Reasa stared into the open fridge, frustration threatening to spark her temper. She was tired and cranky from the long hours spent in the injured vampires’ minds, and to top everything off, her stomach was making the most ridiculous of sounds.
The unexpected male voice startled her in the darkened kitchen, and she shrieked and spun around, the light from the refrigerator revealing Karn, the second in command at the Praetorian Compound.
“Didn’t mean to scare you,” the blond vampire continued, reaching inside to grab a quart of milk. “Do you still have enhanced sight?” He gestured to the lack of light in the kitchen. “Only with your hearing now muted I would have thought your eyesight would be too.
“It is,” she answered looking away from his all-seeing eyes. “I didn’t want to disturb anyone by turning on a light.”
He watched her for a second and then crossed the room and turned on the light. “We can’t be having you bumping into things and doing yourself an injury. We don’t want Liam to put everyone back into a coma again, do we?”
She hadn’t really thought about it, but then, she tried her hardest to concentrate on the task at hand and not think about the redheaded Vârcolac who was starting to be able to read her every thought and emotion the more time they spent inside each other’s heads.
“Why don’t you have a seat at the table?” Karn commented when she didn’t speak. “I suggest you snack on something light like cereal as it’s the middle of the night. It should blunt your hunger enough to get back to sleep but not be too heavy to keep you awake. I’ll have a word with Mac in the morning to ensure both you and Liam get enough rest and food breaks. Both of you look exhausted all the time.”
She watched him pour out some cereal into a bowl and add some milk. Then he placed it in front of her with a spoon and sat down at the table beside her. She couldn’t fathom out why he was being so nice to her. He had nothing to gain from it.
When she just sat there looking at him he smiled and waved a hand at the plate. “It won’t eat itself, girlie.”
She recognised that tone. It was the one she heard him use regularly around the others; it conveyed both admonishment and humour. She had particularly noticed it became especially noticeable around Elina. He appeared to delight in pushing at Liam’s cousin to try to get a reaction. Most of the time the other woman treated him with haughty distain, but every so often there would be a flash of irritation in her eyes that only served to make the blond vampire grin from ear to ear. She could tell it was the reaction he was hoping for. It was also apparent that Elina was clueless to the fact that she was rising to his bait.
Swirling her spoon around the bowl a couple of times, Reasa finally gave into her hunger pangs and took a spoonful of cereal. As she ate she watched Karn, and his gaze never left her face. “Why are you being so nice to me? Everyone else pretty much pretends I’m not here, with the exception of Liam, Elina, Mac, Lily and Brandon.”
He appeared to consider her question before he gave her a small smile. “You frighten the others.”
Reasa spluttered over her next spoonful of cereal, almost choking as it went down the wrong way. “I frighten them?!” She wiped at her mouth with the napkin Karn hastily produced. “How can I possibly frighten them? I’m human. It’s not as if I can do them any harm.”
“You forget that a handful of weeks ago you were them, Reasa. That is what frightens them. The fact that there is a possibility that they could have their immortality removed and become as human as you now are. I didn’t say there was any merit to the way they feel, just that they do feel that way.”
When he put it like that she could see why the other vampires could fear her. She was an object lesson to all of them. If they screwed up there was a chance they could become just like her. It must be a very sobering thought for all of them. “So, because they pretend I don’t exist this makes you want to be friendly towards me?”
Karn chuckled though he kept his voice low so as not to disturb the sleeping house. “No, girlie, I want to be friendly towards you because I see how exhausted you are and yet every morning at dawn you get up and spend hours at a time inside fractured minds to help those lost souls find a way home. I see your skin tear from whatever it is that is happening mentally to you and yet you keep going in. Oh, I know Elina heals you as it happens but that doesn’t mean you don’t feel the pain. I didn’t know you as a vampire, Reasa, but what I see of you as a human woman is pretty awe-inspiring.”
Staring into his eyes she was stunned to see that he actually meant every word he said. He truly did like her for who she was now and it had nothing to do with who she had once been. For some reason ,that made her feel even more ashamed of her past than anything had before. “You place your faith in the wrong person, Karn,” she said bitterly. “This woman before you is not the woman I used to be. I have done countless terrible things in my past, things that would shock you.”
To her chagrin he merely chuckled again, shaking his head in amusement. “Oh Thereasa, every single vampire in this compound can say the exact same thing, especially the older ones. We are all a product of our time, and where we come from. It’s only been the last century or so that we have started coming even close to being civilised. I dare say I could tell you tales that would make your hair curl.”
“I know that but...”
“No buts, girlie. You know I speak the truth.” Karn appeared to be thinking of something before he spoke again. He let out a low sigh and rested his elbows on the table.
“When Mac found me over a thousand years ago I was nothing more than a wild animal. I had been on my own for so long I was almost feral. I had taken to hiding up in the Carpathian Mountains in Romania, only coming down when the need to feed drove me out in agony. I tried to sustain myself on animal blood so I could stop myself killing humans but it was to no avail.”
His expression drifted off as he spoke, as if he were lost within a memory that was replaying itself. “Mac crossed my path on one of my trips down to the villages. I was almost insane with hunger at the time, so much so, that when I scented him in the area I was ready to fight to the death to protect my hunting ground. He knocked me on my ass so hard I swear I was seeing stars. Then I realised that I really was as I lay on my back looking into the night sky with Mac’s talons around my neck.”
“What happened then?” Reasa couldn’t stop herself from asking when he stopped talking and didn’t appear as if he would continue.
“He could have killed me. I was too weak from hunger to defend myself but instead I heard him talking softly to someone else and then I could taste the sweet hot blood of a human dripping into my open mouth. I tried to fight him to get to the blood but he was too strong for me. In the end I just had to lay there and accept the small hand-outs he gave to me. By the time I was sated enough, he let me up and I was astounded to see four villagers sitting beside the trees, all still alive.”
The expression in Karn’s eyes sent a chill down Reasa’s spine when he looked at her. There was so much self-loathing on his face it was painful to witness. “You see, until that very moment I had always killed to satisfy my hunger. I didn’t know there was any other way. In one night Mac taught me how to feed without the need for unnecessary loss of life. He taught me to feed often and in small amounts to ensure I would never lose control and reach that feral state again.”
“He saved you,” she whispered and he nodded his head. “This is why you follow him now, because he believed in you and gave you a future.”
“Yes he did and I will follow wherever he chooses to lead me. However, that isn’t the point to this story, Reasa. The point is we have all done unspeakable things in the past that we are ashamed to admit to. It’s what we do now that matters though. We can be enslaved by our pasts or we can learn from our mistakes and work to make not only ourselves, but those around us into better people. I don’t care what the old Thereasa did. I can only look to the woman I know now and am impressed by her strength of will and unfailing dedication to helping those lost souls upstairs.”
Reasa looked down at her bowl, the now soggy cereal appearing to swim before her eyes. A lone tear splashed into the milk, followed by a second and then another. Karn liked her. He was the first person that wasn’t protecting her for Liam’s sake or grateful for being brought out of a coma. He actually saw her as a person and found something to like about her.
Scrubbing at her face and fighting down the strong emotions that threatened to overwhelm her, she stood up keeping her gaze averted from the blond vampire. “Thank you.”
“You have a hard road to walk, Thereasa. Yes, there will be those who may only ever see the old Reasa, but there are countless others who will see the new one. You don’t have to walk that road alone. You have friends who are willing to give you a chance and share your burden with you. All you have to do is let them in.”
Karn placed a hand underneath her chin to tilt her head up to meet her eyes. “I am one of those friends. If anyone gives you a hard time here, you let me know and I will have words with them. And if you ever need to talk...about anything...you can come to me, okay?”
“Okay,” she whispered, giving him a watery smile. She couldn’t believe it but she actually had a friend. For the first time in a long time there was something good in her life and she was afraid she would do something to ruin it as she had everything else. Something told her Karn didn’t offer his friendship lightly. She prayed that she didn’t do anything to let him down.
“Good, now off to bed with you, girlie, before Liam comes looking for you and decides to kick my ass for having you up at stupid o’clock in the morning.”
With a gentle prod he sent her heading back upstairs and she went feeling dazed by what had just happened.
Liam’s sleepy voice muttered in the darkness as she closed the bedroom door behind her. She stumbled in the dark making her way towards the bed and let out a small gasp when strong arms circled her body and she was lifted onto the bed.
“Where were you?” There was nothing but curiosity in his voice and for the first time she stopped to really listen to what Liam wasn’t saying in so many words. There was no concern that she had run off. There was no accusation that she might have been doing something underhand. He completely trusted in her and that fact was only now starting to sink in.
“I was hungry. Karn sat with me while I ate some cereal. He was keeping me company.”
“You should have woken me. I would have made you something to eat.” Again there was no judgement in his tone, only a desire to look after her.
“Freya is right. I do need to learn how to cook. Perhaps this is something we can do when we have finished with our task here? That’s if you can cook.”
Liam went so still that for a moment she wondered if she had done something wrong, then he lay down, pulling her into his embrace as he had done every night since they had been at the Praetorian Compound. “I would like that very much, Reasa,” he said quietly, his voice thick with emotion.
It was so easy to relax into his embrace, to feel his breath against her neck as she closed her eyes to go back to sleep. She had become accustomed to his gentle touch, to the feel of his strength surrounding her. He didn’t press for anything else. He was content to have her close. She had to concede that she had never felt more protected than she did by his side. “I would too, Liam,” she answered with a sleepy yawn, snuggling down and allowing sleep to claim her.
“They need a break, Mac. They’ve been at this constantly for days now. They need to work their physical muscles as well as their mental ones. I found Reasa exhausted in the kitchen last night so hungry it was a wonder her stomach rumbling didn’t wake up the entire house. She was too tired to prepare herself anything but her body was demanding it. This isn’t a request...I’m telling you they need a day off.”
Mackenzie stared hard at Karn as he mulled over his words. The dream walkers had been spending days at a time inside the wounded vampires mind, slowly bringing them back to the here and now. So far, four of them were awake, Brandon included. It was hard not to push for the final two to come back. There was a sense of urgency, like they were running out of time. The longer the vampires were in their coma-like state the harder it appeared to be to bring them back.
“We could lose the last two, Karn. You know that.”
“We could lose Liam and Reasa, Mac. Those men lying up there pledged their lives to keeping the Vârcolac safe. If they had a choice in the matter they would tell you to put Liam first, and you know that.”
When Karn was so vociferous about something he wasn’t about to back down on it. He clearly was concerned for Liam and Reasa’s health. Mac sighed and rubbed a hand over his face, finally nodding his agreement. “Fine...but you tell Liam. You know he’s not going to like it.”
A smile crossed his number two’s face and it was all Mac could do not to burst out laughing. There was a saying that an expression said a thousand words, and there was no mistaking the expression on Karn’s face. If Liam kicked up a fuss about this decision, he would be butting heads with one of the most intractable men Mac had ever come across.
“Liam will just need to do as he’s told,” Karn said, turning on his heel to head out of the study.
Lily uncurled herself from the large armchair she was sitting in and crossed the room to slide into her mate’s open arms. “I might like to be a fly on the wall for that conversation.”
Mac chuckled and kissed the top of her head, inhaling in her wonderful scent. “You’ll forgive me if I prefer that you stay away from that one. Anyway, I wanted your help with something else.”
She glanced up at him, curiosity shining in the depth of her eyes. “Oh?”
Mackenzie’s lips tightened in a disapproving line. “Kothari.”
“Ohhhhh.” Lily sighed and rested her head back against his chest. “What has he been up to now?”
“He’s deliberately freaking out some of the Praetorians. He keeps telling them things they have done or said in the past. How the hell he knows these things is beyond me, but it’s starting to make some of my people go out of their way to avoid him. He’s deliberately taunting them, Lily, and if he doesn’t stop it’s going to cause problems.”
“That doesn’t sound like our Kothi,” she laughed, but there was a weary sigh contained in the words. “Have you spoken to Kal about it? He can usually get through to Kothi when he’s being particularly difficult.”
Mac sighed too, brushing his cheek against her hair to soothe some of his growing irritation. “Kal’s out with the wolves most of the time. He appears to be fixated on keeping the compound safe after Reasa’s attack.”
That made sense when it came to her brother. He always felt so responsible for everything, even when it was something outwith his control. Lily fought down another sigh and then a thought popped into her head that had her pulling out of his arms.
“I know what we can do to solve both Liam’s and Kothi’s problems. Come on.” Grabbing his hand, she pulled her mate from the study, heading towards the kitchen where there was the sound of a disagreement taking place.
“Kothi, be quiet. This has nothing to do with you,” she announced as they entered to see a red-faced Liam squaring up to Karn who appeared just as irritated. “Liam, calm down and sit down.” It was so unlike her to be that bossy that both her fellow Vârcolac closed their mouths, and Liam actually sat down.
The room was full of Praetorians who had come to watch Karn lay down the law. It was always gratifying to see him lay into someone other than themselves. Reasa was standing quietly to one side, resting her back against one of the countertops.
Lily let her gaze travel over the vampires present and then she smiled. “Guys, just so you know, Kothari isn’t able to read minds. He spotted the Praetorians protecting us long before I ever did. He has been shadowing you since he was a child, listening to everything you’ve ever said and done. None of the Vârcolac can read minds no matter what they try to have you believe. You will stop teasing them, Kothi, right now.”
“Spoilsport,” Kothi muttered under his breath as he saw his targets looking at him with less than pleased expressions. He had been enjoying playing with them, fascinated by the increasing level of panic that had been starting to escalate in some of the vampires’ eyes. Now Lily had spoilt everything and he would have to find some other way to entertain himself.
“And as for you...” Lily flowed so quickly towards Liam that it took a moment for anyone to react. By the time they did, the large male was lying flat on his back, a dazed expression in his eyes. “You’re so slow these days even a girl can put you on your ass. Mental muscle is great, Liam, but it’s pointless if you forget to take care of your physical muscle.”
“That was just what I was saying,” Karn growled, coming to stand beside her. “This dream walking stuff is cannibalising your bodies, Liam. It appears to need a large amount of fuel and what you and Reasa are eating isn’t enough for the amount of time you’re in other peoples’ heads.”
Liam’s stunned gaze swung towards his mate, shock rippling through him as he noticed for the first time just how exhausted she was. They had slept later than usual today. She should have looked more rested. “I didn’t realise...”
“No, because you’re too pig-headed trying to save the world to the detriment of yourself and Reasa,” Lily berated, her hands on her hips. “If Mac and Karn say no more dream walking today you will damned well listen to them, Liam Eriksson, or I’m phoning your mother and you can explain to her why you’re trying to kill yourself. Am I completely clear on both matters?”
Silence filled the kitchen as her gaze swept from Kothari to Liam and back again. Finally the dark-haired Vârcolac smiled one of his rare smiles, amusement lacing his tone when he nodded his head in her direction. “Yes, Mother.”
“Yes, Lily,” Liam said, his gaze still fixated on his mate, contrition in every word.
“That’s settled then,” she smiled, turning her exultant gaze up to her mate who was wearing a smile that contained all of the pride he felt for her.
“You’re going to make a wonderful mom,” he laughed, gathering her close for a hug.
“If our children turn out anywhere near as difficult as these two, you can sort them out,” she teased back.
“Okay, sparring time everyone,” Karn announced heading to the backdoor. “We’ll start with you two troublemakers. Front and centre!”
“Have you ever seen the Vârcolac spar?” Brandon asked, slipping into step with Reasa as she followed everyone outside.
She turned her head enough to look at the vampire, taking a careful catalogue of his features. He was handsome as vampires were wont to be, but she wasn’t looking for that. Her keen gaze took in the continuing signs of recovery. In a few days’ time no one would ever know that he had once been so lost, there had been little hope of him ever waking up.
Following on from her conversation with Karn, she could now detect the vampire’s open offer of friendship. She hadn’t noticed it before because she had put his attentive behaviour down to gratitude. Now it appeared Brandon genuinely liked her and wanted to spend time in her company. His relaxed demeanour and incorrigible personality was endearing, and she found herself more receptive to the idea of being friends with him that she would have expected.
“Elina did kick my ass when I first arrived here,” she answered drolly. “I am aware of their prowess.”
The goofy grin he shot her way almost made her laugh aloud. “Oh, that was nothing. Wait until you see them spar. That’s something completely different. Lily sparred with Mac when she first came here and she was magnificent. Then she sparred with Kal and it was so clear how much she had been holding back with Mac. They are so amazing they’re mind-blowing. I can’t wait to see what Kothari is capable of.”
His enthusiasm and interest in Kothari made her feel uneasy. She hadn’t seen much of the younger Vârcolac since he had arrived, but she could sense just how dangerous the boy was. One look at him and she knew that there was something very wrong with Kothari. The fact that he made Louis appear like a choirboy was a good indicator of that...and he was about to spar with Liam.
She was unaccountably afraid, so much so that she called out, “Liam!”
His expression was quizzical when he turned to face her, but he halted his progress into the main sparring circle to allow her to hurry over to him. “What is it?”
“Remember what you learned when we dream walked in your mind. You are a multifaceted being, Liam. Do not favour one aspect of your personality over the other.”
His brown eyes became more confused, and he reached out a hand to gently place it again her cheek. His expression lightened a little when she didn’t automatically pull away. “What are you trying to tell me, Reasa?”
“Do not trust him,” she hissed out, her eyes never leaving his. “He is dangerous, Liam. Do not let your guard down.”
“Kothari is my friend. He would never deliberately hurt me,” Liam countered, totally confused by the fear on her face.
“Listen to me, Liam and hear what I am saying. That boy is the most dangerous being I have ever come across and I have come across many scary things in Europe. He may be your friend, and he may not mean to hurt you, but he is walking a very fine line, I can see it in his eyes. Bring your vampire forward, and don’t rely on your wolf. Now is the time to meet fire with fire. Now is the time that you must be whole.”
There was so much foreboding in her voice that for a moment Liam considered cancelling the sparring match. She was truly afraid that something bad was going to happen and the only way to dissuade that fear would be not to fight with Kothi. He couldn’t understand why she was so worried though. He couldn’t understand what it was she was seeing when she was looking at his friend. The only way to prove to her that there was nothing to worry about was to show her.
“Okay, I will do as you ask, but there really isn’t anything to be concerned about, Reasa. It’s just a friendly sparring match.”
‘Just a friendly sparring match,’ he’d told her barely five minutes ago and now he was lying panting on his back as Kothari circled in a slow, wide movement. What the hell was wrong with him? His friend had come at him like a demon possessed, kicking, talons slashing, fangs biting every which way he turned. Liam had been so unprepared for the ferocity of Kothi’s attack that he’d taken blow after blow until he was knocked down and fighting for breath.
“The bigger they are, the harder they fall,” Kothi laughed, but there was no humour in his words, instead, there was a trace of malice.
Liam groaned and pulled himself up to his knees, his eyes narrowing as he glared at his friend. “I thought this was supposed to be a mock fight,” he growled.
“I am fighting, and I am also mocking you, so I would say it was,” was the sarcastic reply he received, and it only served to send a spike of anger flooding through him.
“He’s a cocky little shit,” his vampire whispered in his mind. “I think you need me, Liam my boy.”
There was something very disconcerting about having his other half address him as if it was a separate being. Liam wondered if this was what insane people experienced as the norm. Shaking his head, he rose to his feet and took a deep breath. “If you want a fight then I guess it’s time to give you one, Kothari.”
As soon as he’d finished speaking, he quickly coaxed his wolf into a more submissive stance, ignoring the frustrated growl he received from it. Strength surged through his muscles as his vampiric side rose up sharply, and his fingernails turned to wickedly, sharp talons.
“Oh, Liam has a vamp does he?” Kothari laughed again, moving at supernatural speed before he had stopped speaking. He cursed loudly, spinning away as quickly as he’d attacked, holding his side as blood seeped through his fingers.
“Yes, he does, Kothi, and he very much wants to play with you.” Holding up two fingers, Liam made a come-hither gesture, his grin turning to one of pure malice. “Let’s dance, little boy.”
“Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.” Lily swallowed hard as Liam and Kothari crashed into each other, talons flashing wildly as they barrelled into the treeline. Reasa was sitting forward, her gaze intent on the two sparring males.
“Glorious,” she muttered under her breath, causing Lily to turn her gaze from her friends to watch her expressive face.
Thereasa was riveted to the ongoing contest, her expression rapt as she tried to follow the speed at which Kothi and Liam were moving. For a moment, Lily thought she was watching them both, but after a few seconds she could see that Reasa was tracking Liam more than Kothi.
Realisation dawned, and Lily felt a sense of hope building up inside. This was what Reasa knew, what she was most comfortable with. Liam’s display of his more vampiric side had caught the former vampire’s attention and she was liking what she saw very much. Her friends may come out of the sparring match feeling like they’d been run over by a truck, but Liam was giving his mate the one thing that she needed to finally connect with him; his vampire.
Reasa cried out when Liam swiped his talons across Kothari’s face, forcing the younger man to stumble backwards and run a hand across his eyes to clear them of blood. Their wounds healed instantly but their blood got in the way at times. Liam followed up his swipe with a kick to the midriff, catching Kothari off-guard and sending him crashing to the ground.
“Yes!” Reasa jumped up, throwing her fist up high. “Go, Liam!”
Her cry distracted him and Kothi was back on his feet, cutting the legs from the larger man as his head turned to look at his mate. Liam rolled agilely and leapt back up, managing to avoid the fist that was aimed at his neck.
Kothari was wild, attacking him in a flurry of movements so fast it was hard to avoid them. Liam managed to, but it took all of his concentration so he tuned out all external sounds around them. He was panting heavily; feeling the effects of the long days spent sitting by the hospital beds. Kothari didn’t have that level of fatigue to slow him down, and he appeared intent on taking Liam’s head.
“Kothari!” Liam called to his friend, but he didn’t appear to hear him. Talons found purchase in his body and he groaned as they sank into his side. “Kothi! Stop!” He tried again, as he felt his knees buckle under another attack. This time his friend had snapped his left leg and there was nothing to hold him up.
Annoying sounds...buzzing around his head and fuelling his rage.
His prey was weakened...he was almost there. Another moment longer, a quick slice to the femoral artery, and his prey would bleed out so quickly it would be enough to divert his attention. Then his head would be his. Then he would be victorious!
Kothari’s talons whipped downward, scythed through flesh to find the artery he required. The sounds were buzzing louder, the noise unbearable as he closed in for the kill. All breath left his body, as he was suddenly catapulted backward, landing hard in the dirt, the largest deep brown wolf he could remember seeing landing squarely on his chest.
A huge jaw wrapped around his neck in an instant, and he froze where he was, waiting for the inevitable moment to come.
The name resounded in his head and he tried to shake it away.
“Kothari, you better fucking answer me because I don’t want to have to explain to your parents why I had to take your head. Speak to me! NOW!”
The cold haze of fury that had enveloped him began to clear, and he realised that it was his friend with his powerful jaws around his neck. What the fuck had happened? One minute he’d been teasing Liam and the next he was a hairsbreadth away from death. It was only as the fog continued to clear from his mind that he noticed he was pinned down on all sides by wolves, and Karn and Mac were crushing his legs.
“Kallum?” This time the words croaked out of dry lips, and the large wolf moved away, shifting form back into his friend.
“He’s back,” Kallum announced, his expression grave as he rose up to tower over Kothari.
It took another moment for the others to release their hold and move away, their expressions distrustful as they watched him keenly.
“What happened?” Kothi asked, though inside he was quivering with fear. Deep down he was only too aware of what had happened. He had lost control. “Liam...” Panic filled him, fear clawing at his gut as he sat up to find his friend.
Liam was sitting up gently disentangling Lily and Reasa from his large body. “I’m fine. No harm done,” he grinned, though his clothes were drenched in blood that could only indicate that he’d had a severe arterial bleed.
“You almost killed him,” Kallum ground out, fury dancing across his face as well as concern. “What the hell were you thinking? Does anyone matter to you at all? Is there even one person here that you give a shit about? You’ve crossed the line this time, Kothari. Rafe is going to have to be informed about this.”
“I didn’t...I didn’t mean to hurt Liam. Kallum, you know how I feel about everyone, about the pack. You’re my family.” Always before he could count on the Vârcolac to keep him in check. They always had his back no matter what. Now Kallum and his other pack members were looking at him with such distrust. If he lost them...if he didn’t have them as his anchor...
“I remember a time not too long ago when we once sparred together, Kal. It got a little out of hand that time too.” Lily’s quiet words were the only sound for what felt like forever and then her brother let out a long sigh.
“Touché,” he muttered, though he still didn’t look very pleased.
“There is no harm done,” Liam repeated, coming over and reaching a hand out to Kothari. “We’re good.”
Kothi hesitated for a moment and then tentatively accepted Liam’s hand, allowing him to pull him up. “Kal is right. Rafe needs to be informed of what happened. I think it’s best if I head back to the pack.”
Lily gave him a reassuring smile, laying a hand gently on his arm. “That sounds like a good idea. Why don’t you catch up with Dara while you’re there. Have her keep you company for a little while. Don’t spend too much time on your own, Kothi.”
The thought of possibly losing control again and in front of Dara wasn’t one he was willing to risk. No, he would speak with Rafe and see what advice his Alpha had to offer. Then he would go home, lock the doors, and stay there until his parents came home. When they did...he would tell them everything. Maybe they would be able to help him. Maybe he didn’t have to fight this thing alone...
Turning away, he took off running, flying as fast as he could away from the tragedy that had only barely been averted. He wasn’t safe around his friends any longer. He wasn’t safe around anyone any more.
“I told you not to trust him.”
Liam blinked slowly, watching Reasa pace up and down their room. He couldn’t deny that it had been a close call with Kothi but that wasn’t what had his full attention. Reasa was concerned about him. Oh, she was berating him and telling him what a fool he was but he didn’t mind in the least, because with every word that escaped her lips it was clear that she cared.
“He didn’t mean it, Reasa. Things just got a little out of hand.”
“A little out of hand?” She stopped pacing to glare at him, her voice deceptively soft. “Just when I was starting to think that maybe, just maybe, my fear of the Vârcolac was unjustified I see that boy almost rip your stupid head off. And all you can do is sit there and say things got a little out of hand?”
“Reasa, I’m fine. You can stop worrying now,” Liam sighed, rising and crossing the room. “I’m not concerned about Kothari in the least. Yes, he walks a very fine line and nobody knows that more than I. I have been shadowing his mood swings all our lives. Kothi teeters on the edge but the one thing that always pulls him back is his love for the pack. The fact that Kal got through to him so easily is a testament to that.”
She still looked doubtful but that didn’t stop a wide grin crossing his face. “You’re very vociferous in my favour,” he commented, amusement dancing in his eyes.
Startled eyes met his and her tongue snaked out to wet her lips. It was the wrong thing she could have done as it fixated him on her mouth and recalled the memory of kissing her. Liam had relived that moment so many times in his dreams but had been careful about keeping his distance. Oh, he hadn’t given any quarter when it had come to sleeping with him. No, he had been quite determined that they would not be separated after spending all day helping the Praetorians.
He had wanted Reasa to be comfortable in his presence, to know and come to expect his touch without fear that it would come to mean some form of sexual advance from him. He had wanted her to get to know him, to see him as a person first and come to trust him. From her reaction to his fight with Kothi, it would appear it had worked. She was concerned about his well-being. She cared.
“Don’t try to change the subject, Liam Eriksson. We are discussing your lapse in judgement here.”
She looked totally adorable as she tried to remain stern when all the while she was slowly backing away from him, her hands twisting nervously together. His wolf growled softly and he could have sworn he heard his vampire laughing with glee. They were both enjoying their prey backing herself into a corner.
“Were we?” he asked, a smile teasing at his lips. “I’m more interested in why you feel the need to tell me off. Were you worried about me, Thereasa? Were you really that concerned that Kothi might genuinely hurt me?”
“In case you haven’t noticed it does take both of us to help bring back the Praetorians,” she countered, emitting a gasp when her back hit the wall. They had been here once before in her room at Freya’s home, and that hadn’t gone too well in her favour.
“If I recall correctly, weren’t you shouting ‘Go, Liam.’ when I was fighting? Did you like seeing my more vampiric side? I remember he liked you very much when we were talking to him.”
“Liam...” She swallowed hard, her eyes darting away from his.
He couldn’t have stopped himself from kissing her if he tried. She was so beautiful, so intoxicating. Liam claimed her lips in a soft kiss, lightly running his tongue along her bottom lip. Her mouth quivered under his and then she sighed and her lips parted, allowing him entry into the sweetness within.
She tasted heavenly, all hot and spicy, and sweet, sweet Reasa. His hand came up to the nape of her neck, holding her in place so he could plunder her mouth in a kiss so full of passion it felt as if an inferno had ignited between them. His heart kicked up a beat, and his body hardened in an instant as he lost himself in the heady intoxication of his mate.
Reasa tried not to respond to him but it was impossible not to wind her arms around his thick neck and pull his mouth onto hers. Her emotions had been chaotic ever since she had watched Liam fight with Kothi. She had gone from exultation to abject fear in a fraction of a second and her head was still spinning from it.
That had nothing to do with the way Liam’s lips teased against hers, the way his tongue flicked inside her mouth and she felt she was being devoured from the inside out. No, her spinning head was from fatigue and too many extreme emotions in such a short period of time...it was.
“Liam.” Oh Lord, had she just moaned his name like a besotted woman lost in the throes of passion? Surely that hadn’t been her. Surely she wasn’t luxuriating in the feel of his hard, well-muscled physique pressing her back against the wall. It was her and she couldn’t deny it any longer. She was attracted to Liam; she was more than attracted to him. He had somehow managed to creep past all her defences until there was nowhere she could hide from him.
He knew secrets about her she hadn’t shared with anyone else. He was aware of the ugly truth that haunted her days and he still cared, he still treated her with respect and what she now had to concede was the inescapable truth...love.
Liam, in return, had revealed his own secrets. He had trusted her with what he considered his deepest shame. He was so unlike anyone she had ever known, so free with his thoughts and feelings, hiding nothing behind defensive walls. He stood before her, a gentle giant with so much empathy he had lived his entire pack’s pain and joy his entire life. Still that hadn’t dissuaded him from opening up to her, from revealing everything and trusting she wouldn’t hurt him.
Why was she still fighting him? Why wasn’t she just letting him in? She had thrown her lot in with his pack and the vampires here. She had to rely on them for protection as she was human now. It was just the tiniest of steps to accepting Liam’s claim on her, and the way he made her feel was proof that it wouldn’t be such a bad thing. So, why couldn’t she just take that final step...
“Liam.” This time his name came out completely different and he responded instantly to the feel of her withdrawal.
Raising his head up, he captured her gaze in his, a query shining in his deep brown eyes. “I know you feel what’s between us, Thereasa. Why do you fight it so much?” There was no condemnation in his tone, only open curiosity.
“You know why...you just don’t want to deal with it,” she replied, pressing her hands against his wide chest, feeling the drumming of his heart against her fingertips. The temptation to curl her fingers against his flesh, to feel his skin against her palms was strong...instead she pushed gently and sighed with relief when he backed away, giving her the space she needed.
“I can’t deny that I am attracted to you, Liam. If nothing else, I will always tell you the truth from this point forward. I can’t deny that the Vârcolac are not what I first imagined them to be...Kothari notwithstanding. But we cannot forget Pietro in all of this, no matter how much you may wish to believe that it will all work out in the end. Things will come to a head with him and when it does...one of us will most likely die.”
“I will not let him hurt you.” Liam hissed out the words, fury replacing the sleepy passion that he’d still be lingering under.
“You cannot hurt him, Liam,” she countered, walking over to the bed, and sitting down, waiting for him to take a seat beside her. “If you do you will most probably send Cassia rogue and you can’t live with that. You will never be able to bear the burden of hurting her, of possibly being the cause of her death by your actions. You know that. You just don’t want to face it.”
“Then we’ll go to Europe and live there. It is your home, what you know.”
She wanted to shake him and hug him at the same time. He was so obstinate and clearly not thinking straight. “I’m human, Liam. I would be dead within a week of setting foot on European soil. I have made too many enemies there and you’re completely ignoring the fact that Louis will be sending someone here to kill me, if they’re not already here.”
He was silent for a long time, staring down at the hardwood floor with unseeing eyes. “Then what do we do, Reasa, because I can’t be without you?” he finally asked, turning haunted eyes to her. “You are my mate, the only woman on this planet that owns the other half of my soul.”
He was so convinced of that, and the longer she was with him the more she was coming to believe it too. Liam had been so gentle with her, so caring and loving that she had slowly been falling under his spell even as she had fought him with every fibre of her being.
“I don’t know,” she whispered, sorrow filling her soul as she gazed back at him. “I don’t think there is anything we can do, Liam. All I know is that if we take things any further, the fallout of that will be a thousand times worse than it will be if we don’t.”
Reasa reached out and took his hand, staring as their fingers tangled together. “You are a good man, one of the best I have ever known. I don’t want to be the instrument of your destruction anymore, Liam. Not as I was once convinced that I had to be.” It was a huge admission for her and she knew he would be aware of that.
“We’ll talk to Rafe and maybe Annie and Caleb,” he answered, his tone subdued. “Perhaps they will have better answers for us. Just know this, Reasa...I will not give up on you. I will not give up on us. We are mates and we will find a way to be together.”
His stubbornness was endearing but Reasa knew in her heart that there were no easy answers to their dilemma. She had told him she would tell him the truth, and she would do her best to keep that promise...but her thoughts were already turning to ways to leave the pack, to ways to leave Liam Eriksson before a deeper tragedy could befall the Armand-Hanlon Pack, one that was worse than her arrival.
“Can I help you with something?” Dante eyed the couple who were just crossing over the border to Louis territory, his pale eyes intent as they swept quickly over them. In a fraction of a second he could tell that they were both Ancient, the male being the older of the two.
The female was very beautiful, her long black hair secured in a high ponytail. Her scent told him that she was a were shifter but not of the wolf variety...she was a cat. He’d come across very few cat-shifters in his time, so he was intrigued to see one, especially one that old. The male was pure vampire, his deep auburn hair loose about his shoulder, his surprising lavender eyes narrowed with suspicion.
“We want Michael.” It was the vampire who answered, expectation in each word. It was clear he was used to instant obedience, and his companion glanced at him with a small half smile playing across her lips before she turned back to Dante.
“What my mate is trying to say is we’re looking for a vampire called Michael. We believe he can be found in this area. This is Louis’ territory?”
Dante nodded, there was little point in denying it as they clearly were aware of just where they were. “I think you should most likely speak to Louis personally,” he answered, “though I would advise a little more of a cordial tone. He tends to get a little waspish if he isn’t accorded the respect he feels he deserves.”
“Louis had better have the answers I want otherwise feeling disrespected will be the least of his problems,” the vampire retorted, his expression remaining bland despite the open threat in his words.
“Gard,” the cat sighed, weary amusement lacing her tone. “You do know that you catch more flies with honey, don’t you?” Shaking her head, she smiled at Dante. “He doesn’t like being away from his sister for too long. He gets a little tetchy. I’m Rayne, and this is Gard....and you are...?”
“Dante, I am acting as Louis’ second in command at the moment. We have been expecting you ever since the troubles in Edinburgh.”
Both of them stilled for a moment, their expressions turning carefully neutral. “Best not to mention that,” Rayne finally said quietly. “That’s a very sore point with us so the least said about it the better. Can you please take us to Louis?”
He hesitated, wondering if it would be wise for them to see Louis and then he turned and headed towards the coven hideout. “Follow me...” Events had to play out as they were destined. Dante had learnt that the hard way.
They were at the smallholding deep within the forest in under half an hour. Dante had taken them the long route to ensure that Louis’ spies would have enough time to alert the coven leader to their presence. By the time they arrived inside the large house that was currently the coven’s main base, the seats around the makeshift throne were lined with coven members and Louis sat atop the dais, one leg thrown casually over the ornate arm of the throne.
“What have you brought me, Dante...trespassers?”
“This is Gard and Rayne. They have come looking for Michael.”
“And what would you have with my coven member?” Louis’ casual body language was a carefully constructed artifice. None of his coven were fooled by his stance and neither were his visitors.
“We would have his head for almost killing one of ours,” Gard answered, “and we want to know what he has told you about a certain individual who is now in our care.”
There was hushed muttering around the room as Louis sat forward, fire dancing in his eyes. “How I punish my coven members is of no concern of those from across the ocean. You have my regrets about what happened to your vampire, but you also have the cause of that issue within your ranks. Neutralise her and I will resolve the Michael problem for you.”
Lavender eyes glowed with displeasure, a low growl coming from Gard’s lips. “You appear to be under the misapprehension that we are having a dialogue, Louis. This is not up for discussion or bargaining. Give us Michael and we will leave your coven alive.”
“There are upwards of thirty-five vampires here, old one, and only two of you. Do not think your age evens the score. My coven hasn’t survived this long and become this strong because we like each other. We are the most feared coven in Europe and you would be best to heed that fact.” Venom dripped from each word, Louis’ eyes darkening to almost feral as he spoke.
“I only need one to take down this coven though my mate gets a bit cross with me when I have all the fun,” Gard countered, his voice so cold that some of the younger vampires present shifted nervously as the tension thickened in the room.
“Well yes I do, honey, but we’re not getting very far with this train of discussion. Can I try?” Rayne gave him a sunny smile and that appeared to worry the younger vampires more than her mate’s fury. It was clear that they were used to some truly dominant females in their coven.
When he nodded, she turned to Louis, her smile appearing innocent. “We have a message for you, Louis, from Freya Eriksson. She asked us to make you aware that Thereasa is her nephew’s mate and therefore now a part of her family. Her exact words were, ‘Tell Louis St Geraint, that if so much as one hair on Thereasa’s head is harmed because of his actions, or inactions, that I will take a personal trip to Europe to have a little chat with him.’ I believe that was verbatim, wasn’t it, Gard?”
The silence in the room was deafening. For a long time no one moved or spoke, and then Louis let out a long, deep growl and his face darkened with fury.
The vampires scattered at his roar, panic and fear filling the room as they filed out of every exit possible leaving only Dante remaining. Louis’ enraged gaze connected with Dante and he pointed one long taloned finger at him. “Call Michael. Find out where he is and then give them his location.”
Gard shot Rayne a puzzled expression, raising an eyebrow in query. “I definitely need to spend more time with Freya to find out just what all the fuss is about. I don’t like knowing that she’s scarier than I am.”
Louis walked down the steps of the dais, coming to stand before them, his eyes never leaving Gard’s face. “I fear no one, old one, but I do respect those who have helped build this coven into what it now is. Freya Eriksson has earned my trust and the right to ask me for a boon. You haven’t.”
“Then what do we need to do to earn that right, Louis?” Rayne asked, drawing his attention from her mate. “Freya is part of our pack. Your packs may be different over here but where we come from pack is family. Doesn’t that count for something?”
Again, silence reigned and then Louis smiled, the first genuine glimmer of humour crossing his face. “Oh, I like you,” he laughed, some of the tension leaving his big frame. He thumbed a gesture at Gard, appearing unable to stop taunting the Ancient. “He’s lucky to have a mate such as you.”
“Can I kill him?”
Rayne laughed, relieved at the more relaxed tone from her mate. “No, dear, we still have some questions that need answered. It would go some way towards better relations if Louis were to agree to answer them with no direct threat of impending death. Try to play nice.”
“What questions?” Louis’ interest appeared piqued, or perhaps he really did react better to females than males. Some people did relate better to the opposite sex and there was enough age in the coven leader that he could be one of them.
“I’m particularly interested in why there is so much interest in what’s going on Stateside. The European covens haven’t been the least interested in us before. Why now?”
“That’s something I’ve been pondering for a long time,” Dante commented, entering the conversation for the first time. His gaze was fixed on Louis as if waiting for permission to continue.
The coven leader finally relaxed more, nodding his head at his second in command. “Dante isn’t a permanent member of my coven. If you’re looking for answers he is likely the best person to speak to.” The coven leader walked over to one of the tables that had chairs in a grouping of four. The others followed him and sat, Gard and Rayne’s gaze now on Dante.
Dante was a little concerned about the level of scrutiny he was under and unclear on how much he should divulge in front of Louis. So far, the coven leader appeared receptive to at least Rayne’s charms. The message from this Freya woman had wrought an interesting change in his friend’s demeanour towards their visitors too.
He took a deep breath and decided to play it by ear. “As Louis has mentioned, I am not aligned with any one coven here. As such, I have been free to travel all over Europe for the last quarter of a century. As I’ve travelled, I noticed a strange anomaly among the covens, something so unusual that it piqued my interest. The covens were suddenly speaking with a common tongue. They were all turning their gaze across the ocean; they were all muttering about the mixed matings, and how dangerous the hybrid births were.”
He paused for effect, letting the words sink in. “Now, that may not appear strange to you but believe me, for us, it’s a loud warning bell being rung. I searched everywhere, listened intently to what was being said, but could detect no sign of where this interest originated. The only thing I could determine was the covens were starting to work together.”
“You believe there is a central point to this change in behaviour?” It was Louis who asked the question, his gaze intent as he stared at his second in command.
“Louis, you know our people as well as I do. If there is a central or originating point...”
“Then whoever is at that centre is stronger than all of the covens here put together,” Louis completed the sentence.
Gard and Rayne shared a glance as Louis growled in displeasure. “Why didn’t you tell me this earlier, Dante?”
The nomadic vampire met his angry gaze without flinching. “Until now I wasn’t certain that you weren’t that central point. You said it yourself, Louis. Yours is the strongest coven in Europe. You were the one who sent Thereasa after de la Rios in Edinburgh. You were the one who was heavy handed with the Amort toxin.”
The coven leader jumped up, his chair crashing to the ground as he leaned on the table, fury dancing across his face. “It was supposed to be a simple information gathering exercise. The vampire wasn’t supposed to be nearly killed. I didn’t anticipate that members of my coven that I had trained personally would suddenly start acting so recklessly and out of character.”
“Then why give them the poison, St Geraint?” Gard thundered, rising to tower over the irate vampire. “Why did you even formulate a toxin that could kill your own kind if not to gain dominance stateside as well as here?”
For a moment Rayne thought the coven leader was going to be foolish enough to attack her mate, but whatever murderous thoughts were crossing his mind, Louis held himself in check, the muscle jumping in the side of his jaw the only outward indication of the strength of will that took.
He ignored Gard’s questions, turning to look back at Dante. “Where did you start hearing the first whispers of commonality, Dante? Wherever that was, that is likely going to be closest to the nest of whatever viper we have among us.”
Gard stiffened, his expression turning thoughtful as he gazed off into the distance. “You’re sure?” he finally asked.
“Yes,” Dante answered, watching the redheaded vampire extend a hand towards his mate.
Rayne took it without question, allowing him to pull her up to her feet. “You suspect something?” she queried, her expression expectant.
“I think it’s time we went home,” her mate replied, giving her a pensive smile.
“But...we haven’t learnt anything, Gard.” Rayne’s confusion was clear for everyone to see.
“Not that home, Sarayne...” He left the rest of the words unsaid, knowing she would work out what he meant
Realisation slowly dawned across her face and a shiver ran through her slender frame as her gaze locked with his. “I haven’t been there since I was still a child. Are you sure about this?”
“I’m sure. It’s the only logical place to look. If the first whispers came from Romania, then we have to go there and find out just who is behind all this.”
“Do you want to clue the rest of us in on this?” Dante asked, a feeling of foreboding beginning to build as the couple continued to have eyes only for each other.
“There are some things it is best not to know,” Gard answered, though he was staring at Louis as he spoke. There was more than distrust in his eyes. He was making it abundantly clear that he didn’t want to divulge any more information to the coven leader.
“You look at me as if I am somehow the cause of all of this. I am just as much a pawn in this game that is being orchestrated by whoever is in charge.”
“Tell that to Pietro de la Rios,” Gard growled, his eyes narrowing with displeasure. “Tell that to all the other vampires who may have fallen victim to your poison.” Looping an arm over Rayne’s shoulder, Gard turned away, heading out of the coven’s headquarters.
“How enlightening to see that with age comes narrow-mindedness,” Louis spat out, fury lacing every word. “Amort isn’t my poison, Gard. It isn’t even the making of vampires. It was invented by our Were population here. They made it to exterminate our race...”
To be continued...