Chapter Fourteen

"I hope none of the three new girls are vegetarians." Nicolao commented as he set a stack of paper plates on the table.
"Heck no." Raven returned as she snatched a plate from the stack, "I'd give up all the other food groups before I gave up meat."

I chuckled heartily as I wrapped my arms around her from behind.

"That makes two of us." I stated as I nibbled on her shoulder.

She laughed, reaching behind her to smack me with the paper plate in her hands.

"You are really asking for it today." She giggled as she grabbed a paper plate for me and waved it in my face.
"Well, I haven't come out and actually asked." I whispered huskily in her ear, "Now wouldn't be the time or place. Unless you want to ditch, of course."

She stiffened slightly in my grasp, her body temperature rising just noticeably. From what I could see of her face, a light blush graced her cheeks. She let the paper plate she was trying to hand me tap the top of my head.

"Will you behave?" She hissed.
"Only I have to."
"You have to. Gosh. What's gotten into you today?"

I nuzzled into her hair and inhaled, turning her question over in my mind.

"I don't know." I said finally as I allowed her to leave the confines of my arms and took the plate she offered.
"I don't know either, but I think you need to go take a cold shower." She said with one hand on her hip.

Unable to refrain, I covered that hand with my own and pulled her closer.

"Only if you join me."

Her eyebrows shot up and she pushed at the wall of my chest, using the back of her hand since it was occupied by the plate. As annoyed as she was, she couldn't keep her lips from turning up slightly in amusement.

"Ok, ok, I'll behave myself. But, woman, I can't help it you're so appealing."

She burst into laughter as she wormed her hand free from under mine and used it to drag me to a place to sit.

"Are you two done trying to make us gag?" Carmen joked as we sat across from her.
"Me? He's the one that's doing it." Raven returned indignantly.
"You're not complaining too harshly." I nudged her with a smirk.

She turned a glare on me that would have been fairly intimidating, if not for the smile she was trying to hide.

"Psh, that's the last time we take you two anywhere." Aki commented as she claimed the spot next to Raven.
"Here, here." Jamie agreed with a grin.
"Hey, now!" Raven objected, frowning at them, "I'm gonna throw this back in your faces once you all get lives and find men."
"Excuse me? Rub it in my face why don't you?" Zoë growled.

The girls and I stiffened as the area became very quiet. Raven looked thoroughly ashamed.

"Zoë... I..." Raven started.
"Don't even worry about." Zoë said too quickly.

An awkward silence ensued, broken quickly by Adrido. He was always fairly oblivious when it came to sensitive moments. Within no time, the group was talking animatedly again. I couldn't help but notice the particular males that took up residence next to the three single women. Raoul nonchalantly took the space next to Carmen, which, seemed to please both Carmen and Raven, who was watching them inconspicuously. I grinned at the glare Nicolao received from Zoë as he sat down next to Jamie. Nicolao shrugged at her and passed the platter of steaks her way. And, bullheaded as always, Dante slipped in next to Aki, who was doing a good job at ignoring him. Raven leaned in and whispered something even I couldn't make out, which caused Aki to glare vehemently at her. Raven broke into giggles and scooted closer to me. I responded by wrapping an arm around her waist.

While the food was passed around, conversation broke out among us. Raven was fitting in well, completely at ease in present company. It swelled my heart to see her and part of my pack adapt to each other. It wasn't often that my people were so comfortable with human company. Even Carmen wasn't having any trouble fitting in, but I suspected that had something to do with both Raven and Raoul. I locked gazes with my best friend, smirking at his conversation with Carmen. They had taken up the topic of writing and authors, of which Carmen was starting to win the debate it had turned into. I could tell he was intrigued, if not only for the fact that he wasn't being silent. His answers were usually to the point that left no room for conversation, but he seemed to be enjoying himself with Carmen. Perhaps it was a good thing that we'd come.

"Hey, your food is getting cold, you've barely touched it." Raven stated, pecking me on the cheek and drawing my attention back to her, "What are you thinking about?"
"How nice this is." I returned, kissing her on the forehead.
"Yeah, I was just thinking the same, but I'm eating my food. Here try this potato salad. It's really good." She held her fork out for me to take.

Locking eyes with her, I wrapped my hand around hers as I took the fork into my mouth. The light blush that spread across her cheeks warmed me as I gave her, her hand back.

"You're right. It's very good." I said softly with a small smile, my gaze still locked with hers.
"I'm glad you like it. Now eat your food." She scolded, trying to force her blush away.
"Oh but I think my hand is broken. Do you mind helping out?" I goaded.
"You poor baby. Why don't I believe that?"
"I don't know. Why don't you?"
"Maybe because it would take a Mac truck backing over your hand to break it." Jaegar commented from the other side of Raoul.

Raven glanced at him with a raised eyebrow.

"Is that another inside joke?" She inquired, returning her attention to me.
"Actually, I had my hand run over by a Mac truck at work. Freak accident. I'm lucky I can use my hand at all." The latter wasn't true, but I had been run over.
"Yeah, the poor baby was nursing his wounds for months. Whining about it the whole time and telling stories like he was some sort of hero." Tarun jousted, jumping on a reason to taunt me.
"Now that I don't believe." Raven laughed, looking over at Zoë, "He didn't spend the whole time whining, did he?"

Zoë grinned at me, obviously tempted to taunt me as well.

"No. Your man's friggen superman. He could have lifted the Mac truck over his head." Zoë stated sarcastically with a roll of her eyes, even though the statement was true. I shot her a warning look.
"Oh really?" Raven giggled, looking up at me. "Can you fly too?"
"Only when I'm around you." I returned, bringing her knuckles to my lips.

Raven broke into laughter as the group groaned.

"Ok now you're just being corny." She smirked.
"You like it."
"Yeah, pathetic, aren't I?"

My answer of no was drowned out by each of the females' unified "Yes." Raven made a face at all of them.

"Shut up, you don't know." Raven pouted, crossing her arms over her chest.
"Yes we do, we've been sitting here witnessing it." Jamie returned with a smile.
"Yeah, Aubrey, man, you're acting like you're not getting any." Adrido commented through his bite of steak.

Raven blushed slightly as I glared daggers at him. Adrido choked on his food.

"Aw, man! You telling me that you haven't tapped that yet?" He asked, eyebrows raised in shock.
"I don't see how that's any of your business, nor is this the place to discuss it."
"Yeah, Adrido. We are trying to eat." V agreed with a mocking curl of his lip.
"Shut it, both of you." I growled.

Adrido threw his hands up in the air.

"Sorry, man. Didn't mean no harm by it."

Jaegar cuffed him upside the head.

"Your social and grammar skills suck. It's a wonder how you manage to get any females."
"Oh, yeah? When was the last time you had any, Jag?"
"Boys." Raven's voice rang out, catching everyone's attention. There was a soft undertone to it, as though she was compelling the ones she was speaking to, to listen to her, "Settle down."

With that command, any waves of violence died instantly. Everyone looked slightly dazed. Raven appeared not to notice and, with a roll of her eyes, returned to her food.

'You see what I mean, Brother.' Raoul's voice sounded in my mind, 'Your woman has the power of compulsion with her voice. That is rare even among our kind. One has to be a very dominant personality to even begin to have the effect she carries. She is quite different.'
'I know this much, Raoul. She seems to be getting stronger as well.'
'Should this be cause for worry?'
'No. I have it handled.'

Raoul regarded me with a steady gaze.

'You intend to turn her.' A statement.
'What would you have me do? She is my Hembra.'

Raoul stiffened with a deep breath, causing the pack members to take notice. No one would dare try to butt in on our conversation, however.

'I do not envy you, your task. Trying to get her to accept you may very well end in pain. I wish you luck.'
'Thank you, brother. I may well need it.'

"Something wrong, Aubrey?" Came a soft voice with a gentle hand on my shoulder.

I looked over at Raven and smiled.

"No, love." I returned, stroking her cheek lovingly.

She brought her hand up to trap my hand.

"Something's wrong." She stated, looking me in the eye. I had half a mind to curse her perceptiveness.

Of course something was wrong. I was tired of lying to the woman I loved. To add insult to injury, I couldn't even tell her that. With a tired smile, I traced her cheekbone with the pad of my thumb. Unfortunately, this did nothing to ease the worry out of her beautiful eyes.

"Nothing to worry about, querida. Nothing can ever be too wrong when you're around."

A light smile touched those lips that I loved to kiss. Before her gaze trailed off to Zoë. I sensed it too. She was trying to hide her pain as she stared up at the sky. We both knew then that she was pining for her man. Slowly, Raven released my hand, a pained look crossing her face as she dropped my hand. With a muttered excuse she left the table and hurried away. We all exchanged looks before I jumped up and hurried after her. She paused at the back door and suddenly veered to head to the front of the house. Raising an eyebrow I followed.

I found her on the porch, her hands braced against the far banister. She was breathing heavily; the salty scent of tears wafted back to me. My stomach lurched. In an instant, I was behind her, wrapping my arms around her.

"Now this is a definite switch in scenario. What's wrong, pequeña?"
"I..." Her voice trembled, causing me to hold her tighter. Her pain cut me deeper than the sharpest blade. "I'd forgotten. Forgotten about..." Her voice broke and I felt her knees weaken. I turned her into the protection of my arms and held her there, stroking her silken hair for her comfort as much as mine. "Trent. He's lying in a hospital bed with little chance of ever waking up. My brother is dying and I'm out gallivanting with friends. When I'm with you, you make me forget. I love you for it, but hate myself. I should be with him."
"Raven, love. He doesn't even know you exist right now. I don't believe your brother would want you moping around his hospital bed causing yourself emotional pain. No brother would."
"But I... He shouldn't be alone when he..."
"Don't." My voice was stern as I forced her to look at me, "Don't even say it. Your brother is going to come out of this alive."

Tears were streaming down her face, her eyes showing so much pain I thought I'd die from the brunt of it. Crushing her to me again, I felt the feral need to rip something apart. Dameon being the prime target. I buried my nose in her hair, inhaling her scent. The beast within me roared, demanding I not only receive blood payment for the harm to my mate, but to claim her as well. Ferocious need rose in me, a need for her that had been present all day, only fed by Raven's hands trailing up my chest to drape around my neck. She nuzzled against my collar bone, seeking comfort. She was so close... so warm. My mouth dipped to her neck, nibbling the soft flesh there. She reacted instantly, allowing me better access. I trailed kisses to her collarbone, then nipped there as well.

"Aubrey?" Came her hazy voice.

I pulled back to look her in the eye, my gaze hungry.

"I need you." I whispered before my lips descended on hers. A small voice in the back of my head felt insensitive, but I'd craving the taste of her all day. With a growl, I cupped her buttocks and lifted so that she was sitting on the railing. She inhaled sharply as she wrapped her legs around my waist, closing any sort of gap between us. I growled again, slowly losing control. She had no idea what she did to me. Aside from the very obvious reaction now pressed intimately against her. Her heat nearly consumed me. I needed more; my wolf demanding it. But I couldn't. I hadn't won her over completely and I'd be damned if I mated her without first telling her the truth. For the first time, I pulled away, shaking with the effort to restrain myself.
"I'm... sorry." My voice was hoarse.

She looked up at me, dazed. Her face was flushed and her lips still slightly parted. I groaned at the invitation and tried to step away. The legs around me tightened, then quickly let go as her face reddened even more.

"Wow... I... You..." She glanced away, running a hand through her hair, "What is wrong with us?"

Confused, I cocked my head to one side.

"What do you mean?"

She slipped off the railing and padded away a couple of steps. Not that it did her any good. I was right behind her the whole time. She turned and gave me an exasperated look.

"We can't keep our hands off each other."
"And that's... bad?"
"Well, I mean... I don't know. I just... kinda..." She blushed heavily before staring up at the overhang, "Wanted to be married before I ever... willingly... you know..." She was speaking upward, not wanting to look me in the eye.

I couldn't help but grin.

"Do I break your resolve?"

She shot me a murderous glance, before blushing again. I grinned and took a step backwards, my hands in the air.

"I would never take more than you're willing to give." I stated, my face turning serious.
"I know. That's the problem."

My eyes shot up in surprise as well as confusion.

"Oh, that came out wrong." Her blush deepened, "I mean... I can't seem to pull away, therefore, you wouldn't ever be taking more than I'm willing to give."

I grinned wolfishly causing her to slap a hand over her mouth. I advanced on her.

"So, you want me."

She glared.

"I would think that was obvious."
"Not necessarily." I stated, reaching out to run my fingers through her hair.

She snapped her teeth at my hand, causing my grin to widen. With fast hands I grabbed her wrist and twirled her to me, trapping her in my arms.

"Aubrey." A warning tone. Followed by a sad sigh.

Immediately, I turned her around so I could look her in the face. The sorrow had returned.

"See? You did it again. One kiss and I forgot how much trouble I'm in. How much trouble Trent's in. I need to go to him."

I tensed, knowing it was a bad idea. It was likely that Dameon would be watching the area.

"I know you feel you need to, love, but I got the impression that we were in the way while we were there. Not to mention, Dameon probably knows that's where Trent is."

Raven flinched at the mention, chewing on her bottom lip.

"You're probably right. We'd only be in the way. I... well... they said they'd call if there was any improvement?"
"Yes. And they have your number. I promise, as soon as we get word from them I'll practically fly you there."

Raven smiled slightly.

"Why are you so good to me?"
"Because I love you."

An odd expression crossed her face.

"With every fiber of my being."
"Oh, com'on now. Don't start that again." I stroked her cheek.

She sighed, looking suddenly tired.

"I suppose we should rejoin them. It's rude to eat and run, and it would be the second time I'd done so around your people."

I stiffened at the "your people" comment, before relaxing. It wasn't an uncommon usage, I was being paranoid.

"Yes, but I don't think anyone in this group would be terribly offended. They'd probably just hit me up for the details next time they see me."

Her head canted to one side.

"Details?" A look of dawning realization crossed her face, followed by a blush, "Oh. Details. Sheesh. Men."

I chuckled, kissing her nose.

"Not all of us are that bad."
"No, but the point-zero-one-percent of you that aren't, are either taken or gay." She retorted, before smirking, "You included."
"That I am." I paused, then added as an afterthought, "You meant taken, right?"

She burst into laughter.

"Usually I would tease you about that, but I have ample proof that you are not gay."
"Are you sure? Because I can persuade you some more."

She made a deep sound of interest in her throat, before inhaling sharply and putting distance between us.

"You need to stop that." She hissed, trying to keep the grin off her face.
"Stop what?" I asked innocently, not quite able to keep from grinning either.
"You are really bad today and it's making everyone uncomfortable. Including me... granted... it's a different sort of uncomfortable." She trailed off at my smirk. Glaring she took another step away from me.
"Raven... I'm trying to control myself." My eyes wandered down her curves, "But I can't seem to do that around you."
"Great. You're supposed to be protecting me, but who's going to protect me from you?"

My face turned stony. Turning away from her, I sucked in a breath to calm my nerves. Did she think me a monster that she needed protection from? I hadn't even told her the truth yet.

"Aubrey..." Raven's voice was hesitant as she placed a hand on my shoulder, "I'm sorry... I didn't mean..."
"I could never hurt you." I whispered.
"I was only joking. I never meant to hurt you..." She tugged gently on my arm.

Whirling around, I crushed her to me, burying my face in the hair resting on her shoulder.

"You have no idea how precious you are to me." I whispered into her.

She stiffened slightly before her wrapping her arms around me, cradling me. Once again, our positions were switched.

"I... Aubrey..." Her voice sounded choked and the scent of tears returned.

I looked up from my perch.

"Can I... keep you? Forever?" I whispered.

Her eyes widened as more tears gathered.

"Are you asking me what I think you're asking me?"
"Unofficially, because I don't have a ring. And don't answer yet. I just want you to know that I plan on keeping you. When I said I needed you, I didn't only mean physically. Raven, in three days, you've become my world. I... just... think about it?"

She stared at me, wide-eyed with tears now streaming down her cheeks. She opened her mouth to say something, but shut it again quickly. Doubt flashed in her eyes as an inner battle raged. I felt myself tense. Damnit, I'd come on too strong. I was scaring her away.

"I'll think about it." She said softly.

Surprised, my eyebrows shot up.


She nodded. With a sigh of relief I crushed her to me in a hug.

"Wow, did you think I was going to reject you that badly?"
"I thought I'd scared you."
"With all I've been through, I doubt you could do anything to scare me."

'I hope that's true.' I thought to myself sadly. She frowned, running her thumb along my jaw.

"You got that look in your eye again. Like there's something you want to tell me, but you're afraid of my reaction. Have you done something that terrible?"
"I..." I debated for a moment, then shook my head deciding against it, "I just... I'm wary of your reactions. I'm ready to dive headfirst with you, but you're very tentative. To you, we're moving too fast."

She puffed up, then deflated just as quickly.

"You don't think we're moving too fast."
"I already told you I believe you to be my soul mate. I have never met someone that makes me feel the way you do and I get the distinct feeling that I won't ever again."
"I... love you, Aubrey. Let me think about it."
"I'm content with just your love."

She smiled and let me lead her back to the group. They had all finished eating and the boys had started a game of Frisbee. I couldn't help but grin at the irony of the situation. Zoë and Jamie had joined the game. Raoul and Carmen were still in discussion. And Dante... was a thickhead. He was following Aki around saying something that I didn't feel like making out. As we crossed the grass, however, an interesting turn of events unfolded. Aki, who was trying to eat a bowl of ice cream on the move, stopped suddenly and offered Dante a sly smile. Obviously thinking he'd gotten somewhere, he slid his arm around her shoulders with a suggestive grin. Aki batted her lashes, sliding her unoccupied hand down Dante's chest.

"Uh-oh... I know that look..." Was all Raven managed to get out before Aki, in one swift and fluid movement grabbed the waistband of Dante's jeans and managed to drop the contents of her bowl down them.

Raven gripped my arm as I stared on in shock. When she started trembling, I cast a worried glance towards her, only to find that she was trying very hard to keep from laughing. And not succeeding. Laughter burst from her as she clung to me, trying to keep herself upright. Looking back at the look on Dante's face and the yelp that had issued from him, I couldn't help but join her. Pretty soon all the witnesses were howling with laughter. Aki stalked up to Raven, looking triumphant.

"Where's my five bucks?" She grinned, obviously referring to whatever Raven had whispered in her ear.

Raven, unable to breathe at the moment, waved a hand at her to wait. Digging around in her back pocket Raven pulled out a few fives and handed one to Aki.

"D-amn, girl." She managed to choke out, "When I said that even you couldn't cool him off, I didn't mean it literally."
"Well, I'm a literal kind of woman." Aki snickered.
"Hadn't noticed." She returned, wiping moisture from her eyes, "Oh, I haven't laughed this much in ever. ...Poor Dante."

She cast a glance at Dante's retreating form as he stalked into the house.

"He asked for it." Aki huffed.
"He asked for something down his pants, but I'm sure it wasn't ice cream." Raven snorted.

Aki gave her a moody look. The two stared at each other, and some sort of silent sister body-language was spoken that I wasn't part of. A sigh was huffed out of Aki as she deflated.

"You didn't have to do it in front of his friends." Raven grinned, continuing whatever their silence had spoken.

Crossing her arms moodily, Aki stalked after Dante. Confused, I looked back to Raven for explanation.

"What was that about?"
"Oh, girl stuff. You wouldn't understand." She smiled up at me mischievously.

I raised an eyebrow at her but did not press the matter. Merely watched as her gaze flitted between the Frisbee game and the back door, obviously trying to make up her mind which she wanted to join.

"Should we... stalk them? Just to make sure no one dies?"

I chuckled, bringing her knuckles to my mouth.

"If you wish too." I purred, scraping teeth gently across her skin.

She shuddered before she glared at me.

"You are going to have to stop. I am going to melt into a puddle of goo eventually and then where would you be?"

A look of surprise crossed my face at her blatant statement, before I grinned wickedly.

"I'm not sure if I'd be distraught or highly satisfied that I caused you to melt." I laughed.
"I'm so sure. You'd die without me and you know it." She returned with a smirk.
"I'm not going to deny it."

She didn't know whether to look triumphant or annoyed.

"You always have an answer for everything, don't you?"
"I try."

With a roll of her eyes, she tugged me towards the game.

"We'll probably know if something bad happens. One of them is bound to scream." She froze, a disgusted look crossing her face, "That came out wrong."

I burst into laughter as steered her forward. This caught the other's attention, and they waved for us to join. The circle widened to accommodate us and the game started up again. Soon we were all laughing and having fun, managing to keep it up until the sun had begun to lower in the sky. We allowed ourselves a few more hours to enjoy other's company before the real world would claim us again. There were still problems to be solved and woes to haunt us, but we would face them later.

We were saying our goodbyes when the tirade of emotions returned. I was quiet as I allowed Aubrey to pull away from the curb and give me the go-ahead to climb on. My silence ensued all the way home and to the front door before Aubrey actually took notice. This was probably due to the fact that it was hard to speak to each other over the roar of a Harley's engine and silence wasn't terribly unusual.

"Are you ok?" Aubrey asked tentatively, taking my hand to pull me stop.
"Yeah, just tired. I think I'll turn in early tonight." I returned with a wan smile.

He didn't buy it. I could see it in his eyes. That was just like Aubrey. He always seemed to just know when something was wrong. I looked into his piercing gaze and melted, wondering offhandedly if I could ever let him go now that I'd found him. In such a short amount of time, I'd grown dependent of him. I knew, as much as I hated to admit it, that my emotional scars had taken a harsh toll on me. If Aubrey hadn't been around during the last couple of days, I didn't care to think about where I'd be. If I'd even be sane. I looked at him, my heart in my eyes as I stepped into the warm protection of his arms. I was getting very used to his touch, so much so that I found myself reaching out for him instinctively. His glacier eyes melted into deep pools as he wrapped his arms around me. Confusion battled joy for dominion of his facial expressions. My heart swelled when I looked at him. Slowly, I wrapped my arms around his neck. I wanted very much to tell him right there that I wanted to be his wife. But my logic, always my logic, stopped me. I had always scoffed at the notion of love at first sight, and I'd held the firm notion that people should know each other for at least a year before they even thought about marriage. Of course, I'd disliked men a great deal before I met Aubrey.

"I love you." Was what I settled with as I pressed a brief kiss to his lips.
"Is that a yes?" He purred as he nuzzled into my hair.
"It's a firm maybe."

I smiled as I heard him inhale my scent and hold me tighter.

"I will be content with that, then."

I reached up and stroked the chiseled planes of his face. He nibbled at the pad of my thumb as I brushed it across his perfect lips.

"Do you think we can behave ourselves enough for you to keep me company again tonight?" I inquired with a small smile.

Aubrey's face turned serious. With gentle hands that nearly brought tears to my eyes, he framed my face. The pads of his thumbs caressed my cheeks.

"If you have need of my presence, no force on earth could make me tarnish such trust."

I blinked several times to keep tears from forming.

"I sometimes wonder, Aubrey, if you are real and not something my damaged mind conjured up to help me through things."

Without warning, his lips were pressed against mine with a hint of desperateness. There was such strength in his arms, but he held me as though I would break if he even breathed wrong. When he pulled away, he stared into my eyes, pinning me with his gaze.

"I am here to help you through this, Raven. But, make no mistake, I am very real."
"Just checking." I chuckled breathlessly.

With a soft smile, he guided me into the house. After exchanging a few words with his family, he took me by the hand and led me downstairs. I said goodnight to everyone as we went, but I wasn't really coherent enough to hear their replies. The chaotic sea of emotions had taken up residence in my mind once again. It barely registered what I was doing as I changed into my pajamas in the bathroom. Only when I came back out and crawled into bed with Aubrey was I able to calm my mind. As I cuddled into his chest, I found myself relaxing completely. A faint smile touched my lips as I inhaled the masculine smell of him. It didn't take long for sleep to claim me. Vaguely, as I drifted to sleep, my mind acknowledged that it could get used to this.

The next morning, I was woken by Aubrey's attempts to gently disentangle himself from me. I laughed groggily as I noticed that we had knotted together during the course of the night.

"Where you going?" I mumbled as I closed my eyes again.
"I've got to go to work, love. Don't leave the house without someone with you, ok?"

Barely coherent, I could only nod as he managed, somehow, to climb out of bed. Time seemed to still as I drifted back to sleep, unable to respond to his goodbye. What seemed like only moments later, I sat up rather abruptly and looked around the room. The place where Aubrey had been was vacant. Unseeingly, I stared around, trying to pull the pieces of my mind back together. I blinked several times to clear the sleep from my eyes as I poured myself out of bed. My movements were unstable as I used the wall to help me totter to the bathroom to take a shower. After I'd washed myself, I stayed under the water until it ran cold, willing it to clear the clouds from my mind. Usually I was more of a morning person, but I could not seem to motivate myself. I blamed it on how deep my sleep had been. It was rare that I could sleep that well. A smile graced my lips as I recognized that it was Aubrey's presence that was the cause.

Once I was stable, I dressed quickly and headed upstairs. Juanita greeted me with a smile as I entered the kitchen.

"Good morning... or rather, afternoon now."
"What? Aubrey starts work this late?"

Juanita stared at me a moment in confusion, before breaking into a wide grin.

"Oh, no, Ravencita. Aubrey left for work hours ago. You must have slept longer than you thought. He gets off work in a couple hours."

I blinked at her in surprise.

"Oh. Wow... ok then. I guess I'll do some homework while I wait."

I sat down in the living room and tried to focus on the work, but couldn't. A sigh of frustration passed my lips. At this rate, I would never graduate. Even so, I put my books away and leaned back. I needed to clear my head. Without thinking, I padded to the back door, surprised by what I found there. Luna and Obsidian were both napping in the grass. With a delighted squeal, I tore out the back door and dove into their pelts. Julian must have gotten tired of taking care of them or just knew I would have wanted them with me. I'd have to call him later to thank him and apologize for not giving him the heads up. My stomach suddenly sank to the ground. Though Julian didn't live on the premises, he did work at the mansion. I never even thought to check if he was ok. Seriously ruffled, I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket and went to dial his number. However, I didn't even get the phone open before it rang. Surprised, I acted out of reflex and answered.

"Hello?" I inquired quickly.
"Raven, babe. Listen... I think we got off on the wrong foot." Came the last voice on earth I wanted to hear.

My mind screamed at me to hang up, but my body didn't seem to want to listen. I sat there, trembling and unable to move.

"Hey, before you hang up on me, you may be interested to hear where I am right now."
"Yeah, that would be nice to know..." I managed to croak, "So I can relay that information to the proper authorities."
"Now, now, let's not be too hasty. You see, I hear that construction sites are rather dangerous places. You wouldn't want me to accidently cause an accident here now would you? Your new friend seems to have put himself in a rather precarious situation. It would be all too easy to have those beams fall on top of him."

My blood ran cold and froze in my veins. My breath came out in a rush. Panic settled in my mind.

"No! Please!" Was all that I managed to get out.
"Ah, I seem to have your attention now. Unfortunately, your boy-toy is in my way. He's the one knight I need to demolish before I can have a checkmate. So..."
"Wait! Don't! Please don't! I thought you had something to say about starting out on the wrong foot?"

His chuckle sent a shudder through me.

"Yes, I think we did. I seem to have lost my temper. But you happen to be very good at making me do so. So, you may want to choose your words in this conversation."

The vision of Aubrey being crushed underneath several heavy beams flashed through my mind. A sob lodged itself in my throat.

"I understand. Just please don't hurt Aubrey."
"You see? I knew I could make you see my way of things."

I literally bit my tongue to keep from saying something I would regret.

"You've made your point." I said softly, "Can we cut to the chase?"
"So eager now? My, my, Raven, that's a definite improvement. The chase? I always did love a good game of cat and mouse. Anyway, here's the deal. I'll promise to keep myself from harming your boy-toy, on one condition."

I ground my teeth together, anger and despair welling up within me.

"And that is?"
"You have to end things with Aubrey and come back to me."

My heart seemed to stop beating in my chest. My mind screamed in protest. My body began to shake horribly. I'd known what he was going to say, but I hadn't wanted to acknowledge the thought.

"That'll be pretty hard, since every cop in town is looking for you."
"Oh, I'll manage something. Those are my conditions. Hurry, before the temptation to just make my move gets too great to ignore."

Tears of hate and sorrow streamed down my face. My breathing was ragged and my head throbbed with the thoughts racing through it. Nothing that could help me get out of this predicament came to mind. Aubrey was strong, but he wasn't immortal. I would sooner die than see him hurt, or worse, because of me. My words were nearly indistinguishable as I gave him my answer.

"Yes, anything. Just leave Aubrey, and everyone else I love, alone."