The air in the Alpha’s library was thick with tension. Rafe had kept the meeting small, opting to inform the necessary people who needed to know once any decisions were reached.
He stood with his back to the open fire, silently watching his sister and brother-in-law share some private communication. He could tell they were talking telepathically by their body language and the sparkle in Rhianna’s eyes. There was no mistaking the love that shone between them, and it made him smile despite the worrying circumstances that had brought them all together.
Gard was perched on the side of his desk looking bored as they waited for the last invitee to arrive. His eyes kept lingering on the window, his body language tense. Rafe’s lips quirked as he watched him. Once a Guardian, always a Guardian. He doubted the six thousand year old vampire would ever be able to break that habit even though his life had changed so much in the last quarter of a century.
Rafe shifted his stance slightly wanting the meeting to start but lacking the final person to get things underway. He sighed when he heard the sound of Jared Hanlon pulling up outside, relieved his former Alpha was finally here. Gard appeared to be of the same mind.
“Finally,” the auburn-haired vampire rumbled with a snort of irritation. It was clear to see that he wanted to be outside searching for Lily. His mate, Rayne, was out in the forest helping in the search and he didn’t like being apart from her.
It wasn’t that she couldn’t take care of herself because she was more than capable of that. It was the fact she had vampire DNA just like the rest of the Vârcolac that concerned her mate so much. That put her at risk like the children but, as usual, she didn’t see it that way.
They’d had one of their rare fights over it and she’d promptly put Gard in his place. Rafe had stood silently as they worked out their difference of opinion. Despite Guard’s irritation at not being able to dissuade his mate from her course of action, the large male had been fighting a smile threatening to tug at his lips.
He’d had to concede defeat and let Rayne do what she felt she had to, but he made sure everyone knew he wasn’t happy about it. The sooner the meeting was over and Gard could get on with doing what he was best at, the better. Rafe would feel happier with him out there looking for Lily too. Now that Jared had finally arrived, they could get down to business.
The study door opened and the Hanlon Alpha entered, his expression concerned as he crossed the room and embraced Rafe, before turning to hug Rhianna and nod his head in greeting to both Caleb and Gard.
“Sorry I’m late. I wanted to get everyone organized. Brody is on his way up to the Praetorian Compound. I’ve brought a few of the pack with me and told them to check with Aaron where he wants them.”
“Thanks, Jared,” Rafe answered with a brief smile. “We’ve got some of the pack out trying to ensure Lily’s protected. She’s in the area somewhere but no one knows where. With other pack members up at the Praetorian Compound it will be an added boost to have some more wolves around here just in case.”
He couldn’t keep his concern out of his tone. For the second time, one of his pack was missing and he didn’t like it one bit.
“Lily will be fine.”
Rafe turned to his sister as she rose from the sofa and slipped into his arms to hug him tightly. She smiled up at him, giving him one of her reassuring grins, which always helped to ease some of his concerns. “Mackenzie will take care of her.”
Rafe sighed and gave her a gentle squeeze in thanks. He didn’t have Lacey to turn to and he certainly needed some soothing. His wolf was prowling restlessly, wanting to strike out at something in its need to protect everyone.
“I told her the next time she muted my bond I would throw her out of the pack, Annie. I meant it at the time but I never believed she’d put me in the position of having to carry out that threat. What the hell am I supposed to do now?”
His sister gazed up at him with eyes so young and yet so old. Her smile was one of confidence. “You will do what is right for Lily, as you always have done, Rafe. Just because you say something doesn’t mean you can’t change your mind.”
He grunted in response and filed that particular issue away for the moment. He knew he’d have to come to a decision about what to do with Lily, and while it weighed heavy on his mind, they had other things to discuss. So much had happened recently and this was the first time they’d been able to get together as a group to discuss everything.
“How’s Pietro?” Caleb asked, crossing the room to pour a cup of coffee. He deftly reacquired his mate’s attention, appearing nonchalant as he retrieved her from her brother’s embrace. Settling her back on the sofa at his side, he handed her the coffee and turned back to Rafe.
“Mallen looked him over not too long ago,” Rafe sighed. “The scarring is permanent as we all believed. Whilst there is still some spark of the old Pietro there, he has been affected emotionally by his experience. He’s withdrawn and agoraphobic, preferring not to have any visitors bar a few. It took the threat of having you come see him to get him to agree to the physical from Mallen.”
Caleb’s expression darkened, his eyes narrowing at the news. It was clear there was a deep anger bubbling under the surface but he was making a concerted effort to keep it at bay. He frowned and ran a hand through his hair, looking down at his mate.
“I’ll see if he wants to talk before we head home. It could just be time he needs though.” Rhianna’s expression was thoughtful and she didn’t appear to be overly concerned at the news.
“The Europeans?” Gard interjected; keen to get the meeting onto the main topic they were all here about. It wasn’t that he unsympathetic to Pietro’s issues and not furious at what had happened because he was. He was just anxious to get back to Rayne as soon as possible.
“We know there’s at least one of them here,” Caleb said. “A female called Thereasa. Her description has been circulated to both packs and the Praetorians. What we need to do now is bring the Council up to speed on what’s happening over there and develop a plan of action.”
“How didn’t the Council know what was going on?” Jared asked, sipping at his coffee.
“Do you know what your Were brethren are up to in Europe?” Gard growled impatiently, his eyes wandering to the window as he touched base with Rayne to check she was okay. He relaxed when he felt her send a mental kiss down their bond.
The Hanlon Alpha nodded his head in acknowledgement of the point. The North American Weres had no contact with their European counterparts and no idea how they ran their lives. Still, the way the vampire Council went on, he’d have thought they at least knew what was going on over there with their own kind. It was surprising they had let themselves be caught out like this.
“There’s no denying more attention should have been paid to what was happening in Europe,” Caleb conceded, glancing at Rafe as he spoke. “Annie and I will brief the Council on the situation and work out how we’re going to tackle the problem. Unfortunately, because of this poison issue, sending vampires over may not be the best course of action. This poison is so virulent it doesn’t matter the age of the vampire. They have no protection from it unless we find some kind of antidote.”
The Alpha met his gaze with a troubled one. “Demetri gave us Pietro’s blood sample from when the poison was in his system. It’s going to take some time for our doctors to try and trace the active ingredients to provide an antidote. You don’t have research scientists because vampires have always been able to heal themselves. While we have doctors to treat wounds, we have precious few research scientists ourselves. This is new even to us.”
“Luke did have a bit of a research background from years ago so he’s testing out a sample of the blood too,” Jared added. “So far the only thing he can say for certain is that it’s a plant based poison. Until he can identify the plant and work out why it inhibits vampire regeneration, finding an antidote is a long way off.”
“So a complete blood transfusion is the only way of combating this for the moment,” Caleb mused, clearly unhappy with the news.
“We can most probably work on the assumption that there aren’t huge quantities of the poison,” Rhianna pointed out. “It’s deadly to vampires so that leads me to believe that it will be heavily restricted with only a few who have the knowledge to create it.”
“Makes sense,” Gard concurred with a thoughtful expression on his face. An idea was beginning to cross his mind, one he didn’t particularly like but an option the rest of them might find agreeable.
“I’m technically the oldest vampire living and also mated with a Vârcolac. I probably stand the best chance of fighting off any attack. I should be the one to go to Europe to see if I can track down where the poison comes from.” He saw his sister start to frown and shake her head, and shot her a brief smile.
“You know it makes sense, Annie. I’m a complete unknown in Europe too. I’d have more of a chance of finding the intelligence we need.”
“And what will Rayne have to say about this grandiose offer?” Rhianna’s voice was tartness personified, a sure sign she was not happy.
Gard’s smile widened and he shook his long auburn locks. “Quite a lot I dare say, and then she’ll insist on coming with me. We’re going to need someone to keep an eye on Kothari while we’re away.”
Caleb ran a hand down his mate’s back to sooth her distress. Gard’s proposal made sense even if he didn’t want one of the triumvirate to be so far away. He had a sense of foreboding that something bad was going to happen. Rhianna was skittish too, and that only served to increase his alertness.
But they did need to find out what was going on in Europe and an antidote for the poison. Rafe wasn’t objecting to the proposal of two of his pack heading off into a dangerous situation either so the Alpha clearly saw the logic in it.
“First things first, let’s get Lily safely back within the fold. I trust we can leave that up to the packs?” Both Jared and Rafe nodded so he continued. “I will call a meeting of the Council. Rafe, can you make sure Andrei and Alexei know, and Nors too. We’ll let Demetri and Mara know.”
He rose, pulling his mate up beside him, his gaze fixing on Gard. “Europe comes later so no disappearing just now.” He looked to Rafe for backup and the Alpha nodded his agreement.
Gard was already moving, pushing away from the desk to stride to the study door. He glanced back over his shoulder. “Agreed. Now, can I go join my mate? I presume this meeting is over?”
At Rafe’s nod, he left the room, sprinting from the house and into the surrounding forest. He was so intent on finding Rayne that he didn’t notice the shadowed figure lurking in the trees.
Kothari watched Gard leave, and sank back into the shadows as the meeting broke up and everyone started to leave. He could feel his rage building but it was a slow build. His mother and father were going to be at risk? That was as intolerable as his angel being targeted. What the hell was his father thinking of?
The whispered word startled him so much his beast rose instantly, long talons slicing through his fingertips. It was all he could do to remain immobile and not turn around and lash out. His heart missed a beat as he fought to contain the demon. When he was once more in control, he turned slowly to impale Dara with an icy glare.
Not that she could see his eyes. As always, they were hidden behind their standard camouflage of dark glasses. “Little girls should be careful about sneaking up on people.” The words came out terse and full of menace.
Dara stared up at Kothari’s furious face and felt the tiniest shiver of fear wash over her. She didn’t truly think he would ever hurt her, but they all knew there was something broken in their friend. What that was, they could only speculate about because he wasn’t into confessions, but it was there all the same.
She considered backing off and leaving him be, but his ‘scary monster’ routine was starting to wear on her nerves. She was a Vârcolac and a Romanov. She wasn’t about to back down for him.
Dara forced her lips to curve into a smile she wasn’t truly feeling. “Oh cut the crap, Kothi.” Her voice dripped with derision. “Kallum said we weren’t to be alone and that includes you.”
He continued to glare at her, his body tense with barely controlled aggression, then he slowly relaxed and a faint smile curved his lips. “So who’s with your Siamese twin?” He watched her prickle at the taunt, and his smile grew wider. She was so defensive of Cassia. It was easy to get a rise out of her.
“Cassia is with Elina if you must know, and stop trying to distract me. What were you doing eavesdropping?” She wasn’t letting him get away without an explanation.
Kothari watched her, his expression intent. The determination on her face told him she wasn’t going to go away. Stifling down a resigned sigh, he headed further into the trees knowing she would follow. When they were far enough away, he ran and jumped onto a large, flat rock perched beside one of the lakes close to the compound.
He stood for a long moment, scenting the air to ensure they were alone. His gaze finally turned to Dara, watching as she skirted the large rock to find a smaller one.
As she sat down, he mirrored her, crossing his legs and adopting a position of meditation. Maybe it would help him.
“So?” Come on, Kothi. I want to know what you were doing.” Annoyance was creeping into Dara’s tone and she tried hard to tamp it down. It was pointless being irritated with him. He could spend hours sitting silently and waiting everyone else out.
“You’re a pain, Dara Romanov,” he finally said. He kept his voice devoid of emotion. “You’re stupid too. Most people know when it’s best not to prod a sleeping tiger.”
She rolled her eyes. “You’re a panther, Kothi. Though, come to think of it, I can’t remember the last time any of us have seen you in animal form. Why’s that?” She let his obvious insult wash over her. He was trying to bait her and she wasn’t going to fall for it.
Kothari was at a loss to what to do. He wanted to be alone, and yet, his fellow Vârcolac wasn’t going to allow that. He was trying his usual techniques to get rid of Dara and it wasn’t working. Usually she was easy to rile up to the point she stomped off in a temper. Today she was watching him intently, waiting for him to respond.
He smiled slowly. She was a brave little thing, tenacious when she wanted to be. Maybe she deserved some answers just for being that brave.
“Just because you run around as a wolf almost as much as a human doesn’t mean the rest of us have to. I like my privacy.”
She pursed her lips as she contemplated his answer. It was true, she loved being in wolf form, loved the freedom of running through the trees and playing with the other wolves. It would be nice to run with a panther, to experience the subtle difference of another animal. Only Kothi didn’t play and Rayne had other things to do.
“You don’t play well with others.” It was a statement rather than a question.
“I don’t play, Dara, ever.”
There was such finality to the words, such loneliness in them, which she was sure he hadn’t intended to be heard. She cocked her head to the side and scrutinised him with a thoughtful expression. It was as if he’d let an inner barrier down and shown her a little piece of the man hidden within. Her wolf sat up and scrutinised him too.
“I was listening in to the Alpha meeting,” he finally said, when she remained silent. “My parents are going to Europe to try and find an antidote to the poison.”
Dara sucked in a deep breath at the news. He would be worried about them if they took on that mission. He would be even more alone if they went away for a prolonged period. Something told her that would be very bad for him, and possibly even the pack.
“They’re more than capable of taking care of themselves, Kothi. They’re the oldest beings to walk the planet, if you disregard the fact Caleb and Annie are reincarnated souls.” She was a naturally caring person and couldn’t help reaching out to sooth him.
Her soft tone irritated him. She sat there, her golden hair a halo around her head, her expression full of compassion. The beast within wanted to wipe that expression from her face, to see terror in her eyes. It was an effort to push it down.
“If they’re not, the world will swim in blood.”
He spoke so quietly Dara had to strain to hear the words. A shiver ran down her spine at the certainty in his tone. Kallum would need to know about this. She wasn’t sure if even he would be able to contain Kothi if anything happened to his parents, but he was probably their best bet.
She pretended she hadn’t heard what he said. “Anything else said at the meeting? Should we have a private conference?”
Kothari knew she’d heard him and ignored what he’d said. Well, maybe not ignored it. She would surely report back to the other Vârcolac. He felt his rage rising again at the thought. Why couldn’t they all just leave him alone? Why wouldn’t she fuck off and go somewhere else?
The beast was rising swiftly, its gazed fixed intently on the woman before it. He pushed at it, tried to dampen it down, but it fought with him. It watched the pulse at the side of her neck, its mouth watering at how succulent her sweet blood would taste as it ripped her throat out.
Kothari knew he was losing the battle to contain the monster within. “Leave!” he ground out, sweat beginning to bead on his forehead as he wrestled with his inner demon.
To be continued... ;)