The facts of his story churned in my mind. My mouth felt dry. My mother had been so close to freedom. She’d had an ally as powerful as a vampire king to protect her...to protect us. The only thing she couldn’t escape was the pack bond.
Following my thoughts, Coal confirmed, “The mage couldn’t break the pack bond, could he?”
Marku’s expression turned hard. “No. He tried. Even contacted two other mages for assistance. But was not successful.”
I nodded silently.
After a quiet moment, Marku held my gaze intently and shifted the direction of the conversation. “Given your lineage as my biological child and the fact that I was the vampire who changed you, you are going to be very powerful, do you understand?”
On a basic level, his words made sense, but, no, I didn’t feel like I grasped the reason for the intensity of his statement. “Not really.”
“First, your bloodlust is stronger.”
My eyes snapped wide, heart racing in my chest. I’d forgotten all about that!
Feeling my panic through the bond, Coal squeezed my fingers.
Marku must have also picked up on my fear, because he continued quickly, “Over time, you will gain more control over yourself. But until then, with proper maintenance, the impulse can be managed.
“Proper maintenance? What exactly does that mean?” Coal asked.
“Don’t let it build. Be sensitive to your desire. Learn its frequency and amount. And then, keep that schedule whether or not you feel the urge. More than likely, you will need to partake several times a day for the first month or so.”
Several times a day?
“But I can’t...take that much blood from Coal. His body would never sustain the loss.”
“I can easily have humans delivered to you to meet your needs.”
I was stunned at his casual phrasing. “What do you mean ’have humans delivered’?”
Both Coal and Ryder sat straighter, spines rigid, their tension palpable in the air.
Ryder interjected, his response controlled but edged with fierceness, “No. That will not be necessary. Brinley can feed from me as well.”
Aatos visibly stiffened. His eyes took on a distinctly crimson hue.
“Me, as well,” Chase added firmly, no uncertainty found in his voice. “Besides, Coal’s Wolf will handle it better if she only feeds from blood relations.”
He was right.
Coal’s Wolf’s discontent rumbled through the bond. Images of me with my canines embedded in other pack members flashed through his mind. He paced angrily.
“If you feel it can be managed that way,” Marku acquiesced with a nod. ”Three should be sufficient, especially considering a Wolf’s rate of healing and regeneration of red blood cells.”
Just as everyone seemed to be calming down, without warning, Coal snarled loudly and jumped to his feet!
Instantly, Ryder and Chase followed suit.
Aatos and Savannah lurched to standing positions as well, warily assessing Coal.
Fists clenched, her chest vibrating with anger, Coal was seconds away from attacking Marku and I had no idea what in the world had provoked him.
But Marku did not react. He just remained seated and his expression told me he knew exactly why Coal was angry. He murmured, “They are not here to harm you.”
Who the hell was here?
Marku held Coal’s furious gaze and continued evenly, “Queen Raine is a powerful ally of mine and will be to my daughters as well.”
Shockingly, Coal relaxed, but he remained standing. His eyes glazed over, clearly giving instructions to someone through the mindlink.
Did Coal know this person?
And a queen? She had to be a vampire for Coal to react the way he did.
In the next second, my sensitive Wolf nose twitched. There were more vampires directly outside the office door, three specifically.
Marku stood while Aatos went to the door.
I scrambled to my feet as well. I had no intention of meeting more vampire royalty sitting down.
When Aatos opened the door, three vampires walked through. The first, a female, had to be the queen Marku referred to. Dressed completely in leather that hugged her petite frame, cinching tightly to her trim waist and pushing up her full breasts, the female held a regal air. Intimidating. But her heart shaped lips and pert nose where set in a relaxed expression. Blue eyes crinkled as she eyed me warmly.
The next vampire completely shocked me. My eyes traveled down to find a little girl. She walked confidently behind the woman. I could only assume she was her daughter. Midnight black curls bounced around her shoulders. Crystal blue eyes alertly roamed from person-to-person.
Identical black leather covered her small body, but she had several additions that her mother didn’t—knives!
Legs, arms, hips covered, even two long blades crossed behind her back, elegant and deadly, peeking out in the space right above her head.
She couldn’t be more than about three.
And just damn. If I thought her mother held a fierce, confident expression, this little one positively radiated she was a force to be reckoned with.
Mother and daughter moved to the side to allow for one of the largest males I’d ever seen to enter behind them. He was even more massive than Coal. Like the other two, supple black leather clung to his body from head to toe, not leaving much to the imagination. His weaponry was not visible, but there were sufficient bulges all over his body to indicate he was packing quite a bit of warfare.
While alert, his expression didn’t convey any animosity. The queen’s attention had remained on me, but he took a moment to silently assess each person in the room.
Was this another vampire king?
Marku captured the Queen’s attention by walking to her side. He wrapped one arm around her back, kissed her cheek and murmured, “Thank you for coming,” before moving to her ear and whispering something I couldn’t hear.
She snorted a laugh, shook her head and pushed him off of her.
Stepping away with a smug grin, Marku’s eyes found mine, “Brinley, I’d like you to meet Queen Raine.”
She smiled, and I nodded in acknowledgment.
Marku continued, “Raine, this is my daughter, Brinley.”
The queen’s eyebrows shot up, and then without another word, she made her way across the room and engulfed me in a heartfelt hug. Holding tight, she murmured in my ear, “It’s lovely to meet you.”
Her welcome rang with sincerity. But more than that, there was a strong nurturing undertone. Instantly, I felt a connection. Maybe it was the fact she was a mother. I’d gone without parental affection for so long, and her transparent protective and compassionate emotions washed over me, leaving me radiating with warmth as she pulled away.
“This is my mate, Coal." I said. She probably didn’t need me to clarify my relationship as Coal was pressed right up against my back.
“Welcome to our home,” Coal said but didn’t make any move to touch her.
Raine seemed just fine with that and smiled brilliantly back at him.
“And his brothers, Ryder and Chase,” I finished, turning to look in their direction.
She followed my line of sight and chirped, “Hello!”
They gave hesitant smiles and nodded, but didn’t say anything.
Raine greeted the others, “Savvy! It’s good to see you again.”
“Aatos,” Raine acknowledged.
He nodded in response.
Raine turned toward the male and little girl, still standing just inside the door.
Marku was crouched down so that he was eye level with the pint-sized vampire. I tried to interpret the intensity of his expression. Was that fascination? I wasn’t sure.
Marku continued the introductions, speaking directly to the little girl, “You already know my daughter Savannah and now Brinley, her mate, and his brothers. But I also want to introduce you to Aatos.”
Chin high, expression neutral, the little girl’s eyes narrowed as she studied the large vampire. She merely nodded.
“Hello, little one. Marku talks quite highly of you,” Aatos offered.
No break in her almost bored expression, she didn’t acknowledge the compliment.
Marku continued, “Aatos, this is Raine’s daughter, Braveheart.”
Aatos’ expression shifted to confusion. “Braveheart? I thought her name was—”
“It’s Collette,” the little girl cut him off, speaking for the first time. She leveled a glare at Marku.
Marku’s lips curled wider, pearly white teeth displayed, clearly enamored and entertained with her response. Standing to his feet, he drawled, “Yes...Collette.”
“Marku, why must you tease her?” Raine interjected with a sigh. “She’s progressed quite far in her training. Push her, and you might get more than you expect.”
“Oh...I’m counting on it,” Marku replied brightly.
For the first time, Raine’s voice shifted to a razor edge, “We shall see.”
I had no idea what they were talking about, but it clearly didn’t have anything to do with us.
Unfazed by her curt remark, Marku’s attention shifted to the last vampire, introducing him to the group, “This is Talon, Raine’s third-in-command.”
The intimidating male dropped his chin once an acknowledgment.
Coal took over the conversation. “Welcome to our home.”
Ryder and Chase had already vacated their positions next to Coal and me, resuming their ready stance near the wall.
Coal tugged me gently so that we were now at the end of the long couch and motioned an invitation with his hand to the available seating. “Please, sit.”
Raine sat directly to my left with Talon on her other side. Her feisty daughter chose to perch in the last available chairs.
“Okay,” Coal addressed Marku, “What the fuck is going on?”
Raine chimed in, addressing Marku, “Yes. I’m thrilled to meet your daughter and her family, but why did you insist Coco and I mean you here? You know I don’t do your dark-and-mysterious act.”
So, she didn’t know any more than we did. What was Marku up to?
“And yet, you’re here,” Marku teased her, looking very satisfied with himself.
Raine rolled her eyes.
“Your kingdom is much closer to Brinley than mine,” Marku finally got serious. “If she were ever in need of vampire protection, I wanted her to get to know you so she would feel safe in seeking your protection.”
Her expression held confusion. “Of course, I’d be happy to help with whatever Brinley needed, and it’s nice to be able to put a face with the name, but why insist Coco come with me?”
Marku focused on the little girl. “I’ve only had the pleasure of meeting her once. I thought it would be nice to see her again.”
Instantly, Raine’s demeanor changed, all lightheartedness, gone. She leaned forward just slightly. “I told you on the phone after you left that I would let you know when I was ready for her to meet this supposed mate. That time is not now.”
“Mate? What the fuck? She’s just a child.” Coal thoughts passed through our mind link as he silently watched the exchange, just as confused as I was as to what was happening.
Marku’s voice dropped soothingly, “I understand and respect your decision which is why I haven’t yet even informed my heir who he is. His anonymity keeps him safe, so I also prefer to wait until Coco is ready for a formal introduction. I did want an opportunity to see her again, but I also felt it would help Brinley to see you in your role as a mother. To help her associate you as someone who would take care of her until I could get there.”
Damn. He was intuitive and absolutely correct.
Raine studied him without speaking.
Coal interrupted the tense standoff, “I don’t mean to get in the middle of whatever private conversation this is, but you just said this male does not even know he is your son? To keep him safe? And earlier, you said if you had known about Brinley, you never would have hidden her here. What exact danger prompts such extreme measures? Is Brinley at risk because she is your daughter?”
Marku nodded slowly. “Yes. My world is full of political machinations, people who would target my children to control or influence me. The only child not hidden is Savannah. Her mate recently became of age. Their ceremony is scheduled in the upcoming months, so she was introduced to the vampire world as my daughter.”
“Fuck,” Coal growled. “Do you have names to go along with these people?”
“I don’t have any specific names to give you. I take out any threats as they arise. But unfortunately, people are opportunistic, so risks can come from unexpected and various directions.”
His answer didn’t make Coal any happier. Coal vibrated with animosity, trying to keep his Wolf in check.
Marku seemed to sense Coal’s growing anger. “However, you’re a big motherfucker, and I’ve seen your Wolf fight. You have skill. You also have resources to protect her. Brinley’s identity as mine is no longer hidden, so the strategy changes from defensive to offensive now. It’s the reason I’m here. Everyone knows you’ll defend her, but not everyone has met me. They need to understand that you are not the only shitstorm coming for them should anyone dare to harm her.”
I glanced up to Coal. Obsidian eyes stayed locked on Marku.
Marku easily held Coals intense gaze. “I will set up safeguards wherever I can, but I assumed you won’t let me post vampire guards in the pack, so it’s the reason I asked Queen Raine to join us. Her kingdom is the nearest vampire safety. And quite frankly, I wouldn’t trust Brinley with anyone but her.”
Finally, Coal spoke, “You’re absolutely right, there will be no overt vampire presence here. It would simply be too unsettling for the wolves. I will take care of Brinley. But I appreciate the peripheral security measures. I trust you will let me know whenever an imminent threat arises?”
Marku’s mouth curled into a wicked grin. “Happily. I wouldn’t mind fighting alongside your Wolf again.”
Understanding the security resources in place, Coal’s Wolf had calmed down. And was now preening at my father’s obvious compliment. He also liked the idea of teaming up with Marku again.
“All right. I guess it’s time to get this party started,” Coal said as he began to rise.
“Wait,” Marku said.
Coal sat back down.
Marku turned his full attention to me and spoke evenly, “I need to know what happened to your mother, why you were in danger from the Alpha and why a Wolf felt more than one pack member will not be happy with my daughter as Luna.
All of the air rushed out of my lungs.
I sat frozen.
This was not a conversation I wanted to have. I wasn’t prepared.
My face must have telepathed my distress because Marku’s expression darkened.
Marku once again left his chair to kneel in front of me. He gathered my hands into his much larger ones. Pale-ice orbs locked onto mine. “I’m sorry. I know reliving these memories is hard. We can take it slow. But I have to know.”
I tried to swallow past the lump in my throat and whispered, “What do you want to know?”
“Let’s start with your mother.”
“She died,” the words were barely audible, but he heard them.
Marku nodded in encouragement. “How did she die?”
“He...” I couldn’t continue.
After a silent moment, Marku said, “He? The Alpha? Did he kill her?”
I looked down at our joined hands and silently nodded, tears coursing down my cheeks.
Coal inhaled sharply. He didn’t know this story.
Marku released one of my hands and cupped the side of my face, gently forcing me to look at him. “Shh...it will be okay. How did he kill her?”
“H-he took her by force. He said she refused to...climax...for him, so h-he...” I stopped and bit back a sob. There was just not enough air in my lungs.
Marku’s jaw locked. Crimson bled into his irises, but his voice remained soft, “What did he do?”
“He...wrapped his hands... around her neck. He said the lack of oxygen would...make her do what he wanted. It worked...but...” I dropped my head, no longer able to contain the sobs.
Coal’s arm was wrapped around my back. He soothed through our mindlink, “Fuck, baby. I’m so sorry that happened.”
Marku ran his fingers through my hair and held tight to the nape of my neck. He dropped his forehead to mine. “That’s enough, shh...I understand.”
The room was silent, the only sound my labored breathing and occasional sob. After a long moment, Marku murmured, “There is a way for me to know the rest without you telling me.”
I raised my head and wiped my eyes with my knuckles to look at him. “What?”
“If you let me, I can see it inside your mind. You won’t have to say another word.”
Queen Raine gasped, “Are you saying you can read minds?”
He glanced at her. “To an extent. The subject has to let me in.” He looked back at me. “It feels uncomfortable. You will know I’m there and your mind will resist the intrusion. You’re going to have to stay calm, but you won’t have to speak.”
“You’ll see everything? My entire past?” I asked. I was having a hard time wrapping my head around it. I didn’t think I wanted him to see everything. But this would be so much easier if I didn’t have to say the words.
“No. Not everything. Only what you allow me to see. Think of it as a house. We’ll walk together. I can go into any room you let me, but not those you don’t.”
I turned to Coal and whispered out loud, “What do you think?”
Lips set in a savage grimace, his eyes burned with my pain. His voice was gruff, “It sounds a lot like the ability mates have with one another. The decision is up to you. But if you decide to, I want to take that walk with you. It was something I was going to bring up once everything settled, now that we’re fully mated.”
I looked at Marku. “Is it okay for him to be there with us?”
Marku shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ve never tried that. But if he can get into your mind and see your past, I would assume it would work.”
I considered for another moment and then answered, “Yes.”
“Um...,” Raine interrupted.
All eyes turned to her.
“Have you considered the fallout of your reactions? You are both alpha-males, and she is close to your hearts. It’s one thing to hear a story. It’s quite another, to watch it, live it with your own eyes. From what I’ve already heard, I suspect what you’re going to experience will be very difficult for both of you to process.”
She had a point. When Coal got angry, he could barely restrain his Wolf. If his Wolf broke free and lost control, he could demolish this entire office in a blink.
Marku took her comments seriously and asked, “What alternative do you recommend?”
“Only that it won’t be easy to control yourselves, so you should be ready for that to happen and actively work to keep yourselves calm.”
The male with Queen Raine, Talon, spoke up, “As long as they don’t both lose their shit at the same time, there is enough muscle in the room to contain one of them.”
Marku looked at Coal and raised his eyebrow.
Coal gritted his teeth and nodded.