Demetri strode into the laboratory at the pack compound, easily carrying a small refrigerator in his hands. A young female wolf gaped at him with an open mouth, a flicker of fear on her face as he walked through the door. She was the only person in the lab and she looked like she was ready to run screaming out the room. He had to fight down the urge to growl in irritation.
“Where is Cassia or Mallen?”
The girl gaped at him, a shiver of fear running through her that was so strong, he could actually see her quake. Demetri took a deep breath and tried again. “This refrigerator has been without power for over an hour. The contents will spoil soon if they haven’t already. It’s imperative I get it to Cassia or Mallen as soon as possible.”
“Plug it in over there, Demetri,” Cassia said from behind him, and he turned his head to see her just arriving, pointing to a clear workspace at the back of the room. She gave his a wide smile, not the least intimidated by him, but then she was used to seeing him around her house when he visited with Alexei.
“Trish, why don’t you take a break for a little while, go and get yourself some lunch. I can help Demetri.” The young girl almost ran from the room, relief etched on her face as Cassia freed her from having to have any further dealings with the vampire.
The Vârcolac waited for her to leave before she quirked an eyebrow at her adopted uncle. “You could make a little more of an effort. You scared the poor girl witless and she’s one of Mallen’s more promising students. We really can’t afford to lose her skills if she becomes too afraid to come to the lab. She has a strong maternal streak and needs a lot of support right now.”
The vampire had deposited the refrigerator where he was told and looked back at her as he plugged it in. “What? All I did was ask where either you or Mallen where.”
“Demetri, you know fine well you scare the crap out of most people just by walking into a room,” Cassia laughed, fondness in her tone. “What are you, six foot two? Factor in the whole big scary vampire thing you’ve got going on and you’re likely to have half the teenagers running scared with one glance in their direction. It doesn’t help that Pietro was here earlier looking like something out of a Dracula movie. He almost scared poor Trish to death.”
Her droll tone had Demetri smiling and he crossed the room to give her a quick hug. “Speaking of Pietro, I’d have another shower before you head home, Cass. Unless you actually want Alexei to go ballistic?”
She flushed a deep shade of red, hugging him back for a moment before stepping away. “Thanks for the heads up.” It was disconcerting to know the vampire was aware of her tryst with his friend so she quickly changed the subject before he could comment further. “Rafe said this is a viable sample of the toxin.”
“I checked and it appears to still be good but what would I know for sure, I’m not a scientist. The door hasn’t been opened since I unplugged it, so with luck, the temperature will have remained cold enough to keep it safe. I’d give it an hour or so to chill down again before having a look.”
“I agree. Do you want to come over to the house for some lunch?” Cassia was taping a sign to the small unit warning against it being opened in case anyone came in while she was gone.
“Vampire here. I don’t eat.” The Ancient’s laugh was a warm rich sound that only a very few ever got to hear. “However, I do want to know how Pietro is getting on so I’ll accompany you while you eat. Will Cedar and Alexei be there?”
Cassia shook her head, preceding him out of the lab. “Mom’s over at the Hanlon pack today keeping Jared abreast of everything that’s been happening and taking a little time to catch up with family. Dad’s out on some Council business. I think he was supposed to be meeting with Andrei and Mara.” There was a questioning inflection in her voice as she spoke.
The vampire at her side smiled, and it was one of his more natural smiles, which usually graced his handsome face whenever his wife was around or mentioned. “Yeah, they’re meeting with Stefan to keep an eye on how things are with the Council. At the last meeting everything appeared to be moving in the direction we want, however, it’s not unknown for one or two of them to suddenly change their mind.”
He followed her into her kitchen and watched as she began making coffee for him as well as a sandwich and some tea for herself. “So, what’s going on with you and Pietro?”
“It’s private, Demetri,” Cassia choked out, startled by his bluntness.
“He’s been through a lot, Cass. Playing around with a wolf might not be the best thing for him right now. I know for a fact Alexei going ape-shit at him sure as hell isn’t a good thing.”
She turned around to regard him, her expression surprised for a moment before a wide smile crossed her face. “And here was me thinking you were lecturing me about it for my protection. It’s a pleasant surprise to find it the other way around.”
Demetri’s own serious expression lightened a bit, his lips twitching in a smile. “Yeah, it must be a bit of shock finding someone who has actually realised the Vârcolac are more than capable of taking care of themselves,” he conceded, taking the proffered cup of coffee she handed him.
Cassia sat down at the table with her lunch, chewing thoughtfully before she spoke. “I’m not playing, Demetri. Pietro is safe with me. He may not know it yet, and apart from Dara, you’re the only other person who does know, but he’s mine.”
She didn’t know what she expected his reaction to be but the smile that crossed the Ancient vampire’s face made Cassia suck in a deep breath and feel slightly envious of Mara that she got to witness that expression all the time. Not that she would trade Pietro in for anyone else but she was woman enough to acknowledge a handsome male when she saw one.
“He’s your mate?” he asked, though they both knew it was a moot question so he didn’t wait for her to answer. “If anything can help Pietro heal, it will be finally finding his mate after all these centuries. I couldn’t have chosen a better match for him either. You are perfect for him.”
For some reason Demetri’s warm approval brought a lump to Cassia’s throat and she had to swallow hard to clear it and return his smile with one that held a hint of sadness. “He’s so angry, Demetri. Yes, he’s going through the motions of moving on but the rage he’s bottling up inside is destructive. I’m afraid of what he may do to Thereasa if he ever comes into contact with her.”
The vampire’s eyes darkened and a frown creased his forehead. “Do you think he’ll hurt her?” While he had no love for the former vampire, he was astute enough to know the potential damage it could cause to the pack, not to mention the personal harm it could cause to both Liam and now Cassia, if his friend was to act out any thoughts of vengeance. It was a disaster waiting to happen.
“I think there is a very strong probability that he may,” she whispered, fear in her eyes as she met his. “As long as he doesn’t actually see her, he’s able to keep in his mind that she’s Liam’s mate and as such, to protect Liam he has to leave her alone. If he were to see her though, I’m not so sure that he’d be able to hold onto that rationale.”
Demetri sat back in his chair, imagining the chaos that would ensue if Pietro lost it and hurt the woman. The chances of something similar to what happened up at the Praetorian compound occurring would be a high probability. Maybe it would be wiser to move Pietro from the Armand-Hanlon pack. He was sure Mara wouldn’t mind if he suggested the vampire move in with them for a while.
“Have you talked to Rafe about it?” he eventually asked, all the while thinking about possible solutions to the problem.
Cassia shook her head. “Not specifically, but I know he’s more than aware anyway. I’ve noticed Sam and Harlan are always around the compound since Pietro’s been here. They’re two of Rafe’s strongest Betas. Also, Aaron’s been close to home too. With all the work required to transfer ownership of the pack’s businesses and start up new ones, he should be coordinating that but he’s here most of the time. Rafe is keeping his best people close and it can only be for that reason.”
Demetri nodded his agreement. The Alpha was smarter than most wolves he knew which was expected of anyone he accepted into his family. Rafe had earned his respect years ago when they had fought with Richard Graves after his attack on the Hanlon pack. While their relationship wasn’t the standard kind of family one, he was Rhianna’s brother and that meant he was Demetri’s family by default and under his protection.
“I’ll speak to Mara and Caleb. It might be wise to remove Pietro from the pack and place him somewhere else.”
“He’s not ready for that,” Cassia disagreed, denial rippling through her at the thought of her mate going anywhere away from her. “He’s only just venturing out of the house and only in my company. Reasa and Liam will be heading up to the Praetorian compound soon anyway, from what I hear. Let me work with him, Demetri. As long as I stay close everything should be okay.”
He looked doubtful but he finally conceded, though he wasn’t entirely happy about it. “He can’t be allowed to do anything that may hurt the pack; no matter how justified some may feel he is. If he kills Thereasa and Liam goes rogue, hundreds of people could die.”
“It won’t come to that. I know it won’t. I won’t let it.”
The determination in Cassia’s voice matched her expression and it was enough to ease some of his concern. Demetri sipped at his coffee as she ate, wondering if perhaps it would be wise for him to pop in and have a word with Pietro before he headed home.
“I thought the purpose was for me to recuperate here undisturbed?” There was no mistaking the irritation on Pietro’s face as he opened the door.
Demetri merely gave him a level stare before brushing past him into the house. “Cassia reeks of you.”
His friend smiled, a genuine, warm smile that reached his miss-matched eyes. “She should,” was all the other vampire said turning to head into the empty living room.
“What are you doing, Pietro? You know Alexei will hand you your ass on a plate when he finds out your having sex with his daughter. Do you have a death wish? Wasn’t Europe a step too close for you?” Demetri watched his friend closely, seeing the slight stiffening of his shoulders that indicated his temper was on the rise. He didn’t care, he had to find out if Pietro had any concept of what was happening. Perhaps then, he’d be able to have a word with Alexei when the shit hit the fan.
“Remind me again what business my personal life is of yours, Demetri? Should I start commenting on your relationship with Mara and Alexei’s with Cedar?” There was more than a hint of coolness in Pietro’s voice as he sat down on the sofa and met his friend’s stare.
“Alexei and I are mated to our partners. What are you implying here? Is Cassia your mate?”
Pietro’s expression turned neutral, not a hint of what he was feeling crossing his face. “Don’t be ridiculous. We’re just enjoying each other. The last time I looked Cassia was a grown woman who is more than capable of making her own decisions. I don’t see why this is anyone else’s business but our own.”
Demetri sat down on the sofa across from him, an eyebrow quirking at his choice of words. “Why ridiculous? Mac found his mate in Lily when he least expected it. Why is the possibility of Cassia being your mate ridiculous?”
“Look at me, Demetri. Look at the scars on my face. You’ve seen the ones on my body in Europe. What woman would want…this?” Pietro hissed out the words, waving a hand at the visible scars on his face and neck. His eyes blazed with repulsion, his one remaining hazel eye turning almost as black as the damaged one.
If he’d thought his outburst would garner some form of sympathy from his friend he was rudely mistaken. Demetri’s expression remained the same, thoughtful but unsympathetic. “Clearly Cassia doesn’t mind your imperfections.” He pointed out the obvious. His response only appeared to irritate his friend more.
“I’m an anomaly to her. I’m the first vampire to be scarred for life. Of course, she’s going to be interested in me. My body may hold the clue to an antidote for this poison. That calls to the scientist in her. As soon as she’s found a cure she’ll have no further need for me anymore. So I will enjoy the time I have with her for however long I have it, but that is all there is to this thing between us. It is all there can be. I’ve told her that so she’d aware.”
Demetri stared at him, using all of his self-control to stop his mouth from dropping open. It was obvious Pietro was clueless to what was happening. He truly believed what he was saying. Did his friend really know Cassia so little that he believed she was only interested in him for scientific reasons and would leave him when that was no longer the case?
He felt a pang of sympathy but it was for Cassia not Pietro. She was an amazing young woman with a bright future ahead of her. She was happy at finding her mate in Pietro however, she had no idea that her mate didn’t want her. Was she strong enough to ride out his friend’s demons with him? It could prove one hell of an upward battle to convince Pietro that he was worthy of her.
“I’m astounded to hear you think Cassia is that fickle,” he finally said, standing up to leave. Coming here hadn’t been a good idea after all because Demetri was sorely tempted to kick the shit out of his friend for being so narrow-minded. “It would serve you right if she did kick you into touch. While I’m here, there are also some concerns about your antipathy towards Reasa. I just wanted to remind you to stay away from the girl.”
“I don’t need you to tell me that,” Pietro snapped back, more than a little anger in his voice as he rose too. “I’ve stayed away from her for days now. You have no need to concern yourself over that. You really came here just to push my buttons, Demetri?”
The two vampires stared each other out and then Demetri’s lips quirked in a smile. “Actually I did want to see how you were doing too,” he grinned. “It’s good to see you with some fire in your belly, my friend. Hold onto that and you will heal just fine.” He turned and walked to the front door.
As he pulled it opened, Pietro followed him, a scowl on his face. “What did you mean about Cassia not being so fickle? Demetri! Demetri!”
Climbing into his car, Demetri’s grin widened at the sound of the front door slamming shut when he didn’t answer. He may suck at the more tender emotions but he sure as hell still had it in him to piss people off. Hopefully, Pietro would be so off-balance trying to figure out his relationship with Cassia that there wouldn’t be any chance for him to accidentally bump into Thereasa.
The Vârcolac had her work cut out with his friend, there was no doubt about that, but there was more than enough spark still within Pietro. He had faith that she would be able to make him see sense. The only question was…would she be able to do it before Alexei found out about them.
Reasa had just finished lunch when the knock came on the front door. Freya looked up from the pile of paperwork she was nose deep in and smiled. “I wonder if he was clock watching,” she commented before calling out, “Come in, Liam.”
Taking a deep breath, Reasa deposited her plate and cutlery into the dishwasher and then turned to greet the Vârcolac. “You had sufficient time to read the entire book?
“Eidetic memory,” he grinned, the book on dream walking tucked under his arm at his side. “I brought it back so you could read it later. It really is fascinating.”
There was a new confidence about him. It was subtle and not the least cocky, but she could see the slight change in him as he waited patiently for her to decide what they were going to do. She had to admit the confidence made him much more appealing and it was hard to keep her gaze fixed firmly on his face and not travelling down his body to admire the view.
Giving herself a mental shake, she turned to Freya who was openly watching them without the least attempt to conceal it. “May we use you for the next lesson, Freya?” She noted Liam frown at the words. He was clearly not happy at the prospect of his aunt being with them.
“What am I required to do?”
Reasa ignored Liam, keeping her gaze on the vampire. “If you could possibly choose an appropriate emotion and maintain it for a while? Liam and I will be in the other room. I want to show him how to seek out individual emotions. As he already had a strong connection with you, it should be easier for him to detect your emotions.”
Freya frowned, looking back at her paperwork. “Wouldn’t Elina be a better choice for this? Liam has the same affinity with her as he does with me. I am very busy right now.”
Reasa shook her head. “Elina is too used to using her abilities to shield Liam. That habit will most likely provide an obstacle to any progress.”
“Irritation is an emotion too, Freya,” Liam grinned at his aunt. “I’m used to sensing that in you so I should be able to find you easily.”
Giving her nephew a pointed look, the vampire finally sighed. “Very well, but try to make this quick. Learn fast, Liam, I have work to finish this afternoon.”
Laughing at the pique in Freya’s tone, Liam followed Reasa into the back of the house. He was excited to learn new tools that could help him control his empathy, but he was more excited about spending more time with his mate. The morning lesson had been challenging, especially when he’d had to confront his vampiric side, but having Reasa in his mind had been amazing. He couldn’t wait to experience it again and have their positions reversed so he could be in her mind this time. He wondered what he would learn about the exotic creature that was destined to be his mate.
He was also excited to tell her what he’d learned from Annie’s book. Since he’d discovered what he’d inadvertently done up at the Praetorian Compound, it had only been his stronger shields that had prevented his sorrow and guilt from being projected onto the pack. After reading the book, he now had some hope that they may be able to save the stricken vampires.
Reasa took her position on her bed as before and he took his at the bottom facing her, the book on dreaming walking once more placed between them. It appeared symbolic, as if it gave her some form of protection against him. It was enough to make Liam smile. If he were determined to have her no book would get in his way, however he knew she needed more time so he was content to wait until she came to him. She would come to him, of that he had no doubt. No one could withstand the mating instinct, not matter how hard they wished they could.
“Stop grinning. This is serious and you need to concentrate.” Reasa’s tone was waspish and it reminded him of his aunt and sometimes Elina too. It suddenly struck Liam how he automatically formed bonds with women who were usually cool and reserved. He was drawn to personalities that soothed his soul even as he strove to try to bring laughter into their lives because he wanted to see them happy.
Composing himself, he tried to look less pleased with being in Reasa’s company. He really did want to learn what she had to teach him and didn’t want to risk having her decide to withdraw her offer to help. Relaxing his arms on his crossed legs, he waited for her to begin.
“This time we’re going to be entering my mind so I can show you how to locate someone’s emotions. I am strong enough to make small enhancements to emotions without damaging the host mind, which is very easy to do. You MUST concentrate fully, Liam. You have the power to turn me into a drooling mess and I’m not so sure you wouldn’t be able to do the same to Freya despite her having one of the strongest minds I’ve come across. I cannot stress just how dangerous this is. One slipup and you could wipe both of our minds.”
Some of Liam’s eagerness waned as he saw the seriousness of her expression. Reasa wasn’t being overly-theatrical, she meant every word. If he deviated even the slightest from her commands, he could possibly harm two of the women he cared most for in the world. A tremor of fear gripped him and something must have shown in his eyes because Reasa’s expression softened slightly.
“I believe your natural protective instincts will not allow you to do any harm,” she said in a less acerbic tone. “I’m willing to take the risk so try not to be overly concerned about it. Be careful, yes, but have some faith in yourself.”
“What about my aunt? Is she aware of how dangerous this is?”
Reasa nodded. “Of course. All vampires are aware of the risks of another entering their minds. The fact Freya suggested Elina for the task proves her faith in you, Liam. She would not risk her daughter if she thought for one moment you may harm her.”
That settled him a little, and he loosened his shoulders to relax himself. “Okay, what do I do?”
“I’m lowering my mental shields a fraction to allow you to come in. Very gently reach out with your mind and try to find the way in. Most people imagine different things when it comes to their defences. They often don’t even realise they’re doing it. The first step is always to try to determine what they are. Try to work out what my defences are and then the path I’m allowing you to take to enter into my mind.”
Closing his eyes because it was better not to have the distraction of looking at his mate, Liam carefully pushed out his mental awareness towards Reasa until he came across a lattice of thick strands of rubber. He tested the thickest part of it, giving a weak mental push and watching the rubber give a little but rebound back into place the instant he stopped pushing. It was fascinating so he did it again and smiled.
Reasa’s shields were very strong and he couldn’t stop the swelling of pride that rushed through him. When they joined together they would be so strong. Her experience and his strength as a booster would make them a formidable team.
There was exasperation in her tone so he moved on, following the rubber strands as they began to taper down in thickness until he was at the barest of openings. It was so minute if he hadn’t been concentrating so hard he would have missed it. She was very skilled at this and he couldn’t stop another smile crossing his face as he accepted her invitation and entered her mind slowly.
It was strange to be within someone else’s most private place. It wasn’t the same as the mental communication they’d shared. He was more fully inside Reasa’s mind, sensing her emotions and being close to her thoughts too. If he really wanted to he could push just a little and he would be able to read her thoughts but he chose not to do that. Instead he concentrated on an area in her mind that closely resembled an overgrown well and sent his physic persona to that place.
“Your touch is very light,” Reasa said out aloud, approval in her tone that widened his grin. “Continue with this level of touch and calmness and I may come out of this intact. You’ve found where my emotions are hidden. Can you determine the different ones?”
Liam didn’t speak, he used his mind to conjure the image of a feather which he dipped into the well carefully. She had said to keep his touch light and a feather was the lightest item he could think of. He didn’t want to inadvertently hurt her.
Reasa giggled as he stroked the feather over a moss-hewn brick and he laughed at the sound. “This is where your sense of humour lies,” he chuckled, dragging the feather over it again so he could hear the wonderful sound she emitted. He could have stayed there all day making her laugh but knew she would tell him off if he tried it.
Moving on, he brushed another brick and felt the first stirrings of irritation within his mate as her breath hissed out. Anger. He tried again and felt a hot blast of desire exude from the woman before him, and he quickly backed away before she could become angrier. “Sorry,” he whispered.
“It is fine, just move on,” Reasa answered, a breathless quality to her voice.
Liam didn’t brush anymore bricks with the feather; he let it melt away and just viewed the bricks. He was quickly recognising each emotion and he didn’t want to touch the ones that would cause her pain or induce her to cry. He spent a few more moments staring into the well before he backed away. “I feel confident I know what I’m looking for now, Reasa.”
His mate let out a slow breath and he opened his eyes to see her watching him intently. “You learn so fast.” There was an accusation to her tone.
He shot her a rueful smile. “The book has a section solely on this,” he admitted.
Her green eyes bore into him as her lips tighten a bit in disapproval, but she didn’t call him on the fact he’d kept that to himself. “Fine. Let us see if you can narrow in on individual emotions now you know what you’re looking for. Lower your defences until you can feel both Freya’s emotions and mine. Don’t open too wide to the entire pack or you may be overloaded. Start small.”
He did as she asked, keeping a light presence in her mind in the region where her emotions were and then reached out psychically to the other room to sense his aunt. Freya was concentrating on her paperwork task, irritation wafting from her in spades. He stayed still, sensing the difference in wavelengths and noting that each had a distinctive pattern, an individual signature.
It was something akin to what he did with the Vârcolac. Before today, he had only been able to do this with the Vârcolac because they were more prone to speaktelepathically. In hindsight, he could see that he’d automatically learned their signatures at an early age. This was the first time he’d ever noticed it with anyone else in the pack and it was a heady feeling.
It was enough to make Liam smile again and he couldn’t resist testing his aunt’s mental defences to see if he could easily enter her mind. He was immediately brought up short by a hedge so dense it was a solid wall. As if that wasn’t bad enough, it appeared to be encased in a mesh of barbed wire. Stunned, he could only gape at it in stunned shock. Surely she had to have the most impressive defences of anyone he knew, and if she did, he could only imagine the depth of emotions she kept hidden from the world.
He began to test each section, keeping his touch light as he sought a way in. Liam knew he was probably powerful enough to force his way into Freya’s mind but that wasn’t the object of the lesson. He just wanted to test if he could slip inside. He didn’t want to do anything while he was there, he was just overcome with the need to know…
“Liam!” Reasa’s scolding tone startled him and he hastily backed away, his expression sheepish when he opened his eyes to look at her.
“Freya did not give you permission to trespass in her thoughts.”
“Sorry, I got a little carried away there.” His tone was meek and he gave a small smile that turned into a large grin when she rolled her eyes.
“Somebody save me from foolish males who think a cute smile will get them out of trouble,” she grumbled under her breath, but he could see a smile threatening to tilt her lips upward.
To be continued...