“Big brother?” My jaw dropped. The mask I had precariously placed on my face was shattered, long forgotten. I couldn’t tell if Nikolai was lying or not. There wasn’t an ounce of deceit on his face, nor was there any other emotion.
“It seems you know little about your mate.” Nikolai shook his head regretfully, “What a shame. If you were mine, nothing would be kept from you. You would never be left in the dark.”
“If Viktor’s your brother, why isn’t he in line for the throne?” My eyes narrowed at Nikolai, ignoring his last comment.
“Viktor—as you know him by, hate’s being in charge of others.” Nikolai smiled grimly, “Viktor’s skill is ending lives. He never possessed the tasks necessary to rule.”
“There are plenty of Royal’s skilled at ending lives.” I murmured; my eyes locked on Nikolai’s. “They use others to do their dirty work, yet the blood remains on their hands.”
While Nikolai let nothing slip, I knew he would grasp my meaning. It had been him who planned the attack at my Birthday Gala after all, not Viktor. What kind of man would frame his own brother?
“Viktor lacks the skill to remain unseen, to remove yourself from the situation and let others take the fall.” Nikolai murmured, his eyes holding a strange light. “Viktor enjoys killing personally, he lacks the patience to allow others that privilege.”
“I find that honorable.” I kept my voice hard, “He doesn’t feel the need to hide behind anyone else. He takes responsibility for what he’s done.”
“Little innocent Princess.” Nikolai chuckled, shaking his head. “My brother has done things your pretty little head couldn’t imagine.”
“I’ll let him tell me that.” I choked out, “I trust him with my life, I’ll give him that chance.”
“I think I’ll give you a gift, little Princess.” Nikolai’s lips turned up in a smile. Nikolai Aslanov stepped up to me, his eyes burning down into my own. My heart hammered at the proximity, and my stomach twisted into knots. Standing this close to another male felt much too intimate, especially when my heart longed for Viktor. “I like you Arabella, something which is rare for me. Your innocence is alluring, yet you are strong and cunning. You have such potential.”
“I don’t need any gifts.” I shook my head, remembering what Beta Devin had told me. I couldn’t allow myself to be in debt to a man like Nikolai Aslanov.
“There are no strings attached to this gift, Arabella.” Nikolai murmured down at me, his eyes conveying no emotion. “I will give you and my brother a chance. When you see him for what he is, I would hope you’d give me a chance. I could make you happy, little Princess.”
Nikolai’s voice was like silk in my ear, as he knew just the words to say. His thumb skimmed against my cheek and I resisted the urge to lurch away from his touch. It felt all wrong, Nikolai wasn’t Viktor.
“What is he, Nikolai?” I gazed up at my mate’s younger brother, wondering how Viktor could possibly be worse than him.
“He’s a bigger monster than I am.” Nikolai murmured; his eyes dark as he looked down at me.
“Arabella, Caroline’s here.” Shannon popped her head outside, her eyes hard with severity.
I let out an annoyed groan. Caroline had come early, unaware that Nikolai Aslanov was coming for dinner.
“Bring her up to my bedroom.” I nodded at Shannon. She gave me an impatient look before turning her eyes to Nikolai. Her golden eyes hardened then vanished from sight as she stepped back into the house.
“I can see why the human is your assistant—as you call her.” Nikolai chuckled; a sly light hidden in his eyes.
“What do you mean by that?” I grimaced. A headache was beginning to form, and I hadn’t the energy to figure out the hidden meaning behind every word he said.
“Do not worry your beautiful head over it.” Nikolai shook his head, amusement still gleaming in his eyes. “Go to your friends, little Princess. I will be leaving your Kingdom shortly.”
I reluctantly turned my back on Nikolai Aslanov and headed into the house. Dad stood against the far wall of the living room, remaining close by incase I needed him.
“I wasn’t about to let you out there alone.” Dad shook his head, a glass of whiskey in his hand.
“Thanks, Dad.” I smiled softly. I couldn’t help but remember what Nikolai said about my Dad. I refused to let him plant suspicion in my head. I knew Dad was on the right team. He was stern and strict, but he was a loving and caring ruler. Dad played on my team, the team where I followed in his footsteps.
The name Nikolai gave me swirled in my head, begging to be spoken. I knew now wasn’t the time nor place for that. When things finally calmed down, I would ask my Dad the meaning behind that name.
“Go spend time with your friends, I will keep an eye on our guest.” Dad said the word ‘guest’ with contempt, his eyes flickering to the backdoor.
I managed to escape into my bedroom without drawing attention. My main concern at the moment was Elena Halifax. If she caught me in the hallway, she would easily be able to smell the difference in my scent. I couldn’t trust Nikolai Aslanov to keep the identity of my mate a secret. While I knew he valued secrets, he also knew they came with a price. There would be more than enough people willing to pay for that bit of information. The identity of my mate wouldn’t stay secret for long, but I couldn’t help trying.
Caroline and Shannon sat in my bedroom, the two of them in one of their usual spats.
“She told you what time to come at.” Shannon rolled her eyes. “You could’ve warned us you were coming early.”
“How was I supposed to know Nikolai Aslanov would be coming for dinner?” Caroline huffed, crossing her arms over her chest. “It’s not like I’m the first one to get news around here.”
Caroline shot Shannon and I a hard look, making my insides flood with guilt. I hadn’t told Caroline anything that happened within the last few days.
My guilt diminished when I remembered she had spread that rumor about Elena Halifax being responsible for the attack at my Birthday Gala. There was a reason I hadn’t trusted Caroline with information, I just needed to be reminded.
“Are we supposed to come to you every time somethin’ happens?” Shannon grimaced; her honey eyes lit with irritation.
“You don’t have to come running to me, but a heads up would be nice!” Caroline scoffed, “I had to find out from my Mom that August Halifax died.”
“Arabella and her Dad didn’t need that information being spread everywhere.” I could visibly see Shannon’s patience running thin, her fingers tapping against her leg at a fast pace.
“And what’s that supposed to mean?” Caroline scoffed, “Bella, why haven’t you guys told me all the drama going on?”
I let out a weary sigh, desperately not wanting to be pulled into their argument. While I wanted to stay out of it, I planned on confronting Caroline about the bit of information I gave her. She would deny spreading the rumor, but I had told no one else that information. As much as I wanted to let Shannon stay, the two of them were usually at each other’s throats. Shannon had less patience for Caroline’s antics than I did.
“Shannon, could you run to the kitchen and grab us all some snacks and drinks?” I tried to convey my meaning with my eyes, hoping she would understand.
“The kitchen?” Shannon’s dark eyebrow cocked up at me.
“There should be two guards at the end of the hall, have one of them go with you.” I nodded, “Tell them I said so.”
Shannon caught onto what I was saying, letting out a frustrated huff before she stood from the couch. I watched as Caroline rolled her eyes at Shannon’s back.
“Don’t roll your damn eyes at me.” Shannon snapped in a clipped tone, nearly coaxing a chuckle from my mouth.
Once the door closed behind Shannon, Caroline launched into her tirade.
“Blames me for coming early.” Caroline scoffed, “Like I was supposed to know!”
“Granted, half of town knew Nikolai Aslanov was coming.” I shrugged, pointing out that small fact. It was nearly impossible to keep things like that a secret in a Kingdom so vast.
“I didn’t hear the news.” Caroline shrugged, “And what’s up with the two of you? Neither one of you have tried to talk to me in the last few days, and then I find out all of this happened.”
I pursed my lips, forming the words that would surely make Caroline go on the defensive.
“Remember what I told you about Elena Halifax and the attack at my Birthday Gala?” I questioned, watching the confusion flood into her blue eyes.
“Of course, I remember.” Caroline shrugged, “I couldn’t forget something like that.”
“Well, I overheard some of the servants repeating that information.” I paused; my eyes peeled on Caroline’s every move. Something in her eyes flickered, followed by suspicion.
“I had nothing to do with that.” Caroline frowned at me, “It had to be Shannon or someone else you told.”
“That’s the thing, Shannon never told anyone.” I shrugged, “As you said, I’ve been with Shannon for days now.”
“Are you accusing me of this?” Caroline scoffed, “Really, Arabella?”
“I’m not accusing you of anything.” I grimaced, “Out of the three of us, two haven’t said a word. That leaves you.”
I could see Caroline’s stubborn exterior crack. Instead of apologizing like I thought she would, her eyes narrowed in anger.
“Can you really blame me?” Caroline scoffed, “Even after the attack at your Birthday Gala, you and your Dad let her into your home.”
“I lied, Caroline.” I gritted my words out through clenched teeth. Aela growled in irritation, angered at Caroline’s attitude. I had trusted her with information that could’ve brought harm to me, and she treated it as though it were nothing more than a harmless rumor.
“You lied?” Caroline scoffed, her mouth dropping.
“Elena Halifax wasn’t responsible for the attack.” At least not directly, I thought.
“Then who was?” Caroline’s eyes narrowed.
“Why would I tell you that?” I asked, “The last time I told you something, the entire service staff was talking about it.”
Caroline’s mouth opened to say another smart quip when her eyes locked on something. Her blue eyes were questioning as they locked in on my necklace.
“I thought you gave that to your Uncle?” Caroline’s eyes flickered up to my face, regarding me questioningly.
“I never told you about that.” I scoffed to myself, “How did you know about that?”