Ayana stood in front of her full-length mirror, examining the changes her pregnancy had wrought. Her breasts were huge and heavy. And Ayana didn't even want to think about having a baby suckle from them. Not, she admitted with a sensual grin, she ever minded having Brian suck them.
Speaking of Brian, what was taking him so long to shower? Ayana was in one of her moods, and it had taken all of her composure not to do something about it earlier when the house was full of well-wishers.
Strong arms wrapped around her too-large waist. "I thought you would've been asleep by now."
Ayana turned in her husband's arms, then down at the impossibly large belly between them. She groaned. "I'm as big as this mansion."
Brian chuckled. "You're beautiful."
"Only if you're into beached whales."
"I'm into you, no matter the size."
"Playboy charms, Ambassador Alexander, are the reason why I'm in this state."
Brian led her to their bed, and they sat.
"No, Mrs. Alexander, if I'm not mistaken, you were the one to seduce me."
She had at that. It was the way of her kind. Yet it had been the human who’d stolen her heart so completely she’d had to have him. Had to make him her mate, no matter the sacrifice.
He caressed her cheek, thumb gliding over lips and parting them for his kiss. Soft and gentle. "You're mine."
Brian kissed her deeper, feeding her supernatural craving with his sweet tongue. And yes, she was his, not just in body. In heart. In soul.
Ayana wanted him, wanted Brian in a lusty, primal way that was urgent and all consuming.
He pulled back, leaving them panting and unfulfilled.
"I want to make love."
Dark-brown eyes dropped to breasts that were straining against the silk gown Ayana wore. Brian licked his lips in undisguised lust, reminding Ayana of the males from her island home.
"You've had a long day, Ayana, and you're exhausted."
True, but that didn't mean—
"You need your rest, not a horny husband pawing all over you."
That was exactly what she needed, but Brian was laying her down and tucking her in.
He was right, but that did nothing to abate her hunger for him. "At least hold me until I fall asleep."
"That goes without saying." He snuggled in behind her.
"You'll work tonight?"
"I’m still editing the peace treaty between my people and yours. I have a couple of more ideas, which I’ll run by you tomorrow," he said, Brian’s subtle way of letting her know that business talk was also off the table for tonight.
"No sex. No business. You're a cruel male, Ambassador Alexander."
The hand that had been idly playing with her belly slid northward, found a breast and squeezed.
"Just for tonight. Trust me, tomorrow morning, after you're well rested" —he flicked her nipple— "I'm going to have my wicked way with you."
The sound Ayana made was half laugh, half moan. The male really did have the most exquisitely pleasing fingers.
"Fine. Tomorrow." She settled comfortably, feeling warm and protected with him holding her. Just as she began to drift off to sleep, Ayana remembered. "We haven't thought of a name."
Brian kissed her bare shoulder. "I know. I've given it some thought, but we can talk about that—"
"Tomorrow. Yes, I know."
"Go to sleep, Ayana. It can all wait. We have time. Tomorrow is just a few hours away." He kissed her again, leaning up, this time, to meet her lips when she turned her head to him. "I love you, now stop talking and go to sleep."
Turning her head, and finally admitting she was bone tired, Ayana allowed herself to fall asleep, dreaming about Brian, their baby, and tomorrow.
An unknown amount of time later, Ayana heard the door to her bedroom open. Brian was no longer holding her, although she still slept on her side. All the lights in the room were now out, the moon shining in from the balcony doors the only illumination.
She didn't open her eyes, didn't make a single move as she listened to him close the door and come farther into the bedchamber. Ayana sensed, rather than heard, him walk around the bed and to her side. She could even feel his eyes on her.
But the sensation of his proximity was all wrong. A cold chill swept over her. An anonymous flash of fear gripped her. And she knew, with all that she was, Ayana knew it wasn't Brian who stood above her.
The hand that smelled of long years of smoking should've surprised her when it slapped over her mouth and nose. But it didn't. As the daughter of a queen, she'd never known the scent of evil, but she did now. It smelled of sulfur. A demon stench that clung to the man who'd crawled into bed with her.
"You're more beautiful close up than on television. Ebony skin, sultry smell, long, coiled hair. Such a pity. The two of us could've had some fun." Something hard with a circular tip pressed into her stomach. "But it seems your human pet got here first, creating this abomination."
Abomination. Yes, Ayana knew some humans viewed the child she and Brian created in that way. She had neither cared about their hateful words nor their incessant rallies against the peace treaty. Yet this night, she wished she weren’t with child, especially a human child.
This male had chosen well, knowing when a female of her kind was at her weakest. It was when so many of her kinswomen were typically slaughtered. And the reason she’d traveled to this land, needing to protect her people from extinction.
Ayana dared not move, dared not open her eyes and let him see the terror she knew was there. Instead, she shut them tighter and prayed. Prayed that Brian would stay away, prayed that the human only wanted to scare her into returning home.
"That pet of yours has betrayed his kind. Laid down with the enemy and given her his seed. We don’t need no goddamn peace treaty. And we don’t need you."
Before she could register the pfft of sound, she felt the sharp stab of pain. Ayana wanted to scream out, wanted to roar, wanted to kill the human who smelled of smoke and sin. But she thought of Brian rushing to her side, crashing through their door in a hurry to see what was the matter. And running into the killer with the gun. No, Ayana wouldn't cry, wouldn't give the bastard the satisfaction of using her to lure Brian into his malicious web of horror and madness.
So she stayed still and quiet, as quiet as the blood slowly seeping from her body, from the belly that was supposed to keep her baby safe.
Negasi eased from under the heavy embroidered comforter and slid out of bed. Foregoing slippers and a robe, she made her way to her bedroom door and opened it—just a crack. But it was enough. Enough for Negasi to see a glow of light from under Ayana's door.
She opened the door wider, took a single step into the dimly lit hallway, then stopped. Every atom in her body screamed for her to go to her daughter, to offer what comfort she could, to cradle her in her arms as if she were still a babe of two. But Negasi didn't give into the yearning. Instead, she stepped back inside her room and closed the door, feeling utterly, pathetically helpless.
Negasi paced, as she did most nights after bringing Ayana home from the hospital. But this wasn’t truly her home. Why on earth would she want to stay in this mansion of death and despair? Thankfully, Ayana had the good sense not to return to the bedchamber she'd shared with her human consort.
But sleeping three doors away from the master bedchamber was small comfort for Ayana, Negasi knew. Yet she'd refused to leave, giving nonsensical reasons that Negasi didn't bother arguing against.
Ayana spent most days either locked in her room or in Brian's library, where the male’s body had been found slumped on his desk—two gunshot wounds to the back of his head.
Negasi opened the balcony doors, letting in the crisp May breeze. She heard flapping wings above her and soft feet patrolling the grounds below her. The guards were on duty—deadly and ravenous for human blood. They should’ve been there that fateful night, but Ayana had convinced them all that an entourage of armed sentries did not convey the right image for a nation in the middle of a peace negotiation.
Against her better judgment, Negasi had relented. Now Brian and the baby were dead and Ayana was nearly taken from her.
Negasi hadn't shed a tear for a male since the day her mate had been ambushed by a group of human anarchists, de-winged and set on fire. A nine-year-old Ayana had climbed into her bed, wrapped her tiny arms around her, and said, "We'll be fine without him. Kayla and I will never leave you." They had been fine. She'd made sure of it.
Then there was Brian Alexander, and she had cried for him. Cried when the surgeon had come from the operating room, his face revealing the truth long before his words had. She'd caught Brian’s mother when she would've fallen to the floor, her only child brutally ripped from her.
She wanted to return Ayana's words of, "We'll be fine without him," to her. But the truth was, Negasi never lied to her daughters, and she wouldn't begin now. Ayana would not be fine. She was not fine, and Negasi didn't know what it would take to save what was left of her daughter. And that was a sobering, depressing thought that just pissed her the hell off.
Grabbing a key from her dresser drawer, Negasi slung on a white silk robe and exited her bedroom. A moment later, she was standing in front of Ayana's bedroom door, key in hand. Out of courtesy but knowing she wouldn't answer, Negasi knocked—four times.
Using the key, Negasi let herself into Ayana's bedroom. Since the attack, Ayana had taken to locking her bedroom door, even when she wasn't asleep. Ayana had also taken to sleeping with a knife under her pillow, Negasi learning this the hard way when she used her key to let herself in one night after hearing Ayana screaming from yet another nightmare. She'd gone to her, but in her wild, blind state, Ayana had struck out with the butcher knife, nearly cutting Negasi's throat.
Thankfully, Ayana hadn't been fully awake to know what she'd almost done. And Negasi had seen no reason to inform her.
Cautiously, she entered the room, her eyes adjusting to the low light beside Ayana's bed. And there sat Ayana, awake and propped against the headboard, knife in hand, eyes as bleak and black as she'd ever seen them.
Something in Negasi skidded to a stop, then began an Olympic race that had her sweating. She did not like the way Ayana was playing with that knife. She wanted to reach for it, but the way Ayana was holding it—close to her wrist—she didn't dare.
"Why are you up so late?" She took two steps towards her daughter.
Ayana didn't answer, just continued to stare down at the blade, slowly gliding it across her skin, not cutting, not yet. Negasi's heart sped up, fists clenched.
"Talk to me, sweetheart. Do you think you can do that? Will you look at me so we can talk?"
More gliding. A thin yet long cut across her wrist.
Negasi moved closer still. Ayana didn't seem to notice, her eyes fixated on the blood beginning to flow from her wrist and onto the crumpled bed sheet.
Desperate, Negasi said the first thing that came to her mind. "Brian died trying to save our people. He wouldn't want this. He wanted you to live."
Ayana's head jerked up, eyes finally focused. And, dear lord, where had her sweet, loving girl gone? The eyes that bored into hers held the tortured pain of a reanimated soul forced to live among the living—with them, but not of them.
"I should have died." The knife bit deeper. More blood. No tears. "I should have died with my family."
Neither the words nor the voice belonged to Ayana. At least not the Ayana she'd raised or the one she'd kissed goodnight after her baby shower. This was a different Ayana, an Ayana tossed into the pit of Hell and forced to claw her way out.
"You lived for a reason. Please know that. The pain you're feeling now will pass. I know it doesn't seem that way now, but it will pass. It takes time."
"It hurts too much. So damn much that it chokes, leaves me breathless but cruelly alive. I don't want to wait for it to go away. I just want to go away."
Negasi glanced at the knife, expecting Ayana to slice an artery and put an end to her pain. But she did nothing, just continued to stare at her with haunted onyx eyes.
"And what of your mother-in-law? Of Kayla? Of the kingdom? Of me?" Guilt and love were all Negasi had to bargain with. She wouldn't lose her daughter. Not like this. She couldn't help her that wretched night, couldn't prevent the ugliness she'd been forced to endure. But she was there now. "With Brian gone, Phyllis Alexander has only you. She needs her daughter." So do I.
Ayana blinked. Good. Something was getting through. She kept going, unwilling to lose the slight advantage.
"And what of Kayla? She looks up to you. She fell apart when you were in the hospital. A girl needs her big sister."
Negasi played her last card. "If you do this, then those murdering bigots will have won. Don't let them win, Ayana." She reached for her daughter then, took her chin in her hand and raised her face. "Don't let them win. Make. Them. Pay."
Ayana said nothing.
Neither did Negasi.
Their eyes remained locked, and Negasi squelched the shiver that came with staring so deeply into eyes that suddenly glowed with demon fire.
Almost imperceptibly, Ayana nodded. Then she smiled—not prettily, not sweetly. The only thing Negasi could liken it to was the look that came over hyenas when they had their prey cornered and afraid, knowing death was but a bloody bite away.
“Do you know who harmed my family?”
She did. Kayla and five elite guards had spent the last month tracking down, not only the men who'd done the vile deeds but the entire group of terrorists.
“Yes. What do you need me to do?"
Ayana took a deep, measured breath. “I need you to arrange a meeting with the World Treaty Organization."
"I'll put Kayla on that. What else?" Because no, Negasi knew that was not what Ayana truly wanted her to do.
Tears filled red eyes. "I missed their funerals."
Phyllis had waited as long as she could, but the services had to proceed. No one, not even their healers, knew when or if Ayana would awaken from her coma. So they'd had the funeral for Brian and Baby Alexander—without Ayana. The thought burned as much now as it did then.
"I have yet to pay my respects. Couldn't bring myself to go to the Alexander mausoleum. Will you go with me, Mother? Will you stand by my side when I say goodbye to my husband and daughter? Will you lie to me, just once, and tell me all will be fine?"
They were both crying—silent and bone-deep.
"And will you help me choose a name for my daughter? I was thinking Brina Negasi Alexander. Do you think Brian would approve of that name?"
Brina meant protector, and that was exactly what Ayana's child had done. She had protected her mother by taking that bullet, shielding Ayana with her tiny body. No wonder Ayana had contemplated suicide. Would Negasi do any different if Ayana or Kayla ever gave their life to save her own? Would she not too suffer from survivor's guilt?
"It's a beautiful name. Brian would approve." She would have it inscribed on the baby's headstone immediately.
Without a word, Ayana pushed off her covers, jumped out of bed and walked to the balcony doors. Swinging them opened, she exited the bedroom.
Wings stopped flapping, feet halted their patrol, and everyone dropped to their knees, including Negasi.
“You are queen now, daughter. What do you command of the Succubus Nation?”
“I only wanted peace.”
Sharp, angry claws pierced skin.
“I know, daughter.”
“I only wanted the love of a good male.”
Saber-shaped fangs dropped from gums.
“I know, Ayana, I know.”
"I wanted a child of my own to love, the way you loved Kayla and me."
Black wings pushed through nightgown, shredding the delicate garment into fine pieces of silk.
“Now I only want blood.”
The queen bolted into the night sky, black wings wide, red eyes on fire.
“Justice,” she growled.
Negasi and the guards followed, wings beating against the air in a deadly symphony.
“All Hollows’ Eve,” Negasi thought, the night when some human terrorists would slip onto their island, killing the most defenseless among them—children, pregnant women, the elderly.
“Revenge,” Ayana screamed, right before she sank her fangs into the man who’d shot her, ripping his throat out and drinking his blood.
There would be no peace this night.
The queen had risen, and it was time to feast.