Authors: Kate Rudolph
It was a massacre. With their magic protections gone, the witches seemed to freeze. They had no spells to throw at the lions, and they had erected no wards. The bloodbath was over quickly. Luke saw one or two witches flee into the woods, but it didn't matter. Ava and her coven were defeated, the Well would not be emptied of power, and his pack was safe.
He didn't see Ava. Between one breath and the next, she’d stepped out of sight. Luke tried to catch her scent. She was the one witch that needed to die. The mastermind of his sister's hex, the butcher who’d slaughtered Mel's family, the asshole who’d tried to hand his territory over to bloodsuckers. The charges against her were too many for mercy.
Most of all, if he didn't kill her now, she would be back.
Luke gathered half a dozen of his lions to him and sent them out to search for Ava. He had the sinking feeling that they wouldn't find her. He didn't know how to tell Mel that she got away, but Mel was off somewhere else, they'd split up just before the final assault. He could feel it in his heart that she was okay. He would find her soon.
But at the moment, he needed to find Cassie. He'd been suppressing the urge to look for her and get her out of here for too long. He'd hoped that once the hex was broken that she would stay safe, out of the fighting. But the fact that he hadn't seen her since he left Krista and Bob worried him.
He'd seen Krista, but Bob must have stayed by Cassie. He'd seen no sign of the other man since then.
Luke made his way back to the burned out ruined house where he'd left Cassie.
All thoughts of the fight fled his mind when he rounded the corner and spotted his sister. She clutched her hands to a wound in her side, but it seeped thick, dark blood out between her fingers. Bob was gaunt beside her, a wisp of saliva cracked beside his mouth, his eyes glassy and his skin a sickly greenish-brown. A bloody knife lay beside Cassie's hand. It looked as if she had dropped it. The body of the witch who'd hexed her lay limp in the dust of the floor, a pool of blood from a wound identical to Cassie's in her stomach.
Luke rushed to her side, fear a thousand pound weight in his chest. He placed his hand on top of hers and found them cold. But her eyes flickered open and he saw pain, but he also saw hope.
"The hex is gone," it was barely a whisper.
"Good," he leaned forward and placed a kiss on her forehead before turning his attention to the injured man beside his sister. "Thank you."
Bob nodded, "She's strong."
Cassie started coughing and Luke called out for a healer.
Everything after that went quickly. A few lions bundled her up, bandaging her wound as best they could.
The rest of the night passed in a blur. The wounded and dead needed to be tended to, and they needed to dispose of the fallen witches and vampires. Luke put a call in to Peklo, the vampire leader, but he wasn't surprised when the number was disconnected. He couldn't be sure that Peklo was in on Ava's scheme, but even if he could contact the vampire, he knew that the man would deny all knowledge.
Luke would deal with him later. Even if Peklo had agreed to move against him, he would not attack now that the witches were defeated. Luke had counted at least twenty dead vampires – the loss was too high to mount an immediate attack if those had indeed been his men.
As for Luke's lions, they'd lost two in the battle and another three were seriously injured. But beyond that, his lions were hurt, but the rest would recover.
By the time the sun began to peek over the horizon, Luke was ready to collapse with exhaustion. He'd settled so much, worked so tirelessly, that he didn't realize that he hadn't seen Mel since the battle.
He knew she had to be around. She wouldn't just confess her love and run off.
At least, he didn't think she would.
Luke would find her after he caught a couple of hours of sleep.
That sleep passed in a blink, and the next thing he knew he was awake as the noonday sun streamed into his room. He wouldn't have woken if not for Maya banging on his door. Luke pulled on a t-shirt and opened it, running a hand through his hair to tame it.
"What?" he demanded.
Maya looked as if she hadn't slept at all. But she held herself straight and didn't let the fatigue stop her. "Everyone made it through the night. Murphy says that he thinks everyone will pull through."
Luke nodded, relieved.
"And Cassie wants to talk to you."
"I'll be right there."
Maya nodded and retreated, speaking as she turned away. "I'm going to catch some shut eye."
Luke was about to let her go, but asked, "Any sign of Mel?" at the last minute.
Maya shook her head and kept walking.
Cassie was back in the room she'd been shackled in throughout the course of the hex. She was no longer handcuffed and needed no guard. But Bob was still beside her. They both looked recovered. He'd gained his color back and her face was peaceful.
She opened her eyes and smiled when Luke shut the door quietly behind himself. "How are you doing?" he asked.
Bob stood and greeted Luke before excusing himself to give them time alone.
"I feel like I've been stabbed in the gut, but other than that I'm good." She sounded tired, but it was a good kind of tired. She no longer sounded defeated and on the edge of death.
"What happened out there?" He'd seen the knife, and it hadn't looked like the witch stabbed Cassie.
Cassie took a deep breath and grimaced. "Well, we needed to kill the witch to break the hex."
Luke nodded, he'd known that.
"And she ended up using some magic that meant I couldn't get through her spell." Cassie was stalling, he'd known her long enough to know her tells.
"I want you to remember that I'm alive and that I'm going to heal. Dr. Murphy said I'll be okay." Now this was the little sister he remembered. Trying to keep herself out of trouble, no matter what she'd done. Luke could feel frustration mounting. Cassie continued before he could prod her. "Bob's link to keep me alive was what saved me. Krista told me that I was linked to the witch through the hex. And that hexes are really dangerous. So I took a shot in the dark and stabbed myself."
Blood pounded in Luke's ears and he had to take a deep breath to keep from doing anything drastic - like ringing his sister's neck. She was alive, that was what mattered.
"So what do we do now?" Cassie asked after Luke was quiet for too long.
"I was going to ask you the same thing." He couldn't make Cassie's decisions for her. She'd made mistakes - horrible, catastrophic mistakes - but the last few weeks had opened his eyes to the fact that his sister was growing up. "You know that you can't keep this from Mom or Scott."
Cassie groaned, her face scrunching up from a pain that had nothing to do with her wound. "They're going to kill me. And then lock me up for a hundred years. And then kill me again just to teach me a lesson."
Luke laughed, the sound pure, something he'd forgotten how to do in the chaos. "I'll take you home. They won't kill you when I'm there."
"Maybe Bob could hide me in the forest?" She brightened.
Luke raised an eyebrow, "Why would he be able to do that? What forest?"
Cassie rolled her eyes, "You know, the forest where he's a freaking elven prince? How have none of you figured that out?"
Luke tried to recall anything that would suggest that Bob was an elf, let alone a royal one. But Luke had never met an elf before, he hadn't quite believed they were real. "How do you know what he is?"
"That life-bond thing. I picked up a few things he might not have meant to share." She smiled and leaned in two inches before wincing, the wound in her gut making itself known. "Maybe just keep this between the two of us? I don't think he'd like it if I told you."
Luke nodded, "Of course."
"And what about Mel?" asked Cassie.
Luke wanted to know the same thing.
Burning the body took longer than Mel expected. Even worse than that was the matter of scattering the ashes. She and Krista agreed that separate batches of ash needed to be spread far apart, just in case. Neither of them really believed that Ava could come back after her corpse was burnt to a crisp, but there was no reason not to be careful.
Mel meant to say something to Luke before disappearing, but after a night of rest she realized it wouldn't be a good idea. He'd insist on going with her. Then Maya would throw a fit and convince him to take an escort. Then there would be negotiations on who would go and when and where. And after all that, they'd need to negotiate safe passage through the territories they traveled in.
It would be so much less of a headache if she just went alone.
Sometime between Mexico and the night of the battle her phone had been destroyed, so she couldn't even give Luke a call. And if she did, she was afraid that he'd come after her before she was done.
Mel was so busy for the week that it took to scatter Ava's ashes that she only missed Luke when she had time to stay still. Unfortunately, the amount of traveling she did in that week mean that she was still for a lot longer than usual. It was an ache inside of her to be away from him. And as she scattered the last of Ava over an isolated cliff in the Smokey Mountains, there was nothing she wanted to do more than to go back to Colorado and snuggle up close to her alpha.
But there was still one thing to do, and it's why she'd saved the trip to Tennessee to the end.
It was time to go home for the first time in twenty-three years.
Mel was just outside of her family's old territory. It had seemed treasonous to scatter their murderer's ashes in the place where they’d once lived. But she hoped that she was close enough to settle their ghosts.
Mel hiked through the forest for hours, trying to find the house that she had once called home. It was more difficult to find than expected. No one lived in these woods, and everything was different than when she'd been a child. When Ava opened the Well, a wildfire had blazed for days, taking out hundreds of acres of forest. The house was only saved because of favorable winds.
It was those old trees and new saplings that finally brought Mel to the valley where she'd grown up. The house which had seemed like a mansion to her child's eye was now merely big, and in a sad state of disrepair.
All but one of the windows were cracked or completely broken, the blue paint had chipped and rotted. The roof on the north side of the house had collapsed completely.
The only thing left of her family was a ruin.
But the veranda looked sturdy enough and Mel decided to take her chances. She'd risked more for less.
She sat on the splintered wood and drew her legs in close, resting her cheek against her knee. Sitting like this on the porch, she expected the weight of the past quarter century to lift. She thought that she would be relieved that she'd wrought her vengeance, she'd hoped that the hole in her chest would be filled.
Instead she felt a little peace and an irresistible urge to cry. And she gave in. Mel let the tears run down, and when the hiccups came, she hiccupped and sniffed until her head hurt and her eyes burned. She was a mess, but there was no one in the forest to see it.
But the tears subsided and Mel wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. She stood up from the porch and stretched. And then she walked away, not looking back at the house.
This wasn't her place anymore. The territory should have been hers, but life had a way of screwing all of that up. She was a thief, she was loved, and she had done right by her family by destroying the woman that had destroyed them. But she wasn't going to live in a moldy house in rural Tennessee. She wasn't going to hide away in these woods now that her mission was complete.
She had a flight to catch.
Luke's mom insisted on driving him back to the airport after he brought Cassie home. As his sister predicted, her parents were not happy, but a lot of the anger had fallen onto him. After all, he'd chosen not to contact them when she was near death.
Luke almost felt bad for leaving Cassie with them, but she'd survived the hex. He doubted that his mom and stepdad could do any worse.
"Cassie told me you met a girl," his mom said as she pulled into the parking lot at the airport.
Thirty-one years old, alpha of his own pack, and he still blushed when his mom asked him about girls. Luke wanted to groan, but then the thought of the shit Mel would give him if she could see him know and grinned.
"Ah, now I know you have," his mother's smile could have lit up the sun.
If only Luke knew where the hell Mel had gone. Who confessed love in the midst of battle and then ran off without saying goodbye? He and his thief needed to have a talk about communication.
"She stole the Scarlet Emerald from me." They'd recovered it in the aftermath of battle, but Luke was ready to rid himself of the gaudy red stone. He didn't want to risk another theft, especially now that he knew the stone could be used to tap into the Well.
"Try not to sound so proud of larceny," his mother was bemused.
"She's my mate," pride, satisfaction, and love laced his words. Luke wasn't a cat burglar, he didn't approve of theft, but knowing that his woman was one of the best somehow surmounted his moral qualms.
That was enough for his mother. She walked him inside the airport and left him with a hug and a big kiss on the cheek. Luke made it through security and to his gate with time to spare.
Even better, before he boarded the plane, a flight attendant called him to the desk and let him know that his ticket had been upgraded to first class. They didn't explain why, but Luke didn't turn it down. He wasn't that big of a fool.
As he waited for the flight to board he sent off several emails and texts, but something on the edge of his consciousness kept distracting him. It wasn't quite a sound or a scent, and he couldn't put his finger on it.
After half an hour, the flight boarded and Luke got on first, sliding into his aisle seat and making himself comfortable. He stretched out his legs as far as he could and his knees didn't even come close to the seat in front of him.
Or as close as he could get on a domestic flight.
The passengers filed in and stowed their packages as the minutes ticked by. Luke was ready to be off, but still they loaded. After what seemed like a small eternity, the sounds of people getting situated quieted.
They were ready to go.
The window seat beside him was empty and he assumed that he'd have no neighbor for the rest of the flight. That was until a woman approached his row and stood just beside him. As her scent washed over him, Luke grinned.
He looked up to see Mel in her outrageous red wig, a purse in hand. She wore huge black sunglasses and a yellow dress.
"I think that's my seat," she pointed to the window, her voice nearly an octave higher than normal.
"By all means." Luke stood to let her in, but Mel took her time, letting their bodies brush together. Luke's hands drifted to her hips, sliding over them before she sat down.
"So," Mel said once she'd put her purse down in front of her. "Come here often?"
Luke grabbed her hand and laced her fingers with his. "Did you upgrade my flight? How did you know that I'd be on this one?"
Mel raised his hand to her lips and kissed it. "A thief never tells her secrets."
He wanted to kiss her. He wanted to do much naughtier things, but the lack of privacy put a damper on his ardor. But his happiness and relief at seeing Mel didn't change the fact that she'd left without a word.
He took a deep breath to get it all out, but she beat him to the punch, speaking before he could interrogate her.
"I'm sorry I took off. Krista and I took care of Ava, and then we needed to make sure that she couldn't come back." Luke could only imagine what that meant. Dead was dead. Most of the time. Mel continued. "And then I needed to take care of some stuff before I could come see you."
"See me?" Thoughts of stolen moments as she traipsed the world, stealing, getting into danger, meeting other men danced across his mind. "I'm not a paramour."
She bit her lip and looked so damned cute that Luke couldn't stop himself from leaning forward and capturing her lips. She wrapped her arms around him and in that moment he would have taken any promise she would give if only it meant that he would have another minute kissing her.
A flight attendant brushed by him as she walked by and it was enough to remind Luke that he and Mel were in public. He pulled back, but not far.
"How does mate sound?" Mel asked. "I thought that had a nice ring to it."
Luke's thumb brushed softly against her cheek. "Mate is more what I'm looking for."
"You're not going to do anything crazy, right?" She pulled back just enough to give him space to breathe.
Luke didn't want the space. "Crazy?"
"You know, ask me to quit my day job? Something like that?" The fact that she was here meant that she knew him better than that. But Luke also realized that she was terrified. Happy, ready, but absolutely unsure of what this would mean.
He held up a finger, "One request. For now." He added the last bit as a precaution.
"Don't steal from my allies. No matter what they have." Taking a thief as his mate would complicate things, but he didn't care.
Mel rubbed her cheek against his shoulder, cuddling up beside him and resting there. "I think I can manage that."
As the flight took off, Luke could see the days and years spread out before him with Mel by his side. They'd probably drive each other crazy a hundred times over. But they would love and laugh, fight and make love for hours. They would face their enemies and stand side by side as the alphas of his pack. There would be complications, hardships. But Mel was the woman for him. He loved her, she was his mate, and his equal.
As their fight flew west, the future stretched out before them. There wasn’t anyone else that he’d rather be sitting beside, ready to face it together.