It turned out Alice was flushed—with fever, and the house was thrown into chaos for a week.
Latimer wouldn’t leave until Vlad called Princeton, and the sim showed up at the door and packed the old man’s bags himself. “We are senior citizens,” his friend snapped, “We don’t got no business around no fevers.”
Vlad and Lilith didn’t either, but in their case, it was because they were ill-equipped. Alice begged for ice baths, but neither vampire trusted themselves to safely monitor her temperature. Instead, Vlad regularly peeled off her damp clothing and held her in front of the fireplace, and Lilith supervised her water intake with a terrifying dedication.
Gwendolyn was inconsolable. One minute, she was biting and kicking; the next—clinging onto him for dear life. He ended up holding her while he washed the sheets, did the dishes, and tried to get Alice to keep something down.
He told Alice he was a thing of nightmares, but even nightmares could be laid low.
“Salim and Alice are the only two alive,” Vlad explained as he shifted Gwendolyn to his other hip. “It’s obvious that he’s the one trying to kill her.”
Lilith surveyed them both with disapproval. “You paired rainboots with that outfit?”
Actually, Gwendolyn paired rainboots with her outfit. She insisted on dressing herself, and Vlad, who was trying to reduce the total number of meltdowns he had to suffer through, decided not to fight her on it. “Can we focus?”
“Fine. Who cares about Salim? He’s still not your biggest problem. It’s only a matter of time before the police figure out you’re not a real lawyer and show up demanding to talk to Alice.”
Vlad frowned. She was right.
“Snack!” Gwendolyn demanded.
“You just ate,” Vlad admonished, but still, he rustled up a bowl of animal crackers.
“You spoil her,” Lilith sniffed. “And what are those? Store-bought cookies? Are you trying to kill her?”
“Yes.” The bowl clattered as Vlad set it down. “That is exactly my plan. Death by cheaply manufactured cookies. I’ve decided that I no longer prefer to make her a decent meal, not because I’ve been busy, but as part of my elaborate plan to eliminate her.”
“And yet you think you’ll abscond to Brindleton Bay every weekend and make me dinner.”
“I said I would, but unless you’re leaving right this instant, I have other things to attend to.” His phone buzzed with a reminder to pick up Alice’s prescription from the pharmacy—something for her stomach and her birth control. “Can you stay with her?” he gestured at Gwendolyn, “Just give her whatever she wants. I need to run an errand.”
“Of course you do. Another item on the list for this mortal you’re enamored with.”
Vlad felt a vein in his forehead pulse. “Is that a yes or a no?”
“That’s not a way to talk to me when you’re so in need of my help.”
“Help?” he scoffed, “Is that what we’re calling it? I received less feedback from you when I took one of your classes!”
“You need my feedback! It’s obvious you should have called Caleb the second you realized Alice was magical and involved in a crime. And you’ve been dilly-dallying instead of doing the smart thing and asking Mother for a lawyer.”
“And what the fuck have you been doing?” Vlad exploded. “Because I’ve been holding Alice’s hair back as she pukes and trying to read up on a wand that doesn’t exist while holding a toddler screaming bloody murder constantly. And at any point, you, in all your graciousness, all your great magnanimity, could have made these suggestions or, here’s a thought, just fucking did it yourself!”
“Oh, now I’m responsible for your new girlfriend?” Lilith shouted before baring her teeth. “Ethren would never—”
Vlad lifted Gwendolyn out of the high chair and then turned back to face his daughter. “Get. Out.”
Whatever Lilith thought about Ethren or her birth parents, Vlad had been watching his daughter for three hundred years. He knew her, and so he wasn’t surprised when she struggled to answer his challenge.
“I hate you,” she hissed.
He grabbed his keys and Gwendolyn’s diaper bag. “Join the club.”
The proper way to respond to your ex-husband when he showed up after 180 years demanding a favor was to run him through with a sword. Unfortunately, it was hard to do that when he was pushing a stroller. “Whatever it is, the answer is no.”
“I don’t have time for ‘no,’” Vlad replied as he barged into her house.
“Did you not hear me?” Anastasia demanded, hot on his heels. “I said get out!”
His forehead creased as he took in the broken glass and overturned furniture. “Is someone trying to kill you?” He traced a gauge mark with his foot, muttering, “And do they need help?”
Fuck that toddler, Ana decided immediately. With a roar, she snatched up her sword and launched herself at Vlad, the blade slicing his arm as he made to block.
“Damn it!” he pulled a sweeping kick, “At least give me a fucking weapon!”
Ana did not. But bastard that he was, he still managed to get his hands on her other sword.
By the time they finished, they were both seething and bleeding.
“I can’t believe we used to do this for fun,” he grumbled as he sat down hard. “This is not fun, and I hate you.”
“Yes, well,” Ana jabbed her sword into the floor and rested her hand on the pommel, “The feeling is mutual. Do you know how much this suit cost?”
“Do you know what a headache it will be to deal with a scared and crying two-year-old?”
They both glanced at the toddler, who was actually just giggling and clapping her hands. “My monsters! More play! Again! Again!”
Ana gave him a wry look. “Any other false accusations you want to lay at my feet today?”
He stood, smirking, “This is the happiest she’s been all week. Maybe I should let you cut me again.”
“‘Let’ is a fancy way of describing how I nearly beheaded you. Drink?”
They walked out onto her deck, where Vlad immediately tried to keep the child from getting her tiny hands into everything.
“I’ll replace them,” he sighed, gesturing to the cookware the little demon was currently banging on. “Don’t judge me. It’s been a long week, and that child could bring even the holy mother of the occult to her knees.”
Anastasia did judge him, but not for carting around some unruly baby. “Whose child is that?”
“Whose trying to kill you, besides me?”
Her mind flashed back to Matilda’s text: Penny is off to find her fated mate. You can keep many things, Miss Hell, but never a wolf. We belong to the pack. “Did you find Lilith? Is she alright?”
Vlad winced. “She was so overcharged with magic she could have burnt Britechester to the ground. I took care of it, but she and I are at odds.”
She begrudged her ex-husband a lot of things: true happiness, a corporeal existence, but not communicating with their children. It was the one thing between them that they hadn’t burned to the ground. “Lilith hasn’t been sleeping. She just needs to get some rest, and then she’ll come around.”
“Yes,” Vlad’s expression was flat, “To her step-father, Ethren, who loved and raised her.”
“What am I? Chopped liver?”
“When it comes to Ethren? Yes. Your name didn’t even come up. And mine was only mentioned when she was chastising me for leaving him.”
Anastasia rolled her eyes. “You shouldn’t have married him. And you should definitely stop fucking him.”
“I was young and foolish when I married him, and for the record, I haven’t touched Ethren in years. I’m in a relationship. And while we’re on the topic, which one of your girlfriends destroyed your apartment?”
That was the thing about Vladislaus; he was her oldest friend. No one knew more about her or understood her better. They’d married for loyalty, not love. And they’d divorced for the same reason.
“I don’t know what you mean,” she said, pretending to busy herself with mixing another drink. “My relationship is fine. What’s this stupid favor?”