The portal spit me and Sophie out directly in front of our house. I landed on my hands and knees, and I didn’t bother to get up. Rocks dug into my palms, and the remnants of a recent rainstorm seeped through my jeans. But that discomfort was nothing compared to the anguish tearing my heart apart.
I left him.
The man I loved more than anything in the world.
Jax. My cranky vampire. My lover.
And I’d just walked away like he hadn’t meant a thing to me. What had I done? Would he ever recover from this? But I already knew the answer to that. Knowing he was now destined to be alone for eternity only made this whole thing so much worse. How could I have done this to him? I was a terrible person, undeserving of his love.
“Oh, God,” I wailed.
I shifted, my butt sinking onto the cold, wet ground. Hanging my head, I let my tears consume me. Sobs shook my body, and I was powerless to stop them. Truth be told, I didn’t want to. I wanted to feel every agonizing second of pain, to share in the heartache I’d caused.
“Piper, honey, I know you’re hurting, but you need to pull yourself together.” Sophie crouched in front of me, eyes filled with compassion. “We have much bigger concerns at the moment.”
“I can’t.” I shook my head.
“If you don’t, all of us will die.” Her tone turned sharp.
Sophie stood and squared her shoulders. “I do hope you’ll be able to talk some sense into your twin, because she’s refusing to listen to reason.” She spun on her heel and marched into the house, back ramrod straight.
Without a word, Peyton lowered herself next to me and wrapped her arms around me in a comforting hug. She stroked my hair and hummed softly under her breath, exactly like she’d always done when we were kids and I’d wake from a nightmare.
I buried my face against her shoulder. “It hurts so much.”
“I know.” She continued to stroke my hair, the motion soothing some of my anxiety. “And it’s going to keep hurting, but that’s okay. Let it out.”
Peyton was my fraternal twin sister, and despite her often quiet disinterest in almost everything, she was, without fail, always there when I needed her the most. Like now. She knew me better than anyone, including Sophie, who I tended to spend more time with.
“I don’t know how I’m supposed to go through with this.” I eased back and wiped my eyes. My throat was raw, and my head pounded. “How can I fulfill my duty to my family, to the magical community, when my heart already belongs to someone else? What if Prince Gregory chooses me? How can I agree to that? What if he figures out my heart isn’t true to him?”
“You listen to me, Piper Pendragon.” Peyton adjusted so she was on her knees in front of me. She clasped my hands in hers and peered into my eyes. “The four of us are the last of our kind, and we’re bound by the blood oath our father swore. We’re going to hold our heads high and do what’s necessary to continue our survival.”
I nodded, but my bottom lip trembled with the threat of more tears.
“As the oldest, it’s very likely Prince Gregory will choose me, and I will bear that burden so that the rest of you can be happy.” She squeezed my hands.
“And if he doesn’t pick you?” I whispered.
I’d overhead Jax tell his brother that Prince Gregory would more than likely choose me out of spite, because Jax’s father had been the root cause of everything that happened to destroy the once thriving and peaceful magical community. I was terrified Jax was right.
“Then we’ll deal with it.” Peyton offered a sympathetic smile, but the gesture did nothing to calm me. “Now, pick yourself up, dust off, and let’s reclaim what’s rightfully ours.”
Peyton stood and pulled me to my feet. My legs were shaky, and my entire body ached with longing. I wanted nothing more than to feel Jax’s arms around me, to hear his voice as he told me things would be fine, that he’d never let anything happen to me. I momentarily closed my eyes and blew out a long, steady breath.
I needed to be strong. For him. For my sisters. For myself.
“Sabella is already with the Draven Coven. She went ahead of us to reassure Prince Gregory that the rest of us would arrive as well. She’s waiting for us,” Peyton said.
I nodded and wiped the lingering tears from my eyes. “If he doesn’t choose me, will I be able to return to Jax?”
Peyton frowned, and she averted her gaze. “Maybe someday, but the magical community is in ruins, and restoring order and unity is going to take time. That duty falls on our shoulders, unfortunately.”
Fresh pain sliced through my heart, and I placed my hand over my chest. “Why, Peyton? Why did you insist I go to him if you knew this was how things would end?”
When Peyton had first suggested that I spend an extended period of time in Keene Valley so that I might get to know Jax better, I’d refused for this very reason. I knew I wouldn’t be able to stay with him, and the last thing I ever wanted to do was break his heart. But Peyton had been adamant, going so far as to demand I do as she said, and as our rightful leader, I couldn’t exactly disobey her.
Peyton’s expression softened, and she smiled warmly. “Because he needed some motivation.”
I tilted my head with confusion. “Motivation?”
“Jax’s reputation is no secret, Piper. You know that. He’s rash and impulsive and quick to anger. But he’s also loyal to a fault, and he doesn’t take kindly to anyone taking what’s his.” She pinned me with a knowing look. “You two belong to one another. Jax loves you, and I’m counting on him to react exactly as he has in the past.”
Unease built in my chest and spread throughout me. “What have you done, Peyton?” I clutched her arm, eyes wide with terror. “You’re not planning to betray Prince Gregory, are you?” Doing so would mean certain death for all of us.
“Of course not.” She gently removed my hand from her arm. “I’m planning on Jax making a move.”
My jaw dropped. If Jax attempted to make a move against Prince Gregory, or any members of the Draven Coven, they’d kill him. He wasn’t strong enough to stand against a royal coven. Even with his entire family at his side, Jax would never win this fight. Peyton had to know that. What had she been thinking?
“You’ve signed his death warrant. You know that, right?” My voice rose with anger. As the full weight of Peyton’s deception hit me, rage boiled in my veins. “You used me.” I curled my hands into fists. Fire crackled from my fingertips. “You sent me there to manipulate Jax. To get him to love me so I could break his heart. You wanted him to be in pain.”
“No.” Peyton shook her head forcefully. “I sent you there so you’d both get a taste of what it means to be with your soulmate. That kind of love is powerful, Piper. More powerful than anything I’ve ever witnessed, including us.”
Hope sparked somewhere deep in me. Was Peyton right? Would Jax come for me? No… “I told Jax that leaving to fulfill my father’s blood oath would make me happy. He won’t come because he can’t. He won’t do something he knows will cause me pain or make me unhappy.” My shoulders sagged.
“You underestimate him.” She frowned again, her disappoint in me evident in her expression. “Ivy Rose made that mistake, and look how that ended for her.”
As badly as I wanted to believe Peyton, to hope that Jax would ignore my wishes, I knew he wouldn’t. He was too honorable for that. He cared too much about me and my feelings. I had to face the fact that the few days of pure happiness I’d found with Jax would be all I ever had. From this moment forward, my commitment was to my sisters and the magical community.
“Now, come. We have to prepare for our meeting with Prince Gregory.” Peyton stood a little straighter and headed for the front door.
Reluctantly, I followed, but my steps faltered when my foot landed on the first stair. I’d been standing in that very spot the first time I’d laid eyes on Jax. He’d been here with Abby, the two of them hunting for Isach. The way Jax had cared for Abby, protected her, stood up for her… that alone was enough to endear me to him.
Then he’d met my gaze, and the emotions that had hit me… I swore I was going to combust. But that was nothing compared to how I’d felt the first time he smiled at me. Held my hand. Made love to me. Told me he loved me.
Jaxon Halstead, cranky vampire extraordinaire, was my soulmate, and I loved him with my entire being.
I refused to go down without a fight. A new determination surged through me. Maybe Peyton was right. Maybe Jax wouldn’t just give up like I’d asked him to. Right before I’d vanished, I had told him I was lighting his fuse. Of course, I’d said that to mean I wanted him to rage, to do what he needed to do in order to let his hurt out and eventually heal. But maybe, subconsciously, I’d been doing the same thing Peyton had—breaking him so he’d want to fight, so he’d do whatever was necessary to get me back.
“Piper.” Brow raised, Peyton held the door open. “You coming?”
Head held high, I stormed past my sister and into the house. This would be the last day I spent here, for once we left, we’d become guests at the Draven Coven castle until Prince Gregory announced his choice at the Royal Coven Ball—an event he was reviving after decades of it not existing. Then, my sisters and I would begin the process of reclaiming our rightful home—the Pendragon Palace.
Personally, I’d give up all the castles and riches and power for a future with Jax. Then again, any sort of future wouldn’t exist if I didn’t uphold my part of the blood oath. As much as I hated this, I needed to fulfill my role so that I—and my sisters—would survive to fight another day. Because that’s what this was: a fight.
For our lives. Our way of life. Our future. Our freedom.
“I do hope you’ve come to your senses.” Sophie stood in the middle of the now empty living room, arms crossed. “We don’t have time for your dramatics.”
“Shut up, Sophie,” Peyton snapped. “Just because you’ve never found anyone willing to put up with your ice cold personality doesn’t mean you can be a bitch to Piper. She’s hurting. Have a little compassion.” She made her way upstairs, probably to pack her things.
“Well, she’s in a foul mood,” Sophie said.
“Aren’t we all?” I asked. “You can’t honestly tell me you’re okay with what we’re about to do.”
“Of course I’m not.” She shot me a dirty look. “But all of this was decided for us, and we can complain about it all we want. Doesn’t change the facts.”
I studied Sophie for a long moment. She’d always blindly accepted our fate, never questioning it, never showing any real disdain for what we had to do, or the fact that we had absolutely no say in our own lives. Had I been wrong about her true feelings? Was she as angry and upset about this as the rest of us?
“You’d better pack your things. Prince Gregory won’t continue to be patient.” Sophie nodded toward the stairs.
Slowly, I walked upstairs. Each step felt like I was marching toward my death. In a way, I was. Life without Jax was no life at all. Naively, I thought leaving him would be easier than this. I hadn’t let him claim me, nor had I given him my kiss, though I’d wanted to. In those few seconds before I left, I’d considered doing just that—kissing him and sealing our bond. Then, there would be no way for Prince Gregory to choose me. But my own happiness didn’t matter, not when my sisters’ lives hung in the balance.
I took comfort in the knowledge that Jax knew that, and even though he hated it as much as I did, he could respect my need to protect my family. He would’ve done the same thing. I was counting on him doing the same thing now, too. He said I was part of his family, but would he fight for me in the same way he fought for Chloe and his brothers and Abby?
Only time would tell.
Hopefully, I could stall Prince Gregory from making a choice, to give Jax time to do whatever he’d do. If he did anything at all. For all I knew, my hope was a fool’s wish. Regardless, if Jax showed up to save the day or not, I wasn’t going to just accept my fate. The Pendragons were the most powerful coven in the entire world, and if the four of us stood together and tapped into all of our power, we’d be unstoppable.