The Rise

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Chapter Forty-Five

Light filed in through the sheer curtains. I slowly opened my eyes, adjusting to the sun. Compared to yesterday, I was feeling much more energized. Definitely not at my best, but I had a good few hours in me to do something useful today.

“Valerio?” I said, gazing at the empty bed. His shirt was lying in his spot. The bathroom door was closed and steam was rolling out from underneath it.

I leaned against the headboard and took a deep breath, trying not to think about him behind that door. Beads of water dripping down his torso, drawing my nails across his chest, pressing my lips to--

The door opened, and Valerio appeared in the doorway, a heap of steam accompanying him. A towel was wrapped around his waist. “Hey.” He smiled. “Are you feeling better?”

“Mmhmm.” I nodded, forcing myself to gaze at his face - not anywhere lower.

He walked closer. “You look better.” A bead of sweat rolled down his chest. Stop it, Mae, eyes on his.

“What time is it?” I asked, sitting up taller.

“Almost three.”

My eyes widened. “Almost three o’clock? You said we would go look at his clue in the morning, not the late afternoon.” I jumped out of bed quickly, too quickly and grabbed my bra, throwing it on.

Valerio walked around the bed, his hands clamping down on my arms from behind. “Mae, stop. You don’t need to be stressed right now.”

I debated on what would be best for my mental sanity. Should I continue to freak out so he’d have to wrap his arms around me and hold me to his chest or should I continue to act as if these damn thoughts of me and him together hadn’t been bothering me for the past few weeks?

And, in the end, I continued to wiggle in his embrace and leaned down to pick the dress up from yesterday. I fumbled with it, trying to figure out which hole was for my head and which were for my arms. I had a damn clue to get to.

“Mae.” His voice was low. “Please stop.”

I turned around, still not completely dressed. “No, Valerio, we have to--” We were close. So close. These goddamn thoughts wouldn’t stop, and I didn’t want them to.

He stared down at me with grey eyes so beautiful that I sucked in a breath. I placed a hand on his bicep. My heart was pounding.

I didn’t dare to move. A part of me wanted to see what he would do, but he didn’t move either. Instead, we just took each other in for a long time. I hadn’t been this close to a man since Damon died.

Sure, Samuel and I had fallen asleep on the couch watching movies, but we were just friends. Valerio and I… there was more than friendship between us. There was a bond, a bond that would last for eternity.

Since the moment I found out that he was my Protector, I blamed these feelings on the bond that Mom forged between us. But the feelings I had now were so much more than that.

Damon was still on my mind all the time, and I hated that I had developed feelings for his brother, but I couldn’t help myself. Valerio was nice, sweet, caring, strong, and...

Valerio’s fingers grazed against my forearm, making small goosebumps rise on my arm. I sucked in a breath, blushed, and stupidly gazed down at my feet, breaking the stare between us.

He swore under his breath and looked down between us as well. Then, he pulled his towel a bit tighter around his hips. “I’ll meet you downstairs in ten minutes.”

I didn’t move until he grabbed his clothes and left my room. When my door shut, I fell back on my bed taking deep breaths. A giddy feeling rose in the pit of my stomach and I felt like I was in high school again, getting my first kiss from a boy.

Every time I caught him looking at me I couldn’t help but get butterflies. And when his fingers grazed against my skin, I had tingles. I didn’t want to rush anything between us, because--I should know that never worked--but I wanted him.

After a few more moments of gathering myself, I walked outside. He was quietly waiting for me by the backdoor. Fully dressed with seriousness written all over his face. He walked by my side to the Great Oak.

The whole time I wanted to pry through his thoughts to see what he thought of me, but I decided against using the mindlink. I wasn’t about to bring any toxic traits into this relationship. We both trusted each other well enough. I didn’t want to break that.

At the Great Oak, there was a hot pink child’s backpack resting against the tree. A large blotch of blood stained the handle. There was a tag on the back which read, Farifield Preschool.

I pressed my lips together. I used to attend the school. It was a preschool for pups and children to play together. I remember I used to be really good friends with a boy whose parents were an alpha and luna until Dad flipped out on them. After that, I never saw the boy again. Dad removed me from the school and tried to get the werewolves kicked out of the area.

Apparently, he didn’t succeed since the Hunter was planning to drain pups here next.

Inside the bag, there was an empty wine bottle. Valerio took it from me and examined the label on it. “This is expensive. Wolves don’t usually drink this expensive kind of alcohol.” He held the bottle up in my direction. “Do you remember this?”

I grabbed the bottle from him, my eyes widening. “Is this from…”

He nodded his head. “Yes.”

“Are you sure?” I asked.

He chuckled, taking it back from me. “You’re not? I mean, your Dad kept ordering that wine at the restaurant the first night that I met you. I thought I was going to have to cut your dad off.”

That was the night that everything started, the night that Dad took me to the restaurant to have dinner with the Braxons. We had this same wine.

I was sure that other restaurants had that type of alcohol, but this actually meant something to me. Luca would’ve known that. He knew what restaurant I met Damon at.

“You think she’s going after humans now too?” I asked, thinking back to that night. Only a few werewolves were there, but none of them were pups. The restaurant was mostly frequented by humans.

He shook his head. “I don’t know. I don’t see why she would, but who knows anymore. If Luca says she will hit there, she will hit there. We don’t need to have a reason for it.”

“Could she be using this as a distraction?” I asked, pressing my lips together. She could be trying to get the humans to turn on us. She probably thought that using Luca’s body - a wolf’s body - will show everyone how dangerous we were. It would be the perfect distraction while she kept draining wolf after wolf.

“I’m not sure.”

But I couldn’t be in two places at once. I needed to be where she was going to be - exactly where she was going to be. “Either way,” I said. “I will not let the humans suffer. They might’ve hurt us for as long as we lived, but we don’t have to stoop down to her level.”

“You’re the goddess of werewolves,” Valerio said.

I nodded. “Yes and I will choose my wolves over anything, but I will not just sit around and let her ruin innocent people’s lives. I am a goddess, Valerio... How many new memories are made under the moon? So many first kisses, first times, so many first drinks and late nights and memories that people will cherish forever.” I took a deep breath. “So, yes, I will always be there for my werewolves. They will always be first… but I’m cherished by more than just them.”

I leaned against the tree. “I remember being a little girl and staring up at the moon and being so fascinated with it. I remember times with Aaisha - before she was a werewolf - when we would just sit outside for hours admiring the night sky. The sun is beautiful, but the moon is incredible to humans.”

Valerio paused. “It’s incredible to me too.” There was a hint of a smile on his face, and I blushed again. “Where do you think she’s going to hit first?” Valerio said.

I gazed at the backpack, then at the wine bottle. “I’m pretty sure the preschool starts back up in a few days. There will be no children there now. She will be going to the restaurant.”

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