No one moved for one single, stunned second, then Kieran's body slumped forward. Mad confusion ensued as limbs tangled and jumbled into a heap of bodies. There was a shriek, there was a thud, and then there was silence.
It lasted only a moment. Cameron, her voice muffled from beneath the pile of bodies, screeched, "Get off me, you stupid bitch!"
Kian could only think how inelegant she sounded. He watched her push from beneath Kieran's heavy weight, shoving Giacinta away, her features flushed and angry. His twin was slack against the heavy carpet. And Kian waited. Waited to feel agony pierce through his own heart, waited to feel Death creep icy hands along his spine.
Kieran looked dead.
His skin had that waxy look bodies had in funeral homes, without the rinse of blood beneath their skin. Heavy lashes formed spiky shadows on his cheeks. His mouth was white, colorless, and the lips parted just slightly as if he had breathed his last.
Oddly, his body was intact. They had all seen other vampires staked. Watched as their bodies collapsed into themselves and their skin turned leathery, until finally, their appearance reflected their age.
Which, he thought, still deep in shock, should make Kieran an unattractive pile of dust, not an attractive and realistic wax sculpture.
A muffled sob sounded behind him. He spun to see Cameron with wide, blank eyes and her hand clamped tightly over her mouth. Her head moved back and forth slowly as if to deny what she saw. As if to refute the truth of her loss.
Giacinta threw back her head and cackled. The sound was not quite sane, rippling through the air like poison and raising goose bumps on Cameron's skin. It snapped her back to reality. She met Kian's eyes and desperately pleaded with him to back away while her expression hardened and became resolute.
"Checkmate," Giacinta said, still grinning madly. She tilted her head and eyed Kieran's body scornfully. "I always told him he was no good at chess."
Kian simply stared.
"Better to be bad at chess than at poker," Jessa said coolly from behind him. Her words spun through his head wildly, ripping and clawing at each other as they tried to form a coherent sentence but failed miserably. "The stakes are a lot less deadly."
"And speaking of stakes," Cameron added, finally finding her voice, "do you have a preference?"
Uncertainty flashing. "Yes," she responded, recovering quickly. "I prefer it when they're in someone else." And then her face turned crafty. "Like buried in your soulmate."
Only a flicker of drowning desperation flared across Cameron's features. "Been there, done that," she said, her voice calm except for that hint of hopelessness. "I take it originality isn't your specialty."
"And following through isn't yours," Giacinta purred. "Or was your spell supposed to fail?" The knife appeared in her hands again and Kian had to wonder if she'd ever dropped it.
Cameron smiled. "Who said it did?"
For one long and gratifying second, Giacinta actually looked uncertain. She whipped her head back and forth between Cameron and Kian, her black eyes filled with suspicion. But when she noticed the blankness suffusing Kian's face, she relaxed. "Very funny," she snapped, but she didn't look amused at all.
Instead, desperation was creeping over her face as she realized that she was outnumbered by the three people in front of her and that she no longer had Cameron at her mercy. She was missing the one advantage she had when the twins had crashed her little party.
But she knew better than to act like she was scared or to show that she had nothing else up her sleeve. The last thing she planned to do was lose. She would find a way out and live to play another day.
And so, she did the only thing she could. She bluffed.
"Now, then. Shall we work on getting rid of the rest of this lovely little trio?"
Jessa flashed a glare in her general direction, but never really took her eyes away or returned her gaze. Her body balanced easily on one leg while the other rested lightly behind, ready to snap up and kick Giacinta wherever was closest. At this point, as long as Giacinta got hurt, Jessa would be happy. "Why don't you go to hell?" she returned sweetly.
"What? And make this easy?" She smiled, twirling the stake idly between two hands. "I'll pass." She slithered closer to Kian, whose wary eyes met hers calmly before he stepped carefully backwards. "I have better things to do with my time."
"You won't soon." So much confidence swam in her voice that, for the second time, uncertainty broke over Giacinta's features. And now it was Jessa's turn to step forward, using her body to shield a shattered Cameron. "You're not going to make it through all three of us before you die."
"All four of us," Remy corrected from the doorway. He leaned casually against the door jamb, fingering a lethal silver knife with sleek ash inlaid along the blade. He inspected it idly while it glinted beautifully between his palms. "Hello, chère," he said, nodding at Giacinta. "I thought I warned you what would happen if you didn't give up this disastrous little game of yours."
Giacinta brushed that off with a violent wave of her hand. "You should have killed me while you had the chance," she pointed out. "You should have known better than to think I would conform to what you wanted. Or that I would have listened to what you ordered."
Jessa's mouth had fallen open and now she closed it abruptly. "How do you two--"
"Chance," Remy interrupted smoothly. "I was following our dear Cameron one night and happened to come upon Giacinta with a rather wicked looking shotgun. And sawed-off, no less." He shook his head mournfully, slipping one finger down the glinting blade of the knife. "You'd think people would get a little more creative after so many attempts at murder, but it just doesn't happen sometimes."
The blond vampire blinked. "Wait a second. You caught her trying to kill Cameron... and you let her live?"
He shook his head and stepped into the room. "She didn't admit anything and I didn't have any proof. She could have been taking a perfectly innocent walk. You *know* how--"
"Right," Jessa interrupted quickly, before he could say anything about the Guardiens in Cameron's presence. "With a sawed-off shotgun. I don't know how that could be anything *but* innocent."
They glared at each other, chocolate eyes clashing with hazel.
All Cameron could think was that it wouldn't matter, couldn't matter, because Kieran was dead and it was over. All of it. The fighting and the constant death and he was gone. Gone. The word echoed hollowly in her head, like the peal of a bronze gong in the foggy morning sunlight. But it wasn't morning and the sun would never shine again because it couldn't. Oh, those burning rays would stream, touching the earth with their warm kiss, but they would never hold the same allure or the same promise. Too much had been taken too far away.
Suddenly she wanted to weep for what she had lost. For what they all had lost in those centuries of feuding and of murder.
And then she realized she was angry.
The emotion pulsed hotly beneath her skin. She closed her eyes briefly, trying to remember to breathe under the crimson wash of fury that threatened to overwhelm her. It covered her like a blanket, smothering, until all she could feel was hatred pushing through her veins, raging and burning scarlet. Her eyes snapped open.
Her remaining soulmate was standing in front of that murderess, protected only by Jessa and Remy, who did not know what he would do. Cameron could feel it radiating from him like a sonic boom. Move, she told him silently.
"Regardless," he said instead, his expression cold, so cold next to her flaring hate, "she's still here and she just killed my brother. I would appreciate if you would get out of the way so I can avenge him properly."
No, Cameron answered silently. She will only kill you and my dreams with you. Move.
Giacinta sniffed, not bothering to move away or take any action to protect herself. She stood there almost contemptuously, as if not one of them was a threat. "Avenge him, why?" she questioned. "There was certainly no love lost between the two of you."
Don't listen to her, she commanded silently. She will only feed you lies and hatred. Move.
"No," Kian agreed, his voice cold, "but there was more than enough blood."
Move, she whispered, unsure if the thought was voiced or only in her head. He flinched when she thought it, almost as if he was surprised to hear her in his head, in his dear, sweet mind that had been ripped so brutally away from the other half of his soul. And without her, he heard only silence.
He stepped back.
Cameron stepped forward.
But a loud and drawn-out wail shattered the moment. "'Cinta!"
All heads swiveled to stare, surprised, at the entrance to the room.
To Cameron, Jessa, and Remy, Morgan made quite a sight. Blond hair draping messily over her shoulders, tousled from sleep, and her eyes rimmed with tears. Her nightgown looked like it had been made for a small princess. It was covered in so many ruffles and so much lace that Cameron had to wonder how the child managed to stay upright.
Now she scrubbed a hand over that tear-streaked face, sniffling loudly. "I want Kieran," she sulked.
Cameron and Jessa just stared.
"Kieran's sleeping," Giacinta replied calmly, keeping her eyes trained on those in front of her. She didn't bother to look down at the child who looked ready to throw a fit loud enough for all the neighbors to hear. Possibly even those in neighboring states.
Her gamin face grew even more sullen. "Wake him up," she whined. She stamped her foot insistently and her lower lip trembled. She inched forward to clutch at Giancinta's hand, staring hard at the body on the floor. "That's not Kieran."
Giacinta rolled her eyes. "Yes, it is, Morgan. How many times have I told you to go to bed?"
"Where is Kieran?" Morgan shrieked in response. She wrenched violently on her foster mother's arm, dissolving into heartwrenching sobs. Giacinta slapped her.
The tears stopped abruptly.
"Morgan," Kian said carefully, holding out his hand. "Come here."
And surprisingly, Morgan listened. She let go of Giacinta's sleeve and walked over to slip her hand into his, the red mark on her cheek glowing vividly against her pale skin. It covered almost the entire side of her face and showed no sign of fading. "You look like Kieran," she whispered, her eyes shining with trust. "You were here before."
He glanced briefly down at her and then he smiled. He nodded, squeezing her hand just a little tighter for one short second. Then his gaze snapped sharply to Giacinta's face.
Jessa had been watching the interaction silently, but now she spoke up, her voice as cool as ever. "Will someone please explain to me why no one has killed her yet?" she demanded. "I would have--"
"No," Cameron said, "she's right. That would make it too easy." You don't have a stake, her brain reminded her helpfully. Find something nice and sharp before you start running your mouth. But she knew better than to stop talking. "Killing her would be too easy. It's the coward's way out." She paused, still looking, but then she added helpfully, "Hence the reason it's Giacinta's favorite game."
She nodded at Remy carefully, who had been so silent she'd almost forgotten he was there. He raised an eyebrow, skeptical, but then he shrugged. Straightening up, he flipped Cameron the knife, which she caught daintily by the blade, snagging it from midair with two fingers of her left hand. She suspected her right wrist was broken from when Giacinta had stepped on it.
She was not going to let that stop her.
Something else did instead.
Just as she slipped past her soulmate, he reached out, catching her arm. She tried to shake him off, but his grip only tightened. And something about the way he was holding her, something about the way he hadn't said anything, just made this odd gasping noise, made her turn back to look.
His pupils were wide and dilated, the warm violet almost completely obscured by that endless black. She grabbed him under the elbow as she felt his legs collapse beneath him until she was the only one supporting both of them. "Kian--"
A quick gasp was his only response. He shuddered once, then pain shot through him, sharp and stinging, bending him backwards and forcing his body up, as though he was being lifted by his chest. "Cameron," he whispered, and then his body collapsed, falling lifeless to the ground.
Cameron cried out and fell to her knees, sobbing as though her heart had splintered into a thousand pieces. Not both, she pleaded silently. Dear Goddess, please, not both. She reached one hand out to touch Kian's face, that mobile face, which in death was far too silent. A hand brushing across his full lower lip, hoping to feel a slight exhalation of breath against her fingertip, however unlikely she knew that hope might be. Instead those violet eyes stared blankly, cool flecks the color of the midmorning sky dotting the dusk-drenched irises. In death, not swirling with emotion or passion. In death, only flat.
Crystal tears slipped down her face and tangled in his lashes as she wept, tracing shimmering paths along the sharp plane of his cheek.
And when she turned to his twin, an identical path found its way across his own.
Jessa slipped an arm around her shoulders, offering comfort silently as Cameron wept over the twins' identical bodies and protecting her from the assault Jessa knew was coming, even if her friend had forgotten anything but her loss. Morgan buried her face in Cameron's shoulder.
"Well, well," Giacinta said, just a little stunned by her good fortune, "it looks like his assumptions were right after all."
"Not twins," Cameron whispered, remembering her earlier words to Kian. She had told him they were not twins and indeed, they were not. They were One.
The dark-haired vampire smirked. "Of course, they are. Or should I say, 'were?'" She laughed cruelly. "It doesn't really matter, does it? They're both dead. Unless..." Her eyes narrowed and her full lips twisted into a scowl. Striding purposefully across the room, she stopped in front of Kian's body, pushing Morgan away.
Morgan stumbled back, tears still flooding out of her eyes and trickling down her face. She sniffled pathetically, then ran forward to clutch at Giacinta's leg.
"Stop it, Morgan," she snapped absently, pushing the child behind her and out of the way. She nudged Kian's body over with the toe of her canvas shoe, miraculously still white and unmarred by scarlet blood. His body flopped on its back with a thud.
Morgan's eyes watered as she moved insistently closer to her adopted mother and the body at her feet. "'Cinta," she implored unhappily, "why isn't Kieran moving?" She tugged at Giacinta's sleeve, trying desperately to get her attention.
She must have finally lost her temper, because she yanked her shirt out of Morgan's grasp and snapped, "Because he's dead, you ungrateful little wretch. Now go to bed!"
Head hanging dejectedly, she did let go. She sniffled once, tears streaming down her face. If nothing else, the child had loved him. She dropped down to kneel over his body while Giacinta stepped back and watched warily.
Morgan contemplated him carefully, looking far older than her four years, and for just a second, Cameron expected him to sit up, grinning and proclaiming it a grand joke. But then she remembered the sharp stake embedded in his chest and felt that expectation slip and slide away.
"How did he die?" she asked calmly, that childish voice filled with wisdom Cameron could not even comprehend. Her tiny hand reached out, brushing over his eyelids gently, and closed his eyes, since he could no longer do it himself.
Jessa answered her, so quickly and easily that Morgan knew it was the truth. "Giacinta staked him," she answered, her voice quiet.
Her eyes still flew to meet her foster mother's, and she read the truth she'd been hoping to avoid in her face, no matter what words she used to deny it. "I loved him," she said with the simplicity that only a four-year-old has. She reached to pull the stake from his heart. With one sharp tug, it was free. She laid it on the floor next to him, then she climbed to her feet slowly, using one of the multitude of ruffles to scrape the tears from her face, and she looked at Giacinta. Betrayal shone from her eyes.
Still sniffling, she trudged to where Giacinta stood warily. "Can I have a hug before I go to bed?" she asked sadly. Her mouth drooped.
Giacinta nodded, opening her arms to oblige her. Morgan ducked into them, her head nestling briefly against her shoulder as fresh tears poured down her face. She pulled back slightly, her sweet child's face swollen with hurt and sadness, and then she leaned up to place a tear-stained kiss on Giacinta's cheek. "Goodnight, Mama," she whispered.
And while shock flowed over Giacinta's face at being called "mama," Morgan staked her with the same stake she'd driven through Kieran's heart.