“Kothi, are you sure you’ll be fine here on your own? Wouldn’t you rather stay with someone for some company?”
Kothari searched his mother’s face, seeing the tell-tail signs of concern that was never far when she looked at him. She tried to hide it from him, but he was adept at seeing through most subterfuge. That expression infuriated the monster that lived within him, but it also broke the heart of the little boy who craved his mother’s love.
This morning it was the boy who held dominance, and the much softer side of his personality came forth, a side that only his parents ever witnessed. Giving his mother a tight hug, he pushed down his inner demon so he could savour the blissful moment. It wouldn’t last, it never did, but he would take each precious moment when he could. “I’ll be fine, Mother. You don’t need to worry about me. Don’t go to Europe looking back and worrying. You need all your attention on your task there.”
In truth, he was livid that Rafe was sending his parents away. He knew if he asked them not to go, they would stay. However, he also knew he couldn’t ask that of them. Somebody had to go to Europe, it was the only way to protect the pack. Logically he understood that but emotionally he wasn’t ready for his parents to be thrust into the heart of the enemy. If anything happened to them...he was afraid of what his monster would do.
“We’ll be fine, son,” Gard said, entering the living room and setting down the packed cases he was carrying. “We haven’t reached this age without knowing how to take care of ourselves. The most important thing is you listen to Rafe at all times and do what he says. If my memory serves me correctly, weren’t you supposed to be up at the Praetorian Compound as an extra guard?”
Kothari tried not to bristle at the subtle rebuke in his father’s voice. He was supposed to be up at the other compound. He hadn’t wanted to leave until he’d had a chance to say goodbye to his parents though. Surely his father understood that? “I’m heading up there shortly. I just wanted to say goodbye.” His tone was rebellious and only served to have his mother tightening her hold on him.
“We understand that,” Gard answered, a resigned sigh in his words. His son always bristled against any kind of authority, even that of his parents. It was concerning and something they hadn’t managed to correct no matter what parenting techniques they’d used over the years. “It would be best if you got yourself up there now. We’ll be on our way soon.” He took the sting from his words by giving his son a warm hug.
After a long pause, Kothari nodded his head and turned to leave the room. “Be safe.”
“I’m worried about leaving him,” Rayne said, stepping into Gard’s embrace as their son disappeared. It would be the first time Kothari would be alone without his support system and it was hard for her as a mother to leave him.
“He’s a grown man, Sarayne. There has to come a day when he needs to discover who he is and fend for himself. He isn’t completely alone anyway. He has the pack.” Gard’s words made sense but she could hear his own concern. Only time would tell just how well Kothari fared left to his own devices.
Shaking off the sensation of doom that threatened to overwhelm her, Rayne smiled up at her mate, leaning in for a long slow kiss to settle her foreboding. “Did Rafe get you?” she asked when Gard let her up for breath. When Rafe had visited earlier to ask about any abnormalities in the Vârcolac mating instincts, her mate had been visiting Rhianna and Caleb to get any last minute instructions they might have had.
“He did though I probably couldn’t tell him anymore than you could.”
Rayne had been quite flummoxed by the question of whether the animal part of a Vârcolac could be indecisive over the mating pull. She had known that Gard was her mate quite soon into their relationship though it had frightened and confused her a bit at the start. However, that had been the woman’s dilemma...not her panther. She could give no clear reason of why Cassia was experiencing indecision from her wolf, though from the girl’s reaction to Pietro’s rejection, it appeared the wolf had made up its mind.
“It is an interesting development,” Gard continued, releasing her from his arms, though looping one around her shoulders. “But not one that we can influence in any way. Caleb had arranged for his friend Joshua to meet us in Scotland. He thought it would be best if we start where Pietro was found and see if we can track backwards to the source of the poison. He has also set another friend travelling to Romania to see if they can turn up any folklore about plants with unusual properties. He didn’t say much about that friend but did say they would know how to contact us should they unearth something.”
Rayne cuddled closer to his warmth for another moment before she straightened and moved to pick up her case. “I guess we should get this show on the road then.”
Gard followed her, retrieving his case and casting one final glance around their home. He was worried for Kothi and equally worried about what they might find when they reached Europe. One thing he was certain of though, nothing would happen to Rayne while he was alive. He’d let her down once before, many centuries ago, and he would never allow that to happen again. Looping his arm around his mate once more, they set off for their car and the trip to the airport.
“Cassia?” The sound of her father’s voice seeped through her sleepy mind, pulling her from the endless nightmare of Pietro’s harsh words. She didn’t want to wake up, and yet, staying asleep wasn’t doing her any good either so she forced her swollen eyes to open. Her father was sitting on the edge of her bed, his brown eyes so full of concern that for a moment she thought she’d start weeping again.
She could remember bits and pieces of the preceding day after Pietro had gone, enough to know that she hadn’t been alone all through the night. If Dara hadn’t been lying beside her, then her mother had, and laterally her father. They had held her as she wept, surrounding her with so much love both physically and mentally that she’d finally fallen into a sleep full of nightmares.
Cassia was exhausted but she hadn’t gone rogue. Perhaps the Alexander family had a deep layer of strength that protected them when they lost their mates? Her Uncle Dayton had survived the loss of his first mate. Perhaps Cassia would be able to endure her loss too, because Pietro had been certain in his convictions. He wouldn’t forgive what he saw as her betrayal.
More tears came unbidden and she felt her father’s arms wrap around her as he rocked her gently. “Let it out, sweetheart. I know it hurts but let it out so it doesn’t fester inside you. We are here and always will be. We will love and protect you, my beautiful daughter.”
The deep love in his words, the hidden tenderness that lived within her father’s hard exterior, was so overwhelming her sobs became louder as she clung on for dear life. She was floundering, drowning; she didn’t know how to stop of the tears. Her heart ached so badly she was sure it was going to burst and there was nothing she could do to prevent it.
“Daddy...”Cassia couldn’t get any more words out, just that one word so full of anguish she could feel his tears against her neck as he continued to rock her.
“I know, sweetheart. I know.”
Cassia cried herself into another restless slumber, waking once more to find her father still beside her bed only this time he was sitting in a chair, his head resting on the cover as he slept. He looked so exhausted that for the first time since Pietro had left she felt an emotion other than misery. She felt ashamed.
Her entire family were suffering because of her weakness. They were probably terrified that they would lose her and she was doing nothing to dissuade them of that. Self-loathing rose up deep inside her and her shame escalated as she imagined what they must be feeling. How could she subject them to that fear? How could she be so weak?
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, reaching out to touch her father’s golden hair with a shaky hand. His eyes opened instantly, and he blinked sleepily for a moment before his vision cleared and he took her hand in his.
“Never be sorry for needing us, Cass. We are family and we will always be here,” he whispered back, gently squeezing her hand to reassure her of that.
She didn’t deserve them, not after what she must have put them through in the last twenty four hours. She would show them how strong she was. She would take that awful expression of fear from her father’s eyes. “I guess I needed a timeout there,” she managed with a shaky half-smile.
“I guess you did,” he smiled back stroking a hand tenderly against her tangled curls. His expression turned grave and a dark scowl crossed his face. “Do I need to be having a chat with Pietro?”
Instant fear suffused her at his words. She could imagine just what kind of chat her father was talking about and that was something she didn’t want to see happen. Pietro had his reasons for how he was feeling. He had suffered enough without being punished for being justifiably angry about things. “No, please don’t, Dad. This is between us. We need to work things out ourselves.”
Cassia expected him to argue more but instead his expression cleared and he shot her a rueful smile. “Your mother’s been telling me the same thing for hours. Only she hasn’t been as polite about it.” The open amusement in his eyes was a good indicator of just how vocal her mother had been on the topic. Her father always got that expression of love and admiration when his mate put her foot down about things.
“She’s right, Dad. Pietro has no idea that my wolf is claiming him. I didn’t tell him because at first my wolf was undecided and also I wanted to give him some time to heal. It’s not his fault my stupid animal has decided to overreact to his leaving.” Cassia was beginning to feel stronger the more she rationalised things in her mind. Saying the words out aloud appeared to settle her wolf down a lot, its anxiety levels decreasing sharply.
Alexei pondered her words for a moment and then acquiesced. He had to concede that his daughter was the best person to know what was happening and how best to resolve things. It didn’t stop him wishing he could take some of her burden as his own, but he knew he had to leave it up to Cassia.
“So, you’re wolf is certain that he’s your mate now? Dara told us that it was undecided before.”
Forcing herself into a sitting position, Cassia nodded. “I think this little episode has hammered the point home,” she sighed, scrubbing a hand tiredly over her face. She could do with some restful sleep but that didn’t appear an option at the moment.
“What are you going to do? You did hear your mother when she explained last night that Pietro has left the pack?”
Cassia nodded again, muffling the half sob that threatened to escape. “Yes, he’s gone to The Dive for now,” she sighed, working to build her defences as she thought through the issue. “For now, I’m going to get up and have a shower and some breakfast. I’ll decide what I’m going to do after that. Maybe all he needs is a little time to feel the effects of the mating pull. I’m not really sure, Dad. I just know that I need to get out of this bed and stop feeling sorry for myself.”
Alexei couldn’t have felt any prouder of his beautiful child. He was proud of all his girls; they were each amazing in their own ways. He loved Cedar so deeply only death would ever separate their link. His daughters...he cherished them as an extension of his and Cedar’s souls. Balancing his own feral nature when one of them was hurting wasn’t easy but he tried his damnedest to be the kind of man they could love and respect.
It was frightening to realise his girls had grown up so quickly. Oh, he was aware they followed their mother and the demands of their animal halves. He wasn’t that naive that he wasn’t aware of their dalliances within the pack. Still, mating was something so very different...and mating to one of his oldest friends? It took him a moment to process that thought before he burst out laughing, startling Cassia.
“What?” Her quizzical expression made him laugh louder.
“I was just remembering the hard time I gave your Uncle Andrei over his reaction to Lily mating with one of our oldest friends. I’m only now realising the boot is on the other foot. He’s going to have a field day getting payback.”
The subtle way her father gave his approval of her choice of mate wasn’t lost on Cassia. Her eyes sparkled as she giggled at his words and she couldn’t resist the urge to throw herself into his arms in a tight embrace. “Thank you, Dad.” She didn’t need to tell him what she was thanking him for.
“You’re welcome, sweetheart. Just be happy. That’s all I’ve ever wanted for my girls.”
Alexei stayed a little longer with Cassia before he headed back to his own room. It was still early and Cedar was sleeping, having only gone to bed a few hours before. Now that he was sure his daughter would be okay, he gave into the need for a few hours’ rest himself, quickly throwing off his clothes and climbing into bed with his mate. Cedar muttered under her breath, rolling over to instinctively wrap her limbs around his tall frame. He hardened in an instant, as he always did when he lay beside his woman.
“Is it Dara’s turn?” Cedar murmured, stroking her hand down his back as she sleepily brushed her lips against his chest.
Her touch had his breath catching and he couldn’t have stopped himself from tangling his fingers in her curls if he tried. Tilting her head back, he silenced her with a passionate kiss, moaning quietly as her lips parted to his touch and her tongue battled lazily against his.
“Cass is fine, sweetness.” His words were muffled as he trailed his mouth down the graceful arch of her neck, laving his tongue greedily against her soft skin. His teeth nipped hard and she moaned and brushed her body against his.
There was still very much the mother in her tone and he sank his teeth a little harder. “Yes, she is. She’s showering and making breakfast so that gives us a little time to...”
Cedar arched as his fangs elongated and sank into her neck, pressing her aching breasts against his torso, muffling a cry as one large hand engulfed her flesh and squeezed hard. “Alexei!”
He drank deeply, savouring the hot blood flowing down his throat, his talented fingers moving lower to his other favourite spot on her body. Sinking his fingers deep within her body, he raised his head again to capture Cedar’s lips to muffle the sound of her climax. His heart thundered in his chest as her body shuddered in his arms. She was so beautiful when she came apart for him. It was a view he would never tire of watching.
Barely giving her a moment to catch her breath, Alexei rolled on top of his mate, moaning against her mouth as he joined them together. “Hmmm yes, we have enough time to enjoy this and have a little nap afterwards,” he laughed, stroking languidly into her hotness, savouring the feel of her body sheathing his in the most intimate of caresses.
Cedar’s arms wrapped around his neck, her teeth nipping at the spot when it joined his shoulder. “Then let’s dance, lover,” she all but purred, rocking her hips up to meets his as she bit down hard.
Cassia heard Dara before she felt her sister cuddle into her from behind. She held still to allow her that moment, knowing she had scared Dara badly. Putting the teapot down carefully, she turned around to hug her sister tightly.
“I was so scared, Cass.” Dara whispered the words, and Cassia felt dampness against her neck where her face was burrowed.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you like that,” she answered running a soothing hand down her sister’s back. “My wolf just got a little overwhelmed by things and needed some time to come to terms with what had happened. I’m fine now, Dara. I promise.”
Her sister clung to her a moment longer and then she pulled back and wiped at her wet cheeks. “Are you sure?”
Cassia shot her a rueful smile, a trace of melancholy in her eyes. “I’m still hurting, that hasn’t changed, but I’m not wallowing in it any more. I’ve been racking my brain trying to think of how best to confront Pietro but haven’t come up with anything concrete yet.” She motioned to Dara to sit and then plated up a cooked breakfast for both of them. Sitting beside her, she ate some of her cheese omelette and sipped at her tea.
“What are you options?” Dara asked between forkfuls of egg and bacon.
Her sister shrugged, staring pensively ahead as she considered her answer. “I suppose I can give him some time and see if the mating pull kicks in. Or, I could pack a bag and move in with him whether he likes it or not.”
Dara’s eyes widened with shock. “Would you really do that?”
Cassia shrugged. It was something she was considering given the circumstances with Thereasa. “I can’t discount it, Dara. I know I would have to discuss it with Mom and Dad, as well as get approval from Rafe, but with the hostility between Pietro and Reasa I may have no choice but to leave the pack.”
Her sister’s dismay increased. “But...what about researching the antidote and your healer’s training? What about the pack? Cass, you’re so pack orientated I don’t think you could ever be happy being apart from us.” Dara was aware that she sounded selfish but nobody knew her sister better than she did. She had no doubt that Cassia wouldn’t be happy on her own, even if she was with Pietro.
“What’s the other option, Dara? Should Liam and Reasa leave the pack so Pietro and I can stay? What makes my needs more important than theirs? Liam has always needed the pack more than I ever have. Now that Reasa is human she is too fragile to be out there alone even with Liam. We have to consider everything before a decision is reached. You know that in your heart, honey.”
Dara did but that didn’t make hearing the words any easier. Yesterday she had been afraid she would lose Cassia to turning rogue. Today her relief at finding that wasn’t the case wasn’t eased any. She didn’t know how she would handle her sister not being a part of the pack. They had always been together, always looked out for each other. However, Cassia’s happiness had to come first. If things couldn’t be resolved between Pietro and Reasa then one of the Vârcolac would have to leave. There was no escaping that fact.
“Maybe once Pietro accepts you as his mate it may help him find some forgiveness in his heart.”
Cassia sipped at her tea before giving her sister what she hoped was an encouraging smile. She wasn’t so sure of that but it was a hopeful possibility. “Let’s wait and see what happens, Dar. For now, let’s finish breakfast and then I’m going to head over to the lab for a little while and do some work while I think things through.”
They sat together in silence, each locked in their own private thoughts. Cassia knew that whatever happened Dara would be fine. Yes, it would be a change for her but her sister was just as strong as she was. Hell, she managed to keep Kothi in line when most others failed. It took a very strong woman to do that so she knew with certainty that Dara could cope with anything life threw at her. Dara just needed to believe that in her own heart.
Reasa woke slowly, feeling the warmth of Liam’s body heat beside her long before she opened her eyes. It was hard to miss as she found herself wrapped protectively in his arms with one hard thigh flung over her hip, and her head resting on his wide chest. She should have been outraged at him taking liberties, but it felt so good that she just lay there savouring the sensations his touch inspired.
She felt safe for the first time since her circumstances had changed. It was hard admitting it but she couldn’t deny it. Everything that Liam did revolved around keeping her safe. Every decision he made was done so with careful consideration on how it would affect her. The Vârcolac was claiming her as his mate and he made no bones about it. As far as he was concerned, it was inevitable and she would just have to get used to that fact.
Liam frightened her as nothing or no one had for a long time. He frightened her because his strong determination was winning. Whereas before she had been strong in her convictions that she would never mate with him, since their kiss that conviction was wavering. It felt good sleeping with him like this. It felt right and that was terrifying. There was trouble coming their way in the shape of Louis and Pietro. All directed at her and something Liam would do his utmost to counter. The fallout from that was unimaginable.
How could she allow this to happen? She had set her feet on a path that ultimately led to destruction and now it wasn’t just her life that was at stake but possible hundreds of others, including Liam. Her decision at the time had made sense to her. Now, in the face of knowing a few of the Vârcolac and the pack, it suddenly felt so wrong. Why had she chosen to do this? It was only when Liam spoke that she realised she’d uttered the last words aloud.
Reasa swallowed hard, denial rocking through her. She had never told anyone of her past, never allowed anyone to have that hold over her. Yet, Liam had allowed her into his memories, into the most shameful parts of his past. He had given her his total trust and she didn’t deserve that.
“Tell me, Reasa,” he whispered against her temple, his hand stroking down her back slowly. “Who hurt you so badly. Who shaped your views to such extremes?”
Swallowing again, she felt hot tears begin to flow at the gentleness of Liam’s tone. There was no condemnation there, only a need to understand. He had never condemned her, this beautiful, strong man, even when she had deserved it.
“My father,” she finally answered, the words catching on a breathless sob. As soon as she said them, an image of the man whose seed helped create her entered her mind and she shuddered at the thought, trying hard to push it away. Her body stiffened in Liam’s embrace though he kept running a soothing hand down her back.
“Show me, Reasa. Let me in.”
She couldn’t have kept him out if she’d wanted to. Saying the words breached her strongest barriers, crumbled the wall that she’d placed to bury those memories she never wanted to revisit. She could feel Liam’s gentle strength at her side; feel his arms keeping her safe. Surrendering to the inevitable, she allowed the walls to crumble completely...
She was young, carefree, a pretty girl living in a secluded wooden cabin in the woods. It was a difficult time with wars and disease prevalent, but her family had found a refuge from it all and she could laugh and dance beneath the canopied trees with no fear.
Their family was wrong in the eyes of society. Her father was from the African continent, her mother a pale white farmer’s daughter. They had fallen in love, a love so deep they couldn’t be apart. They were soul mates so they ran away together, to share their love and make their beloved daughter Thereasa. They lived off the land and life was good, until the day he came.
Thereasa couldn’t remember his face, the man who had found her washing by the lake. She remembered he was very beautiful and had a magical voice. She remembered his bite and her terror. She remembered waking to find herself many miles away from her home. For the first year of her new life she remembered the blood and the screams, the human lives ended so she could thrive.
She missed mama and papa so much that she had to return. She found them where she left them, their sadness obvious in their eyes. Thereasa couldn’t bear to be apart from her parents so she did the only thing she could think of...she made them in her own image...she turned them to the life of the vampire.
It should have been perfect. They were together again as a family. However, it wasn’t to be as Thereasa’s knowledge of the supernatural was lacking. She didn’t know that just because people were human soul mates that didn’t mean they would be the same in their new life. She didn’t know...she didn’t know...
“Thereasa, where is your mother?” Her father’s angry tone frightened her.
“She said she was going for a walk, Papa.” Her father was always angry now. He had been that way ever since he had become a vampire.
Thereasa was too afraid to say no. Her father was much stronger than she was despite the fact she had lived this life longer. He wasn’t afraid to use that strength either, lashing out at herself or her mother when his ire rose too sharply. Gone was the quiet, protective man he had once been. In its place was now an abusive tyrant who frightened them.
Thereasa ran through the trees at supernatural speed, anxious to find her mother to appease his anger. She hadn’t run far when she scented a wolf, her feet skidding to a halt as she scented the air. Creeping quietly to the clearing, she clamped a hand over her mouth to prevent a wordless cry escaping. Her mother was wrapped naked in the arms of a man but he was no ordinary man...he was a wolf shifter.
No...it couldn’t be true! Her mother couldn’t be having an affair with a wolf. They were a family! She belonged with her father!
“No!” The word shrieked out, her mother and the wolf springing to their feet in shock.
“Thereasa! Wait! Let me explain!”
“You belong with Papa,” she screamed, tears running down her face. She didn’t want to hear explanations. She just wanted everything to go back to the way they had been before the man had found her by the lake.
“We’re soul mates,” her mama wept, a hand reaching out to her daughter. “We can’t fight the mating pull, Thereasa. We belong together.”
She shook her head in denial, hurt, anger, betrayal infusing her soul. “He’s not one of us! He’s a Were! You can’t be soul mates. You’re Papa’s soul mate! This is wrong!”
“It’s no more wrong than when your Papa and I had you, Thereasa,” her mother argued, tears running down her face as she tried to reach her child. “Society told us that was wrong too but it wasn’t. Victor is my true mate, my daughter. We must be together. We can’t escape it.”
Thereasa screamed as her father appeared at her side. He must have heard her yelling and come to investigate. He looked ten feet tall in his fury and she shrank away from him.
“Francis...I can explain. We couldn’t help it. We are soul mates.”
“He’s a dog!” her father roared, his eyes black, his talons extended. “It’s wrong! What you are doing is an abomination!”
“No, Francis...please listen...”
Her mother’s pleas cut off as her father sped forward knocking her out of the way as the other man shifted into wolf form and sprang snarling at the enraged vampire. Her father’s talons pierced the wolf’s sides, his fangs sinking deep into its neck.
Her mother was screaming, loud anguished sobs as the wolf gave one mournful howl before going limp in her father’s arms. He tossed the dead carcass aside, its bones snapping as it hit a large tree trunk.
“Whore! You betrayed me and now you must be punished!” her father bellowed again, advancing on her distraught mother. “Go home, Thereasa.”
“No, Papa! Please! Don’t hurt Mama!”
But Thereasa couldn’t move, couldn’t hide her eyes from the horrifying scene unfolding around her. Her father picked her mother’s unresisting body from the forest floor by the neck and he ripped his talons down her exposed torso. The pain made her shriek but she did nothing to protect herself. Staring into her mother’s eyes, Thereasa could see the light die within, and knew that her soul was lost in the moment the wolf had died.
“Papa, please!” she cried, finally finding her body able to move as she threw herself onto his back, trying to remove his grip from her mother’s neck. “Don’t, Papa! Don’t!”
It was as if she wasn’t even there.
“Whore!” he hissed once more before he twisted his hand and his talons sliced her mother’s head from her shoulders.
“NO!” Thereasa screamed, agony rocking through her as her mother’s body collapsed to the ground, her head still firmly clasped in her father’s hand. “NO! Mama! Mama!”
Rage like nothing she had ever experience before rose up deep within. Heart shattering into a million pieces, Thereasa’s fangs elongated and her talons punched through her father’s back. She shredded his heart in an instant, watching as he dropped her mother’s head and sank to the forest floor on his knees.
“I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!” Thereasa shrieked the words repeatedly, blood splattering wildly as she hacked furiously. When reason finally returned she stared down at the mangled remains of her father’s body, his head lying beside her mother’s.
“Mama? Papa?” Sinking to her knees beside them, Thereasa began rocking as she stared at the carnage. “Please wake up. Please. I don’t want to be alone. I’m frightened.”
They didn’t wake up. She stayed there for three days alternating between pleading to crying to angry words, but her parents never woke up no matter what she did. Finally, she had to accept that they were never coming back. Finally, she had to accept that her father had killed her mother and she, in turn, had killed him.
It was all the wolf’s fault. That filthy, disgusting animal had seduced her mother and broken her family. Rising from her cramped position, Thereasa ran at the broken carcass, shrieking as she kicked and hacked at it. “It’s all your fault! You’re to blame! You murdered my mother the very first time you laid hands on her! It was wrong! You are wrong! I hate you!”
Thereasa fell to the ground sobbing, replaying everything that had happened over in her mind. She screamed as her mother died again, screamed as she took her father’s life again, hated as she destroyed the wolf’s carcass again.
When she finally rose to dispose of the remains as her Sire had taught her, it was with ice in her soul and a deep hatred in her heart. Never again would she allow anyone to matter to her. Never again would she be weak. While she hated all wolves, she wouldn’t go out of her way to hunt them down as that would only get it her way of becoming the strongest, most dangerous vampire on the continent. However, should the day ever come when wolves crossed her path as had just happened, she would hunt them down and destroy the abominations, each and every last one of them.
Liam’s heart broke for her as she sobbed uncontrollably in his arms. He had known that there had to be some severe catalyst to inspire Reasa’s level of hatred in the Vârcolac, but he had no idea it could be anything as tragic as what he’d just witnessed. She felt responsible for her mother’s death. She had taken her father’s life to avenge her mother’s murder. The worst thing was she knew deep within her soul that if she had never turned them to the life of a vampire that they would most likely have lived out their lives together in happiness.
No wonder she hated the mixed matings and the Vârcolac. They were evidence that what her mother had shared even briefly with her wolf was real and couldn’t have been fought. They lent truth to her mother’s words and that would only increase Reasa’s feelings of guilt that her reaction had brought her father down on the lovers. Thereasa hated and blamed the wolves, because it was the only way she could live with her overwhelming guilt without going insane.
“You were only young girl, Reasa,” he whispered against her temple, holding her as tightly as he could without hurting her. “You didn’t ask to become a vampire and it is understandable that you would feel alone and afraid, and want your parents with you.”
He kissed her temple as she sobbed without speaking. “What happened is tragic and I can’t tell you to forget it as it will always be a part of you, but you have to forgive yourself, Thereasa. You didn’t intend for any of that to happen. You had no control over the events that unfolded. You were just a young girl who was happy with her parents and didn’t want to lose that love and security.”
“I killed my papa,” she wept clinging onto Liam tightly. “He was a good man before...before I made him a vampire. If I hadn’t done that...”
“Forgive yourself. Remember who your father was before he changed. What would he wish for you, Thereasa? What would your mother wish for you?”
A loud hiccup escaped her as she took a shuddering breath. “They only ever wanted me to be happy and safe,” she answered, her voice sounding like that of the young carefree girl she had once been.
“Then be happy, my heart. Be safe here with me. You cannot change the past but you can change your future. You just need to start by letting go of what was and concentrate on what can be. The Vârcolac are not abominations, Reasa. The mixed matings are not abominations. You have nothing to hate us for.”
Reasa suddenly felt claustrophobic. She was being overwhelmed by emotions she’d kept buried so long and her flight instincts were kicking in. Struggling in Liam’s embrace, she wriggled until he let her go. Leaping from the bed, she headed towards the door, stopping before she reached it. Where could she go? There was nowhere to run to, no way of escaping the memories crashing over her.
“Thereasa, it’s okay, you’re safe here.”
Ignoring him, she grabbed her bag from where it rested against the wall, one of the vampires must have placed it there yesterday when they were working within Brandon’s mind. “I need to shower,” she mumbled, refusing to look at him. She didn’t want to see the same pity she heard in his voice reflected in his eyes. She didn’t deserve it and she didn’t want it.
Liam sighed deeply as she closed the bathroom door with what could only be termed as finality. His mate was shutting him out after having let him into her darkest secrets. He understood that she was overwhelmed but that didn’t stop him wishing she would see that she had nothing to fear from him. He wanted to help, he needed to help. Why couldn’t she see that?
Sighing again, he got up and grabbed his pack, heading out of the room in search of another available bathroom. He knew when he returned he would find Reasa’s barriers back up but that was okay. He would just break them down again and keep breaking them down until she realised that no matter what her past was, he wasn’t going anywhere.
Brandon yawned, uttering a groan as every muscle in his body protested the long stretch he was giving it. What the hell was wrong with him? He felt as if he’d been in bed for a week. He’d also been having some pretty weird dreams too. Lily had been talking at him for what felt like hours. He couldn’t make out what she was saying but he could hear her voice as if from a far off distance.
Liam had been in them, too, and the assassin who had infiltrated the Praetorian Compound. They had kept calling him, playing what felt like a game of hide and seek with him. Every time he’d thought he’d tracked them down they vanished and he had to start again. It truly had been the weirdest of dreams and one he was glad to be waking up from.
“Brandon? Open your eyes, Bran....please!”
“Lily?” He struggled to open his eyes, groaning again as they felt as if they had been stuck together with glue.
“I’m here! I’m right here, Brandon.”
Why did Lily sound like she was crying? His determination to find out was the deciding factor in forcing his eyes open. Squinting against the morning sunlight coming from the nearby window, he looked up to see his friend hovering over him, tears flowing freely down her face.
“Oh Brandon, you’re back! I knew they could do it! I just knew it!”
“Back?” he croaked out, realising his mouth was dry and he was famished. His hunger was so strong it made his stomach cramp. “I haven’t been anywhere.” His confusion continued as his stomach churned again. “I’m starving. Does anyone have a cute human nearby?”
Lily started to laugh as a Were tried to make her move aside.
“Lily, let us check him out. Maybe you could find him something to eat so he doesn’t try to bite us?” the female Were said, and his friend gasped and disappeared from view.
Brandon wouldn’t have minded biting the woman now looming over him. She was very attractive and the need for blood wasn’t the only hunger that was surfacing. Not that he would. He was aware his bite would kill the Were if he did.
“How are you feeling?” she was asking him as she shone an annoying light in his eyes before running professional feeling hands over his body.
“Hungry, horny and confused,” he answered truthfully, delighting in the slight rounding of the Were’s eyes at his bluntness. The doctor, because that’s what she appeared to be, didn’t respond to his words, she merely continued her examination.
“How do your limbs feel...sluggish, hard?”
“I can tell you what is hard...”
“Brandon, stop playing with the doctor,” Lily admonished, appearing back at the bed with a bottle in one hand and the heavenly aroma of chilled blood wafting from the filled glass in her other hand.
His attention was immediately diverted, a sharp pain gnawing at his gut. Grabbing the glass, he slugged the contents quickly, reaching for the bottle to replenish it. He drained the bottle before the nagging pains decreased enough for him to focus once more on his surroundings.
“What’s going on, Lily? Why am I in what appears to be a hospital room?” His gaze shifted to the other beds, his brow drawing down as he saw his fellow Praetorians lying there. “What’s wrong with them?”
Lily sat down on the chair beside the bed, moving a book from there to the bedside table. Brandon glanced at it briefly, reading the title. “Moby Dick?” Lily hated that book though it was one of his favourites. They’d had countless debates over whether Captain Ahab was brave or a self-absorbed monomaniac. Lily voted for the latter every time.
“I was reading it to you,” she answered, a mock-grimace on her face. “Thankfully you woke up so I won’t have to torture myself any further.”
Lily turned to the doctor who gave her a reassuring smile. “He appears to be none the worse for his ordeal. I’ll leave you two to catch up.”
As she walked away, his friend turned back to him. “What’s the last thing you remember, Bran?”
He frowned at the question but cast his mind back to before the strange dreams. Everything felt a bit blurry though his cognitive skills were sharpening as the blood he’d consumed surged through his body. “Everyone was in the living room. The assassin was being brought to justice and there was some kind of strange magic going on. Things were pretty fraught and I wasn’t sure what side of the line we were on. I can remember Liam shouting, screaming at Annie for some reason. Then there was this blinding pain in my head and it felt as if Liam was physically inside me, screaming in anguish. I don’t remember what happened after that.”
Lily nodded giving his hand a reassuring squeeze. “That was days ago, Brandon. Liam was inside your head, and the heads of the others in this room. He didn’t know what he was doing but in his distress over what was happening to Thereasa he projected his emotions outwards and some of the Praetorians were injured in the backlash. You were one of them. You’ve been trapped within your mind ever since.”
He gaped at her, trying to understand what she was saying. “You mean he damaged our minds somehow?”
Lily nodded. “It wasn’t intentional, Brandon, and he is so overcome with guilt by what happened. He’s learned to shield his empathy better and he and Reasa are the reason you’re awake right now. They spent all day yesterday in your mind, searching for your shattered psyche so they could help bring you back.”
Brandon’s thoughts were in turmoil at the news. His mind had been shattered and days had passed? He was staggered by what he was hearing but the more he thought about it, the easier it was to put two and two together. The dream of Lily talking at him was clearly when she was reading to him. The hide and seek game with Liam and Reasa was them luring him back to reality. That had to make Liam one of the most dangerous people he had ever come across, and now he appeared to be working in conjunction with the would-be assassin.
“Please don’t hate him, Brandon. Liam worked himself to the point of exhaustion last night trying to fix his mistake.”
Blinking slowly, he regarded his friend, only half listening to what she was saying as he processed what had happened. It took a moment for her words to seep through but when they did, he shook his head in denial. “Of course I don’t hate Liam. He is Vârcolac, as are you, Lily.”
He squeezed her hand, wanting to relieve the distress he saw on her face. “I signed up to lay down my life for the Vârcolac no matter what the circumstances. I could never hate any of you and most certainly not Liam. It’s my job to protect him.”
“And we are so lucky to have you,” Lily smiled, leaning over to give her friend a warm hug. She had been afraid that the Praetorians would fear Liam after what had happened. It was a relief to know that Brandon, at least, didn’t harbour any ill will because of what happened.
“Okay, that’s enough of the hugging,” Mac growled with a glint of humour in his eyes as he entered the room. “Just because you’ve been in a coma for days doesn’t mean you can take liberties with my mate, Brandon.”
It was obvious he was only teasing so Brandon did a little of his own, ensuring his grip tightened around his friend so she couldn’t pull away. “Lily gives great hugs,” he winked, drawing a bark of laughter from Karn who appeared at Mac’s side.
“Do you want to go back into another coma, boy? Keep that up and you may well just do that.”
“How are you feeling, Brandon?” Mac asked, extracting his mate from the other male’s arms and sitting down in her chair. He pulled her onto his lap, grinning widely at her exuberant expression. He shared her relief, not just because he liked the younger male, but also because it made his Lily happy to have her friend back.
“A little sluggish and disorientated,” Brandon answered, turning serious as he reported to his leader. “I have a strong thirst for food still even though I’ve had a full bottle already. Might be wise to have a large stock for when the others wake up as they’re going to be famished.”
The Praetorian leader nodded trying not to be overly hopeful. Just because Liam and Reasa were able to bring Brandon back, it didn’t mean they would automatically be able to save the others. It was possible that Brandon’s connection with Lily and Liam was a deciding factor in the younger male wanting to return.
The sound of the door opening once more had everyone turning to the newcomers. Reasa appeared first, followed closely by Liam. The Vârcolac’s eyes widened as he saw Brandon sitting up in bed. “It worked,” he whispered, relief glowing in his eyes.
“Intriguing,” the human woman said, curiosity on her face. “I did not think we would be able to do it. It would appear I am wrong once again.” She hung back as Liam crossed over to his friend.
“I am so sorry, Brandon. I never meant to cause you or anyone else any harm.” Liam’s relief had changed to guilt, his expression sombre as he regarded his friend. He couldn’t put into words how happy he was to see Brandon sitting up and talking to everyone. He hoped that his successive actions had gone some way to mitigating the damage he’d caused.
“You’re forgiven,” the vampire grinned, running a hand through his long dark hair. “I needed the rest anyway. You do know what a slave driver Karn is.” He deliberately kept his tone light and teasing to ease some of Liam’s guilt. Shit happened and sometimes people got hurt along the way. It wasn’t in Brandon’s nature to hold a grudge...not unless someone tried to hurt someone he cared about.
“It was an accident, Liam. Nothing for you to beat yourself up about. I’m fine, and I’m sure the others will be too once you’ve had a chance to annoy the hell out of them by playing hide and go seek in their minds.”
Liam’s smiled, a slow smile full of gratitude to his friend. His curiosity was piqued too by his words. “You were aware of us in your mind?”
“Sort of,” Brandon answered with an answering smile. “It was like a hazy dream. You and Reasa were calling to me but every time I thought I’d found one of you, I would have to start all over again going in a different direction. I can remember feeling exhausted by the time you stopped calling me. I was glad you both went away so I could sit down a rest.”
The doctor arrived back at the bed. “Okay, now you’ve all satisfied yourselves that he’s fine, Brandon needs some more food and then some rest.”
“I’ll get you something more to eat,” Lily said wriggling out of Mac’s tight embrace.
Her mate rose too. “I’ll ensure we have an adequate stock of chilled blood.” He gathered his mate close and shepherded her out of the room.
“Are you up to trying with the next patient or do you need more rest?” Karn asked.
Liam glanced at Reasa who nodded her head. “I’m fine to try again.”
“Good. I’ll round up Elina while you get yourselves comfortable. Just move the chairs beside Brandon’s bed to the next one.” Karn left the room leaving Liam and Reasa to get themselves set up for the next dream walking.
“Reasa...?” Liam wanted to see beneath the cool mask that was back in place. He wanted to know that his mate was okay after her emotional outpouring earlier. He knew this wasn’t really the time and place, but he needed some kind of reassurance.
“Let’s just concentrate on what we came here to do, Liam. That’s our highest priority and we need all our energy for that.”
Conceding defeat for now, Liam sat down beside the next bed, relaxing his body and trying to clear his mind of all external stimuli. It was hard with his mate so close, but it was necessary to bring back the remaining Praetorians.
To be continued...