Mac rounded the desk to meet his queen with a pensive expression on his face. “You’re early, Annie,” he remarked, shielding Andrea to give her time to collect herself. He bent down to brush his lips against the redhead’s cheek.
“Well, I’m certainly glad I didn’t arrive ten minutes later,” Rhianna smiled, unable to curb her teasing. She’d never seen Mac so flustered, but then he’d never met Liliana Rose Romanov before. She had a thousand questions flying around inside her head but she kept silent, waiting to see how this was going to play out.
“Andrea Ruminskey, meet Rhianna Armand.”
Lily had slid from the desk, her expression already under control. She had even managed to slow her heartbeat. She watched Rhianna’s face carefully, waiting for the redhead to announce her true identity.
“A pleasure to meet you, Andrea,” the other woman answered, her expression giving nothing away to the male watching them both. Of course she wasn’t ready to leave it at that.
“Nice play on the name, Lily. I don’t think it’s going to mollify your father much, though. He is rather irate at the moment, which is why Caleb couldn’t be here. Your little note was more of a red rag to a bull than an appeasement for your disappearance.”
Rhianna always managed to make her feel like she was five years old again. She didn’t do it unkindly and was always supportive and caring, but she still managed to reduce her to a defensive child. Lily straightened her shoulders and tilted her chin up.
“I’m sorry Dad’s upset, Annie, I really am. I don’t want to cause the family any grief, but I need to live my own life, and disappearing seemed to be the only way. Do you know I’m a month shy of my thirtieth birthday and I haven’t even been kissed by a male? I can’t breathe at the compound without Dad getting a written report about it.”
“You could have spoken to Rafe, Liliana, or even to me if you didn’t want to discuss anything that personal with him.” Rhianna’s mental tone was still kind but there was a hint of reproof in it. “We could have spoken to your father on your behalf.”
“The only person Dad listens to is Mom and you know that. Sure, Rafe could have Commanded him but he won’t impose his will on a member of his pack if it’s a family matter. If Mom couldn’t convince Dad to unbend, no one could have.” Lily could hear a whiny tone creeping into her mental voice and she worked to tamp it down. She was a grown woman and shouldn’t need to justify her actions to anyone.
Rhianna didn’t answer her immediately, turning instead to Mac as if she hadn’t just been having a private conversation. “So is Andrea one of these new recruits you were telling me about, Mac?”
“She is,” he replied looking down at the woman who was now standing at his side and appeared to be fascinated with his queen. He needed to speak to Rhianna alone.
“Ruminskey, go find Karn and tell him to assemble the rest of your team. We will be out shortly.” It was clearly a dismissal but she turned her head to glare at him as if he’d done something wrong before she moved to the door.
“Are you going to tell him, Annie?” Lily asked the question as she closed the door behind her, irritation lacing her mental voice at being dismissed so summarily.
“Can you give me one exceptional reason why I shouldn’t?”
Lily swallowed hard, turning to look back at the closed door. Mac was behind that wood, seconds away from learning her true identity. If he found out who she was before he learned to love her there would be no hope for them. His sense of duty was too strong. He would push her away before she could convince him they were meant to be together.
“He’s my mate, Annie,” she whispered mentally.
Silence greeted her words for a long moment. Then a deep surge of warmth enveloped her, and the fear that had been slowly building deep within her began to ease.
“Okay, Lily darling, I will keep your secret. Now go do as you were instructed so I can do what I need to before Caleb comes looking for me. He would not be as inclined as I am. Be quick about it.”
Rhianna watched Mac carefully after Lily left, seeing his eyes drawn reluctantly to the closed door. When Lily had disappeared and all attempts to find her had failed, the redhead had realized with dismay that the Vârcolac could suppress the bond she’d made with them at birth. All this time she’d assumed that it was because Lily had been too far away for her to sense. Learning now that the missing girl had simply been in the heart of the Praetorian compound was a shock.
Finding her in a compromising position with Mac of all people had been downright staggering! The questions she had were overwhelming; Lily’s confession that she intended to mate with Mac posed a huge problem and was now giving her the biggest headache ever.
The Armand-Hanlon compound was in total uproar over the disappearance of one of their own. Andrei was practically homicidal, kept in check only by Loretta and Alexei working together. Twice Rafe had stepped in and Commanded him to calm down. Once he’d removed his edict, though, Andrei had become worse. The Alpha had eventually stopped.
Granted, the Ancient vampire was trying hard, managing to hold onto his temper most of the time with only a few lapses requiring intervention. Loretta was concerned for her daughter, but appeared to empathise with her too. They all wanted Lily brought home, but if she was unhappy with her life they knew she wouldn’t stay.
Andrei appeared unable to understand that he was forcing his child into this course of action. She was his little girl, his baby, and he couldn’t believe that she would run away from him. He’d insisted than an outside influence had to responsible for her leaving. And now, with the shocking announcement that Mac was Lily’s mate…!
Rhianna suppressed a shudder and turned to look at the mate in question. Mac was good, one of the best, but could he survive a direct assault from Andrei? The Ancient would blame Mac even though it wasn’t his fault. There was no fighting the mating pull. And it looked as though Mac was not even aware that he was Lily’s mate. He was frowning at the door with a perplexed expression on his face.
What a mess! And here she was, right bang in the middle of it. Caleb was leaning more towards Andrei’s point of view. His overprotective streak was in full on mode, his need to protect the hybrid children his sole priority. He loved Lily as if she was his own and he wanted her home. If he knew Lily was with the Praetorians he’d march her straight back to the compound, which would just be a disaster.
So she was going to have to keep this quiet from her mate. Keeping secrets from Caleb was not something she relished doing. If their positions were reversed she’d be livid if he kept this from her. And there was the thorny issue of what Mac would do when he finally discovered Lily’s true identity. He’d be furious with Lily for deceiving him. Hell, he’d be furious with her for keeping Lily’s identity a secret too.
And what would all this mean for the Praetorians as a group? They were supposed to be a shadowy organisation, their charges ignorant of their presence. Now one of those charges was among them, fighting by their side. When all this came out in the wash there would be hell to pay and she’d end up being the one paying.
Rhianna couldn’t halt the weary sigh that escaped her. It drew Mac’s attention from the door.
“It wasn’t what it looked like,” he said quickly, his tone defensive.
“So you weren’t just about to lock lips with that attractive lady perched so temptingly on your desk, Mac? I must have read the scene all wrong.”
He cursed and ran a hand through his hair, frustration riding his body hard. “That was a mistake, Annie. One I won’t be repeating. Ruminskey is a potential Praetorian and nothing more. The whole point of meeting with her was to knock any amorous notions out of her head.”
Rhianna’s lips quirked. “I see you managed to do that successfully.”
“Fuck! Annie, will you just let it drop?” It was a testament to how rattled he was that he didn’t moderate how he spoke to her. Usually he was unfailingly polite, respectful with a touch of old school gallantry.
“If she’s affecting you this badly then maybe you shouldn’t fight it so hard,” she mused. “Sometimes forbidden fruit takes on a more tempting taste because you deny yourself.”
His eyes swung to meet hers and he blinked slowly. “You’re encouraging me? I would have thought you’d be warning me away from the girl.” The raw disbelief in his voice was almost comical.
“You need to make a decision one way or the other and stick to it, Mac. You can’t be distracted by a woman to the point it clouds your better judgement. And now, that I’ve done my “Dear Abbey” moment, can we get to the point of why I’m here so I can go visit my family?”
Mac pulled himself together, nodding sharply as he eagerly strode towards the door. He probably had no idea just how fast he was moving, heading towards the woman who was shattering his self-control as no one had ever done before.
Despite the complete mess and its inevitable fallout, Rhianna couldn’t help but smile. Mac was most definitely Lily’s mate even if he was currently clueless. The way he hurried from the room made that more than evident.
He was a good match for her. Lily was wild and untamed, feisty and so reckless at times it was scary. She needed a tough male who could curb her excesses while appreciating her inner strength and allowing her the freedom she needed to be herself. Somehow they would find a way to convince Andrei of this, though it wasn’t going to be an easy task.
Lily was standing at attention with the other four candidates when they stepped outside the house. Mac’s eyes automatically sought her out though she remained staring ahead as if oblivious to his gaze.
Rhianna glided down the steps and approached the first of the candidates. She smiled at the male, introducing herself and holding out her hand. Her words were inconsequential, asking about the tough training, what personal growth he felt he’d achieved since becoming a candidate.
Deep within his mind, the vampire queen sifted easily through his memories, finding his mind refreshingly open and honest. He was a good man for a vampire, his crueller nature not as evident as in most of their kind. She released his hand and moved on.
She repeated the process with the others, giving her blessing as each met her stringent assessment. They were all proud to be Praetorians; they were all willing to die to protect the Vârcolac.
Rhianna finally reached Lily and took her hand as she had the others so as not to show any different treatment.
“You need to talk to your father, Lily darling,” she sighed softly. “Half of the problem is you’ve closed off all mental communication with your family and friends. I obviously should have made my own link to you a lot deeper,” she added dryly, sensing the younger woman’s chagrin at her subtle rebuke.
“As it is, I’m only able to speak through your blocks now because of Anakatrine’s power and the fact that I’m close enough to see you. You know they can’t track you through your mental link. Let them know you’re safe and well.”
Lily adored Rhianna and hated to disappoint her in anyway. She’d known when she suppressed her link to Annie that the vampire queen would be unhappy. While she did regret it, she knew she would do it again. Despite Annie’s championship of the Vârcolac, the redhead had other claims on her loyalty. It would have been wrong to put her in an awkward position.
“I don’t want to disobey anyone, Annie. You know Dad will order me to come home, and I don’t want to be in the position of refusing his order. It would break his heart.”
“It would be the lesser of two evils, Lily. He doesn’t know if you’re alive or dead, and that’s making him homicidal. You know how your father gets sometimes. At least this way he’ll know you’re safe. It will calm him down a little.
You’ve chosen your path, little one. I think your choice of Mac as a mate is a perfect one. You keep claiming you’re a grown woman, so start behaving like one. Be firm with your father but hold your ground. If you want Mac you need to fight for him. But be warned, keeping secrets from your mate will only bring you tears in the end.”
Lily stared deeply into her eyes, squeezing her hand tightly. “Will Caleb be very angry with you, Annie?” She’d correctly read the other woman’s unease.
“I expect so. Still, it’s been a quarter of a century since our last big fight so I dare say we’re overdue.” Rhianna kept her tone light, instinctively soothing the younger woman because she knew she’d feel bad about causing any potential conflict with Caleb.
Lily lips twitched in a small smile, warmth and love engulfing her in a strong mental hug. “You approve of Mac.” She was elated Annie was blessing her choice of mate.
“When I told him twenty-five years ago he would be happy again one day, I had no idea at the time that you would be the cause of that happiness. I love Mac very much, Lily. Not as much as I adore you but almost. I couldn’t be happier to give my blessing to your mating. But it’s your parents’ blessing you really need, and to gain that you need to talk to them.”
Lily almost rolled her eyes in resignation but managed to contain herself. She knew she couldn’t avoid it much longer. It wasn’t going to be easy facing her father’s wrath but she had to do it. She sighed mentally. “Yes, Annie.”
Rhianna dropped her hand and smiled, giving her a quick wink before she turned back to Mac who was silently watching her test the candidates. There was tension in his stance and she knew why. She’d spent a little too much time with Lily and he was concerned she’d found some deception.
“As always you find the very best of our people to entrust our loved ones to,” she smiled as she reached him.
His tension melted away and he leaned down to brush her cheek with his lips. “Thank you for gracing us with your presence, Annie.”
He was once more in control, the same old Mac she was used to seeing. Did that mean he had made his decision and it wasn’t Lily? She almost snorted in laughter. If he had, then good luck with that one. There was no way in hell Lily would ever let him get away.
“I should come more often, Mac. I keep forgetting how beautiful it is up here in the mountains. You could do with making your home a bit more appealing though. All the wood is just… oh, never mind. It’s your house, not mine.” She smiled again and turned to flick her eyes once more down the line of new Praetorians.
“Well, I must be going before Caleb reaches the compound and finds me AWOL. He’ll be calling out the Praetorians to track me down. I love him dearly but he’s such hard work at times.” Her voice was full of laughter as she waved over her shoulder, vanishing into trees an instant later.
“She’s amazing,” Brandon muttered under his breath, his expression full of hero-worship when Lily turned to glance at him. He was one of the new recruits and the one she liked the most. He was a bit on the wild side, so their personalities were in sync.
She smiled. “She is that,” she answered just as quietly.
Her gaze shifted to Mac who was staring intently at her. She couldn’t tell what he was thinking. Was he imagining their almost-kiss in his study? She sure as hell was and had a knot of frustration in the pit of her stomach. It had been wonderful to see Annie once her initial fear of discovery had passed, but she couldn’t help but wish the redhead had arrived five minutes later so she would know what it felt like to kiss her mate.
“Karn, break out the alcohol,” Mac said tearing his gaze from Andrea’s and turning to survey the rest of them. “You have tomorrow off so get the partying done tonight to celebrate your acceptance into the Praetorians. The day after tomorrow the real training starts.”
He strode away without a backward glance, disappearing into the house and to the sanctuary of his private rooms. He had made his decision. Andrea Ruminskey was a Praetorian now which made her off limits. His moment of madness was over. It would never happen again.