“Had?” Sylvie snorted as she crossed the threshold. “That’s rich.”
Morena’s voice and a chorus of barking emerged from the kitchen, the happy hubbub of youngsters. They paused in the foyer while Victoria kicked her flip-flops into the shoe bin tucked beneath the counsel table. “I’m going to grab a quick shower and pack a bag. I’ll meet you in the kitchen in ten.”
Sylvie’s eyes pinched at the corners, and mouth bowed. “You’re really going with him.”
“I have to.” She darted closer to give her friend a quick hug and then stepped back with an apologetic smile. “I’ll explain. Just give me a few minutes to get my stuff together.”
Grim-faced, Sylvie nodded and marched toward the busy kitchen with measured steps. Her aura formed a shell of dark colors, pulled tight about the skald’s body like a burlap blanket in the dead of winter.
She watched her friend go, a lump forming in her belly. Once Sylvie rounded the corner, Victoria headed in the opposite direction toward the master bedroom. She took a hot shower, dressed in clean clothing, and packed a duffel bag. With the strap slung over her shoulder, she made her way to the kitchen where Sylvie had her hands full feeding the hungry pack gathered about the kitchen island.
Victoria waded through a sea of squirming wolves to claim a sandwich from the tray on the center island. Stomach rumbling with sudden hunger, she downed it and started on a second. Lately, she stuffed herself whenever she was able to keep food down. Pregnancy seemed to have driven her body insane—severe nausea one second, voracious hunger the next.
As soon as they wolves ate, all four headed outside again with Morena lolloping alongside them. Sylvie heaved a deep sigh. “Hopefully, she’ll wear them out.”
Victoria carried a dirty dish to the sink, and picked up a washrag to wipe down the counter. She glanced at her friend with sympathy. “I’m sorry. I know they’re a handful. You do all of the hard work.”
“Don’t downplay your contribution, Victory. You keep us safe.” The Beta wolf’s gaze dropped to Victoria’s stomach. Her face twisted in a worried frown. “I’m so sorry you walked into an ambush. Your instincts told you to stay away and I pushed you to go. This is my fault.”
“Don’t apologize, Sylvie. It wasn’t your fault.”
Sylvie exhaled, shoulders hunched as if beneath a great burden. “Sure feels that way. I urged you to go. If you or Morena had been hurt or killed …”
“We’re both fine, so there’s no sense in beating yourself up about it. It’s no one’s fault …” Victoria patted her friend’s back. More than anything, she longed to ease Sylvie’s worries. “Besides, it wasn’t the hunters who set the ambush. No one could have anticipated … No one’s to blame.”
She looked down, frowning at the floor. Except that wasn’t true … After months of blaming herself for the deaths of Daniel, her parents, and so many other members of her pack, life granted her an unexpected acquittal–a traitor and an enemy. But like a two-edged sword, that absolution wasn’t complete.
Arms crossed, Sylvie watched her. “Are you really leaving alone with Sawyer Barrett on a mad vengeance quest? Have you considered how incredibly dangerous this is?”
“This isn’t just about vengeance. Yes, to some degree, it is. Honor demands that Daniel, and mom and dad, and everyone else who died should be avenged.”
Disapproval shone in Sylvie’s hard stare. “You’re endangering yourself and your child.”
Victoria met Sylvie’s gaze. “If I don’t, then our entire future is at stake. Not just mine or the baby’s, but yours and the rest of the pack, and every generation to come.”
“I know that look.” Sylvie’s sharp eyes lit with curiosity and concern. “What aren’t you telling me?”
Victoria sucked in a deep breath. A confession burst from her, an unstoppable force. “Freya is angry and not speaking to me, Sylvie. Over something I did. Something I’d do again in a heartbeat.”
Sylvie’s face paled. “Oh, sweetie,” she said, a mournful moan. “What happened?”
“I can’t even tell you without placing your life in danger.” Her face contorted into a grimace. Tears threatened, stinging her eyes, and she died of humiliation. Stupid pregnancy … stupid hormones. She despised the weakness in herself. She desired control, austerity, stoicism–the traits of a successful Alpha.
The skald’s brow furrowed. “Does this have anything to do with Daniel?”
Swallowing the lump in her throat, she nodded.
“Tell me, please.”
“Daniel’s soul was supposed to go to Valhalla, but I didn’t escort him there. I failed him and I failed my duty as a Valkyrie. Now his soul is held captive, tormented by the same vampire who arranged the explosions that killed my mother and father. And it’s my fault.” The confession burst from her lips as if forced from the depths of her soul. Sorrow welled up in Victoria’s heart, so vast and aching, she had no words to describe it. She gazed into her friend’s kind eyes and lowered her mental barriers, allowing her suffering to flow through the pack link.
“I don’t pretend to understand, but there’s no way you could have known,” Sylvie said with the strength of conviction in her tone.
“Did Daniel ever discuss his religious beliefs with you?”
“No. He never even hinted.” Dry mouthed, Victoria looked away, shocked to realize how many secrets her lover had kept from her. She and Daniel had never discussed religion or politics. He’d known she was a priestess of Freya, and she’d assumed he was some denomination of Christian because his family threw up a few strands of lights and decorated a tree the day after Thanksgiving. Intellectually, she understood why; but on a fundamental level, she felt betrayed. One thing was certain: as soon as she rescued his soul, they were going to have a serious discussion about honesty and priorities.
“Then how can it be your fault?”
“The gods won’t care for excuses.” Victoria shuddered, recalling Jake’s towering rage upon learning of his son’s fate. She was lucky he’d chosen to spare her.
“If only I could offer some wise words to ease your pain,” Sylvie said sadly.
Victoria mustered a faint smile but desperation filled her voice. “I have to save him. I have to. I can’t live with myself, knowing that I’m the reason he’s suffering …”
“I’m so sorry, sweetie.” Sylvie’s arms enveloped her in a strong hug.
“Thank you.” Fighting tears, she turned her face into Sylvie’s throat. The older woman’s strength buoyed her spirit, providing a steady lantern of love to guide her out of the darkness. Her insides felt like a shriveled husk, sucked dry of every bit of moisture. She longed for the freedom to cry but instead she stood there, cold and dry like an empty well.
Sylvie patted her back. “You take too much on yourself. You need to learn to recognize that some things are simply beyond your control. Allow yourself to be human. Forgive yourself for your mistakes. Pray to Freya and she’ll grant you absolution. I have no doubt.”
“I’ll try. I promise.” She nodded, but her heart held monumental self-doubt. Could she muster the humility necessary to admit to wrongdoing and beg forgiveness? Maybe she wasn’t a good enough person. Maybe she wasn’t worthy of being Freya’s priestess.
Sylvie went to fetch a glass of water, so she dabbed at her eyes with a napkin and then blew her nose. Numbness set in, leaving her mummified, but even that was better than being about to explode from the buildup of internal pressure.
“Here you go.” Sylvie extended the cup.
“Thanks.” Victoria accepted the drink and downed it all at once. She placed her glass inside the dishwasher and located a small cooler on the top shelf of the pantry. She filled the bottom with freezer packs and loaded some drinks,
“Do we have any Cheetos?”
Her friend’s expression contorted into disgust. “Is that a joke?”
“No, it’s a craving,” Victoria muttered, closing the cooler. “Never mind, it’ll fade. I really need to hit the road.”
“Are you going to tell me where you’re going?”
“Arizona,” Victoria said. Jake had gone on ahead in pursuit of the traitor. Their plan called for her and Sawyer to follow in the Chevelle.
“You’re going home,” Sylvie said, expression serious.
“This is home now,” Victoria said, meaning the words with all of her heart. At least here she had something good—the memory of Arik and his legacy. She would raise their daughter in his house, on his land, and do everything in her power to assure their child had a long and happy life.
“Promise me you’ll be careful,” Sylvie said, her face wrinkled with worry.
“I will. I promise.”