I grimaced, and pain spiked through my face.
“You scared the hell out of me, Astrid. I got your text with the address and your ominous message that you were going in, and that I needed to take care of Charlie if you didn’t come out. Then when you wouldn’t answer your phone…” He shook his head.
“You called Luc.” It wasn’t a question, not really. I’d texted Claude out of desperation, knowing that he probably wouldn’t be back in town yet. But I’d relied on him for so long, I knew that if I could count on anyone to help me rescue Mason, it would be him.
“Of course I did.”
“You were certain you could trust him?”
“To help you, if he could get there in time? Yes. But his methods aren’t what I would have hoped for.”
Luc had killed Min. I’d killed Jarvis. No witnesses. Nothing concrete to tie Nicolas to any crime. Was that why the Magister had killed Min?
The question must have flashed across my face. “I don’t know why Luc killed her. But he’s claiming that he was worried for your lives. It’s not something I think we can disprove. And…”
“Luc and Nicolas are claiming that Min killed Jake of her own volition, because she wanted to see Nicolas happy. Then she killed Mary because she decided she wasn’t good enough for Nicolas.” He shook his head. “Hell, Luc has gone so far as to suggest that he invited Isaiah to come take care of Min. That she’d gotten out of control. Although he, of course, didn’t realize how far gone she really was.”
I laughed, a short humorless sound that I regretted as pain spiked from my ribs. “That makes no sense. They’re just making that up to remove Nicolas from suspicion. How are they explaining Jarvis’s involvement? And if that’s true about Isaiah, why didn’t he tell us that when we spoke to him?”
“They’re saying Jarvis was in it for the money. And he was sleeping with Min. Both of those give him good reason to help her. As far as Isaiah is concerned, since Luc wasn’t willing to come out and say anything about him directly, I don’t think we’ll get a straight answer there. And we don’t have anything to charge Isaiah with either. The evidence just isn’t there to charge him with the other victims the OWEA is certain are his. So he’s hardly inspired to talk to us about anything.”
“But it’s all bullshit, Claude.” For once, my mom’s voice didn’t reverberate through my mind at the curse. “What happened to Min’s coin?”
He grimaced. “Some witches came and looked at it. It’s in evidence right now, but the Covenant is petitioning for it. Something about ancient, dangerous magic that needs to be destroyed. They claim that the enchantment on the coin is old. It’s probably been enchanted for the centuries that Min has carried it, and might have been that way since before she owned it.”
Destroyed? Far more likely the coin would find its way into a witch’s research. A permanently enchanted object was a thing of legends. A lot of witches would be interested in seeing how it was accomplished. “What does Vasquez say about all this?”
“He’s buying most of it. My guess is that he just wants this mess of a case closed. He knows we don’t have enough to charge Nicolas. He’s not willing to make a stink about it when he knows we can’t prove any of it in court.” He grinned. “He’s pretty pissed at you, though. Something about not obeying a direct order. I don’t think he’ll fire you, your powers are too valuable. But I’d imagine you’ll get very familiar with your desk for a good long while.”
Relief rushed through me at that. I might not love the field, but I did love my job. After seeing Mason tied to that chair, and facing down Min and Jarvis, nothing sounded so good as my nice, safe desk. At least for a while. And Min and Jarvis were gone. They’d never hurt anyone again.
But it wasn’t good enough.
“He did this, Claude. Nicolas was behind all of this. I know it.”
“I know. And Nicolas won’t get away with this, Astrid.” His eyes narrowed. “But you’ll just have to trust me on that.”
Annoyance ran through me. But we’d gotten Jake and Mary Stone’s killers. Even if the one directing them was beyond my ability to take down for the moment. “But Mason’s all right,” I said, reassuring myself more than asking him.
Claude grinned, and the room brightened. “Yes, little one. Your werewolf is going to be okay.”
The nurses let me in to talk to the very drugged, very irritated Mason. I stayed by his bedside until I feared that if I didn’t get a shower, I’d soon be booted out of the hospital. And I worried that even though he wasn’t really talking to me, that my presence was keeping him from resting fully. He muttered and groaned in his sleep. I went home and showered, then collapsed into bed. Claude had promised to stop by Mason’s and feed Charlie. I didn’t ask how he would get in. And aside from me, Claude was Charlie’s favorite person. I rested easier knowing that someone would be looking after the cat. The next morning, I woke before dawn.
I blinked at the grayness of predawn shining into my bedroom and tried to pinpoint what woke me. I closed my eyes and felt with my mind. Flashing with wildness and so familiar I had to blink back tears, lycan energy pulled at me. And the fresh scent of outdoors and sunshine filled my nose.
Then the doorbell rang.
I trotted down the stairs as quickly as I could on my still-sore ankle and with every movement sending pulses of pain from my face, and sharp spikes from my cracked ribs. I opened the door without a glance out the peephole, and threw my arms around Mason’s chest, taking care to keep my bandaged nose a few inches away from his broad chest.
He jerked in my arms and I jumped back. “I’m so sorry. Are you okay? What are you doing here?”
His face was ashen and dark circles rimmed his eyes, but the strength he always carried with him remained. Beaten down, but never beaten.
“He threatened to walk here.” Claude’s voice was tight with disapproval, and he stood behind Mason. A frown creased his ever-young face. “I’ll be back in an hour.” Then with the speed Claude rarely demonstrated in front of non-vampires, he was gone.
I helped Mason into the house. He supported himself okay, but I worried, so I clung to his arm and led him to the couch. I sat beside him, and he melted into the squishy furniture.
“You look terrible.” And he did. Bruises and cuts covered far too much of his swollen face. And the T-shirt he’d forced on did little to cover his bandages.
“Right back at you.” He grinned to soften the insult.
I touched my nose softly. “What on Earth are you doing here?” I demanded. “I was heading back to the hospital in an hour.” Sudden guilt rose in my chest to clog my throat. “I’m sorry. I should have been there when you woke up.”
He shook his head slowly. “Nonsense. I’m the one who should apologize. But I just had to see…had to make sure.”
I took his hand in mine and gave him a reassuring squeeze. I understood just how he felt. I’d needed to see him too. Had to make certain—with my own eyes—that he was okay.
“You changed,” I said, and his gaze snapped back to mine.
“How did you do that?”
“I’m not entirely sure. It shouldn’t even be possible. But when I saw him hit you, it was like the beast poured out of me. The thought of you getting hurt—killed—was more than I could handle. When he hit you, a fever overtook me and the power I haven’t felt in years rolled over me. Forced its way out of me.”
He took a haggard breath. “When we went in after Min, she was waiting for us. She dropped some sort of blinding grenade on us—a spell bought from a witch, I think. Caused enough confusion that she got the drop on us. I watched her take down the rest of my team, Astrid, before they knocked me out and dragged me to that old building. A couple might make it, but I didn’t know that at the time. I knew that she’d kill you without a second thought. I couldn’t let you die.”
“They kept you alive to draw me out.”
“Yes. Min still thought you might be able to identify her off the coin. Or even off of Mary Stone. She didn’t want to take chances.”
I reached out and smoothed his bed-smooshed hair. He let me, eyes still searching my face and his hands squeezing my other hand.
“Astrid, if I’d lost you—”
“Hush,” I said gently. “You didn’t.”
“Please. I have to say this. If I’d lost you, I don’t know how I would have gone on. I should have told you this a year ago. I should have pushed past my own issues to talk to you. I should have asked you out on a damn date.”
I smiled at him but no amusement broke his pained expression.
“I care about you, Astrid. Your kindness and your warmth. Your clever brain and your courage.” He took a haggard breath. “And I love the way you look at me. With so much trust and affection.”
It was too soon to say more. I knew that, even if the words screamed inside my chest. And even though I knew Mason was different, a small part of me—buried deep inside—still feared that he’d end up like my parents; that someday he’d decide that I wasn’t worth caring about.
But the rest of me knew better. And the rest of me didn’t care how much it would hurt if he left, because that part of me knew he never would.
“I care about you, too.” I steeled my spine. “But if you want to be with me, you’re going to have to put the guilt over what happened to your fiancé behind you.” He winced but I pressed on. Not only talking to him anymore. Natalie’s words pressed against my mind. I needed to reach out to my family, too. See if there was a connection that could be bridged. “You almost died yesterday. Something could happen to you—could happen to any of us—at any time.” My throat tried to close at the thought. “Do you really want to risk never seeing your family again? Do they deserve that?”