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 speak telepathically. 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.
He beamed at her until she rose from the bed and began pacing the room. As the silence stretched, he watched her move with a rapt expression. She had no idea how graceful she was, how the sunlight shining in the window bathed her caramel skin with a soft glow that made his mouth go dry. He ached to brush his lips against that skin, to run his tongue over her softness to see if she tasted as good as she looked. He wondered what she’d do if he tried.
Liam knew she wasn’t anywhere close to being ready to mate with him, but she inspired such emotions within him, keeping his distance was difficult. Would she let him have just one kiss? Having her in his mind and sharing hers was such an intimate thing. Surely that was more intimate than a simple kiss? If she trusted him enough on a psychic level then perhaps she would trust him a little further? Rising slowly from the bed, he moved into her path so when she next turned to resume her pacing he was blocking her way.
Reasa uttered a startled squeak as she unexpectedly came up against the brick wall of his chest. “What are you doing?” She stepped back quickly, scowling up at him.
“You are the most exquisite woman I have ever seen.” His words appeared to catch her even more off-guard and she stared at him mutely for a moment before she backed away further.
“We are here to work on a way to treat the injured vampires. If you are unable to maintain that task then you should leave.”
Her words were as frosty as the glare on her face but it didn’t faze him. Liam stepped closer, inhaling Reasa’s heavenly scent, his heart beginning to kick up a beat. She smelled so good, so tantalising that his mouth was starting to water at the thought of tasting her. Reasa’s tongue snaked out nervously, brushing her bottom lip as she came up against the immovable object of the wall and her fierceness turned to uncertainty.
Placing both hands on the wall either side of her head, he had the presence of mind not to press his body against hers even though he dearly wanted to. One kiss. That was all he wanted and all he would tease from his beautiful mate…this time.
“Liam…” This time his name sounded breathless, a slight tremor in her voice as Reasa’s hands came up and she mistakenly touch him on the chest.
Heat flared through him the instant she touched him. It wasn’t a slow burn but instead an inferno of need racing through his veins until he thought he would surely turn to ash from the intensity. Liam didn’t recognise the harsh growl that uttered from his lips as he swooped down and took her mouth in a blistering kiss, stroking her lips with his, running his tongue along her bottom lip as she had done only moments before.
Colours exploded behind his closed eyes, hot reds, flickering yellows and a blinding white so intense it threatened to consume him. She tasted divine, like hot caramel layering through molten chocolate with a hint of spicy cinnamon. She was heat and passion, soft and yet strong, her lips moulding to his desperately as she kissed him back with a fervour that bordered on wildness.
Reasa’s fingers curled into his chest, resting against his racing heart as he fought to keep some distance between them when all he wanted to do was press his aching body against her softness. He had to maintain some control though, because she was so very fragile now and he could easily hurt her with his passion. He contented himself with the kiss, with stealing her breath away when he dipped his tongue inside her mouth to taste her more fully.
Liam couldn’t ever remember feeling this alive, this intensity of emotions without there being pain. Before Thereasa, he would have been projecting everything to the pack but not this…not these emotions. These were solely for him and for his mate. These were the most intimate and private of emotions that he would never share with anyone other than her. She was his, his exotic mate, his fierce little bundle of conflicted feelings and messed up thinking. Thereasa was his enigma to solve as she worked to save his soul without truly knowing that was what she was doing.
Liam finally dragged his mouth away, his breathing harsh as he stared down into dazed green eyes that for once weren’t flashing at him in irritation. He gave into temptation to run his fingers over her warm brown skin, trailing them across one cheek slowly until he rubbed a thumb against her swollen bottom lip. “I guess the lesson is over now,” he sighed softly, a rueful smile tugging at his lips as he watched awareness creep back into her gaze and her hands pushed at his chest.
He knew she needed time and space, so he backed away, moving to the closed bedroom door. “I’ll leave the book for you to read. I think tomorrow we can go up to the Praetorian Compound and see if there is anything we can do to help the injured. Rafe should have had enough time to arrange an escort by now.”
Reasa stared dumbly at him as he left the room, closing the door quietly behind him. The instant he did, she moved back to the bed, hugging her knees as her heart beat a wild tattoo in her chest. Dear God, the heat in his kiss had been electric. He had sucked her down and turned her inside out with that one meeting of lips. There was an ache in her stomach so intense it was almost physical. What the hell had he done to her? He had to have projected his emotions onto her for her to respond the way she had. He had to!
Reasa stared at the door, her thoughts in chaos as she tried to convince herself of that and reluctantly had to be truthful with herself. Liam had maintained his shields during the kiss. Her reaction had purely been her own, she couldn’t deny that. She had wanted him, had needed him with a passion so intense she’d been disappointed when he’d stopped kissing her. She was attracted to Liam Eriksson despite of what he was. She had come here to kill him and his kind and now she wanted to lay with him, to feel his hands stroking her body, to feel his lips…
Burying her head against her knees, she fought not to think any further down those lines as the ache in the pit of her stomach grew worse. She had to stop thinking like that. She had to put Liam back in the box she’d constructed for him. He was an abomination. He shouldn’t have been born.
But she found the strength of her convictions was weaker than it had ever been before. The box wouldn’t close within her mind, instead it remained cracked open and twinkling brown eyes peeked out at her. Reasa swallowed back a strangled sob as wicked lips grinned at her…playful, teasing and so full of heat they were ready to burn her up. She was in trouble and she didn’t know how to get herself out of this one.
“Cassia, I need to head into the city to pick up some supplies for the lab that Mallen’s ordered in. I’m supposed to have an escort.”
The Vârcolac halted in her tracks on her way over to see Pietro, mild annoyance overcoming her at the interruption. She turned around to look at Trish and the annoyance melted away in an instant. At seventeen, the youngster already looked older than she was, but lacked the usual confidence of most of her peers. It was why the tall dark-haired girl had been scheduled to help at the lab, to boost that confidence among some of the more empathic pack members.
Despite her desire to see her mate, Cassia wasn’t able to ignore the needs of one of her more vulnerable pack mates. “You and me both,” she commented, giving her a reassuring smile.
“Really?” Trish’s eyes were huge, her surprise evident.
“Yes…unless Rafe has rescinded the order.” Cassia spotted Aaron leaving the Alpha’s house and waved to the pack’s second-in-command. “Aaron, we need to go into town to pick up some supplies. I was thinking about asking Pietro to accompany us. Will that be sufficient?”
Her uncle wandered over, a thoughtful expression on his face as he regarded them. “I don’t think that will be a problem, honey,” he said, giving his niece a hug before ruffling Trish’s hair. “It will do you all some good to get away from the pack for a bit. I’m sure you’ll be able to keep everyone in one piece, Cass.”
For a moment she blinked at him in surprise and then a wide smile crossed her face. Aaron was putting her in charge of the outing, not coddling her, as was the norm. Her expression must have been something to see because her uncle laughed loudly and shook his head.
“We learn from our mistakes,” he winked, his sunny smile automatically making them both smile back at him. Aaron’s easy-going personality hid a core of steel but it made him the first person most of the pack went to when they had a problem. “You will see more of our pack and the Hanlon pack in the city than normal but that’s only because we’re stepping up a presence there to see if we can locate any strangers to the area. If you see anything out of the ordinary let me know. Jared’s informed us he’s detected some unknown wolves in his neck of the woods recently. They’ve come close but so far haven’t trespassed on pack lands. It’s unusual behaviour though and with the current threat level from the European vampires we’d be foolish not to pay close attention to these random wolves.”
Cassia’s surprise instantly turned to wariness and she couldn’t help the feeling of pleasure that also washed over her. Her uncle was treating her like one of the pack soldiers, and that pleased her wolf no end. This was the first she’d heard of these unknown wolves and she knew it was probably on a need to know basis. The fact she was entrusted with the knowledge was a huge source of pride for her but she tried not to show it too openly.
“If we see anything we’ll let you know,” she answered.
As Aaron nodded and walked away, she became aware of the scent of fear from Trish and turned her gaze back to the girl. “It will be okay. I’m sure we won’t see anything untoward while we’re picking up the supplies.”
Wary blue eyes met hers as Trish shifted nervously from one foot to the other. “It’s not that, Cassia,” she murmured, her gaze flitting towards Andrei’s home. “Do we really need to take the vampire along with us?”
It took a few seconds to realise that the younger woman truly was terrified of Pietro, not that he had done anything outwardly aggressive towards the girl. It would appear this trip to the city was going to be educational for all involved. Trish had to overcome her lack of confidence, and overcoming her fear of Pietro would be a good start in that direction. Pietro needed to interact with others more, and she hoped Trish’s vulnerability would spark his protective instincts.
“Come on,” she smiled, linking her arm with Trish and marching her over to Andrei’s house. “Pietro isn’t half as scary as he looks and he’s really a very nice vampire. We’re also doing some healing here too, Trish. We’re helping him to become accustomed to being in the presence of others.” Her final words appeared to encourage the healer inside Trish as the girl straightened a bit and her steps held a little more confidence. Smiling, Cassia knocked on the door.
“What?!” Pietro barked swinging open the door, his mood still black from Demetri’s visit. He hadn’t even paid any attention to who was calling, his mood was that bad. The young girl from the lab earlier uttered a frightened cry and stumbled backwards while Cassia’s expression turned from cheerful to scowling in less than a second.
“Who pissed on your parade?” Her tone was icy as it washed over him but that didn’t stop his hungry gaze roaming over her exquisite face as if he hadn’t seen her for days.
The blackness lifted in an instant and he felt his lips tugging up in a half smile. “Demetri.”
Cassia nodded, her own expression clearing a bit. “Ah yes…he can do that to most people.” She turned to her companion and held out a hand for the girl to come closer. “Trish, this is Pietro. You’ll have to excuse his lack of manners just now. He’s male,” she said the last in a stage whisper and winked at her.
Looking at the other woman, Pietro could see she was younger than he’d first thought and a bit on the nervous side. He felt old instincts starting to well up inside and was surprised to note that the protectiveness he’d previously felt mainly towards the Vârcolac was being extended to the girl he’d just scared the life out of. Perhaps it was because Cassia appeared to be taking the youngster under her wing. If she was important to the Vârcolac then maybe he should take more of an interest in her.
He found himself smiling and knew it must be tugging at the scar on his face. Trish looked at him hesitantly but he didn’t see any sign of repulsion in her expression. He dialled back his previous bad mood a bit more. “My apologies, Trish, I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
His gaze turned back to Cassia. “You have a reason for being here?” He couldn’t think what they possibly wanted. The Vârcolac was hardly going to bring along a teenager if she wanted to spent intimate time with him. He had to admit that his interest was piqued.
“We need an escort into the city. Everyone else is busy so I thought you might like to accompany us.”
It took every ounce of his self-control not to let his mouth gape open in stunned surprise. She wanted him to leave the pack? His instinctive reaction was to refuse on the spot, an icy shiver running down his spine at the thought of leaving the sanctity of the pack. He was aware that was due to his feelings of failure for what had happened in Europe. He knew he had to begin the healing process and he was trying to do that with Cassia. If she was asking for this then she must feel that he was ready.
He liked Cassia. He liked her very much, almost to the point of craving her company and it wasn’t just about the sex. She was intelligent, and so interesting that simply being in her company was a soothing balm. If he refused, she wouldn’t like it, and he didn’t want to see disappointment in her eyes because he appeared weak. Swallowing, his brows drew down in a small scowl as he felt the acrid taste of fear in his mouth. He wasn’t sure if he was afraid she would be disappointed in him or afraid of leaving the confines of the pack.
“You know you don’t need me to accompany you. You’re more than capable of taking care of yourself and your little pup, Cassia.”
“Oh I know that,” she grinned at him. “Unfortunately, Rafe doesn’t appear to have fully rescinded the escort rules for us Vârcolac, though he has relaxed them considerably. Aaron is happy for us to go into town as long as we have an escort of some kind. I would prefer if it were you. We do need the supplies but we’re also to keep our eyes and ears open too. There are some strange wolves around, possibly from Europe. With you having been over there for so long, you may be the best person to be looking. There’s a possibility you may recognise some faces if you’ve come across them before.”
She was so plausible that he had to smile. How could he argue with her logic when it was so sound? She had wrapped him up neatly and tied the bow. He was unable to refuse now because his protective instincts were rearing up loud and clear. Strange wolves in the area meant potential risks for both the packs and also for his own kind.
“How’s the experiments coming along?” Of course, they had to factor in that the poison was still a huge risk to all vampires out there.
Cassia’s expression turned hopeful. “They’re ongoing and will take a few hours to complete. This is the perfect time for a little side trip because watching experiments is a very frustrating activity.”
Making up his mind, Pietro let out a long sigh. There really was no way out of it and if he was honest about it, he did want to test himself away from the pack. It would give him an indication on where he was at in the healing process. In addition…he wanted to spend time with Cassia, even if it meant they had an escort in the young wolf with them. “Fine, let me grab a jacket.”
The sunny smile he received was worth any trepidation he was feeling. As he grabbed his leather jacket and returned outside, he couldn’t help analyse his reactions to the exquisite golden-haired woman waiting for him. Everything about her called to him. When they were apart, she was all he could think about. Cassia appeared to feel the same because she was always seeking him out.
Demetri’s words came back to him and he felt a shiver of shock run through his body. Was Cassia his mate? Could that be possible or where they just two friends enjoying a mutual pleasure that was quite literally breath taking? Deciding it wasn’t something he wanted to examine too closely right now, Pietro climbed into the front passenger seat of the Jeep as Trish scurried into the back and Cassia started the engine. No, he’d think about it at another time.
Cassia tried to keep the wide grin from her face as they drove off pack lands and headed towards the city. She had expected Pietro to put up a fight about leaving the pack but he’d agreed with practically no real persuasion needed. That pleased her wolf immensely, and the female part of her. He was willing to try…that was all they could ask for at this point in his healing process. The fact he wasn’t decked out in his stupid hat was a good sign as well. True, he was still using his hair to try to hide the worst of his scars but it was a start.
It didn’t take them long to arrive into the city. Cassia parked the Jeep in a long stay car park close to area where they would be picking up their supplies. She decided to try to make a day of it, or at least a few hours, it would depend on how her companions coped being away from the pack. Trish was probably more skittish than Pietro was so there was a good chance they would have to return early.
It appeared Pietro was aware of that too because his wary demeanour was loosening up a bit and he was engaging the younger wolf in conversation. Cassia used a hand to hide the smile that was lighting up her face as she kept to the background and just listened.
“So, are female wolves like all other females when it comes to shopping?” he asked Trish with a wry smile gracing his handsome face. “How many shops am I about to get dragged into?”
The younger wolf appeared startled for a moment and then she gave him a hesitant smile as he moved to place himself to her side, closest to the road, with Cassia on her other side. It appeared instinctive that he did that, automatically placing the girl between them so it would ease some of her anxiety levels.
“We have a list.” Trish pulled out the list from the back pocket of her jeans and shyly handed it to him.
Pietro accepted it and began reading, his eyes glazing slightly the more he read. He reached across and handed the piece of paper to Cassia. “Maybe you should have this, it’s way over my head. I don’t understand any of the items on it.”
Trish giggled at the bemusement in his tone. “We could go shopping for clothes instead,” she laughed, her expression turning surprised as she realised she’d just teased a vampire.
“Clothes I understand,” he smiled back at her, keeping his tone light and friendly. “However, I also know just how long women spend clothes shopping so maybe we should stick to the list for now?”
Cassia laughed too, rolling her eyes. “Let’s stick to what we’re here for and if we have time we can do some personal shopping later.” She perused the list and then pointed down the block. “We can get quite a few things down here.”
They managed to secure most of what they needed in a relatively short period of time. As the items weren’t perishable, Cassia steered them towards one of the many cafés in the area. “Why don’t we have a coffee before we head for the final few things?”
“Sounds good,” Pietro answered, and they chose a table outside in the warm afternoon sunshine.
Sipping at a cool drink, Cassia let her gaze wander over the people passing them by as she listened to Pietro chatting with Trish. He was asking her about her studies and pack schedule, subtly giving praise and reinforcing the younger woman’s self-esteem, as she recounted her daily schedule. The more she listened, the more content Cassia felt. It was almost as if they were a family. She could just see Pietro being this patient as he taught a child of theirs how to grow into an amazing, confident adult. It set a deep yearning inside her soul to know this sense of family, to make a child with this wonderful vampire who was her soul mate.
A scent teased her nostrils and her head turned in the direction of a group of five males who had just turned into the street. Barely a second after she moved her head, Pietro and Trish both turned as well.
“Do you know them, Cass?” There was a tremor in Trish’s voice as she stared at the wolves walking towards them and the Vârcolac touched her hand lightly to soothe her. Pietro repositioned his chair at an angle to safely cover the girl as they drew nearer.
“No, but it’s okay, Trish. We’re in the centre of the city with thousands of humans surrounding us. Nothing’s going to happen.” Cassia spared a moment to glance at Pietro. “Do you recognise any of them?”
His expression was neutral, his eyes never leaving the wolves. “I’m sure I’ve seen one of them before,” he answered; quietly enough they could hear him but not loud enough any nearby humans could. His gaze was fixated on the tallest of the five males.
Close-cropped dark-blond hair left the male’s face wide open to perusal. It was a strong face, from the high sweep of his chiselled cheekbones to the hard line of his granite-like jaw. His skin was tanned a deep bronze, his aristocratic nose slightly crooked as if he’d been in a fight and the bone hadn’t set quite properly. His jawline was peppered with a light stubble that, surprisingly, was a few shades darker than his natural hair colour.
Glacial pale green eyes swept over the milling people as he walked, intelligence blazing from deep within. As his gaze travelled over Cassia, the male paused for a moment, clearly recognising the group at the table for what they were. His companions appeared to sense his scrutiny and all eyes turned to the table. Their body language tensed as they recognised the vampire in the group, immediately turning defensive.
“Stay here,” Cassia said, rising slowly.
“Where the fuck do you think you’re going?” The words hissed out of Pietro’s lips as he rose too and the strange wolves tense further.
“Sit down!” There was no mistaking the order in Cassia’s voice, though her gaze never left the men who were now only a few feet away. “Keep close to Trish and be prepared to get her out of here if needed.” Without waiting for his answer, she took the handful of steps to reach the strangers.
“Can we help you with anything?” Cassia addressed her question to the blond male. His bearing placed him as the leader of the group.
He regarded her silently for a long moment before shaking his head. “Not that I’m aware know of.”
His voice was deep and husky, and made her wolf sit up and pay attention. She was startled at the wolf’s response, confusion roiling through her in an instant. Yes, the male was most definitely a dominant, and sexy as sin, but she had chosen her mate in Pietro. She shouldn’t be having this kind of interested reaction to another male.
“You’re far from home,” she managed to respond coolly, acknowledging his clipped, British accent. “Are you visiting friends in the area?” Her words were couched in such a way that he would be aware she was letting him know that she knew they had no pack affiliations locally.
He acknowledged her point with a slight incrimination of his head, which showed off the tightly corded muscles in his neck. His T-shirt pulled at the movement, and she caught a glimpse of a tattoo that appeared to depict wolf fur flowing over his shoulders. His muscles and physique screamed soldier, and ratcheted up her defensive instincts.
“We’re just passing through,” he drawled, his gaze flickering to Pietro. “Is there a problem with that? I would have thought a city this size would be counted as neutral territory.”
“Ordinarily it would be, however it is proper etiquette for visitors to check in with the locals,” Cassia countered, unconsciously moving to place herself between her mate and the wolves. The strangers weren’t immune to the vampire’s venom however Pietro was still recovering his strength from Europe, and she had no idea if these males carried the Amort poison on them.
“We don’t like the company the locals keep,” the soldier answered, his gaze narrowed on Pietro.
She bristled further at his tone. “Then you’d better get used to it or go home,” Cassia bit back, her blue eyes turning wintry as her stance turned more aggressive. “Things are done differently here. You know the old saying…when in Rome…”
“Cassia.” Pietro moved a step forward and she held up her hand as the men took fighting stances.
“I strongly suggest you speak to your friends before things get out of hand here,” she said in a low tone. She inclined her head in Pietro’s direction. “His friends have an elite agency to deal with anything that may threaten the status quo. If that isn’t concerning enough for you, I will add that my friends are just as capable of dealing with any exuberance too.”
There was no mistaking the implied threat. The five of them were there with no backup or pack support. If they were to do anything foolish, they would have not only the local packs but also the vampires to deal with.
“Fox?” For the first time one of the other wolves spoke, a shorter, squatter man with peppered brown hair. He was clearly older than the one named Fox and as much of a soldier, however his scent was less dominant. He was rewarded with a low growl and murderous stare from his leader.
Cassia quirked an eyebrow, a slow smile crossing her face. “Kind of makes my point for me, doesn’t it…Fox.”
“If you say so, Cassia.”
She laughed then, she couldn’t help it. There was just something about the wolf that made hers respond on a personal level. Yes, he was a stranger and as such, a potential threat to her pack, and yet, something told her that he wasn’t a genuine threat. She couldn’t say the same for the others with him, but as he was in charge, that nullified some of that concern.
“I’m not trying to hide who or what I am,” she smiled, raising a hand in greeting as she caught sight of Jared Hanlon heading in their direction with her uncle and aunt, Brody and Willow Alexander at his side.
Fox glanced in that direction before snapping his fingers and motioning for his men to move on. He nodded in Cassia’s direction. “Might see you around, Cassia.” There was a hint of a promise in his words, which caused Pietro to hiss out an angry breath. He ignored the vampire, a half smile quirking his lips as he walked away.
“If you’re going to stay in town, touch base with the locals, Fox, or they will come looking for you,” she called after his retreating back. Without a backward glance, he melted into the crowd with his men, before Jared reached them.
“Everything okay?” The Hanlon Alpha asked, staring into the crowd.
Cassia gave her aunt and uncle a hug, smiling. “I think so. The one leading them appears to have his head screwed on right,” she informed the Alpha. “They’re uncertain because of who we ally ourselves with. I have told them to check in with either you or Rafe if they intend to stay in town for any length of time.”
Whatever Jared was thinking, he didn’t appear to want to share it with them. His cobalt eyes scanned the crowd for a moment longer before he turned back to them. “If you’ve finished with your shopping, I’d suggest you head back to the pack, Cass. Can you let Rafe know I’ll be in touch a bit later?”
Frowning at the open concern she could see on her family’s faces, she nodded her agreement. The Hanlon pack had been around for more years than most people could remember, much longer than her own pack. For the three elder wolves to look so concerned made her feel suddenly antsy to get Trish and Pietro back to the safety of the pack.
“I can get someone else to pick up the last of our supplies. We’ll head back now.”
Saying their goodbyes, they grabbed their shopping bags and headed back towards the car park. Neither Trish nor Pietro spoke, and Cassia had to work to hold in a sigh. It was understandable for Trish, as the strange wolves would have frightened her. Pietro, on the other hand, was brimming with barely concealed rage that he was clearly trying to hide from the younger woman.
The incensed looks he kept shooting in Cassia’s direction let her know that he wasn’t pleased with her actions and would be having a word with her about it when they were alone. He was used to being the most dominant person and being the one to call all the shots. That hadn’t been the case today and that must have been hard for him to take. She could understand his position if his anger was because of that, but it appeared to be directed personally against her.
She had no what she’d done to make him so angry with her but she was sure she would find out soon enough. Sighing, she climbed into the Jeep after stowing their purchases on the back seat. Starting the engine, she began the journey back to pack. Was she about to have her first fight with her mate? Strangely enough, her wolf was quite looking forward to the impending confrontation. It was still energised from the meeting with Fox and was looking forward to whatever her vampire was about to rein down on them…
To be continued…