The silence was painful as I tried to gather myself to compose the words. “You weren’t supposed to see those. I’m sorry. Don’t worry, the scars are old.”
He sat still, breathing slowly, his hand gripping hard against his knee. “Emma, why do you have five deep horizontal scars on your inner thigh?”
My breath caught and I tried to steel my nerves, knowing I needed to answer him. His hand moved to hold mine, and I gripped it willingly. “I did it. But it was a long time ago. I was younger and I haven’t done it in years.”
He shook his head and frowned, furrowing his brows in concentration. “But why would you feel you had to do that at all? What would make you want to cut yourself?”
My spine stiffened at the memory and I focused hard on breathing in and out evenly. “It started that way, but I kept doing it as a message. It became more of a statement than self harm.”
His body became rigid but his grasp on my hand remained gentle, stroking the back of my hand gently. His jaw clenched as he tried to keep his voice even and soothing. “What do you mean?”
I took a deep breath and looked to our hands, focusing on his touch and my breath. “It was just a boy one of my foster parents had staying with us. He was older and only stayed for the year until he aged out.”
He squeezed my hand, willing me to continue.
I straightened and nodded, trying to get it out as quickly as I could, holding only our hands in my sight. “He’d been there about two months and he always paid...more attention to me. I was the oldest of my foster siblings. I was fifteen at the time and I knew what he thought of me, but was naïve enough to not be concerned. One day I came home from school and he and his friends had skipped. Our foster parents were at work and I was the first one home. They’d clearly been partying all day and I knew better than to walk in, but did so anyway. It was my first mistake.”
I felt him struggling to stay still as he listened intently to me, never stopping his fingers as they stroked my hand.
“I went straight upstairs and went to lock the door, but he’d followed me upstairs, saying he just wanted to talk about my day, but before long he had pushed me forward, pinning me down onto my bed.”
My breath caught in my throat as the memory flashed vividly into my brain.
“I tried to get away from him, but I just wasn’t strong enough. He...forced himself on me. His friends must have heard me scream and came upstairs to watch. He said they’d all get a turn now that he’d popped my cherry. After he was finished, his friend joined in right behind him. One of the others was waiting when my parents pulled up to the house. They heard it and bolted out of my window down the fire escape, leaving me in the room alone.”
I felt Xander’s body vibrating in anger and my eyes flashed up to see his face fierce with anger. I continued quickly, trying to finish the horrible story before the dam broke.
“The first cut was for myself. I just wanted to remove the pain. I needed some ounce of control over my life, however possible. The others were for every time he did it after, so that he could see and feel the pain he was inflicting on me. I wanted him to be faced with it every time his hand moved against my leg. After the last time, he’d finally aged out and left the house, leaving me just with the scarred reminders.” I exhaled and felt my entire body shudder as the last of the memory surged through my brain.
A growl rumbled through Xander’s chest and he held my hands firmly. His now crimson eyes met mine and anger mixed with protective worry crossed them.
He hissed through clenched teeth, speaking lowly. “If I knew where he was, I’d kill him myself. That coward doesn’t deserve to be alive. Emma, I am sorry you had to endure that.”
I guess technically, he’s not alive right now.
The tears I’d fought back finally fell hot against my cheek and I let out a sob. Xander pulled me tight against him and his arms wrapped around me in a comforting hold. His body was rigid in anger.
“I’m ok. I haven’t thought about that day in so long. I really am ok. I’ve gotten past it. I don’t know why it’s coming up now. I’m sorry Xander. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
My sobs broke against Xander’s chest and he let out another low growl as his voice rumbled in his chest. “You don’t have to apologize to me, ever. You should never have had to deal with that coward. If it’s the last thing I do, he and his friend will die by my hand.”
I pulled away and saw that his eyes were stern and focused. He meant every word. I felt my tears slow in comfort at his protection. “Xander, really, I’m ok. I don’t know what it is about you. I just feel so out of control. I think that’s why I’m having such a hard time. You make me feel like I am just powerless against you, like my mind and my body are battling for authority over me.”
His eyes cut in pain and I jumped to stand in front of him, pulling his chin to force his eyes to mine. “I mean that I want to let you in. I just feel like I can’t stop it, but I don’t want to. It just frightens me that I could want to feel that way...I barely know you. But I want to let you in like I’ve known you my entire life. Every time you touch me, I lose all control over myself. I don’t know how to explain it.”
His eyes returned to their pale blue color and swirled with emotion as his arms wrapped around my waist, pulling me tight against him. I stood between his legs. His forehead rested against my chest and I snaked my arms around his neck, holding him against me. He took a deep breath and pulled away before standing up. He pulled me up into a tender kiss, pouring his emotion into our lips. My heart swelled as I felt every ounce of his concern and protection, like a promise.
“Emma, I will not let anyone harm you ever again. Do you understand?”
I nodded and leaned into him, resting my head on his chest as I allowed him to envelop me in a cocoon of comfort. I don’t know how long he held me, but I didn’t care. I knew he meant what he said, and that was enough.
A little while later, we gathered our things to leave and he called Kit to meet us at the airport. Kit apologized and seemed more in control, but I kept a cautious distance between us as we made our way onto the private flight to Romania. Xander’s family had sent the family jet and I awed at the luxury as we took off on the journey to the next part of our journey. I quickly fell asleep and woke just as we were landing. Xander flashed me a comforting smile and took my hand as we deplaned. A vintage black car was waiting for us and took us to our next destination, but then I realized, it was bright and shiny. Brand new.
I looked out the window as we began to slow and gasped. “Oh my God, they live in a castle? Are you kidding me?”
My eyes widened and I heard Xander grunt in acknowledgement. The stone castle was large and towered over us as we arrived. We walked up the steep stone steps and entered into the heavy wooden doors and my eyes swirled, attempting to take in the details of the room. We made our way to a secondary receiving room with two story ceilings. Intricate chandeliers hung low, lighting the room with their grandeur. Elaborate paintings covered the walls as we walked up to greet a male and female vampire who looked slightly older than Xander. The male stood taller than him, his build just as broad and muscular, with matching dark features. The female had olive skin with warm chestnut hair and kind matching pale blue eyes. Xander gripped my hand before releasing and walked up to hug them.
They must be his parents.
Xander stepped to the side and held his hand out to motion to me. “I’d like to introduce you to Emmaline Hastings. This is the girl I’d called you about. Emma, these are my parents, King Asher and Queen Reina.”
I curtsied and bowed my head as he’d instructed and waited for them to acknowledge me.
Queen Reina quickly spoke, her voice warm and welcoming. “Emma, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”
I stood and saw that she was offering a gentle smile. “I must admit, we’ve been quite anxious to meet you after everything Alexander has told us.”
She flashed a telling smile to her son and he stiffened. I smirked, hearing her teasing comment to him.
All he’d told them indeed. How much had they been privy to?
She walked closer and took my hands in hers. “Come, we will get to know you a bit better.”
Xander stepped closer, placing an assuring hand around my shoulder. “It’s been a long day. Would it be all right if we let her settle in before starting the inspections? We can start tomorrow first thing if that’s all right.”
I stiffened hearing the word inspection and my stomach fluttered. The Queen nodded with a small smile as the King scowled at his son’s postponement, speaking gruffly. “I’d really rather get this over with Alexander. You know the laws. She can’t...”
Xander spoke quickly, interrupting his father, earning a stern look in response. “Father, I know. But she’s had a very long few days, and tomorrow will be a lot for her. Could we just do it first thing? It’s starting to get late.”
My eyes widened as I struggled to understand what he could mean by the laws, or tomorrow being a lot for me. My thoughts were interrupted when the queen gave a comforting squeeze to the king, whispering into his ear. The king nodded shortly and stared at me before returning his firm gaze to his son. “Tomorrow at first light then. Do not be late Alexander.”
Xander nodded briefly and gave a short bow. I followed suit with a small curtsey before he placed his hand on the small of my back, guiding me quickly out of the room and down a long hall. We walked in charged silence until finally arriving to a large solid wooden door with ornate carvings from top to bottom. I was immediately whisked through the doorway and heard it shut quickly behind me. Xander let out a frustrated growl and I turned to see his face pinched in frustration.
“Xander, what is it?”
He shook his head, running a hand angrily through his hair. “I just can’t believe he would have you begin upon entering the building. After everything they know, he’d just treat you like you didn’t matter.”
I listened, trying to absorb what he was saying, but my thoughts caught at the questions running through my head. “What did he mean by laws concerning me?”
Xander’s eyes shot up and I could see that he was deciding how to answer. He finally blinked away and flashed over to a cabinet inside a gorgeous carved wooden desk against the wall. He pulled out a large crystal bottle of familiar dark amber liquid and took a long drag, shutting his eyes as it went down. He followed it with another and took a deep breath. “He means the laws concerning humans in our kingdom.”
I blinked at him, clearly not understanding his meaning and patiently waited for him to continue.
“Our laws state that any human within the kingdom must serve their role, or else are at risk from the vampires within it. Their roles are very specifically designed and the laws enforcing them are strict and upheld with the highest scrutiny.”
I hesitated, trying to decode how that could apply to me specifically. “So what are the roles then? Is he saying he wanted my role assigned now?”
Xander took another long swig and shook his head. “He wanted to begin your inspection immediately so that your role and worth could be assessed. Yes. The roles are simple. You are either employed here for a specific purpose, like for feeding or general work, or you are a pet. The only other option is to have a human as a mate with intent to turn them. There are no other options.”
My jaw dropped slightly as I struggled to think of what I could possibly be fitting into in the king’s mind.
“The inspection would determine who and what you are, and what you mean within our kingdom and within our world as a whole. He is essentially wanting to assess your worth to him and to us as a race.” A muscle in Xander’s jaw twitched and he took another long swig from the bottle. I woodenly walked over to join him and took the bottle from his hand.