The Vampire Court by Ali Winters



Chapter One





Clara





“Bite me.” The words crack in my throat, coming out louder than intended and breaking the silence that settled between us over the past several hours. Cherno startles awake from his perch on the back of the bench and flops down on the seat at Alaric’s side.

He lets the curtain covering the carriage window slide from his fingers and leans back to look at me.

“Clara?” he asks, raising a single dark brow.

“Bite me,” I say again, my voice normal this time.

Alaric’s gaze lowers to my hands in my lap. I force my fingers to release my skirt, allowing the blood to flow back into my whitened knuckles, but he’s already seen the way I clutched the material until my fingers ached.

Cherno crawls to the corner of the bench seat and curls up in a bat-shaped ball, wrapping a leathery wing over their head, blocking us out.

Alaric blows out a soft breath then says, “No.”

I blink, my lips parting. Then I snap my mouth shut. Did he really deny me the final mark—this man who wanted me to accept it for my safety?

“Why in the Otherworld not?” I demand. “You said it was up to me to ask for each mark.” I press my hands to my chest. “I am asking for the final one now.”

Alaric cants his head then runs a hand through the dark strands, messing them in a way that’s all the more fitting to his handsome features.

“Clara, you are only asking because you are nervous. I would rather you didn’t bind yourself to me over something so… trivial and temporary.” His lip curls as if the thought leaves a sour taste in his mouth.

I clench my jaw and temper my irritation. “Temporary? I’ll die without it.” My chest feels tight, my tongue heavy and dry. “You said it was my choice,” I whisper.

He frowns and leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees then reaches out to take one of my hands in his. “My dear, Clara, it is your choice. It will always be your choice.” Alaric dips his head and blows out a breath before raising his eyes to meet mine again. “But not like this.”

I open my mouth to protest, but he holds up a hand, silencing me.

“Victor compelled you, and that is the only reason why Cassius, Della, and Lawrence found out that you were not marked,” he adds as if knowing what I was about to say.

I bite down on my bottom lip.

Alaric brushes his knuckles across my cheek. The glove encasing his hand is soft against my skin. “No one will dare attempt anything of the sort at Nightwich. Not to you.”

“How can you be so sure?” I am baffled by his confidence. It happened in his territory, and now, we are heading to new ground where the rules will undoubtedly be different.

He’s silent for a long moment, but in the end, he only says, “I just am.”

I pull my hand from his grasp and sit back. “And what if the other three say something? It’s not like you can watch them every second to make sure they keep quiet.”

Alaric’s gaze darkens. “They won’t—not if they wish to continue living.” The promise of violence is in his voice, and brutality etches the sharp edges of his features. He lifts his chin a fraction, relaxing back against his seat, completely and utterly confident. “I ordered them not to.”

Demons and saints… He ordered them? What kind of assurance is that? I hold back further argument. He’s right. I am nervous, but his reasoning is hardly comforting. He believes his order will carry weight even when I’d been attacked in his home.

Shifting in my seat, I work over his words again and again, trying to decipher his meaning. Is it possible for vampires to compel each other?

“Besides,” he says quietly, his voice thick and dark, “the carriage is far from the ideal place to mark you for the last time.” His gaze pins me to the spot, chasing every other thought away until I forget them all. Until the only thing left is the heat in his eyes and the unspoken words—the ones that promise things to come after the bite and the promise he had made after the second mark. “Next time, my dear, Clara, I will take my time with you.”

My skin heats at the memory and the way his words still have the power to illicit warmth low in my belly.

“And then there’s the fact that we both know you would regret it afterward.” His voice brings me crashing back to the present, though if he notices the obvious reactions to my thoughts, he doesn’t let on. Alaric’s expression softens. “You don’t want the final mark. We both know that. It’s okay to be nervous about what’s to come, but don’t let the possibility of what may be give you the illusion that you no longer have a choice.”