Mina stood at the edge of the Throne, her hands shaking, her gaze darting around. The overwhelming belief that she should not be here rooted her to the spot, unable to take a step forward.

 

Gods damn it. She was terrified to leave her home in the forest. Horrified at the thought of setting one foot outside the Throne. She was the gods-be-damned Queen of the Forest, and she couldn’t even touch leaf or branch if it was beyond the edge of her Throne.

 

She shouldn’t be feeling this way. Terri was gone, dead, her ashes in tiny sealed jars. Selena, one of the few outsiders Mina allowed into the Throne, had told her that Dragos was making sure those jars never again saw the light of day. Terri couldn’t hurt her, or anyone else, ever again.

 

And still, she couldn’t force herself to take that one tiny step that would allow her to leave the Throne.

 

“Mina.”

 

She screamed and clutched her chest.

 

Dragos, his eyes glowing red in the darkness, stepped out from the shadows of the trees. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to frighten you.”

 

She stared at him, shocked to the core. The forest hadn’t whispered his presence to her. Not even Ash could sneak up on her unnoticed.

 

But here Dragos was, the forest content to let him pass unremarked, as if he belonged.

 

As if he were one with it, as she was.

 

Dragos stepped up to the line where the Throne began, leaving them toe-to-toe. He studied her closely. “You look tired, draga mea.”

 

She lifted her chin, hoping she looked regal and not arrogant. There was a fine line between the two, and Mina tried to not cross it.

 

Never let them see you sweat, Mina.

 

 “What does that mean?”

 

He smiled softly. “It means ‘my darling.’”

 

“You can’t call me that.” Not now. Maybe not ever. If she was so weak she couldn’t even leave the Throne, how could she lead the dryads? How could she stand at his side as an equal?

 

He cocked one eyebrow. “Oh? Why not?”

 

She took a step back. “Because I can’t be yours.” She knew what a sotiei was, and Dragos was showing all the signs that she was his. It would harm him, to take her as his blood wife, the one being he could feed on for all his years. Her life span would expand, matching his, Mina dying when he did. She wasn’t certain why she believed so strongly that becoming his sotiei would ruin him, but the belief was rooted inside her heart. No. It was better to drive him away, make him leave. Neither of them would be hurt if he’d just go away.He cocked his head, the question clear in his expression. “Can’t…or won’t?”

‚Äč

She shook her head. If things had been different, she’d have allowed him into the Throne, given him time to court her so they could learn one another. Not all sotiei were lovers, but the best pairings were. Unfortunately, as attracted as she was to Dragos, she had her own problems to deal with. Becoming a blood wife wasn’t on the top of her list of things to do today.

 

Leaving the Throne was.

 

“Can’t.” She took a step back, prepared to retreat to her tree.

 

“Wait—” He held out a hand, hissing when the trees around the Throne reacted. Branches lashed out, striking Dragos hard enough to bruise. He stared in shock at his hand. “Mina.”

 

The low, growling threat had her backing even further into the Throne. Her heart was racing in fear. “I can’t.”

 

“You need to stop running from me. I’m afraid of what will happen if my beast takes over.” He closed his eyes, the strain of holding himself back visible in his tense shoulders and clenched hands. “Please, Mina. Just…stay and talk to me.”

 

She paused. The proud man was practically begging for her company. Was that too much for him to ask? Just to talk? She nodded slowly, reluctantly. Mina wasn’t certain this was a good idea, but he was trying so hard not to chase after her that she felt she had to give him something. “Very well.”

 

He relaxed instantly, and when he opened his eyes they were their normal, beautiful gray. He had the clearest, prettiest eyes she’d ever seen on a man, surrounded by thick dark lashes that framed them beautifully. She could get lost in his eyes. “Thank you.”

 

Guilt tore through her at his relieved tone. He’d been suffering too while she tried to solve her issues. “I’m sorry I’ve been denying you, Dragos, but I swear it’s been for a good reason.”

 

He smiled, but he looked sad, weary. “Selena has told me some of it. The nightmares aren’t going away, are they?”

 

She shook her head. “No. She’s right. They’re getting worse.”

 

“You blame me for not saving you.”

 

She blinked, shocked. “Yes. I know it’s not fair, but part of me does.” She cocked an eyebrow at him. “The other part knows damn well I should have been able to save myself.”

 

“I got to you as quickly as I could. I stepped into a clearing, knowing it would spring the trap Terri had set for Ash and Greer, possibly Amara. When it triggered, I wound up fighting dozens of thorned vines aiming for my heart.”

 

She’d heard of the battle Dragos had waged in that clearing. “I thank you for saving Ash and Birch.”

 

He nodded his head, one leader to another. “You’re welcome.” He leaned back against a tree trunk, his gaze never leaving her even for a second. In fact, she wasn’t certain he’d blinked. “How are you otherwise?”

 

“Peachy. Never been better.”

 

He chuckled softly. “Liar.”

 

She shrugged. “What do you want me to say, Dragos? That I’m not broken?”

 

“You’re not broken.” He straightened. “You’ve been bent in a storm, but you haven’t broken.”

 

“I wonder.”

 

She said it softly, but vampires had superior hearing, second only to wolves. “Shall I prove it to you?” Dragos held out his hand, inviting her to step outside the protections of the Throne. “I give you my solemn vow that you will come to no harm while in my care.”

 

She stared at his hand, so tempted. It would be so sweet to give herself over to him, to allow him to protect her, to coddle her. She almost cried with the need to take his hand and give him everything he asked for.

 

But she was Queen of the Forest. The one who sat in the Throne and ruled all of the creatures within the wood. If she were anyone else, it would be different. She’d take his hand, allow him to protect her, even from herself.

 

But to take his hand now, when she couldn’t be what they both needed her to be, to allow him to be her superior instead of her equal, would diminish them both. She shook her head, aware how badly her answer would hurt him. “I can’t.”

 

He dropped his hand, red fire dancing once more in the gray of his eyes. “I won’t wait much longer, Mina Chainey. Queen or no, you will be mine.”

 

She tilted her chin up, but inside she was shaking, and not all of it was from fear. “That remains to be seen.”

 

He smiled, heated, wicked, and she nearly responded, the pull of him intense. “That it does. Until tomorrow, sweet Mina.”

 

She opened her mouth to argue, but before a single word passed her lips Dragos disappeared, right before her eyes. She scanned the forest for him, using all of her senses, opening herself up to the living creatures within as only she could.

 

He was gone, no longer within her demesne. He’d vanished, and taken the majority of her courage with him. “I’m so sorry, Dragos.” She sighed, and acknowledged what she already knew. “I won’t see you tomorrow night.”

 

She turned away, back toward her tree.

 

Toward safety, and her own cowardice.

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Dana Marie Bell.

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