"Father." She gave him the most evil glare she could muster. He was absolutely shameless, the way he kept pushing her to Niko!
He returned it with a wide-eyed look of innocence. "This is work, my little girl. I must take that call." He turned to Niko. "Please stay and keep Joey company."
Niko smiled pleasantly. "Of course."
When her father left, the silence that emerged was painfully awkward.
"Do you find my company so uninteresting now?"
Her eyes flew to him in sheer horror of what he thought. When she saw he wasn't joking, his beautiful face grim, she shook her head furiously. "Of course not! How could you think that?"
"What else am I to think when you no longer seek my company?"
She turned red. Seek his company…the words sounded so very nice when in truth she had practically stalked him and stuck to Niko like glue in the first year she had spent here. He had been her whole world then. She had worshipped him, shared with him her deepest secrets. She had once cherished a secret, silly, pathetic hope that he would fall in love with her-
Until of course she had seen the woman leaving his room.
And another one the night after that. It had continued on and on until Joey finally came to the numb realization that it would always continue, Niko making love with all those women but her. She was a novelty to him at worst – and his little sister at best. He cared for her…but not the same way she cared for him.
"It's different now," she mumbled finally.
He shook his head slowly. "No, Joey. It's not different. I am not different. It is you who are different." He paused. "I have always wanted to ask you this."
She was shocked at how tense Niko appeared suddenly, his jaw hard. "You can ask me anything, Pr-Niko," she hastily corrected herself when Niko's eyes flashed – a sure sign of his temper. It was rare for Niko to be furious but when he did lose his temper-it was a sight to have nightmares about for months.
"Was it when you learned I am the Prince of the Morteia that you changed? That you began to fear me?"
She gasped. "No." Her face went white at what Niko had thought all these years. She had known how isolated his life was, had known that the fear of his own race hurt him even though she was only one of the few he had allowed such knowledge of.
He smiled bitterly. "Truly?"
The pain in his lovely bright eyes was unbearable. She flew out of her chair, sinking to her knees at his side as she took his hand. He was her Prince…in so many ways and the fact that she had caused him such pain hurt her so much it was hard to breathe.
"It's not like that," she whispered fiercely.
He lifted her chin up so that her eyes would meet his. "I used to be your whole world, angela."
"You still are." The words trembled on her lips.
Niko's eyes burned. "Do you mean that? Do you absolutely mean that?" His tone became steel, as sharp as the killing blade that only the Morteia possessed. The Morteia demanded the truth from everyone. It was their creed, and they mercilessly took the life of anyone who dared utter a lie in their presence.
"Yes." She met his gaze unflinchingly.
Niko drew a hard sharp breath at her answer. His hand actually shook when he slowly caressed her cheek with his knuckles. They were not that far in their age yet when he looked at her like that, he felt so incredibly ancient and world-weary it broke her heart. They were truly poles apart-in every way.
"Then why, angela piccola-why are you so different with me all these years? What made you change?"
She closed her eyes. "I can't say it," she said brokenly.
Suddenly they were on their feet, Niko using his Caro speed-which was even greater than an ordinary Caro because of who he was. He pulled her to his arms. "You must tell me."
She shook her head against his chest even as she snuggled closer. How long, oh how long had she dreamt of being in his arms again! And it felt heavenly! "Never." And she meant it.
Her heart broke a little when he carefully set her away from him. "I will find out eventually." His lip curled. "And if I learn that someone – anyone – is trying to go between us, he is dead."
And then after pressing a quick, tender kiss on her forehead, he was gone.
Niko knew that one of the Morteia was waiting for him outside the Chairman's quarters even before he saw Ilia standing under a tree, as still as the wind he controlled. He was known to be the most silent of all the Morteia, which was saying a lot since none of them were talkative to begin with. Among the Morteia, he was the only one to match Niko's impressive height.
He bowed before saying, "A matter has come up, Highness." Although the Morteia – at least this group – were all childhood friends, they also insisted on formality while doing their work and thus did not call Niko by his first name.
The two of them made their way to the hidden dungeons of the Livingfire School of Caros.
"What is it, Ilia?"
"I had not known you were good friends with the Chairman's daughter."
For a long while, Niko did not speak. And then he said quietly, "She is the only person in this world that holds power over me."
The rest of the Morteia stood in waiting for their Prince's command when Niko and Ilia reached the dungeons.
A vampire, held in chains, growled and hissed invectives at them. He was not mad. He had not reached that level yet. But he was evil.
"Who sent you?"
"I shall never tell a child like you," the vampire jeered.
"I thought it likely but I was feeling merciful." Niko looked at the vampire dispassionately. "Now, I am not."
The vampire only had a second to appreciate the young man's words before he was screaming in pain. He had believed he was dealing with a child, but now he knew. He had been wrong…and it cost him his worthless life.
Only a heap of ashes remained.
"This is the second vampire we have caught since we came here, Highness," Darius, Niko's second in command, reported.
"There will be more," Niko said before turning away. "Be sure none of you speaks about this. It is not yet time."