“Annie! You’re back. For a moment there I thought someone had broken into the bookstore.”
Ashleigh’s voice shattered Rhianna’s concentration, and she glanced up from her book, startled by the other woman’s arrival. It was still early, just past six thirty. She hadn’t expected Ashleigh to arrive for at least another hour and a half.
“And you’re here very early. Did Nors kick you out of bed?” There was a teasing note to her voice as she set the book beside her on sofa and stretched to get some of the kinks out of her neck. She’d arrived at the bookstore a couple of hours ago, unable to sleep and not wanting to disturb Caleb. He appeared to be getting the first decent night’s sleep since they’d been apart; it had seemed a shame to disturb him with her restlessness. The bookstore had offered the perfect place for some uninterrupted solitude as she began reading the two books Anakatrine had selected. She just hadn’t figured on Ashleigh coming in so early.
Truth be told, she had missed the comfort she’d always found in the bookstore. As a vampire, her appearance no longer aged so being there daily had no longer been an option. It had been almost 15 years since her last visit. The running of the shop had been handed over to the pack, with different members rotating every few years to keep suspicion to a minimum. Ashleigh had taken the first five, and had just recently resumed that role again. Her youthful appearance meant she could pass as a younger relative if need be, but so far none of the patrons had appeared to notice anything unusual.
Rhianna knew that they would have to sell the place soon. The mere thought of it broke her heart, but keeping their secret was more important. She knew it would break Ashleigh’s too, and that was the reason the younger woman had asked to be the final manager. The blonde wolf had come to find the same inner peace in the bookstore as she did. It had helped her cope with the loss of her family, and it appeared to be a safe haven for her as she struggled with her current dilemma.
Rhianna hadn’t realised just how much she’d missed her sanctuary until she’d seen Anakatrine’s library. It was only then she’d realised that she shared the same love of books as the vampire Queen. Anakatrine had owned an extensive library. Rhianna had chosen to open a bookstore when she’d first lost Rafe. The synchronicity wasn’t lost on her, nor was the feeling that a sense of closure hung in the air. She didn’t want to think of that at the moment though, and was glad when her friend spoke.
“I couldn’t sleep,” Ashleigh sighed, running a hand through her wispy, blond hair. Dark, black circles shadowed her eyes and her face was etched with a deep frown. It was clear that she was struggling with the torrent of recent events.
“Same here.” Rhianna picked up an empty coffee cup from the table in front of her as she rose from her seat. “Coffee?”
Ashleigh nodded, her expression softening as she sat down on the sofa. Her eyes unconsciously scanned over the snug area of the bookstore where patrons could sip coffee while sitting on comfortable seats to read. It was her favourite part of the shop. Floor to ceiling bookcases separated it from the main part of the store, offering a semblance of privacy. She sat here often when she had things on her mind. “Have you seen Rafe yet?”
“I called him last night and let him know I was home. I had some things to do before I headed over, some research that may help us.” Rhianna returned with the coffees and set them down on the table. She took a seat next to her friend, her expression sympathetic. “Rafe told me you’re having a hard time with what’s been happening. Do you want to talk about it? I imagine you may have some things you would like to say to me personally, as I played such a large part in what occurred up at the Praetorian Compound.” Her tone was soft and encouraging; she realized that the emotions her friend was experiencing were in stark contrast to her normally sunny disposition, and therefore, part of her struggle.
There was a long silence as Ashleigh appeared to try to verbalise what was running through her mind before she sighed and ran a hand through her hair again. “I’ve often wondered how you do what you do and make it seem so easy, Annie. I don’t think any of us have ever realised how hard it is for you…not until now. I think I can understand a little, because I am so torn with everything that’s happened.”
She turned haunted brown eyes to the vampire. “Part of me was so angry that you didn’t allow Caleb to kill Thereasa, though I knew you must have had a reason for it and it would have hurt Liam to his very core. I know that’s wrong, but I still had those feelings. I’ve been working on understanding—or trying to—but it’s been hard having that woman in my home with Liam claiming her as his mate. I want Liam to be happy, but not with her.”
Ashleigh swallowed hard and reached for her coffee, needing something to occupy her hands. “Annie, to have such hatred for that woman in my heart, knowing that I’m hurting my son, is ripping me apart. I don’t know how to reconcile all these conflicting emotions. I want to be there for Liam, yet I find myself pushing him further away. I can’t bear the thought of losing him, but I can’t find it in my heart to forgive Reasa either.”
The self-loathing evident in Ashleigh’s voice weighed heavily on Rhianna. She stood up and took a few steps away, before pacing back towards the sofa, her heart filled with empathy for her friend. “I don’t always understand why Anakatrine chooses to do what she does. I just know she has a reason for it and I have to have faith in her. There is no denying that Thereasa has made mistakes, some truly appalling ones, but there is good within her.”
Kneeling before Ashleigh, Rhianna gently removed the cup from her hands so she could hold them tightly. “You know it’s natural to have these feelings, Ash. You almost lost your son and there is nothing stronger than a mother’s love for her child. You should spend less time beating yourself up for feeling this way and accept that it’s okay to be human.”
“I’ve tried, Annie. I’ve tried so hard, but I can’t see anything beyond the fact that she came here to murder my son.”
Ashleigh’s confession was full of misery. It was heart-rending to hear the conflict, the raw pain in her voice. “Stop and think of who you are…what you are, honey. You are pack and you are wolf. The mating instinct is a part of you; it shapes you personally and it shapes every Were in existence. The Vârcolac follow that same mating instinct. For Liam’s wolf to choose Thereasa means there is something worth choosing. She completes him, Ash. He needs her to help him with his empathic abilities and she needs him, too.”
Rhianna reached up to cup her cheek soothingly. “You found it in your heart to accept Freya—and Thereasa isn’t all that different from her. You welcomed Freya into your life for Nors’ sake and you saw how his love, and Dayton’s, was able to free her goodness. Your capacity to love and feel compassion is what makes you so unique, Ashleigh Bryant. You passed down that same love and compassion to your son. Trust in Liam. He knows what is right for him, just as much as Day did when he finally stopped resisting Freya. Thereasa will save three souls; Liam will save so many more with her at his side.”
Her cryptic words were intended to create curiosity and they succeeded. Ashleigh’s troubled expression turned quizzical, her head tilting to the side. “What do you mean?”
Rhianna smiled, quickly mulling over the pros and cons before she spoke again. “Honestly, I shouldn’t really say anything, because this hasn’t been discussed with anyone yet. Caleb and Gard know bits and pieces, but maybe this is something you need to know more than everyone else does right now. Perhaps this information will help you as much as it will Liam and Reasa.”
Sitting beside her, she leaned over to retrieve the book she’d set aside earlier. It was old and leather bound, and she stroked it gently as she considered her next words. “Liam’s abilities, his empathy, are like nothing we’ve encountered before. Oh, I know Anaktrine’s magical power seems limitless, but it appears her role is one of guidance for now. She is content to step in, but only when she feels there is no other option. While I was away I dreamed, Ash, and in those dreams I discovered that the vampire Queen had hidden away some of her library, hoping to transport those irreplaceable books to the future, to our time.”
The other woman regarded her with a confused expression. “Why would she do that?”
“Ana was always looking toward the future; she realised, so long ago, that there would come a time when we would need to unlock the knowledge bound between their pages.” Rhianna sighed softly, still stroking the book on her knee. “Gard has been the custodian of the books since the deaths of the King and Queen. He has recreated a portion of the library to store them, and he took me there recently. This book, Ash...I’ve been reading it for a couple of hours now. I can just feel that it will help Liam and so many others.”
Ashleigh was peering down at the book, her full attention riveted to what her friend was saying. If something could help her son, she wanted to know about it. “I can’t read the title. What language is that?”
Rhianna smiled, staring off into the distance for a moment, as if reliving a memory. “It didn’t occur to me that no one would be able to read them. Caleb and I can read them easily, but I assume that was most likely due to Anakatrine and Callain’s memories. The books were translated into the modern tongue of each era, as the ages passed. I believe this text is a version of Hattic and the title translates to Soul Searching.”
“I couldn’t understand why Ana picked this book out when I left the selection to her, but I’m beginning to now.” Rhianna’s expression held more than a hint of excitement; she was unable to keep it from her voice. “Ashleigh, the vampire race has changed so much over the millennia. From what I can understand—long before Anakatrine was born—they were more of a cerebral race. They had a range of mental powers that have long since been forgotten.”
“But they still have some of those powers,” her friend countered. “I know nobody really uses them for anything specific, but can’t Alexei mask his scent? Andrei…he can conceal when he is lying. There are other vampires who can spot deception, aren’t there? There must be other skills available too?”
Rhianna nodded, conceding the point. “There are still those who have managed to retain some of their enhanced mental abilities, but they pale in comparison to what the books tell us we once were capable of mastering. It’s as if we’ve regressed to the point that those powers seem…useless.”
She turned to face her friend, her lavender eyes aglow with excitement. “Don’t you see, Ash? Liam’s gift isn’t a new one; it’s an old one that has been given back to us.” She let that thought sink in as she watched the small blonde’s eyes widen in shock.
“His particular skill was a rarity, even back then, but it was one of the most powerful ones in existence. Empathy was predominately used as a counselling tool to help others, but there were those who viewed it as a very dangerous weapon. An elite group of Elders and Ancients existed who had the talent to Dream Walk…well according to the book there were.”
“What’s that?” Ashleigh queried in a hushed tone. The tiniest spark of hope ignited inside her as she continued. “If this book could somehow help Liam…maybe he won’t have to suffer anymore.”
“From what I’ve read so far, a dream walker can enter a mind and travel within another person’s sub consciousness, their dreams, on the psychic plane. I hadn’t read much beyond that point before you arrived, but the applications could be limitless. We know Reasa has strong empathic powers. There has to be others out there who share this ability. Maybe this method could be used to help the injured vampires at the Praetorian compound?”
Ashleigh’s mind whirled as a burst of chaotic thoughts rushed through her head. Her heart picked up a beat and there was hope in her eyes as she looked at Rhianna. “Reasa’s the only one who can calm Liam and help him shield when he has an episode. If she can teach him her skills, it will help to calm his mind. Together, you’re thinking they will able to do this dream walking thing?”
Rhianna smiled widely, nodding as her friend grasped the importance of the situation. “Maybe they could, Ashleigh. They may have the potential to wake up the Praetorians—or at least allow us to know if there is any hope for them.”
Ashleigh rose and paced over to the window to look out into the street. She was both excited and confused by what she’d learned. If what Rhianna said was true, it would be difficult to deny that Liam may actually need Reasa’s help. Also, she couldn’t ignore that Freya had done some reprehensible things in her past; in spite of that fact, she had come to love her sister-in-law with all her heart. Forgiveness wasn’t an easy concept for her to consider, but she’d already lost so many that were dear to her heart.
Liam needed Ashleigh as well as Reasa, more now than he’d ever needed her before. Was it such a leap of faith to step back and consider that maybe Reasa had to use her empathy adversely just to survive over in Europe? What did she really know about Thereasa’s life and what she had endured till now? She’d made no attempt to find out what motivated the former vampire. Annie was right, it was time to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.
Turning slowly, she stared at the petite redhead sitting on the sofa watching her in silence. Annie had risked everything for what was right. She was the bravest person Ashleigh had ever met, and that had nothing to do with the soul of the vampire Queen that lived within her. It was time for Ashleigh to be just as brave, and just as determined to do the right thing.
A soft smile crossed her face and she nodded her head. “What can I do to help, Annie?”
Rhianna and Ashleigh headed over to the pack compound once Rowan showed up at the bookstore. Aaron and Jen’s daughter liked helping out on a part-time basis while she was finishing off another degree at the university. The latest venture was in teaching; the first one had been in computer science. Though she enjoyed all things computer related, she’d realised that wasn’t the type of career she wanted. She appeared much happier since she switched paths, and enjoyed helping out with the children’s story time session at the bookstore.
As Rhianna pulled up outside her brother’s house, she wasn’t surprised to see him waiting in the doorway. It was as if he had known she was on her way over, and it made her lips quirk in a small smile to see him standing there.
He strode to the car and had the door open even before she’d managed to take off her seatbelt. “Are you okay?”
“Rafe, I told you last night I was fine.” She laughed as she was scooped up in a big bear hug, and returned his embrace with as much fervour. It never seemed to matter to him that she was a vampire and technically stronger than he was. She would always be his baby sister to protect. “You worry too much.”
“That’s my job,” he answered with a lop-sided grin, turning to greet Ashleigh as she joined them. “I thought you were working at the bookstore today.”
“I was, but Annie had some important things to discuss that affect Liam. Rowan is taking care of the shop for the time being.”
Rafe turned a quizzical gaze on his sister who gave him one of her enigmatic smiles. “All in good time,” she grinned. “Caleb’s on his way over, so I want to wait for him. However, you can tell me how you managed to get your mate pregnant again without me knowing about it.” There was laughter in her voice which prompted a wide grin to spread over her brother’s face.
“I really need to tell you the facts of life? Thought you and Caleb had that one nailed down already, but if you need some pointers…”
“He’s been insufferable since we found out the babies are okay,” Lacey laughed, as she proceeded out of the house to give her sister-in-law a big hug. There was more than a hint of amusement in her voice as she looked at her smug mate. “He’s been strutting around like a proud peacock.”
Her teasing had the Alpha grinning as he gathered her to his side and dropped a kiss on the top of her head. “Don’t let her fool you, Annie. She’s been lapping up all the attention the pack’s been giving her, too.”
The happiness exuding from the couple was warm and soothing. Rhianna’s answering smile was full of love as she gave each of them another quick hug. This was her family; when they were happy, she was happy. Things could have gone so much differently, and she was relieved that everything was okay.
“I need to head over to lessons, so I’ll catch up with you later.” Lacey disentangled herself from them and disappeared into the community hall, leaving the others to head into the Alpha’s study.
“Nors is over at the new warehouse preparing it for Monday’s opening,” Rafe said as he ordered coffee and breakfast to be brought to his study and sat down in the armchair beside the fireplace. “Do we need him here?”
A lot of the older businesses were being shut down or changing hands. The pack and the vampires were consolidating their finances and redistributing them into new ventures. Immortality and longevity were all well and good, but living longer required them to reinvest and reinvent themselves every so often.
“Ashleigh can fill him in later or if we need him, we can give him a call to come home.”
Rhianna was interrupted briefly when Lily knocked on the door and entered the study. She was carrying a laden tray and the Alpha immediately rose to take it from her. “You shouldn’t be carrying this in your condition.” There was disapproval in his tone, but also a trace of pride. He knew his errant pack member wasn’t required to do breakfast duties, but she was there every morning, usually before the other pack members’ were awake.
“I’m pregnant, Rafe, not sick.” The Vârcolac laughed, though her pleased smile let everyone know that his concern for her well-being was appreciated.
“You’re wasting your breath there,” Annie chuckled as she rose to give the younger woman a hug. Her eyes travelled over her face with intent before she smiled again, clearly pleased with what she saw. “Impending motherhood suits you.”
“We’ll revisit that in another month or so when I suddenly balloon out to the size of a house,” Lily quipped as she turned and left the room, passing Caleb on his way in.
“Are you trying to irritate me?” the vampire grumbled as he headed straight for his mate and wrapped her up in his arms. “You’re not even home for twenty-four hours and I wake up to find myself alone in our bed.”
Rhianna laughed at his peeved tone and cuddled closer to ease his separation anxiety. It was going to take her a while to alleviate her mate’s distress when she wasn’t at his side. She would have to put up with it until he was once again convinced he wasn’t about to lose her. “You needed the rest and I couldn’t sleep because of what we’ve discovered. I was only at the bookstore, Caleb. Not that far away.”
“Does someone want to tell me what you’ve discovered, and why we’re gathered here?” Rafe’s droll tone had everyone turning to look at him and it was Caleb who replied.
“I think your guess is as good as mine. When I went to bed, very little had really been discovered; however from Annie’s expression, it appears she knows something more?” Caleb phrased it as a question, moving to sit down and help himself to some coffee. He poured a cup for his mate.
As Rafe and Ashleigh grabbed some food, Rhianna quickly apprised her brother of Anakatrine’s rediscovered library and the books they hoped would help them deal with the European threat. The alpha’s expression turned incredulous the more information she imparted.
“Dream Walking?” Caleb echoed, when his mate got to that part of her discovery. He felt a bubble of hope well up inside at the mere possibility of help for the injured vampires.
“I think Liam and Reasa should have this.” Rhianna patted the leather-bound book on the coffee table where she’d placed it when she’d arrived. “I’ll have to use a spell to translate the text into English so they can read it, but that shouldn’t be hard. They are the ones who know most about their abilities. It makes sense that they would be the logical choices to read it through and determine what they can or cannot do.”
“You’re forgetting one little thing, Annie. Reasa is our prisoner, whether she is Liam’s mate or not. No one knows what kind of harm she could cause with this new knowledge. From what I understand, you didn’t strip her empathic abilities when you took her immortality.” There was a healthy dose of caution in Rafe’s tone as he frowned at the thought. He didn’t even blink at the fact she was going to employ magic to perform the translation.
His sister frowned too, pursing her lips as she regarded him. “Yes, she needs to be watched. I’m not disputing that fact; but how is she ever supposed to integrate with the pack if she continues to feel like an outsider, Rafe? Reasa has a strong affinity for vampires even though she’s no longer one. Providing her with the opportunity to help the casualties at the Praetorian Compound will give her a purpose. That’s something she is clearly lacking right now. It will also give her the chance to work with Liam and get to know him as a person. It’s a calculated risk in my opinion.”
“She’s already contacted someone outside the pack,” Ashleigh countered. “We don’t know the consequences of that yet. If Reasa can move around more freely, won’t that grant her the potential to place Liam in harm’s way? What if someone comes to rescue her?”
“I think we can all agree that Liam doesn’t need any protecting,” Caleb sighed, giving the younger woman a rueful smile. “On the contrary it’s the rest of us who need protection from him. I’m in agreement with Annie. We always use the tools that fit the job, and this empathy thing is what Liam and Reasa do best.”
Rafe nodded. Since the issue at Freya’s, he had been reassessing what was best for the pack; it was clear to him that separating Liam and Reasa would only lead to another episode. He in no way trusted the former vampire, but it was hard to dispute Annie’s reasoning. They would have to ensure that Reasa was closely monitored. That would mean putting their stronger-willed personnel on the task, and relying on Liam to retain enough pack loyalty to back them up if she proved stronger than anticipated. He’d already considered allowing them to go up to the Praetorian Compound.
“Fine, it’s agreed then. Liam and Reasa will research the book. They’ll also be permitted to go up to the Praetorian compound to see if they can be of any assistance. I want a Vârcolac presence around them though, just to ensure Reasa can’t manipulate any vulnerable minds to attempt escape.”
"I’m agreeable to that,” Rafe confirmed with another nod of his head. “I doubt any of the Vârcolac will have an issue with helping out.”
They talked a little longer, finishing breakfast as they discussed the best timing for the trip to the Praetorian compound. Despite some concerns, there was an air of excitement in the room. Things appeared to be moving, swinging in favour of the pack-vampire alliance. Whoever it was in Europe that had orchestrated the current conflict had no idea the consequences those actions were about to unleash.