King of Cups (Stormcloud Academy #2) Read Online Nicole Casey

Categories Genre: Alpha Male, BDSM, Dark, Erotic, Romance Tags Authors: Series: Stormcloud Academy Series by Nicole Casey
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Total pages in book: 1
Estimated words: 53071 (not accurate)
Estimated Reading Time in minutes: 265(@200wpm)___ 212(@250wpm)___ 177(@300wpm)
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King of Cups (Stormcloud Academy #2)

Author/Writer of Book/Novel:

Nicole Casey

Language:
English
Book Information:

Coldhearted murder. Gorgeous, dangerous boys. Lethal, power games.
Who knew boarding school would be this noxious? My first year at Stormcloud Academy?
A total mess. Now, the second year is here.
My limits will be tested, as new troubles brew on the horizon. On my to-do list?
Clear my name before I end up behind bars for murder
Stay alive
Understand what the Kings want from me
Speaking of the Kings…
My desire for them is uncontrollable.
I can’t give up Theo, or Zephyr.
No matter how jealous they are of each other.
Worse, now I can’t get the cocky Arvo out of my head either.
King of Cups is the second book in the Stormcloud Academy. This reverse harem/bully romance series contains elements that may be sensitive to some readers. Filled with cruel and damaged men and a determined protagonist, this romance will take you on a dark, wild ride.
Books in Series:

Stormcloud Academy Series by Nicole Casey

Books by Author:

Nicole Casey



PROLOGUE

BIBA

“Finger, bitte.”

The stocky officer wore a light blue shirt tucked into slightly darker trousers. A navy blue beret sat on his hopelessly disorganized desk. He couldn’t have been older than thirty-five, but his hair was already thinning, only offering slightly more coverage than the mangy beard on his face.

Before him was a black ink pad.

“I’m sorry?” I asked, trying to hide my shock.

“Bitte, frau,” the guard said coldly.

“Unless you are booking me for a crime, you’re not taking my fingerprints.”

“Sehr gut,” he grumbled.

My surprise, I think, was understandable. This appearance at the Wachsbrunnen police station had been framed as a polite chat about the unfortunate events surrounding Gail Monfort’s suicide with the girl who was closest to her, the American orphan, Biba Quinn—a.k.a. me.

The conversation was turning out to be remarkably less polite than the police had implied. I had been checked in at the front desk, photographed, and marched back to the room for questioning. Now, they were attempting to fingerprint me, and I refused.

So I was left alone in their interrogation room for a half-hour. Cooling my heels, I think they call it.

The interrogation room had plastered walls on three sides. The fourth, behind me, was mountain granite. Like many buildings in Wachsbrunnen, the local police station was built into the side of the mountain. One of its load-bearing walls was the rocky edifice. If you stood to the rear of the structure—in the holding cells, the armory, the evidence locker, or the interview room—you were essentially pressed against the Alps.

I sat there, the day after Zephyr had left for his summer holiday. He hadn’t wanted to be separated from me in the weeks following Gail’s death. He hadn’t wanted me out of his sight. But his father, Peter Williams, the shipping magnate, would not have his son moping around with some girl at Stormcloud between terms. So he left. It turned out the Wachsbrunnen authorities were waiting for the scion of one of the world’s wealthiest, most powerful families to leave town before taking his lover in for questioning.

It might not have been so bad, except for the one item left on the table in front of me: a glossy photograph of Gail.

It must have been taken when she was in high school. Her hair was longer and fairer than I recalled, and she wore a school’s crested blazer and Oxford shirt. But her eyes were as large, round, and hopeful as I remembered, her toothy smile totally devoid of guile. This was before her parents’ untimely death, probably—a more innocent time in her life.

I stared at the photo and thought of the last time I saw her, as her pallid corpse was cut down from the rafter. Her face was imprinted in my memories, beet-red from pooling blood, with bulging tongue and eyes, lips blue. Her arms and legs were stiff with rigor mortis. It was like she was a poorly carved statue of the vivacious, wonderful girl who had become my friend in our first term at Stormcloud Academy.

We two understood what it was to lose the most important person in your life only to find yourself in the strangest, darkest, most mystical place. More than that, Gail showed me through the openhearted way she approached Stormcloud how death, loss, and relentless negativity didn’t have to define us. I loved being around her and longed to be more like her.

But I was afraid there was something essential about my personality that had to steel over and punch back. I couldn’t look for the good like Gail. Now I was alive, and she was dead. And what did that mean?

Suddenly, the door to the room unlatched and swung open. In stepped a tall, lanky detective with sallow cheeks and stringy gray hair combed straight back over his thin-skinned scalp. He loped in—I suspected this guy loped everywhere. He could barely keep his bloodshot eyes open, let alone solve a murder.

“Miss Quinn,” he muttered in a Germanic drone, “I am sorry to keep you waiting.”

I nodded curtly, not feeling like the man deserved the slightest bit of deference. He slumped into the chair across from me.

“You were rather close, I have heard, vith Gail Monfort.”

“She was my best friend,” I replied flatly.

“Ja, and I am most sorry for your loss. You vere both new to the Academy, correct?”

“Yes.”

“I suppose you had a lot in common, both having lost parents.”

He let that hang in the air. My back stiffened. How did he know about my father? And what did that have to do with anything? That spiny part of me wanted to storm out right then, not only away from this detective but also away from thoughts of that phone call from Dad’s assistant. The car accident. Come home quick. . . .

I fought back against that urge. Better to stay in the present. Focus on this detective and his interest in my family tragedy. It wouldn't have been too complicated for an officer to learn my family history, but they would have to be researching it. Why was this detective digging into my past? I worked hard not to show my concern, but the guy seemed to recognize it anyway. A smirk crossed his lips.

“Let me ask you,” he proceeded casually, “did your friend display any changes of personality in the weeks before the end of the term?”

“No,” I answered quickly, then wondered if that was the wrong answer.

“No signs of depression, hopelessness?”

“I mean, Gail was always a little sad, you know, because of her parents….”

“Ja, and you saw her every day?”

“I did.”

“I’m led to believe you and Miss Monfort had been fighting in the weeks before her death.”

I froze. Yes, Gail and I had fought, but it was because of how close I had gotten to Zephyr and the Kings. She was scared for me. It had nothing to do with her death. I told myself this so many times, every morning and every night. I needed to believe it because I already hated myself for our petty fighting in her last weeks. If I’d contributed to her death . . . that would just be too much to bear.

“We never fought, Gail and me. We were close, and. . . .”

I trailed off. This wasn’t good. I was lying to the police.

It was absurd too. This detective clearly suspected the same thing I did: Gail’s death was not a suicide. So why wasn’t I telling the truth? Why wasn’t I doing everything I could to help his investigation?

“And vhat, Miss Quinn?”

“I think . . . um, I think Gail was acting strange around the end of term. Her parents’ deaths were weighing on her. I wish I had spoken up about it.”

I realized at that moment that I couldn’t tell the police what I suspected. To do so would reveal how Gail, Theo, and I were secretly investigating the last generation of Kings, men who were so powerful they could snuff out both our investigation and our lives. I had to play dumb to protect myself and Theo. Even worse, I needed to protect Zephyr, even though he was the leader of the Kings. He might unknowingly have sanctioned Gail’s murder.

Which meant . . . I could have been complicit in her death as well.

What could I say to the detective? Even if I were willing to reveal what I suspected about Stormcloud and the Kings, I didn’t think he would believe me. All I could do was parrot the official line, the story that Gail’s killer wanted the world to believe: she had killed herself.

“You seem suddenly quite certain, Miss Quinn.”

“I didn’t want to admit it to myself, I think . . . but I guess Gail was wrestling with demons, and I ignored her struggle.”

The detective grunted his acknowledgment and stared deeply into my eyes.

Did he buy my explanation? I didn’t know.

I didn’t care. He didn’t matter to me.

I would find Gail’s killer myself.

CHAPTER 1

BIBA

“Do hurry up, Quinn.” Miss Amelia tsked at me as I loaded myself down with student medical reports and scuttled out of her office.

For the better part of three months, my role as Amelia’s assistant had been like something between a secretary and a student. I would come to her office each morning, and one of two things would happen. If she had concocted an idea in the night—a better rooming arrangement for first-year students, a symposium series of prominent alumni—it was my job to commit it to paper. In these instances, I would sit cross-legged in the middle of her indigo and red hand-knotted Persian rug and take hours of dictation.

If Amelia had no Stormcloud business, she would pour me a cup of Darjeeling and proceed with a lesson—in whatever subject she judged me in need of learning before my second year began. It was an eclectic mix: Romantic art, industrial chemistry, DH Lawrence, Copernicus, and 20th-century German economic theory. Early in the summer, I’d slipped up and wrinkled my brow when she veered abruptly from Hayek to Sons & Lovers.

She had snapped at me. I suppose you don’t see the value of my lessons, eh? I supposed you’ve become too clever for some past-her-prime administrator’s wisdom?

No, I’m sorry, I had replied. I just didn’t understand the connection between—

You don’t need to understand, Miss Quinn. I’m working from the assumption that you do not understand a bloody thing. It’s pure chance that you survived a single term at Stormcloud Academy.

My expression must have fallen because Amelia had stopped scolding me. It was true: I had just barely made it through my first term at Stormcloud. Gail didn’t.

Amelia had sighed then. I offered you this opportunity because I see promise in you. You aren’t a vapid trust funder skulking about these halls, looking for a rich boy to take care of you—despite your rather perplexing affinity for Zephyr Williams.

Nothing makes a first passionate love affair seem gross like hearing a teacher talk about it. I’d felt my cheeks redden.

Zephyr has a sweet side, I’d muttered, thinking of how sweetly he had caressed and kissed me the night he and Theo saved my life.

I suppose he keeps it well-hidden. Now, listen, Biba: you don’t get to be in my position at Stormcloud Academy without understanding how it works. The students change, but the system remains the same. I will teach you the secrets of this place at my own pace. And believe me, the morsels of academic knowledge I give you are just as important as the sordid goings-on in the school. Now will you give me the benefit of the doubt and let me teach you?

I had nodded. That was in June, and for two months, Miss Amelia did just what she’d promised, taking me through the school’s five-hundred-year history—its enigmatic founders, its countless wealthy and powerful alums. She even touched on the Kings in a glancing sort of way.

Each generation has its kings, Biba, she had said, not just in Stormcloud, but everywhere. Still, this Academy has seen more than its fair share of ruthless, untouchable royals. The same ones keep coming back, decade after decade, through the centuries. It is a symbiotic relationship, you understand. Stormcloud Academy feeds these Kings a steady diet of pleasure and opportunity. In return, the Kings imprint themselves upon it.

I’d asked her what that meant.

The very walls of Stormcloud, she’d replied, remain upright only through the benevolence of the Kings. Unfortunately, we must all keep that front of mind.

Amelia had never said, in plain terms, who had been a King of Stormcloud Academy. She’d spoken of barons, members of Parliament, industrialists, dictators, and great minds—all might have been ancestors to Zephyr and his clique. I didn’t know, and she didn’t say, and that was that.

After a time, Hegelian philosophy and molecular biology began to merge with the famous alums and institutional secrets, as if life and Stormcloud were inseparable. Certainly, they were for me. My old life in Seattle, my hopes for a Harvard admission, my despair at being an orphan . . . all these concerns seemed to belong to another girl. Even my remorse over Gail’s death and the fluttery feelings I had thinking of poor, lost Theo started to vanish.

The Biba that made it through her first term at Stormcloud learned to block these emotions throughout the day. It was a coping mechanism, a means of survival.

The feelings came back when I lay in my bed at night. Actually, it was Zephyr’s bed. The Kings had the best rooms in Stormcloud—huge, sprawling suites meant to house four students, but they had them all to themselves. And they didn’t move between terms like the hoi polloi. So after Zephyr had tried and failed to convince me to join him for the summer at his family’s estate in Cote d’Azur, he’d gotten over his saltiness and tossed the key to his grand suite to me.

Stay there for the summer, he’d grumbled. I can’t believe you’re choosing that bony old gull over me.

It’s an opportunity, Zeph.

You know what’s an opportunity, Biba? Three months in the perfect Mediterranean summer with the richest families in Europe. Whatever. Stay in the mountains with Miss Manners. But sleep in my room. If I can’t have you to myself, I at least want to imagine you touching yourself on my sheets.

It was goodbye, cramped dorm room; hello, luxury living. Not that I spent much time there, as busy as I’d been all summer.

This had been Amelia’s objective, I think, in taking me under her wing. For whatever reason, she seemed to like me and wanted me to be okay. Perhaps she had lost someone like I did, a parent or a friend or a lover. She never talked about herself, anyway. Her goal seemed to be to keep me busy and active for the summer so that I would not think about all I’d lost and all that had been denied me. And somewhere between the tutorials, the gossip, and the drilling of Academy history, I suddenly became, for the first time, comfortable in Stormcloud Academy. To the manner born, as they say.

My assistant role became a real job once July turned to August and, one morning, Amelia announced that the “fun” was over for now. We had to get things ready for the first day of class.

That meant processing applications and tuition payments, assigning rooms and class schedules, ordering food, books, and other provisions. It broke down cleanly: Amelia did all the critical thinking, and I did all the grunt work.

Amazingly, in a world of cloud storage and wireless internet, most of this work required taking stacks of papers all over Stormcloud’s labyrinthine campus. Folders for the bursar. Folders for the professors. Folders for the security guards. And always stacks and stacks of sealed documents for Dean Schmidt, many of them stamped with literal wax like papal decrees.

I’d worn out a pair of tennis shoes tramping all over the school’s unyielding stone and oak. Yet all the tidbits about Stormcloud’s history had lodged in my brain, and I now had a GPS-quality understanding of its countless secret doors and passages.

On that particular morning, I let myself out of Amelia’s portico office and turned onto the blessedly soft runner that led toward the women’s wing. My endpoint was the infirmary at the far end of the East Wing. A newbie would think I was heading the wrong way.

They didn’t know that if you tapped the gilded rose on the wainscoting four rooms down with your foot, a secret door would pop open, leading to an iron spiral stairwell. Take that up, and you’d find yourself in a dimly lit corridor that runs parallel to the student auditorium on the fourth floor. There’s a panel you could slip around that would take you under the stage, then a trap door you’d pop out of next to the dressing rooms. The story went that a mezzo-soprano on loan from Munich did a masterclass at Stormcloud in the mid-1800s, and the headmaster at the time began an affair with her. He built the secret fourth-floor corridor to give himself access to her after performances.

Anyway, once you were backstage, you could step up to the catwalk, shimmy past a false wall to a covert door that leads to the roof. From there, you could walk across to the extreme eastern edge, back in through the service access, then through two masked sliding partitions. The first would take you into a secret surgical amphitheater that I didn’t dare ask Amelia about. The second led to the office of the school’s physician.

I dropped the files on his desk. The whole trip took less than five minutes. Using the regular route, with its winding hallways and hand-cranked elevator, would have taken twice that time.

I decided to spend my saved minutes taking a hidden stairwell down to the blossoming courtyard and enjoying the fresh late-summer air.

With a sense of true self-satisfaction, I stepped out into the light. I was, at last, a legit student of Stormcloud Academy. To hell with the haters and the naysayers!

So it took the wind out of my sails when the first thing I saw when I entered the courtyard was a familiar pair of serious gray eyes set below a shielding brow and a swoop of sandy blond locks.

It was Theo, newly arrived, tanned, and refreshed. Of all the people I could run into, he was perhaps the one I was least prepared to see.

Even so, the moment he saw me, he flashed a perfect smile of gleaming white teeth. He was smitten, as always, and I fought hard to contain my own joy at seeing him. I didn't want him to know I was as happy as he was.

CHAPTER 2

THEO

I didn’t know what I’d expected. Coming back to Stormcloud a week before the start of term was not something I’d generally do. Normally, I relished every second away from that nest of vipers, but that summer was different. I had someone on campus I wanted to return to.

Of course, that was idiotic logic. The last time I’d seen Biba, she was shutting the door in my face—the door to Zephyr Williams’ room. Knowing what was to follow in that room . . . it was too much for me to stomach on the last night of classes. I’d hopped into my car with two trash bags of clothing and bolted. I was halfway to Milan Malpensa before I received the news about Gail Monfort. I’d fired off a text to Biba, not wanting to call her while she was with . . . him.

I’m so sorry, I’d typed. It was all I could think to say.

She hadn’t replied. Had I expected her to?

I’d done my best over the next two months to keep Biba Quinn and Gail Monfort out of my mind. Miss Amelia had arranged a last-minute volunteer posting in the Solomon Islands. The Oceanic nation had been dealing with rising waters from climate change. They desperately needed volunteer labor to shore up their waterfront homes.

It was hopeless work, unfortunately. The waters would continue to rise. The floods would keep coming. All we could do was add additional support to the base of the homes and find places to build makeshift levees against the ocean. They would hold a few years, at best, unless significant action were taken to stem melting icecaps and weather changes.

Selfishly, I felt like the work had been more charitable to me than it was to the Islands. It had succeeded in helping me forget the madness of Stormcloud. Each morning, I would wake with the sun to a breakfast of fresh fruit, toasted bread, and coffee, strap on a harness, and position thick logs under the decking of a local family’s home. I wondered what it would be like to have been part of a family that I could go back to. What would it be like to have a home to return to during summers and holidays?

In the afternoon, I would heave sandbags into low surf until my arms ached. Then I’d rest in a hammock until sunset. We had built bonfires in the sand at night, cooked fish and pork over the open flame, danced to the music on our phones, and drank kava and cheap beer. It was heaven. I’d slept each night like a dead man.

As August had approached, however, my peace of mind had begun to dissipate. I’d started waking before the sunrise and lying in my cot for hours, staring into the darkness. My heart would thud in my chest like it might burst through my ribs. What was I afraid of?

The answer was simple: Biba. I was afraid I would have to leave that paradise and return to the mountaintop butchery that was Stormcloud. I feared the first time I would see Biba and Zephyr together on campus. I feared the first time I had to pass Gail’s old room. It wasn’t like the three of us—Gail, Biba, and me—ever felt truly contented: we were always struggling against some malevolent force we neither understood nor were equipped to fight. But for a time, I had convinced myself we could overcome the darkness.

Then it took Gail.

It was going to take Biba too, and she was willingly walking into it.

I did not think I could stand by and watch the Kings corrupt her, chew her up, and leave her broken in the trash pile behind the school. Biba Quinn had such fire inside her—resilience, intelligence, and grace. That had drawn me to her when I saw her in the dining hall her first morning at the school.

I wished to God that I’d had the strength to take her in my arms and kiss her that first night. I wished I’d told her I cared for her and would always protect her, no matter how bad things got. I wished I’d decided earlier to fight for her.

It was too late, and each morning in the Solomon Islands, I had to contend with my own failure. The school year was approaching, and soon, I’d have to return. I didn’t have wealthy parents like Zephyr Williams, Sol Stamos, or Arvo Hurley. I didn’t have parents at all. Just like Gail and Biba, I was an orphan. I needed Stormcloud to find my way in the world.

One morning, I’d stepped into the cool, powdery sand in the predawn hours and breathed in the salty air. Suddenly, it was clear what I had to do. I needed to return to campus immediately before Zephyr could get there. I needed to see Biba, alone.

“Theo,” she gasped, stopping dead in her tracks.

I was as surprised as she was. Biba had emerged from a service door that I didn’t even know was there. I was mustering the courage to enter the school and find her, and then, out of nowhere, we were suddenly face-to-face.

The cloudless mountain summer had given her fair skin a golden glow and brought out some freckles on her cheeks. That flaxen hair was now a hundred shades of blonde, cascading over her bared shoulders and down the swell of her breasts. She wore a powder blue chiffon sundress that seemed to flutter weightlessly around her perfect body.

I wanted to taste her lips right then and there. She seemed, at that moment, to be the perfect girl I’d fallen in love with last spring, before the Equinox Ball and Zephyr’s bullshit.

I found I was smiling dumbly, helpless in her presence.

She returned my grin with a sweet, closed-mouth smile of her own.

“I came back early,” I heard myself admitting. “I wanted to see you. Can we sit somewhere and talk?”

“I’d like that,” she replied immediately.

The sun felt a little warmer.

We sat on a bench in the courtyard, enjoying the refreshing breeze from the mountain peaks’ stubbornly icy caps. I told Biba about the Solomon Islands, and she discussed her summer working for Miss Amelia.

“Island life agrees with you,” she complimented me. “You look better than I’ve seen you since . . .”

She didn’t finish the sentence, but I knew what she meant: since I was beaten nearly to death last spring.

“It was good to work with my hands for a while. The only problem was . . . well, I couldn’t stop my mind from going back to what happened to you at the year-end party. And then what happened to Gail.”

She nodded gravely, and I saw her chest heave and her lips shake like she was suppressing a sob for a moment. She replied finally, “I got your message.”

I’m so sorry.

“It was all I could think to say. I couldn’t believe Gail would do that.”

“I don’t believe it.”

Biba looked me stone-cold straight in the eyes and silently dared me to contradict her. It was the same intensity she’d shown in the face of the Kings’ relentless bullying early last year. At the time, I’d viewed it as the unrealistic hope of a doomed creature. Now I saw that Biba Quinn was a survivor. She took control of her fate, even when it meant allying herself with the enemy.

She was tough as nails. Tougher than me, certainly, which was why I feared she would get hurt. She was too confident that she could manage Zephyr and the Kings. It blinded her to the danger they posed.

“You’re right,” I answered. “There’s no way Gail killed herself.”

“Not when we were so close to the truth, and the fact that she died the same night someone attacked me—”

“But who? Do you have any idea—?”

“No,” she shot back, cutting off my line of questioning. She knew where I was going. No one could convince me that Zephyr or his toadies didn’t have something to do with Gail’s death. Nothing goes down at Stormcloud without the Kings signing off, and the simple fact was that Gail and Biba were digging into the Kings’ past.

“Listen,” she continued, “we aren’t the only people who think there’s something fishy. There’s a detective in Wachsbrunnen. He thinks Gail was murdered.”

“How do you know?”

“He questioned me over the summer.”

“What evidence does he have?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t tell him anything.”

What the hell was that about? I couldn’t even reply. Biba had found a cop who agreed with her and wanted to investigate Gail’s death as a murder . . . and she hadn’t told him anything.

“Why?” was all I could manage to say.

“Think about it, Theo. Someone is on to us already. They tried to kill me, and they already killed Gail. If I give everything to this detective, the best-case scenario is that someone kills him too.”

“And the worst case?”

“He could be working for Gail’s killers.”

“Biba, you’re being paranoid. Lying to the police is a terrible idea. You could be arrested.”

Her nostrils flared as she stood from the bench.

“That’s a better fate than Gail got. I can’t let some stranger find justice for her. I need to do it myself, and I’d like your help.”

I stood quickly, without a second’s hesitation, and took her hands in mine.

“I will do whatever it takes,” I promised.

The thing I did not say aloud but promised in my heart was:

Whatever it takes, I will find Gail’s killer before you do, Biba. You’re the dearest person in my solitary life. Someone tried to take you from me once before. They won’t do it again.

CHAPTER 3

BIBA

Ten days before the start of classes, I found myself antsy. Students were already trickling in, mostly second and third-years trying to get the lay of the land before the term officially began. I watched them all from the fourth-floor window of Zephyr’s suite.

They came in Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and spacious stretch limos. Their hair was sun-bleached and their skin bronzed after summers of leisure. I could only imagine where they’d spent their breaks: Caribbean isles, Mediterranean yachts, villas on Lake Como, chalets in Sochi. It struck me anew that my classmates were the children not just of privilege but of extraterrestrial wealth.

What was I doing in this rarified air? My father was successful but not a billionaire. Though he couldn’t shower me with couture clothes and lavish vacations, he gave me all the love a child could want. He went to Stormcloud Academy once upon a time but never saw fit to tell me. The funds to place me in this school were shrouded in mystery, an endowment arranged without my knowledge. Now I sat at the top of its rigid hierarchy. Within the perimeter walls of Stormcloud, I was a protected mistress of the ancient order of Kings. The children of politicians, oligarchs, and lords—and they’d cleared a path to power for me.

Even now, that seemed insane, like something from a gothic romance—the provincial girl who became a queen.

Nevertheless, a flutter began inside my chest as the school year approached. It grew into an earthquake of anticipation.

I turned to Theo, my partner in crime—or, rather, my partner in avenging a crime. It was a relief to have him back. It kept me sane, having a person to reassure me I wasn’t paranoid about Gail’s death. We swapped theories and clues.

“Try to remember,” he pressed me that afternoon. “When was the last time either of us saw her?”

I puzzled it out. It must have been that afternoon—the last of final exams. I’d gone back to her room to get dolled up for the end-of-term bash. Then I’d left her before sunset to find Zephyr.

“Didn’t you see her during the party?”

“No, I don’t think so,” I muttered, trying to remember. “We were gonna steer clear of each other until it was time to meet at Amelia’s office. Do you remember seeing her?”

He thought hard, then shook his head. “No good. . . . I can’t for the life of me remember seeing her that night.”

“That begs the question, then: what if she didn’t leave her room after I last saw her? I mean, Gail wasn’t much of a party girl. What if she stayed hidden until it was time for us to meet?”

“Someone would have needed to break into her room—”

“Yeah, but there was no forced entry.”

“So either the killer had a key . . . or she knew them.”

We locked eyes. Every one of my talks with Theo ended in this unnerving place, with the sinking suspicion that whoever did this was someone we all knew. Just as frightening was that since I was attacked on the same night Gail was killed, this person could still be looking for me. . . .

We had three things in common, Gail and I. Both of our fathers went to Stormcloud. Both of our fathers died in mysterious accidents. And both of us had been digging through the Stormcloud archives in secret. One or several of these commonalities had made us targets. The only thing that separated her fate and mine was that I had Zephyr and Theo to defend me.

After many months apart, it was nice to reconnect with Theo, but these conversations did nothing for my high-headed anxiety. They stirred primal feelings inside me. There was a time, not so long ago, when I wanted nothing more than to give myself to Theo Brant, to open myself physically and spiritually to his strong, attendant hands and lips. I ached for him to make me a woman. The one time we’d kissed in front of the school was, in many ways, the purest rush of passion I’d ever felt. I could still conjure the sensation of his tongue slipping past my lips and smell the cypress shampoo that perfumed his golden locks.

No matter how dire and bleak the topics we discussed, I could not help but feel an agonizing desire when I gazed into his hypnotic eyes. I nearly gasped whenever he bit his lower lip, puzzling out one of our hypotheticals.

It probably didn’t help that I hadn’t been touched in months and was reaching a seismic level of horniness.

That afternoon ten days before classes was no different. As I often did after having lunch with Theo, I rushed to my borrowed suite, dodging incoming students with their Yves Saint-Laurent rolling bags and Versace backpacks. Then I latched the door, pulled the chain, and ran a warm bath in the footed marble tub.

More and more, I was forgoing showers in favor of slow, luxurious baths—with a decent amount of citrus-scented oil and a little Lana Del Rey playing on the speaker to cover up my, shall we say, appreciative noises. It’s debatable how clean these baths made me, but they relieved some of my tension.

I slid gently into my soothing tub, my dress and undergarments cast aside as soon as I locked the door. No sooner had my back pressed against the slanted stone than my hands traced their way up my belly and ribs. My aching breasts responded to the pressure of my palms, and the moment I pinched my hard, wine-red nipples, the passion within me began boiling over. This was going to be fast, I knew. My lunch with Theo had primed me for immediate release.

My left hand was under the water a second later, spreading myself and teasing my swelling clit.

But I was interrupted in my self-pleasure by the sound of the suite’s door latch clicking open and the security chain going taut.

Someone was coming in. I suspected who it was, and the fortuitous possibility sent a shot of adrenaline through my veins. I lifted myself from the bath and wrapped a Turkish cotton towel around my dripping body.

No sooner had I returned to the bedroom than I faced shadows dancing behind the ajar door. A beat later, there was a snapping sound, then the glint of a switchblade appeared in the crack. My breath caught in my throat. The blade found the chain and slowly lifted it from the door catch.

I should have shouted or at least retrieved my clothes. For all I knew, this could have been another assassin sent from my unseen enemies, infiltrating the room to cut my throat—or worse. But I couldn’t move. Something froze me in place, and my throat closed, not daring to let out even a whimper.

I stood paralyzed in terror as that blade lifted the chain from its clasp.

The door swung open.

Even silhouetted in the doorway, Zephyr’s profile was unmistakable.

His toned, lean frame and bulging biceps were apparent in a black Alexander Wang tee and a pair of joggers. He carried a hefty duffel bag across his shoulder, which he dumped on the floor as he stepped into the room. Though no lights were on, the sunlight peeking through cracks in the curtains caught his face. I could see that his already ruddy complexion was bronze from afternoons on the sand. His dark brown curls were a shade lighter from the sun, and the ink on his arms seemed faded for the lack of contrast with his skin tone.

Zephyr’s nearly-black irises bore into me, but he spoke not a word. Instead, he silently shut the door behind him, took two steps toward me, lifted a hand to my waist, and tore the towel from my body.

It was not cold in the room, this being the height of August, but I nonetheless shivered under his gaze. I sucked in my tummy and lifted my chest to his hungry eyes, affecting as much defiance as I could while standing naked and wet before him.

Then his hands were on me. He took hold of my soaking hair with one fist and pulled my head back, and his other clutched my tit with savage possession. Electricity shot through me again as I felt his rough palm against my nip, and his teeth devoured my throat. He sucked on my neck, my shoulder, and the breast he lifted to his mouth, leaving a trail of welts. Then he released my hair and thrust his fingers down my back and under my ass, those thick digits probing between my cheeks and underneath to caress my dripping pussy.

Fuck, how I’d longed to feel my lover’s commanding arms around me. I’d found my skin tingling at points during the summer, the nerves beneath recalling every kiss, knead, bite, pinch, stroke, or penetration. It was as if Zephyr Williams had been pinning me down and fucking me hard from hundreds of kilometers away. All summer long.

Now he was back, in the flesh.

I wrapped my arms around his flexing shoulders and buried my face in his hair. It smelled of sea brine, citrus, salty air, and luxurious rooms. He reeked of the elite.

All at once, Zephyr turned me around and pushed me face-first on the bed. I was panting, almost out of my body with arousal. I fell forward with my elbows on the mattress. Zephyr grabbed my ankles and lifted them onto the bed too. I was on all fours now, my knees tucked close to my elbows and my face on the sheets, presenting myself to him. I wanted his thick cock inside me so fucking bad, but that would have to wait. First came his tongue, doing curlicues over my womanhood, swirling along my clit, around my labia, then up to my pliant entrance. I felt his thumb holding open my pussy to give his tongue access and one of his forefingers teasing my ass.

If I was on the cusp of coming in the bath, my desire was a dam breaking now. I clenched tight and breathed to hold my climax at bay. I would not come until he was inside me.

Peeking down between my thighs, I saw that my wish would soon be granted. Zephyr peeled down his joggers and boxer briefs, releasing his unspeakably thick cock. It pulsed insistently, its purple head bulbous and glistening with precum. He rubbed himself against me, teasing my clit, nearly sending me over the edge.

I couldn’t take it, so I reached down and took his meat in my hand. I pressed back into him and drew his whole turgid length inside.

“Oh, my god, yes,” I groaned, feeling my lover’s manhood stretching me from within.

It was divine, the sensation of being filled to the breaking point. It was like our bodies were built in harmony, like parts in a single erotic machine. His cock tipped up just so to tickle my G-spot the second he bottomed out. I shivered, and my flesh clammed up, and my breath caught in my throat, and it was like gravity disappeared and the only things holding me to the bed were his hands reaching down and clutching my bouncing tits. His hips undulated behind me, that massive erection driving into me again and again, stretching me ever further yet making me wetter and wetter still. With each thrust, his balls slapped against my sensitive bud. I heard myself squealing with joy.

My orgasm rumbled forward. It was breaking through my paltry defenses.

Zephyr hadn’t uttered a word since entering the room, but I could now hear his guttural moaning. He was as desperate for release as I was.

I arched my back and pressed harder into him, taking him still deeper. Each impact sent me higher and higher. He bent down over me to lick the sweat from my back.

How long had we been fucking? It was probably only a minute, but it felt like blissful eternity. Time ceased to have meaning.

Light flashed before my eyes. I pressed my ass as hard as I could into Zephyr and felt the rapturous eruption take control of me. I convulsed as ripples of pure, unadulterated pleasure spread through my body.

Anyone walking by the room might have thought I was being murdered, so loud were my screams.

Facedown on the sheets, I reached down to touch myself. The climax was the hardest I’d had in months, but I wanted to prolong it.

Just as I felt it beginning to ebb, I heard Zephyr’s from behind me: “Oh, fuck, Biba—I’m coming!”

The feeling of his hot come raining down on me and pooling at the small of my back was enough to send me over the edge again. The world went white around me. I was gone.

When I regained my senses, I was still flat on my belly in bed. My sweat had cooled pleasantly in the musty bedroom.

A second later, I felt Zephyr slip into bed next to me, having shed his remaining clothing. Unfazed by the mess still coating my back, he pulled me tightly to him and kissed me hard.

“Mm, missed you, lover,” I cooed as he pulled back to catch his breath.

Ridiculous, I thought. After weeks of puzzling through Zephyr’s possible involvement in my best friend’s killing, I couldn’t help but covet his arms around me and the taste of his mouth. All it took was one good—strike that, spectacular—screw, and I was his again. At least for the moment.

“Must have been tough,” he replied, “just you and the old bat in this dusty old place. However did you pass your lonely nights?”

He arched his eyebrow suggestively, clearly working himself back up for round two.

I threw a little cold water on him: “There was much more sleeping than you would imagine, Zeph.”

“Sad.”

“Tragic. And what about you? Am I supposed to believe you slept alone every night in Saint Tropez?”

That backed him off, both amorously and physically. He released me and turned onto his back, staring at the ceiling. Had I struck a nerve with him, prying into his extracurricular activities? It wasn’t that I was jealous—far from it. It was hard to be jealous when one of my first interactions with Zephyr had involved watching another girl fellate him. Yet there he was, at a loss for words at my intimation.

“Actually,” he said at last, not looking at me, “I wasn’t with anyone this summer.”

“You say that like it’s something to be embarrassed by.”

He chuckled and glanced over: “Fidelity’s not my thing, Biba. That shouldn’t come as a shock to you. I fuck around. It’s just what I do.”

“But not this summer?”

“No.”

“Was there a chlamydia outbreak on the beach?”

He rolled over and took my face in his hands. Zephyr always carried an intensity with him that vacillated between brooding and derisive. It had taken a while, but I’d gotten used to it. This was different.

“What’s wrong?” I asked nervously. “Did something happen in France?”

“Yes,” he muttered with something like shame, “I discovered I missed you. I wished you were with me, and I didn’t want anyone else. I couldn’t cheat.”

“Wow,” I replied. Then, put off by his vulnerability, I replied: “I didn’t either, but then again, my only option was dusty old Amelia.”

“Don’t sell yourself short,” he laughed. “She’s ancient, but she keeps it tight.”

He pulled me close to his hard, sinewy frame.

“Biba, I’m serious. I don’t want anyone but you. You should stay.”

“What? At Stormcloud?”

“In my room, with me. For the year.”

“You’re asking me to cohabitate, Williams? That’s very adult.”

“I’ve never wanted a girl to stay the night in my bed, baby. Not Erin Holland. Not anyone. But I want you in my arms every night.”

I wriggled a bit. It was a compelling offer. I could count all my lovers on the fingers of one hand, and the other three were Stormcloud men in thrall to Zeph. But it was hard to imagine a man who could satisfy me like him. In only a short time, we’d tapped reservoirs within each other. Wellsprings of passion, of courage, of emotion. What could we accomplish over a whole year?

Yet my conscience cried out to say no. He was the leader of the Kings, after all, and how much time had I spent researching what nefarious plans the Kings were hatching? Besides, I couldn’t help but worry that Zephyr wanted to keep tabs on my movements. I’m not a girl to be owned. Not in the daylight, anyway.

“I’ll have to think about it,” I hedged.

Zephyr furrowed his brow. Clearly, he was unaccustomed to being put off.

So I reached down and closed my hand around his balls. He gasped, then sighed appreciatively.

“In the meantime,” I breathed in his ear, “I don’t need to think about going another round.”

CHAPTER 4

BIBA

A week later, the campus was full. Sol arrived quietly after dinner two nights after my reunion with Zephyr and went straight to his room. Unlike the beach-toned young people who staggered in after months of partying, Sol looked exactly as he did at the end of last year. His olive skin was no darker, his flowing black coif no lighter.

“Sol of the house Stamos!” Zeph called from down the hallway that night.

“Williams,” Sol replied, “You look relaxed.”

“I spent three months drinking, eating lobster, and crushing Tattinger by the Mediterranean. I’m relaxed as a motherfucker. How’d you spend your summer?”

Sol shrugged, not answering.

Zephyr’s eyes narrowed, but before he could ask again, Sol said he’d see us later and walked away. Zeph liked to keep tabs on the other Kings, but Sol denied him that.

I was happy to see Sol despite his reticence to open up. He was the first guy I’d met at Stormcloud Academy, the one who dutifully hoisted my bags for me. He was the King who’d looked after me in those first months, albeit under Zephyr’s orders.

Later that same night, I excused myself and found my way to his room. He answered before I even knocked.

“I didn’t say hi.”

“You didn’t?” he replied.

“I’m glad you’re here, Sol. I missed you.”

He looked charmingly befuddled and had no idea how to respond. I leaned forward and wrapped him in a hug. He pressed my waist with his hands, just enough to qualify as reciprocating. It was an awkward response, especially for a guy who had shared me with the other Kings not so long ago. Regardless, I savored the moment. His warm hands on me felt nicer than I wanted to admit.

Arvo showed up the day before classes started. If there was an entrance that could be classified as the diametric opposite of Sol’s, it was Arvo’s. He peeled in at midday in his vintage soft-top BMW Z3—straight into the gravel roundabout in front of the school, blasting Kendrick Lamar. He hopped out in a skintight polo and khaki shorts. Even though his eyes were covered by a pair of aviators, I could envision his glassy blue irises. He’d been in Dubai most of the summer, training in a vast facility his father’s business associate built so that the Arvo Hurley could make it to the Olympic pedestal one day.

Just as I cared deeply for Sol despite his remoteness, my intense distaste for Arvo’s rich douche persona could not overcome my infatuation with him. If I could wave a wand and never have to hear his bro-y nasal voice again, that would be perfect. I could just drink in his tall, sinewy, broad-shouldered bod.

My mouth watered as I watched Arvo’s vulgar arrival from an upper window that morning. I should be embarrassed to be turned on by such an unctuous jerk, but who cares? I’d come to Stormcloud Academy a bright-eyed innocent. I’d taken it on the chin for weeks, to the point that I’d pretty much stopped feeling pain or despair or anything but the determined focus to set one foot in front of the other—to get through the day, no matter how awful the torment got. And when my salvation had arrived, it came not in the form of kind, dreamy Theo Brant.

Nope—it was Mephistopheles himself. The King of Crowns, conductor of my torture, and cruel tyrant of the school: Zephyr. I’d loathed him the first time I had laid eyes on him, but now there was no one closer to my soul.

So why should I have felt ambivalent about my girlish crush on Arvo Hurley? He wore too much Dolce & Gabbana cologne and waxed every hair from his body like a European gigolo, but he was cute. No doubt about that. All the guys loudly drooled over my body, so why shouldn’t I feast my eyes on our resident himbo?

Freshmen were the last to arrive on campus, on the same day as Arvo. They came on chartered buses, staggered throughout the day, all met by Miss Amelia on the front steps of the grand atrium.

Her words were always the same and utterly familiar to me: “Young men are housed on the third floor,” she shouted to each group, just as she did to my much-smaller crew on the frosty January night I’d arrived. “Ladies, on the second. Classes are held in the buildings set to the east from the back of the building. . . .”

And so on and so on. I reckon Amelia had repeated her orientation speech three hundred times over the years. She probably muttered it in her sleep.

I wanted to cry for those poor babies. Some were gimlet-eyed, some shivering with nerves. Quite a few rolled their eyes and smirked, confident they would conquer the school’s social hierarchy in a week. Not one of them was prepared.

“Bringing back fond memories?” Zeph chuckled, stepping close behind me as I watched a group of twenty lugging their bags in.

“Yeah, like a Vietnam vet watching Apocalypse Now.”

I turned to look at Zephyr. His expression was implacable. He’d transformed the moment the other Kings arrived at Stormcloud. It was remarkable, like watching an actor step from the wings into the stage lights. One moment, Zephyr was a cheery, attentive lover, then the footlights flicked on, and he was a general going into battle. It was all business with him once his co-monarchs were at school. Every night was another Kings’ summit.

As a mere significant other, I wasn’t privy to these meetings, but I caught a stray bit of conspiring here and there.

I walked in later that night on Zeph dressing Arvo down over some screwup.

“We gotta tighten this operation,” he hissed. “Some masked prick tried to kill my girl three months ago. That shit won’t happen this year. We will assert control from day one.”

Seeing that I’d entered the room, he snapped his teeth shut and dismissed Arvo. He was clearly on edge.

It probably didn’t help that I hadn’t agreed to move in with him yet. He had only offered the one time, and I’d skirted the issue since. Zephyr was not about to make himself vulnerable more than once, even to a girl he liked.

So we’d found ourselves in a peculiar position. Amelia had arranged a decent single room for me in a quiet corner of the westernmost hall. In the dark days of the last term, when I’d been relegated to a broom closet without plumbing or furniture, I would have given my left tit for such a room.

But this year, I didn’t expect to sleep there a single night. It was a fig leaf, that room, a sham show of independence from Zeph. I moved some cold-weather clothes and a few odd effects into my dorm room but left all my toiletries and favorite outfits in Zephyr’s suite, where I intended to sleep every night. This satisfied me that I was not Zephyr William’s possession—even though I shared his bed each night and was joined at his hip throughout the day.

We entered the dining hall fashionably late on the first day of classes. Sol and Arvo already had a nice coterie of freshmen bustling around, fetching our food for us, though Sol solicitously pulled my chair out for me as we reached the table.

“Still Darjeeling tea?” he asked. “Twist of lemon and a splash of skim milk?”

I glanced over my shoulder and gave him a surprised smile. How did he remember what I drank at breakfast? We’d spent a fair amount of time together last spring, and maybe he’d gotten my tea one time. But hell if I could remember it! Yet he remembered.

I nodded, and he stepped over to the tea service. A moment later, he returned with a steaming cup.

“Thanks,” I sighed and breathed in the floral, slightly citric aroma.

It tasted divine, a cascade of hot, sweet life down my throat. I wondered, though . . . was I just happy to have my morning caffeine, or was I relishing the attention of the man who brought it to me?

It took me a second to realize that someone new was at the table. Arvo had his long left arm wrapped around a freshman girl—at least, I assumed she was a freshman since I’d never seen her before in my life. She was young, anyway, a mousy little thing with golden hair that, like mine, fell over her shoulders in careless rivulets. We also shared the same brown eyes and fair complexion, but her wardrobe was simple: a light pink dress and cashmere cardigan. It looked like something I would have worn last year. All at once, I felt a bit sorry for this girl. She wasn’t ready for what was coming: Stormcloud, the Kings, any of it. . . .

Arvo saw me staring and flashed a leering glance back my way. The girl’s right hand lay gently on his thigh, close to the beastly member I’d seen only once in an aphrodisiac haze. Arvo shimmied his hips a bit, tempting the freshman’s fingers a little higher. She replied with a dramatically mortified giggle.

“Biba,” Arvo said, “this is Tess. From . . . where was it, babe?”

“Montreal,” she cooed.

“Ah, yeah, that’s the spot. This is Tess from Montreal, Biba. We’ve been hanging out since she arrived.”

Hanging out. Fun euphemism.

“Pleasure to meet you, Tess,” I replied.

Tess gave me a little wave but seemed too awestruck to reply. Her eyes were big as saucers. It seemed Arvo had given her the rundown on how important Zephyr was, which I guess made me important by association.

“You two should get lunch in the village sometime,” he added.

“Wow, that’d be . . . just amazing,” she gushed. “I just . . . would you do that for me?”

God, the girl looked starstruck. Was I ever that naïve?

My first class was Unification of Western Nation-States, a grab bag of how various principalities merged into the countries of the modern era. It was a prerequisite for Stormcloud sophomores, an opportunity for the school to note how many of its alumni played vital roles in creating modern Europe.

The professor was legendary at the school. A long-bearded, rotund man of eighty-plus years, Professor Gianas had been there since the early sixties. He was notoriously exacting, even by the standards of Stormcloud Academy, but he was nonetheless beloved by everyone he taught.

“Williams and Quinn,” he grumbled in an indeterminately Continental accent as Zephyr and I entered. “They need some newer names at this school.”

Of course, it hit me, Gianas probably taught both of our fathers.

“The Caesars went mad,” he continued, “from marrying only within the family. Something to consider.”

“I appreciate your concern, professor,” Zephyr groaned.

“Just don’t neck in the back row while I’m lecturing.”

“I’m not in this class, okay? Just dropping Biba off.”

Zephyr kissed me on the cheek and made haste to get away from Gianas. I immediately liked the old man but could imagine why Zeph hated him. He didn’t want to be spoken down to by anyone.

“Take a seat, Ms. Quinn,” the professor said, sauntering heavily back to his podium.

“Yes, sir.”

He stopped and turned back abruptly. “Your father was smart enough not to fraternize with the Williams family.”

“Is that so?” I replied, trying not to let my excitement show. I was thirsty for any information I could find on my father’s time here.

“To a point. It would have been wiser if he’d never exchanged a word with Peter Williams all those years ago. I don’t pretend to understand what goes on amongst you little princelings and ladies in waiting. All I know is that a dead man cannot accomplish anything of note—or a dead girl, for that matter.”

Then Gianas turned away again, our conversation apparently concluded. A chill ran down my spine. What did that sleepy-eyed scholar know that I didn’t? He had looked at Zephyr and me like we were already halfway to the crypt.

My eyes swept across the sea of ancient desks, most of them already occupied by surly, under-rested sophomore students. One seat was free, though: the one next to Theo.

“Morning, stranger,” he muttered as I settled next to him.

“I know. I’m sorry. I’m the worst.”

It had been days since we last talked. We’d both known that the moment Zephyr came back, my attention would be lopsidedly divided. I wanted to be better at our friendship, but the Kings had a gravity of their own.

“Are we allowed to speak?” he replied without emotion.

“Of course, we can. I’m not a damned prisoner.”

“I never said you were.”

Professor Gianas loudly cleared some phlegm from his throat.

“Enough chatter,” he growled to the class. “Let’s begin.”

“After,” I whispered to Theo.

Theo was about to drop another snide reply, but he stopped himself. It had nothing to do with me, though. Gianas was staring daggers at him.

We all sat in rapt attention for the next ninety minutes as he traced Stormcloud’s founders back through the centuries, before the unification of Europe, the ages of city-states, the Dark Ages, all the way to the fall of the Roman Empire. The founders’ lineage could be traced, he insisted, to local governors who served the final Emperors. These dynamic, ruthless men made deals with the invading tribes to retain their wealth, land, and lives. Their families founded the first post-Empire banks in the West, meaning the money that built this school was the oldest in Europe.

“It would not,” Gianas summed up, “be a stretch to say you are following in the tradition of Kings. Indeed, the legacy of this institution is more significant than political power or wealth. Stormcloud’s founders descended from the men and women that protected civilization itself. Good day.”

Dazed, we stood and filed out. It took a minute for Theo and me to return to the present moment. When we did, we were in the corridor outside the class.

“I need to see you,” Theo said in a businessman’s tone.

“Sure. This week is rough—”

“What do you mean, Biba? We were working on something important before Zephyr came back.”

“I know.”

“We owe it to Gail—”

“I said, I know, Theo.”

Did he have to bring up Gail? She was always in my mind, and I thought he understood that.

“Let me figure a morning,” I said at last. “I’ll get up early, and we can meet away from campus.”

“Fine,” he replied. “Thanks.”

Suddenly, Zephyr appeared from around the corner, behind Theo. I glanced past Theo and met Zeph’s distrustful expression. Theo turned around and regarded his rival. For a split second, I feared there would be words. Instead, Theo blinked. He gave a curt nod to Zeph and skulked away.

“Brant,” Zeph muttered, approaching me.

“Yes, Brant,” I answered.

“Not a good idea, Biba.”

“What’s that mean?”

“The fuck you think, huh?” he snapped. “You think it’s cute, fraternizing with him?”

I threw back my shoulders and lifted my chin. Whatever Zephyr was doing, I was in no mood to indulge it.

“Listen, let’s get something straight. I’m not your fucking possession. You don’t lead me around on a leash like you did Erin Holland. Theo’s my friend, and if you can’t accept that, we have a problem.”

He was biting his lip, using every ounce of willpower he had not to tell me to fuck off. After a beat, he nodded, not in agreement but simply acknowledging that I’d spoken.

“You think he’s a saint, don’t you?” he sneered. “Believe me, Biba. Theo Brant has the same shit in his closet that I do. He’s just better at acting innocent.”

With that, Zephyr was gone. I felt suddenly like shit. Every guy in my life was storming off at the same time.

I had half a mind to skip my next class, go to my room, and shotgun a Swiss chocolate bar, but all at once, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Miss Amelia, another person I cared for but hadn’t seen in days. Her eyes were bloodshot, almost like she was on the verge of weeping.

“Miss Quinn,” she said, “I need to see you this evening. After supper. Something . . . urgent . . . has come up.”

CHAPTER 5

BIBA

Standing outside of Amelia’s office that night felt strange. There had been no closed doors between us for the past three and a half months, so it was peculiar—even a bit unsettling—to arrive at her office near the central nave of Stormcloud and find the lacquered oak door shut and bolted.

I pressed my ear to the near-petrified wood and heard Amelia speaking in hushed tones to someone else, but I couldn’t make out her words or identify the other person.

I knocked hard on the hulking wood slab.

“Miss Quinn?” Amelia shouted from the other side.

“Yes.”

“Sit in the waiting area until you are called for.”

I did as I was told, plopping down the tufted armchair to the left of the door. I felt like a naughty child waiting to have my knuckles rapped, but I couldn’t imagine what my specific offense had been.

After a quarter-hour, the door at last swung open, and Amelia poked her head out. Her gaunt, birdlike face looked even more cavernous as she sucked in her cheeks in an exaggerated scowl.

“Come in,” she muttered and ducked back into the room.

As soon as I crossed the threshold, I understood her discomfort. Dean Schmidt was seated in one of the chairs in front of Amelia’s desk, nursing a snifter of brandy. He was an imperious figure who troubled himself mostly with coddling the wealthiest students and pressing alums to donate exorbitant amounts of cash. He answered only to the Board of Regents, headed by Zephyr’s father, Peter, and left the running of the school to Amelia.

Dean Schmidt looked like the late-middle-aged finance guys that Dad used to represent in lawsuits against the tech entrepreneurs they bankrolled. He had pearly-white hair that seemed all the brighter against his lobster-red sun-scorched face. He was barrel-chested but kept the fat off, a fact accentuated by his tight-cut vested suits from various Savile Row tailors. From what I could tell, his expression never changed, even when he was angry. It was a perfect poker face, which made me nervous.

Amelia sat down behind her desk, meaning the only remaining seat was the other guest’s chair, right next to the Dean. I took a step toward it, but he halted me in my tracks.

“There’s no need for you to sit, Miss Quinn,” his low baritone rumbled. “This will not be a two-way conversation.”

Amelia spoke up: “We have received some distressing news, Biba—”

“No point in soft-pedaling it, Amelia,” he snapped. “I believe that our guest must be expecting this.”

“I have no idea—” I started to defend myself, but Schmidt wouldn’t have it.

“You met with Chief Inspector Soglio in June, am I right? Taking aside,” he went on, “the rank insubordination of a student meeting with the Wachsbrunnen police and failing to apprise the school of this fact . . . you seem to have done an admirable job of incriminating yourself in the murder of Gail Monfort.”

“Murder?” I gasped. Had they confirmed it?

“Her neck was broken before the belt was looped around her throat.”

“Sir,” Amelia said, scandalized. “Certainly, such details—”

“Inspector Soglio told me you denied any untoward activities with the late Miss Monfort. Unfortunately, you did not account for her diary, which Soglio has all but memorized—snooping about the archives after hours? Trying to pin slanderous accusations on some of our most distinguished former students? Why shouldn’t I hand you over to the authorities right now?”

“This is crazy,” I muttered. “Gail was my friend—”

“Was she? I have an extremely trustworthy student who came to me, completely independent of this Soglio affair, and told me they saw you threaten Gail’s life. And evidently, the final entry in her diary mentions that she was to meet with you the night she died.”

I was dumbstruck. All these facts, relayed one after the last, were damning. Someone on campus was spreading lies about Gail and me, and the dean was throwing it in my face. Gail was as close to me as any friend I’d ever had. It killed me that I was accused of hurting her.

Something else struck me: I had lied to this detective, point-blank, and he’d known every word I’d said was bullshit. He hadn’t blinked.

“You’re lucky,” Schmidt continued, “that you have such a persuasive ally in Amelia here. She convinced me to deny Soglio’s request that you surrender yourself to the Wachsbrunnen police. Until they produce a full warrant, you are to remain within the battlements of Stormcloud Academy.”

“Yes, sir,” I whispered, shaking, “absolutely.”

“If I were you, Biba,” Amelia added, “I would return to your room this moment. Your room, you understand?”

“Yes,” the Dean sneered, “I forgot. You’re Zephyr Williams’ little lap warmer, aren’t you? I suppose you think that makes you invincible. I wouldn’t be so confident, my girl. I do not intend to let Mr. Williams and his ilk take over the school. We fought a long time to rid Stormcloud of the Kings. It’ll take more than Zephyr and his boys to bring them back.”

Despite Schmidt’s tough words, it was odd that there was something like fear in his eyes. He seemed to be convincing himself that he could take on the Kings as much as I was.

Amelia was right; I shouldn’t go back to Zephyr’s suite, not after that horrible experience. He knew I was meeting with Amelia and would demand to know what happened. I couldn’t face that tonight. We’d be up all night while he raged and planned. I would do what Amelia suggested and go back to my official room by myself. Zeph would be pissed, but I’d explain it away: sick stomach, head cold, bad cramps. I could manage it.

But first, I needed some air. While my new confinement dictated that I could not leave campus, at least I could walk the grounds. In the brisk air of the late-summer night, a tad chilly for our elevation, I felt better. The cool air filled my lungs. I took deep, controlled breaths. This was not the end of the world. However confident this Soglio guy and Dean Schmidt were of my guilt, I knew I had nothing to do with Gail’s killing. In fact, I was working to solve it!

My fear and panic were turning into rage the more I thought about the injustice of Schmidt’s accusations. There was no way I could sleep, so I would stomp around Stormcloud until my mind calmed down.

I decided to circle the whole building, climbing an incline toward the rear of the school. It felt great scaling the hill, taking in the looming manor house with its intermittently illuminated windows. Down the other side was the west wing, and on the outermost edge of the west wing was the Academy’s solarium. It wasn’t until I was two-thirds around campus that I saw that, oddly, lights were on in the glasshouse, and two people were inside. . . .

Arvo and Tess.

It was quite a show for a Monday night. Arvo wasn’t wearing a stitch of clothing. Every inch of his smooth-shaven flesh was on display. He stood against a table loaded with pink peonies, his long, lean frame tensed and glistening. His eyes were clenched shut, head back, savoring the moment.

Precisely what he was savoring—what made his every sinew tighten—was Tess. She knelt in front of him, dressed only fractionally more than he was. Her shirt was pulled up over her surprisingly large boobs, which bounced giddily as her head bobbed up and down on Arvo’s rock-hard cock. Her jeans too were bunched down around her knees, leaving her shapely butt wagging as she sucked her man off.

I halted dead in my tracks, twenty yards from the greenhouse. My jaw dropped, and my tongue seemed to swell in my mouth.

Arvo wound her golden hair around his fist and took control, flexing his hips and thrusting deep into her mouth. Tess wasn’t ready for his full length, though. Tears began trailing down her face as her gag reflex tripped, but this did nothing to diminish her enthusiasm. It only seemed to encourage her. She dipped her head, taking more of his shaft, and one of her hands plunged between her thighs excitedly.

I was too shocked even to breathe. So imagine my surprise as my own fingers fumbled involuntarily at the button on my jeans. It was undeniable: this show had me desperately horny.

That was strange in its way. After all, I had been in Tess’s position not so long ago, quite literally. In the Kings’ Hall, I had stripped off my clothes, dropped to my knees, and taken Arvo’s delicious manhood between my lips. Sol’s too, for that matter. Yet there was something even hotter about watching another girl service Arvo. I could taste his meat myself, even as I marveled at this girl’s vigorous lips and tongue. Besides, I’d been in a trance the night the Kings took me all at once. Now I was stone-cold sober and totally gobsmacked at how beautiful Arvo was. Not even Zephyr’s muscular body could match this specimen. His hairless skin was pulled tight over a mass of sinew, without an ounce of body fat. He moved as fluidly as a dancer, as if he knew he was being watched. Those glistening pectorals, those bulging biceps, that tight six-pack stomach—they all pulsed with passionate intensity.

My hand slipped down the front of my saturated panties. My legs were going weak.

Even more strange, Arvo’s expression was purely observational. Gracefully fucking Tess’s mouth, he regarded the process like a particularly abstract artwork in a gallery. Judging by the size and rigidity of his erection, I could tell he was enjoying the process. But emotionally, he seemed more removed from it than I was.

With an air of almost boredom, he pulled Tess off his cock, took hold of his balls, and brought her mouth back down, willing her to caress his sack with her tongue.

All the while, I was biting my tongue to keep from crying out. The show was bringing me to the precipice of coming.

Satisfied with her oral talents, Arvo bent down and lifted Tess by the waist. Mechanically, he pulled off her shirt and knelt to remove her jeans and panties. Tess was flying. I watched her pant and shake, barely able to contain her desire. This giddiness only increased when Arvo turned her around, bent her forward, and started licking her slit from behind. Separated by the glass, I couldn’t hear her cries, but they were apparent from her flush, contorted face.

No sooner had he begun eating her out than he stood up. For a moment, he stood behind Tess, staring down at her spread ass and jerking his dick back to full erection. Tess groaned and smiled ear to ear as she felt his full, thick manhood pressing into her dripping pussy. I too was seconds from crying out in ecstasy, wishing it was my pliant hole he was entering.

But then I stopped. Perhaps it was my imagination—my mind convincing me that my desire was reciprocated—but as Arvo entered Tess from behind, I could swear his eyes met mine.

And they stayed locked on me as he began thrusting hard into his girl, and I pressed my fingers deep inside myself.

We moved together, Arvo and me. And his eyes spoke to me.

I see you, Biba, they said. I see you see me.

CHAPTER 6

ZEPHYR

She’d been going for a while. It was already getting old, this little hissy-fit of Biba’s. Any other piece of ass, and I would not be tolerating such a tirade. But Biba was different.

She didn’t come home the night before, and again, with any other girl, I would not have especially cared. With Biba, I was stewing. Fall term was not starting the way I’d wanted it.

First, Biba straight-up iced me on my offer to share my room. Didn’t she know that basically any other girl at Stormcloud would give their left tit for that offer? Then she started fraternizing with Brant again. I mean, I put a hold on my disagreements with Theo at the end of last term. Circumstances were fluid at that time, what with some masked fucking maniac trying to slash my girl’s throat on the last night of classes. And I’ll even grant you that Theo was instrumental in saving Biba from that asshole, so I came into this year prepared to give him complete immunity despite his counterproductive, holier-than-thou attitude. All he had to do was steer clear of me and Biba, but he couldn’t even manage that.

Then there was the one-two punch of the last twenty-four hours. First, Biba disappeared, which sent me into a fucking spiral. All I could do was picture was her with Theo Brant’s pathetic little pecker in her mouth. Made me sick. But then she showed up tonight, and the story she told was somehow even worse.

“Dean Schmidt,” she said. “He’s got me in his crosshairs. He believes this Detective Soglio’s charges against me.”

“That’s bullshit. Even Schmidt isn’t that stupid. I’m going to set him straight.”

She stopped me before I could walk out.

“You can’t.”

“Why the fuck not?”

“He said he wouldn’t allow you and the guys to bring the Kings back to Stormcloud.”

I could feel my face burning.

“That insolent prick,” I fumed. “He said that? Well, fuck that—he doesn’t have the power to stop us.”

Even as I said it, I knew it wasn’t accurate. I mean, there weren’t a lot of people who could mess with Arvo, Sol, and myself, but Schmidt was one of them. He had the resources and connections to bring actual heat, and whatever pain I wanted to inflict on that white-shoe, tweedy little shit, I had to keep him calm for the time being. There were plans already in motion: scores to be settled, wrongs to be righted. Schmidt was in for a world of hurt, but not just yet. I had to let him think he had the upper hand.

It wasn’t gonna be easy, though. My head was pounding, I was so pissed at the thought of the Dean in his natty suit acting tough when I wasn’t in the room. I had half a mind to cold-cock him in his office the following day.

I had to force that thought from my mind, though. Biba was already on to the other thing she’d come to tell me. It was the thing I probably should have acted more concerned about. Some asshole at the school had fingered her for Gail Monfort’s murder.

Oh, yeah, apparently Gail had been murdered—at least according to some flatfoot detective in the village.

“Who would do that?” Biba yammered on. “Like, who would hate me so much that they’d give a false report to the police?”

The answer seemed obvious to me.

“You think it might be the same fuckers that tried to stab you last June?”

She turned back to me, fuming. “Is that supposed to be funny, Zeph? They want to arrest me.”

“Don’t be over-dramatic.”

“They said they wanted to arrest me. They fucking tried to get Schmidt to let them take me in.”

“I’m sure the detective likes you for this crime. Cops always want to bring someone in, even if it’s not the criminal. It makes them look busy.”

“What am I supposed to do?”

“Stop worrying, for one. You’re gonna give yourself an aneurysm. Leave this to me. I can make it go away.”

“That’s not the point,” she all but screamed, tears of frustration forming at the corners of her eyes. “They won’t stop, okay? They’re going to keep coming at me. I know it. I can’t lean on you to fix these things all the time.”

“Why not?”

“Because I can’t rely on you to—”

Biba stopped herself and turned away, all huffy and shit. I knew what she meant, even if she didn’t say it. It was the same reason she wouldn’t move in with me. The same reason she didn’t come back the night Schmidt dropped this bombshell on her. . . . She didn’t trust me. And yeah, you could argue, given our history, she had reason to be distrustful. But respectfully, fuck that. I made her a literal queen at Stormcloud. I put her on the fast track to permanent social dominance, wealth beyond her wildest dreams, and a wellspring of raw, unalloyed power. All she had to do was trust me, but she couldn’t.

“Okay, Biba,” I said, controlling my temper the best I could, “you don’t want my help? Fine. But I can’t let this stand. Threats against someone close to me and plotting from the Dean—it won’t stand.”

“What will you do?” she muttered to the floor.

“You’ll see.

Within ten minutes, Arvo and Sol were in the room. Biba tried to leave when they came in, but I told her to stay put. I wanted her to witness firsthand how quickly I could obliterate any threat to the Kings.

Arvo smirked as I sat her back down. Sol was giving her some kind of meaningful look like he wanted to ask if she was okay. It was all very sensitive and kind of annoyed me, but I let it slide. There were more important things to deal with.

I ran down the news about Schmidt.

I know I don’t need to explain,” I said, “that this is a direct challenge to our position.”

“Is it?” Arvo chimed in. “Seem to me like it’s mostly a challenge to Biba Quinn.”

He shot one of his sneering, insinuating glances Biba’s way. He looked her up and down like the Terminator scanning for threats. I was not too fond of that move of Arvo’s, how he seemed always to be mentally undressing and planning to impale every chick he saw. It was no different with his freshman squeeze. Tess was a tasty bit of tail, but as was always the case, Arvo’s desire for her was all wrapped up in complete disdain for her as a person. I mean, I’m not some sensitive emo-boy, but I don’t have total contempt for the girls I nail.

“Listen up,” I fired back at him. “If I say a threat to Biba is a threat to the Kings, that’s how it is. You better get on the same page with me, Hurley.”

Arvo rolled his eyes and nodded—insolent prick.

“What do you want us to do, exactly?” Sol asked.

“I gotta spell it out? Some asshole is setting up my girl for murder. I know she didn’t do it, so this anonymous snitch is clearly trying some kind of power play. I want you to find this guy and put his head on a fucking pike. That clear?”

“As crystal.”

“Then go. Make me proud.”

“Thank you,” Biba whispered from the bed.

She was talking to Sol. He didn’t acknowledge her, just turned on a heel and walked out the door fast. What a goddamn soldier. I couldn’t joke around with him the way I could with Arvo, but what did that matter? He was as reliable as they came. I knew he would carry out my orders to a T.

Arvo, on the other hand, was anything but reliable. There was a rebellion in him that drove me up the wall some days. It was apparent that following my directives was hard for him. He was an animal throwing himself against the cage.

Here’s the thing, though: a good leader knows when to crack the whip and when to let the rebel do his thing.

I had another bit of business for Arvo, something that would let him self-direct a bit. I caught him in the hallway and motioned for him to hang back.

“What’s up?” he mumbled.

“Shit is more complicated,” I confided, “than just Biba and her legal woes. Schmidt has us in his crosshairs.”

“Us? You mean like—”

“Yes, the Kings. The whole thing.”

“Should you be concerned?”

“I got no choice but to be. That’s where you come in. I need eyes on the Dean.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning if Schmidt takes a dump, I want the details. He doesn’t draw a breath without someone’s eyes on him—preferably yours, but you can delegate to some of our trusted seconds.”

Arvo thought for a moment. It always took a little time when Arvo started thinking.

“You think,” he replied carefully, “we’re gonna have to neutralize him?”

“We might. But not now.”

“I mean, it might make sense to do it sooner rather than—”

“We don’t need that heat, Arvo. Not after all the shit that went down last year. The important thing is, I can’t have any surprises regarding that cocksucker.”

Arvo’s eyes narrowed and darkened, the way they always seemed to do when he got serious.

“You won’t,” he promised. “I’m on it.”

If I’d expected that pow wow to calm Biba down, I knew immediately after reentering the room that it hadn’t. She was sitting on the mattress, stewing.

“What’s the problem?” I asked. “The boys are on it. In twenty-four hours, this will be done.”

“That’s not the point.”

She was still staring at the floor, which pissed me off. I didn’t sign on for this: being stuck with a moody woman always in a fucking snit.

“Explain it,” I demanded. “Is this some point of pride?”

“If that’s what you want to call it. I don’t like having other people in my personal business, Zeph—especially Arvo. He gives me the fucking creeps with his . . . looks.”

I wanted to tell her to shut her trap, honestly. Arvo and Sol were going to work night and day to save her ass from prison, so maybe she should be a little grateful. After all, if she and Gail hadn’t been skulking around, sticking their noses where they shouldn’t, we probably wouldn’t be in this ridiculous position. Knowing what I knew about their fathers, I could only imagine the treachery they’d had in mind. I was raised on stories of Monforts and Quinns, of their self-righteous ways and how they’d interfered in the vital work of the Kings.

But screw it. Life is treachery. There is no grace to be had in this world, only safety through strength. Gail messed up; now she’s in a fucking urn. I only hoped Biba learned from her friend’s fate. She could be safe for the rest of her life, but she had to trust me.

Even so, I understood her. Pride is something I could relate to. God knows the Williams family had its share of skeletons, and we’d relied on some disgusting people to fix problems for us. It took deep inner fortitude to speak truthfully to the scum of the earth.

I sat behind Biba on the bed and began kneading her shoulders. For a moment, she tensed against my touch, but then she relaxed.

A good leader knows when it’s necessary to acquiesce to an unreasonable partner.

“It will be okay, Biba. It won’t be like this forever. Put yourself in my hands, and I will get you to safe harbors.”

“Promise?” she groaned.

“It’s what I do. In the meantime, you need to relax. Otherwise, you’ll drive yourself mad.”

My thumbs worked their way down from her shoulders, following her spine to the violin-string-tight muscles at the small of her back.

“That helps,” she breathed. “Ooh, that’s nice.”

Biba leaned back into me, letting her head loll on my shoulder. The scent of that familiar-yet-arousing citrus wash of hers filled my nostrils. A second later, I caught a whiff of something else. Earthy, tangy—the scent of arousal rising from between her legs.

“I know something else that will relax you.”

My left hand slipped between the folds of her blouse and took hold of her tit. It swelled with desire, capped with a hard, insistent nipple, which I pinched gently, yet hard enough to draw an excited gasp.

My other hand unsnapped the front of her jeans and dove without preamble down the front of her panties. Inside, it found a pussy drenched in anticipation.

“Oh, my god, yes,” she cried.

“I think you missed me last night.”

“I did—oh, yes, I did.”

“You won’t leave me again, will you?”

I spread her dripping quim and circled my slick fingers about her clit. She was past the point of speaking now, her words coming in tiny, helpless squeals.

“I’ll keep you safe, Biba. There won’t be anything to fear, but you must give yourself to me.”

Competing with my profound desire for this lovely nymph was an equally profound rage I could not subdue—a virulent rage against Dean Schmidt, hiding behind his Stormcloud billions, acting tough. As if impelled by this anger, I released Biba’s breast and wrapped my left hand around her neck. Her soprano squealing cut off immediately, but she didn’t get any less wet.

“Come for me,” I commanded her, one hand choking her gently, the other fingering her hard.

“Ah. . . .” she croaked. “Fuck, it’s so close. . . .”

“Give up, Biba. Give yourself over. There is nothing I can’t do. To you or for you.”

She was quaking uncontrollably under my hands. Her jeans and my bedsheets were darkening with her juices.

I was hard, no doubt, but this was more meaningful than that. I would have Biba Quinn, fully and completely. More than that, I would have Stormcloud. No goddamned pretender-to-the-throne administrator would deny me that.

“Oh, god! Fuck, Zephyr!” she shrieked as my fingers tightened around her throat. “I’m coming! Oh, fuck!”

And that was that.

CHAPTER 7

THEO

Getting a few minutes with Biba Quinn was akin to requesting an audience with the pope. That’s what it felt like, at any rate.

As the first week of classes drew to a close, I arrived at a sort of acceptance of my relationship with her. It killed me to know she was spending her nights with Zephyr, but I figured at some point that acute pain would transition to a dull ache, then nothing. That was just jealousy, which stung but faded. The yawning hole left in her absence was more profound. In such a short amount of time last year, I’d become accustomed to Biba’s conversation, her excitement for life, her radiant smile, her scent. It was harder to accommodate that emptiness. It felt like she should be there—like she was a vital organ. Without her, I was hemorrhaging.

Once it had become clear that I wasn’t going to win her back, though, I’d resolved to get over it—cold turkey. I would focus on something else, anything.

Easier said than done.

It’d taken me one night to finish all my homework for the first week. So the next night, I’d gotten a head start on my midterm paper for Gianas’s class: a biographical study of Otto Von Bismarck, whose inner circle of military advisers were all Stormcloud men.

Late Thursday night, I tried just to take it easy, watch a movie in my room. It didn’t take, though. Biba kept creeping back into my mind, needling my sense of wellbeing. I scrambled for a distraction.

Then I remembered Gail. I had stopped looking into her death after Zephyr came back to campus and Biba had disappeared. The Gail thing was intimately connected to Biba, so bad as it felt, I’d just walked away. In the back of my mind, a voice kept telling me to get to the bottom of it. It told me that Gail’s death was more significant than me and Biba. And while I didn’t have the resources of a full-fledged King like Zephyr, there were people in Wachsbrunnen who owed me favors.

At midnight, I got a hold of a junior officer at the village’s one police outpost. I’d come to know the guy when he’d worked in the kitchen at Stormcloud, back when I was a freshman. He had been chomping at the bit to join the village cops, but they were a notoriously closed club. I’d liked this kid, though, and I had convinced Miss Amelia to write a letter of reference on Academy stationery, which took a little doing. Amelia could be tough, but she always listened to me. That’s what I loved about her . . . she valued my thoughts more than any administrator should. Maybe she felt for me, not having a family of my own, and wanted me to know I counted for something.

Her letter had been enough to get the guy’s foot in the door as a desk clerk. He had risen quickly to actual enforcement, and he now had access to the files of Chief Inspector Soglio, the man who interrogated Biba.

By the next morning, I had confirmation of something I’d hoped for and something I feared.

The inspector had ruled Gail’s death a murder—which was good—but Biba was his prime suspect. I needed to talk to her right away, hell or high water.

Going to Biba’s room was the longest of long shots. It was apparent that Amelia had assigned her a private room as a formality or a means of discretion. How could Biba not be sleeping in Zephyr’s room each night?

Even so, I needed to talk to her immediately, and dropping by Zephyr’s quarters was not an option. Maybe Biba was using the room for storage. I figured I would slide a note under her door, and hopefully, she’d find it sometime over the weekend. It was worth a try.

With more than a bit of hesitation, I approached the door to Biba’s extraneous room on Saturday morning, a folded note between my fingers. Its message was short and direct: We have to talk. It’s about Gail. I’ll be in my room all weekend. TB. But as I squatted to slip the paper under the door, it suddenly opened, and out stepped Biba in a pair of sweatpants and an old Sleater-Kinney t-shirt.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Um . . . slipping you a covert message.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Did you sleep here?”

I bit my tongue. That was a dumb thing to ask. Biba sighed.

“I needed to study this morning, and this place is quiet and private.”

“Can I—?”

“Get in.”

She waved me into the room. As I suspected, it was a glorified storage unit with boxes, bags, and piles of clothes all around—nothing on the walls. Surprisingly, though, there were rumpled sheets on the bed. She had been sleeping there.

It’d be pathetic to admit the lift that realization gave me. For all I knew, she’d only slept one night alone. Hell, maybe she was lending her bed to a friend. Regardless, it was reassuring that she might be hiding something from Zephyr.

I sat on the bed, and Biba settled into her desk chair. She took a long sip from a steaming, oversized mug of tea.

“We need to talk,” I said.

“We’re talking,” she answered icily.

“The village police are planning to arrest you, Biba.”

“I know.” She wasn’t betraying anything with her tone.

“So that’s what Amelia called you to her office for? The first night after classes started?”

“She and Dean Schmidt,” she sighed like this conversation was exhausting. “I’m under house arrest until the matter is resolved.”

“What reason could the police have to suspect you?”

Besides lying to their faces, I thought.

“They know about the snooping we were doing. They know I was supposed to meet Gail the night she was killed. Oh, yeah, and some asshole at this school is telling them I killed her.”

“This is screwed up, Biba. We need to do something.”

“What did you have in mind?”

“You can’t just sit there and let somebody frame you for your best friend’s murder.”

She stood up abruptly, sending the chair toppling behind her. It was jarring, the sudden shift—her eyes were wide with anger, her knuckles white with clenched fists.

“Do you think I don’t know that?” she snapped. “I mean, Jesus Christ, dude—what do you think I’ve been doing all these months? It was obvious that Soglio guy wanted me in jail for Gail. He’d have arrested me the first time we met if he could have. I’ve been tearing my fucking hair out, trying to figure out how to prove my innocence without endangering you . . . or myself.”

“I don’t want you to protect me. I want to help you.”

“Forget it. The more you and I try to do the right thing, the worse things get. Zephyr is taking care of this. I’m laying low until things are under control.”

Just like that, my blood rose again. Zephyr was taking care of it? What the hell did that mean? But before I could open my mouth, she cut me off.

“I’m finally taking your advice, Theo. I’m doing nothing and staying out of trouble. Maybe you should do the same.”

She sat back down and returned to her reading. She didn’t even need to tell me to close the door on my way out. I did that on my own.

I had no intention of laying low, not while the sword was hovering over Biba’s neck. I didn’t care about the ramifications if my involvement with Biba and Gail came out. I could protect myself. After all, I’d already been assaulted twice since Biba arrived and lived to tell the tale.

I was nearly sprinting as I made my way from Biba’s room to Amelia’s office. She would be in, even though it was Saturday. Stormcloud Academy was her life; she didn’t take days off.

I stepped through the anteroom outside her office and flung open the door. I was already uttering the first syllable of my introduction when I realized she wasn’t alone.

Seated in a chair in front of her desk was the tall, bulging frame and blond crew-cut of Arvo Hurley.

“Hello, Theo,” he said with that self-satisfied smirk of his. It was the expression of a genuinely un-clever guy who is nonetheless totally convinced he’s outsmarted you. I wasn’t a fan of any of the Kings, but Arvo was a particular breed of repugnant.

Amelia spoke up. “Mr. Brant, people generally knock before entering my office.”

“I need to speak with you, Miss Amelia. I’m afraid it can’t wait.”

“It’s fine,” Arvo said blithely, standing. “I think we’re done here anyway.”

“Thank you for your time, Mr. Hurley,” she replied.

Arvo strolled out of the room, patting me on the shoulder as he left. He took condescension to unbelievable heights, didn’t he? I had to take a couple of deep breaths to calm myself before proceeding.

“Well, Theo,” Amelia said, “you made a spectacle of yourself, coming in here. I should hope this is important.”

“It is,” I replied quickly, not bothering to sit. “I need to talk to you about Biba. The police—”

She stopped me.

“I don’t intend to discuss that with you.”

“I already know she’s being investigated. That they want to arrest her.”

“Theo, stop speaking.”

“She’s innocent, Amelia.”

She slammed her palm down on her desk. The thud was so loud, I worried she’d shattered her hand.

“Do not tell me anything about that night!” she shouted. “I do not want to know. You need to be discreet, Theo. You cannot throw open doors and reveal secrets to people in this school. It is not safe!”

“I can’t let Biba go to prison.”

Amelia sighed. “She won’t. That’s certain.”

“How?”

“That’s why Arvo Hurley was here. Apparently, everyone knows about Ms. Quinn’s troubles, and Hurley wanted to set the record straight. He will go to the Wachsbrunnen police today and submit an affidavit clearing Biba. It seems he was with her the night of Ms. Monfort’s demise. They stole away to the village for a drink and stayed out all night. I shudder to imagine what they were up to.”

I was speechless. That story was a total lie. Was Arvo following orders from Zephyr? Was this taking care of things?

Amelia continued, “Mr. Hurley and Ms. Quinn will be reprimanded for breaking curfew. But I don’t imagine the punishment will be more than some custodial work. The important thing is that this ends Detective Soglio’s regrettable scapegoating of Ms. Quinn. Wouldn’t you agree that is a good thing?”

I nodded.

“Excellent. For your safety and Biba’s, I think you should return to your room and stay out of this business.”

“Yes, Amelia.”

“I hope you believe me when I caution you, Theo. You mustn’t endanger yourself.”

CHAPTER 8

BIBA

The scalding spray poured over my face and hair. It sent a hundred hot waterfalls down my body, willing my twisted muscles to relax. It wasn’t working, but at least the shower felt nice.

Zeph wanted me to stay with him, but it was no use. My mind was constantly racing for fear that some new misfortune would strike if I stopped worrying for even a moment. I believe it’s called magical thinking, the idea that you can affect a situation you have no control over by doing something unrelated. Some people wear lucky shoes. Some avoid cracks on the sidewalk. I fixated. I’d convinced myself that if I thought about nothing else, I could unmask Gail’s killer, exonerate myself, mend fences with Theo, get into Harvard, be happy. . . .

Of course, that’s not how life works. All I’d managed to do with my obsessiveness was isolate myself. Theo couldn’t stand me, Zeph was annoyed, and I didn’t have the energy to interact with anyone else.

So that night, I’d just told Zephyr I needed time to myself, which happened to be the truth. He was fuming as I left his room, bound for my own, but I didn’t care. I really, truly didn’t have time to care about that. I needed to clear my head. Since I wasn’t allowed off campus anymore, I decided the best thing to do was to try soothing myself with a steaming hot shower.

It felt like the exact inverse of my luxurious, self-pleasuring baths in Zeph’s bathtub. There was nothing sexy about this. I just flung off my clothes, turned on the water as hot as it would get, and plunged myself under. I did everything I could to block out my thoughts and let the cascade of water ease me into a place of relative peace.

Fat fucking chance.

When standing under the spray didn’t work, I sat on the gritty old tile. When that didn’t work, I laid down and tried to meditate on something, anything, to distract myself: sunsets and waves crashing and snatches of dull Enlightenment poetry. It was hopeless. If I wasn’t thinking about Gail’s corpse or that needling detective, I was remembering the sensation of a knife to my throat, how close I’d gotten to meeting the same grim fate as my late friend.

Eventually, I gave up. The shower was a bust. I killed the water and sat pathetically on the floor, pressing my palms into my tight shoulders.

The bathroom was filled with fog. It showed no signs of dissipating. After all, Stormcloud’s manor was centuries old. It’s not like there was a vent fan I could turn on. On the other hand, I didn’t have anywhere to be. The night was young, and I had a date with my bed. I might spend the whole night tossing and turning, but if I managed to fall asleep, at least it would be at a reasonable hour for once.

The only things left to do were to brush my teeth and find a fresh pair of undies for bed. Half-blinded by the steam, I grabbed my toothbrush and squeezed a tiny bit of toothpaste on. Ever the multitasker, I decided to search my baggage for panties while I brushed.

Imagine my shock then to find Arvo Hurley reclined on my bed as I stepped out of the bathroom, naked as the day I was born.

He caught my attention with a wolf whistle. I nearly leaped out of my skin.

“Fucking shit, Arvo!” I shrieked, retreating back into the bath to grab a towel.

He was cracking up as I covered myself.

“Come on, Quinn! Don’t be such a prude. It’s nothing I haven’t seen before.”

That was true, but it didn’t make a difference. Whatever I might have done with Arvo Hurley in the past, I didn’t want him sneaking in on me while I was in the shower.

“How did you get in here?” I demanded after wrapping myself in a beach towel—the only towel I had in the room.

“Don’t worry about it.”

“I will worry about it, man. I have enough messed up shit in my life right now without your creepy ass breaking into my room.”

Arvo wore the biggest shit-eating grin, which annoyed me twofold. First, I wanted him to take this violation seriously, and second, that smile brought out his boyish dimples. Those somehow made him cute, even when he was being awful.

“I’m sort of amazed Zephyr lets you sleep here.”

“He doesn’t let me do anything, Arvo. I sleep where I want to.”

“Very liberated,” he answered with mock admiration.

“You haven’t answered my question.”

“That’s because I’m not gonna.”

“Then get the fuck out,” I barked back. This discussion had gone on long enough.

“Not doing that either, Biba.”

Maybe I should have been scared at that moment, but I was too tired and stressed even to register the ominousness of his refusal. I was wet and naked and just wanted to get into bed.

Besides, I figured Arvo couldn’t try anything too untoward—not with Zephyr Williams’ girl.

“Arvo, I’m done talking,” I groaned. “I need to get dressed and get some sleep. If you’ve got something to say, just say it.”

He sighed in a show of exaggerated annoyance.

“You are not being very nice to me, Biba. It hurts my feelings.”

“Why should I be nice to you?”

“Oh, I dunno. Maybe because I just saved you from jail.”

It actually took a second for that statement to sink in. My mouth was open, ready to scream at Arvo to get the fuck out of my room, but then my brain caught up. Did he just say he saved me from jail?

“Sit down,” he continued, grinning all the broader, “and maybe I’ll tell you the good news.”

Speechless, I walked over to my desk chair and sat as primly as I could with nothing but a towel on. He proceeded to explain, with an air of amazing satisfaction, that he had just finished submitting a sworn statement to Detective Soglio, confirming that he and I were out drinking in the village the night that Gail died. He’d provided details about the drinks we had, the amount of the bar tab, the music playing in the various taverns, and how lovely the sunrise had looked over the mountains as we snuck back on campus the next morning.

“I’ll give you a copy of the affidavit,” he said, “that you can commit to memory and then burn.”

Then as if something suddenly popped into his head, he added, “Ah, one more thing—I also mentioned that we made out in my car on the way back. Plus some over the clothes stuff.”

That caused me to wrinkle my nose, but I had to admit, I was relieved and a bit grateful for Arvo. It seemed redundant to thank him. He was thanking himself with the triumphant way he told the story. But he noticed my lack of groveling and responded aggrieved.

“Do we not say thank you anymore?”

“I think I’ll thank Zeph,” I replied icily. “You were acting under his orders.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, baby. This was all me.”

“Bullshit. You’re claiming my man didn’t order you to make this investigation go away? I was in the room.”

Arvo shook his head.

“Biba Quinn thinks she’s so damned clever. You spend half a year tugging on Zephyr’s pole, and suddenly you’re an expert on the Kings. Here’s a free lesson. Zephyr says what he wants. I make it happen. He doesn’t want to know how the sausage gets made, so I don’t share the details.”

I was not impressed. It was like Arvo was bragging about being Zeph’s errand boy.

He stood up from the bed and stepped toward me, just close enough that I knew he could overpower me if he wanted.

“One more thing,” he sneered. “If I didn’t do this . . . I mean, if I just let Soglio and his pigs take you to jail, Zephyr wouldn’t be happy, but he’d get over it. It wouldn’t even take very long. There’s plenty of pussy at Stormcloud Academy, and he has his pick. I know exactly what I’d tell him: ‘Damn, Z—I did what I could. Bribed every guy in the station, but this detective is a cowboy. It can’t be helped.’ Then poof! You’re gone.”

“What’s your point, Arvo?” I replied, trying my best to sound tough.

“You are only free because of me. And anytime I want, I can go back to Soglio and amend my statement. ‘You know, detective, come to think of it . . . Biba excused herself around midnight . . . borrowed my car to go back to campus. . . . When she came back, she seemed, I dunno, tired. Like she’s been hoisting that bitch Gail by a belt around her throat.’”

Neither of us spoke for a moment. I was livid and exhausted. I wanted to dig my nails into Arvo’s smug face. How easy will it be to retract your statement once I’ve bashed in your teeth with my laptop?

But I still didn’t have any clothes on, and my soaking hair was starting to get cold. And all six and a quarter feet of Arvo Hurley were looming. I was at a total disadvantage. Then he started chuckling, lightly, like this was all a big joke.

“Of course, I wouldn’t do that, Biba,” he said. “What kind of friend would I be to hold that over your head? I just think you could be a little more grateful.”

“What would be a sufficient level of gratefulness, in your opinion?”

He turned away and strolled to my door like this was the most pleasant social visit imaginable.

“Oh, I dunno,” he mused, “but I’m sure, if I put my mind to it, I can come up with some way you can repay me.”

He flung open the door and proceeded down the hallway. He didn’t even bother to shut the door after he left.

“You’re fucking gross,” I called after him.

“You’re fucking welcome,” he answered, not looking back.

CHAPTER 9

ZEPHYR

For all the stupid shit thrown at me at the start of the year, things didn’t blow up. In fact, three weeks into the fall term, things had finally cooled off. Something compelled that Wachsbrunnen detective to drop charges against Biba. For all Dean Schmidt’s big talk, he wasn’t making an actual move against us. I didn’t want to jinx myself, but we seemed safe.

And the cherry on top was that the summer heat was sticking around.

Sol, Arvo, and me—we were enjoying a sunny Tuesday afternoon by our wall. The kids were coming and going, delivering the latest news. It was all dumb shit, petty quarrels and awkward hookups, but those are the little things that can become important if you let them fester with the wrong people. A King can never let his guard down or his mind wander. There’s always an angle to consider.

“Where’s Biba?” Sol asked absently.

“The fuck should I know?” I muttered. She’d been avoiding the boys lately. It annoyed me, though I guess I understood. Sol acted like he’d taken a vow of silence recently. And Arvo was his usual skeevy self. I couldn’t blame her for avoiding that. . . .

“Just asking,” Sol replied.

“Well, I got enough on my mind without worrying about Biba Quinn’s whereabouts.”

Sol sighed. I gave him a look. Don’t you get pissy with me too, Stamos.

He pushed off the wall and started walking off.

“Where you goin’?” Arvo shouted.

“I have things to do, okay?”

“What things?”

Sol didn’t reply. He picked up speed as he got closer to the school like he couldn’t wait to get away from us. Or maybe that was just Sol being Sol. He was all business when he was about the Kings’ affairs, but it wasn’t easy to loosen him up when it was time to chill. And what was with his interest in Biba these days, anyway?

“What’s his fuckin’ problem?” Arvo laughed.

“Always seems to have half his mind somewhere else these days.”

“You can say that again.”

Arvo was pretty quick to reply there. I gave him a sideways glance. He wouldn’t meet my eyes, almost like he regretted speaking out of turn.

“What does that mean?” I asked him pointedly.

“Nothing, Zeph.”

Still not looking at me.

“You’re not telling me something,” I pressed. “I won’t have secrets between the three of us, Arvo. That is what killed the Kings all those years ago.”

“Yo, Tess!”

Arvo’s piece of freshman ass was walking between classes. The second she heard him call, she ran over like a trained spaniel—a spaniel with a tight little body and magnificent tits. There was a decent chance Arvo was trying to distract me from my line of questioning, but what the hell? He picked a great way to distract me.

Tess fell into Arvo’s arms and pulled his face to hers. They frenched noisily. It was all a little sloppy for my taste, but who was I to criticize young love? His hand crawled up along her ribcage and squeezed that perky, round breast. She groaned with delight.

“You miss me, girl?”

“You know it,” she whispered in his ear, but her eyes kept darting back at me. That was the thing about Tess—she constantly stole looks at me when we were all together. Honestly, it made me nervous: I had a pretty good idea of what it was about. Arvo was talking me up to her because it made him seem big by association. The man next to the big man.

That was one of Hurley’s less appealing qualities. He didn’t wear power well. It fit him like a designer suit cut half a size too small.

“Tell you what,” he said to her, “you come to my room tonight in a t-shirt and nothing else, and I’ll make you never want to leave.”

She giggled uncontrollably. “Sounds nice.”

“One more thing. One of these nights, we gotta bring Zephyr over, right? Let him have a taste of you.”

Her face dropped. It wasn’t a look of disgust or anger, more surprise and confusion. She didn’t know if he was joking.

Tess’s warm ochre eyes turned and met mine. She was considering it. I was too. Mostly out of habit, though—it had been a while since I’d had some fresh pussy, and Tess was as fresh as they came. Petite and vivacious, she always seemed to be in heat. As we stood at the wall, sizing each other up, I had half a mind to pull her over and slide my hand down the front of those tight Jordache jeans.

“It’s a nice offer,” I deadpanned, “but I got stuff to take care of.”

I might have been imagining it, but I thought I saw a flash of disappointment in her eyes.

“Some other time, maybe,” she said sweetly.

“We’ll see. Now why don’t you scamper off? I need to talk to your guy.”

Tess gave Arvo a peck on the lips and dashed off. We both stood silently, appreciating her athletic haunches flexing with each jogging step.

“You know,” I said to Arvo, “your girl bears more than a passing resemblance to someone.”

“Yeah,” he answered, “she looks like every wet dream I had in middle school.”

“No, she looks like fucking Biba.”

He tried to laugh, but nothing came out. I must have hit a nerve with that irrefutable observation.

“Not a big deal,” I added. “I understand the attraction, obviously. It’s just . . . a little weird, don’t you think?”

“I’ll hand it to you, Z,” Arvo said ruefully. “It is not easy to make it seem deviant to fuck a smoking hot blonde with a killer ass. But you did it.”

“I just needed to point it out.”

“Did you?”

He was making me feel a little bad about the crap I was throwing at him. I always had to remind myself that despite his athletic prowess and remarkable good looks, Arvo was not as confident as he pretended—and certainly not around me.

“Nothing deviant at all,” I said by way of apology. “At least no more deviant than you normally are. Speaking of which, the more I think about it, the better it sounds to take little Tess for a test drive and see how she purrs.”

“A Tess-drive?”

“That’s fucking lame,” I said, laughing all the same.

“You just say the word, man. She’s got a mouth like an industrial vacuum, I promise.”

“Might take you up on it. Purely academic, though. I need to compare her talents and Biba’s.”

Of course, something was nagging at me. Despite the Dean’s relative quiet over the last couple of weeks, I couldn’t shake his comments to Biba: we fought a long time to rid Stormcloud of the Kings. So you did, Schmidt. So you did.

“Schmidt is going to be a problem,” I muttered as much to myself as to Arvo.

“It’s an easy problem to solve. I keep telling you.”

“I’m not offing the keeper of this school on a hunch. Keep watching him, okay. I need to know if he’s actually maneuvering or just talking big.”

“I mean, he’s definitely got designs, Zeph.”

“Designs don’t matter unless he’s making incursions. And you haven’t seen any provable moves against us, right?”

Arvo didn’t say anything, but his silence said something.

“Right?” I repeated.

“For the most part, I’m sure—”

“I’m not asking for your best fucking approximation, okay? I need to know if you’ve seen anything.”

He gritted his teeth, bit his lip, and decided there was no way he could keep whatever intel he was hiding. “It’s probably nothing,” he muttered.

“I’ll be the judge of that.”

“Look, I’ve been following him like you said. Saturday, Schmidt is on campus, and I’m tailing him. All pretty boring: office hours, meals, a jog through the hills. And I lose him, just for a minute, while he’s jogging. I slip into the woods to try to head him off at the pass, but as I’m moving through the trees . . . I hear whispers, like a conversation. So I creep in further through the woods and, bang! There’s Schmidt, still in his running skivvies, and he’s talking, I’m pretty certain . . . to Sol.”

I couldn’t believe it. Literally. I did not believe the shit Arvo was telling me. Sol was not, could not possibly be, a snitch.

“What were they talking about?”

“I don’t know. I must have snapped a twig or something because as I got close, Sol—or whoever it was—made a break for it.”

“And you’re just telling me this now?”

I was fucking livid.

“I wasn’t sure it was him. I’m still on the fence—”

“A percentage, then. How certain are you it was Sol Stamos that was talking to the Dean?”

He thought for a moment, blinking from the strain. Then he settled on “60 percent.”

“Jesus Christ, what a fucking mess. Are you sure Schmidt was talking to someone, though? Middle of the woods, secret talks?”

“Yes,” he jumped, hoping to assure me that this was not an irredeemable screwup.

My eyes were scanning the courtyard, the trees, the windows of the manor house. I felt more exposed at that moment than I’d ever felt at Stormcloud. We needed to move.

Without a word, I took Arvo by the elbow and led him to my new Aston Martin DBS. Dad had pulled it right off one of his ships as a surcharge to a delinquent freighting company. It had no papers, and the plates were forged. Only me and the guys at the factory had been inside of it for more than five minutes; there was no way it was bugged.

We rolled out of campus to take a long drive through the mountains. Arvo looked nauseous like maybe I was taking him to a secluded spot to put a bullet behind his ear. Good. At that moment, I wanted everyone around me just a little scared.

“Here’s the thing,” I said, keeping my eyes on the road. “Whoever is feeding info to Schmidt needs to be shut up, and I mean permanently.”

“Agreed.”

“You don’t need to respond. I want you on Schmidt’s tail going forward. Not anyone else—you. I need 100 percent unambiguous proof if it’s Sol. Confirming that is your job.”

Arvo nodded. The DBS purred underneath me. For a moment, I felt fine.

“And if it is Sol,” I said to myself, “we’ll take him behind the woodshed and give him the strap.”

CHAPTER 10

THEO

I couldn’t sleep. I hadn’t gotten more than four hours of rest for days, and that was broken up into a hundred small moments of unconsciousness when my mind shut down more out of self-preservation than anything else. Then after twenty or so minutes, I was up again, staring at the ceiling or pacing or reading.

This couldn’t go on. My focus was shot during the day. My emotions were either crazy or catatonic. Thank god, I had no one to talk to; they would have thought I was insane.

What was it Othello said? It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul. Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars!—It is the cause.

I’d lost her. Well and truly, I would never get her back. For some reason, it became instantly apparent to me when I saw Arvo Hurley in Amelia’s office, smirking and sauntering out, perjuring himself to save her. Under Zephyr Williams’ directive, no doubt.

Until that moment, I had looked at Biba’s . . . what would you call it? Entanglement with the Kings as foolish—dangerously foolish. A petty act of rebellion. I’d pitied her. But I had also understood her. We were both lost orphans in this horrible school, trying to find our way through the brambles because, on the other side, we had been promised a better life. I had dedicated the first half of my Stormcloud tenure to resisting the injustices of this place. Biba had allied herself with them.

I’d thought she was mistaken, but when Arvo saved her life with one bald lie, I understood that I’d been the fool all along. The Kings were not some nasty distraction for Biba; they were her home. They kept her safe and protected. With Zephyr and Sol and Arvo watching over her, she would make it out of Stormcloud and, probably, end up a billionaire. A minted member of the leisure class.

Biba had figured it out, I found myself thinking again and again. In less than two months, she’d figured out how to survive at Stormcloud Academy. And you, Theo Brant, don’t have the balls to do what she did.

I’d had the opportunity, once upon a time.

Like her, I had no parents, but unlike her, I never knew mine. I grew up in a succession of well-appointed homes in London, New York, Geneva, Copenhagen. Places where moneyed families were native. Every couple of years, whichever foster family I was staying with would abruptly ship me off to another home. Always wealthy, always well-educated, and cultured. I never wanted for anything, except a mother and father.

None of these families mistreated me, but none showed me much love either. I was something to look after, like a fragile, expensive antique. I was told my name was Brant, yet as I grew up, it became clear that name was assigned, not inherited.

I inherited three things from the parents I never knew. The first was a substantial amount of money, held in trust in a numbered Swiss account and doled out by a registered agent I never met. The second was a network of elites, all of them sworn for reasons I couldn’t know to guard me and see to my wellbeing.

The final inheritance was admission to Stormcloud. More than that, actually—I was not merely admitted. My way was set.

Miss Amelia had met me the day I arrived. I could recall it like it had just happened.

Mr. Brant, she’d greeted me at the front gate, as your matriculation to Stormcloud Academy was most sudden, I thought it best to orient you myself.

Thank you, I’d muttered, overwhelmed by the place’s grandeur.

You’ll find we keep the protocol quite rigid. But I will see to it you are eased in gradually. I’ll keep a special eye on you.

She had explained in exacting detail the school hierarchy and arranged a meeting with Zephyr Williams, who’d later greeted me with a combination of condescension and grudging acceptance.

I was to be a King.

It was madness. I’d only just learned of the concept of a King of Stormcloud, and I was to become one.

But that was no good: I couldn’t do it. To accept my place next to Zephyr and his ilk would be a betrayal of everything I believed in. The Kings were not great men or people of vision. They did not have some claim to being exceptional. All they had was money and an over-inflated sense of importance. Besides, they were bullies, pure and simple.

That’s all to say, I was impressed neither by the idea of a King nor by the guys who claimed to be Kings. Weirdly, even after I’d turned Zephyr down, he’d held his fire. I’d seen the Kings take some genuinely fucked up revenge on people for slights way more minor than mine, but I was allowed to walk the halls with impunity. Zephyr even invited me to eat with them from time to time. And I accepted as a courtesy. I hate to admit it, but he could be pretty funny sometimes. Even so, I refused to be taken in by that particular club.

What a stupid move that was.

All the moral superiority I’d felt toward the Kings—I mean, what did it get me? Alone and nervous at two in the morning. For the fourth night in a row.

Not knowing what else to do, I stepped out of bed and stripped off my undershirt and boxers. A hot shower ought to relax me at least. Somehow, I needed to clear my head and try to think clearly about my situation. I was Theo Brant, the child with an assumed name, raised in the lap of luxury, granted entry to the most exclusive educational institution in the world. And on top of all of that, I could become a King tomorrow if I would only bend the knee to Zephyr Williams. Why shouldn’t I?

The steaming hot water washed over me. I rolled my stiff shoulders back and dragged my fingers through my hair. The shower felt good in a way that most things did not in those days. I tried to focus on the sensation of hot water rolling down my skin.

Remember what it felt like to relax, Theo? Before the attack, before the Kings’ strange ritual in the catacombs, before Biba. . . .

My mind flashed back to last spring when I was walking into the Kings’ Hall, a secret sanctum that I’d only known about because Zephyr had taken me down there my first week at Stormcloud to offer me a place among the Kings. When I’d declined, his tone had done an immediate 180. All the good cheer and politesse had disappeared, replaced with unalloyed condescension. He’d sworn I would die slowly if I ever revealed the location of the Kings’ Hall. I’d assured him I had no intention of doing that. Indeed, I never intended to return to that dank pit.

I’d stayed away, good to my word . . . until the night I followed them down there, Zephyr and Biba.

I should have been disgusted by the spectacle I walked in on: Arvo, Sol, and Zephyr stooped on the floor around Biba. She was stark naked, her supple body glistening with oil. Arvo and Sol held her down, spread-eagle. They sucked on her breasts and massaged her clit while Zephyr fucked her like a wild animal.

I should have been disgusted, but I’d found I was not. I almost hadn’t intervened because a voice from the lizard part of my brain had told me to watch. Watch Zephyr fuck her until they came together. Watch the Kings take turns with her, plunging into her holes and her mouth, until the whole orgiastic crew was sated.

Recalling them all together, I got hard. That was a minor miracle; for all the stress and self-loathing I’d felt recently, I hadn’t felt aroused in weeks. I looked down uncertainly. Wow. Just the memory of Biba servicing the Kings had brought my cock to full mast.

Why shouldn’t I dispose of my ethics and self-respect and join Zephyr’s little club? Maybe I could jump in on their next orgy.

I didn’t bother to dress or even towel off before lying back on my mattress. It was still warm enough, and there was a pleasant nighttime draft from the cracked window in my room. The light breeze felt wonderful across my moist skin.

I glanced at the mirror on my door and caught my reflection. It wasn’t bad. A summer of continuous labor in the Solomon Islands had built back the muscle I lost after weeks in the infirmary last year. My tan was fading but still there.

I looked better than I felt. In the moonlight, with droplets still resting on my body, I liked the view of myself.

Theo Brant . . . not such a wreck after all. At least, not physically.

My hand traced its way from my pec, down my ribs, and over my abs, which showed renewed definition from weeks of lifting logs and sandbags. I rested my fingers on my bare thigh and stared at my dick in the mirror. It had waned just slightly since the shower but still rose straight up from my pelvis.

It was peculiar, looking at myself. One so rarely saw one’s entire body exposed. Doing so then was like I was spying on a stranger, totally vulnerable and aroused.

I opened my legs, reached down, and squeezed the testicles that hung at the juncture of my thighs. My cock rose at the sweet sensation.

Closing my eyes, I could see—clearly like it was happening in the present—Biba in my room that night I’d carried her from the Kings’ Hall. She was still reeling from the fucking she got that night.

I could see her opening her robe and lying back on my bed, her sweet honeypot still flush and wet and open. I could smell the earthy-tart scent as I brought my mouth down on her.

Damn, but she was sweet and hot against my tongue. I could have licked her all night.

I watched in the mirror as tiny drops of precum squirted from my hard-on with each stroke. Holy shit, I hadn’t realized how much I needed this. It was only my hand and my own natural lubrication, but it felt divine.

At the same time, I flashed back to that night. As I gently sucked on Biba’s clit, I peered over her small tuft of pubes and marveled at what I saw. Her eyes were closed, and her full lips parted. She moaned for more. She clutched her perfect breasts and pinched her taut nipples, straining to an approaching orgasm.

My balls tightened against my body. It was building, a huge load working its way to the surface.

Fuck, my whole body shook. My fist was a blur, pumping hard. I locked eyes with myself in the mirror. This is the face I wanted Biba to see, locked in on her, straining to stay open even as I got closer to . . . closer to . . . closer. . . .

But she was absent, and I was here. Masturbating furiously, focusing on conjuring a memory. It was like if I concentrated hard enough, she would materialize on top of me.

It is the cause, my soul.

She didn’t appear, but the memory of our brief night together brought me over the edge.

Time extended and flattened as ribbons of come shot from the burgundy head of my cock.

I groaned heavily from my deepest core. My torso was coated in my seed, but I didn’t care. For a few moments, my mind stopped, and I was at peace.

And then, somehow, I fell asleep at last.

CHAPTER 11

BIBA

There was one thing I couldn’t shake. It gnawed at my conscience.

Thomas and Mary Monfort—Gail’s aunt and uncle in Cornwall. I hadn’t called them. Not after Gail’s death, not after my interrogation in Wachsbrunnen, not since I’d learned the police were investigating it as a murder. They had refused to set foot on Stormcloud property. Instead, they’d arranged for Gail’s body to be transported to England. I’d never spoken to them or cried with them.

I told myself that I was doing keeping my distance to protect them. . . .

But maybe I was trying to protect myself from the pain of talking to Gail’s closest relations. They’d shown me such kindness over spring break of my first year, taking Gail and me to Evian Les Bains, buying us new clothes, treating us to an extravagant meal by the water. After the exertion of my first months at Stormcloud Academy, that day trip had been like something out of a fairytale.

Then they’d revealed the truth about Gail’s father. How he went to Stormcloud too and ran afoul of the Kings back in the eighties. What had they thought would happen once we found out? It sent us on a journey into the school’s archives, where we’d learned that her father and mine were here at the same time. We’d become hooked: we needed to know.

If Mary and Tommy hadn’t told us, I wondered, would we have begun our clandestine investigation? Would I have been attacked on the last night of the term? Would Gail have been killed? We could have lived, both of us, in blissful ignorance.

That wasn’t fair, though. It wasn’t the Monforts’ fault that we ended up in the crosshairs at Stormcloud Academy. They'd just wanted their niece to have all the information about her family history. They couldn’t have known what would follow. . . .

That’s why I couldn’t bring myself to call them. Deep down, I understood that I had led Gail down the path that ended with a looped belt and a sturdy oak beam. But Mary and Tommy were owed a call if only to assure them that I would find their girl’s killer and make him pay.

Every other day for four months, I’d stood by myself for twenty or so minutes, holding the phone with the Monforts’ home number dialed, whispering to myself, “Do it, Biba. You owe it to them. Call the fucking number and talk about what happened.”

I knew there would be tears and awkward silences, difficult questions, and, perhaps, recriminations. Every morning, I’d think I was ready to be brave and make the call. But every day, I would discover anew what a coward I was.

That morning, one month into the fall term, was no different. I tried and failed to make the call. I succeeded at justifying waiting one more day. Then I justified never calling them.

What good would speaking do for either of us?

I’m the last person they want to talk to. . . .

Not calling them is safer for them and for me.

The phone went back into my purse. I needed some air.

I plunged through the western exit and into the courtyard like I was bursting through a portal into another world. There would be no Indian summer at this altitude, it seemed. Indeed, it looked like we wouldn’t get much of an autumn. Half the trees in the courtyard were nearly bare, and the ones that still had yellowing leaves were shedding them fast.

It wasn’t even October yet, and the natural world was closing shop.

That was fine by me. It felt appropriate. The lush, verdant summer was at odds with the vile uncertainty that permeated my life. It shouldn’t be warm and sunny. Gail was dead; the trees should be too.

Besides, I loved the sudden brace of wind. It felt cleansing, that thin, crisp air, the slight bite from the breeze, the rustle of brittle foliage falling to the rocky ground below. And to top it off, I was free to leave campus! It had turned out that Arvo’s alibi all but ended Soglio’s investigation into me.

That had been a double-win. I was no longer a suspect, and the dogged detective could actually begin digging up actual leads. All it had taken was a little perjury from Arvo Hurley.

Speak of the devil, and he appeared. As I passed through the courtyard en route to my favorite mountain footpath, I caught sight of Arvo and Tess sauntering near the perimeter wall. There was a laziness to his walk that told me he wasn’t going to see Zephyr. When Arvo was needed by the King of Crowns, he moved quick.

No, the two of them were just enjoying the sensation of being young and cute and together. If I didn’t know what a creep Arvo could be, I might have thought they were a sweet couple. Tess had both her thin arms wrapped around his waist in a sideways hug that made her trip a little as she walked. Her head was pressed tightly to his chest. It was like she couldn’t stand the idea of any part of herself not being connected to him.

My mind flashed back to that night three weeks back when I’d spied on them in the solarium, nude and grinding together for my viewing pleasure. His hands had found their way to her hindquarters that night as well and opened her up so he could tongue her into a lather.

I actually had to shake my head to toss that lurid image from my mind. On the nights I slept separately from Zephyr—and some nights when I slept with him—I found myself replaying that tryst in my mind.

Not smart, Biba. Not smart.

The Mont Fer path to the west of campus was my trail of choice, at least when I was walking alone. It was severe in a lovely way—huge boulders and panoramic views of the sloping white mountains on the Swiss side of the border. Walking along this rocky, unforgiving path, I felt like a heroine in a Wagner opera.

It was the least trod footpath outside campus. It’s hard on your feet and long without being incredibly varied. It was also open to the point of anxiety. There was no hiding on the Mont Fer path; you could see miles in each direction and know you were alone. After months under the microscope of the police, the administration, the Kings, and pretty much everyone else, I liked knowing what was coming in every direction.

So it was that I could see clearly a lone figure about a mile out from the campus. The tall, slender man appeared before me in the distance quite a long time before I actually made out who it was.

Sol.

He stood alone a few yards from the trail, looking out over the rolling summits and slopes. He was bundled tightly in a thigh-length black topcoat, tight black jeans, and a gray wool scarf tied around his neck. His swooping black hair was thick enough, evidently, that he didn’t need a hat. He looked like Heathcliff on the moors.

I presumed he either didn’t notice me approaching or didn’t care. It took about twenty minutes from when I first spotted him to when I actually got close enough to call his name. He didn’t look at me that entire time. He didn’t even turn.

“Sol,” I shouted twenty years out.

“Biba,” he answered, still not turning. “I’ve been waiting for you.”

That stopped me in my tracks. The last thing I needed was another one of the Kings making absurd overtures to me. And why else would Sol be waiting for me this far away from the school? He could just as easily talk to me during class.

No, he was waiting for me on a remote mountain path that he just assumed I’d be wandering down.

“Well,” I replied as nonchalantly as possibly, “here I am.”

“I need your help.”

At first, I thought Sol’s refusal to look at me was some kind of power move—like I wasn’t worth his full attention. But I saw vulnerability in his averted gaze, and it struck me that he was ashamed.

“Whatever I can do, Sol.”

“You say that, but forgive me for not believing it,” he replied, his voice shaking. “There are too many risks to me just confiding in you. I have something on my mind for you to hear, but you cannot tell Zephyr.”

“That depends on what you tell me.”

“Forget it then.”

Sol lowered his eyes, marched up the incline to the path, and started stomping back to Stormcloud.

“Gimme a break,” I called to him. “You and I both know I’m not a part of the Kings thing, not really. I’m a . . . an extraneous part. Zephyr doesn’t tell me what you guys are doing.”

He turned back. “That doesn’t mean you won’t tell him.”

“You’re the one who came out here for me, Sol,” I answered in exasperation. “I’ve never been anything but straight with you, so tell me what you’re gonna tell me.”

Why didn’t I just tell him to screw off and enjoy the rest of my walk? Something was drawing me closer, demanding that I find out whatever was tearing into him. Sol slowly walked back, his voluminous mane waving in the breeze, his green eyes flashing in the sun, locked in on me.

“Something’s going on, Biba,” he whispered. “Something dangerous.”

“You think I don’t know that? There isn’t a day that goes by I don’t think of the knife that almost ended my life.”

I gritted my teeth and stifled the emotion well up inside. I wouldn’t let my emotions get the best of me. Besides, Sol was already responding.

“I’m not talking about that. There’s—” he cut himself off and looked back at the mountains. “Jesus, what am I doing? I don’t even know what I’m up against. But you’re the only one I can talk to.”

I didn’t have the first clue what he was talking about, but either Sol was the actor of the century, or something was genuinely tormenting him.

Without an idea of what to say to him, I placed my hand on his sunken, smooth cheek. His expression melted. Even a little human contact was too much for him to handle. But he didn’t retreat.

“I’m frozen out, Biba.”

“What does that mean?”

“All those meetings that Zephyr’s going to— they’re happening with just him and Arvo. I’m on the outside all of a sudden. I try talking to Zeph. He tells me activities are on hold because of Schmidt, but I know that’s not the case.”

I clammed up, remembering the Dean’s fiery warning to me. He intended to smash the Kings into a million pieces.

“How do you know he and Arvo are meeting?”

“I tailed Tess a few days ago. Arvo is too snaky to track, but his girl . . . they don’t separate unless he’s meeting with Zephyr. She was on her own, in the gym, three nights in a row, the exact times that the Kings normally meet.”

“But that doesn’t make any sense. Zeph loves you. He trusts you completely. He’s told me as much.”

“But something has changed. I’m being followed.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. “What? That’s crazy.”

“I know the kids Arvo and Zeph would have tailing me. I see them outside my classes, in the halls near my room, even jogging on the same trails I do. That’s why I came out here to find you. Mont Fer is totally exposed. I would know immediately if we were being watched.”

For nearly a minute, I didn’t respond. I couldn’t tell if Sol was lying or crazy or on to something. Only this was sure: I hadn’t seen him and Zephyr together in a while. But he was the most loyal of the Kings. It wasn’t possible that Zephyr would marginalize him.

“What do you want me to do?” I replied finally.

“Guys have been killed for crossing the Kings, Biba. I know I haven’t done anything wrong, but I need Zephyr to know that. You have to tell him.”

“Hang on. First, I’m not supposed to talk to him, then I’m supposed to deliver a message—?”

“He can’t know that I suspect something, or he’ll think this is a ploy. But he’ll listen to you. You know I’m reliable. I’ve got the Kings’ interests in my heart. Just find a way to convince Zephyr to meet with me, one on one, so I can find out what’s wrong.”

There was such openness and pain in his voice—it caught me off-guard. The Kings were not supposed to be vulnerable or afraid, and yet Sol was, appealing to my better nature and fondness for him.

I wanted to agree. His need was almost magnetic. But I also knew I couldn’t do what he asked. The Kings were bigger than me, him, or even Zephyr. If forces were aligned against Sol, I couldn’t help him. And siding with him would put my safety in doubt.

I couldn’t say yes, but I wasn’t strong enough to say no.

So I told him I’d think about it and walked away before he could speak again.

CHAPTER 12

ZEPHYR

Where the fuck was she?

It was two in the afternoon on Thursday, and Biba was once again AWOL. I was not generally a possessive guy, but I’d just about had it with people going off the reservation. Arvo was walking around like General Patton these days, fighting his own private war and assuring me he had everything “well in hand.”

And Sol . . . I was beyond pissed about that situation. He was breaking against the Kings, which meant I couldn’t be in the same room with him. And it might mean blood was about to spill.

Then there was Theo, skulking around Biba like a pathetic lapdog. You couldn’t do anything with a guy like that except try to keep him away. Who knew what sad-sack nonsense he was trying to feed Biba? What a bad guy I was, how awful the Kings were, how he could keep her safe.

That was why, at the moment, I was searching the whole damned manor for Biba. I recalled that she had her first big exam from Gianas next week. Maybe there was a study session in his room. I made a beeline to the classroom and flung open the door.

But the room was empty. No one was in the class.

No one except my father.

It’s fucking weird to see your father in your school. Like, maybe the last time it’s normal is when you’re in preschool and your parents have to pick you up from the classroom physically. Not that Peter Williams had ever picked me up. We had servants for that.

Dad managed to look intimidating even seated at a student’s desk. He had his favorite Huntsman Prince of Wales suit, creaseless shirt with monogrammed platinum cufflinks, black silk tie with a matching platinum pin, and pristine calfskin oxfords. His feet were pressed together, his hands folded before him. This was the exact way he sat in his home office, behind his cherrywood desk, when he received me to tell me I was a disappointment.

Which is what I was. Dad never let me forget that.

“You could have called,” I said. “Given me some warning.”

“It was more valuable,” he replied crisply, “to see the extent to which you let yourself go when I’m not around.”

He had a point. I was on day three of my frayed Balmain jeans and day two of my McQueen hoodie. Plus, I’d opted for my knit cap over actually washing my hair.

“Sit down, Zephyr.”

There was something Pavlovian to the way I followed his orders. I pulled up a desk and sat facing him.

“How are your grades?” he demanded.

“There are no grades, dad. The term just started.”

“No matter,” he continued. “I need to call you away. There’s an issue with our port in Morocco. It started with a minor dockworker strike. Now there’s a diversion of freight vessels from some eastern port that’s bogged down because of a petty coup.”

I nodded. Last term, I’d have jumped at the opportunity to lend my skills to Williams Maritime, but I was worried about what might happen in my absence with so much going on at school. Not that I said this to Dad. I worked hard to keep a poker face.

“Anyway, I’ve no option now but to sack the harbormaster. He’s a damned imbecile anyway. We have freighters lined up to be unloaded and reloaded. I need someone I can trust to run things down there.”

“Of course, Dad,” I replied carefully. “I just have to get some things in order—”

“Order? What is there to get in order?”

“I mean—well, I need to tell the Dean, for one. How long would I be gone?”

“Schmidt can piss off. He does what I tell him. You should only be gone a couple of months, anyway. Take your texts with you and read them at night.”

“Okay, sure, but there are other things, you know. . . .”

My father’s eyes narrowed. Other things must have struck a nerve with him. His mind must have jumped immediately—and accurately—to the Kings. Dad’s one regret was letting the Kings become outlawed during his time at Stormcloud. He had prepared me from the beginning to re-establish them.

“Our affairs are in order, are they not?” he asked flatly.

“Sure. There’s just . . . uh, some projects in the air—”

Suddenly, he lifted his hand, and a sneering smile curled at the corners of his mouth.

“Calm down, Zephyr. I know that sleepless, disheveled look. I was your age not so long ago. You have yourself a little bit of tail, is it? Something more consistent than your normal parade of sluts?”

I couldn’t respond, partly because of the inherent grossness of hearing my father discuss “tail,” but mostly because I had not told him about Biba. She was a Quinn, after all, and that was a problem. Dad had a history with that family and had warned me about them before I came to the school.

He went on, “This business in Morocco—it’s a test. An opportunity. You’re supposed to be the heir apparent, aren’t you? Prove yourself and earn it. Do you understand?”

I nodded and looked down. Didn’t want to display weakness in front of the old man. The fact of the matter was that I wanted the brass ring: Williams Maritime and the billions that came with it.

Dad was done with our little chat. He had the answer he wanted. So without even a thank you and farewell, he stood and left. I sat at the desk with the sunshine fading, wondering how I could explain to Biba that I was leaving her for two months.

CHAPTER 13

BIBA

“I can’t decide if that’s a long time or not.”

“It’s not,” he replied with a certainty that felt forced. “We were apart longer over the summer.”

“Yeah, but that was different.”

“How so?”

“Things were different.”

I’d known something was up since the day before. Zephyr hadn’t asked me to stay the night. Turns out he’d spent the night packing. He’d caught me before class the following morning and told me to meet him after my last session with a nice dress on. He was taking me to Festen, the only truly exclusive restaurant in the village.

With a dinner as expensive as that, I knew he wasn’t going to dump me at least. Even so, there was dourness in his invitation, like I was invited to my own funeral.

We had only finished our consommé course and begun sipping cordial glass aperitifs when he told me the news: his father had come to school and demanded he leave for two months to fix some shipping problem in Morocco.

Dude, I thought to myself, my dad and best friend were killed in the last year. I can live with not seeing you for sixty days.

Then it hit me. He was scared. Whoever had ordered the hit on me last year was probably still on campus, and now Zeph wouldn’t be around to protect me. Even worse, the Kings were fraying at the seams, and he didn’t know whom he could trust to watch over me.

Even so, he had a plan, hastily put together.

“You’re staying in my room while I’m gone,” he announced. “No arguing. It’s safer than your room.”

“How so?”

“Fucking custodial staff have master keys to your room. No one has the key to mine. So you stay there and do not let anyone—anyone—in there while I’m gone.”

I figured that was supposed to be about protection, but there was a touch of jealousy in his voice.

“Also,” he went on, “Arvo’s running shit while I’m gone. Anything you need, tell him. He’ll be calling me daily. I’ll be in the loop.”

“What about me?” I replied. “I’d like to talk to you too.”

He sighed. “That might not be possible, at least for a while.”

“Why?”

“It’s complicated, okay? My dad will be breathing down my neck. I can’t be distracted.”

I was about to ask something else, but he stopped me.

“Please, Biba. Let’s just enjoy this dinner. I don’t want to argue.”

The dinner lasted two hours and seven courses, ending with plates of honeyed goat milk yogurt and berry parfaits. We toasted each other with small glasses of nectar-sweet Tokay. Then we got into his beautiful silver Aston Martin. Only he didn’t take the road back to Stormcloud; he went the opposite way onto a mountain road that inclined toward a summit.

“Where are we going?” I asked, a bit nervous.

“My Cessna leaves in four hours from a hangar that’s only ninety minutes’ drive. That gives us some time.”

Zephyr drove too fast in the best of times. Now he was careering through unlit gravel roads, climbing ever higher on the mountain. He was doing this because he knew I liked it. His recklessness was the sexiest part about him.

I hated how being dragged along with his dangerous posturing turned me on. But it did. Even as we skidded up the nighttime peak, I found myself pressing my palm just firmly enough into my lap. That bit of pressure combined with the humming under my seat to make me dizzily aroused.

Suddenly, the car screeched to a halt near a scenic lookout point. And lord, what a view it was!

The night sky was cloudless and freckled with stars. It felt, at that harrowing height, like we were floating above the world.

For just a second, we sat silently observing the dancing of twinkling galaxies and shooting stars. Then I felt Zephyr’s hand slide over my bare thigh and under the skirt of my indigo Lela Rose cocktail dress.

I heard myself moaning as his digits traced the lace fringe of my panties, and then he leaned over and kissed me deeply. I could still taste the Hungarian wine on his tongue. My senses filled with that spicy, musky aftershave he used. As his left hand slid nimbly under the satin covering my breast, my hand fumbled with my seatbelt.

His hunger was evident. He wanted to devour my mouth with his, to inhale my essence, to caress all my secret places at once—and my desire fed off his. No sooner was I relieved of my seatbelt than I climbed over his gear shift and straddled my lover. Zephyr accommodated me by sliding back his seat and easing the backrest into a recline.

I was on top. I leaned down to drape myself over him. We were moving, both of us, in slow gyrations, savoring the sensation of our bodies pressed tightly together. It was divine, delicious, delirious.

I wanted him inside me. I wanted him to pull off my dress and have his way. To fuck me so hard, I would still feel it weeks after he left. But first, I wanted more of this, the gentle, pulsing sensation of two people who fit together perfectly.

Suddenly, I felt Zephyr’s hands close around my hair. I tensed, ready for him to wrench my head back and force me into whatever position he wanted. But that didn’t happen. Instead, he lifted my head slowly back so he could look me dead in the eyes.

“How are things different?” he asked quietly but intently.

“What?”

“At dinner, you said things were different when we were apart over the summer. How are they different now?”

“I mean, it’s obvious, right?”

“Not to me.”

I stopped myself from responding right away. Zephyr hadn’t blinked. He had something on his mind, an answer to the question he posed to me. I didn’t want to make any assumptions about what he meant.

“I can think,” I said, “of about a hundred ways that right now is different. I nearly got arrested by the police. I’m no longer working ten hours a day for Amelia. The campus is full of—”

“Brant,” he replied simply.

“Is that what this is about?”

“Theo Brant is here now, and I’m leaving you alone at Stormcloud with him. That takes a lot of trust.”

“I don’t hear much trust in your voice.”

“Believe me, Biba. If I thought you were fucking around on me, this conversation would be much less pleasant.”

Was he threatening me? I hadn’t seen Zephyr this intense in some time. He and I had developed a lowkey, almost domestic arrangement in the last month. I knew it couldn’t last, but I hadn’t thought some petty jealousy would set him off. It was so fucking high school; it was almost laughable.

I kind of wanted to shout in his face, Guess what, Zeph! Fucking Theo Brant was on campus over a week before you arrived. Just him and me, and we never did a thing!

Granted, if I were being radically honest, I’d probably admit that every time Theo and I hung out this summer, I ran back to my room to pleasure myself thinking about him. Nevertheless, I never acted on my attraction, which was what mattered in the end. Right?

“You don’t have to worry about me,” was what I said, but he didn’t buy it.

“No one says that unless they’re hiding something,” he sighed. “I have too many people in my life assuring me they are trustworthy.”

He’s talking about Sol, I thought. He has to be.

“Don’t trust me then, Zeph. No one is forcing you to leave. If you’re that worried about us, stay here.”

“Can’t be done. And I need assurances from you.”

He hadn’t let go of my hair. Instead, his grip was getting tighter, and his wrists bent to force my head further back.

“I need you to swear not to talk to Theo Brant while I’m gone. Not a word, not even a courtesy hello.”

“Will swearing put your mind at ease?”

“Probably not, but Arvo will tell me if he sees you together. Then at least I’ll know for certain if you can be trusted.”

“Why Theo so fucking particularly? Why not Sol or Arvo?”

“Because Theo is the one that matters. I’ve seen the look in your eyes when you’re with him.”

In that moment, I hated him. It was like the last six months had never happened, and we were back where we started, with Zephyr batting me around like a sadistic cat with a wounded mouse. He knew I had no choice but to acquiesce. If I told him to go to hell and fled his car, I would be alone and lost on a barely accessible mountain peak.

“Fine,” I grunted. “I swear.”

“What do you swear?”

“I swear not to talk to Theo.”

He released me, and I rolled off him and back into the passenger seat.

“See that you don’t,” Zephyr replied, staring at the stars.

CHAPTER 14

THEO

Zephyr Williams has been gone a week. It was like the air pressure around Stormcloud Academy was released. The pounding in my head was relieved. The only thing was that I couldn’t get a moment with Biba. She started arriving at our Professor Gianis class at the last minute and leaving as soon as we were dismissed. She was still sleeping in Zephyr’s suite, from what I could tell, and she didn’t eat in the dining hall, ever.

It was like she became a ghost. Everywhere I went, I scanned the perimeter, looking for her. Nothing.

What I wanted most was to resume my investigation into Gail’s killing. Ever since Amelia warned me to stand down, my mind was roving in every direction at once. Why was Amelia so bloody concerned with my safety? What about Biba’s—or poor Gail Monfort? I couldn’t stand the idea of Gail disappearing down this school’s memory hole. The reason for her death lay in the story of her father. Whatever happened to him at Stormcloud laid the foundation for all the treachery that followed. I needed to learn the story of that generation of Kings. To do that, I needed access to the school archives, and I only knew one person who could get me in there.

So I thought hard about places that Biba would have to go. Where could I position myself so that I was guaranteed to intercept her? I couldn’t wait by Zephyr’s room: the other Kings would see me, and that wouldn’t be good for anyone.

Then it hit me. The infirmary.

Biba was still working for Amelia three afternoons a week, mainly delivering messages and student files around the school. And there were only two places on campus that needed student files every single day: the bursar and the infirmary. Finances for the delinquent accounts and physical stats for the ill. I could have positioned myself at either point during her shift with Amelia, but I chose the infirmary. Unlike the bursar’s office, the physician’s office was accessible through a secret passage.

I knew the passage by heart. Amelia had shown it to me in my first months at Stormcloud Academy. It had been a small act of kindness from the school’s headmistress for an overwhelmed orphan who was totally lost.

I took a seat in the abandoned medical amphitheater adjacent to the physician’s quarters. After half an hour, I heard footsteps on stone. It could only be her.

“Jesus Christ!” Biba screeched as she turned the corner and saw me. “Why are you skulking around in here?”

“No other option. I needed to see you.”

“This place is creepy enough without you sneaking around.”

“It’s not that creepy. Just a spot for some Victorian-era public surgery.”

“What do you want, Theo?”

She wasn’t pretending. She genuinely wanted to be free of this conversation as quickly as possible. Fine, I thought, this won’t be a social call. Purely business.

“I need the archives.”

“Easy enough. Just put in a request with the school.”

She turned toward the passageway out of the theatre, but I stepped in her way.

“You know they won’t grant it, Biba. My access is nil since everything went down last year. They wouldn’t let me within a hundred yards of Stormcloud documents.”

“Maybe that’s for the best,” she said without emotion. “Maybe we shouldn’t have been looking into the past in the first place.”

“You don’t believe that.”

“I didn’t, but I’m beginning to change my opinions. I’d rather be alive, Theo.”

To a certain extent, I understood. First her parents, then Gail—Biba had plenty of death in her life already. She didn’t want to send anyone else over the cliff. But I still had to try.

“One hour, tonight,” I pressed her. “After that, I will never ask again. If I find nothing up there, that will be the end of my investigation. I’ll move on—from you and from the past. But I need a shot at figuring out why we were all brought to Stormcloud at the same time.”

Biba scrunched her nose and bit her lower lip. This request was unwelcome, but a second later, her face softened. I had somehow broken through.

Biba did not want to be seen with me, so she unlocked to door to Amelia’s office at midnight and walked away.

I’d promised not to arrive until 12:10.

She had warned me that the place was a trainwreck and had no electric lighting. I grabbed the steel flashlight I’d used all summer on the island. I mounted the stone spiral stairs and shifted the beam left to right and back again. I wanted a full accounting of what lay before me. If someone were waiting in ambush, I’d see them before they leaped.

Biba hadn’t undersold it: Stormcloud’s archives were a nightmare. Stacks of ancient parchment and crates of files and photos and annuals, some labeled, some not. There was no discernible organizational system, and it was pitch black. I was an idiot to think I could have this wrapped up in an hour.

One counter held a pile of banker’s boxes, most of which were labeled “Student Files.” A student file might be the best option if I wanted to get quick summary info on the prior generation of Kings. I grabbed the nearest box and started searching. To my amazement, the files inside had dates. Unfortunately, the first few boxes were from the nineties, so I pulled more.

Biba and Gail—their fathers were at the school sometime in the mid-1980s, at the same time as Zephyr’s pop. That was the era I needed.

At last, I unearthed a box from ‘84–’85. I started pulling files, but I saw I was up against a brick wall right away. Hurley, Williams, Stamos—they were all MIA. It shouldn’t have surprised me that some of the world’s most powerful families would want their records purged. They were probably locked up in a safe in Dean Schmidt’s office.

Nevermind that. I finally located something of value. Monfort, Douglas.

The file was a brown folder stuffed with yellowing papers. Much of it was basic information: family background, medical details, grades. I needed to find something about Gail’s father’s connection to the Kings and to Biba’s dad. I needed something to explain why his daughter and Biba were brought back all these years later.

Then I noticed a footnote on Montfort’s disciplinary record.

Co-signatory on the witness statement of R. Scamarcio. Provided evidence in the inquiry of E.V. disappearance.

What in the hell did that mean?

“Theo?” I heard Biba’s annoyed shout from the stairs. “Are you still in here?”

It was half-past four in the morning. I’d overstayed my welcome by several hours. I’d also somehow made the Stormcloud archives even more of a disaster zone. But in the process, I’d found what I needed—or at least the start of it.

“Biba,” I called down the stairs, “get up here.”

“No, you come down here.”

“I’m serious. We need to talk.”

As soon as she stomped upstairs in sweats and sneakers, her shiny blonde hair bunched up with a scrunchie, I could tell she wanted me out. Too bad—I needed to brief her.

“I found it,” I said. “I found the smoking gun.”

“We need to leave, Theo. It’s a miracle no one’s discovered you up here. Amelia will be back on campus soon—”

“You’re not listening—”

“No, you’re not.”

“Look at this!”

I slapped five stapled pages down on a decrepit, stained oak table between us and handed her my flashlight.

She looked at me, then the paper, then me again.

“What is this?”

I was coming out of my skin at that point, but I held it together.

“This is a sworn statement given by a student called Scamarcio regarding the disappearance of someone with the initials E.V. It’s dated March 10, 1985. As best I can tell, this is the only copy here, and it’s redacted to hell. I only know any of the players because they are mentioned in Gail’s father’s student record.”

“I’m very confused.”

“Listen, this is big. This Scamarcio guy testified that some students at Stormcloud were involved in E.V.’s disappearance. Gail’s father was a co-signer on this statement, as was someone else. From what I can tell, this paper was the culmination of a big investigation, and at the end of it, a lot of kids got expelled. Again, their names are blacked out, so I don’t know exactly, but. . . .”

The longer I talked, the antsier Biba grew. Her eyes darted back down the stairs.

“Are you even listening?” I asked incredulously.

“Yeah,” she replied, “but we need to go.”

“Don’t you care how close I got to solving the crime?”

“I didn’t ask you to solve anything. In fact, I asked you to stop trying to solve shit!”

“Do you even care that this paper, right here, might be the answer to why Gail and her parents were killed?”

“Killed by who? A bunch of blacked-out names?”

She sounded frantic, hysterical. I’d gotten us closer than we’d ever been to solving things, and she was panicking that some Stormcloud administrator would reprimand us. I needed to make her understand, so I stormed around the table and took hold of her by the arms. She tried to shrug me off, but I refused to let go. She was going to listen if I had to shake the reality into her.

“Those blacked-out names murdered her and tried to murder you and me!”

“Let me go!”

“I will not. This is too fucking important. Why won’t you lift a finger to help me? Are you so determined to protect Zephyr and the Kings that you don’t care about Gail—?”

I felt a sharp sting as Biba’s palm collided with my face. I released her. The rage disappeared from my brain, but even in the half-light, I could see she was livid.

“Get out,” she snapped.

“Biba, I—”

“I don’t want to be in a room with you again, Theo. Not ever. Now go.”

I had no response. I’d stepped over a line and couldn’t step back. All I could do was walk away down the stairs, leaving her alone in the darkness.

CHAPTER 15

BIBA

Zephyr had only been gone about two weeks, and I’d just started to grow accustomed to solitude. This was, after all, an isolation of my own invention. There were plenty of people at Stormcloud that would love to be connected with Zephyr’s girl, but I didn’t need hangers-on.

Not like Arvo. He was reveling in his role as the interim ruler of the school. Zephyr had placed him in charge, and he’d consolidated all control immediately. Sol was nowhere to be seen. Most days, Arvo strolled the halls with an entourage of freshmen trailing behind him. He was insufferably imperious, but his tyranny was pretty much harmless. Mostly, he just seemed to be nosing around everyone’s business. Who was sleeping together? Who’d broken up? Who was up, and who was down?

And he checked in on me every day, just to make sure I was taken care of in Zephyr’s absence. These check-ins were supposed to be friendly, but everything about Arvo’s demeanor made them seem menacing. Even asking if I needed something from the village market sounded like a gross insinuation. I always just said I was fine.

The fact of the matter was that, despite myself, I missed Zephyr. He wasn’t the sweetest man in the world, but he made me feel alive. Just taking his hand in the hallway between classes made me feel like I was being dragged along on an adventure. I would summon the image of his devilish smirk many times each day and make myself breathless. With him gone, I had an aching need building within me, one I’d never felt before. It was both spiritual and primal. It simultaneously felt like only Zeph could satisfy this need and like I should take hold of the first man I desired.

Yet even so, my mind was consumed with that horrid interchange I had with Theo in the archives. How fucking dare he speak to me that way? Who did he think he was?

The memory of his hands on my shoulders and his self-righteous needling still pissed me off days later. Yet I couldn’t get out of my mind the story he’d told me of the redacted expulsions, the disappearance, and that ominous sworn statement buried away in the archives. Theo had thought I was distracted or worried about being caught, but really, I’d been looking away to avoid meeting his eyes. His discovery had utterly captivated me, and I’d known that if I looked at him—really looked—I would drop everything else and begin my investigation with him anew.

And how long would it be before one of us turned up dead?

Still, I couldn’t leave this alone. I’d just have to snoop around in secret without him.

My first step would be contacting Gail’s aunt and uncle, an act I’d put off far too long. I still lacked the courage to call them, to hear their heartbroken voices. So I decided to write them a letter.

Thomas and Mary,

I don’t know how to begin this letter except by saying I’m sorry. I’m sorry for how long it’s taken me to reach out and for the fact that I’m doing so by letter.

Mostly, though, I’m sorry for Gail. I can partly imagine your pain only because I feel something like it too. Gail was my dear friend, the best person I met here at Stormcloud Academy. Not having her near me anymore is sometimes unbearable. Her absence is beyond painful. There is no replacement for the light she brought.

I worry that we’ll never really know what happened to Gail, but I have resolved to try to understand.

I suppose I need to say I’m sorry again. I’m sorry that I must ask you to help me.

When the four of us were in Evian Les Bains together (a wonderful memory that seems a lifetime ago), you mentioned that Gail’s father came into conflict with some influential students at Stormcloud. In my research, I have discovered that he and two other students signed a statement accusing some classmates of involvement with a disappearance. This resulted in expulsions, but I cannot seem to find the names of the expelled students.

I firmly believe that this incident likely played a role in Gail’s death. I need to know who the students were that Douglas crossed. Is there any light you can shed on this?

Again, it is impossible to express my sorrow and regret for what happened to Gail. I hope you can bring yourselves to speak to me, but I understand if you cannot. Just know that you both are—as is Gail—forever in my heart.

Sincerely,

Biba Quinn

It was maudlin, self-pitying, and perhaps indelicate, but it was the best I could manage. On a Friday night, I folded the letter-stock, slipped it into an envelope, and placed it in the mail with enough postage to get it to Cornwall. Then I returned to my room.

Alone. It was my natural state at that point. I’d have liked to have some confidante in those days, but all candidates were either pissed at me, creeping on me, in Morocco, or dead. Much as it pained me, I was on my own.

Or was I?

Just as I’d settled into a high-quality bout of self-pity, a frantic rapping hit the door. It made me flinch. After all, I was only in this room because Zephyr had insisted I stay there. The only other person I could imagine having the balls to call on me here was Arvo, and the idea of letting him in at midnight while I was by myself . . . well, that wasn’t going to happen.

The knocking continued. For a couple of minutes, I debated what to do. What was the worst thing that could happen if I peeked through a crack in the door?

A knife in the heart, Biba, my logical brain told me.

I grabbed a pair of sharp scissors and gingerly approached the door. I hesitated a moment, debating whether I could actually defend myself against an attack, then decided I was being paranoid. Even so, I latched the chain before cracking the door.

It was Sol. I almost didn’t recognize him. His face was a mass of bruises and swelling.

“Biba,” he groaned through broken lips. “Please let me in.”

I did, as fast as my shaking hands would permit. As I opened the door, he stumbled inside. He was a bloody mess. His black t-shirt was torn at the neck, and there was a smear of drying blood on his nose. And Christ, that perfect nose of his was pointing just to the left, the cartilage cracked along the bridge. One eye was all but invisible under puffy black and blue skin.

Sol walked slowly, in halting paces. At first, I thought he’d broken a foot, but he was just exhausted.

“I ran,” he panted, “from the other side of campus. I didn’t know where else to go.”

“What happened?” I asked as he slumped down heavily on the bed.

“I was jumped. Isn’t it obvious?”

“By whom?”

He shook his head helplessly. “I don’t know. One guy. He was masked.”

The first thought that leaped to mind was my assailant from the end of the last term. But it couldn’t be the same person. I’d watched that bastard fall into a crevasse.

“Here.” I placed a cool, wet cloth on his cheek.

He let out a pained groan that morphed into a sigh. “Thanks, that’s nice.”

“Tell me what happened.”

“Not much to tell. I was walking by the outer wall on the eastern edge. Just walking and thinking, and then I hear footsteps behind me, coming fast. As I turned, a big log hit me in the face, knocked me out cold. When I came to, a masked guy was on top of me, punching me. I begged him to stop, and he did. Told me next time, he would end me. Said I needed to leave campus immediately.”

I held my tongue. I wanted to tell him he needed to stand his ground and fight, but part of me knew that wasn’t possible. Anyway, he had a request.

“It was a Kings action. I know—a warning. I should have nipped this in the bud months ago, but I was an idiot.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean . . . you’re my only hope, Biba. I need to talk to Arvo or Zephyr, set the record straight about . . . whatever they think I’ve done.”

“Zephyr’s gone. You know that.”

“Then just Arvo. I seriously don’t care. I could be killed anytime, so . . . maybe I need to run.”

“Do what you feel you have to, but I can’t get involved.”

I said that firmly but didn’t really mean it. Sol had only ever shown me small kindnesses, but at Stormcloud Academy, small kindnesses meant a lot. And staring at his battered face, I felt something stir within me.

I remembered Theo, bloody and half-dead on the night of the Equinox Ball.

I remembered the flash of a serrated knife in the moonlight and a deep voice intoning, “Time to die, Biba Quinn.”

I remembered a beautiful, slight girl with unruly brown hair strung up by her broken neck.

This is one of those moments, I realized, when you can do something, Biba. You don’t have to watch someone you care for getting executed in slow motion.

And I realized, deep down, that there was no distance Sol could run where he’d be in the clear. Whoever wanted him dead would find him.

“Don’t go,” I whispered.

“What?”

“Don’t run yet. Give me a day to see if I can fix this.”

I ran some steaming hot water over a washcloth. What was I doing? I wasn’t a nurse and couldn’t heal Sol’s wounds. And if anyone saw him come in here, both our gooses were cooked. But I felt compelled to try and ease his pain.

“Can you raise your arms?”

He nodded, then stifled a cry of agony as he lifted his elbows above his shoulders. I carefully took hold of his shirt and pulled it over his head. That lean runner’s torso, already adorned with ornate crosses and winding serpents, now had blotches of blue and brown.

“Lie back,” I commanded, placing four pillows behind him.

He reclined and shut his eyes, almost panting with the effort. I took the hot compress and pressed it on his bruises. His sinewy abdomen quivered against the pressure. He let out a moan, both pained and sated.

“That good?” I asked with my eyes locked on his battered flesh.

He grunted yes and looked deep into my eyes. I felt I should tell him how much he meant to me at that moment, but I didn’t have a chance. He fell asleep instantly. I remained awake, just to monitor his breathing—and because there was no way in hell I could sleep.

The whole night, I gazed into Sol’s serene face. He’d trusted me enough to fall asleep by my side. And, it appeared, I’d trusted him enough to let him into this room—just him and me, alone and together.

CHAPTER 16

BIBA

First things first—there had to be a way around Arvo. My concern was whether there were any other levers I could pull to help Sol, any alternatives to stooping before the prince of creepiness.

Unfortunately, I came up blank.

Zephyr was the only alternative, and he was gone. Like, 100 percent off the grid. I didn’t even have a phone number to reach him. Arvo was the only avenue to help Sol, which meant I was in for an unpleasant meeting of the minds.

This also begged the question: did I fully believe Sol? He was a King. He’d thrown in his lot with Zephyr and Arvo, and I knew better than to take either of those guys at their word. I had seen the lengths the Kings would go to get their way. So why should I just believe Sol? Because he carried my bags one time? Because he remembered the kind of tea I liked?

No, it was because he trusted me. In a moment of all-encompassing fear, he’d come to me. I intended to prove worthy of that trust.

Anyway, the person that had beat Sol the night before was determined to break his body and spirit. Sol was lucky to be alive. He couldn’t have faked that to manipulate me, so I had to proceed under the assumption that he was on the wrong side of a killer or group of killers, which made him a natural ally in my investigation.

There was only one surefire way I could contact Arvo. The gym. No one in the history of this school, for maybe all of human existence, worked out more than him.

That particular afternoon, he wasn’t at the weights and cardio machines. I nearly turned around—then I heard a crash, the sound of a hard body hitting the water.

I hung back a bit, enjoying the show. In the pool, Arvo Hurley was a revelation. Those absurdly long, muscular arms flung wide like the wings of an eagle. He rose and submerged with the speed of a racing heart, sending chlorinated spray in all directions. It was like his lithe, sinewy body was created by a higher power only for competitive swimming.

That body looked as gorgeous as ever, though I saw it only when he rose from the water. He wore a swim cap, goggles, and a tiny speedo. That was it. And each time he emerged from the pool, his back arched and his shoulders flexed like he was writhing on top of Tess. Or me. The view brought all sorts of naughty thoughts to mind. . . .

After a minute, I collected myself, walked to the pool's edge, and waited for him to notice me.

He completed a lap and settled at the side of the pool near me. Freeing his short blond hair from his cap and tossing his goggles on the tile, he gave me a look of benign annoyance.

“Biba Quinn,” he said. “Why are you here?”

“Looking for you,” I replied sweetly.

“You know, I spent so much of the last two weeks trying to help you out, and you blew me off. Now you feel the need to interrupt my rare personal time. It’s not considerate.”

God, he became so fatuous in such a short amount of time.

“It couldn’t wait,” I said. “I’m afraid it’s something of an emergency.”

“You’d better come out with it, then.”

I took a deep breath.

“It’s about Sol. He was beaten last night—”

“He should be more careful,” Arvo shot back, cold as ice.

If Arvo was behind the attack, it didn’t seem to be weighing on him. On the contrary, he seemed to relish in his cruel detachment.

“He’s concerned there is a misunderstanding between you and him.”

“Let him come to me, then.”

“He doesn’t feel . . . totally safe doing that.”

“That’s absurd,” he groaned, “and also none of your business.”

“It’s my business if Kings start trying to kill each other. You and Sol need to sit down and figure this out.”

Arvo waded back to the opposite side of the pool and hitched his arms up. He looked at me like I was a less-than-compelling movie.

“You know, Biba,” he said. “You’re not in a position to be asking favors of me.”

“What would make you . . . more amenable to my request?”

His tongue burrowed in his cheek, a signal that he was thinking—and his thoughts were not wholesome.

“All I want,” he said at last, “is a little equity in this exchange.”

“Meaning?”

“You’re up there, towering above me. It just doesn’t seem fair, does it? Why don’t you join me in the water?”

I sighed. “I don’t have a suit.”

“I didn’t ask if you did.”

What a creep. I had to dig a fingernail into my palm to calm my boiling indignation. It would have felt nice to tell him to go to hell, but that would get me nothing. Getting in the pool was a small concession to keep him on the line, and having me stripped down and wet might keep him talking for a while. So much the better to convince him to bury the hatchet with Sol.

So I flashed Arvo a smirk and peeled off my blouse. I kicked off my sneakers and socks and unzipped my jeans. As luck would have it, I was wearing my most utilitarian gray cotton bra and undies. I slid into the warm liquid.

Arvo clicked his tongue in disappointment.

“That’s it?”

“Did you expect a show?”

“More of one.”

“Play your cards right, Hurley, and we’ll see.”

I was vamping a bit in the water, wiggling my hips like a burlesque performer. It was all for his benefit. The more I played it up, the more control I had over the situation.

I couldn’t have total control, though. I was enjoying it too much. More perilously, I was kind of hoping Arvo would call my bluff. Those glistening, wet muscles and that unseemly grin gave me tiny tingles all over.

He kicked off the wall and slowly drifted toward me. I kept my back against the tile, and my foot braced on the floor. I was in the shallow end and wanted to be able to kick off and run if I needed to.

“Give me your pitch, Quinn,” he drawled, approaching.

“I don’t know what your problem with Sol is, but the whole thing has gone too far. He got the shit beat out of him last night. If something happens to him while Zephyr is gone, there will be hell to pay when he comes back.”

“Is that so?”

“Uh-huh.”

“I don’t agree, and unlike you, I’ve talked to Zephyr. Recently. I know what he wants.”

“This isn’t good for the Kings. Disunity, suspicion, in-fighting—this is how Schmidt will divide you guys. And what happens then?”

By that point, Arvo was inches from me. He placed a hand on the ledge of the pool on either side of my body, locking me where I was. I began to fear I’d miscalculated.

“Biba, dear,” he whispered, “I’m going to do you the favor of pretending we never had this talk. You don’t want to side with Stamos.”

“Now listen—”

“Shhhh. . . .”

Arvo’s breath was warm against my ear. It sent a shiver through me. We were close but not touching. His breath was the only contact, and I hate to admit, it felt nice.

Then he leaned closer, so his hot lips just barely grazed my earlobe.

“Sol Stamos,” he breathed, “is not what he seems.”

“What is he?” I replied, panting.

“A liar. You have no idea.”

All at once, Arvo’s hard, smooth body was against mine, pressing tight on my goose-pimpled flesh. I could feel him growing inside his constraining spandex. His hips gently undulated in the water, rubbing that growing cock against my inner thigh. For my part, I held fast to the wall, willing myself not to enjoy this glorious sensation. But it drove me wild nonetheless.

“I can show you,” he went on, “the danger you’re in. You have no idea how close you are to catastrophe. I can protect you, Biba. Don’t you think Zephyr would want that?”

“I—I don’t . . . I—”

This was out of my control. I couldn’t resist any longer. Arvo’s dewy, hairless chest was right against my cheek. One of his hands slid down the tile and found my waist.

Almost involuntarily, I stuck out my tongue and licked the water from Arvo’s chest. His skin was salty. I did it again. Oh, fuck, his other hand was on my shoulder strap, pulling it down. I was touching his perfect washboard abs, letting my fingertips trace the lining on his tiny swimsuit. I could feel the tip of his huge cock pressing hard against the material.

“Let me protect you, Biba.”

Suddenly, he pulled down one side of my bra and savagely twisted my taut nipple.

I screamed out, but my cry was stopped by his mouth. Then we were devouring each other, tumbling against each other in the water. My legs wrapped around his torso so I could grind myself against his steel. His back was a tangle of ropey muscles, flexing under my hands.

What was I doing? Was it really just that Arvo was hot and I was lonely?

No, it couldn’t be. I’d been feeling this since the beginning of term, since the night I saw him brilliantly fucking Tess in the greenhouse. I’d known that night I needed his big hands touching me, massaging me, opening me. I needed that big, beautiful dick between my lips and deep inside me.

I needed to taste his mouth. And so I was, right there in the Stormcloud pool where anyone could walk in.

“Yes,” I gasped as he nibbled and sucked on my neck. “Oh, yes, Arvo. God, that feels so fucking nice.”

I felt his hand release my breast and plunge down between our bodies. He was pulling down his suit to free that giant hard-on.

He was going to fuck me right there in the water.

Not now, Biba, my mind warned me. If you do it now, you get nothing. Sol will die, and Zephyr will find out.

“No,” I heard myself say, as much to my conscience as to him.

“What?” he grunted.

Be smart, Biba. This is a dangerous game. You have to be smart.

My hands were on his chest, pushing myself away. Arvo only had one arm around me. Even if he wanted to hold me to him, he couldn’t. He didn’t resist, though, and he let me go.

Maybe it was part of the game for him. Perhaps it dawned on him that he was about to fuck Zephyr’s lady without his permission.

Whatever the reason, he let me flee. I climbed out of the pool and grabbed my clothes and a towel from the communal shelf. I wrapped myself up as best I could and ran at a full sprint back to my room.

There were probably students gawking at me as I ran—dripping and panting and wearing only a towel—back to my bedroom.

Not Zephyr’s. Mine. I couldn’t be in his room for what came next.

My head was foggy, unfocused. I had nothing in my mind except the need to get off. Whatever the reason for my attraction to Arvo, it was a fucking dam bursting within me then.

Still soaked and smelling of chlorine, I slammed the door behind me, dropped my towel, and flopped face down onto the bed.

Left hand down the wet briefs, pressing firmly against my aching cunt. I thrust my hips hard against my fingers and moaned.

In my mind, Arvo was fucking me from behind, grasping my hair, pushing my face into the mattress. Bringing us both to the limits of filthy pleasure.

I wanted it to be real so fucking bad.

CHAPTER 17

ZEPHYR

For reasons beyond understanding, there was an actual glass-box payphone plonked down at Slip 18 on the western pier at Williams Maritime’s dock in Tangier Med. That was my one point of connection from Tangier to Stormcloud.

On my first day at Tangier Med, I hauled over to a hanut in town and bought, like, twenty prepaid phone cards. And every night, I dialed forty numbers into the payphone and made a call to Arvo’s room to get the latest news from Stormcloud. To hear him tell it, Sol had mostly stopped hiding his contempt. He would regularly disappear from campus, coincidentally during the same time that Dean Schmidt was gone.

Every call, I had to talk Arvo out of ripping Sol’s fingernails out with pliers. Things were falling apart in my absence.

I was still happy to have Arvo running the show while I saw to the docks. This situation had clarified shit for me. You can’t have two equal lieutenants. One will always be more loyal. One will turn on you sooner or later.

Caesar learned this with Pompey. Lenin with Trotsky. You had to be ready for the betrayal and have the backbone to knife the motherfucker before he killed you. I wasn’t prepared to cut Sol’s throat yet, but inside, I accepted it would happen sooner or later. I just needed to reconcile that to myself.

In that regard, being exiled on a commercial dock in northern Africa was a blessing of sorts. It allowed me distance from the Stormcloud drama. It helped me analyze the flaws in my leadership and determine solutions.

It also freed me from the distraction of Biba Quinn. After I’d hopped on my dad’s Cessna two weeks ago, I’d told myself I would not entertain the idea of speaking with Biba until shit was in order at Tangier Med.

When I’d arrived at the dock, it was pandemonium. Guys were running around shouting to each other in twenty different languages. Half the cranes were dead still. With a little supplemental help, I’d cleared some of the shipping congestion. In a few more weeks, I might be able to have things running like normal, which would make Dad happy and buy my ticket back to school.

So it was at the end of week two, with some of the slips actually vacant, that I decided to reward myself with a call to Biba on the payphone at Slip 18.

The sun was on the cusp of setting. Already the marina was illuminated with hundreds of white streetlamps and extra-powerful lights on the cranes. I dialed the code on the back of my scratch-off phone card and followed with Biba’s number.

The call had to be done at the payphone, just like my calls with Arvo. My relationship with her was just as confidential, at least as far as my family was concerned.

After an endless series of clicks and chirps, it started ringing.

When Dad had caught wind of Biba’s arrival at Stormcloud, he’d made a point to take me aside and warn me to steer clear of her.

Quinns cannot be trusted, he’d said. They had interfered with Williams business in the past, and they would do so again.

I had agreed with him wholeheartedly. I’d made a point of scorching her the moment she arrived on campus. It was a thing of beauty, honestly. We’d isolated her, doused her in piss, and made every waking moment of her life miserable. To top it off, I’d torched whatever school-kid courtship she and Theo had in the most fun way possible, making her gargle my cock at the Equinox Ball. That should have shattered her past the point of reassembly.

Turns out I didn’t know Biba Quinn.

She was the most resilient, unyielding chick I’d ever seen. She’d busted my balls from day one and never let up. That should have pissed me off, but it didn’t. It intrigued me.

More than that, it turned me the fuck on.

Still ringing.

Dad would lose his mind if he knew the girl sharing my bed was a Quinn. He detested that family. It was always a matter of them versus us.

The Williams were doers. We built an empire and had a responsibility to expand it.

The Quinns were parasites. They tried to destroy great men like us because they were incapable of accomplishing anything in their own lives.

That was the line I’d received from an early age, but Biba Quinn didn’t seem to fit this description. She had more steel in her spine than most of the men in my family. I could easily see how she would piss off my dad. But goddamn if I didn’t go to sleep each night wishing she was in bed with me.

No answer. Fucking weird.

I dialed again and waited. In the distance, I could see the old stone structures of the casbah, the ziggurats and domes. Purple and blue lights flashed in the windows of discotheques.

Again, no answer. I called Arvo. He could track her down and tell her to pick up her goddamned phone. But he didn’t answer either.

What the fuck was happening?

Was I some fucking afterthought to the Kings while I was abroad?

I stormed away from the booth and paced down the dock.

I couldn’t help but let my mind wander to dark places. I knew what I tended to do when a girl was away. I mean, before Biba, the idea of fidelity was laughable. I got my dick wet with a couple of girls a day. If a girl got clingy, I made a point of letting her walk in on some other chick sucking me off—preferably a friend of hers, so that she knew what was what.

Which begged the question: what was stopping Biba from hopping on fresh meat in my absence?

As soon as I’d entertained the notion, it was all I could think about. Biba bent over the desk in my room, her jeans pulled down to her thighs while Theo Brant railed her from behind. I heard her moaning his name. I saw that pompous little shit grabbing her tits, slapping her ass, and then grinning like a shitbird as he blew his load all over my room and my girl.

As a scenario, it might be unlikely. But I’d conjured it, and it wasn’t going away. The idea was living rent-free in my mind.

And it was going to drive me crazy.

CHAPTER 18

BIBA

There was no reason under heaven or earth that I should’ve felt guilty about what happened with Arvo. The only injured party was Zephyr, and he was not exactly an unblemished innocent. Besides, the pool was not the first time I’d gotten up close and personal with Arvo Hurley. I’d done far more with him and Sol in the Kings’ Hall while Zephyr watched us and then joined in. He’d arranged that whole sordid affair.

So why did I feel guilty about the pool?

It had been a cycle of guilt from the moment I fled Arvo’s grasp a week ago. No sooner had I returned to my room and, shall we say, relieved my frustration than I rolled over, picked up my phone, and realized I’d missed two calls from an unknown number in Morocco.

Whoever could that have been?

I hadn’t tried contacting Zeph back because I’d felt terrible for reasons I couldn’t articulate. He’d called again two days later, and again, I hadn’t picked up, which made me feel even worse.

I couldn’t talk to Zephyr because I felt guilty, and I felt guilty for not talking to Zeph.

It fed on itself.

So there I was. More alone than ever. I was avoiding Arvo and his toadies like the plague. Meanwhile, Theo was avoiding me. Sol was avoiding the world, and I couldn’t make myself answer Zephyr’s calls.

Even Amelia was canceling our shifts. She said I needed to focus on my studies. I needed an actual human interaction in my life. Anything to feel like an ordinary girl again. Then it hit me. . . .

“Oh, wow. If it ain’t the lady of the manor.”

Buffy Worthington. My first Stormcloud roomie for all of 72 hours. We hadn’t ended on the best of terms. I had a bowl of urine poured over my head in our room, and I could never be sure whether Buffy had helped arrange it.

At the time, it’d seemed likely she was in on it, so I’d said some unkind things. With the benefit of hindsight, I was probably unfair to her.

Anyway, I felt doubly bad for her. She’d been one of the kids who’d discovered Gail’s body; she’d run to tell me. That was months ago, and I hadn’t spoken to her since. So that night, a week after my aborted tryst with Arvo, I’d knocked on her door, desperately seeking a confidante.

“Mind if I come in?” I asked sweetly.

Buffy screwed up her face, but it was hard for her to seem stern with those chipmunk cheeks and porcelain doll curls.

“Take a load off, hon,” she replied nonchalantly.

“I’m not interrupting anything, am I?”

We settled on opposite beds, and Buffy reached behind her bed to pull out an unlabeled bottle containing dark amber liquid.

“What,” I guffawed, “is that?”

“This here, little princess, is the Worthington inheritance. It’s a corn mash whiskey aged for the better part of twenty years on charred oak with a metric ton of peaches from our orchard. It kisses like an angel and kicks like a mule, and if you’re nice, I might even let you have a sniff.”

“I’m a little afraid. It’s not gonna make me go blind, is it?”

“Darling, if this stuff hit the open market, people would mortgage their homes for a bottle.”

Sure enough, the hooch Buffy gave me tasted like a cobbler and made me dizzy after one sip. It loosened us both up and got us chatting, and I remembered how fun it was to be with her, at least when things were going well.

“Now tell me, girl,” she said conspiratorially, “how in the ever-loving hell did you and Zephyr Williams end up an item? After everything that happened!”

“I . . . well, honestly, I’m not sure I can explain it. Our courtship is not a fairy tale. It’s seriously messed up, to put it politely.”

“I figured you were gonna get chewed up and spit out like dumb Erin Holland. But here you are after everything, living in his room.”

“I’d like to say he’s nicer than people think, but shit—he’s really not.”

“Must be damned good between the sheets, then.”

“You don’t know the half of it,” I chuckled.

“You doing okay with him being gone so long?”

I thought for a second. The diplomatic answer was, Yes, of course. I miss him horribly. But despite our estrangement, I felt enduring respect for Buffy and didn’t want to lie.

“I’m fine, I guess. It’s not that long, all told, and . . . there are other people at the school.”

“Theo Brant?” she asked excitedly.

“No,” I replied. Then I had to ask, “Why did you assume Theo and me—?”

“Oh, you know. There’s always been something about you two. From the day you got here, y’know. It’s like he looks out for you.”

“He sure acts like he does,” I hedged, then took a sip of Buffy’s sweet southern fire. “It’s not as simple as that, though. He doesn’t want to just protect me from the things I’m afraid of. He wants to protect me from the things I like.”

Buffy thought about this for a minute, then broke out laughing.

“Well damn, Biba. That’s every boy, ain’t it?”

“How do you mean?”

“They want every part of you, from your brain to the nethers. Even the good ones can’t stand the notion of their girl having an urge he doesn’t control.”

I had to admit—Buffy was more intelligent than I’d remembered. It wasn’t like I thought she was dumb, but . . . her insights were keener than the bubbly debutante airs she put on.

“Any-who,” she sighed, “if Zephyr isn’t back by Halloween, I say you take Theo to the ball. Give your other stud a loop round the pavilion.”

“Lord, Zeph would lose his mind if I took Theo to—hang on, there’s another costume ball?”

“Of course, there is!”

“The fuck, Buffy? How many balls does this place have?”

“Not as many as it should. I mean, for real, what else are we supposed to do? A bunch of beautiful rich folk stuck up in the mountain?”

She went on to describe, in giddy detail, the All Hallows Bonfire. If the Equinox Ball was all coyness and propriety, Halloween was pure sin. Revealing costumes, reckless dancing, and a wild culmination around a huge midnight pyre.

I had to admit, it sounded bitchin’.

I wanted all the details. Hell, I wanted to get planning my tawdry costume right away. Even if my guy was out of the country, and I was supposed to be on my best behavior, I wanted—

I felt a buzzing in my pocket. I must have been Zeph.

With Buffy’s potent whiskey zipping around my bloodstream, I figured I might have the courage to talk to him.

But when I pulled out my phone, I saw that the number wasn’t coming from Morocco. It was coming from England.

“Biba, love,” came Thomas Monfort’s deep Cornwall accent. “Are you there?”

His voice sounded small. Not weak, though. He greeted me as one might talk to a small child or a kitten.

“Yes,” I answered, just as small. I stood alone in the hall outside Buffy’s room in bare feet.

“How are you, Biba?”

“I’m . . . uh, I’m okay, I guess.”

“We got your letter. It meant the world, and, well, we’re so sorry we didn’t call you earlier.”

“No, I’m sorry. I really should have—”

“It’s not your job, dear,” he said firmly. “That’s why I had to call now, straight away after reading your letter. Mary would have called, but it’s still all a bit raw for her. She will call soon enough.

“Regardless, I needed to tell you . . . this isn’t your job, Biba, finding Gail’s killer. I’ve lost just about every person that matters to me besides Mary, and I long ago accepted that justice is a nice thought . . . but it doesn’t happen all that often. I’ve driven myself halfway mad, fixating on my brother’s death and now Gail’s. I don’t want you to waste your youth obsessing about it like I have.”

I stood dumbly for a moment, trying to bring myself to thank him and then just move on. But I wouldn’t. I couldn’t.

“Mr. Monfort,” I said, feeling somewhat ridiculous at the formality, “do you remember what your wife said about Evian Les Bains when we were at dinner last spring? How it was the town where Victor Frankenstein had his honeymoon?”

“I do, now that you mention it.”

“I didn’t say it then, but . . . do you know how that ends?”

“’Fraid not.”

“The monster—Frankenstein’s monster—finds him there and kills his bride. Victor follows the monster to the ends of the earth after that. He wants revenge, yes, but he also needs to stamp out the evil he brought into the world. What Gail and I uncovered at Stormcloud . . . that awoke a monster here. It killed her, but I have to stop it. I’m sorry, but I have to. I need you to help me.”

The line was silent for a moment, and then I heard him sigh.

“I can’t stop you, I suppose. I knew that before I ever called.”

“When your brother was here, there were expulsions. Some students were thrown out for a crime. Douglas signed a statement against them. Please tell me he told you something.”

“He did. It was a love triangle, I recall. Nothing to do with Doug except that he was close to one of the boys. It turned violent. The girl disappeared. That’s all I can recall.”

“Who were the expelled students?” I asked. My hand shook with anticipation.

“I don’t know their names. But I do know . . . Biba, in your time at Stormcloud Academy, have you heard of a group called the Kings?”

CHAPTER 19

BIBA

One convenient thing about committing yourself to take down a former King is that they tend to be easy to find. After all, we’re talking about the cream that sits atop all humanity. These men don’t hide.

They stand astride the narrow world like a colossus.

So the night after my fateful conversation with Thomas Monfort, I didn’t go back up to the ancient archives of Stormcloud Academy. Instead, I went to the school’s surprisingly modern library. There, I looked through books arranged in a discernible order and even had access to the internet!

My targets were the Kings that ran Stormcloud when Gail’s father and mine went to school here. And I decided to research the most famous of them first.

Peter Williams. Zephyr’s father.

The library had a decent amount of information about him right there on the shelves. Born outside Philadelphia in 1964, the son of a Senator and a mining heiress. He was raised at the top of the Pennsylvania elite in the late 60s and early 70s. The Williams family counted the Barneses and the Duponts among their closest friends. Peter went away in 1982 to attend Stormcloud.

At least, that’s what the official Stormcloud publications said. If I looked at anything written from outside the school—The Wall Street Journal, for example, or Fortune—the years that young Peter spent here were a limbo. He just . . . disappeared from this world and then returned two years later.

Two years, I thought. He was only gone two. . . . By 1985, Peter was back stateside.

More importantly, a couple of profiles indicated that the Williams family had faced comparatively hard times upon Peter’s return. His father’s campaign money dried up suddenly, and he lost re-election. His mother sold most of her family’s mines for pennies on the dollar.

It was almost like Peter was kicked out of school, and his parents’ bank accounts were drained simultaneously.

“Interesting choice for research, Miss Quinn,” an arrogant, sonorous voice growled over me.

I yelped in shock. Behind me hovered Professor Gianas. He stared down at my many opened articles.

“As great alumni of Stormcloud go,” he continued, “Peter Williams is middling.”

“In your opinion,” I replied, trying to draw him out.

“His success is significant but narrow. It can be measured by the balances of his bank accounts and no other way. No one will remember the tenth richest man in the world, not even when he tries so hard to be memorable.”

Gianas stared hard into my eyes, and I did my best to conceal my discomfort with the conversation.

“Is that what you came here to tell me, Professor?”

“I saw you there, pouring over the biggest minnow in the modern pond, and I thought to myself, ‘Such a smart girl with so little vision.’ A man like Peter Williams only matters in relation to those greater men he strives to be.”

“Who are the greater men?”

“The ones I discuss every class, Miss Quinn—who changed the course of history and whose riches endow this school.”

Staring up at Gianas, my mind strained to understand his meaning.

“Also,” he continued, “I saw you studying so intently and thought it best to warn you to put away your books. Mr. Hurley is on his way in.”

My eyes shot up in alarm. Gianas was right. Arvo was standing in the vestibule next to the librarian’s station. Dressed in a form-fitting polo and a pair of equally snug gray denim trousers, he scanned the room, presumably for me. Gianas and I were mostly hidden on the second level. We could see Arvo from above, but it would take a moment for him to spot us.

For whatever reason, Gianas chose to help me. He closed the books on the table before me and tucked them under his arm.

“Good day, Miss Quinn.”

He crossed paths with Arvo on the stairwell. Between the professor’s marked girth and Arvo’s broad shoulders, they almost didn’t make it. Arvo gave him an annoyed scowl and proceeded to my table.

For a few seconds, Arvo and I stood in silence, regarding each other. This was our first time alone together since the pool. I hadn’t a clue what he was about to say or what I could possibly answer. We heard the door latch shut as Gianas exited.

“I don’t know why you felt the need to speak up on behalf of Sol Stamos,” Arvo said, “but it only seems fair that you have the full story on him.”

He placed a single sheet of paper on the table and slid it across to me. It was a receipt for a wire transfer from a Stamos family account to the bursar of Stormcloud Academy. The sum was huge, in the low eight-figures. The wire had been made last year, on the same date as my admission letter. There was also a memo: Tuition of B.Q.

“Is this—?”

“You know what it is.”

“But why?”

“Revenge, Biba. Sol’s father was a King in the 1980s. He was wrongfully expelled for a crime he didn’t commit. The dishonor tore at him, and he shot himself in the head when Sol was a child. For some reason, Sol’s mother blamed your family for the expulsion.”

The bottom dropped out inside me. I felt empty and like I might vomit all at once. This didn’t make sense. Or did it? I’d focused on Peter Williams first, but maybe Dimitri Stamos was the way I should have gone after. Only he was dead.

“You’re saying,” I whispered, nearly tripping over my syllables, “that Sol paid my way here so . . . he could kill me?”

“Zephyr and I only figured out after the fact. Z’s dad had to put in a lot more cash to grease the rest of the board. They were pissed when they heard you were coming.”

“Why?”

“They saw the writing on the wall, a Stamos and a Williams paying to bring Harry Quinn’s only kid to Stormcloud. Whatever came of that would not be good.”

“I don’t get it, though. Sol paid all that money to get me here. . . . Why am I still alive?”

Arvo shrugged as blithely as if I’d asked what they were serving for supper.

“Sol still hates you,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe the shit he’s said about you and your father. Maybe he’ll kill you tonight. Maybe next week. Maybe he has something worse in mind. Z’s gone for a few more weeks. Let me ask you this: have you been alone with Sol recently?”

I didn’t reply, but my mind went back to two weeks ago when Sol had shown up at my door, bloody and seemingly frightened. I’d spent the whole night with him alone. It was impossible to think of him with distrust. He just . . . seemed to be completely open with me. I wasn’t a babe in the woods; I would know if Sol was playing me, and he wasn’t. . . .

He wasn’t.

Arvo shook his head. “A little chloroform, Biba. There are plenty of secret spaces in these mountains. He could chain you up, leave you naked in the cold, torture you. . . .”

He was fucking with me, and it was starting to work. My voice was stuck somewhere deep inside me, and I couldn’t free it. So I stood up and fled feebly to one of the shadowy nooks between two bookshelves. I faced the wall, hiding the pain and terror I could no longer keep from my face.

“Of course,” he continued, pursuing me, “it wouldn’t be so hard to neutralize Stamos before he could do any of that.”

“What do you mean?” I whimpered, feeling him closing in on me.

“You know.”

“If you want to do that, then just do it.”

“I have a hundred reasons to put Sol Stamos’s light out,” he whispered, “but I’ll only do it if you give the word.”

“What the hell, Arvo? I can’t make that decision.”

“It’s you or him. Zephyr will be pissed when he returns. I can take the heat, but I need to know it’s what you want.”

How could I even answer the question? The answer would mean the end of Sol’s life, and that would be on my conscience forever.

I felt Arvo’s hands resting on my shoulders, and then his fingertips delicately traced the silhouette of my back. They slid past my waist and took hold of my hips.

“I’m not a bad man, Biba,” he breathed in my ear. “It’s just, I can do what must be done. I’ll do it for you. I want to keep you safe.”

The middle and ring fingers of his right hand slid down the front of my jeans and into my panties, following the curve of my pelvis. His fingertips rested lazily on my pubis, barely an inch from my clit. I shivered at the sensation. What I wouldn’t give for him go just a bit lower.

“Not for Z,” he groaned. “I’ll do anything for you.”

I was instantly soaked.

There was something almost robotic about it, like Arvo was calibrated to elicit the most pleasure with the slightest stimulation. He applied the tiniest pressure, and I cooed in delight.

“That feels nice,” I groaned, adding, “you prick.”

I turned, took his perfect, smooth face in my hands, and pulled him to me. Our tongues danced and twirled around each other. I tried to pull myself close to him, but he wouldn’t have it. In an instant, my back was against the wall. He unbuttoned my jeans and took my soaked pussy in his hand. He pressed me tightly against the wall and delicately fingered my swollen bud.

“You're so wet,” he marveled. “I can’t wait to taste you.”

“God, yes,” I groaned, closing my eyes and returning to that state of abandon I’d experienced in the pool days ago. This time, I wanted to go all the way.

“Feel how fucking hard you make me.”

He pulled my hand between his legs and—holy fucking shit, he was huge and only growing. I rubbed my palm up and down his straining denim. His shaft seemed to go on forever.

“Take it out,” he commanded. “I want to watch your hand stroking me.”

His finger quickened around my clit. My whole body tingled and shook, and I knew the moment he entered me, I would come hard.

My eyes fluttered open just long enough for me to see that we were no longer alone.

Theo was standing a few feet away, mortified.

Oh, no, I thought. I forgot I told Theo I’d be here.

This was supposed to be a chance for us to reconnect, to work on the investigation together again. Instead, he walked in on Arvo and me together. His expression was a mix of heartbreak and venom.

“Hey, Brant,” Arvo chuckled. “Enjoying the show?”

Theo turned and stormed back down the stairs. I broke away from Arvo and ran after him.

I was a good way down the corridor leading from the library to the central copula when I caught him.

“Theo,” I cried. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean for that—”

“Mean for what!” he shouted, spinning around. “Didn’t want me to see you becoming the Kings’ plaything? Something for them to pass around whenever they get bored?”

“Don’t say that,” I begged. “It isn’t true.”

“It is, and you know it. Now don’t ever fucking talk to me again, Biba. We aren’t connected anymore.”

And then he was gone. Forever.

CHAPTER 20

BIBA

In heat—that’s the only expression to explain how I felt the next day.

I had plenty to make me anxious: the revelations about Sol, the unanswered question about the other Kings, Theo’s recriminations. Also, Arvo’s offer to murder someone under my direction. All of these factors should have made me sick to my stomach.

But that nausea was tempered by something else: my desire to be in Arvo’s arms again.

I had tried to stifle my physical attraction to Arvo, and for a few days, I’d nearly succeeded. But last night, I couldn’t help it. I still felt his powerful digits pressing against my pussy, still smelled his musk as he held me close, still yearned to free that mammoth cock from his pants and take it inside. I couldn’t sleep a wink.

The next morning, my mind kept flashing back to that memory. I hardly registered a word from my professors or tasted a morsel of the food. How could I possibly keep going in this state? Something had to give.

It gave much quicker than I expected. After my three o’clock class, I was met in the hall by one of the Kings’ lackeys. He didn’t speak, didn’t even meet my eyes. He simply handed me a note and fled. It was from Arvo.

We have unfinished business. Come now. The Hall.

I should have shown a little demureness, at least kept him waiting. I didn’t, though; wild horses couldn’t keep me away.

I’d only been to the Kings’ Hall once, and most of that visit was a narcotic blur. But as soon as I turned toward the courtyard, I found that I remembered the exact series of motions to get me there: out the portico and straight across the courtyard to one of the few breaks in Stormcloud’s perimeter wall. Walk with confidence to the precipice, make sure no one is watching, bend your knees, and make a light leap into the void. A five-foot drop—a terrifying five feet—lands you on a shelf below. The shelf slopes down to the great wooden door of the Kings’ Hall.

“Enter,” Arvo’s voice bellowed from inside as I knocked.

I winced. It wasn’t easy to get past his over-the-top Kingly airs. It put me in that funny position of wanting to smack him and fuck him at the same time. Even so, he was the preeminent King of Stormcloud, at least for now. That meant he could back up his claims of power and influence. I needed to tread lightly with his ego until Zephyr returned.

Pushing open the door, I was struck anew at how portentous the Kings’ Hall was. Flickering torches illuminated the stone walls, the narrow passage leading to the central hall with mounted medieval arms and an odd, dark pool. Then the throne loomed at the far end, on which Arvo sat in his colorful satin robe—the same one he wore the last time I was there. In his hand was a crystal chalice filled with some garnet-hued liqueur.

“You required to wear that thing in here?” I asked.

“It’s comfortable,” he deadpanned. “Plus, you know what I like to wear under it.”

He was right. I did remember. Nothing.

“Why have I been summoned?”

“Two points of business. Firstly, I need an answer about Stamos.”

So business-like, almost bored—and yet Arvo was discussing whether he should murder his ostensible friend. It was like he was deciding whether to close an old bank account with little cash in it. For a moment, all the passion I’d carried in the core of my body evaporated, and I felt nothing but loathing for Arvo. He was pouring poison in my ear, turning me against Sol. . . .

But just as quickly as my attraction to him dissipated, I felt it form again within me. It was like my body was in rebellion, refusing to let me detest Arvo for the conniving prick he was.

“I won’t give you my approval,” I replied.

“You have to, Biba. He will—”

“He’ll what? You are the only person saying he’ll hurt me. He’s never been anything but gracious—”

“How do you think killers act? He’d going to be nice right until the moment he cuts your throat.”

“Says you!”

“Don’t believe me, Biba? Talk to Amelia. She was a student here when this all went down. The false accusations, the expulsions, all of it.”

I froze. Amelia knew the old Kings when they were students here? Of course! Peter Williams insisted she be installed as headmistress. They knew each other from their time together in the 80s.

“I will ask her then,” I said. “And what’s the other point of business?”

He took a long, luxuriant draw from his chalice and stared pensively at the ancient stonework above.

“Oh, my darling, we have been so unlucky in love, haven’t we?”

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”

“Don’t you? Fucking Theo Brant interrupting us yesterday, just as you were closing in on your reward.”

“What makes you think I was so close?”

He ignored the question, rising from the throne and pacing calmly around the hall. His sunburst robe billowed as he walked.

“I don’t blame you,” he continued absently, “for fleeing our little squeeze in the pool. It was sudden and public, and I’m sure you had doubts about being with a King besides Z.”

“You’re very sure of yourself.”

“It’s crazy, isn’t it? Even our ritual last term—right in this hall—was interrupted before you and I could consummate our part of the game. Do you ever think of that night, Biba? I dream of it. How beautiful you looked. Our ceremonial ointment seeping into every pore, turning every square inch of your skin into an erogenous zone. I can still see you on your knees, sucking greedily on my balls as I jerked myself. I wanted you so fucking bad.”

I was beginning to feel fluttery, lightheaded. I knew the moment I entered this room what I would do. I also remembered my ritual with the Kings and wanted that feeling back.

“Why don’t you take me?” I asked breathlessly. “The Kings share everything, don’t they?”

“No,” he growled, stopping a couple of feet from me. “I don’t want to borrow you from the Kings or ask Zephyr’s permission. I want you.”

So that was it, I realized. Arvo’s advances were not some Machiavellian strategy. He wanted me as badly as I wanted him. Knowing that, I felt enormous power and control. I would take him, satisfy myself with his body, and see that I could control him after.

“Take off your robe.”

Arvo unclasped the satin and let it slide to the floor. The torchlight illuminated every defined muscle on his pristine body. His strapping chest and shredded abs seemed to dance in the flickering light. He stood at perfect attention, unmoving, presenting himself to me. And I was ready to devour him.

There was a lot to consume.

“Tell me you want me again,” I ordered him.

“I. Need. You.”

That was all the encouragement I needed. I slid gently to my knees before him and grasped his meat. One flick of my tongue gave me a taste of his sweet-yet-sour precum.

“Please, baby,” he gasped. “Give me your mouth.”

He was barely half-hard, but I had to open wide to fit him in. I expected the rough handling I’d seen Tess get in the greenhouse, but it never arrived. Arvo remained ramrod straight as I took as much of that cock down my throat as possible. Closing my eyes, I savored the hardening staff, so earthy and hot. My tongue massaged the underside of his shaft and swirled around his throbbing head.

“Fuck, Biba! Fuck,” he said. “That’s so good.”

I couldn’t help but reach up and grab his taut butt to pull him deeper into my mouth. It proved too big, so I let him go and just stroked.

“You know,” I sighed, rubbing him on my cheek, “I never asked which King you are.”

He took a sip from his chalice, then tipped it slightly, pouring a stream of sweet cognac over his meat and onto my lips.

“The King of Cups.”

“Figures,” I laughed. “Go sit on your throne.”

As he turned, I snatched away his cup and downed the rest of that rich brandy. It seared my throat on the way down, but I loved it. Seconds away from satisfying my aching hunger for Arvo’s body, I was so ready to see how he fucked.

Settling back on the stone seat, Arvo opened his legs and began jerking himself. Nice and slow, a delightful performance.

I was wearing only a red ribbed-knit wool dress with a zipper down the front. Underneath was a black lace camisole that Velcroed between my legs. I hurriedly peeled off the dress and flung it aside.

I pulled forcefully at my undergarment, relishing the pressure against my pussy. Soon, the Velcro gave, and my hand plunged to my dewy lips. Arvo sighed appreciatively, and a virtual flood of precum trickled from his cock.

“You like this?” I asked. “You like watching me touch myself?”

“Open yourself for me, sexy. I want to see all of you.”

My knees were getting weak, and deep inside, I felt the warm stirring of an orgasm that I needed him to bring to fruition. Damn, though, if I didn’t love our game. I spun around and bent at the waist, giving him a perfect view of my treasures. I reached between my legs and opened the petals of my flower.

“Oh, shit, I gotta stop,” he grunted. Between my thighs, upside-down, I watched him release his twitching phallus. Our fun might have ended prematurely had he kept stroking a second longer. But Arvo was nothing if not disciplined.

“Easy, sport,” I laughed, wiggling my rump tauntingly.

Arvo sprang into action. Before I could turn to face him, he was on his feet and taking hold of me from behind. He sucked and nibbled covetously on my neck. His hands found their way to my swelling breasts and massaged them. A tiny squeal escaped my lips. Try as I might, I couldn’t stay cool and collected with his mouth and hands expertly manipulating my body.

A second later, his hands came down, and he lifted me off my feet with one motion.

“No more delays, Biba,” he commanded. “Time for the main event.”

I took his beautiful Greek-sculpture face in my hands and kissed him. His tongue probed my mouth, and I sucked on it with mad abandon. He didn’t break his stride for a moment. We went through a curtained passage into some sort of old bedchamber.

Arvo deposited me on a large oak pallet, loaded with cushions. I opened my eyes and saw I was in a room of polished stonework illuminated by candelabras. Unlike the main hall, this room’s walls weren’t covered in ornate axes and swords. In their place were sconces with marble and bronze statues of nude men and women—sometimes alone, sometimes coupled—all in sensual poses.

“This is more like it,” I cooed, looking at my bronze Adonis. He circled the makeshift bed, his tendons flexing and his erection bouncing with each step.

“Do you trust me?” he asked, though his tone didn’t sound like an honest question.

“No,” I answered honestly.

He stopped, looked over my stripped, shaking body, and said, “Too bad. Put out your arms.”

Why did I obey? Maybe I was too aroused to think straight. Maybe I felt protected by Zeph, like Arvo couldn’t afford to hurt me. Probably it was some combination. Whatever the reason, I stretched out my arms, and Arvo reached under the oak frame to pull out a leather strap from each side.

In a disconcertingly brief amount of time, my wrists were lashed to the bed, and Arvo was standing above my head.

Again, I should have been scared, but I felt nothing besides fevered anticipation. My hips were gyrating already, yearning for his steel.

“Get me wet,” he demanded, leaning forward to place his throbbing member against my mouth. I lapped my tongue around his salty cock, getting it nice and slick.

As I licked Arvo, he returned the favor. He stretched his long arms forward and leaned over me. I felt his rock-solid chest press firmly against my tummy as his mouth reached my womanhood. In an instant, he drew my clit into his mouth. He sucked gently on it and twirled the tip of his tongue around.

“Oh, my god,” I cried. “You’re making me—oh, shit—”

I was losing words as lightning bolts shot through me. Each circle of his tongue brought me closer, but I didn’t want to come yet. I’d waited for this. I was risking everything to do it. I needed to feel him inside.

“Not yet,” I managed to moan. “Not . . . with your mouth.”

He lifted his head and sat up.

“You ready to be taken by the King of Cups?”

“Fuck me, your majesty.”

I didn’t have to tell him twice. Lithe as a fox, he moved to the other end of the bed and took hold of me by my open legs. The warm head of his cock rested against my glistening vulva. We stared into each other’s eyes a moment, savoring the sensation, delaying the dam's bursting ever so briefly.

He reclined his body to kiss me one more time. My nostrils filled with that silly rum-and-coconut hair product he used. At that moment, that faux-tropical scent was one more thing I found absolutely irresistible about him.

He didn’t say anything, just locked eyes with me and pressed himself into me.

I cried out in immediate ecstasy. Arvo wasn’t even halfway deep, and I was on cloud nine. We rocked against each other, slowly at first, then picking up speed.

He fucked with the intensity of a stallion but never broke focus. His sole objective seemed to be getting me off. My wrists pulled about the straps, and my hips bucked upward with each thrust. I craned my neck forward and licked the sweat from his chest. It was tangy and sweet. I wanted to taste every inch of him.

Arvo dropped his head down and took my bouncing tit in his mouth, nibbling on it with a perfectly calibrated pressure. It was all so efficient.

That wasn’t to say I wasn’t enjoying it. On the contrary, I was willing myself not to come too quickly. His huge cock seemed to hit almost every nerve inside of me simultaneously. And every button it didn’t hit, he made up for with his mouth.

With every thrust, he went deeper, and I got closer, and he somehow got harder and fuller within me.

Until I couldn’t hold back any longer. The dam burst. I shouted with such pleasure that the echo continued after my rolling, quaking orgasm subsided. I was deaf to the world around me, but he hadn’t stopped fucking me. I was beginning to descend to earth when I heard him whisper that he was going to come.

“Give me your come, baby,” I demanded. “I want it.”

Arvo withdrew from my pussy just as he erupted. Streams of semen coated my flush, twitching torso. A few errant drops found my neck and cheek as well. I couldn’t help myself. I stretched my tongue out and licked it from my face. It was salt and honey and mineral all at once, and I loved the depravity of it all.

“Damn, Biba,” he groaned. “We need to do this again.”

I looked at him, panting and clutching his waning monster, and nodded in agreement.

CHAPTER 21

BIBA

That Friday night, I decided it was time. All summer long, I’d wanted Amelia to come clean about my dad and Douglas Monfort and the Kings of yesteryear. I’d waited for her to broach the subject independently, but she never did.

Now I knew: Peter Williams and Dimitri Stamos, the missing girl, the redacted statement, and the expelled Kings. She needed to talk immediately. Once I’d filled in the gaps, I could find Soglio in the village and tell him what I knew. Maybe then I could uncover the people who killed Gail.

I approached Amelia’s door at nine. The halls had cleared out, but I was confident she would be around. She never left Stormcloud. It was her life.

Her door was ajar. I tapped gently, but she didn’t respond. I rapped a little louder. Nothing.

“Miss Amelia,” I called. No answer. Slowly, I opened the door and found her office empty. Her desk was strewn with old papers.

Gail and I were going to sneak into Amelia’s office the last night of finals last year. Then I was attacked, and she was killed. Now I was in the room alone with ready access to her papers. I dashed forward to see what she’d been reading.

They were letters, scores of them, scrawled on torn-out notebook pages, hotel stationery, postcards from far-flung destinations.

My dearest Simone, some of them began, followed by protestations of love and desire and rueful references to “the damned affair with E.”

Sweet Rafael, the others began. These were the responses from Simone. They were breathless and lusty, but there was pain underneath them.

How I wish you could be with me. . . . The months drag on without respite. . . . I feel your lips on me even now. . . .

. . . My belly grows fuller with each week.

“Simone’s” handwriting was instantly recognizable. I’d seen it a hundred times over the summer. It was Amelia’s.

“I suppose it was only a matter of time before you betrayed my trust.”

My eyes shot up, and there was Amelia, sleepy-eyed. I opened my mouth to apologize but thought better of it. Amelia looked exhausted: eyes bloodshot, cheeks drawn. I’d never seen her like that. It was frightening in a way, like realizing your parent is fallible, fragile, mortal.

“You’ve contravened every other law of this school already,” she sighed. “Go on—keep reading my old correspondence.”

“What is this?” I asked.

“A message from another time. Not a gentler one. Just . . . different.”

“From when you were a student?”

She glanced around the room, looking lost in her own office. Her hand reached for mine for support.

“Just after. I was in my twenties and full of confidence. The young think they are wiser and more capable than they are. That never changes. You, for example—you think you’re invincible despite all evidence to the contrary.”

There was acid in her tone. She thought I was a most pathetic specimen.

“You don’t know anything about me,” I shot back.

“There’s no mystery to you, Miss Quinn. Your father died, so you’re poking every corner of Stormcloud to find out who killed him.”

“It’s not just that!”

“And Miss Monfort too. I do not doubt that you genuinely want to bring her killer to justice.”

She sat down heavily behind her desk. Even though I now stood above her, she still seemed to command the room.

“Be honest with yourself,” she continued. “If you and Gail hadn’t gone digging through this place’s secrets, she’d still be alive. Finding her murderer won’t bring her back. Neither will finding your father’s murderer.”

“Why are you saying this?”

“Because you’re going to die, Biba, and you cannot bring everyone else down with you. Not me and certainly not Theo Brant.”

I opened my mouth to respond, but nothing came out. I had never seen Amelia angry before, but at that moment, she seemed enraged.

“You let him into the archives, Biba. I walked in on him digging through the files, but he was too engrossed to notice me. How could you let him do that?”

“I—I. . . .”

“He’s endangering himself for you because he loves you! If he’s hurt—”

“Hang on!” I shouted back. “I am not forcing Theo to help me. I’m trying to get him to stop.”

“Maybe you believe that—”

“Let me finish! I want Theo to stop investigating more than anything in the world. I’m fucking doing everything I can to push him away because if he . . . if what happened to Gail happens to him, I won’t be able to live with myself.”

Something in what I said caught Amelia’s attention. She stood up and walked to a dusty filing cabinet in the back corner without a word. It must have been a century old. She pulled a chunky brass key from her pocket and opened the top drawer.

“Why are you so worried about Theo anyway?” I asked meekly, partly because I feared the answer.

She placed a hand in the drawer and removed a simple piece of letter stock, folded in two.

“You really care for his safety?” she asked, staring at the paper.

“I do.”

Amelia nodded, turned, and handed me the paper.

It was an official document, with a seal of Switzerland affixed at the top. A certificate of live birth dated March 29, 2002. Clipped to it was a card with two ink-stamped footprints. The newborn’s name: Theodore Scamarcio.

“I had to bribe the doctors ten thousand euros to give me that paper and file a false one in its place.”

My breath went out of me like I’d been kicked in the gut. Theo . . . son of Simone and the King-breaker Rafael Scamarcio. No wonder Zephyr feared him. No wonder he kept him close, despite hating him profoundly.

“I’m sure it was ten times what they normally demanded for a bribe, but what could I do? They knew I was rich. Rafael drove me to the hospital in his Lamborghini. And Geneva is lousy with Stormcloud legacies. I’m sure someone in that hospital knew who Rafael was. They knew a Scamarcio child would be killed immediately. So they took me for all the cash I had—and they named him Theo Brant.”

“He doesn’t know you’re his mother?”

She sighed. “It took me twenty years to get him back. Friends of Rafael’s raised him, but I knew when he was a man, I would bring him here.”

“Why?” I asked, unable to hide my disbelief. “You know better than anyone what a poisonous place this is. Why did you bring him here?”

“It was always my plan for when he became a man. I thought I could protect him, Biba. I’d missed him terribly, and . . . I thought if I could bring him here and get him the protection of the Williams family . . . I thought he’d be safe, and I would have him close. But he rebelled the moment I brought him. He wouldn’t accept Zephyr’s offer to be a King.”

She slumped back down into one of the guest chairs.

“I’ve been trying so hard ever since to find another way to protect Theo. But he keeps . . . pushing the people who want to hurt him most.”

“I know,” I answered. “Neither one of us can stop him.”

“He almost died last year,” she whimpered. “It killed me to see him in the infirmary. But I hoped that might wake him up to the gravity of the situation.”

“Who was Rafael?” I asked.

“The last King of Coins. He belonged to another girl while we were students here, but then . . . so many things happened. Such loss. The destruction of the Kings, at least for a while. While we picked up the pieces, I was able to make Rafael understand the depth of my love, and for a time, we thought we could escape this place and all the poisons that lurked in it.”

I placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. She jumped, then looked at me.

“Why are you telling me?” I asked.

“If you truly care for Theo, I want you to know the truth. Together we can stop him.”

“There is no stopping him, Amelia. He’ll keep going no matter what we do.”

“Oh, Biba,” she sighed. “I’m happy you came here. I really did care for Harry. He was a good man. He looked out for Rafael and me.”

The words cut through me like a blade. What had my father been to Amelia? Or she to him? Or both of them to this Rafael?

“You need to tell me everything you know.”

She shook her head vigorously like if she refused hard enough, I would just leave.

“You mustn’t, Biba. Please, just forget these questions. If you just stay the course and get through your time here. You could live a good life.”

“And what about Theo?”

“I’ll send him away again. I decided that the moment I happened on him in the archives. He’ll never be safe here.”

“He won’t go.”

“Then I’ll expel him, if necessary—”

I didn’t relent. This was too important.

“Listen, Amelia or Simone or whatever your name is . . . my father is dead. So are Gail and her father. It sounds like Theo’s father died too. All this death needs to end. I won’t stop searching, and neither will Theo. Help us, and we’ll be safer.”

Tears were streaming down her cheeks. I kept going.

“One more thing. Theo doesn’t know the truth about you, but I’m sure he suspects something. You and I both know it’s only a matter of time before he discovers it himself. Wouldn’t it be better for you to tell him on your terms?”

She seemed to be shaking almost imperceptibly. Amelia’s thin, avian features never seemed weak before. She counteracted her physical smallness with unbreakable sternness. I watched as she reconstituted. She mopped her cheeks and cleared her throat.

“Miss Quinn,” she said, her voice only barely breaking, “it would seem I have no choice. Will you give me some days to collect my records?”

My eyes locked on her. Could I trust her not to disappear or run to someone like Peter Williams?

“How long?” I asked.

“Give me until All Hallows Eve. Then you and Theo come to me. I will have a full accounting of the events that brought you and Gail here.”

“Fine,” I agreed quickly, “but if I suspect anything in the next five days, I will tell Theo everything. And I won’t be kind in the telling.”

She nodded and met my gaze, indomitable once again.

“That’s fair, Miss Quinn. Quite fair.”

CHAPTER 22

THEO

“I have to say I’m sorry. I’m sorry you saw Arvo and me. I didn’t mean for that to happen.”

She sat next to me on the bench. Our bench in the courtyard—the one we’d shared in the waning days of summer as we’d bandied ideas and theories about Gail’s murder. It had been comfortable then, sunny and warm. The air was bitter now, and the trees dormant.

My resolve never to talk to Biba again had lasted a week, barely. She’d waylaid me after class, basically begging me to give her a few minutes. She’d told me that she’d discovered something important.

So I’d relented. Provisionally.

Now she wanted to re-litigate the damned Arvo thing, which I was doing my level best to wash out of my memory. Zephyr Williams was bad enough. Knowing that she was knocking boots with Arvo Hurley, the most asinine, self-possessed douchebag I’d ever known … well, that was beyond the pale. I was choosing to live in denial about that.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” I told her in a neutral voice, the politest tone I could manage. “You said you found something.”

“Okay, I got it,” she mumbled. “I found out a lot of things, actually, and all of it was based on you discovering that redacted statement.”

Loathe as I was to engage, I had to admit this excited me. All I wanted from Biba was enough trust to find Gail’s killer and make him pay. I did my best to make that happen, and she checked out, it seemed. Or did she?

“Here’s what I have,” she began. “That statement destroyed the Kings that were here in the mid-80s. Sol’s father, Dmitri, had to leave Stormcloud, as did a dude named Rafael Scamarcio—”

“From the statement I found in the archives. He was one of the Kings?”

“He was. . . .” She stopped, seeming to be searching for the right words. “Well, it seems like he was a King.”

“That’s weird. The families that produce Kings are powerful and rich. Williams, Stamos—they’re famous. I’d never heard of the Scamarcios—”

“I agree, but—”

“We should find this Rafael guy. A King all but disappearing is incredibly suspicious.”

Biba bit her lip. It was like she had more info than she was saying. Like she was afraid to say something. . . .

“That’s the thing, Theo,” she said meekly. “All the Kings had to disappear. Their names were redacted in the Stormcloud archives. Their files disappeared. We know that Dimitri Stamos and Rafael Scamarcio were expelled. It’s even possible that Peter Williams left, either of his own volition or through expulsion. And there were other students involved. We know Gail’s dad was, and I suspect my dad was too. Plus . . . Amelia.”

“What?”

“Amelia was a student here at the time. Her real name is Simone.”

“How did you find this out?”

“She told me. And she wants to tell us everything on the night of the All Hallows Bonfire.”

“Us? Like, me too?”

“You especially. Theo, I can’t do this without you.”

Just like that, what remained of my defenses melted. It wasn’t just that Biba was lovely, though she was. It wasn’t just the instant connection we’d made last year, though that was undeniable. I just had an innate respect for her intellect, doggedness, and ingenuity.

“I don’t know how you do it, Biba Quinn.”

“It’s important to both of us. It’s Gail and my father and . . . just the idea that the power of Stormcloud doesn’t have to be wrapped up in darkness.”

“That’s why I care so much for you. Why I drive myself crazy over you. I don’t want you to get eaten by the darkness. I don’t want you to disappear.”

Her face lit up. She was touched by what I said, which made me smile dumbly. I wanted her to feel touched. I meant every damn word.

“Will you join me?” she asked.

“I think so. This is a lot to take in.”

“It’s the real thing. I know you have trouble trusting me. You and me . . . we had something once. Maybe we still do. But I can’t control you, so I guess I have to accept that you’ll do what you want.

“But that cuts both ways. You can’t control me, and that includes who I sleep with. It’s my right to make those choices. Are we still in this together?”

I agreed, though reluctantly. The possibilities were too tempting.

She was wrong, though. She did know what guided my decisions. It had always been her.

Two hours later, I was sitting on the body of a fallen tree a couple of miles from campus. More and more, I was leaving the school just to walk, like being physically separated from it could make me feel better.

I’d been sitting for the better part of an hour when I heard footsteps approaching from the opposite direction of Stormcloud.

“We need to talk, Brant.”

“Sol,” I replied, “everyone is looking for you these days. You pissed off the wrong people, I think.”

“That’s none of your business,” he replied, standing above me.

Sol looked terrible. His face was slightly yellow from a mass of healing bruises. His black coat, jeans, and shirt were all fraying and soiled. He smelled like muck and woodsmoke.

“That’s the thing about the Kings,” I said. “Everything they do becomes everyone else’s problem. So Zephyr and Arvo want you dead, which means all of Stormcloud is supposed to look for you.”

“It must be nice to be Theo Brant. You get all the deference afforded to the Kings but no responsibility. I wonder why that is.”

That was certainly one way to put it; another way would be that I had to deal with all of these worthless, entitled pricks but had nothing to show for it. I wasn’t about to get into a debate with Sol Stamos in the middle of the Alps, though.

“So you’re living in the woods,” I observed.

“Cut the shit, Brant. I know you’ve seen Biba. She’s in danger.”

“We’re all in danger.”

“You can’t protect Biba. She needs to leave Stormcloud.”

I don’t know why, but that was the last straw. I’d spent the better part of the season in my own private hell, watching the girl I loved debase herself for the fucking Kings. Now one of them had fallen on hard times, and he saw fit to lecture me about ethics.

I dove forward, grabbed Sol by his shirt, and got close to his self-satisfied mug.

“How’s this for protecting, huh!”

“Get off!”

“I know you,” I hissed. “You’re the most two-faced of the Kings. You act reasonable and human, but you’re a parasite just like the rest of them.”

He wrenched away from me and stumbled back, his fists balled and ready for a fight. But he didn’t come back at me. Instead, he told me, low and clear:

“Maybe . . . but right now, I’m the only one who doesn’t want you dead.”

CHAPTER 23

BIBA

They canceled classes the day after Halloween.

That’s all you need to know about the type of party the All Hallows Bonfire was. Stormcloud Academy was a humorless, overbearing institution in many ways, but its leaders understood that there were times they couldn’t control the student populace.

Halloween was one of those times.

At lunch, I found Arvo waiting for me at the table with a cup of Dunkel lager. Peeping about the dining hall, I realized that just about every student was already halfway shitfaced.

I also noticed Tess staring daggers at me from across the room. The poor girl must have received her marching orders and knew I was the reason.

“School’s out,” he laughed, sliding the beer my way.

“Maybe for you. I have Gianas in the afternoon.”

“Trust me. School’s out.”

He was right. Gianas began the lecture by preemptively announcing that he would not be covering much that day.

“I know you children are already several sheets to the wind. Consider this my capitulation to your immature revels. We’ll dismiss in three-quarters of an hour.”

At six, I was in Buffy’s room, getting ready for the party and pregaming with instant pizza and a bottle of cheap Riesling.

My sensible brain told me I should take it easy. I had important business that night. But goddamn! I could feel the electricity in the air. This was going to be a bash.

“No doubt!” Buffy confirmed, shimmying into a skin-tight cocktail number accentuating her ample rump and enormous knockers. “Tonight’ll make the Equinox Ball look like Good Friday at a nunnery.”

She started pancaking white makeup on her face, avoiding her dyed purple hair. Her vampire prostitute costume was coming together nicely.

“And as I recall,” she added, “you had quite a night at the Equinox.”

“Har-dee-har-har.”

I flopped back on her bed, and the ruffled skirts of my Medici courtesan costume puffed up around me. We were all dressing to scandalize. It was the nature of Halloween, after all.

Using Zeph’s expense card, I’d commissioned my dress from a local seamstress to be the exact perfect level of provocative. The skirt was big and accurate, but the top was scandalous. Its built-in corset cinched my waist, but it cut off just around my bust, and it split in two down the front, revealing the inner swells of my breasts. I’d powdered them to fine alabaster and applied a single black beauty mark at the top of lefty. Then I’d bunched up my hair into a tangle of up-done weaves and made myself up with a bit of powder and rouge.

Tasteful, I’d decided, but just provocative enough.

“You need to promise me,” Buffy said as she gingerly sipped her wine, “that I’ll be off the clock by ten. I’ve been desperate for some lovin’, and tonight’s the best night.“

“Cross my heart. Once Theo and I are in Amelia’s office, you just need to run interference for one hour.”

Buffy’s job was simple but critical. Arvo was gonna get called away, just long enough for me to sneak off with Theo. When Arvo came back, it was Buffy’s job to distract him. She would make excuses for me, something a little too personal and female—something he’d accept without question. Maybe she’d get a little frisky with him.

“Remember,” I said, “Arvo’s not a complicated dude. If you want to distract him, grab his junk. Nothing subtler will work.”

Suddenly, the hallway exploded with pulsing electronica. I nearly peed myself, and Buffy cracked up.

“That’s our signal,” she confirmed.

I stood and straightened my outfit. Buffy hurriedly dribbled fake blood from the corners of her mouth.

With that, we were on our way.

I was a total naïf, thinking that my peekaboo courtesan dress would be risqué enough for the event. All Hallows Eve was a whole other level of depravity.

There were girls in only pasties and booty shorts.

Right outside Buffy’s room were three guys, naked except for jockstraps and a full coat of metallic gold body paint.

The average lady was clad, at most, in a scant negligee that barely covered her key areas.

Most guys were bare-chested, and assless chaps were far more ubiquitous than I’d anticipated.

“What am I getting into?” I gasped as Buffy and I entered the Grand Hall, dim and pulsing with strobes.

“If you weren’t so distracted with your little mission, this would be the wildest night of your life.”

“Not quite.”

Buffy arched her eyebrow.

“You do your job tonight, and I’ll tell you all the wild details.”

“You’re on.”

Suddenly, a big hand grabbed my elbow and turned me around.

It was Arvo. A lot of him.

He was King Poseidon, which made a certain sense, given his aquatic hobbies. He was nude except for a mass of fishing net wrapped around his waist and a seafoam-and-shell crown over his blond head. His chest, arms, and legs glistened with oil.

“You’re overdressed, Quinn.”

“I know. I could have saved some money and just come naked. Would have fit in.”

“I’d have liked that. You look pretty hot as it is.”

He handed me the punch they were serving. I was reticent to drink, remembering how strong the punch was last year. Well, my tolerance was higher now, so I took a quick, appraising gulp.

It burned, but I was still standing.

“This is Buffy,” I said.

“Cool,” he replied offhandedly. “Let’s go outside. The fire’s going.”

Again, I was hesitant. Going outside meant I’d have to run to make it back by the appointed time with Amelia. But the manor was sweltering. They surely turned up the boilers to account for a school of half-nude kids in October. So I nodded, and once again, we were on the move.

The bonfire was like something out of folklore. Raw paganry.

By the end of October, the nights were coming on early in the mountains. The last sunlight had already gone by eight, and the orange flames leaped ecstatically from the pyre. The fire raged in the courtyard, maybe fifteen feet high. Once we were within a few yards of it, the heat was pulsing.

The few clothes that my fellow students had worn disappeared at the bonfire. They danced to Skrillex and Guetta and Marshmello, naked as bacchanalians circling the flames. They laughed madly, lifted each other into the air, and tumbled into the dirt in lascivious clutches.

In the shadows, I could see pairs and threesomes clung together, stroking and grinding and making love. The intoxicating scent of woodsmoke and sweat, fruity booze and autumn air, filled my lungs like some psychotropic drug.

I felt I’d entered another realm. I was high or dreaming, even though I was mostly sober and totally awake. But was this a dream or a nightmare? We were all teetering on this unreal plane, half-naked between the icy air and the searing flames. Between chaos and civilization. Between ecstasy and damnation.

“Believe me,” Arvo whispered, “it gets even wilder.”

He wrapped a hand around my waist and pulled me close. I let myself be pulled, arched my back, and took his face in my hands. He kissed me deeply, his loose tongue slithering into my mouth. It was a bit of a relief that he was drunker than I was. It would hopefully be easier to draw him away.

I spied one of the Kings’ freshmen gingerly approaching from the manor out the corner of my eyes. He wore slacks and a sweater. Arvo must have forbidden him from taking part in the frivolities while on duty.

“What?” Arvo groaned, sensing his underling nearby.

“I’m—uh, I’m sorry to interrupt—”

“Just fucking spit it out, dude.”

“I got word that someone from the village police is outside the gates. He says he knows where Stamos is.”

That got Arvo’s attention. I knew it would. That’s why I’d had Theo convince his friend in the Wachsbrunnen police to show up tonight and ask for Arvo Hurley. It was just believable enough to pull him away from me.

“Tough break, babe,” he said. “I gotta do this.”

“Hurry back, sexy,“ I purred, putting on the best show I could.

He pressed his tongue into his cheek and took a not-so-subtle glance at my cleavage. Then he winked and slipped away.

I pretty much sprinted back to the school and slipped through one of the many nondescript doors into Stormcloud Academy. It led straight into one of the many hidden corridors within the building.

Waiting by the stairs was Theo. Unlike most other guys that night, he wasn’t bare-assed and oiled. He wore a perfectly-tailored tux with a clean-pressed white shirt, unbuttoned to mid-chest.

He looked perfect, Theo.

“Ready?” I asked.

“Born ready.”

CHAPTER 24

BIBA

We walked side by side in silence, up the stairs and down an unlit passage, which let us out at the icky surgical theatre near the infirmary. We stepped out a service exit onto the roof, where we had to walk one in front of the other over a narrow catwalk.

We could hear the partying below and see the flickering yellow light of the bonfire playing on the roof tiles.

“Did you party hard before we met up?” I called over my back, already knowing the answer. He didn’t do unbridled depravity.

“I am capable of fun, Biba,” he replied drolly. “It’s just that this level of debauchery isn’t my jam.”

I smiled to myself and pressed forward. Truth be told, the festivities below were almost too much for me also.

Reentering at the auditorium, we descended to a secret corridor, then down a spiral stairway and out the secret door to the hall. We were a few steps from Amelia’s office.

As we rounded the corner, we walked right into two half-naked zombies. The girl was wearing a pair of boyshorts and an open-but-strategically-taped satin robe. The guy was in some kind of leather jockstrap and black mesh tank. But what struck me—what stopped me in my tracks—was the gallon or so of deep red blood they had dripping from their hairlines, down their faces, and all over their bare bodies.

They looked like walking car crash victims. I nearly screamed when we saw them, but instead, I just froze in place as they passed us, laughing drunkenly.

I couldn’t seem to start walking again. There was a strange emptiness in my stomach. I wondered for a moment if I had too much liquor inside me, but that wasn’t it. I realized that once we talked to Amelia, nothing would be quite the same. Not for any of us.

It was worth it, of course, for Theo to know who his mother was. And we would soon know all the gory details from three and a half decades ago, the treachery that echoed through to the present. The reason behind the deaths we had endured.

But I was still worried. I didn’t know how Theo would react. Or Amelia. Or myself, for that matter.

To my surprise, Theo took my hand. I looked up at him.

“You okay?” he asked sincerely.

“I think.”

“Let’s go, okay. We’ll do this together.”

I wanted to shout at him that he had no idea of the secrets that were coming. He couldn’t begin to prepare himself. But I held my tongue. The truth would be out, soon.

Amelia waited for us outside her door.

“Right on time,” she said. “You were my most punctual assistant, Miss Quinn.”

“I do my best,” I answered weakly.

“And Theo, I’m most pleased that you came. Most pleased.”

“Thank you for helping us.”

Hold your tongue, Biba, I warned myself. Soon enough. Theo will understand everything soon enough.

Without another word, Amelia opened her door and led us in. I started walking to her desk. Then I noticed she was moving to a bookshelf at the back wall.

“There are things,” she said to me, “that even you don’t know about this place.”

She pulled a hidden lever by the shelf, and a latch gave way in the wall. It swung out, and we were given access to a circular room on the other side.

Inside was a small standing desk and nothing else. The walls were all stone, and the ceiling was double-height. I realized quickly that we were in a parapet on the outside of the building. There were three tall, narrow windows behind her—Archer windows, for defending the king.

“Shut the door behind you,” she demanded. Theo obliged.

On the desk was a single unmarked envelope. She picked it up and began to address us.

“Mr. Brant . . . Theo. I have committed a certain amount of history to this letter. It is of, shall we shall, particular importance to you. You will read it before leaving.”

She handed the envelope to Theo. He looked perplexed but did not open it. Amelia was already speaking again.

“My name is Simone Agrippel. There are few besides you who know that name. Peter Williams does. A handful of former students at Stormcloud do, but as far as the board of regents and the administrators here are concerned . . . I am Amelia.”

“Why did you change your name?” Theo asked.

She didn’t miss a beat. “For the same reason I did everything in the last twenty years. To protect myself and the people closest to me. I fear I’ve failed many times.”

“What does that mean?” he pressed.

Amelia put a hand on his bicep and squeezed it gently. She was smiling.

“So tenacious. You come by it naturally,” she sighed, then let go of him. “I changed my name when I returned to this academy. I am here under the authority of the old King of Crowns. But I’ve held my tongue for too long.”

She took a couple of minutes to collect her thoughts.

“You see,” she continued, “I was central to the dissolution of the last generation of Kings. Except for the information in the letter I just gave you, Theo, all the secrets of Stormcloud Academy reside solely in my mind. I’ve committed the long-buried scandals to memory. They can stay there no longer. So where shall I begin?”

“Gail’s father,” Theo demanded, “and his sworn statement with Rafael Scamarcio.”

“Why there?” she asked with trepidation.

“We know that’s important,” he said, “and we partly know what happened.”

“Very well. Then . . . I think you should open that envelope now.”

I held my breath. My eyes drifted down to Amelia’s hands, which were quivering. It struck me that, of all three of us, Amelia was perhaps the least prepared to deal with the truth about Theo. But in a second, the truth would be out.

Theo pressed a finger under the seal. It started to tear. Then Amelia spoke again.

“Theo, before you—”

Her voice cut out.

I blinked.

Something was in my eyes suddenly. Like dust on a windy day or smoke from a raging fire.

I touched my face. It was wet.

“Jesus Christ!”

That was Theo. Something had shocked him.

The window just behind Amelia had a hole in it. A spiderweb of cracks extended out from the hole.

She was gone. It had happened so fast that I couldn’t quite register what was going on. Amelia’s body was crumpled on the floor. And the table and Theo and myself . . . we were covered in her blood.

A bullet. A sniper’s bullet.

Oh, fuck. It was happening again. Everyone who tried to help me died. No matter how close I got to the truth, it would elude me. This was impossible.

Suddenly, I heard a shrill, high-pitched screech, like a siren or a carrion bird. It took me a second to realize I was the one screaming.

Theo tried to console me, but it was too late. My legs were carrying me out of the room.

CHAPTER 25

BIBA

I woke to knocking, insistent and loud, like a SWAT team ready to bust down the door.

I wasn’t naked this time. Not like last year, when Buffy had awoken me to tell me Gail was dead. I was in a man’s t-shirt this time, balled in a fetal position on a bed with a strong man’s arm wrapped tightly around me in a spoon.

My memory was mud, a morass I couldn’t seem to trudge through. Something awful had happened to Theo and Amelia and me. It was like my mind was blocking the memory in the haze of my waking—an act of charity to spare me the dread of remembering too quickly.

Then it came back.

The sniper’s bullet. Time stopping. The blood, her blood, all over me.

I had fled to the hall. A few scantily-clad students were chatting and snogging in the hallway. They hadn’t immediately understood what was happening. It was a Halloween party, after all, and I was covered in blood. They’d figured it was a costume.

It was only when I’d kept screaming that they had realized it wasn’t a lark. Then I’d seen the horror in their eyes.

They’d scattered and fled, and I was running too—where to, I could not say. I’d just needed to get away.

Suddenly, I’d had arms around me. A familiar smell, cedar and musk.

“What happened?” Zephyr had asked. “It’s okay.”

“You’re back,” I’d observed in a daze.

“It’s okay; I have you. You’re safe. We’ll fix this. It’s okay. It’s okay.”

I looked groggily at the arm around me in bed. There was ink. Zephyr had returned from Morocco at the moment when all hope was lost.

Zephyr had taken me back to his room, carefully unlaced my blood-soaked dress, and led me back to the shower. All time was molasses at that point, but even so, I felt like it had taken a while to get the congealed bio-hazard out of my hair—and with it the atrocious stench of death. His shampoo and soap only managed to mask the lingering smell of Amelia partly. Her physical annihilation clung to me.

Zeph had given me one of his t-shirts and held me while I wept.

Then it was morning, and he was still holding me. I was a frightened animal. If he let me go, I would flee in terror.

Amelia had been my mentor, my friend, my surrogate mother. She hadn’t given of herself freely, but at a point . . . for whatever reason . . . she’d shown me I had promise, intelligence, value. And I’d found, somewhat to my surprise, that I cared quite a bit what she thought of me.

And now she was dead. Like Gail, she died trying to help me.

The knocking grew louder. Zephyr groaned in annoyance, but I told him not to worry. I’d get it. He was too travel-weary to argue.

I found my way to the door on unstable legs and cracked it.

A police officer waited on the other side. I remembered him from the Wachsbrunnen police station months before.

“Miss Quinn,” he said.

“Uh-huh.”

“Put on some clothes. I am to escort you to Herr Schmidt’s office.”

Schmidt was waiting for me, and Detective Soglio was right next to him.

They sat side by side behind the desk. I was led in, not in cuffs but with the officer’s hand wrapped firmly around my arm.

“Why is it,” Schmidt asked, “that the moment blood spills at Stormcloud Academy, I know Biba Quinn will be involved?”

My hands closed into tight fists, and my face grew hot with disgust. My mentor and the longtime leader at his school had been murdered. The student before the Dean had witnessed her death. The least he could do was not make glib remarks.

“I’m sorry if her death was an inconvenience,” I sneered. “I hope you feel better knowing I want to die too.”

Soglio winced. He looked me up and down, and for a moment, I wondered if he would improbably be on my side.

Only a moment, though.

“You were in zis backroom vith Miss Amelia, no?”

“Yes,” I said, “so we can all agree I wasn’t outside firing the shot, right?”

“Ja, dat’s most likely true. But you must understand our suspicions.”

“I don’t understand, actually.”

Schmidt leaped in impatiently. “Miss Quinn, you were set to meet Gail Monfort when she died. You were meeting with Amelia when she was killed. This is a pattern, is it not?”

Soglio put his hand on Schmidt’s arm. Surely he understood that these accusations put both Stormcloud and the Wachsbrunnen police in an uncomfortable spot. If they were going to make these charges against me, wouldn’t they have to arrest me?

“Look,” Soglio said with his sleepy, put-upon tone, “it’s all rather . . . how would you say? Peculiar.”

“You can’t lock me up for ‘peculiar.’”

“I can, though,” Schmidt shot back. “I was a fool to let you off-campus after what went on last year. You’re under house arrest, Biba. I don’t want you leaving the building except if you have classes in one of the annex properties. Is that clear?”

I nodded curtly and turned to leave them. Then Soglio called to me.

“One more thing, Miss Quinn. All of dis could be, you know, quite easily remedied if you were villing to speak candidly vith us. How did you come to be in Miss Amelia’s office last night? Vhat were you discussing and vhy?”

I thought about it for a moment. Maybe it was time to start cooperating. Then I thought about Zeph and Arvo and their crusade against anyone collaborating with the Academy leadership. It was too dangerous. I couldn’t talk.

At least not alone.

“Counteroffer,” I said. “Theo Brant and I will testify together. And only if you provide the questions in writing, in advance.”

Soglio sighed. “Not possible.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because your partner in crime,” Schmidt advised me, “has disappeared. Theo Brant fled campus last night.”

It was like the pressure dropped in the room. I felt light-headed.

“You’re holding the bag here,” Schmidt went on. “If I were you, I’d cut a deal right quickly.”

“I’ll be quite honest,” Soglio said. “I do not think you are zee culprit here. But I believe you know who is, and you are hiding it. You’d do vell to come clean.”

For what felt like an eternity, my eyes darted back and forth. The situation was untenable. For all I knew, Zephyr would be suspicious of me just for taking this meeting with Schmidt. Theo was gone. Amelia was dead. Who knew what Arvo was up to. . . .

“Thank you for your counsel,” I told them. “I will remain on campus.”

I turned on my heel and left Schmidt’s office.

My mind was spinning like a pinwheel. I needed someone to help me figure this out. But who was there? Who would have my safety in mind?

I ducked into one of the little nooks that Stormcloud Academy was full of. I took my phone from my pocket, drew a breath, and called the Cornwall number. It was pretty early where the Monforts lived, and I didn’t know if they’d even be awake yet. But on the fifth ring, Mary answered.

“That you, Biba?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Goodness me, love. You sound like you seen a ghost.”

“You aren’t too far off.”

“Now, you stay put. I’m putting you on the speaker, so Tommy can hear. You still there?”

Thomas’s voice came in. “Hello there, Biba. What’s going on? Are you safe, love?”

At that moment, hearing the genuine, warm concern in their voices, I broke down in tears. Half-babbling, I told them everything: the Stamoses and their plot to kill me, Amelia and her prior life as Simone, her affair with the King Scamarcio and their child together, the broken Kings and their sudden reemergence at Stormcloud.

I thought of how close Gail and I had gotten to uncovering the truth; then she’d died. Then Theo and I’d gotten even closer with Amelia’s help, and then Amelia had died.

And Theo had fled. And what if Zephyr found out about any of this?

“I just . . . I feel like I’m caught in this big dangerous game of warring factions, and I don’t know what my place is in it. It’s like I’m supposed to carry on the work that my dad and your brother did—trying to make this a better place and stand up for the people who can’t defend themselves—but I don’t even know where to begin.”

There was a long pause. I could almost hear Mary and Thomas mouthing private words to each other. At last, Thomas spoke.

“I met your father only once, Biba. He was with Doug when they returned from their last year at Stormcloud Academy. They didn’t know at the time that it would be their last year, but I could tell they were never going back to that place.”

My voice was caught in my throat. I couldn’t believe he was only just now telling me this. In many ways, I was only putting up with the bullshit at this school for the vague possibility of learning more about Dad.

Thomas continued, “Doug and me—we took your dad ‘round the pub. Cozy little spot down the corner. Tipped quite a few pints of mild that night. And Harry, your father . . . he said something I’ll never forgot about the people at that school.”

“What was it?”

“He said, ‘You can’t trust them for a moment because they have so much to lose. They’re all rich, so they think that binds them together. But the moment things go bad, they turn on each other. They don’t care who gets killed as long as they’re safe.’”

Mary summed it up. “Don’t trust anyone, Biba—especially the men who say they’ll help you. They’ll let you die in a second.”

I shivered. Somehow she understood. I wasn’t in danger from some shadowy figure in the night. My enemy was in my own bed.

We said our goodbyes, and I knew at once I could not stay at Stormcloud. It had killed and beaten down so many. There was no way I’d make it another term.

I was about to walk to Zephyr’s room and start packing when I heard a creaking behind me. A secret passage I didn’t know about.

But before I could turn, a hand clasped over my mouth from behind. An arm went around my waist. I was off my feet and moving backward.

I didn’t even have time to struggle before I was in the darkness, watching as a false wall clasped shut before me.

CHAPTER 26

BIBA

“Shh,” the voice behind me in the dark hissed. “Shut up.”

I knew it in an instant, and it filled me with relief and dread at once. It was Sol who had me pinned. Some part of me couldn’t help but feel calm. It could have been another masked man. It could have been one of Soglio’s men or one of the Kings’ goons there to drag me to a dark hole.

But it was Sol. I knew him at least. Or did I? For just as soon as I realized he was pulling me into a dark secret chamber, I started fighting. If even a third of what Arvo had told me about him was true, I was in mortal danger.

“Let me go!” I shouted under his hand.

“Promise not to scream.”

“Fuck you! I’ll scream if I’ll want.”

I wiggled my head enough to evade his stifling hand. Then I bit down hard on it.

Sol yelped and let me go. I fled to the edge of the room and put my back against the wall.

“What the hell, Biba? I’m bleeding.”

“Tough shit. Stay away from me.”

“I’m trying to help you.”

“That’s a laugh, Stamos. Fucking kidnapping me is not helping me.”

“I tried to tell Theo, but he wouldn’t hear it. I figured you would trust him more. But he’s gone, and you need to be too.”

“What are you talking about?”

He sighed and leaned against a dusty baby grand piano, being stored here in whatever room we were in.

“Arvo and Zephyr,” he groaned. “They’re going to kill me and you.”

“You, maybe. Not me.”

“You’ve gone off the path they want you on. So have I. They’re going to get rid of us and rebuild. It doesn’t matter how much Zephyr loves you. Between his father’s pressure and Arvo’s, he won’t stay true to you. Eventually—probably soon—he’ll leave you in the open air, and a group of hired guns will blow your brains out. There’s already a hole dug at Eelicht.”

That was the cemetery behind campus. He looked like he was telling the truth, but I couldn’t be sure, so I pressed harder.

“If you want me to side with you, Sol, I need some honesty.”

“I am being—”

“Not about that. I want to know how you got me into Stormcloud.”

He nodded. “You know already, Biba. My family paid your way.”

“Why?”

“To kill you. Simple as that.”

For a moment, we stood silently. He didn’t seem to think there was anything weird about what he said. Like he thought speaking honestly for once made the admission palatable.

“What the hell, Sol?”

“From the moment my father died, I was told that Harry Quinn and his daughter had to pay. My mother made the payment so that I could avenge my dad.”

“And why didn’t you?”

Sol looked down. He was thinner than I’d ever seen him. His clothes hung off of him. Even if he wanted me dead in that moment, I could probably have fought him off.

“I got to know you, Biba,” he muttered. “I told myself I would kill you before you had a chance to change my mind. But then I saw you and talked to you, and I couldn’t do it.”

His soulful, hazel eyes looked up and met mine, and I saw he wasn’t lying. Somehow, Arvo’s story about Sol was both totally true and completely wrong. There was a time he meant me harm, but that was not now. He could have killed me, and he hadn’t; he didn’t. He was being sincere, instead.

I couldn’t let my guard down, that much was sure, but our magnetic connection was still there.

“I’m the only one you can trust,” he said, “because I’m the only one who really loves you. I love you enough to defy my family and the Kings. I will give up my life to keep you safe.”

Sol reached out a hand, and instinctively, I took it. He pulled me to him and wrapped his thin, sinewy arms around me.

Our lips met. It was the tenderest embrace I’d ever felt, loving and soft and devoted. His tongue darted lightly between my lips, passionate but not aggressive. This felt as safe as any man ever had. Despite myself, I wanted it to go on forever. It took an extreme amount of willpower to push off and end the kiss.

I broke away.

I looked into Sol’s warm, seemingly sincere eyes. We stood in silence, regarding each other, and I puzzled it out.

Can I do this? I wondered. Can I forget that he intended to murder me and trust him?

I didn’t know, but then again, I might not have any choice. . . .

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