21.1 | Speaking Stones and Guilty Ghosts

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Jewelry that talked couldn't be trusted, especially not when one had acquired it from an evil witch who kidnapped innocent girls.

Nika, whispered an ancient, malicious voice. Pick me up, put me on. Use me, use me, use me.

Squeezing her eyes, she raised her mental shield, a wall of diamond to ward off the magic pendant's vile temptations. She didn't know how it was possible. She didn't care. Not right now, at least.

Her fingers ached as she clung to the leather seat. The forest zipped by in a distorted blur of color as the SUV sped along the highway. She might have told Ren to slow down, but she feared that would only make him more pissed off.

When they'd left the hedgewitch's shop, he hadn't even allowed her to drive the other vehicle. Later, he would send someone to pick it up. And after what had just happened, Nika wasn't keen on questioning him.

"I told you to stay at the manor," he growled through clenched teeth.

It was the first time he'd spoken. Nika glanced at him, at the white-knuckled hands that gripped the steering wheel. Though the deathly violence no longer gripped him, he was still undoubtedly capable of squashing her, if given a good reason. And tonight's events may very well have qualified.

He wouldn't have actually hurt her, though...right?

"I'm looking for Lu," Nika said, trying to remain calm. "You don't understand what it's like to sit in that house and do nothing while she's held captive somewhere."

"It's not your bloodydamned job!"

She flinched. "Not everyone is only motivated by their job."

Ren didn't miss the underhanded attack. "You don't get to insult me about my work ethic right now." A soft snarl. "I haven't slept in over thirty-six hours because I tried to do something nice for you, and I come back to find the manor empty, and you're not even at headquarters! Tell me, Nika, what kind of manipulative shit have you done to make six keepers disappear like that?"

Wicked girl, said the amulet in her pocket. He's right. So many sins you've collected, and so many more you can commit. Just put me around that pretty, little neck and see what fun we'll have.

This time, it wasn't difficult to ignore it. Nika couldn't get past Ren's words, and something inside her just...snapped.

So she screamed, "Those loyal keepers you assigned to guard me—they left! Walked right out of the house because protecting the Halfblood Bastard is a waste of their bloodydamned time!"

"You expect me to believe they defied my orders just because of your blood status?"

"I don't give a damn what you believe! But maybe you're right. All of this is my fault, and not because I'm trying to save Lu."

It's because you're a dirty halfblood that no one cares about, and if you don't wear me, I will—

Nika slammed her diamond-hard shield in front of her mind, and at the same time, Ren slammed the brakes. The car came to a screeching halt, seatbelt digging into Nika's chest. They were lucky the highway was vacant at this time of night, or else they might have been torpedoed from behind.

Gasping from the suddenness of their stop, Nika exclaimed, "What the hell is wrong with you?"

Ren's gaze burned through her left temple, but Nika didn't feel like granting him the respect of eye contact. She hated him, and his stupid tallness, and stupid scowls, and stupid accent, and—

"They really just abandoned you?"

She didn't know what to make of the gentle tone, so she scoffed and snapped, "Everyone abandons me. If you haven't noticed that by now, then you're even dumber than you look."

A long silence passed, and she still refused to look at him until he said, "Give me your arm."

She raised a brow. "Excuse me?"

"You're elbow is dislocated. It needs to be reset."

When she still didn't cooperate, he leaned across the center console and firmly took hold of her wrist and upper arm. He didn't even give her a chance to prepare before thrusting the joint back into place. Nika released an involuntary yelp as pain knifed through the limb, but the discomfort and unease of the injury soon vanished, leaving a dull throb in their wake.

"So small," Ren murmured, probably more to himself.

Nika glanced to find her hand resting on his. Being swallowed by his was probably more accurate. Remembering the so-called inadequacy of her physical appearance, she ripped away, but Ren stopped her by closing his fingers around her own.

She might have squeezed his hand back—it was delightfully warm—but she was no better than frozen as their gazes met.

"Small can be good," Ren said. "And it suits you."

An unbearable moment passed before he released her. She cradled the elbow close as he began driving again, at a much slower rate than before.

And Nika's mouth had a mind of its own as she found herself saying, "I guess big and dumb suits you, too."

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