Hearts of Warriors Ch. 09byJazCullen©
My thanks to mikothebaby for editing.
Sorry for the wait for the chapter.
Rafe looked around the room stifling down a need to sigh. A summons from his sister usually always spelled trouble of some kind and when she asked for various people to be in attendance, namely the ones who were now spread out in the closed off community centre, it set his warning radar off big time.
The mated vampire couples were there, Ash and Nors sitting with their heads together as always, his arm looped loosely over the back of her chair. Their body language screamed of intimacy, Ashleigh's face radiant as she smiled up at her mate. There was no sign of the lost young girl who had suffered a weight of heartbreak at such a tender age. Happiness seemed to waft from the little blonde, contentment in the way she leaned into her mate's body.
There wasn't a day that went by that Rafe didn't feel thankful to Nors, the biggest vampire in the room, so scary and intimidating to look at and yet so loving and protective of not only his own family but also the pack. Without his devotion, they would have lost Ashleigh to the grief that had once clung to her like death. He had loved her enough to bring her back to the pack and bring love and laughter back into her life. How could anyone not love him for that?
Rafe's gaze turned to the Romanov twins, the volatile brothers who were fierce and protective but often hard to handle. Even after all these years, there were still moments when either Alexei or Andrei tested his patience as Alpha and made him wonder why he was stupid enough to accept the role of being leader to everyone in his pack.
At the moment it was Andrei giving him all the headaches with Lily missing. Alexei was helping out as best he could along with Loretta to keep the more mercurial vampire at bay but it was challenging.
As always, where the twins were, so were their mates. Loretta had a thoughtful expression on her face, as her eyes kept flickering to Andrei, even as she listened to something her sister-in-law was saying to her. She was a striking woman, not tall for a Were, but sleek with toned muscles that signified strength. Andrei looked at her, his brown eyes flashing with some untold emotion for an instant before his expression became neutral again. He turned back to his brother raking an impatient hand through his hair.
Cedar caught the look which passed between the mates and raised an eyebrow, obviously querying her friend on it. Her blonde curls were tied back in a loose ponytail which Alexei was playing with absentmindedly with a faint curve of a smile across his lips.
Whatever was going on in that family group obviously wasn't being discussed. Loretta confirmed Rafe's suspicions by giving a quick shake of her head at Cedar. He did sigh then, mentally preparing himself for having to deal with whatever fallout would soon be coming his way. The Romanovs would test even the patience of a saint.
His gaze swept on coming to rest on Dayton, one of his most trusted Betas. The change in Cedar's brother, a wolf who had lost his first mate and almost succumbed to madness, was remarkable. After decades of exile from the pack he had been home for a long time now, once more a valuable addition to his pack. He smiled constantly these days, teasing his mate mercilessly until she was ready to explode in a whirlwind of fury.
Freya was still coming to terms with developing a sense of humour. Only Day was insane enough to needle the Ancient vampire past the point of no return, confident that she'd never hurt him no matter what he did. Rafe watched him gather his scowling mate into his arms, kissing her soundly until she melted against him. He couldn't help smiling as he watched them. Seeing them so happy together reminded him of the upside to being an Alpha.
The remaining people in the room where the Vârcolac. Liam was sitting on the floor as far back from everyone as he could get, his brown eyes full of concentration as he leaned against the wall. He was huge like his father, dark auburn hair hanging over shoulders so wide he looked as if he could barely fit through some doorways.
Liam broke Rafe's heart on a daily basis. Not because he was hard to work with or had a mean bone in his body. No, he broke his heart because no matter how he hid behind his neutral mask, Rafe could always feel the muted sensation of pain down their Alpha bond. Liam hid it well but his empathy crushed him, overloaded him and threatened to break him.
Only the tall, willowy woman at his side could temper Liam's agony. Elina Alexander was as stunning as her mother Freya with her skin porcelain white, her hair a crazy mix of browns, reds, golds and that one streak of pure silver she'd inherited from her father.
So serious and reserved, her face was almost severe in its beauty. She'd given up a piece of her soul to protect the cousin she adored more than life itself. Now she sat close to him, leaning into his body with her eyes closed. Rafe knew she was sharing her mental shields with Liam, helping him to buffer all the emotions in the room with so many people in attendance.
Cassia and Dara were less reserved than some of the other hybrids but still separate from the rest of the pack. The sisters' relationship was an enigma to all of them including their parents sometimes. They weren't twins like their father but they gave every indication of being so by the way they interacted together.
Cassia was the elder sister, sharing her mother's curly blonde hair and blue eyes. Dara's blonde hair was straight like Alexei's her, eyes the same shade of brown. Both wore their hair to their shoulders, both invariably dressed the same even if they chose different colours.
Arms wrapping around Rafe's waist had his lips curling in a smile as he wrapped his arms around his mate's. Her scent washed over him, soothing his tension and he leaned back against her. Lacey always knew when he was worried about something, always reached out to bring comfort to him.
"It might not be as bad as you think," she sighed sliding around his body to rest against his chest as he hugged her tightly.
He could never get enough of his mate. She was everything good in his life, beautiful and loving with hair a pale silvery blonde that reminded him of moonlight. Her light green eyes were striking, her lips looking eminently kissable at that moment.
He indulged himself, rubbing her mouth with his to ground himself and ease more of the tension which was making his muscles ache. "This is Annie we're talking about," he breathed against her mouth. "Lily is God knows where. Kallum appears to have joined her and once again Kothari has disobeyed a direct order to attend a meeting." His displeasure was evident as he finished speaking.
The final hybrid child, the only issue of a mating between an Ancient vampire and the very first Vârcolac, tested Rafe's patience to his limits. Not only did he drive Rafe to insanity but also Aaron, the most pack orientated Beta and second-in-command of the Armand-Hanlon pack.
Aaron took on all the troubled pack members, worked diligently to integrate them and help them through any issues they had, but even he struggled to get Kothari to meet him halfway. Which was probably why it was lucky Aaron was over at the Hanlon pack with his family and also Lacey and Rafe's sons.
Rafe would fill them in later on whatever happened at the meeting but it was just as well some of those who should have been there had been otherwise engaged. Aaron losing his temper wasn't something which happened often, but when it did, he was downright vicious. Liam could do without that level of emotion battering at his mental shields.
"Oh Ye of Little Faith," Lacey whispered as the door opened and Gard and Rayne entered followed reluctantly by their son.
The impressive vampire, one third of the triumvirate and over six thousand years old, strode confidently into the room his expression determined though a faint smile hovered over his lips. His arm was draped over Rayne's shoulder, his mate moving with the sleek grace of the panther she was, her long black hair secured in her customary high ponytail.
Behind them came Kothari, his eyes hidden behind a pair of sunglasses so darkly tinted that not even the enhanced sight of vampires or Weres could penetrate the darkness. The most volatile and unknown of the Vârcolac, Kothari hid behind his dark glasses and silent demeanour never letting anyone get truly close. He was dressed completely in black, his wide shoulders encased in a black leather jacket full of silver zippers and studs.
Unlike the rest of the pack, Kothari's hair was cut short tapering in sharply at the nape of his neck though the front was longer, falling in a wide sweep across his forehead. He was as tall as his father and just as wide and his body language screamed out the need to be anywhere else but where he was. Kothari was pissed and he didn't care who knew it.
The only change in his demeanour was when he sighted Dara and Cassia. The first hint of a true emotion crossed his face and it was anything but pleasant. His expression turned hard, his lips thinning in a straight line of disapproval as he raked his eyes over the women.
"Kothi." Rayne's voice cut through the instant tension in the room at their entrance and her son's head snapped round to look at her.
There was a brief pause and then his expression softened, his lips curving into a semblance of a smile. He dropped a kiss on the top of his mother's head and walked further into the room, separating himself from everyone as he leaned against a far wall beside one of the many windows, his gaze peering into the night.
"Kids," Gard rumbled, rolling his eyes as they reached the Alpha couple.
Rayne shot him a reproofing look trying not to glance over at their son. He'd always been different but the older he'd become the more isolated he appeared. It concerned her greatly and she knew it concerned Gard too.
At home when they were alone, the hard mask dissolved and he was their Kothi, a hint of happiness on his face, a certain level of peace in his eyes. The moment they were in company he became the cold, hard stranger who now stood staring out the window, so alone it broke her heart. She didn't know how to reach him when he was like this so she just loved him as a mother should, unconditionally.
"Where's everyone else?" Gard was asking Rafe as she turned her attention back to the room.
"Demetri's off to Europe for some reason and Mara's at the Council chambers. Aaron and the boys are over at the Hanlon compound along with Jen and their three. Still no word on Lily and now Kallum's vanished too. We're just waiting for Annie and Caleb and we can find out why this gathering has been called."
"Actually we've brought another couple of people with us," Rhianna announced in her soft, lilting voice as she entered the room at Caleb's side. Kallum was just behind them, along with a vampire a few of them recognised.
"Karn?" Rafe frowned in confusion, wondering why his sister had brought a Council Enforcer to the meeting. He'd met the sandy-haired vampire a few times when he'd been backup for a Were/Vampire Council meeting over the years. He knew there had to be a good reason for it because Annie would never endanger the pack but he didn't like being surprised. Though he should be used to it by now when his sister was involved.
"Rafe," Karn nodded, his eyes quickly flickering over the room, taking in the various people he knew by sight, honing onto the younger attendees who were obviously the other Vârcolac. His appraisal was quick though his eyes rested a shade longer on the couple sitting on the floor at the opposite end of the room.
He stopped first on the male, his protective instincts flaring. His appraisal was quick, accurate, his concern deepening. The woman at the male's side brought a different reaction -- anger. He looked at her and he felt his temper spike, his instincts perk up. He filed the information away to deal with at a later time.
"There's little point in beating around the bush," Caleb announced as he pulled up two chairs beside Rafe and Lacey and sat down beside Rhianna. "With the exception of the children, everyone here is aware of the Praetorians and what their remit has been with regard to the Vârcolac. There have been some...issues regarding that which have recently come to light."
The younger members of the group looked at each other and it was clear that there was some form of quick mental conversation occurring as was often the case with them.
"You mean the vampires that have been dogging our footsteps all our lives?" Kothari asked when no one spoke, his voice quiet and toneless. He didn't turn to the room though his shoulders tightened slightly.
"He's one of them. I recognise his scent," he added.
"One of them?" Dara echoed unease in her tone as her eyes flicked around the room and finally rested on the man at the window. "We've been followed for years and you knew about it, Kothi? Why didn't you tell us?"
"Why didn't anyone tell us?" her sister asked sounding just as unhappy. Her gaze was on Kothari too, irritation dancing in her eyes. She was annoyed that one of them knew of these secret vampires and had chosen to keep quiet. It was so like Kothi to do something like that it was a wonder she was even surprised to hear it.
"The decision was made a long time ago to keep the Praetorians a secret," Rafe answered calmly. "You were all so young when the first attack was made on the pack, the first attempt to reach you and cause you harm. Some of you weren't even born." He smiled at Elina for a moment and then looked at Kothari briefly.
"You shouldn't be angry with your parents or Rafe," Rhianna added. "I needed to protect the pack, to protect you. The Praetorians seemed the best way of doing so at the time. We wanted you to have normal childhoods, as normal as possible considering your heritage."
Elina shifted beside Liam, leaned into him slightly and rested a hand against his arm as though picking up a rise in his distress levels. He smiled briefly closing his eyes and rubbing his cheek against her hair.
"So not all vampires were accepting of hybrid children coming into the world?" Elina guessed correctly as she soothed her cousin unconsciously, strengthening her shields within his mind not realising her expression turned colder, more remote when she did so, her voice dripping with ice.
Karn noticed the subtle changes and felt his anger ratchet up a notch, though he kept his expression neutral. He didn't like what he was witnessing, was worried at Liam's sensitivity levels and also the effect it had on the woman at his side. The warning signs were clear to him. How no one else was reading them was criminal. He wanted to yell at the others, ask them how they could have let things become so dangerous.
The ensuing silence was broken when Gard spoke addressing his son. "How long have you known about them?"
"Longer than Lily has." Kothari turned from the window to look at his father before his hidden gaze swept over Dara and Cassia. Liam and Elina didn't appear to be put out with what they were hearing but the sisters were not happy about it, were particularly unhappy with him. The corner of his mouth twitched in a satisfied smile.
"It was amusing watching Lily work it out. She was so smug when she worked it out and thought no one else knew." His words sounded harsh but there was an undercurrent of warmth in his tone revealing a hint of genuine affection.
Andrei growled softly and Kothari met his gaze for a moment and then nodded at the silent rebuke. Andrei didn't like it when he felt someone was maligning a child of his. The vampire was already volatile. It was pointless antagonising him any further and Kothari genuinely adored Liliana and her wild ways even if he didn't show it.
"How did you and Lily find out?" Rafe asked his gaze sweeping from Kothari to Andrei and finally settling on Karn who had been identified as a member of the Praetorians. If his scrutiny made the vampire uncomfortable, there was no outward sign of it.
"My senses are sharper than the others," Kothari answered. "I was about six when I first realised we had silent guardians shadowing our every movement. Lily's senses are not as acute as mine but she has an agile brain and not a lot escapes her. She worked it out by the time she hit maturity."
Andrei's irritation faded his eyes boring into Kothari as he spoke. He couldn't help but feel pride at his daughter's intelligence, proud of the knowledge she'd been one of the few to have worked out a secret so closely guarded that most people didn't know it.
"Lily would have seen the Praetorians as a challenge," he mused almost to himself. He turned to look at Karn his eyes narrowing. "That's where she is, isn't it?"
Karn pursed his lips and then nodded. Mac had told him to attend this meeting, to bring Kallum with him to help. He'd thought it madness, but Mac had been insistent. His opinion hadn't changed but so far everything was going reasonably smoothly.
"We didn't know who she was," he answered carefully. "She managed to circumvent all our careful screening to become accepted as a Praetorian candidate. She was the top recruit in her class, the best soldier I've ever trained."
His pride in his charge was evident in his voice as well as his affection for one of their own. Because of that Andrei found it easier to accept, his own pride escalating higher. His daughter had fooled everyone and been the best soldier. She was so much like him it was scary but he was proud of her anyway.
"How did she get past the final check?" Rafe asked suspiciously his eyes already dropping to his sister for confirmation. He was stunned at the news and not entirely happy about it. Seeing Rhianna's sheepish expression ignited his temper.
"For the love of God, Annie, what were you thinking?" he ground out furiously, her guilty expression telling him all he needed to know. Once again his sister had kept a secret from him, one that directly affected a member of his pack. He was furious with her.
"You know the uproar Lily's disappearance caused. How could you keep quiet when you knew she was safe?" Because Lily had been safe all this time only they hadn't known it. She couldn't have been safer living in the heart of the Praetorians.
"Sometimes the needs of the one is more important that the needs of many," Rhianna answered, accepting Rafe's anger because she knew it was justified on one level. It hurt though. It always hurt when she disappointed her brother even if sometimes it was necessary.
"Lily needed her freedom, Rafe. You would only have dragged her back here and despite the fact that we all love her it would have been the wrong thing for her. You know that deep inside. And in my defence, I've only known a few days. I was just giving her a little time until she was ready to come home again."
Rafe opened his mouth to retort, fury still in control. Deep down he knew she was right, Annie was always right. But he still wasn't ready to let go of his anger. If she'd told him, explained her reasoning, then he would have listened to her no matter what she thought. He trusted her decisions. His scathing words were silenced when Andrei spoke.
All eyes turned to the one person they'd all expected to be demanding they march up to the Praetorian compound and retrieve his daughter instantly.
"Lily contacted me earlier today," Andrei continued in a quiet voice. "She has the same genetic flaw I have only it manifests itself in her wolf side rather than her vampiric side. She's scared and a little confused but she's found the one thing that can help her and she can only find it with the Praetorians."