“You will choose a mate, and then take the throne.” Lilith’s voice resonated with a finality that made me cringe. I held in my irritation and scanned the great throne room. When she put her power into her words, no one—not even me—could disobey.

Fucking rules.

Lilith was my mother—and Lucifer knew I loved her—but I couldn’t rule the vampires while under her thumb and no more than her puppet. When I did become the High King of the vampires, there were going to be changes. The old ways didn’t work for us as they once did.

I fisted my hands over the arms of my throne. Why we were meeting in the great room to discuss my mating situation was beyond me. Mother was supposed to be gone already, but The Blood—the vampire council—demanded I find a mate first. They never gave their reasons, which made me suspicious.

“Mother, it isn’t that easy.” My chest tightened with an unfamiliar feeling. Longing and loneliness stirred within. I’d already met my mate, not that it would do me any good. I couldn’t claim my one true mate, ever.

It was several years ago. My guard had convinced me to go to a local bar owned by one of their own that catered to both vampires and lycans. Many of the lycans attended public schools with the humans, able to blend in all but one night a month when the moon was full. The younger lycans were notorious for bar-hopping, and vampires weren’t much different.

A vampire-owned bar wasn’t unusual. We owned the night, after all, and humans in bars made poor choices, leaving us open to feed without detection or having to use our telepathic abilities. Using telepathy to mask our feeding always drained us.

We’d entered a local bar that particular night, and I’d almost left when I smelled them. Lycans. A growl escaped me as I walked through the door, my guard flanking me. It was no secret that vampires and lycans had warred since the beginning of time. Well, maybe not that long, but there were times it felt that way.

Scanning every dark corner of the place, I spotted several of the wolves crammed into booths in near the back of the bar. The entire establishment reeked of them, so I slowed my breathing to minimize the overwhelming scent of dog.

Ignoring the lycans, my guard and I made our way to the bar where a small group of vampires close to my age gathered. They met my gaze briefly and nodded their heads once in a slight bow. I nodded back in greeting. One thing I hated about being the vampire prince was my people insisted on being at attention in my presence. It was annoying. My people weren’t fucking puppets.

They were people with lives. As long as they didn’t expose us to the humans, I didn’t care what they did.

It was one thing I was already starting to change—I only wanted them to address me formally when I was sitting on my throne.

Once seated, the bartender took our drink orders and left. My guard rested against the bar so he could watch the door and my back simultaneously. “You know there are large factions of younger vampires in favor of ending our centuries-long feud with the lycans.”

Yeah, I knew. However, I had little interest. “Nothing I can do about it at the moment.”

My time to rule would come soon enough—three to four years to be exact – and I didn’t want to waste my free years worrying about vampire-lycan politics.

The air conditioning kicked on, blowing cool air through the bar and mixing the scents of vampire and lycans. That was when her scent hit me full-force, nearly knocking me off my stool. Rose water and mint, mixed with an intoxicating earthy spice that called to my soul. My body heated and my heart pulsed, pumping blood straight to my dick. What the fuck?

My head whipped around, searching for the owner of that scent—the scent of my mate. When I spotted her, the noise from the bar around me seemed to disappear for a few moments. Her wavy chestnut hair was pulled back in a high ponytail, and two thick strands of hair framed her oval face. She wore a pair of faded blue jeans with tears cut into the thighs and a black T-shirt that said, “I howl at the moon.”

She was a lycan. Fuck me.

“Who is she?” I nudged my guard. He came to the bar frequently and was more likely to know. I suspected he was one of the ones encouraging vampires to give lycans a chance.

My guard followed my line of sight and grunted. “Jillian,” he said. “She’s hot, but she’s too hot. Trouble. She’s the lycan princess, only heir to the High Alpha.”

Fuck me. She was my mate. I knew it as surely as I knew I could never be with her. An ache formed in my soul at that thought. Normally I didn’t have a problem with breaking the rules and taking what was mine. But this was different.

I had to take the vampire throne one day soon and choose a vampire mate. It was the law and my future. A future I’d have to live without my fated mate. I’d never be accepted if I had a lycan as my mate, much less the lycan princess.

“Are you listening to me?” My mother’s steel voice snapped me out of the memory I loved to torture myself with. When I turned my head to glance at her over my shoulder, she continued, “It absolutely is that easy, Kane. Marry Trinity. You’ve been friends all your lives.”

I rolled my eyes and slowly uncurled my fist to press my palm to the cool wood of my throne. My mother, the matchmaker. Mating with Trinity was a hell-fucking-no. Not only had the female been my best friend since we were toddlers, I considered her my sister.

Not happening.

“Why don’t you take a mate, Mother?” I retorted, not bothering to keep my annoyance out of my tone. Mother knew I viewed Trinity as my sister and best friend and nothing more. There were no romantic feelings there. Never would be.

Lilith’s motherly disdain turned to a frosty glare. “You know why I can’t take a mate.” Closing her eyes, she took several breaths as if trying to compose herself. Her anger scented the air along with loneliness and something else I couldn’t pinpoint. “I am tied to Lucifer, and unless you want him to come take over as High King of the vampires, you will find a mate and claim the throne.”

Trinity took that moment to make her presence known. She moved around to my front and sat on the steps at my feet. Meeting my gaze, she kept her tone superior. “She’s right, you know.”

“Not now, Trinity,” I snapped at her. I cared for her, she’d been my best friend as long as I could remember, but she was hell bent on marrying me. I couldn’t do it. Her insistence on bedding me had begun to grate on my nerves, and I’d found myself dodging her and making excuses not to see her at all. It had put a big strain on our friendship over the last year.

“How many times are we going to have this conversation before you realize I’m right?” She stood, and I watched her carefully. When she reached for my hand, I jerked it away with a snarl.

Trinity wore the black uniform of my guards, but she’d had it altered so it was form fitting to show off her modest curves and full breasts. Her body was curvy in all the right places, toned, and taut. She had full, pouty lips and big green eyes. Half of our coven wanted to mate her, but I was convinced her true mate wasn’t someone we’d met. If she had felt the tug of a true mate, she never would’ve mistaken her puppy love for me as real.

She didn’t see it that way.

“We’re true mates, Kane. I don’t know why you fight what I know you feel.” She tossed her white-blonde braid over her shoulder. I used to love her hair when we were simply best friends and things were good between us. It was long, past her butt, and looked like spun silver in the right light. When we were very small, if I was upset, she’d lay beside me and cover us both with her hair. It had felt like it was us against the world back then.

Not anymore.

I slammed my hand down, the crack of my palm meeting the arm of my throne echoing throughout the room. Anger flowed in my veins. I was done with this conversation. “Silence!”

I used the authority of my position and let it line my tone. She had a hard time replying to me, her true King. The Blood wanted me to be the ruler, but it demanded I have a partner. The Blood didn’t care who my partner was as long as that mate was a vampire and not the lycan princess I longed to claim.

Trinity breathed heavily, obviously willing her voice to work again. I hadn’t put much power into the word—she wouldn’t be silent for long. Unfortunately.

“Enough,” Lilith said. Her tone didn’t have any power behind it, but it was laced with irritation. She’d been listening to us argue since we’d learned to talk.

“I called everyone here to discuss the attack this morning.” She quirked her eyebrow at Trinity, who instantly returned to her post behind my right shoulder, ready to defend.

My mother watched her go with a bemused expression on her face. Trinity’s parents died in a Lycan attack when we were toddlers. I’d refused to let her leave my side after that, so my mother raised her alongside me. She viewed her as the daughter she never had, and I viewed her as the sister I never had. How was I supposed to switch those feelings to that of a mate?

Maybe it was my mother’s intent all along to have Trinity and I rule together. If that was the case, then I would’ve liked to have been in on that plan. I doubted it would change how I felt in that moment, especially after scenting Jillian as my true mate.

No one compared to Jillian. She was mine and I wasn’t sure I could even bond with anyone else while Jillian was alive.

A growl rumbled from my chest. I hated the politics The Blood enforced on my people. One day I’d find a way to change those laws.

“An entire coven was taken out just after dawn. The Blood is extremely concerned.” Lilith’s words were heavy with sorrow and her eyes changed from their usual black to red as her anger rose to the surface. She loved her subjects, learning a little bit about as many of them as she could, making her a passionate ruler of the people. “An entire bloodline, gone in one fell swoop. The lycans are behind this, and they must pay. They’re upping their game, itching for war. The Blood and I believe it is time to prepare for a full-scale attack. If they want war, we’ll give it to them.” Her voice was lethal, ready to rally the troops.

I didn’t agree with Mother. There were too many questions, like, where was the proof it was the lycans?

“Why wasn’t I at this council meeting?” If I was to be the High King, why did they keep me out of the meetings? I should’ve been privy to all the same information Mother had.

“It wasn’t an actual meeting. I was checking in on the council leader to see how his vacation went when the news came in.” She waved her hand at me, dismissing my annoyance. “Don’t get up in arms, you don’t want the job anyway.”

The last statement was laced with sarcasm, mocking me. I gritted my teeth and held my tongue before I said something I would later regret.

“It’s not that I don’t want the job, Mother. The Blood makes it hard to get excited about being their fucking puppet.” I fought to keep the irritation out of my voice, but I failed. Of course I wanted to be King. I was born to rule my people, I just didn’t want to play by the council’s ridiculous rules.

A good leader didn’t need a mate. Mother had managed this long without a King. The Blood would never argue with her, nor would they enforce the mating rule on her. She was Lilith, Queen of the vampires, and Lucifer’s—or Lucian as she liked to call him—consort.

My mother loved me, but it wasn’t beyond my knowledge she became pregnant with me so she’d have an heir to the vampire throne. “I don’t want to choose an untrue mate and a live in a loveless marriage.”

She rose from her throne, and even I had to admit she looked weary. Her shoulders drooped. She’d ruled the vampires with Lucifer’s blessing for a millennia, but he was calling her home. I didn’t know much of her story, but I knew that she didn’t like to talk about my father. She avoided it at all costs.

Stopping beside me, she placed a hand on my shoulder. “Kane, you’re of age. I can’t stay here and rule. Figure it out, and do it soon. And stop speaking of love. It’s a fairy tale for human children.” She swept past me, leaving the room, followed by her courtiers and staff.

I sighed as I slouched on my throne, positioned one step below hers. If she had her way, Trinity and I would take the top dais, and she’d be free to go off and do whatever it was she did when Lucifer called her back to Hell.

Jillian’s face flashed in my mind. I closed my eyes, savoring the memory of her, because that was all she could be to me. My mate was safe—I’d paid through the nose to have eyes on her whenever she left her house. I couldn’t be with her, but now that I’d discovered her, I couldn’t let her come to harm. She was mine to protect.

Mine to claim…

From the moment I’d scented her years ago, I’d thought about the possibilities of ending the war and what it would be like if she and I mated and merged the vampires and lycans. An impossible fantasy. Or was it?

I’d been researching ways to do it, but first, I had to get to the bottom of whoever attacked my people that morning. My gut told me it wasn’t the lycans. The attack was too sudden and cowardly to be anyone else. Plus, it would breach the treaty the lycans had with us. An attack would force Mother’s hand to strike back. Yet, Mother hadn’t ordered a retaliation strike. Maybe she suspected it wasn’t the lycans, too.

I would get to the bottom of it. If I didn’t, my vampires were going to tear the countryside apart in a war against the lycans and risk exposing us all. Worse case, Jillian would be killed along with her father, the High Alpha.

Anger rose at the thought and I fisted my hands. I wouldn’t allow any harm to come to my mate.

We’d made it to the twenty-first century without the humans having proof of our existence. Lots of people believed we were real, but we’d managed to block all scientific evidence, and so had the lycans. If the lycans were behind the attacks, the rage of my vampires might be more than I could contain.

It was time to visit my mate. I just wished I could do it without her realizing the same thing I had. We were fated mates, and there was no way we could be together.