Normal childhood fears of the dark such as ghouls, monsters and anything that went bump in the night were a part of my childhood. I assumed that such contentions were integrated in the lives of most children.
This was a shift in the balance of normal. It tipped the scales of reality and upturned the new life that I was just getting accustomed to. Which was living with a clan of shifters. Wolves. Mating one. Bearing children with one. Albeit, all of those were anything but normal, I was beginning to get used to the macabre.
I slammed the book I had been reading in the massive estate's library and placed it on the mahogany side table, curling into the couch and warming myself by the fire.
"Another one bites the dust?" asked Lily.
I glanced over at her on the rug, sipping a hot coffee and reading Huckleberry Finn. "I haven't gone through that many," I muttered.
She pointed to the stack of books on the floor by the couch I was currently taking comfort on. "I count nine so far. All of which are rather morbid, don't you think?"
My brows furrowed. "I like horror stories."
"Considering how pale you are and your pregnancy, I'd say that maybe you should try reading a different genre."
I drummed my fingers absently against the armrest of the soft couch with a shrug. "I haven't really found what I'm looking for."
"And what is that?"
I considered telling her. Sure, she was weaseling her way into the BF category. Sure, she was Gavin's mate. But telling her something of shadows and invisible forces was definitely not something I wished to discuss with her. The poor girl still didn't know the truth of what her boyfriend really was...what they all were actually.
I decided to skim on the outer edges of truth. "Do you believe in ghosts?" I blurted. Okay...that may have been a little too forward. However, considering our current circumstance for being in the estate, I was willing to accept my sudden case of word diarrhea.
I expected a lifted brow. A scowl, perhaps. Maybe even a laugh. Instead, she stated, "I believe in a lot of things."
What the fuck did that mean? "But what about ghosts?" I specified.
She took another sip of her coffee, carefully placing it once more beside her thigh on the thick rug. "Did you see something?" she asked.
My brows shot up. "Ummm...that's not what I said."
She laughed quietly. "Come on, Annie. You can talk to me. I believe in the weird. Look at the man I'm with...or shall I say...the wolf."
I nearly jumped out of my skin. "He told you?!"
She laughed again with a tight nod. "He did."
"And you believed him?"
Her forehead wrinkled. "Of course I did. He would never lie to me. Why?" she asked, her eyes reflecting the light of the dancing flames in the hearth. "Did you not believe Ethan?"
I sighed, not knowing how to answer. If I told her the truth, she would no doubt think I had trust issues.
Which I did, but...
"Look," she said, shifting over to sit in front of the low lying couch. "I had my reservations. But the one thing I could never do was doubt Gavin. I knew with every ounce of my being that he would never lie to me. Especially about something like that. Especially when the facts offered evidence to back up such a claim. I mean...have you seen them eat?" She bit her lower lip to stifle a laugh.
And I followed, unable to hold in a giggle. "Like bison," I added.
She barked out a choked laugh. "Or an elephant."
I laughed even more, unable to hold back the hysterics and the visualization of Ethan and Gavin eating. It was exactly what we needed to break the tension that developed. Eventually, after naming a few more large land mammals, the conversations steered towards what I saw once more.
"So," she said, wiping the moisture away from her eyes. She patted my thigh lightly. "Tell me what you saw."
I explained a little hesitantly, trying my best to remember every detail and nuance. When I finished, we stood quiet by the flames, watching them dance in vivid shades of wild red, blood orange and golden yellow.
After a few minutes, she broke through the quiet. "Did you ask Ethan about it?"
I shook my head lightly. "There wasn't really enough time."
She took another sip of coffee. "We have to believe that what you saw was real."
I stared at her. "What? Why?"
"Because he made the decision to leave. If it wasn't real...we would still be in the cabins."
I swallowed hard and felt the blood drain from my face. She had a point. Movement behind us made me jump a little on the couch and I tried to hide my uneasiness by running a few nervous fingers through my tangled hair. She noticed and offered me a small sympathetic smile before we were interrupted.
"We've been looking for you two," said Gavin, plopping his large body beside Lily. He wrapped a thick arm around her shoulders and pulled her into him, kissing her forehead affectionately.
I glanced up, catching Ethan staring at me. I nodded briskly. "Yeah. You?"
"I'm fine." He ran a large hand over his face, scratching at his beard as he sat beside me on the couch. His scent hit my nose and I instinctively leaned in, feeling a shiver down the length of my spine. He grabbed my hand and placed it on top of his thick thigh, rubbing my flesh with his thumb. "You feel warm. Are you sure you're feeling alright, love?"
"I'm fine. Just a little tired," I said, shoving my body into his side for some heat. He was gloriously warm.
"What were you two talking about?" asked Gavin, grabbing Lily's cup to take a sip.
I glanced at her nervously, not sure what to say...and what not to say. Luckily, she was quick to answer. "Our favorite books." She snagged Huckleberry and shook it lightly. "This one is a keeper."
The males chuckled. "Have you ever read poems by William Blake?" asked Ethan.
We shook our heads.
"We should have a reading night," said Gavin. "Of course, after we have movie night first," he quipped, wiggling his eyebrows.
Lily laughed. "We should watch a scary flick."
Ethan looked at me. "A horror film? I don't suppose that's because you two beautiful females wish to be in the arms of a safe male to protect you?"
I held in a laugh and nudged him. "No. Lord knows, we get enough of that."
He smiled, his eyes twinkling in mirth. "Don't deny that you love it. You know you do."
"I plead the fifth."
"I love it," Lily admitted sheepishly.
I scowled and playfully nudged her foot with my own. "Traitor."
Banter went back and forth, with the males insisting we enact movie night right then and there. Lily was all for it. I, however, was in no mood to sit in a darkened room for over an hour after having an intense conversation of something that I didn't believe existed until today.
Sadly, the majority ruled and I had no choice but to surrender. "Oh, alright," I said, shooting Lily a glare. "Fine. But I don't want to see a horror flick. Can't we just watch an 80's movie or something?" I looked to Gavin for some backup. "Back to the Future, Gav. Come on."
He got up with a smile and helped Lily to her feet, stuffing her into his side as he faced us. "No way. I'm not passing up cuddles during a horror flick."
Cuddles? Since when did he use the word cuddle?
I sulked, watching them leave and head to the theatre room that Lily was now excited to see. They left in a fit of laughs and loud voices, leaving Ethan and I alone on the couch. I made a move to follow, but he stopped me with a hand to my wrist, holding me in place. "What's going on?" he asked.
"What?" I asked in confusion.
He shook his head slightly, a few tendrils of his hair slipping free and falling across his forehead. "You know what I mean."
"Actually, I don't. What is this about?"
He glanced at the books stacked beside the couch. "You want to tell me what you're doing scaring yourself reading books about shit like that?"
For the love of...
"I only wanted to-"
"Frighten yourself," he interjected. "Because that's what it looks like to me."
I pegged him with a glower. "You make it seem like I did it strictly to spite you and creep myself out. It's not like you told me anything."
"Told you anything? What was I supposed to tell you?"
Was he serious? "In the bathroom," I specified. "You never told me what I truly saw in the bathroom."
He leaned forward, resting his elbow on his thigh. "I don't know what you saw."
I rolled my eyes. "Don't feign ignorance."
"I'm not lying to you, Annie. Jesus." Once more, he ran a hand over his face-this time, in obvious frustration. "You should know me better than that."
"I don't believe you're lying to me," I amended. "But I believe that you omit certain facts to keep me pacified."
"Safe," he corrected. "Safe. You think I want to scare you?" He gestured to the books. "Because you've been doing enough of that without me."
I got up from the couch, wrapping my arms around my middle despite my belly bump. "Don't try to blame me. I'm reading for the sake of knowledge."
He too got up, towering over me as he laughed. It held no amusement. "Knowledge? Look at you," he said, gesturing towards the length of my body.
I glanced down at myself. "What about me?"
"You're scared shitless."
I stomped my foot on the rug. "I'm not scared, Ethan. Stopped talking to me like I'm a child."
"I never said nor implied that you were. But the minute I walked in here, you were as pale as a sheet and I could smell the fear wafting off of you." He folded his arms across his chest. "It was like getting hit with a brick wall."
I snorted and made a move to walk passed him as I said, "that's ironic coming from you: the world's largest and most stubborn brick wall known to man."
He reached out and grabbed my forearm, preventing me from leaving. "Luckily for you, I'm no man. And I do it to protect you." He pulled, causing my body to nearly collide into his. "I also wasn't done."
I looked up at him, my eyes widening in frustration. "Well, I am. I don't want to talk to you anymore. As a matter of fact, I think a brick wall is a compliment when paralleled to you. The brick wall offers more answers than you do."
He smiled, revealing his fangs. "Is that so?"
I nodded. "Yes."
Without warning, he leaned down and kissed me, his lips smashing into mine roughly and making me gasp. He took advantage of the surprise and slipped his tongue inside of my mouth. I slipped my hands in between our bodies and attempted to push.
He didn't budge.
Instead, he lowered himself quickly and grabbed the back of my thighs to sweep up my legs, wrapping them around his hips as he moved to the side of the blazing fireplace, pressing my back against the library wall.
He released my mouth long enough for me to breathe out, "stop it Ethan! This changes nothing. You're still a stubborn, mendacious, self-righteous, mollycoddling-"
He stared, his eyes once more dancing in amusement. It was not funny. Especially considering that I ran out of adjectives.
He nodded, pressing his large body into mine, carefully avoiding pressure against my stomach. "Oh, I'm mollycoddling, am I?" he asked with a smirk, revealing his dimples.
I nodded and smacked at his shoulders, urging him to put me down. Once again, he didn't budge. I knew it was futile, but I was too upset to be wooed, and I wanted to be back on solid ground. Ethan had a way of distracting me. Even during an argument.
"You've been reading too much, mon amour," he said, his voice guttural. "But not enough to come up with: warranted, loyal, preventative, vigilant, secure, supportive-"
I swear, my eyes widened in shock. "Supportive!" I interrupted. "Supportive!"
His smile widened and he pressed a soft kiss to my lips. "Don't forget secure," he added, "shielding you from physical, emotional and mental harm is my purpose. Loving you too."
I pushed his shoulders again, my palms colliding into hard, unforgiving muscle. "Don't flatter yourself," I said in between his warm kisses.
He chuckled quietly. "I suppose that makes me egotistical then, doesn't it?"
"Narcissistic," I said.
"Tomato, ta-mah-toe," he said, enunciating. He stunned me with a dazzling grin, cocking his head to the side innocently despite the look of desire in his eyes. "Let's make love."
Without meaning to, I actually considered it. Right there. In the middle of the fucking library. I opened my mouth to say no when I realized that his eyes were still twinkling in obvious mirth.
I smacked his shoulder again. "Put me down."
"No. Give me a kiss, baby." He shoved his face into my neck, kissing my sensitive skin. "I'll lock the door. Then I can make love to you properly." He pulled away long enough to point to the couch. "Right there."
I glanced at the seat...and shook my head. As much as making love to my Ethan was tempting, I was far too preoccupied with the elephant in the room. "Don't think that swooning me will change the fact that you don't tell me certain things."
He sighed deeply and pulled away to look into my eyes, offering what he could. "I'm sorry," he said. It seemed as though he truly meant it. "I'm just trying to keep you safe...steady...calm." He released my leg and held me effortlessly with one arm to run his fingers through my hair, suddenly looking grim and much older than he appeared. Despite being over three hundred years old, he didn't look the part. Now, however...
"What is it?" I asked in trepidation. "What happened?" I thought back to the hushed conversation between him and the doctor during supper.
He hesitated, no doubt debating what to say.
And what not to say.
"Be honest," I added. "No matter how bad."
There was a beat of tense silence before he muttered a curse and said, "It's Dina."
The blood drained from my face and my eyes widened in horror as I assumed the worst: that she was awake.
What he said next, however, was far worse.
"She didn't make it."
I opened my mouth then closed it, repeating it over and over in my head. Did I hear that right?
"What?" I asked. I heard him. I just couldn't compute the words. "I'm sorry, what?"
He looked away, his beautiful, sparkling eyes glassy and melancholy. "She's dead," he said, his voice guttural and filled with pain. He sighed again and tightened his fingers in my tangled hair. "She died on the way over."
I inhaled sharply, my own eyes blurring in unshed tears. Though I didn't particularly like Rodina, it didn't mean that I wanted her dead.
I pondered the word and the profound morbidity of it. The end of all things. The great equalizer of every living organism. The one thing that could never be controlled. Never stopped. We were all going to die. No matter the longevity of certain lives or the short span of others. It was the one truth that shadowed all creatures of life...waiting silently for the reaper to collect.
And the fact that Rodina was no longer amongst the living had reminded me of my own mortality.
I swallowed the sudden lump that formed in my throat and licked my dry lips. "I'm so sorry, Ethan," I said, making it a point to keep eye contact. "I'm so very sorry."
He looked at me incredulously.
I knew what he was thinking. He wasn't expecting me to offer sympathy for her loss. She tried to murder me more than once. But the truth was: death was not something to celebrate, no matter the transgressions of the unfortunate victim. I also considered how Dina's death affected him...the clan. She was as much a part of him as he was a part of me. I had to respect that. I had to respect him.
"Thank you," he said, his voice unsteady. He cleared his throat. "I know that she-"
"You don't have to justify your grief, Ethan," I interrupted. "She was a clan member. She shared a part of your past. You can't just ignore that."
He nodded tightly, absorbing my words...absorbing the circumstance. Then he added, "I killed her," in a voice laced with pain...and guilt.
I shook my head, unwilling to believe that. "No," I said with finality. "No, Ethan. You didn't. You protected me. Don't blame yourself for the choices she made. Don't blame yourself for the choices you made either. You can't change what is. But you can learn to live with it. And-as unfortunate as it is-everyone knew the risks. Including her. Sadly, death doesn't wait for justifications or amendments."
He stared intently, hanging on every word before breaking out into a soft-but sad-smile. "Since when did you become all-knowing, my precious Luna?"
I didn't consider myself all-knowing. But I knew a lot about regret. "I'm just familiar with remorse. Especially over things that cannot be altered."
It was quiet again after that.
Then he said, "we'll have a proper burial. I'll inform the elders and tell the clan...later." He didn't elaborate on the latter.
He waited a beat before settling me back on the carpet carefully, his eyes drifting to my small bump. He reached out and placed a warm hand on me, rubbing softly with his thumb. "You want to do something?"
I froze in confusion. "What?"
"Do you want to do something?" he repeated.
He glanced back at the doors quickly, as if he were expecting Gavin to come back and ask them what was taking so long. "Swimming?"
I swear, my mouth fell open. "I'm sorry...come again?"
He chuckled, his eyes flicking back to mine. "Swimming," he said with a grin. "Do you want to go swimming? We have a pool, ma cherie."
I thought about that.
"I uhhh...ummm...never actually...ahhhh....went swimming before?"
He laughed, the sound rich and a little dark. "Was that an answer or a question, love?"
"An answer...I think," I mumbled, looking down at his golden skin that rested on my stomach. I liked it when he touched me. It was safe and filled with warmth.
He invaded my space and pressed a chaste kiss to my lips before grabbing my hand to pull me along. "Come on," he said, leading the way.
"Wait a minute, Ethan. Now, hold on a second. We're really going to go swimming? At this time of night? It's cold."
He laughed again, turning to the right of the hall and heading down the stairs to the foyer. "It's an indoor pool, my petal. And to be honest, I'm not really that tired." He ran a hand through his thick hair. "I've got a lot on my mind...and I really want to spend some quality time with you. Alone."
I understood that he wanted to spend time with me. I also understood that sometimes, a little distraction had a profound effect on erasing memories we didn't wish to dwell on.
I would have preferred movie night in our room, wrapped in each other's arms in bed. I would've preferred lounging in the kitchen, eating snacks and extra calories we didn't need.
I had no clue how to swim, let alone tread fucking water. I grew nervous with each step, dreading the idea of anything deep...and blue...and all-consuming. By the time he navigated through the dining room, sitting room and endless halls of rooms, I was shaking like a wet leaf in Spring.
He offered me a warm smile, his eyes sparkling in affection as he opened the door to the pool room.
And holy fucking, shit hells it was HUGE!
I could only compare it to something out of a hotel, packed with luxurious amenities. He closed the door behind us and I shuffled inside, getting hit by a waft of warm steam and moisture. I inhaled deeply, smelling...
"Is that lavender?" I asked, glancing at the pool in anxiety. I tried to hide it before Ethan stood beside me, grabbing my hand once more to pull me gently along.
"It is. My mother was a great swimmer. She liked oils. She also liked to do some laps. I honestly think she did it to get away from my father." There was a beat of silence. He lead me to the right of the pool, passed the rows of wooden beach chairs, passed the rows of towels and pool toys. "I liked watching her swim," he added, opening a door I hadn't noticed.