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Rhea Daniels didn’t like boats. She’d always wondered if it had something to do with being a fire wielder. All Moroi used magic tied to one of the four elements—earth, air, water, or fire. Those who used water always seemed to love swimming and being in boats. Not Rhea. The rocking back and forth—even on a large boat like this—made her nauseous, and she had a recurrent fear of falling over the side and sinking into a cold, dark grave.
That didn’t stop her from standing near the edge tonight, far from the laughter of the others who were still going on about the attack on the beach. She didn’t mind the isolation; she didn’t know most of them anyway. Besides, the yacht’s outer sides received the most wind, and that cooling air made her feel a little less sick. Nonetheless, she still gripped the railing with a tightness that made her fingers cramp. Grimacing, she glanced ahead at their destination. Like all vampires, she had excellent night vision and could discern the island’s dark shape against the star-clustered sky. They weren’t moving nearly fast enough toward it, as far as she was concerned.
“Don’t your hands hurt?”
The voice startled her. Moroi had good hearing, too, but the newcomer had caught her off guard. Glancing over, she saw a guy watching her curiously as he shoved his hands into khaki pants. The wind was making a mess of his pale blond hair, but he didn’t seem to notice. That hair color was fascinating. Her own was a light shade of gold, but his was a platinum that would probably look white in the right lighting. There was also a regal air to him, like someone who’d been born and bred to power and prestige, but that description applied to most everyone on this trip.
“No,” she lied. Silence fell. Rhea hated silence. She always felt the need to make conversation and struggled now to think of what to say next. “Why are you over here?” The words came out harsh, and she winced.
He gave her a small smile. He had nice lips, she decided. “Do you want me to leave? Is this your private part of the ship?”
“No, no, of course not.” She hoped he couldn’t see her blush in the dark. “I just thought . . . I mean, I’m just surprised you aren’t with everyone else.”
She thought he might make some teasing remark, but then, to her surprise, the smile vanished. He averted his eyes and stared out to sea. She studied his clothes as he did. He wasn’t in a tux or anything, but the slacks and sweater screamed more wealth and status. She felt self-conscious in her jeans. His next words brought her back from her fashion analysis.
“I guess I’m just tired of hearing the Strigoi stories,” he said at last, voice stiff. “Like how it was some kind of awesome sideshow.”
“Ah.” She glanced back to where that girl—Ashley?—was recounting her tale for the hundredth time. Rhea kept hearing snatches of it, and the story seemed to grow more elaborate with each telling. In this version, the Strigoi had actually thrown her to the ground, and all the guardians had been needed to rescue her. Rhea returned her attention to her odd companion. “Yeah . . . I don’t really find that interesting—at least not the way they do.”
“You don’t?” He turned back to her, eyes widening as though it was the strangest thing in the world that someone wouldn’t think a Strigoi attack was cool. She saw then that his eyes were jade-colored, as fascinating to her as his hair. That shade of green was beautiful and rare, only showing up in a few of the royal families. The Dashkovs were one, but she couldn’t recall the others.
“Of course not,” she scoffed, hoping her scrutiny of him hadn’t been too obvious. “They wouldn’t be so excited if someone had actually been hurt. I mean, God, don’t they remember that attack earlier this year in San Jose? When all those people died?”
The guy’s posture went rigid, his eyes still wide, and she suddenly regretted her words. Had he known one of the victims? She felt stupid and awkward, silently berating herself for not thinking before she spoke.
“I’m sorry—I shouldn’t have—”
“You remember that?” he asked, his voice as puzzled as before.
“Yes . . . how couldn’t I? I mean . . . well, I didn’t know anyone personally, but all those people . . . most were Lazars, but there was that Szelsky lord . . . and Prince Dragomir’s wife. What was her name?”
“Alma,” he said softly, still regarding her wonderingly.
Rhea hesitated, not sure how much she should say about it. She was certain now that he’d known someone. “Well, it was horrible. Beyond horrible. I can’t even imagine how their families must feel. . . .”
“It was six months ago,” he said abruptly.
Rhea frowned, trying to figure out the meaning in that statement. He wasn’t brushing it off or implying that six months was a long time—which, in her opinion, it wasn’t. He spoke as though he was testing her, which didn’t make much sense.
“I don’t think six months is a long enough time to get over losing someone you love,” she said at last. “I know I couldn’t. Did—did you know anyone there?”
He opened his mouth to say something, but a sudden wave jolted the boat. It lurched slightly, causing a few eager squeals from the crowd beyond them. Rhea gasped and squeezed the rail harder—which she honestly hadn’t thought was even possible—and lost her footing a little. Her companion caught hold of her, helping her stay steady as the boat righted itself and regained its smooth sailing.
Deep breaths, deep breaths, she told herself. Wasn’t that what people did to calm themselves? Heavy breathing didn’t seem to be a problem for her. She was on the verge of hyperventilating, and her heart felt like it was going to pound right out of her chest.
“Easy,” he said, voice low and soothing. “You’re okay. It was just a bad wave.”
Rhea couldn’t answer. Her body remained taut and locked, unable to move or react in her terror.
“Hey,” he tried again. “Everything’s fine. Look—we’re almost there, see?”
With much effort, Rhea turned to where he nodded. Sure enough, the island was much closer. A cluster of lights marked the dock, and figures along the shore seemed ready to guide them in.
Exhaling, she relaxed her grip—a tiny bit—and shifted her body. He still held on to her, apparently unsure if she really was okay.
“Thank you,” she managed at last. “I’m . . . I’m fine now.”
He waited a few more moments and then finally released her. As he lifted his hand from where it had been pressed against one of hers, he seemed surprised to notice the ring she wore. Its large marquise-cut diamond glittered like a star on her finger. He stared at it in shock, as though she was wearing a cobra wrapped around her hand.
“Are you . . . are you engaged?”
“To Stephen Badica.”
The tone of his voice—his complete sense of disbelief—suddenly triggered a fierce spark of anger in her. Of course he was surprised. Why wouldn’t he be? Everyone else was. They all wondered how it was possible that Rhea Daniels—who was only half-royal—could have caught the interest of someone who came from a such a prestigious branch of his line. Her parents’ marriage had been a big enough scandal. Everyone had thought her mother married beneath her, and Rhea knew the sting of that was what had caused her mother to encourage this engagement to Stephen.
Still, Rhea hated the insinuations. She’d heard the whispers, people who wondered if maybe her parents had cut some kind of deal with Stephen’s parents, some bribe. Others said that Stephen was interested because she was easy—and that the engagement wouldn’t last once he tired of her. She knew they seemed like a weird match. Rhea was quiet—more of an observer of the world. Stephen was outgoing and boisterous, always at the center of the world—so much so that he was off now with the others, reliving the earlier excitement.
Rhea stepped back from the blond guy. “Yes,” she said crisply. “Seriously. He’s great. He invited me along.” She was one of the few people here who hadn’t attended St. Vladimir’s Academy.
“Yeah . . .” This guy didn’t sound entirely sure. Mostly, he still seemed baffled. “I just . . . I just can’t see you guys together.”
Of course not. He was obviously someone very elite. Even among royalty, there were those who were better than others. It was honestly a wonder he was even talking to her.
“Don’t you worry . . . don’t you worry you’re too young?” Again, he carried that wondering tone, further incensing her.
“When you’ve found someone good, you don’t need to jump from person to person.”
He flinched and seemed to fumble for a response, making her wonder if she’d hit a sensitive area. He was saved when a pretty brown-haired girl called to him to come join them. She addressed him as Eric.
“You’d better go,” said Rhea. “It was nice talking to you.”
He started to turn and then hesitated once more. “What’s your name?”
“Rhea . . .” He said the name as though he was analyzing each syllable. “I’m Eric.”
“Yeah, I heard.” She stared back over the boat’s edge, signaling that she was done talking to him. She had the impression he might say something more, but after several heavy seconds, she could just make out the sound of him walking away as the waves crashed alongside the boat.
"Sunshine" is a short story set in the Vampire Academy world. To learn more or to buy the book, visit the Anthologies page.