Loretta’s voice wafted across the compound, shaking the Vârcolac out of her thoughts as she headed towards the lab. It was early morning and most of the pack was still asleep; it was surprising to see her aunt up and around, especially since she was infamous for not being a morning person. Immediately, Cassia’s thoughts turned to Pietro. Was something wrong?
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you, honey. It’s just hard to get some time alone without Andrei being underfoot or you being buried nose-deep in a microscope. I wanted to have a private word with you about Pietro.”
The older woman’s gaze was intent, watching every nuance that crossed her face. There wasn’t much that slipped past Loretta Simpson, and that was what made her such a good beta. Still, Cassia wasn’t about to give anything away if she could avoid it. If Loretta knew, then she would tell Andrei; and that, of course, meant her father would find out and she wasn’t quite ready for that. “I’m working as hard as I can on the antidote. So far, we’re still missing the vital element that makes it so toxic to vampires.” The narrowed eyes and raised eyebrow she got in response to her words wasn’t very comforting.
“You know that’s not what I want to discuss, Cass.”
“Loretta…” The beta may have been a few inches shorter than her, but she was a number of years older, and held a higher rank in the pack hierarchy. The fact that she was mated to her uncle made it near impossible to refuse the woman; she was used to ferretting out answers when she posed a question. Cassia knew she wasn’t going to be able to avoid the conversation, no matter how hard she tried.
“He talks about you,” the other woman said in a quiet tone, her shrewd eyes merciless. “He never talks about anyone outside of those he’s known for years, and yet after only two meetings, your name has cropped up a few times. He’s connected with you and I find that very significant, Cassia.”
“I’m working on the antidote. That’s important to Pietro, so it stands to reason he may mention me.”
There was a long pause and then Loretta let out a deep sigh. “Come with me.” She headed into the trees, leaving the Vârcolac no option but to follow her.
There was no point in procrastinating, so Cassia did as was expected, wishing she could avoid the impending conversation. She found her aunt in a small clearing that was far enough away from the compound to offer some privacy, but not within hearing range of the boundary protection detail that still circled pack lands.
“Cass, I know what it’s like to be attracted to someone you think may not cause a favourable response from those you love.” It was the Vârcolac’s turn to raise an eyebrow and Loretta smiled. “Okay, in my case I may have been putting that a bit mildly. The essence is the same though, honey. Both your mother and I had hurdles to overcome when we found our mates. I know you’ve heard the stories a hundred times, so I can understand why you don’t want to talk about whatever this thing is between you and Pietro.”
There was such sincerity in Loretta’s voice, her eyes full of such understanding, that Cassia felt ashamed of her hesitancy. Everything her aunt said rang true. Deep down inside, she knew that both Loretta and her mother would understand and support her decision unconditionally, but her wolf’s indecisiveness was confusing the hell out of her. When she was with Pietro, the animal claimed him. When they were apart, it ignored him as if he didn’t exist. She couldn’t work out what was going on and she couldn’t claim him publicly until she knew for certain.
“I appreciate your concern, Loretta, I really do; but at the moment, there is nothing to discuss. If the situation were to change, I realise I have you and Mom I can turn to for advice. I know I have your love and support. Frankly, I’m happy that Pietro is starting to make more connections. He needs that to help him heal. I’m not so sure I am his saviour, though, not in the way you hope.”
Loretta frowned, as she appeared to weigh up what wasn’t being said. For a moment, it seemed she would press further and then she changed tactics. “We’ve been trying to convince Pietro to leave the house and get some exercise. Up until now, he has resisted all of our efforts. Perhaps, in your medical capacity, you could persuade him?”
Cassia almost laughed at the blatant redirect. Her aunt surely must have known she could see right through her thinly veiled attempt at subterfuge. The idea of spending some time in the forest alone with Pietro was very appealing to her wolf that was suddenly very attentive to the conversation. She considered it for a moment and then smiled. “Perhaps I could.”
Her job apparently done, Loretta beamed a smile back at her and gave her a quick hug. “Remember we’re here for you, honey. Anytime you need us. We’ve had years of dealing with the Romanov twins. We can help diffuse any hot tempers if required.”
“I know.” Cassia hugged her aunt tightly. There had always been a close bond between the two families and that would never change. Most likely, that was down to the close sibling link between the Romanov twins. She was lucky to have such an amazing extended family, even if she did wish Elina was more inclined to join in with some of their family gatherings. Although she was part of that extended family, she had always gravitated towards Liam’s side as opposed to the Alexanders.
Shaking off the unexpected thought, she filed it away for a later date when she had more time to consider it and smiled again at her aunt. “Let’s wait to see if there is anything that needs dealing with first.” It was the closest she was going to come to admitting there might be a possibility of some kind of relationship with Pietro. For the moment, she was only willing to share her true feelings with Dara, until she knew for sure what was going on with her wolf.
It appeared to be enough for Loretta and they chatted about family matters as they headed back to the compound. Cassia said goodbye and turned towards the community hall instead of the lab, as was her original intention. There were a few pack members around beginning the daily task of preparing breakfast, but it was the tall brunette setting tables that she headed towards.
“Don’t you ever sleep?”
Liliana Romanov looked up with a wide smile. It lit up her face, turning her beauty into something quite breath taking. “Mac doesn’t know the meaning of the word,” her cousin laughed, delight dancing in her eyes.
“And you don’t look like you have any complaints,” Cassia laughed back, giving her a quick hug. “How are you feeling?”
“Is that the would-be healer or my cousin asking?”
Cassia laughed louder. “Probably a bit of both.”
Lily scooped up some more silverware and headed to the next table. “I feel great now the sickness is over with. That was a bit of a nightmare, but a small price to pay.” Chocolate brown eyes turned to her cousin. “It’s a bit frightening, knowing that in only a few months I’m going to be a mother; I won’t deny that—but I can’t wait either. Does that make me sound silly?
“It makes perfect sense, Lily, and I know you’re going to be an amazing mom. Mac, well, he’s going to be one freaking nightmare of an overprotective father.”
Her cousin rolled her eyes but her smile was beatific. “Oh, I know, but I’ll find ways to counter that somehow.” She finished setting the table and then turned to peruse Cassia intently. “So, what can I do for you? I presume you didn’t come in here just to ask how impending motherhood was affecting me?”
“You know me too well,” Cassia admitted with another grin. “I was looking for a breakfast basket.” The speculative glance Lily gave her made her want to groan, but she managed to keep her features neutral.
“Oh? Is there a special occasion?”
“None that I want to share right now,” she countered, her gentle tone alleviating any possible sting from her words. Cassia was grateful that her cousin was so understanding; always treading lightly when it was clear she was a bit reluctant to share.
Although brimming with curiosity, Lily headed over to the main cooking area and began to make up a thermos of tea, placing it with two mugs into a wicker picnic basket. She added in a sampling of croissants and pastries, and took care to include all the necessary condiments, serving utensils, and some napkins. There was enough food for two, and Cassia didn’t bother to correct the assumption that she wouldn’t be alone to enjoy the picnic breakfast.
“Thanks, Lily.” Cassia knew her cousin would know that she was equally thanking her for her discretion.
“You’re welcome, Cass. You know I’m here if you need to talk about anything.”
A brief smile flashed across her face as Cassia took the basket and gave Lily another hug. “You’re a great cousin, and an even better friend,” she whispered as she turned and headed out of the community hall.
Her gaze immediately turned to the house that currently contained the subject of her chaotic thoughts. Predictably, her pulse began to speed up, and she had to take a few deep breaths to contain it. Pietro would be able to hear her accelerated heartbeat, and she didn’t want him to question why she was so nervous.
The curtains were open to Pietro’s room, and her breath caught as she realized he was standing behind the glass looking down at her. Their eyes locked for a moment, and then she walked slowly past the house and set the basket down beside the tree that led to his window. He made her wait for an entire half hour, but eventually the window opened and she heard him slip down the tree.
“I told you to make an appointment the next time you wanted to see me.”
It wasn’t a promising start, but Cassia wasn’t about to let his gruffness chase her away. “I waited thirty minutes, so I consider that making one.”
He greeted her words with silence, so she turned to catch a glimpse of his expression. God, his eyes seemed to bore right into her with their intensity and it took all her self-control to keep her pulse steady. “I’ve decided to have my breakfast alongside the lake this morning. Seeing as it is technically outside of the compound’s boundaries, I shall require an escort.”
He growled low, as a trace of emotion crept across his face before his features smoothed out. “Ask one of the wolves.”
“Most of them are asleep and those that aren’t have tasks to perform. I’m hungry.” Not giving him a chance to respond, Cassia headed into the trees with her basket in hand. It took him a fraction of a second to make up his mind, and then he fell into step beside her. She had known he would. Although he knew she didn’t really need his protection, it was a moot point; he was a protector through and through, and therefore would always need to ensure her safety.
Appealing to his baser side had been a risk, but one she judged worth the risk. It could have reinforced his sense of failure over what had happened in Europe but Cassia had counted on him having an inner strength that he wasn’t currently capable of recognising. His easy capitulation pleased her wolf too, who appeared happy to have him by their side.
“Do you consider me to be foolish, Cassia?”
“Hardly, Pietro,” she laughed, the melodic tone carefree and light-hearted. “You are very much like my father and my uncle Andrei, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. It just makes it a bit easier for me to know how to get the desired reaction from you. Trust me, it certainly isn’t indicative of your level of intelligence; you came with me because you wanted to, not because I manipulated you into it.”
They walked in companionable silence for a while, Pietro appearing to be deep in thought. Cassia wondered what was running through his head. She could see his alert gaze sweeping the area. She knew he was listening to all the sounds around them as keenly as she was. What she didn’t know was what was going through that complicated mind of his.
“Was it Loretta or Andrei?”
His question was so unexpected that she nearly jumped out of her skin when he broke the silence. There was no need to ask what he meant. “Loretta. She’s concerned about your seclusion within the house. It isn’t healthy, Pietro, and you know it too; otherwise you wouldn’t have indulged me with your company.”
Again, he chose not to reply and the silence lengthened until they reached the lake. Cassia had taken one of the less frequently used trails, knowing that the lake was a favourite haunt of quite a few of the Vârcolac when they had something on their mind. She didn’t want choose a location where one of her friends might show up uninvited.
The stone pathway she’d chosen led them to a flattened outcropping that suspended over the water’s edge. The rocky ledge could seat four people rather comfortably and was one of her favourite places to relax. The large willow trees that were scattered around the bank’s edge were so old that their sinewy limbs rose nearly eighty feet into the air. Their magnificent foliage created a peaceful canopy over the stony shelf. In the pale morning light, the play of shadows over the different textures, and the sound of the slight breeze rustling the leaves made it feel as if she were stepping into paradise.
“Beautiful,” Pietro murmured. She glanced to the side to see him staring at her and not the breath-taking surroundings. Her heart fluttered and she felt her cheeks begin to redden and quickly looked away again to hide her reaction. It would be embarrassing if he thought she presumed he meant her, when it was really the surrounding area he was admiring.
Pietro’s lips twitched up into the barest of smiles as he turned his gaze from the woman at his side to the panorama before him. It really was a beautiful spot, but the word that had just been dragged from his lips had nothing to do with the landscape and everything to do with Cassia Romanov.
He had known instantly that he would climb down that stupid tree to be with her. The moment he realised that she was intent on waiting for him, it had simply been a matter of when he would finally give in to her compelling allure, as opposed to if. She had been on his mind since her last visit, when their hands had touched for that split second and every nerve ending in his body had come alive.
He had tried to work out what it was about her that penetrated the emotional barriers he’d constructed so carefully over the years. He’d known many beautiful women in his life and yet none of them had even remotely caught his interest the way Alexei’s daughter had. She was cloaked in an aura of serenity; an understated intelligence draped in graceful elegance that made his soul feel as if he had been cleansed with a soothing balm. Although he typically chose to avoid others, being with Cassia didn’t stir that need for solitude. She was, quite simply, refreshing; he found himself craving her company, if only to alleviate some of his more negative emotions.
Cassia set the picnic basket off to the side, and sighed heavily as she realised she had forgotten to bring a blanket.
“Here…” Pietro unbuttoned his shirt and shrugged it from his body in one sinuous movement without a second thought.
It was only after seeing Cassia’s mouth drop open and her blue eyes flash with intense emotion that he realised what he had done. He noted the flecks of amber that danced around the edges of her irises, and knew that her wolf was close to the surface. Pietro stiffened as he felt her eyes settle on his body and waited to see them fill with disgust as her haunting gaze traced the scar that ran down his collarbone, and then slowly drifted to the scars that framed his left nipple.
The repulsion never materialised though her wolf remained alert, its silent presence apparent, as she moved around behind him. He knew what she seeing having viewed his own back in the mirror. He stood rigid as he felt the heat of her gaze travel over the three diagonal scars down his right shoulder blade, an uncontrolled flinch rippling across his skin as tentative fingertips lightly caressed the wounds. Her fingers moved to his lower back where the horizontal scar slashed across in a jagged line, her touch soft and gentle.
She murmured something so quiet he had to strain to hear it, and her words made his heart bang painfully in his chest. “Beautiful imperfections.”
For a moment longer she remained behind him, and then she accepted the shirt still clutched in his hand and spread it out on the rock face before retrieving the picnic basket. “Thank you, Pietro.”
Even though her words were as restrained as her touch had been, there was a wealth of emotion in them. He knew she wasn’t just thanking him for the loan of his shirt, but for the trust he had inexplicably given her by allowing her to witness his greatest shame.
“You don’t know a whole lot about us Vârcolac, do you?” she asked as she laid out her food and poured two mugs of tea from the thermos.
He sat beside her, leaving enough distance between them that they didn't touch, but still close enough to feel her body heat. “I’ve been away a long time, Cassia.” He kept his gaze frozen ahead, staring into the trees as he accepted a mug of tea.
“Each of us has magical talents deep within. It’s what allows us to generate clothes when we shift back from our animal form. I probably could have conjured up a blanket so there would have been no need for you to remove your shirt. I still could…”
Cassia was offering him a tactful opportunity to cover his scars without losing face if having them on display made him uncomfortable. That simple kindness was so thoughtful that he felt tears threaten his eyes, but he held them back by sheer strength of will. Her soothing touch against his skin had been unexpected and he found he didn’t mind the scars so much in her presence.
“It will do me good to have sunlight and fresh air against my skin. It will help with my healing.”
They lapsed back into silence as Cassia ate a pastry, her eyes closing with enjoyment as she savoured the sweetness in her mouth. Pietro watched her, fascinated, his eyes riveted to her lips as she slowly chewed her food. His body stirred and he stiffened in shock. Sexual hunger suddenly overwhelmed him, as did the burning need to taste blood! One moment he was fine and in the next, he was overcome with dual gnawing pains flooding his body.
He simply couldn’t be hungry so soon after having a full transfusion of blood, which even included Ancient blood from Demetri! It should have been weeks before he needed to feed, and yet, he was suddenly ravenous. Vicious hunger clawed at him as if it had been over a month since he’d last eaten, and he was stunned by the ferocity of his need. What the fuck was wrong with him? Was this some kind of residual side effect from the poisoning?
Pietro rose in an abrupt movement, panic setting in as his need escalated. He had to get back to the compound, had to find out if any of the vampires there had a private stock of blood he could use. He had to get away from Cassia right now, before he did the unforgivable…