Stilling, Max took in that hint of illumination. And what it signified.
The magic within her still lived. Darius’s magic.
You can’t have her, Max growled, fury overtaking his crushing grief. She’s mine.
There were consequences for penetrating the Transcendual Realm. Dire penalties.
He didn’t care.
He would be stained, marked. Some would hunt him as a rogue. Peace would be ephemeral with a price on his head.
Max didn’t hesitate. It would all be worth it. If he had Victoria.
Slicing across his wrist with a sliver of magic, he held his arm above the wounds in Victoria’s chest. The crimson of his blood blended with the snow and dripped onto her charred flesh. The mixture sizzled atop her skin and smoke rose.
Max closed his eyes and began to incant.
Victoria woke with a gasp and found herself lying in a field of yellow flowers. The air was redolent of lilies and sun-warmed grass, and butterflies flitted through the air in rarely seen numbers.
Pushing up to a seated position, she perused her surroundings with greater care, attempting to reconcile the beauty of the summer day with the snow-covered alley she’d occupied just a moment before. She looked down, noting the simple linen shift she wore, cleanly cut and unadorned. Her hand lifted to her unmarred chest and she frowned.
Where was Max? And where was she?
A masculine hand penetrated her vision.
Her gaze lifted and came to rest on a beloved face she thought she would never see again.
“Hello, Vicky.” His beautiful mouth curved in a loving smile. The sunlight lit his golden hair with a luminousness that stole her breath and tightened her chest. Her favorite dimple dotted his cheek and brought back a flood of treasured memories.
“Where are we?”
She accepted the hand he held out to her, allowing him to pull her to her feet.
“Together,” he said simply. “Although I’ve always been with you.”
Darius linked his fingers with hers. “Walk with me?”
“Am I dead?”
His head tilted to the side, as if listening to something she couldn’t hear. His handsome features took on a thoughtful cast and his lips pursed. Then he set off, pulling her along with him, forgetting to answer her. Or choosing not to.
As they strolled, recognition of their location came to her—the south of France. One of the many places they’d visited and enjoyed as a couple.
“Have you been here the whole time?” she asked.
“No. I switch it up every now and then.”
“ ‘Switch it up’?”
He glanced aside at her with a familiar twinkle in his eye. “I’m keeping up with vernacular.”
As flowers crushed beneath their feet, sweetly alluring fragrances filled the air. It was paradise, in a fashion, but echoes of pain and longing turned down the corners of her mouth.
Max. Her fear for him was paramount in her mind.
“Where are we, Darius?”
“You know where we are.” He looked straight ahead, revealing no more than the classical elegance of his profile.
“Is it over for me, then?”
“It can be.” With a gesture of his hand, he directed her to sit upon a half-moon bench that hugged a tree. A tree that had not been there just a second ago.
“You still have magic,” she said.
“It is ingrained in us.”
Victoria sat, her fingers moving restlessly over the edge of her skirt. The urgency inside her grew with every breath she took, sparking a driving need to act. For her, the clock was ticking double time, a jarring contrast to the pervasive leisure she felt in the Transcendual Realm.
Darius sat beside her and picked up one of her hands in his. “When I first saw you,” he said softly, “I knew you were the only woman for me. The sensation was lightning in a bottle, an instantaneous awareness. I was certain, prior to exchanging a word with you, that you would make me happier than I had ever been or could ever be without you.”
Her eyes stung as her vision blurred with tears. “I felt the same.”
“I always knew you loved me.”
“Yes . . . ”
“I also knew that I was not your soul mate.”
Victoria stilled. Darius smiled, but his handsome features were marred by sorrow.
“What are you saying?”
“You were all I needed, Vicky, but I couldn’t be all you needed. I didn’t have a firm enough hand. You were content with me, but not thriving.”
“No,” she protested, canting to face him directly. “That’s not true.”
“It is.” He cupped her cheek, his thumb following the line of her cheekbone. “That’s why I gifted my power to you. I wanted you to have a choice. I wanted to give you the opportunity to get it right the next time.”
“It was right the first time,” she insisted. “I will always care for you, always love you.”
“I know.” The sadness left his blue eyes, replaced by the mischievous twinkle she’d fallen in love with. “What we had was perfect . . . but now you have something even more perfect. I wish I could have been that for you. Still, I’m grateful for what we did have. I know we had something wonderful.”
“Yes. We did.” Victoria glanced at the field of flowers around them. “What happens now?”
“Now, you decide.” He squeezed her hand. “Stay with me or live the rest of your eight lives.”
She bumped his shoulder with hers. “That’s a myth.”
Darius grinned. “Is it?” he teased, standing.
Victoria rose to her feet and stared up at him. “Are you happy?”
“Of course.” His dimple flashed. “I’m with you always. There’s nothing more I could ask for.”
“Do you want me to stay?”
“I want you to be happy,” he said, in a low ardent tone. “Whether that’s with me or with Westin. He loves you. Almost as much as I do. He’s fighting to bring you back as we speak.”
“I love him.” Her tears flowed freely.
“I’m glad, Vicky.”
“I love you, too.”
“I know you do.”
His golden head lowered, bringing his mouth to hers. His advance was slow, yet heartrendingly familiar. The press of his lips soothed a long restless part of her heart. She hadn’t had the chance to say good-bye; he’d been ripped from her too quickly. That lack of closure had haunted her for centuries.
Victoria’s hands fisted in Darius’s linen shirt and she kissed him desperately. Not with the passion she felt for Max, but with the lingering love they’d once shared. It was a bittersweet parting, but one that felt absolutely right. Her life was with Max now. So was her heart.