Will knew without a doubt that something terrible had happened if his sister had returned to Hartford of her own accord. He drew himself together and hurried to the door, shocked when Tier’s girls began to bark and carry on as if they would eat her alive.
“Oh my gods, why are those things inside the house?” Mina shrieked, startled by the approach of the dogs. She drew up in terror, her eyes showing whites all around, a grimace of fear contorting her features.
They barked so viciously that Will worried for a moment that they might attack, but the large animals made no move to do so, only filled the room with their snarling displeasure.
“Girls! Goodness!” Will said, raising his voice to be heard above the din. He cast a glance back and gestured at Mr. Hawkes, saying once he was close enough to hear, “Take Winston and the girls upstairs for now, Mr. Hawkes.”
“Very good, my Lord,” Mr. Hawkes said, his rumbling tone heard even over their angry snarls.
Will moved to console his sister as the dogs were pulled away, taking note of her travel-dusty dress, her tear-streaked face, and how deeply disturbed she was.
“How terrifying! Heavens! I thought they would devour me!” she said, trembling so hard she fumbled twice at her gloves before Will moved to strip them from her, first one and then the other as she shifted a large lock box from hand to hand. “How can you bear to have such monsters around you?”
“They aren’t monsters, Mina,” Will said, handing off her gloves. “They only attack when ordered to. You surprised them, that’s all. You’ve surprised us all! What on earth has happened, my dear? You look so upset, and I know it wasn’t the dogs.”
“Oh, Will, it’s just awful!” she sobbed, allowing Mr. Hawkes to assist her in removing her outerwear. “It’s simply awful!”
“What? What is awful?” Will asked, distracted by the sudden movement of the baby. They kicked in agitation as if he’d eaten a whole jar of pickled eggs, a food they took enormous exception to. He rubbed where they pushed against him, wondering if the baby’s disquiet was related to the growing fear rising through his bond.
“Oh, Will! I wish I was dead!” she cried, her sudden embrace unhindered by the firm grip she kept on that lock box she carried. “I wish I was dead!”
“Gods, Mina! Don’t say such things!” Will scolded, horrified. He put his arms around her there in the foyer before the door and the embarrassed staff, wondering what on earth had happened, but the tremble that racked her slender body softened his impatience. She was delicate and fragile as a leaf in a storm, and it pained him to feel her so vulnerable. The defenses of her self-confidence and spoiled attitudes had been stripped away to leave her exposed and Will, ever her faithful defender, wanted nothing more than to protect her.
“Please, tell me, Mina,” he coaxed, and when she only sobbed, he asked, “Did you come from the east? Have you traveled far?”
“No, I came from Broadriver,” she said, snuffling delicately as she straightened. She seemed surprised by the size of his belly and was momentarily diverted from her abject misery, saying, “Goodness, look at you! You’re big as a house!”
“It does tend to happen,” Will said, refusing to be offended. He took her hand and said, “Mrs. Henderson, if you could get her ladyship’s room prepared? Ms. Speck can see to the unpacking.”
“Yes, my Lord,” Mrs. Henderson said, gesturing for Ms. Speck to follow her, a footman shouldering Mina’s single trunk.
“Here, let them take this,” Will said, reaching for the lock box, but Mina pulled it out of reach, refusing to part with it. Will gave her a suspicious look, asking, “Why are you so frightened, Mina? What’s in that box?”
“Nothing, Will! Don’t ask me such questions, I am much too distraught!” she said, fresh tears welling over. She wiped at them with her free hand, allowing Will to escort her to the stairs. She cried loudly all the way up and Will took her directly to her suite, unwilling to have her theatrics invade the calm comfort of his own or dare the presence of Tier’s girls.
“Now,” he said, settling her in front of the fireplace where a kitchen maid was already laying a fire. Staff busied about placing fresh linens and unpacking her solitary trunk, but they paid no mind to the Lord and Lady underfoot. “What’s happened to upset you so, Mina? I have never seen you so beside yourself.”
He eased down on the settee next to her, maneuvering his bulky belly with as much grace as could be expected. Once she put that odd lock box down on the floor, he grasped her hands in his and chafed them, trying to bring warmth back to her skin.
“I didn’t know where else to go,” she said, the words cracking on a sob. “Father will not have me, Will! It’s just terrible, terrible!”
“Timothy has been arrested!”
Will’s stomach sank with realization that he dared not let show on his face. Feigning ignorance for her sake as well as his own, he said, “Arrested? On what charges?”
“Treason,” she said, virtually shouting the word. She laughed, the sound half hysteria, and gestured at the servants, saying, “They shall hear all about it soon enough! The soldiers came for him and took him away! I was told not to go far, that they would wish to question me, but I panicked! I had Gretchen pack what she could in an hour and I fled from the Capital!”
“I was not aware you had even returned to the Capital,” Will said, confused by her actions. “How dreadful for you to witness such a thing, Mina.”
“I would not have returned, of course, except that he sent for me,” she said, tears running down her face, her upset at war with her offended sensibilities. “He said he had come into a great fortune and we were to leave the country immediately! That he had powerful patrons who wished to sponsor us on the Continent!”
“My gods, Mina,” Will breathed, the enormity of Timothy’s actions almost impossible to grasp, even for his expansive imagination. “I don’t know what to say. That is just… just awful for you—”
“I have nothing left, Will!” Mina sobbed, startling even Mrs. Henderson, who had nerves like steel. “Even Father refuses to tolerate me! I just… I just want to fling myself into the river and drown!”
“Mina!” Will said, appalled. “Stop saying such terrible things! Gods above! Why would you say something so awful?”
“Because it’s true!” she cried, covering her face with her hands. “My husband has been arrested! Our wealth is being seized! I’m to have nothing, Will! I’ll be the wife of a traitor, shunned by everyone I’ve ever known!”
“No, Mina, no,” Will said, trying to soothe her. “You can start over, I promise you can. We’ll seek a divorce to quietly separate you from Timothy and start reintroducing you to Society slowly.”
She snuffled, hiccuping and hitching with sobs.
“It may take some time,” Will allowed, rubbing her slender back with his hand, “but one day you will enjoy life again. Take pleasure in the small triumphs, Mina. I know you feel as if Hannibal dislikes you, but he would never turn his back on you, nor will I. You have a place here at Hartford for as long as you need it.”
“Oh, Will!” Mina said, flinging her arms around him in a fierce embrace. “I have no hope left! None at all!”
“We’ll find it for you,” Will said, rocking her and smoothing her hair, his heart aching for what she faced.
“You’ve always been so good to me, Will,” Mina whispered, her voice thick with tears. “If I could spare you any pain at all, I would. You do know that, don’t you?”
“Mina, don’t be silly,” Will chided her. “I know you would do anything for me, just as I would for you. Now, go have a bath and let Ms. Speck bring you a tray so you can get some rest. We won’t be doing a formal dinner, all things considered.”
“Things?” Mina asked, tugging free of his arms to wipe her face with her handkerchief. “What do you mean?”
“Grandfather is very sick,” Will said, solemn and hesitating to add more. It physically hurt him to admit, “and Hannibal has returned to the front.”
“Returned to the front?” Mina asked, the very picture of bewildered horror. “He has gone back to war?”
Will felt strangely chastened by that and quietly answered, “Yes.”
“Good heavens, that war would be his preference to pass the time until the baby is born!” Mina said, sidetracked from her misery by Wll’s own. “Fleeing from your side to risk his life in battle. Honestly. What will people think?”
Will flinched, and softly admitted, “I couldn’t give two figs for what people think,” his heart giving a painful clench when Hannibal’s throaty Alpha voice purred in his memory, ‘Two, always only two…’
“Oh, darling, no! Of course not! Oh, how terrible,” Mina said, retreating behind her handkerchief. “Pay no mind to your silly sister, Will! Only do send my regards to His Grace. I do hope to see him very, very soon.”
Will left her with a kiss to her trembling hand, assuring her, “Things will be much better come the morning.”
“Yes, my darling,” Mina said, managing a beautiful smile for him that still seemed so terribly sad. “I truly believe they will.”
Jimmy was in Will’s suite when he arrived, scolding the girls, “You can’t behave like this! I am very disappointed in you ladies! And Winston, I thought you were your own man—”
“Have I come at a bad time?” Will asked, tipping slightly to reach the excited dogs as they swarmed him. Winston was more uncontrolled in his reception, but Tier’s girls pushed up against him with care of their large size, chuffing their pleasure at seeing him.
“I honestly have no idea why they’re so on edge,” Jimmy said, hands on hips. “They’re very nervous about something.”
“Well, then we shall be nervous, too,” Will said, shedding his jacket with a sigh. Even the loose, open folds of his maternity wear felt stiffly formal now and he longed for the soft, engulfing linen of his husband’s nightshirt. “My sister’s arrival is enough to set the whole house on its head.”
“I heard she arrived,” Jimmy said, his neutral tone not fooling Will in the least. He came and took Will’s jacket, replacing it with a light, warm shawl to keep the chill off. “Will she be staying?”
“For now,” Will said, pushing his shoes off with a wince and wiggling his sore toes in his fine stockings. “If I don’t stop swelling, I’ll have to go barefoot before long!”
“Here, put your feet up,” Jimmy said, guiding him to sit. He got Will settled on the settee and put a cushion under his feet before he covered him with a lap blanket. “You just relax and I’ll see what Mrs. Pimms has ready for you. Is there anything you’d prefer?”
“No, I don’t think so,” Will said, staring at the fire dancing in the fireplace. “I don’t have much of an appetite, Jimmy.”
Jimmy patted his leg with a fond, sad smile and said, “I don’t expect you do, my Lord. He’ll be back in time for the delivery, I just know it. He’s the only other person in this world whose determination rivals yours, my Lord.”
A soft knock sounded, sending the dogs into a chorus of barking that gave Will an ugly start. He hushed them as Jimmy answered it, surprised to see one of the new guards, Mr. Danvers, follow his valet into his suite.
Concerned, Will asked, “Yes? What is it?”
“Just some information, your Lordship,” he was told, almost reluctantly. “Harris and Forbes haven’t come back.”
“I beg your pardon?” Will asked, cocking his head. “From their rounds, you mean?”
Mr. Danvers nodded, fearful. “I’ve sent two men out to look for them, but they haven’t come back either, my Lord.”
“Gods,” Will breathed. “When did you send them? When did they go missing?”
“Harris and Forbes didn’t show for shift change just before her Ladyship arrived, my Lord,” Mr. Danvers said, steady despite his anxiety. “It’s been since then that the others haven’t reported back.”
“I’ll get Mr. Hawkes,” Jimmy said, moving at once to go fetch the aged butler.
“You change shifts every two hours?” Will confirmed, the anxiety from his bond only adding to his own, which was growing by the heartbeat. “Would they have gone to see anyone? Finished their shift and gone to the pub instead of reporting? Is there any explanation you can consider?”
“They’re good men, steady men,” Mr. Danvers said. “So no, m’Lord. If they haven’t shown for shift change, something’s kept them from it.”
Mr. Hawkes arrived in all haste with Mrs. Henderson in tow and Jimmy trailing behind, all three of them tense as coiled springs.
“Mr. Hawkes, Mrs. Henderson,” Will said, swinging his feet down from the pillows to sit up straight, his belly working against his dignity, “I believe we might have a problem.”
The butler came to immediate attention, ready and waiting for the worst.
“Mr. Danvers has informed me that four of our guards have gone missing within the last three hours,” Will said, his anxiety fading to sharp determination in regards to his staff. “I want no one going out and I want the House sealed before dusk from now on. Mrs. Henderson, inform everyone that if they need some air, they may open their windows or use the balconies off of the third floor.”
“Yes, my Lord,” Mrs. Henderson said, drawing up with purpose.
“Are there men enough to fetch Peter up to the House?” Will asked, addressing Mr. Danvers.
“If I may, my Lord?” Mr. Hawkes cut in. “Since Mr. Brown has gone missing, Peter secures himself and the stable lads at night upstairs in his room. I believe the dogs will alert him to anyone attempting to reach him. Peter will be safe, my Lord. It is His Grace and yourself we must save our worry for. If four men have gone missing, I would not risk more in attempting to reach the stable.”
“Yes, I suppose you’re right,” Will said, reluctant to abandon Peter to a danger he might not be aware of, but certain that Athena and the others would alert him to any disturbance. He reached out and Winston pushed beneath his fingers, offering the comfort of his presence and reassuring Will that he was not without protection. In all honesty, Will felt much safer with his brave little dog than he did a whole sea of men like Mr. Danvers, especially with Hannibal’s anxiety weighing on him as it did.
“Secure the house,” Will said, firm and determined. “At first light I want no less than six men sent down to the constable, Mr. Danvers. He should be informed that there is a possible greater threat against Hartford House. We will search for the missing men tomorrow. I want all staff moving in pairs. I apologize for the inconvenience, but they must take no risks with their safety. I couldn’t bear it if something happened to anyone else under our protection.”
“Yes, my Lord,” Mr. Danvers said, Mr. Hawkes and Mrs. Henderson echoing him, and the three hurried to do as they were bidden.
“Jimmy,” Will said, turning his attention to his valet. “Please go inform Mr. Zeller of what’s happened.”
“Yes, m—” he cut off, sighing when the girls began to bark again, their hackles raised. “Yes, my Lord. I’ll take these two with me. They can patrol the halls until they calm down a little. We’ll bring your tray up in a bit and maybe then they’ll be less restive.”
“Thank you,” Will said, rubbing his forehead where a headache threatened, worsened by the dogs’ deep, baying barks. “If there is someone roaming around Hartford House, I would prefer the girls find them before they find us.”
Jimmy urged the nervous dogs out of the door, leaving Will alone with Winston, who looked fairly at a loss to be deprived of his friends.
Will pushed to his feet and went to the small cabinet Hannibal had purchased for him, which held his gifts and mementos with room for more. He cranked the music box and settled back down on the settee with a sigh, absently stroking Winston’s head with one hand and his belly with the other. He reached for the bond, trying to draw the dread and fear from Hannibal, trying to soothe him, but all it fed him was growing, panicked desolation.
The moon was on the rise as Hannibal hurtled towards Chesterton, pacing the small confines of his private compartment in first class to keep his fear at bay. The train had not left immediately from the Capital and it had been all Berger could do to convince him to wait for the next departure. He’d wanted to leave that instant, to take mounts from Chelsea House and ride at breakneck speed for Hartford, changing horses along the way.
But sense had prevailed, Berger’s anguished reminder that, even running late, the train would save him hours and miles of travel and still get him home before any number of horses could.
He dropped onto the plush seat, elbows on knees and head in hands. He reached for Will, reached for him through a bond that would never be whole. He defied what little knowledge he had of it, defied the voice that whispered it was impossible, and he had faith in his husband instead. Faith that Will was there, silent and receptive at the other side of their bond, attuned to him in ways even Hannibal himself could not grasp. He felt the tug and pull of his emotions, the slow easing of his sharp fear, and he knew Will was aware of it, was actively trying to comfort him.
Heartened that he might be able to fold his tumultuous emotions into a warning, Hannibal closed his eyes, concentrating his whispered words into a feeling.
“She is dangerous, Will. She means you harm. Please do not let her in!”
The train slowed, the abrupt braking jostling him from his seat. He gained his feet and snatched his medical bag up, striding down the passage towards the nearest exit, waiting with impatience for the train to pull into the station.
The moment it stopped, he burst out onto the platform in a frenzy of movement, running swiftly towards the nearest posting house with Berger hot on his heels.
Will had fallen asleep despite himself, draped over the settee with Winston snoring beneath the brush of his fingers where his arm hung down. It was dark already, and Jimmy had turned up a lamp near Will’s small table where a tray was waiting for him, the soft glow warm and inviting in the otherwise oppressive darkness.
It took him a moment to get his bearings, the vestiges of sleep feeding him the formless shape of his nightmares. Dangerous, he remembered that much, the soft purr of his husband’s voice thick with fear. Someone was in danger.
“Of course someone is in danger! He’s gone to war,” Will murmured to himself, sitting up with a wince as his spine creaked, the settee no substitute for a proper soft bed. “I doubt that will be the last bad dream I have in store for me.”
He blinked owlishly, trying to clear his head from the haze of sleep and the whispered warnings he recalled only in snatches, unintelligible but filling him with anxiety that even disturbed the baby. Will stroked his belly to calm them, pleased when they settled beneath his touch and the soft hum of his voice.
He eased to his feet, pressing on the small of his back as he moved towards the tray, shaking his head against a yawn.
“How odd,” Will murmured, finding only a pot of cooling tea with a cup and sugar bowl, not even a biscuit to tide him over, which was very unlike Jimmy. But they had experienced a great disruption to the household this evening with Mina’s arrival and the disappearance of the guards. A dinner tray was the last concern on anyone’s mind, Will’s included, but he was thirsty enough to sit down to the meager offering despite how little he wanted it.
He poured himself a cup, adding a spoonful of sugar and stirring it, wondering why it felt as if the bond was strengthening when Hannibal was so far away. Still, it poured into him with a ceaseless level of worry that he began to fear was the new normal for war, disturbing as that thought was. He didn’t dare try to close it, though, not even for the baby’s sake.
“Be careful,” he murmured to him, delving into the bond to soothe his husband as best he could. “Come back to me safely…”
He sipped his tea, the sweetness contenting him for now, growing more relaxed with each sip despite the many worries that plagued him. Grandfather, Hannibal’s deployment, the sudden disappearance of the men who were meant to protect him—it all weighed on his mind, but felt strangely distant to him as he finished the last swallow, wincing at the sudden bitterness hiding beneath the sugar he’d added. Lethargy crept up on him in a sudden flush and he shook his head, trying to dispel it.
It was a minute, subtle shift of reality out of true that made Will realize something was horribly amiss. The shadows seemed to pool in the corners of the room, growing thicker and more solid when he peered at them, pulling the dying glow of the fireplace down a pitch-black tunnel. Startled, Will stirred to approach it, his foggy head unable to make sense of it, his heavy limbs resisting his desire to move. He looked over at Winston, but the dog just looked back at him with his usual interest, no sign of distress about him.
But something was terribly wrong.
Will stood slowly, swaying as if drunk, everything tipping and tilting and curling in on itself. He groped to steady himself, trying to keep his footing as the world buckled around him. The light from the lamp fractured into a million glowing fireflies, swarming around with a soft buzzing like flies around carrion. Will stared in horror as a shadow pulled itself free of the darkness, branching ebon horns raking gouges in the walls that bled black rivulets to the floor.
Winston barked in alarm, the sound coming from the bottom of a well, hollow and ringing in his ears. Will dragged his gaze to the teacup, the effort monumental and slow. He watched it slip from his numb fingers, drifting through the air to spread itself over the floor in a mosaic of jagged pieces.
“There, there,” the shadow said, peeling its skin off before his horrified eyes to reveal his twin, a mirror staring back at him, hair shorn to match his own, her smile studied and serene. “Never fret, my darling. We will set things to rights as they should be. As we should have done from the start.”
A beast uncoiled from behind her. Its heat flowed across the floor in a spill of brimstone and sulfur, mouth disgorging a billow of steaming smoke into the darkness as it came at her command. Its wings stretched towards the edges of the room, glowing like the heart of a livid coal, filling Will’s petrified, disbelieving eyes with its presence.
“We’ll make sure you never suffer again, Will,” Mina crooned, her smile distorting into a river of sharp teeth eager to gnaw on him. “Won’t we, Francis?”
Hannibal Lecter rode for Hartford as if his life depended on it, his fear for Will escalating to terror, as if some terrible tragedy had already overtaken his mate.
Miles away at Hartford, a resounding knock came at the front door, loud and insistent. Mr. Hawkes, quietly appalled that any uninvited person would be so ill-mannered as to beat on the door of a Duke after all reasonable visiting hours, took himself to the door and opened it, gazing out at the group of men on the doorstep with bland disinterest as he said, “His Grace is not accepting visitors.”
Mr. Hawkes stiffened, recognizing the voice as Lord Reddig’s. He was too old a hand at his job to betray his thoughts on his face, but that could not prevent the frown that tightened his mouth.
“You will allow us entry into Hartford House by order of my son, William Lecter-Graham, in whose hands the disposition of Hartford House currently lies,” Statton said, puffing his chest out with importance as he waded to the head of the group. “We have come at his request to take an assessing of the goods.”
“I doubt that very much, my Lord, and unless you have paperwork to support your claim, I refuse to soil his Lordship’s ears with such nonsense!” Mr. Hawkes said, his poise slipping in a flash of temper. “I suggest you take yourself down to Town and sleep it off!”
“Excuse me, but I’m Mr. Brauner, Lord Clarges’ solicitor,” a man said, pushing to the front of the group, among which Mr. Hawkes noted constables, though none of them local.
“Mr. Buddish is his Lordship’s solicitor,” Mr. Hawkes said, cocking a suspicious glare at the man before him.
“Not according to a lengthy history of correspondence between William Lecter and myself,” Mr. Brauner said, smiling as if Mr. Hawkes had complimented him. “I have here a letter from Lord Clarges requesting my aid in disposing of Hartford’s assets through auction. Not the house, of course. Not yet.”
“You will hold your tongue!” Mr. Hawkes said, and Mrs. Henderson peered over his shoulder, watching the exchange with piercing worry. “Give me that paper!”
It was handed over with a small smile and Mr. Hawkes read it by lamplight, paling to see his Lord’s writing requesting just such a thing.
“I am going to speak to his Lordship of this,” Mr. Hawkes said, waving the paper in a fury. “And we shall see what he has to say!”
“You do that,” Statton called, sneering at Mr. Hawkes. “We have the legal right to enter, and enter we shall! These constables will make sure of it!”
“We. Shall. See,” Mr. Hawkes said, and slammed the door in their faces, throwing the lock with trembling, righteous anger.
“What do we do?” Mrs. Henderson asked, wringing her hands as more staff came to see what the matter was, all of them anxious and on edge.
“Jimmy,” Mr. Hawkes called, waiting for the worried valet to come closer. “His Lordship?”
“In his suite fast asleep when I last checked on him,” Jimmy said, flinching when Tier’s girls began to bark, hackles raised and eyes trained on the doors. “I was holding his supper tray until he woke, but I think we’d best wake him now.”
“Yes,” Mr. Hawkes said, grim. “I think we better had.”
The Great Red Dragon that Will had once seen pushing against the seams of Francis Dolarhyde at Marsham Heath now engulfed him, engulfed them both. Its scaly arms closed around him and kept him upright, hard and set as stone around him, burning and sparking with embers against his vision.
Will fought against the hallucinations that had been forced on him, against the lassitude that stole his strength and the fear that spiraled his heart into a pounding rhythm, one thought burning in his mind—protect the baby. Protect the baby.
He tried to move, tried to struggle against the binding of the Dragon around him, but his body would not obey him. Tears of frightened frustration escaped him when his gaze found the swell of his round belly, terror that his child was so still. He reached for Hannibal in a blind panic, Omegan instincts seeking the Alpha who was to protect him, and through the overwhelming terror that consumed him, he felt one tiny spark of hope in the depths of his bond.
I am coming to you. I am coming to you.
It had the staccato of Hannibal’s heartbeat, the strike of hooves on cobbles, the whistle of the wind and the brush of falling snow. Hannibal was coming for him. Somehow, he knew. Somehow, he was tearing towards Hartford like a man possessed, not even the Gods themselves able to stop him.
Will wept with relief, clinging to his faith that Hannibal always kept his promises, the hope that he had once despaired of now rising to sustain him.
“Open his mouth,” Mina instructed, and Will grit his teeth as his head was tipped back against Francis’ naked shoulder, his jaw trapped in powerful fingers. He gathered his sense enough to evade it as best he could, but Mina poured more sweetened tea down him, crooning, “This is for your own good, Will. We can’t have you kicking up a fuss, hm?”
Winston whined, hesitating to defend him against people he knew, people Will had always insisted he behave towards, but his ears lay flat against his skull and his tail was tucked against his hindquarters as he watched, nervous and afraid.
Will gagged on the tea but most of it got down him, the rest splattering over his chin and running down his throat. He focused hard on the details surrounding him, fighting the illusory effects, trying to look past the cavorting shadows and wavering walls that threatened him with terror to seize on the smallest trace of reality.
Mina had dressed herself in one of his nightshirts, donned his robe and tied it just as he always did, and to Will’s drugged mind it seemed he stood outside of himself, watching his own pregnant, heavy body being held by a monstrous beast with ill intent. It was so disturbing and disorienting that for an instant Will entirely doubted his own identity, but driving back that uncertainty was Hannibal’s deep, soothing voice whispering, ‘Every bit of you is the treasure I hoard, and I am greedy for you… ’
He was Will Lecter-Graham, an Omega who had not once hesitated either to slap an Alpha with a trout or face a murderer to save a child. He had lived through Statton Graham, walked in the mind of Garret Jacob Hobbs, and driven Mason Verger away with a plank of wood and an angry stray. He was so much stronger than anyone ever expected, but even he could not do this alone. He needed his mate’s strength to draw on, and Hannibal gave it without reservation.
“W-why—” It was all his numb lips could manage, a question all on its own. Francis’ heart beat against him, the hollow boom of an empty drum that never wavered from its rhythm, nearly deafening in its strength.
“Sh, hush,” Mina soothed, moving to smooth his hair, her fingers curving into talons that Will recoiled from, eyes wide. “It will all be over soon, Will. I promise. My clever boy, you were so difficult! Always so difficult!”
She heaved a sigh, vanishing into the gaping maw of his dressing room to emerge with something white and writhing. It was one of her nightgowns, a frothy, lacy concoction that swirled as she carried it towards them, telling Francis, “Put this on him.”
“No!” Will snarled, determined to fight them no matter the nightmare realm he found himself in, refusing to be distracted from the very real danger he faced by the way the walls shifted and cracked, as if Hartford was crumbling down around their heads.
If he could fight them, if he could delay whatever they had planned, then maybe, maybe…
Francis bore him to the ground to strip his clothing from him and it was too much for Winston—he set on the large Alpha, snarling and trying with all his might to drive the man back from his distressed master.
Francis growled, seizing the dog by his ruff, and Will found the strength to shout, “No!”
“Put it in Hannibal’s suite; we’ll dispose of it later,” Mina snapped, pointing towards the washroom. When Francis departed, dragging the snarling, angry dog with him, Mina knelt down at his side and cupped Will’s cheek, breathing, “You know, this would have been so much easier months ago, Will. I tried to get to you before Hannibal returned, but that man moves quickly when he chooses, doesn’t he?”
Will bared his teeth at her, sprawled on the carpet right where the broken teacup lay a short reach away. He lost the thread of his thoughts in the jumbled horror of his surroundings, his confusion rising as the drug flooded his system, but his eyes fastened on the broken porcelain as Mina began to open his clothing.
“I should have married Hannibal from the start,” Mina murmured, stripping his stockings from him and flinging them into the open dressing room door. “You realize that, don’t you? I should be a Duchess in waiting, not you. It was a mistake to send you here, where that man abused you so terribly, Will, a mistake I am determined to remedy.”
Will forced his shaky fingers across the carpeting towards the sparkling shards of the broken teacup, his breath coming in harsh, shuddering pants. The floor seemed to bow away from him, curving into a horizon lost in bleak shadows. He blinked hard against it, shapes shifting and distorting until he wasn’t sure why he reached, only that he had to, for the baby’s sake he had to.
“At first, I hoped to trade you places again,” Mina sighed, resting her hand on the swell of his stomach when it was exposed, cupping her palm over him to rub his taut skin. “Oh, we had it all worked out, didn’t we? Me visiting, losing my mind in the most spectacular fashion. Had we succeeded, you would have spent the rest of your life in an asylum as me, protesting your identity while Timothy and I enjoyed the wealth of Hartford House. But that husband of yours threw things all off course, didn’t he?”
The sudden surge of sulfurous scent made Will gag, retching as Francis returned to crouch at his feet, helping Mina to undress him.
“But there was no turning back,” Mina sighed, dragging the clothing away as Francis removed it, flinging it all away to be devoured in darkness. “So, off I trotted, hoping to get us back on track, but you wouldn’t drink the tea, would you? No, of course you wouldn’t! It was too bitter for your tastes. Gods, how you frustrate me! Do you know how difficult it was to get hold of that Addendum, Will? Mason spent hours every single day going through the correspondence from this house—he still does—just to find something useful! And you ignored it! Completely ignored it!”
She heaved a sigh as if he’d been a wearisome child plaguing her.
“We cut your girth strap, you forgive him,” she said, her voice falling to a cold purr. “I shove you down the stairs, you survive it. Mason pins a note to the door with a dagger—somewhat theatrical, I know, but he tends to the dramatic—and you flee with your husband! Honestly, Will! How were we to frame Hannibal for your murder when you refuse to cooperate? Typical Omega, clinging to an Alpha, even one who wishes you were dead.”
She surged to her feet, drawing her fingers through her hair and moving to the lamp to turn it off, plunging them into complete darkness. Moonlight seeped in through the windows in tendrils, pale light wisping around Will’s vision like trailing spiderwebs, picking out the white shards of the teacup, reminding him that he had to reach.
“Is there any way in which you are ever reasonable, Will? Predictable in the least? Even I never dreamed you would align with him! That terrible man! That you would sign those awful papers and just-just give it all away!” she said, turning away to look down at him again. “I was frantic, wasn’t I?”
Will’s head lolled on a rush of nausea as Francis dressed him in Mina’s nightgown, tugging the folds around him and laying him back with care, Will’s arm outflung towards the shards. He did not notice how Will reached, intent as he was on tying the tiny ribbons, concentrating on dressing Will properly as if the perfection of his work might prove his loyalty. “Then along came the baby. That little heir, hm? That little darling who would have it all, or take it all. When you said you were pregnant, Will, I knew I needn’t worry anymore… merely wait.”
She slipped back across the floor towards him, kneeling at his head to arch over him and kiss his forehead. She held his face in her hands, the fall of her thick hair snaking down towards him, thorny vines to rake his skin with ill intent.
“I will take him,” she whispered, smiling as if she had told Will her dearest, most beloved secret. Her face was a gaping, empty skull with sharp teeth set in a rictus, monstrous and terrifying. “I will raise him to love me above all others… and when Hannibal is gone, and His Grace is gone, I will see to his interests until he is of age and by then… why, who knows?”
Will stared at her in horror, tears streaming from his eyes, his fingertips brushing the sharp edge of a teacup shard. He clutched it, gathering his strength and his will and his desperate need to protect his child and distilling it into one lunging movement.
He nearly took out her eye, his attack was so unexpected by any of them, snarling in a fury as his momentum threw him over onto his side, gasping and panting.
Mina jerked back on a startled shriek, the jagged edge of the shard opening the skin at an angle from her temple to her cheek, blood springing to the surface in its wake. She pressed her hand to it, outraged and infuriated, but when she moved to strike Will, Francis snatched her wrist and squeezed until she winced, warning, “Don’t touch him.”
He didn’t raise his voice above a whisper, but it might have been a shout for the way Mina paled, perhaps doubting her hold on the dragon entirely.
There was a creak on the landing and they both froze, Mina’s head whipping in the direction of the door.
“Quick, into the dressing room,” she hissed, and flung herself at Will’s bed, mounding a pillow over her stomach as she pulled the covers up, tucking her face against the pillows where the shadows lay thick.
The floor pitched and tossed as Francis hefted Will up and he hung half senseless in the Dragon’s venomous embrace, the second dose and his spurt of effort draining him of his energy. The dressing room was dark as pitch, as death itself, the crack of the door the only faint light. Will tried to go to it, seeking escape from the prison of shadows, but he couldn’t move, couldn’t seem to pull himself free of the mire that held him.
“Heavens, it’s very dark in here, my Lor—Winston, what on earth?” Jimmy said, startled when the dog scratched at the washroom door, whining and upset. “Where did that tea tray come from? Oh, heavens, have you cut yourself? When did this happen? Here, let me just turn this light on—”
“No Jimmy,” Will heard himself say, as if he’d been split in two and some wretched version of himself lay in his bed, twisted and spiteful and bleeding onto his sheets from the wound he had dealt himself. “I have a terrible headache, please leave the lights off.”
Will felt Jimmy’s hesitation like a breath of fresh air, an eddy of hope that he would sense something wrong, that he would realize it was not Will in that bed, but an imposter sent to deceive him.
“Very well,” Jimmy said, reluctant and uneasy. “Lord Reddig is here, my Lord. He says he came at your bidding to—”
“Assess the furnishings for auction?” Mina said with his voice, with his voice to his valet, scooping all that he had worked for into her greedy maw, reaping the rewards of his labor as she always did.
Will whimpered, but it was muffled against a palm clamped over his mouth, salt and leather and ash against his lips.
“Sh,” Francis whispered, a near soundless purr in his ear. His other hand was over Will’s belly and the baby kicked, rejecting the touch instinctively. Will wept to feel it move within him, unharmed by the drug they had given him, the child’s resistance renewing his determination to carry on through this awful nightmare.
“Y-yes, my Lord,” Jimmy said, fairly at a loss as his Lord gave him an answer he did not expect.
“Let him in,” Mina said, pushing deeper into the bed. “Tell him I am feeling unwell and won’t be down to see him, and he should tend to things as he sees fit.”
“But, my Lord!” Jimmy said, absolutely aghast. “You cannot mean—”
“Please, don’t argue with me, Jimmy,” Mina said precisely in Will’s soft tone of pleading, with just his faint air of firmness. “Please, just do as you’re told.”
After a long, solemn silence, Jimmy said, “Of course, my Lord.”
“And Jimmy?” Mina said, calling him back as he made to leave, “Take the dogs down to the stable. I cannot bear the racket they’re causing.”
“Yes, my Lord,” Jimmy said, sounding as stiff and formal and disapproving as Will had ever heard him. “I’ll just get Winston.”
The hope that he would be found blew out like the flame of a candle, sudden and definitive as Jimmy gathered Winston up and left Will there; just himself, the growing hallucinations, his twin, and that terrifying red dragon.
He closed his eyes on a spill of angry tears and reached for Hannibal with his remaining strength, silently begging, ‘Hurry! Hurry!’
“Mr. Hawkes! Mr. Hawkes! Something is wrong,” Jimmy said, hurrying towards the group of gathered staff with Winston in tow.
“Winston?” Mr. Hawkes said, surprised to see the anxious little dog at Jimmy’s side. “Why is he not with his Lordship?”
“He was locked in the washroom. His Lordship asked me to take him away,” Jimmy said, flummoxed. “He wants all of the dogs taken to the stable.”
“What?” Mrs. Henderson said, aghast. “After locking the house up?”
“This is very Irregular,” Mr. Hawkes said.
“He’s not himself,” Jimmy told them, concern pinching his pleasant features. “Something is very wrong. He said to let them in, Mr. Hawkes.”
“He said to—” Mr. Hawkes drew up, completely stunned. He drew a breath, turning to look at Mrs. Henderson, who stood steadily beside him despite her worry. “Here, take my keys. Lock every cabinet in every room and every door to every room and every hall, and then I want you to hide both sets of keys, Mrs. Henderson. Hide them very well, indeed.”
Mrs. Henderson took the ring of keys without hesitation and handed them off to her head housemaid, saying, “You heard. Start here, I’ll take the east wing.”
“I guess I’d better have someone go with me to the stables,” Jimmy said, his dismayed gaze on Winston, whose reunion with Tier’s girls was subdued, to say the least.
“You will do nothing of the sort!” Mr. Hawkes said, jowls aquiver. “Something is not right here! His Grace is too fragile for this situation and his Lordship is clearly ill with grief since his husband’s departure! He cannot possibly realize what he has given permission for! You must go to him at once, Jimmy. He cannot be left alone.”
The gathered staff stared at him in awe, never having seen the dignified butler so utterly beside himself.
“No, this will not do,” Mr. Hawkes announced, his sonorous voice carrying through the halls of Hartford House. “Something has been afoot for a very long time now, and we are about to let the cause in through our very own front door!”
He looked at them one by one, finding only agreement in every pair of eyes he met.
“Break before bending is the motto of the Lecter family,” he reminded them, drawing up to his full, impressive height. “Hartford House is under attack and we have a duty to our family to protect it in their place! And I, for one, would rather break before we give those bastards an inch!”
They had to change horses just outside of Hartford Town, Hannibal was forcing them so hard, but he could not keep himself from doing so. There was no doubt in his mind that Will was in grave danger, and he pushed out towards him, straining to reach him and improper bond be damned. He could feel his mate, feel his confusion and fear, and nothing would persuade him otherwise.
Will was frightened. He was ill and in danger, but even more than that, he was absolutely furious, and that gave him hope that his mate would handle things until Hannibal could arrive to support him.
“Yours is saddled, m’Lord,” Berger said, following him out of the livery onto the moonlight-flooded road. “You go ahead and I’ll be just behind you!”
Hannibal did not hesitate. He swung up into the saddle before Berger could even finish his sentence, tapping his heels and snapping his crop to urge the horse forward.
It reared, neighing at the unexpected treatment, and plunged down the road towards Hartford, carrying Hannibal through the night, the Alpha in him snarling and frothing with fury, knowing his mate was calling for him, begging him to hurry.
Time shattered and shifted. The acrid scent of the Dragon’s skin brought Will to the surface of awareness in a brief flare of panic as he was left slumped in the door of the dressing room, wincing from the snarling hiss of voices.
“Why is he here?”
“You said you wanted nothing to do with him!” Francis said, his agitation striking Will’s nerves like hot coals. The flaring glow of the dragon clashed with the billowing black smoke that wore his face, wavering between reality and horror until Will could no longer tell which was the man and which the beast. “Why is Lord Reddig here? Answer me!”
“I don’t owe you answers,” Mina hissed, dabbing at her bloody cheek before the mirror, her fury matching the dragon’s own. “You came because Will needs you! Whether my father is here is of no importance!”
She changed tactics, then, turning to croon, “Will needs you, Francis. Look at how pitiful he’s become, how unhappy he is. How he suffers. Can’t you feel it? Hm? Through the bond you forged?”
Will’s mouth was pulled in a snarl as he tried to drag himself free, encumbered by the voluminous layers of Mina’s nightgown. He reached out, his fumbling fingers finding a tall vase that had occupied its place for longer that Will would ever live. In his fevered, drugged state, he had no care for it and pulled it hard to thump against the floor, hoping to draw someone’s attention, desperate to save his unborn child.
“I can feel it,” Francis whispered, his diffident voice turned husky with emotion. He slid with fluid grace across the floor to Will, naked in the moonlight, the dragon inked into his skin wrenching itself free to rise above him, a terrible, snarling nightmare full of menace.
It reached for Will, clawed hands spread, and Will snarled, baring his fangs in warning and sinking them deep when it dared to touch his face.
“We’ll have to dose him again,” Mina said, amused by Will’s attempts to protect himself and his child. “You don’t want him fighting you when it’s time to take the baby.”
The frightened, horrified cry that escaped Will loosened his blood-drenched hold on Francis’ hand and Mina smiled, creeping closer to tell him, “That’s right. I would have liked to wait longer, just to make sure it survives, but with Timothy being arrested… well, we had to move before he spills what he knows.”
She danced her fingers through Will’s hair, crooning to him, “By the time anyone comes asking questions, I will be here to tell them that nothing in the world has happened to me, though I will be in mourning for my poor, dear sister, who tragically took her life in the river rather than live as a traitor’s wife.”
“No!” Will said, the single word a throaty snarl holding the echo of his husband’s Alpha warning. It made Francis flinch, distracted from the wound on his hand and the blood that flowed down his arm. His sparkling, glowing eyes searched Will in the darkness, suspicion skating across the smooth planes of his face like a lightning strike.
“Don’t worry,” Mina said, wiping the blood from Will’s mouth, her eye swollen from the cut across her face. “If the baby cannot survive what happens, I’ll just keep your share of everything as consolation. Who knows? If Hannibal manages to come back from war, he might be glad to find a woman in his bed at last. He certainly won’t have a choice in the matter, unless he wants everyone to think he was responsible for your death, too.”
Will curled around his belly, shouting at her, cursing her, but all that would come out were unintelligible cries, harsh sobs that racked him, anger folded into fear for his child and for Hannibal, who would pay the price for Mina’s greed for the rest of his life.
Not a single maid nor footman was to be seen as Mr. Hawkes drew the locks on the front door of Hartford House. The quiet was uncanny, eerily so, broken only by the warning growls of the dogs, snarling and bristling as the party filtered inside.
“Take these animals away at once!” Lord Reddig ordered, all of them giving the great beasts wide berth.
“They do not answer to me, my Lord, only to their Masters,” Mr. Hawkes said, unperturbed by their ferocious posturing, though for all their outrage, none of the three dogs attempted to attack. “None of whom are currently available.”
“Get them out of here,” Statton said, gesturing at one of the constables, who immediately heeded a wiser suggestion when Mr. Hawkes said, “I wouldn’t approach them, were I you. It is best to let them be until his Lordship can come for them.”
Statton strutted up to Mr. Hawkes, gloating in his victory, and held his hand out.
Mr. Hawkes looked at the offered hand, then back up at Statton before fixing his gaze on the frieze bordering the ceiling.
“Keys,” Statton said, having to repeat himself over the rising outrage of the dogs.
“I regret to inform you, my Lord,” Mr. Hawkes said, bland in his indifference, “but I seem to have misplaced them.”
“Where is the housekeeper?” Statton asked, flushing brick red. “Hm? I’ll take her set, instead.”
“I seem to have misplaced Mrs. Henderson as well,” Mr. Hawkes said, straightening his shoulders.
“Find her,” Statton ordered, sending men in search of the staff. “I expect rooms to be prepared for us, including her.”
He tipped his head towards a stately woman with wide, dark eyes and a wicker basket on her arm. She stared in the direction of the dogs, alert and unafraid, the long cane in her other hand gripped firmly but without tension.
“My son has requested I choose a midwife for him as his time draws near and his husband has abandoned him to his fate,” Statton said, sniffing with disdain. “Ms. McClane will tend to him in his misfortune.”
“I will show you to the servant’s quarters, Ms. McClane,” Mr. Hawkes said, scowling at her, but she seemed quite immune to his censure.
She looked his direction, tipping her head up at him, and smiled, saying, “I may not be able to see your face, sir, but I know you’re frowning. I’ll take good care of his Lordship. I promise.”
“I certainly expect you will, Ms. McClane,” Mr. Hawkes said, resenting her presence on principle.
“Take her upstairs,” Statton snapped, crossing his arms behind his back as he strode past the dogs, the barest of flinches betraying him. “I must speak to His Grace at once!”
“As you wish, my Lord,” Mr. Hawkes said, and turned to Ms. McClane to say, “Right this way, please.”
Zeller didn’t need anyone to tell him something else had gone wrong, and he didn’t wait for them to, either. He heard the dogs barking like mad, heard the race of footsteps on the stairs and the rush of staff through the halls, and he knew that whatever it was, he wanted no part of it.
Roland managed to turn his head a little, a bewildered frown wrinkling his aged face.
“I’ll take care of it,” Zeller said to Roland’s inquiring look, moving to lock the main entrance to the suite, throwing the bolt across the great doors and slamming it into place. He went to the windows and double-checked the locks, scowling when someone beat on the door.
“Open up! It’s Lord Reddig and I’ve come to speak with His Grace!”
“He’s sleeping,” Zeller called, raising his voice to be heard through the thick doors. He turned to the far wall and hit the catch, sliding a panel aside to reach Roland’s pistols, many of which Zeller had carried over the years on one errand or another.
“You will open this door!” Statton shouted, incensed. “My son wants an accounting of this House and all it contains, and His Grace must vacate the premises immediately!”
“He’s not going anywhere,” Zeller said, laughing aloud. He tucked a pistol into the holster at his side and closed the panel, asking Roland, “This guy has some nerve, doesn’t he?”
Roland scowled, his face dark with anger and worry.
“I am warning you!” Statton said, pounding his fist on the door. “I have constables here to ensure you obey! They will break in this door!”
“Not if they know what’s good for them,” Zeller warned him, and pulled the doors to Roland’s bedroom proper closed behind him, locking them up tight and dropping the crossbar into place. He moved to stand at the foot of Roland’s bed, eyes on the door, ready and willing to do anything and everything to keep the old man safe.
Hurry. Hurry. Hurry.
The word throbbed in Hannibal’s chest like a second heartbeat, rushing through his veins, filling him to bursting with the need to reach his mate.
His mount pounded up the paved road, sure-footed on the snowy cobbles, and as they raced through the bright light of the full moon, he could see the tracks of wheels and hooves moving ahead of them, fresh enough that they still showed through the dusting of the snowfall.
They turned onto Hartford’s drive and Hannibal’s heart skipped.
Someone had come to Hartford House in his absence, several someones by the looks of things, and he had a terrible feeling that they meant only harm to his mate and their child.
Hannibal spurred the horse up the last stretch, the poor, winded beast struggling to obey. It skittered to a halt on the slick cobbles before the door, but Hannibal was already out of the saddle, leaving the animal to be managed by the two bewildered footman who’d seen him arrive.
Two coaches stood untended, the horses still in harness, patiently waiting to be stabled. One was unmarked, but the other belonged to none other than Statton Graham.
The door stood wide from the hasty exit of the staff and Hannibal strode across the threshold and slammed it behind him, assaulted at once by Mina’s perfume, by Statton Graham’s Alpha scent, and the mixed odors of strangers who had no right to be here, not in this house, not near his mate, and certainly nowhere near his unborn child.
The Alpha in him took over, rising to swallow the gentleman and the Lord. He took one look around the empty foyer and bellowed at the top of his lungs, “Where is my mate?!”
It echoed off of the walls, bounced from the high ceilings in a roaring snarl of outrage, loud enough to be heard from the attic, where Mrs. Henderson was hiding her keys, all the way down to the cellar where the other staff had gathered in silent resistance.
Mr. Hawkes rushed down the stairs with the dogs racing down around him, Winston barking like mad, the two girls silent and taut as bowstrings, tension quivering in every muscle of their heavy frames.
“My Lord! My Lord! Thank all the gods that you are here!” Mr. Hawkes called, forsaking all dignity for the expediency of informing his master what had occurred. “We have been invaded, my Lord! They are—”
“That is quite enough out of you!” Statton Graham called, stalking towards Hannibal from the direction of Roland’s suite, his angry blue eyes on the flustered butler.
“Why are you here?” Hannibal snarled, eyes skipping to the hallway as if he might catch sight of his grandfather. “Explain yourself!”
“I am here,” Statton said, a group of men converging on the foyer, drawn by Hannibal’s shout, “to do as my son has requested! I am here to have the goods of Hartford House assessed for auction and to have His Grace removed from the premises!”
“Like hell you will!” Hannibal said, his voice falling to a deep, booming growl.
“I have the necessary documentation to support my presence here!” Statton said, eyes widening, taking a precautionary step backwards when Hannibal advanced on him. “I have letters—”
“Forgeries!” Hannibal snapped, interrupting him.
“Letters from Will—”
“Don’t you dare speak his name!” Hannibal snarled, and even the dogs cowered, ears flattened with unease. He turned to look at them all, constables and inspectors and hired thugs, and shouted, “Get out of my house!”
“This is not your house!” Statton said, trying in vain to hold his ground. “This house belongs to my son! And it is his wish—”
Hannibal’s body moved before his mind realized what it was about—his hand clenched into a tight fist and crashed into Statton’s startled, aghast face, squarely in his nose.
Lord Reddig staggered backwards and fell on his backside with a howl of pain, blood spewing down his face and dripping from his chin, both hands pressed to his nose. Hannibal seized him by the front of his jacket and slung him around, hauling him towards the door.
Mr. Hawkes moved with swift assurance to open it, back ramrod stiff and proud as Hannibal sent Statton flying out onto the snow-covered drive where he landed in a sputtering, outraged heap of affront.
Hannibal turned once more to look at those who had gathered, and put the full force of his Alpha strength behind him when he snarled, “Get out of my house!”
He did not stay to see that they obeyed him, and none of them dared to try their own luck with his temper. They scrambled through the front door as Hannibal bounded up the stairs with the dogs at his heels, shouting for his mate and terrified that he was already too late to save him.
The third dose they forced on him was too much for even Will’s staunch determination. It sent his mind whirling off into horrors, smokehouses filled with dead girls, forests of skulls where emaciated, antlered monsters lurked behind every tree, dragons breathing flame and destruction down on all he loved while a river swelled and spit with rage, battering itself against the rearing black cliffs of his fears.
The lock on the door clicked, and for an instant light flooded the dark room, revealing the scene for what it truly was.
“My Lord, your husband has re—oh my gods!”
Jimmy cried out in horror, then fury, shouting in anger as he lunged to reach Will.
Francis drew his sinewy body up in one long, liquid line and clipped Jimmy in the jaw, sending him slumping to the ground before Will, unconscious.
Will reached out for him, moving on instinct to cushion his fall but restricted by the refusal of his body to move at his command.
And then he heard it.
He heard his husband’s voice, loud and throbbing with Alpha rage, vibrating up through the floor and down Will’s spine in a wash of relief.
“Where is my mate?”
“Hannibal!” Will shouted, but it came out a shuddering moan, a senseless formation of syllables divorced of meaning.
“Gods! He’s come back!” Mina snarled, hastily moving to lock the door. She turned to lean on it, already plotting, already planning. “Francis, tie that one up and put him in the dressing room for now.”
“Yes, my Lady.”
Mina moved to crouch next to Will and grasp his face, crooning, “Remember when we were small? How you would go down to the river gathering flowers along the way, like a little funeral arrangement just for you? I could see it in your face when you’d look back at me; you felt the tug of the current against you and you considered it, didn’t you? You thought, why not? Why not let it take you, too, let it sweep you away like those flowers, far away from any pain.”
Tears welled in Will’s eyes and flowed down his cheeks, the softness in her voice sending him to the riverside where feathered stags cavorted and flesh-hungry beasts wore men’s skins like a disguise, where the flowers flowed away from the darkness towards the light, a promise not of eternity, but of finality.
“You can go now, Will,” Mina whispered, and the soft noise of Jimmy being dragged away became the murmur of the current, the ripple of reeds. “Wade into the quiet of the river and let the water take you to a place where no one will ever hurt you again.”
“No, I’m Will, remember?” she urged, “And you are Mina, aren’t you, darling?”
He shook his head, cursing the weakness that kept his limbs so heavy, the drug that fogged his mind and threatened his consciousness.
“Yes, you are,” she breathed, “and when we find you floating in the river, my poor, dear sister, I will be sure your funeral is a spectacle, just as you would want, darling Mina.”
Will’s eyes focused on her with difficulty, her face bleeding between the one he knew, and the one he’d never suspected lay beneath, ravenous and demanding and pitiless in its excessive need to have everything in sight, no matter the consequences.
“If you have something you wish to say,” she murmured, the floor shaking with the tread of the dragon’s feet, “you had better say it now, my dearest. Because this is the last time you’ll ever see me.”
Will smiled, his sharp Omegan fangs still flavored with the blood of Francis Dolarhyde, but it only added to the menace of his words when he whispered, “Y-you had better pray it is.”
She recoiled, expecting he might strike her, but he didn’t need to. The fear and doubt on her face convinced him that his words would haunt her as surely as his ghost would, should the dragon swallow him whole.
“Take Will to the riverside, Francis, where you took Matthew Brown,” she said, straightening and retreating to Will’s bed. “Mason is waiting there. He’ll bring the baby back to me when you’ve finished.”
The dragon loomed into his vision, choking Will with its brimstone scent, but it was the Alpha, Francis Dolarhyde, who slipped his arms around Will and lifted him, carrying him into the dressing room and vanishing into the narrow passages that ran between the walls of Hartford House.
Will struggled, fighting the foggy haze of confusion with everything in him, but nothing seemed to work right. He couldn’t fight, couldn’t cry out, couldn’t seem to keep his heavy eyes open. Even the anger that gripped him was muffled behind an impenetrable wall, distant and muted.
Time jumped and shifted, no longer the linear sense Will had always known it to be, but a turbulent, swirling master with the capriciousness of the river that had once claimed Hannibal’s family.
His mate’s name rang like a bell in his confusion, solid and real and steady.
Dimly, through the hellish landscape of his fevered mind, Will felt his husband near enough to touch, a force of boiling fury and terror running towards him as fast as he could, reaching for him, fingers straining to take hold.
Will reached back in desperation, making one final plea before being eaten up by darkness.