaned into him. “Please…I-I’m so sorry, Dante…please.”
It struck him odd how passionate she was at that moment. Maybe, somewhere in her mind, she knew she was dying – and wanted to spare him that same fate. Or maybe she wanted to be selfish for once, because Dante knew that not once in her life had she had the ability to be selfish. During their childhood and well into their adulthood, Valeria always catered to her family, to Isaac.
Dante had hoped that this “second chance” he gave her would make her see that it was okay to want for something and to have it.
He swallowed a lump in his throat and held back tears as he held her close.
“I’m so sorry.” She wept into her chest. “I…for everything. For Isaac. For Thomas. For my family. For failing you.”
His heart shattered under her sobbing face. He tightened his hold on her, burying his own face into her blonde hair and inhaling her scent. It was wondrous, though streaked with sickliness.
“I’m sorry for taking you away from them,” Dante muttered. “I’m sorry for fucking all of us over…but, darling, there is always an end to the story, and this one is coming soon. I must take care of Isaac, no matter if I come back or not.”
“Please, don’t. Stay with me,” Val whispered. “I lost you before. I won’t lose you again.”
It was so tempting. God, was it so tempting. Dante squeezed his eyes shut to keep the tears from rolling. All he ever wanted since the day he found out he loved Valeria was to be with her. Even in his afterlife, he still wanted her. No one else had sated the insatiable need.
Valeria was all he wanted in the world.
And yet…he couldn’t. He couldn’t do it. A higher duty demanded him to turn from the room and run headlong into the lion’s den, no matter the outcome.
Dante held her for several more minutes, both of them muttering sweet secrets to each other in hopes that those would keep the fire alive even after Dante left the room.
“I love you,” Dante whispered in Valeria’s ear. A shutter ran through her body.
She gripped him harder as another bout of sobs came over her.
“Please…” She hiccupped. “I know he’s been eating other vampires.”
Dante hesitated, wondering how Valeria knew. Did she still have the connection? Or was she awake when Conner visited and told Dante?
He cleared his throat and opened his mouth, but she cut him off.
“I…I don’t know how I know—I think, in my dreams, I saw…him do those things.” Valeria turned her face into his chest and whispered, “I don’t want that to happen to you…”
“I know, sweetheart.” He held her head to his chest and kissed her forehead. “But I did this. All of it. I have to fix this.”
A knock at the door interrupted their moment of connection. Dante turned to glare as the door cracked open and a sliver of light illuminated a strip of the room.
Conner’s right eye peaked through from the other side as he said, “It’s getting worse.”
“Okay.” Dante sighed and waved his secondhand away once more.
Conner closed the door, leaving them in darkness again. Dante shifted and laid on his back, pulling Valeria on top of his chest. She wheezed from the shifting and winced as her body throbbed with a dull ache.
“I want you to stay.” Her breath fanned his face, a sweet caress that shadowed the embrace of her kisses. “I want to be selfish.”
“I’m so sorry.” Dante wiped a tear from her face. “I will love you as long as I live, Val. No matter what.”
“What if you die tonight?”
“Then I will die loving you with every inch of my soul.” A burning sensation crept up Dante’s throat. Whether from the foreboding tears or from the hunger he knew he could never quench, he was unsure. He swallowed, forcing the fire down. “A woman is coming to see you. Whether or not I’m here, I want you to do what she says. She’ll try to help you.”
“If you’re going to die, then I don’t want to be helped. I lived a life without truly being with you,” Valeria cried, “and I won’t do it again.”
“Consequences will always come back to demand fulfilment. Isaac is my consequence. I must face it.”
Valeria stared into his eyes, clutching the sides of his face as if Dante could easily slip away any moment, and chewed her lips. “Then…then love me before you go.”
Dante’s eyes widened with surprise. Love her? Did she mean…? “Val…you’re so frail. I can’t do that to you. No matter how much I want to love you, I’m scared I would hurt you – kill you, even.”
Her eyes glistened. “Then hold me a little longer.”
Dante swept her hair out of her face, trailing his fingers through her thin strands, and laid it neatly over her shoulder. It was such a tender motion that her lips trembled and tears fell onto his chest.
He pulled her closer, rolling onto their sides gently.
She leaned in close. Her lips grazed his as he said, “I love you, Dante.”
And it was enough for him. He could die peacefully having her say that.