“Luciana?”

I continued humming, pretending to read a worn paperback book with a shirtless guy on the cover, his arm around the waist of a woman in nothing but a white corset and petticoat with ample bosom showing.

“Luciana!” My eldest sister, Laetitia, repeated louder.

I sighed and turned to see her strolling across the yard towards me. “What’s up, Laetitia?”

“What are you doing? We have guests coming. Mother told you to clean your room yesterday. The dinner guests will be here in less than three hours!”

I shrugged. “My room’s fine. It’s not like anyone’s going to actually see my room, anyway. Plus, that’s why we have maids.”

Laetitia glared at me. “Back to the house this instant, Luciana Marie Black!”

“You’re not the boss of me. Or my mother,” I said stubbornly, but placed my bookmark in my book and stood up. “I bet the twins aren’t cleaning.”

“Lyra and Leoni are helping Mother make dinner.”

“That’s why we have a cook, Laetitia. So we don’t have to. And maids so we don’t have to clean.”

“That attitude only breeds laziness. Do you want to be fat and lazy, Luciana? You’ll never catch a husband if you act like that.”

I sighed. “And you’ll never catch a husband with that face.”

Laetitia gasped, looking horrified. “Luciana!”

“Are we just going to stand here or go back to the house?”

Laetitia glared at me. “Ungrateful brat,” she muttered, turning to head back up the hill to our English manor.

“I heard that.”

Back at the manor, I reluctantly cleaned my bedroom. I jammed in my headphones and blasted my music, blocking out everything else.

When I was finished cleaning, I set my iPod aside just as someone knocked on the door. I opened it to find my two younger sisters, Lyra and Leoni, on the other side of it.

Lyra and Leoni were twins, thirteen years old each. They did everything together, even shared a room; though the country manor had enough rooms for them to each have their own. Laetitia was the oldest of us four girls, nearly twenty-one, though she apparently thought she was forty.

“Mother wanted us to tell you to get dressed— something fancy. The dinner guests shall be here any second.” Lyra told me.

“Thanks,” I said dryly.

“You’re welcome,” Leoni said with a smile. “And Laetitia wanted us to remind you to be on your best behavior.”

I grunted and slammed the door. I hated dinner parties. I hated dressing up in nice clothes and entertaining pompous, ignorant old farts. Sighing, I slipped out of my sundress and had my personal maid, Iroe, draw me a bath. Iroe was young, only a year older than me, and I had discovered she had a fierce sense of humor. I liked her a lot.

“Lots of bubbles,” I instructed Iroe.

“Yes, Milady.” Iroe said and hurried into my private bathroom.

While waiting for the bath, I opened my dresser. I selected a blue dress that made my eyes pop, complimenting my rosy skin and very dark hair nicely. Then I selected a pair of white-and-pink sandals to go with it.

“The bath’s ready,” Iroe said.

I laid the dress on my bed and went to bathe. After I was thoroughly cleaned and my hair was dried, Iroe styled my hair and then I donned the dress. I was just slipping on my shoes when another maid, Oelle, came to fetch me. She was one of the oldest maids at the mansion.

“The guests are arriving, Miss,” Oelle said.

“Thank you. I’ll be right down.”

Oelle curtsied and left.

“Don’t let them bore you too much,” Iroe said.

“I’ll try.” I smiled.

 

“I hear you like to read, Luciana.” Mister Smythe said conversationally. He had a strong Irish accent.

“Yes, I do.” I said, trying to look interested in the guests.

There was Mr. James Smythe, father and husband and billionaire. There was Mrs. Margaret Smythe, mother and wife. There was Aukmelle-Aunora Smythe, daughter and sister. Then there was Gabriel Smythe, son and brother.

Gabriel Smythe was the most attractive boy I had ever seen. He was dark and fair, with bright blue eyes. His dark hair hung into his eyes, in contrast to his sister’s vibrant orange hair. He had lips like the ones only found on the covers of romance novels. His cheekbones were sharp and angular. He was also here because Mother had invited his family in the hope to match him with Laetitia.

“What types of books do you like?” Mr. Smythe asked.

“Mostly romance,” I said. “But I especially like mystery.”

“Gabe likes mystery, too.” Mr. Smythe said. “He’s really into… what’s that gothic author’s name again?”

“Edgar Allen Poe.” Gabriel said. “Bram Stoker and Agatha Christie are great, too. My favorite author is Stephen King.”

“You like Agatha Christie, too?” I said excitedly. “My favorite is Mary Higgins Clark, though.”

I caught Laetitia rolling her eyes at the other end of the table.

“Enough literature talk,” Mother said. “How’s your business doing, James?”

“Fine, fine,” Mr. Smythe said. “We just made a huge investment that paid off.”

“Congratulations,” Mother said. If the Smythes were blind to it, at least I could tell Mother only wanted this match because the Smythe family was rich. She wanted all of her daughters married off to wealthy men and she didn’t care if we were happy or not. We were well-off on our own, but she would do anything to raise our social class.

Gabriel brushed his curly black hair out of his eyes again and my heart stuttered. He caught my gaze and smiled. I smiled back, fighting the blush I felt creeping up my neck.

“This food is delicious.” Mrs. Smythe said.

“Thank you,” Mother said. “I made it myself.”

“Don’t you have a cook?” Aukmelle-Aunora asked rudely.

“We do, but sometimes I prefer to be in the kitchen myself.” Mother said. “I find it relaxing. Fun, even, occasionally. Lyra and Leoni helped me make supper tonight.”

“It is a lovely meal, really.” Mrs. Smythe said, taking another bite of steak.

I sat there, desperately wanting the dinner to be over. I just wanted to go back to my book. Gabriel was gorgeous, but he was meant for Laetitia. Without the possibility of engaging in light flirtation with a boy, I was extremely bored.

Laetitia and Gabriel had been seated next to each other, strategically, with me at the far end of the table. Laetitia seemed thrilled, but Gabriel didn’t seem to be paying her much attention at all. Laetitia looked slightly put-out by his lack of interest, but I recognized the determination in her eyes. I sat with Mrs. Smythe on one side and Leoni on the other.

 

At long last, dinner was over. Mother and the two adult Smythes moved into the living room as servants cleared away the dishes. Aukmelle-Aunora pulled out her phone and was immediately immersed in it, typing furiously.

“Shall we go for a walk?” Laetitia asked Gabriel coyly. “It’s a beautiful evening.”

“It is indeed.” Gabriel agreed. But he wasn’t looking at her.

I blushed as I felt his gaze on me. I pretended to ignore him, but I still felt him watching me. I pulled out my phone and opened Instagram, looking through my pictures but not really focusing on them.

I felt Laetitia’s glare as she bristled jealously at me from across the table. Our relationship had never been good. I got along better with the twins than me older sister, though Lyra and Leoni were four years younger than me. Laetitia was a little over three years older.

“Shall we go, then?” Laetitia looped her arm through Gabriel’s. She stood, dragging him with her.

“Um… sure.”

I sighed once they were gone. Relaxing, I put my phone away. I couldn’t take Gabriel’s hot stare or Laetitia’s scathing glower any longer.

“Stay away from him.”

I looked up, startled, at the warning. “Excuse me?”

“He’s trouble,” Aukmelle-Aunora said. At my blank look, she specified, “My brother, Gabriel.”

“What about him?”

“I saw the way you were looking at him during dinner. The way he was looking at you. He’s bad news, Luciana.”

“Okay…?” I was greatly confused.

“He’s a ladies’ man. He likes to play with girls’ emotions and ‘fool around’ with them, but then he drops them. He’s not good at commitment. He was kicked out of five private academies and two correctional summer schools. If you get involved, he’ll break your heart. He had a bet going with a friend about how many virgins he can deflower.”

The picture Aukmelle-Aunora was painting of her brother was colourful and not very flattering.

“Is that why your parents hope to wed him to my sister?”

“They think marriage will change him. For the better, hopefully. But they don’t see it. He’ll sleep around. He’ll cheat on your sister over and over again, with slews of girls. He’s young. He doesn’t understand that his actions have consequences. Miraculously, he hasn’t gotten anyone knocked up. I’m surprised he doesn’t have an STD, either.”

“Why are you telling me all this?”

“I’m looking out for you. I don’t want him to be one of your mistakes. You look like the innocent type. He can probably tell you’re a virgin— that’s why he’s interested. He’ll screw you and then leave you before you can say ‘oops.’”

My ego took a slight blow at that.

“You’re just a number to him, sweetie. Just a fresh piece of ass.” Aukmelle-Aunora stood, pocketing her phone and going to join her parents and my mother in the other room.

“Are you okay, Milady?” Iroe asked.

I glanced up, not having realized she was even in the room. “Did you hear that?”

“Not if you didn’t want me to.”

I sighed. “No wonder I’m single. I’ll probably die without ever having had a boyfriend. I always fall for bad boys.”

Iroe shook her head. “Don’t say that, Miss. One day, you’ll find the love of your life and you will be the most beloved thing in the world to him.”

“Yeah,” I snorted. “And he will be a cat.”

“Nothing wrong with that.” Iroe said.

“I’ll die alone, a virgin, unwanted, unloved, with eighty cats.”

“Sex is overrated.” Iroe said, smiling. “Shall I draw you another bath? Lots of bubbles, promise.”

“It’s okay, Iroe. Walk with me?”

“Of course, My Lady.”

I stood and we went outside.

“It’s a warm night,” Iroe commented.

“Yeah,” I agreed. “Weirdly warm, for early April.”

Iroe nodded. “Are you feeling better?”

I shrugged. “I’m fine.”

“My Lady. I may just be your maid, but we’ve practically grown up together. I know you better than that.”

“You’re not just my maid, Iroe. You’re my best friend— well, my only friend.”

Iroe smiled. “And you are my best friend. As your best friend, I can tell when you’re lying.”

“You know me too well.”

“You won’t be lonely forever, Milady.”

I snorted. “Right.”

“Don’t look now, but here comes your favorite sister.”

I looked up to see Laetitia strolling through the gardens with Gabriel. Laetitia had her arm hooked through Gabriel’s, but he wasn’t looking at her as she prattled on.

Gabriel spotted us. Looking relieved, he turned and headed directly for us. Laetitia looked less than pleased.

“Luciana,” Gabriel said once they’d reached us.

“Hello,” I replied civilly. “May I introduce my best friend and personal maid? This is Iroe. Iroe, Gabriel.”

Iroe curtsied. “Pleasure to make your acquaintance, My Lord.”

“Please. Gabriel is fine. I would bid you call me Gabe if I didn’t think my parents would have a heart attack over the informality.”

“Of course.” Iroe looked uncomfortable at that.

“Laetitia, darling!”

Laetitia grumbled at Mother’s call. She headed back toward the house, but Gabriel unhooked her arm and said, “Go on. I’ll catch up.”

Laetitia left, casting a dirty look towards me.

“You look lovely,” Gabriel told me.

I gave him a bemused stare.

“You are much more attractive than your sister.”

“What do you want?” I snapped impatiently.

“Though your attitude could use an adjustment,” he muttered.

I narrowed my eyes at him. “Watch it, fuckboy.”

Gabriel raised his eyebrows. “What did you just call me?”

“Your sister told me about your… sexcapades.”

“My what?”

“Aukmelle-Aunora says you like to sleep around. I refuse to be one of your conquests.”

Gabriel chuckled. “Did my sister also tell you she’s a liar?”

“No, but she said you weren’t to be trusted.”

“She’s adopted and she’s always been jealous.”

“Adopted? Really?”

Gabriel nodded.

I narrowed my eyes on him. “Now. Why don’t I believe you?”

“Aukmelle-Aunora can be very persuasive and she’s gotten into your head.”

“Aukmelle-Aunora seems very smart.”

Gabriel snorted. “She’s spiteful.”

“I like her.”

He snorted again. “You would.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked, crossing my hands over my chest.

“Nothing. Just that you’re too trusting.”

“I don’t trust you.”

“No, you don’t.” Gabriel looked intrigued by my lack of interest in him. I guessed a girl had never rejected him before. “And that’s fascinating.”

“It’s really not. I distrust most people.”

“Trust issues.” Gabriel nodded. “Ah.”

“Don’t say that like it explains everything. You know nothing about me.”

“No, indeed I don’t. But I would like to get to know you sometime.”

I glared at him. “Not even in your wildest fantasies.”

“Won’t you even tell me your favorite colour?”

“No.” I said flatly.

“I know something about you already.”

“What?”

“Your favorite author.”

I rolled my eyes. “I was talking to your father.”

“Yes, perhaps. But I was in the room.”

“That’s irrelevant.”

Gabriel laughed lightly. “I find your obvious disdain for me so refreshing.”

“Do you?” I asked dubiously.

“Yes. Most girls just throw themselves at me. It’s very tedious, really.”

“Yes. I can see how that would be so very tedious.” I let the sarcasm drip off my tone heavily, like molasses.

Iroe giggled.

“It really is.” Gabriel said. “But you’re obvious hatred is so… new.”

“Obvious?” I said with more sarcasm. “And I was trying so hard to hide it.”

Gabriel sighed. “Can’t we just have a civil conversation? How can you detest me so much when we’ve only just met?”

“I’ve known guys like you. You only see women as things to be whistled at and cat-called, but I refuse to let you objectify me.”

“I do not see women as objects,” Gabriel objected. “My sister lied to you, Luciana.”

“Now why would she do that?”

“Aukmelle-Aunora and I don’t get along.”

“I can tell.”

“Aukmelle-Aunora doesn’t like me very much.”

“That makes two of us.”

“Three,” Iroe piped up.

I smiled. “Three of us.”

“We used to go to the same school and she spread a rumor, telling everybody that I was the adopted one and our parents had found me in an abandoned box raised by chimpanzees. Can you imagine? Me, a chimp!”

“Did you really get expelled from seven schools?”

Gabriel ground his teeth. “I can’t believe she told you that.”

“Was it true?”

That part was true— but five of them were not my fault.”

“You’re not really helping your case here, buddy.”

Gabriel sighed. “I know. But you have to believe I am not a player.”

“Oh, I have to, do I?”

“Luciana.” Gabriel said seriously. “If I’m to be a part of your family, we should find a way to at least have one civil conversation.”

“So you’re going to accept my mother’s proposal?”

“I don’t see any other choice. My parents want me married as soon as possible. Lyra and Leoni are too young and Laetitia is my age. In time, I’m sure I’ll get used to her off-putting personality.”

Why was I never an option? “But you don’t love her.”

“We only just met!”

I smiled. “It’s okay to not like her. I don’t.”

“I could tell, at dinner.”

“Hey. She was the one giving me dirty looks. I mostly ignored her.”

“Laetitia seems to want this marriage. Unless you can give me a reason to not go through with it, I’m going to have to accept.”

“The only reason Laetitia wants this marriage is because your rich and you have a cute butt.”

Gabriel looked shocked.

“What?” I asked defensively. “I can appreciate your body, but still not like you. And I said Laetitia likes your butt.”

“Now who’s objectifying who?”

I shrugged. “My point is, Laetitia doesn’t love you, either. She loves your money.”

“And my butt.”

I suppressed a smile. “If you’re okay with a loveless marriage, I see no reason not to go through with it.”

“At least your sister isn’t totally unfortunate-looking.”

I pressed my lips together.

“Though you clearly got the cute genes.”

I blushed, unsure how to respond to that.

“Sorry, that was… inappropriate of me.”

“It’s okay,” I said softly.

Iroe nudged me.

“Um. I have to go.”

“What? No, I’m sorry. Please stay.”

“Why should I? You’re to be betrothed to my sister. I hope you enjoy being broke, because she will run right through your money.”

“It’s my parents’ decision. They thought of her.”

“How do your parents know my mum, anyway?”

“I think they went to school together.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah.”

“Is any of what your sister said true? Besides the expulsions.”

“No.”

“So you don’t sleep around and have a bet about virgins?”

“No.”

“Are you lying to me?”

“No.”

“Are you a virgin?”

“No. Now it’s my turn to ask you a question.”

“Okay, shoot.”

“Why are you a virgin? You’re beautiful.”

I spluttered. “Who says I’m a virgin?”

Gabriel raised his eyebrows. “You reek of purity, Luciana.”

I sighed. “Never even been kissed. Well, I was once, but it was horribly sloppy and gross. It was on a dare. But it’s my choice.”

“What do you have against sex?”

“Okay, I really have to go now.” I said, so not wanting to have this conversation with him. Plus I was lying to him. I didn’t want such a gorgeous man to know how undesirable boys found me.

“Why?”

Man, this boy just won’t give up, will he? “It’s getting late and I’m quite tired.”

“I’ll go start your bath,” Iroe said and trudged back up towards the house.

“Right behind you,” I said and started to follow her.

“Wait, Luciana.”

I turned around at Gabriel’s voice. Suddenly his grabbed me and kissed me. I stiffened, tense and uncertain how to react. On the one hand, he was gorgeous and an amazing kisser. But on the other, he was a pig. He had the personality of a dead slug that offends everyone who crosses paths with its lifeless corpse and he was meant for my sister. Laetitia would not be happy if she returned to find his mouth on mine. I tried to pull back, but he kept his arms locked around me. Finally, I relaxed and just let him kiss me.

At last, Gabriel pulled back. Grinning wickedly, he said, “There. Now you’ve been properly kissed.”

I spluttered for a moment. “That— That— How could you be so indecent?” I stammered, blushing. I didn’t want to admit that it had indeed been a marvelous kiss.

Gabriel grinned. “It’s easy. Especially because I know my parents would have a heart attack if they ever found out.”

“So that’s why you did it? To spite your parents?”

Gabriel shrugged. “Not entirely.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I find you interesting.”

“You mean you find me hotter than Laetitia and you just want to add another virgin to your list.”

Gabriel sighed. “For the last time, Luciana, I don’t have a list. My sister was lying to you.”

“I’m still not seeing the point. What would she gain from lying to me?”

“The satisfaction of someone else hating me.”

I quirked an eyebrow.

“Come on, Luciana. I promise I am not lying.”

“And how many promises have you broken in your past?”

“I swear it to you, Luciana. I am not a liar.”

“You don’t have to convince me,” I said. “It’s Laetitia you’ll have to be faithful to for the rest of your lives.”

“Your sister is dull and tedious.”

“I’m just glad it’ll be you stuck with her for the rest of your life instead of me.”

“I do not wish to marry her, Luciana.”

“Tough luck.”

“Do you think you could put in a word with your mother?”

I snorted. “Like she’d listen to me. The only one of us four girls she actually cares about is Laetitia. Laetitia is the only daughter she actually remembers she has.”

“I doubt that’s true.”

“I’m telling you, Gabriel. She will not listen to me.”

Gabriel sighed in aggravation.

“If Laetitia wishes to wed you, she will not listen or care what I think. Though honestly I cannot think of a more horrid match.”

“Me neither,” Gabriel muttered.

“Iroe is waiting. I’d best be getting back. Laetitia will be looking for you now, most likely.”

Gabriel nodded.

Together, we headed back towards the manor.

 

“Wake up, Miss.”

I blinked open my eyes to the morning sunlight streaming in through the curtains. “Iroe?”

“Oelle,” the maid said.

“Where’s Iroe?” I asked Oelle. Iroe usually woke me up. I was suddenly worried.

“She’s sick this morning, Miss.”

“Not the flu!”

Oelle shook her head, frowning.

“What, then?”

“She made me swear not to tell you, Miss.” Oelle said, pursing her lips.

I raised my eyebrows at that unexpected remark. “Excuse me?”

“She wanted to tell you herself.”

I hopped out of bed, jammed my feet in my slippers, pulled a robe tightly around myself, and rushed off to Iroe’s room. I knocked, but there was no answer. I knocked again. This time I heard a retching noise off to the left. I followed it to the servants’ bathroom. “Iroe?” I called.

Silence.

“Iroe, it’s Luciana! I heard you were unwell.”

The door slowly opened to show a pale and shaking Iroe.

“Oh my gods!” I exclaimed. “You look terrible.”

“Thanks.” She managed a weak smile.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean… What’s wrong?”

“Oelle didn’t say anything?”

“She said you made her promise not to. What was that about?”

“Erid.”

“What?”

“You remember Erid Laks, from the village?”

“The farmboy you had a crush on?”

Iroe nodded.

“What about him?”

Iroe ushered me into her room down the hall and shut the door behind her. “I’m pregnant, Lady.”

“You’re what?”

“Pregnant.”

“And you’re sure it’s his?”

“He’s the only person I’ve ever slept with, so yeah. Pretty sure.”

“Oh, Iroe.” I pulled her into an embrace.

“You’re not mad?”

I studied Iroe’s face. “Why would I be mad?”

“Because now I’ll have to quit. Or your mother will fire me.”

“I won’t let that happen.”

Tears streamed down Iroe’s face as she hugged me back. “I’ll miss you so much, Lady Luciana.”

“You’re not going anywhere.”

“I can’t care for a baby while working, Milady.”

“You also can’t care for a baby without any income.” I said reasonably. “Once this child is born, I will watch him while you work.”

“Are you sure?”

“Of course. Anything for my best friend.”

Iroe smiled at that. “Thank you, Milady.”

“Please, Iroe. We’re alone. You can call me by my first name in private. You know that.”

“Luciana,” Iroe whispered as if she was committing a scandal and afraid of being caught.

“I’ll take care of you, Iroe. I promise you won’t end up on the street.”

Iroe threw her arms around me unexpectedly, surprising us both. “Thank you, Luciana,” she said passionately.

“You’re welcome, Iroe.”

“No, really. Thank you.”

“It’s no problem.”

“It’s a huge deal to me and I cannot thank you enough.”

“It’s fine, Iroe. You can stop thanking me.” I patted her back.

Iroe pulled back from the hug, laying her hands over her stomach. Then her eyes widened, she turned and wrenched the door open, running down the hall back into the bathroom.

I winced at the retching sounds. Oh, poor Iroe.

“He won’t even marry me.” Iroe said miserably when I followed after her. “Erid said that his parents didn’t approve of the match. He said they didn’t want him tying himself to a maid.”

I frowned. Now it was personal. That asshole had hurt my best friend and on behalf of her and my family who employed her, I felt offended. “That rat bastard. They think working on a farm is more glamorous than our manor? So do they think they’re better than us? I mean, Erid literally works in shit. Shoveling horse and cow shit. How is making someone’s bed better than handling animal poop?”

Iroe managed a slight smile. “It’s nice you care so much about me. I think their disapproval is because he knocked up a girl he meant to be just ‘fooling around with.’ I’m not stupid. I know I meant nothing to him. I was just too… available. I was a booty call. A ‘warm body.’ That hurts, but I accepted it before I made the decision to jump in his bed. But you’d think that he’d step up and do the right thing since I’m carrying his child inside me.”

“That fuckwad,” I mumbled.

Iroe frowned. “That’s not a word.”

“It’s an insult.”

“It’s still not a word.”

“I know, but just go with me on this one. Erid Laks is a dirty fuckwad. He’s nothing but a filthy farmboy who thinks with his penis instead of his head.”

“He’s a dickwad,” Iroe suggested.

“That he is.”

There was a knock on the open door. We both turned.

Surprised, I wasn’t sure how to respond to the person standing there. “Gabriel!” I exclaimed.

“Your mother told me I’d probably find you down here. She didn’t sound happy about it. So… who’s a dickwad?”

“Erid Laks,” I said.

Gabriel raised his eyebrows. “Who?”

“A pompous farmboy who thinks he’s too good for Iroe. He broke my best friend’s heart and I will make him pay for that.”

“Ah. The bonds of friendship. Hmm.”

“What?”

“I’ve heard about that. Thought it was a myth, though.”

“Haven’t you ever had a friend?”

Gabriel shook his head. “Never saw the need for one.”

“Oh… Anyway, why are you here?” I asked, changing the subject.

“To see you.”

“Yes, I got that.” I said, glancing at Iroe. “But why?”

“We kissed, Luciana.”

Iroe gasped.

I ignored her for now. I hadn’t gotten around to telling her that part of the evening yet, in light of Iroe’s current dire situation. “So?”

“Didn’t that mean anything to you?”

“Actually, as I recall it, you kissed me. I had no say in this.”

“But you didn’t stop me.”

I should have pushed him away.

“In fact, if memory serves correctly, you kissed me back.”

“You’re right, I’m sorry, that was wrong. I should have stabbed you.”

“But you had nothing sharp on you.”

“Then I should have slapped you.”

“No, no. I won’t let you do that and quell our romance.”

“We have no romance, Gabriel.”

Au contraire, mon cœur,” Gabriel said dramatically, waving his hands with a flourish. “It is a forbidden romance.”

“Yeah,” I snorted, unwillingly impressed with his French. “Because it’s imaginary.”

“No, Luciana. There were definitely sparks last night.”

“And what about Laetitia?” I asked to remind him of why he’d even met our family, hoping to distract him. It didn’t work.

“I’ve told you— I do not want your sister.”

“Well. She certainly wants you.”

“I plan to speak to her today.”

“Oh?” I quirked my eyebrows.

“To tell her it is not her who enraptures me.”

I sighed, refusing to be charmed by his persistence and fancy words. “Gabriel…”

“Ah, yes. Say my name again. I love the way it rolls off your perfect, pink lips. Your accent is beautiful, mon amour, just like you.”

I really, really didn’t want to be charmed.

“Give me a chance, Luciana. Just one. I will prove to you that I am worthy of your heart and loyalty.”

“You don’t have to prove anything, Gabriel.”

“I don’t?”

“You’re not my type.”

“Oh.” Gabriel looked momentarily crestfallen before snapping back with vigor. “What is your type? I will be any type of guy, for you.”

“I like them dark and dangerous,” I lied, testing him. “You’re a soft marshmallow.”

Gabriel scoffed. “I can be tough!”

“I highly doubt that.”

“Meet me tonight, outside.”

“Where?” I asked. I didn’t want to be interested, but he peaked my curiosity. Plus it was fun to mess with him.

“Where we kissed.”

“I’ll think about it.”

“I will be there, hoping you’ll come. If you’re not there by midnight, I’ll leave you alone.”

I narrowed my eyes on him. “Okay. Deal.”

Gabriel left.

“You’re not really going to go, are you?” Iroe asked.

I shrugged.

“He’s meant for your sister!”

“I know.”

“Well, he’s certainly cute,” Iroe grumbled.

I made a noise of agreement, hating that it was true. “I’m not going to do anything rash.”

“Promise?”

“Of course.”

Iroe turned and started throwing up again. I turned and held her hair.

 

That night, I waited until everyone was asleep before rising and dressing quickly.

It was about ten-o’-clock. I had two hours until Gabriel would leave the clearing in the garden with the fountain, where he’d kissed me. I wasn’t sure if he was there already or if I should wait. Even if he was there, I decided to wait.

I sat on my bed and brushed my hair. Then I stood and just paced my room. Finally, I turned on the lamp beside my bed, sat, and opened my book until 11:45.

I was dressed completely in black. Standing against the window, I wouldn’t be seen except for maybe a faint silhouette.

It was a struggle to get the window open. Finally, I got it cracked wide enough that I could slip out of it without being noticed.

Luckily, there was a tree directly outside my window. It was hard getting from my window to the tree, but once I did it was fairly easy locating a branch that wouldn’t snap under my weight, and shimmying down the trunk. I tore a nail and the whole endeavor involved much swearing on my part. My hair was tangled and I was breathing hard when I reached the bottom.

The whole ordeal took about ten minutes. By then, it was almost midnight. Gabriel would be growing antsy.

Nerves fluttered in my stomach, feeling like butterflies. Or killer bees. Or giant fanged bats.

I went around the house to the front, making my way silently toward the gardens.

I rounded the hedge that blocked my view of the fountain. Gabriel was standing off the to the left of the fountain, scuffing his boots on the ground. He hadn’t noticed me yet. He kept checking his watch.

“Gabriel.”

Gabriel looked up quickly, his face a mask of surprise. He hadn’t expected I would come. “You’re here,” his tone was coloured in shock.

“Yes. I considered not coming, but Iroe’s concerns made me determined to prove her wrong.”

“Did she warn you against me?”

“Iroe believed Aukmelle-Aunora’s story.”

“Story?” Gabriel raised his eyebrows. “So you believe me that my sister is lying?”

“I’m still unsure.”

“But a little part of you must have believed me, otherwise you wouldn’t have come.”

“You said you could be dangerous— I was curious.”

“So you came from mere curiosity?”

There was no way I was going to admit I found him interesting. I nodded in response to his question.

“That’s one morbid curiosity you’ve got there, Luciana.”

“Morbid?”

Gabriel’s eyes darkened. He looked away. “You were right— you shouldn’t have come.”

“What—?”

“You shouldn’t be here, Luciana,” Gabriel said gruffly.

“I’m confused.”

“I am dangerous, Luciana. Despite what you think, I could hurt you faster than you can blink.”

“I think I’ll take my chances.”

“You don’t understand—”

“No. I don’t. So explain it to me.”

Gabriel sighed. He returned his blue gaze to me. He studied my face before he decided. “You need to promise not to tell anyone what you see here tonight. You mustn’t repeat anything said or done. I’m putting my entire family in jeopardy by showing you this.”

“Um…”

“Promise me, Luciana?”

“Everyone except Iroe.”

“Luciana…”

“She’s my best friend, Gabriel. I’m sorry, but we share everything.”

Gabriel sighed. “Fine. As long as she swears to keep this knowledge to herself.”

“Okay. Iroe is good at keeping secrets. If I ask her not to say anything about this, she won’t. But for the record, she knows I’m here. Just in case you planned on killing me.”

“I wasn’t planning on killing you.”

“Okay, well, just in case.”

Gabriel scoffed. “I’m not a murderer.”

“Good. Now what did you want to show me?”

Gabriel took a deep breath. “This isn’t easy for me. You’re the first person I’ve ever told.”

“Told what?” I asked. I was curious, but getting impatient.

Gabriel sighed. Holding my gaze, he shifted.

I gasped, gaping at Gabriel with my hand over my mouth. Where the man Gabriel had once stood, there was now a large black wolf. A million swearwords flashed through my mind at once. I settled with “Oh my gods.”

The wolf’s eyes were bright blue, like the human Gabriel’s.

I wasn’t sure of the appropriate response in this situation. I just stared at the wolf Gabriel. I read so much romance and science fiction, but never had I considered the creature in them could be real. I supposed it was plausible, as I fully believed in the possibility of ghosts and the myths of werewolves and vampires and zombies had to have come from somewhere.

Gabriel took a step forward, bringing himself towards me. I wanted to step backwards, but I forced myself to stay still. Gabriel took another step towards me. Another step. Finally he was right in front of me, so close I could feel his hot breath on my skin. He could no doubt smell my fear, but I was most worried he could smell my fascination and interest.

Gabriel took a step back and shifted again. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, why?”

“I don’t know… Most women would have passed out. Maybe puked. You took that in stride, sort of.” He grinned crookedly. “With only a little fear.”

I shrugged. “I read a lot.”

“Yeah, but those are fictional books. Make-believe. This is real-life.”

I shrugged again. “Were you born like that?”

“Yes. It’s in my genes. The males in my family have a particular genetic code that makes us… change. The female lack that gene, so we think it’s tied to the Y-chromosome. It’s why Aukmelle-Aunora hates our father and me so much. She’s jealous.”

“Does it hurt?”

“Does what hurt?”

“The transformation.”

“A little, because the bone structure has to shift. But not as much as the movies usually portray it.”

“The TV show Hemlock Grove has a werewolf in it named Peter. He’s one of the main characters.”

“And?” Gabriel cocked his eyebrows, not seeing what this had to do with him or my question.

“His transformation is so gross. It’s the nastiest one I’ve ever seen on television or read about.”

“I’ve never watched that show.”

“It’s good, but Peter’s shift is disgusting. Yours wasn’t too bad to watch.”

“The shift is fast, which is probably why it doesn’t hurt so much. In movies and TV shows, the transformations are slow. But that’s not very convenient. What if a rogue werewolf attacks you when you’re in human form? If it takes a long time to shift, you’re as good as dead. A werewolf needs to be able to shift fast.”

“That makes sense.”

Gabriel nodded. His expression as he watched me made me wonder if he was expecting me to run away screaming or to faint at any second.

Well, he would be disappointed, then. I had no intentions of fainting or fleeing.

“You’re stronger than I gave you credit for,” Gabriel said.

“A lot of people underestimate me.”

“Luciana.”

“Hmm?”

“Wolves mate for life.”

“What?” I asked at the randomness of Gabriel’s statement.

“I wanted desperately to please my parents with Laetitia, but I cannot marry a woman I don’t love. My parents have been together almost their whole lives because wolves mate for life.”

“Well, you can’t love me.”

“Why not?”

“Because we’ve only known each other for two days.”

“When I first met you, I couldn’t look away. You were the most beautiful, radiant person in the room. My heart immediately begged me to talk to you, but my head reasoned that I should give your sister a try because your sister is the one my parents propositioned. But I couldn’t take my eyes off you. When you smiled or laughed, which you only did when interacting with Lyra and Leoni, it made me unreasonably happy. It was so cute the way you acted with your younger sisters. It made me want you even more.”

I didn’t know what to say.

“You are stunning, Luciana. Do you know what imprinting is?”

“No.”

“It’s when an animal seeks someone to follow. The most common kind is a baby to a mother, known as filial imprinting. Filial imprinting is when a baby animal learns different behavioral characteristics from its parent. But animal behavior also includes sexual imprinting, which is when an animal finds a mating partner. Sexual imprinting is technically when a baby animal learns mate preferences early on in life, usually from a parent.”

“Are you saying you’ve sexually imprinted on me?”

“Um…” Gabriel looked unsure by my tone. “Yes?”

“Do your parents know?”

“I told my father last night that I could not marry Laetitia because I’ve imprinted and it wasn’t on her.”

“Did you tell him it was me?”

“Yes. He approves of this match. Not that he’d have any choice if he didn’t. He understands the nature of imprinting. He’s the only one who knows I’m here. He knows I’m going to show you our family secret.”

“Does your mother know?”

“Not yet.”

“Does Laetitia know?”

“No.”

“I thought you said you would talk to her today.”

“I wanted to tell you first.”

“Does Aukmelle-Aunora know?”

“She figured it out herself. During dinner. She saw the way I was looking at you. That’s why she told you to stay away from me.”

“Is Aukmelle-Aunora really adopted?”

“She’s my cousin, technically. But her family was slaughtered. My parents adopted her, so she’s now my sister.”

“Who killed her family?”

“Hunters. Professional werewolf hunters.”

“That’s awful.”

Gabriel nodded. “They ruthlessly murdered her real brother. He was tiny, only six years old.”

“Oh my gods.”

“Let’s not dwell on that right now, though.” Gabriel said. “It was sad, a tragedy, but now should be a happy time. I’m in love with you, Luciana.”

I didn’t know how to respond to his declarations of love. “This is all really overwhelming.”

“I know. I’m sorry.”

“You’re kind of springing a lot on me right now. You’re a werewolf, you’re madly in love with me… It’s a lot to process.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I’m not quite sure how to wrap my head around all this.”

“I know. Take your time.”

“I can’t… I’m sorry. I can’t give you an answer right now.”

“That’s okay. Take all the time you need. I’ll be waiting here tomorrow night. And every night until you come to find me.”

“You would wait for me?”

“For the rest of your life.”

“The rest of my life?”

“I’m immortal so it can’t be my life.” Gabriel reasoned.

“If I choose to marry or mate you or whatever, would I have to be changed into a werewolf?”

“You wouldn’t have to be, no.”

A small part of me wanted to be a werewolf. Strong, immortal, beautiful. With Gabriel. A small part of me that was slowly growing larger as he talked desperately wanted me to join Gabriel in eternity. The longer I spent with Gabriel, the more I seriously considered his life of darkness.

“Does silver really hurt you?”

“Yes,” Gabriel said, admitting his species’ weakness to me without hesitation. As if he knew my line of thought, he said, “I trust you, ma chérie Luciana.”

His accent was smooth and silky when he pronounced the French words. It made me shiver. “I will think over everything you’ve told me,” I promised. By now it was almost one in the morning and I was tired.

“I’ll be waiting here tomorrow night.”

“Goodnight, Gabriel.”

“Goodnight, Luciana.”

I turned and made my way back to the tree beneath my bedroom window. It was easier to climb the tree than to descend it. It took almost no time at all to maneuver my way from the tree branches to the window sill. I slithered into my room. Exhausted and overwhelmed, I pulled off my black clothes and collapsed into my bed. But once my head hit the pillow, I was wide awake. Everything I’d seen and everything that had been said whirled around inside my brain and sleep continued to elude me.

Finally, about four in the morning, I fell into an uneasy sleep.

 

“Luciana?”

“Iroe?” I blinked open my eyes as someone gently shook me. It was bright outside, but the light streaming in my still-open window looked off. The sun was too low. “What time is it?”

“About one.”

“I slept all day?”

“Most of the day.”

“Why didn’t you wake me earlier?”

“You weren’t needed. Your mother said to let you rest. So… how did it go?”

“How did what go?”

“Last night.” Iroe lowered her voice. “Gabriel.”

The events of last night seemed like a hazy, distant dream. “It went…” I bolted up, memory flooding back. “Oh my gods, Iroe!”

“What?”

“You’ll never guess what happened, but you have to promise to keep it a secret.”

Iroe looked confused, but nodded. “Okay.” She mimed zipping her lips and throwing away the key.

So I told her everything I had seen.

“A werewolf?” Iroe gasped.

“But you can’t tell anybody.”

Iroe held up three fingers. “Swear it on my mother’s grave.”

Satisfied, I sighed. “What should I do, Iroe?”

“What do you want to do?”

“I have no idea.”

“What are you feeling in this moment?”

“Confused.”

“What were you feeling when you first saw Gabriel last night?”

“Excited,” I admitted miserably.

“What did you feel when he… shifted?”

“Slightly afraid. But mostly fascinated.”

“You’re interested in this man, aren’t you?” Iroe guessed. “Even if you won’t admit it to yourself, I can see it. You like him.”

“But I can’t marry him. I can’t be his mate.”

“Why not?”

“Laetitia.”

Iroe gave me a droll look. “If that’s your only reason, it’s a very weak argument.”

“But—”

“You loathe your sister, Luciana. She’s stolen so much from you. You deserve to be happy. All Laetitia does is boss you around and steal your toys. Remember when we were little and your favorite Barbie went missing? And it turned out Laetitia had it? You owe her nothing, Luciana. You may be sisters by blood, but you don’t have to be loyal to that wench. We all know she wouldn’t hesitate to steal the man you wanted.”

Iroe was right, of course. When it came to my feelings, she was never wrong. We’d grown up together. She knew me too well. She was the only person who saw how horrible Laetitia truly was. Whenever I complained or tattled as a child, no one had ever believed me.

“It would serve her right,” I said.

“It would.”

“But—”

“No buts,” Iroe said. “You’re falling for him.”

“I’ve only known him for about two and a half days. I cannot love a man I’ve known for less than a week.”

“He showed you something he’s never shared with anyone else before.” Iroe reasoned. “That was, like, fifteenth-date material. But he trusted you enough to reveal that huge secret after two days. You could use that against him, to ruin his family, but he showed you anyway.”

“True.”

“I would say this courtship is less than traditional. He’s clearly crazy about you, whether it’s a wolfy thing or not. He’s strongly attracted to you and I saw the way you looked at him during dinner. I saw the way he looked at you. Sparks were flying, whether you accept it or not. So. Are you going to break his heart or are you going to give him what he wants?”

“I… don’t know.”

“Search your heart. Dig down deep. Look behind the veil at your emotions. I know you try to keep your feelings bottled up, inside a locked safe, in a box, behind a wall, covered and hidden. But it’s time to open that box and really examine your feelings. Your true feelings. When I say the name Gabriel Smythe, does your heart skip a beat? Do you smile every time you think of him? Do you feel a thrill of anticipation when you think of marrying him? Do you feel warm when you think of him? If you mentally answered ‘yes’ to any of those questions, maybe it’s time to give him his yes.”

“I…” I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, trying to relax. All I could see when I shut my eyes was an image of Gabriel branded on my eyelids. I felt excited at the idea of seeing him again. I felt tingly that he’d trusted me with such a big secret, with the ability to destroy his family. I opened my eyes and gave Iroe my answer.

“Then I think you’re ready.”

 

That night after a tense supper in which Laetitia spent the entire time glaring at me, I went to bed, thinking of Gabriel waiting outside for an answer that wouldn’t come. Iroe was right, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell Gabriel just yet. It was a big decision. I wanted to think it over a bit more before I committed myself to being Gabriel’s mate.

At the thought of being Gabriel’s mate and wife, my stomach clenched with nerves. I was excited at the thought, but nervous at what that might entail. Losing Laetitia, I could live with. And she definitely would never speak to me again if I chose to follow my heart, as Iroe advised.

But I knew nothing about werewolves. Gabriel’s parents seemed nice enough, but… Would they force me to become one? Would they make me stay home and produce heirs for their son? Would they want me to wait on their son? Would they expect me to kill for my food? What did werewolves eat, anyway?

Midnight came and passed. Soon the sun rose and I went about my day. I couldn’t focus on any of my chores. I slowly finished my chores for the day and then took my book to read outside like I normally did. I skimmed three pages before I realized I hadn’t absorbed a single word.

I sighed and placed the book down. I lay back on my hammock, closing my eyes. The warm breeze wafted over me. It was a beautiful day. I tried to clear my head, but my brain kept spiraling with questions and images of Gabriel as a wolf.

That night I’d had a nightmare about me turning into a werewolf and it was hard to shake. I had been standing in the garden by the fountain, which I’d been beginning to think of as Gabriel and my place. Gabriel stood in front of me. Gabriel fell to the ground, twitching. Suddenly it was the wolf that was standing there. It sat, staring at me. Then it opened its fanged mouth, its teeth dripping ropes of bloody saliva. Its eyes glowed red before it lunged at me, tearing into my jugular. When the wolf pulled back, its mouth was smeared red. My blood burned like hot acid. I twitched, spasming violently. Finally, the burning stopped. I stood, but realized I was now the height of the other wolf. Glancing down, I noticed where my feet and hands should be were massive dappled gray paws. Together, Gabriel-the-wolf and wolf-me ran around, killing innocent people. It was only when I bit into the leg of a little girl with large frightened brown eyes that I screamed myself awake. The little girl’s eyes kept haunting me.

My eyes snapped open as they once again swam behind my closed eyelids. I shook my head to clear it. Gabriel had said he wasn’t a murderer and I knew I wasn’t. But what if being a wolf changed people? What if Gabriel had been lying? If he’d admitted to eating people, he knew it would scare me off and if he truly had imprinted, it made sense that he would lie. But then why would he show me he was a wolf at all?

I closed my eyes again, trying to relax.

I hadn’t told Iroe about my bad dream yet. It was probably just my fears of the unknown manifesting itself in my subconscious, but what if my fears were founded? What if the Smythes were evil? What if Gabriel was everything his cousin-sister had said. What if Gabriel killed me on our wedding night?

I shook myself. Gabriel didn’t seem evil. But then again, I wouldn’t have guessed he was a werewolf either.

“Luciana?” Iroe’s voice said from above me.

My eyes flashed open. I sat up quickly, moving over to make room for Iroe.

“What’s wrong?” Iroe asked. She could always read me too well.

I told her about my nightmare.

“That’s natural,” Iroe said. “But you’re not a killer. That wasn’t you. Even as a wolf, you wouldn’t do that. Regular wolves don’t even do that. I bet werewolves are similar.”

“Then how come Hollywood always portrays them as rabid beasts?”

“I doubt anyone from Hollywood has ever actually met a werewolf.”

“True.”

“You’re just scared because you don’t know what to expect. Besides, didn’t you tell me Gabriel said you didn’t have to become a werewolf?”

“Yeah, he did.”

“Then you have the option to remain human.”

“But then I’d worry I’m too fragile and he’ll accidentally squash me on our honeymoon. Humans are quite breakable.”

Iroe tried to hide a smirk.

“What?” I asked, catching it. “Are you laughing at me?”

“No, no. “It’s just… You’re over-thinking this.”

“And you’re under-thinking this. My fears are valid.”

“Nobody said they weren’t, Luciana.”

“Yeah— you did.”

“No, you misunderstood. Look, Luciana. Gabriel’s handsome and wealthy. If nothing else, marry him because of that.”

“That’s shallow.”

“Perhaps, but that’s not why you’d be saying yes anyway. You’re falling for him, regardless of your fears.” Iroe reasoned.

“You think my fears are irrational,” I accused.

Iroe shook her head. “They have merit to them. I just think your feelings outweigh your fears.”

I noticed that she was shaking. “How are you feeling, Iroe? Are you cold, tired, hungry?”

“A little tired,” Iroe admitted. “I was up most of the night, puking up my guts.”

“Ew.” I wrinkled my nose in distaste at her imagery. “Let’s get you some food.”

“I think something wrong with the baby,” Iroe said.

“What do you mean?”

“This doesn’t seem like regular morning sickness. My older sister, Enna, has had three children already. She wasn’t throwing up this much.”

“Every pregnancy is different, I suppose.”

“Still. Nobody vomits this much.”

“I’ll take you to the doctor’s today.”

Iroe nodded. “Thank you, Luciana.”

“Of course. Let me just go tell Mother we’re going into town.” We got up and headed for the manor.

 

Downtown was relatively busy. We entered the doctor’s to find the waiting room empty except for a receptionist with colourful cats all over her purple shirt.

“May I help you?” She asked, looking up as we approached the desk.

“Um, yes. My maid is sick. She’s pregnant, but we think something’s wrong.”

“Name?”

“I’m Luciana Black.”

“The patient’s name, Miss.”

“Oh, right. Sorry. Iroe Abraxas.”

The receptionist handed me a form to fill out. “The doctor will be with you shortly.”

We chose some seats by a small round window on the opposite side of the waiting room.

My phone rang. I answered it. “Hello?”

“Luciana.”

I felt hot at the familiar voice. “Gabriel,” I said in surprise. “How did you…?”

“Leoni gave me your number.”

“Oh.”

“Have you thought over what I said?”

“Yes.”

“And?”

“I don’t know.”

“Oh.” Gabriel sounded crestfallen. “You need more time. Take it. I’ll be waiting in our spot.”

“I’ll have to call you back. I’m in the hospital now.”

“The hospital?” Gabriel asked, alarmed.

“I’m fine. It’s Iroe.”

“Is she okay?”

I was touched by his concern for my best friend. “I’m not sure. That’s why we’re here.”

“Oh. Is it the pregnancy?”

“We think so.”

“Do you want me to come to the hospital?”

“That’s not necessary.”

“I’ll be there soon.”

I sighed and hung up. “Gabriel’s on his way,” I told Iroe.

“Oh. That’s sweet of him.”

“Yeah.” I nodded. Smiling to myself, I thought of him traveling to the doctor’s office. Was he walking? Driving? Running in wolf form? It really was sweet of him to come, to show his concern and support of my best friend in her time of need.

We both looked up abruptly when the door opened to admit Gabriel. His hair was windblown and wet, leading me to assume he’d traveled in wolf form. It must have been raining outside. He headed straight for us when he saw us.

He took the seat next to me. “How are you feeling?” He asked me first.

“Fine.”

He gave me a look. “I can smell the fear on you.”

“I’m nervous for Iroe.”

He turned to my best friend and personal maid then. “How are you feeling, Iroe?”

“Sick.” She answered.

“Well, the doctor will figure out what’s wrong and get you fixed up.”

The door opened then and a tired-looking nurse called, “Iroe Abraxas!”

I felt Gabriel stiffen beside me.

Iroe stood. “Wish me luck.”

I squeezed her hand for support and watched her disappear through the door with the nurse.

“Abraxas?” Gabriel asked tensely.

“What?”

Gabriel shook his head, looking troubled. “It may be nothing…”

“What is it? Do you know someone with that surname?”

“I know the name, but not as a last name.”

“What do you mean?”

“Abraxas is the name of a demon.”

“A… what?”

“Well, some saw him as a god, some saw him as a demon, and some saw him as a combination of both. He came from ancient Egypt and Greece. According to myth, he had head of a lion or a rooster, which at times bore a royal crown, along with a dragon’s tail, and serpents instead of legs. He’s often depicted holding a whip.”

“That sounds horrifying.”

“He was.”

“Was he evil?”

“He was a demon, Luciana. Of course he was evil.”

“Do you think Iroe has something to do with this demon? Because if so, you’re wrong. Iroe is the sweetest human girl I’ve ever met. She couldn’t be connected to a demon.”

“I’m not saying she was. Maybe it’s a coincidence.”

I didn’t believe in coincidence, but that didn’t help my point now so I kept it to myself. There was no way Iroe had anything to do with a demon. She felt bad if she accidentally squashed a bug. Which, of course, meant it was my job to kill any spiders I found lurking in the house. I remembered this one time she accidentally stepped on an ant and made me attend a funeral service for it. I smiled fondly at the memory. No, I didn’t think Iroe could be related to this evil demon named Abraxas.

“How are you doing, Luciana?” Gabriel asked seriously.

“What?”

“You look exhausted.”

“I couldn’t sleep last night.”

“Thinking of me?” Gabriel teased. Then he sobered. Shrugging out of his jacket, he draped it over my shoulders. The outside was slightly damp, but the inside was very warm. At my questioning look, he explained, “You looked cold.”

“Thank you.”

Gabriel placed his arm around my shoulders and pulled me to him, maneuvering so my head was resting on his shoulder comfortably. “You can take a nap if you want.”

Gabriel smelled amazing, like rain and cologne.

“I hate you,” I mumbled.

“What?” Gabriel sounded worried, confused, and surprised all at the same time. “Do you really?”

“Well, no. I want to hate you. But I can’t.”

Gabriel smiled, satisfied. “Good.”

My eyelids heavy, I felt myself drifting off involuntarily. I was tired, but I wanted to stay awake and talk to Gabriel. I wanted to get to know him better.

As if following my train of thought, Gabriel said, “We have plenty of time to talk later. Sleep now, Luciana. You could use the rest. I’ll wake you when Iroe returns.”

“Okay,” I agreed, drifting farther into sleep.

Gabriel hummed a song I didn’t recognize and I fell asleep easily on his shoulder.

 

When I awoke, my head was in Gabriel’s lap and his jacket was covering me. Someone was talking above me. I kept my eyes shut, not ready to be awake yet. I felt someone’s fingers running through my hair.

“I won’t ever hurt her,” Gabriel was saying.

“You’d better not.” Iroe’s voice threatened. “She’s my best friend and she means the world to me.”

“I don’t ever want to hurt her. It would break me if she was upset.”

“Good. If you ever made her sad, I would break you, too.”

Gabriel laughed softly, trying not to jostle me. “I’ll be good to her. If she chooses to accept me.”

“She wants to. But my lady has trust issues. She’s been burned by men in the past. And by Miss Laetitia. She’s never gotten along with her sister. I remember this one time she had this huge crush on a noble boy named Arlie. Niles was the cuter one and the older one, but Laetitia chose Arlie because she knew how Lady Luciana felt about him. She dated Arlie just to spite Lady Luciana. They were together for five months before Lady Laetitia stomped on his heart viciously.”

“That’s rude.”

Iroe made a noise of agreement. “Lady Laetitia is not a nice person.”

“Well, I’m glad I dodged that bullet.” Gabriel joked.

“My lady is kind and sweet and loyal. If you break her heart, I swear to you I will kill you.”

“I’ve told you— I’ve imprinted on her. I am not physically able to break her heart or leave her. Not that I would if I hadn’t imprinted. Luciana is a lovely young woman. I would give her the moon if she asked for it.”

“You’d better.”

“You’re a good friend, Iroe.”

“The best,” Iroe said. “She’s the most important person in the world to me. We’ve been close since we were little. We’ve shared everything with each other.”

“I promise to protect her until our deaths, if that is to ever occur. While werewolves are immortal, they can be killed. If she is murdered, I will hunt down her killer until he suffers.”

“I like the sound of that.”

I blinked open my eyes and sat up, confused. We were no longer in the doctor’s office. “Where are we?”

“My parents’ house, Lady.” Iroe said.

“Oh. Wait, I remember this room from when we used to play here as children,” I said, a vague memory lingering. “So, what did the doctor say, Iroe?”

“Apparently I’m fine.”

“Really? All that throwing up is normal?”

Iroe nodded. “The doctor found nothing wrong with me.”

“Oh. Well, that’s good.”

Iroe nodded. “Healthy as a horse.”

I frowned. “I never understood that saying.”

“I’m hungry. You want some food?”

“Oh, sure.”

Iroe disappeared into the kitchen.

“Did you sleep well?” Gabriel asked me, concern knitting his eyebrows close together.

“Yeah, actually I did. How did we get here, by the way?”

“I carried you.”

“Oh.”

“You talk in your sleep, you know.”

I blushed, wondering what he could have possibly overheard. “Yeah, I know.”

“It’s cute.”

“Not when I say something embarrassing.”

Gabriel smiled. “You said my name quite a few times.”

I blushed a darker red. I buried my face in my hands. “Oh no.”

“No, no. It was adorable.”

“No, no. That’s humiliating.”

Gabriel managed to pry my hands away from my face. “Don’t hide, Luciana. You don’t ever have to be ashamed of anything.”

I looked up at him. “Thank you, Gabriel.”

“You have nothing to be embarrassed about. You’re perfect.”

My heart melted at those words. “Thank you,” I repeated. “You’re pretty perfect yourself, Mr. Gorgeous.”

Laughing, Gabriel leaned down and kissed me. It was our second kiss. It was slightly less unexpected than the first one had been, but it didn’t make me feel any less excited. Nerves thrilled in my stomach and his closeness.

I groaned in delight at the taste of him.

Gabriel’s arms snaked around my waist to hold me to him as he kissed me harder.

Someone cleared their throat by the doorway.

We both looked up to see Iroe standing there holding a plate of crackers and cheese.

Iroe gave me a stern look. “No making out on my watch.”

“Sorry, Iroe.”

Iroe shrugged. “It’s cool.” She set the plate down on the table.

I scooted off Gabriel’s lap and grabbed a square of cheddar cheese.

“I should get going,” Gabriel said. “Well, we should. It’s getting late. Luciana’s mother will probably be expecting her soon.”

Iroe nodded. “I had a pleasant time getting to know you, Mr. Smythe.”

Gabriel groaned. “Mr. Smythe is my father— I’ve told you. Call me Gabriel.”

Iroe nodded. “Good day to you, Gabriel. I enjoyed our talk.”

“As did I.” Gabriel replied, standing and pulling me to my feet. “Looks like we’ve got some explaining to do to your mother.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, puzzled.

“Well. I was invited to dinner, on the assumption I’d marry Laetitia and then I met you and…”

“And Mother will want an explanation as to how this happened.”

Gabriel nodded.

“Good luck.” Iroe said as we left.

“Did I ever officially accept your offer?”

Gabriel shook his head. “I think it’s obvious.”

I stopped Gabriel outside and turned to face him. I placed my hands on his shoulders and stared directly into his beautiful eyes. “I accept your proposal, Gabriel Smythe. I would love to be your wife and… mate.”

Gabriel smiled. “Have you given any thought to the wolf life yet?”

“Yeah.”

“And?”

“Yes.”

“Yes what?”

“I’ll do it.”

“Become a werewolf?”

I shrugged. “An eternity with you? Hell yes.”

Gabriel laughed and swooped me up into a hug. “I’m the luckiest man alive.”

“Why?”

“Because I get to spend forever with the most beautiful woman on the planet.”

I laughed as he kissed me again. He kissed me senseless. When his lips molded to mine, I lost track of time and didn’t know where I was. There was only me and him. I pulled back, grinning. “You are quite amazing, you know that?”

Gabriel cocked his eyebrows. “Amazing, huh?”

I nodded. “Oh, yeah.”

“How so?”

“Well, for one, you really know how to make a girl feel wanted.”

“You are wanted, Luciana.”

I savored his words. “Never before has a guy wanted me.”

“What do you mean? Never?”

“Never ever.”

“You’ve never ever had a boyfriend before?”

I shook my head.

“What about a summer fling?”

I shook my head again.

“What about the kiss you told me abut earlier? Your first kiss. The sloppy one?”

“I told you— it was during a game of truth or dare when I was thirteen.”

“So when you said the whole virginity purity thing was your choice…?”

“I lied.”

“But you’re the most attractive girl I have ever laid eyes on.”

I snorted. “Right.”

Gabriel raised his eyebrows at my sarcasm.

“You are the only guy who has ever thought so.”

“Maybe I’m just the only guy who has been brave enough to tell you how he feels. I don’t believe for a second no one has ever had a crush on you.”

“Believe it, because it’s true.”

“No. I don’t accept that.” Gabriel shook his head, took my hand, and started walking. He pressed a chaste kiss to my knuckles.

I laughed. “You stubborn wolf.”

“You are radiant, like the moon.”

“Shouldn’t it be sun?”

Gabriel gave me a puzzled look.

“Like the sun? Because the sun shines brighter than the moon.”

“Not to me.” Gabriel replied, with a half-smirk.

I giggled at the adorable expression on his face. It was half boyish charm and half sexy bad-boy.

“I am so glad you decided to accept me.”

“Me, too.”

“Otherwise I’d be branded with your name forever and I’d look like an idiot.”

Now it was my turn to give him a puzzled look. “What?”

Gabriel stopped, dropped my hand, and yanked off his shirt.

Caught completely off-guard, I couldn’t help but gape at him like a brainless fool. His muscles were well-defined, under the tan swathe of skin. He was truly exquisite. He was a work of beauty, like a statue sculpted by one of the great masters.

Gabriel grinned, catching me staring. He turned around to expose the sexiest back I’d ever seen. He pointed to an intricate black tattoo on his shoulder than wound down his back.

“What is that?” I asked, unable to read the cursive script.

“It’s Latin. It means, ‘forever yours, my heart.’” Gabriel translated before he read it in Latin. “Tua usque in sempiternum, et cor meum.” Then he pointed to two words beneath the Latin that I slowly deciphered.

My name:

Luciana M. Black

“What does the tattoo on your wrist say?” I asked, noticing it for the first time. Black letters looped down the length of Gabriel’s left arm, his dominant arm.

Cor tuum usque in aeternum.”

“Which means?”

“Latin again. ‘My heart is yours forevermore.’”

“I don’t know what to say, Gabriel.”

Gabriel tugged his shirt back on and slipped his hand into mine again. “Are you okay? I hope that didn’t freak you out. You look freaked.”

“No, no. I’m fine.”

“You sure?”

Strangely, I was touched. Perhaps I should have been freaking out, considering I’d known the guy for less than a week, but the tattoos actually made me happy. He was claiming me. I smiled. “Not freaked. Promise. It’s just… No one has ever loved me enough to do something like that before.”

“Your mother loves you.”

“She loves Laetitia. She likes the twins, sometimes. She tolerates me because one, she has no choice and two, she’s hoping to marry me off to a rich fellow that she can leech off of.”

“Your mother doesn’t seem that bad.”

“Trust me— she’s a witch.”

Gabriel laughed. “I don’t get along great with my mother, either.”

“My mum thinks I’m lazy and too fat and ugly to catch a decent husband.”

“Your mother’s wrong— you’re beautiful. And besides. If I was decent enough for her precious Laetitia, than she should be proud that you landed me instead.”

“She won’t see it that way. She’ll get angry and punish me.”

“For what? You haven’t done anything wrong.”

“For stealing you away from Laetitia.”

“I never belonged to Laetitia.”

“My mum and Laetitia will beg to differ.”

“I was never Laetitia’s, Luciana. You’re the one I want.”

“Mayhap, but you still came to the dinner with the intentions of marrying Laetitia.”

“She couldn’t handle the family secret.”

“Ah. The lycanthrope thing.” I teased. “My sister is a devout nonbeliever of the supernatural and paranormal.”

Gabriel grinned. “Lucky for me, I fell for the sister who does believe and knows how to deal with the knowledge that we exist.”

“True that.” I agreed.

“I doubt Mother and Father would have really made me go through with it. Marrying Laetitia.”

“Why do you say that?”

“I could hardly keep the family secret from my wife. I’d have had to tell her eventually. I have a strong feeling that wouldn’t have gone over well with her. Besides. My parents know the pull imprinting has on an animal. Even if I’d wanted to marry Laetitia or deny my attraction to you, it would be impossible.”

“What if you’d met Laetitia or another girl your parents were pushing you to marry and you hadn’t met me?”

“I still couldn’t have done it. If a werewolf has a soul mate our there, they’ll know. They’ll feel it. Maybe it’s just a gut feeling or whatever. But they’ll know that whoever they’re with is all wrong for them. They won’t feel right, won’t stop searching, until they find that person they’re meant to be with. Of course, some werewolves do marry those that aren’t calling to them, but they’re never quite happy in their relationship.”

“Did you feel me out there?”

Gabriel nodded. “I didn’t recognize what it was right away. Until my father told me he’d set up a meeting with a nice young girl named Laetitia and I felt physically ill at the thought of marrying her. I explained to my dad what I was feeling and he told me that was the pull of my soul mate.”

“Yet he made you come to this dinner anyway?”

“He’d already told your mother we’d be there. Besides, I’m glad he did. If we hadn’t shown up, I’d never had met you. Plus, I think part of me knew you’d be here.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I might have felt sick at the prospect of marrying a Laetitia, but somewhere deep down I just knew.”

“Knew what?”

“That I had to be here. That I couldn’t miss this dinner.”

I smiled. “So you came.”

“I did.” Gabriel smiled back at me. “The moment I laid eyes on you, I knew you were the one. That you were my soul mate. It hit me like a brick. No, a stack of bricks. A ton of bricks. I couldn’t breathe until I heard you speak and you smiled at me, welcoming my family into your home. I think my father knew, too, but he didn’t say anything. I finally told him and he said that if you truly were my soul mate, I’d know. And I did know. I knew with every fiber of my being. I knew that I would die if you rejected me. You, only, had the power to destroy me with one simple word. My father said that to find one’s soul mate can be the most glorious thing, but it could also be dangerous. I had a cousin who imprinted on this girl who turned him down. He would talk to anyone after that. He locked himself away in his room. Finally, the pain drove him so mad that he killed himself.”

“That’s terrible.”

Gabriel nodded.

“It’s a good thing I find you so irresistible then.” I joked.

Gabriel draped an arm over my shoulders, managing to keep our fingers intertwined. He leaned his head down to whisper in my ear as we walked. “You are entirely too enticing, my sweet.”

I blushed dark red at the compliment. “Th-thank you,” I stammered.

Gabriel laughed devilishly in my ear before pulling back, sending chills over my body. “You are a tempting seductress, my dear.”

“I haven’t seduced anybody.” I said flatly.

“My body craves you, Luciana. I need your touch, your kiss.”

I smiled up at him coyly, biting my bottom lip and gazing up through my eyelashes in an attempt to be sexy but most likely failing miserably.

“You are torturing me, Luciana.” Gabriel moaned aloud with a look of pure torment on his face, his azure eyes burning with desire.

“Happy to be your cause of anguish, my lustful werewolf.” I taunted him.

“You are causing me great distress, Luciana. You’re messing with things you do not understand.”

“Then enlighten me.”

“Dogs are naturally horny creatures. As part wolf and part teenage boy, I am unable to control my…”

“Urges?” I supplied.

“Yes. And yet you insist of causing such sweet, painful suffering.”

I grinned. “It’s my pleasure.”

Gabriel ground his teeth, hissing at my word choice. “This is agony, Luciana. Yet I refuse to dishonor you before our wedding night.”

I laughed. “The gentlemanly wolf.”

Gabriel gave me a look of supreme annoyance. “You’re doing this on purpose,” he accused.

I gave him an evil smirk. “Much to my delight and satisfaction. It’s fun to watch you squirm.”

“You’re going to be the death of me,” Gabriel proclaimed.

“Oh, honey.” I laughed. “I’m sorry. Fine, I’ll stop. Better?”

“Not really.” Gabriel huffed. “Today was clearly a bad day to wear skinny jeans.”

I glanced down, confused, and then suddenly understood. Blushing deep scarlet, I averted my gaze.

“Oh, now you’re embarrassed,” Gabriel grunted. “You’re the cause of that.”

I stopped walking, stood up on my tiptoes, and pressed a kiss to his lips.

“Not helping.” He groaned.

“Sorry.”

“Ah, the bittersweet torture,” he cried out sarcastically.

“Shh,” I hushed him, looking around to see if anyone overheard. We were alone on the street, except for a stray cat on the opposite sidewalk.

“Nobody’s here, Luciana.” Gabriel said, winding his arm around my waist and nuzzling my neck.

I stepped away from him, breathing hard. “Gabriel, stop.”

“Ah, come on.” He teased, pouting.

“Look, I want to, okay? Just not here.”

Gabriel sobered. “Of course. My apologies, love.”

“I want to.” I repeated, my gaze traveling to the center of his pants. “A lot.”

Gabriel grinned lopsidedly at me. “I can wait. I would wait for you forever, mon tentatrice.”

“What does that mean?”

“My temptress.”

I laughed. “Forever here to tease you.”

“I’d rather you please me.”

I giggled.

“Of course, your needs come first.” Gabriel said.

I blushed. “I can’t decide if that’s raunchy or sweet.”

Gabriel kissed me.

“Sweet,” I decided.

We reached my house.

I stopped, staring at it in trepidation.

“What’s wrong?” Gabriel asked.

“Time to face Laetitia,” I mumbled.

“I won’t let her hurt you.”

I smiled. “Not what I’m worried about.”

“Aw, are you concerned for my safety, Lady Luciana? I’m touched.”

I punched his arm playfully. “My mum can be a scary woman, but she’s nothing compared to my oldest sister. They’ll be pissed.”

Gabriel turned me to face him. He stared into my eyes and instantly I felt calmer. “Luciana,” he said carefully. “I love you. You, not here. It was never her. Your mother and sister are just going to have to accept that. And if they don’t… You can always come live with my family. We have plenty of extra rooms.”

I took a deep breath, gazing into his soothing blue eyes. “Okay.”

“Are you ready?”

“No.”

Gabriel took my hand and we went into the manor together.

 

The moment we entered the dining room, the tension was palpable. My mother’s eyes immediately went to our entwined hands.

Mum pursed her lips. “So,” she said tersely. “That’s where you got off to.”

“I can explain—”

Mother held up her hand. “You owe your explanation and apology to Laetitia, not me.”

Gulping, I turned to face my furious sister. I focused my gaze on her clenched fists instead of her face. “I’m sorry, Laetitia.”

Laetitia huffed. “I knew you were a filthy liar, but I never thought you were this low.”

Gabriel angled his body protectively in front of mine. His eyes snapped blue fire. I put a hand on his arm to warn him not to shift.

“Laetitia,” I said slowly. “I didn’t mean for this to happen.”

“I bet you didn’t, you little slut!”

I sighed and pushed Gabriel back so he wouldn’t harm my sister for that insult, which he seemed to be taking quite personally. “Lae—”

“Which of my other boyfriends have you also taken behind my back, you fat whore?”

Holy hell. If she had any sense of self-preservation, she’d shut up before I lost control of my livid werewolf boyfriend.

“None of them, you stupid swine.” I answered truthfully.

Laetitia snorted, glowering at me at the insult. “Likely story. I know you liked Arlie.”

Before you did, you evil witch. You only dated him to spite me.

I pinned her with a fierce glare, which she turned her nose up in an extremely haughty gesture. “Laetitia, I swear to you. I didn’t mean to… I didn’t want to fall for him.”

“So, tell me, slut. Have you done it?”

“Done what?”

“Fucked my betrothed?”

“You’re not engaged to him,” I said, fighting to stay calm.

“Well, I should be.”

I wanted to scream he doesn’t want you, bitch!, but I didn’t. Grinding my teeth, I insisted, “We didn’t sleep together.”

“You know what I don’t get, Luciana?”

“What?”

“Why he’d pick you over me. I’m older, more… experienced, and let’s face it— a million times prettier.”

I would argue, but she had a point. I didn’t understand why Gabriel had imprinted on me either. Laetitia was classically beautiful, while I resembled a potato.

“Laetitia,” Gabriel growled from behind me. “This isn’t a slight to you. I just… I love Luciana. Not you. Get over it.”

Laetitia stared at him indignantly. “How dare you.”

I turned to plea with my mother. “Mum? Please. I know Laetitia is your favorite, but don’t I deserve a happy ending, too? Even if it isn’t Laetitia marrying him, he’s still going to be part of the family.”

My begging apparently didn’t move my mother.

“I can’t believe you’d do this to your sister, Luciana. You disgust me.” She curled her lip to emphasize her disgust.

“Come on, Luciana.” Gabriel said. “You don’t deserve this.”

Gabriel pulled me toward the entryway.

“If you walk out that door with him, Luciana, don’t ever bother coming back.” Mother threatened.

“Fine. You never have to see me again,” I replied.

Mother stared at me angrily.

“Goodbye, Larna Black,” I said, using her name instead of ‘mother’ or ‘mum’ to show I understood we were no longer family. “And fuck you, Laetitia. Oh, wait, no. I’m already fucking your boyfriend.” I winked at her and left them there, gaping after me.

“That was so wicked,” Gabriel said once we were outside. “Clever, but wicked. They’ll never forgive you for that.”

“I don’t want their forgiveness. They’re a bunch of pigs.”

Gabriel smiled at me, sweeping me up into his arms. He carried me away from the house.

I ran my hand over the muscles of his arms. “You’re incredibly strong to lift a sack of potatoes like me.”

Gabriel frowned at me. “Don’t call yourself that, Luciana.”

“Why not? My sister was right— she’s much prettier than me.”

“Not to me.”

“That’s very sweet, but Laetitia—”

Gabriel interrupted me sternly. “Laetitia holds no appeal for me, Luciana. I chose you.”

I liked the sound of that. I reached down and squeezed my stomach. “But I’m fat.”

“No, you have fat. That doesn’t mean you are fat.”

“I’m fat,” I said flatly.

“No,” Gabriel protested. “Stop saying that.”

“At least Laetitia’s skinny.”

Gabriel gave me a peeved look. “Love yourself, please, ma fille chérie.”

“I don’t know how.”

“You hate the way you laugh. You hate the way you look. You’re constantly comparing yourself to others.” Gabriel stated. “All the things you hate about yourself are the things I love. I just wish you would stop comparing yourself to others. You don’t need to be self-conscious about yourself. I love you, okay?”

I nodded.

“Listen to me, Luciana. You are beautiful.”

I smiled up at him as he walked. “You’re way out of my league.”

“No. I’m not.”

“Laetitia was dumbfounded that you chose me over her and she has a point.”

“No, she doesn’t.”

“Laetitia—”

Gabriel sighed in aggravation. “Laetitia this, Laetitia that. Laetitia doesn’t matter to me, Luciana. You do. Stop being so hard on yourself. All you need is a halo and wings and you’d be an angel.”

I laughed at the cheesiness of that statement. “I’m sorry for irritating you.”

“You’re not irritating me.”

I pressed a kiss to his cheek. “You’re too good for me.”

“No, I’m not. Promise.”

“But—”

Gabriel gave me a look of infinite frustration. “Shut up, Luciana. You don’t get to tell me I’m too good for you. Stop trying to push me away. You are beautiful. When I first met you, I was half convinced I was meeting a goddess. You don’t see yourself very clearly. I wish you could see yourself through my eyes. Then you’d see how beautiful you really are.”

“That’s the imprinting talking.”

Gabriel shook his head. “You are truly a vision, Luciana. Ravishing. I have never seen a woman more beautiful, ma délicieuse fleur.”

“What does that mean?”

“My delightful flower.”

“Is that true?” I asked hopefully.

“Is what true?”

“That you’ve never seen a woman more beautiful.”

“Never,” Gabriel promised. “Never ever have I seen a lady more stunning, ma charmante tourterelle.”

“What does that mean?”

“My charming turtledove.”

“You’re so sweet.” I said, blushing.

“I’m just telling the truth.”

“You really see me like that?”

“Like I told you before, you don’t see yourself very clearly, ma fiancée enchanteur.”

“What does that mean?”

“My enchanting fiancée.”

“Oh,” I said. “I could have figured that out.”

Gabriel kissed the tip of my nose. “Are you ready to meet my parents as my bride-to-be?”

“No.”

Gabriel laughed. “They won’t bite.”

I gave him a droll stare. “You’re not funny.”

“I’m hilarious.” Gabriel said, grinning. “But seriously, Luciana. You have nothing to be afraid of.”

“What about Aukmelle-Aunora?”

“What about her?”

“She doesn’t seem to like me much.”

“It’s me she doesn’t like.”

“Well, I’m your mate. Chances are she won’t like me either.”

“You’re perfect. Don’t worry about it.”

“What if she tries to eat me?”

“She’s not a werewolf.”

“So? I never said she was.”

Gabriel laughed. “Calm down, Luciana. I won’t let her hurt you.”

“What if your parents don’t approve of me?”

“They will. Stop worrying.”

We reached his house, which was more of a mansion. His home towered over us.

“You live here?”

“Yeah… Why?” He asked cautiously. “Is there a problem?”

I wasn’t sure what he saw on my face, but I was sure I looked shocked. I closed my gaping mouth. Stop gawking, I chastised myself.

“Luciana…?”

“It’s huge,” I said in awe.

“Is that okay?”

“It’s beautiful,” I stressed. I looked at Gabriel, alarmed and overwhelmed, focusing on his gorgeous features. I backed away. “I don’t belong here.”

“You belong with me.” Gabriel said. He wrapped me up into his arms. “Shh, shh. Luciana, you’re over-thinking this.”

“Your parents are going to think I’m not good enough.”

“They’ll love you.”

“I’m not good enough for you, Gabriel. I’m not right for you… Oh my gods, I’m all wrong.”

Gabriel grabbed my face, holding my head between his palms. He stared deep into my eyes. “Luciana.”

“Mhmm?”

“You are my soul mate. Stop worrying what my parents will think of you. You shouldn’t care about that. I think you’re perfect and they’ll respect that.”

I felt reassured in his arms. “Okay.”

“You good?”

I nodded. “I’m ready.”

Gabriel took my hand and together we went to meet his parents as a couple.

 

“I like her.”

“Luciana will be so glad.”

I paused in the hallway outside James Smythe’s office on my way to the kitchen to get a drink.

“Really?” Gabriel asked, voice hopeful, from somewhere behind the cracked door to his father’s office.

“Yes. She reminds me of your mother when she was younger. She’s got a fire in her.”

“That she does,” Gabriel agreed. “She was worried you would disapprove of her.”

“She’s a good match for you, Gabe.”

“I know. She could not be more wonderful.”

“How did she take the news?”

“What news?”

“Our family secret.”

“Better than I could have hoped.”

“That’s great to hear. I like her.”

“So do I.” Gabriel said softly.

“Does she want to be bitten?” Mr. Smythe asked.

“Yes.”

“I’m proud of you, son.”

“What for?”

“Picking a good soul mate.”

“Well, that’s not really under my control.”

“Still. She’s all kinds of right for you.”

“I can’t wait until our wedding,” Gabriel said. “I want the world to know she’s mine.”

Mr. Smythe laughed. “So eager. Like I was, when your mother and I discovered each other. I fell hopelessly in love with Maggie. I did everything I could to woo her, but she kept turning me down. Finally she agreed to go out with me and you know what she said? She said she only said no because she was afraid of losing her heart to me and getting hurt. We went on more dates and I told her our family secret. She took it relatively well and agreed when I asked her to marry me.”

“I cannot live another day without Luciana.”

“She feels the same,” Mr. Smythe said.

“How do you know?”

“The way she looked at you during dinner every time you looked away.”

“Really?”

“Why don’t you ask her?” Mr. Smythe said. “She’s been standing outside for quite some time.”

I blushed, my heart jumping at having been caught.

The door opened and Mr. Smythe ushered me inside his office. “Eavesdropping isn’t very polite, dear.”

“Sorry. I was on my way to get some water and I heard my name.”

“It’s okay.” Mr. Smythe assured me. “Gabe, go get your mate something cold to drink.”

Gabriel left us alone.

“I admire your spunk,” Mr. Smythe told me. “You’re… feisty.”

“Is that a good thing, sir?”

“Oh, yes.” Mr. Smythe nodded. “I approve of this pairing.”

“That makes me happy, sir, because I very much like your son.”

“I knew the moment he’d imprinted.”

“Did you, sir?”

“I saw his face when you entered the room back at your manor. Throughout dinner, he couldn’t take his eyes off you.”

“I noticed.”

“I could smell the love on him.”

“Really?”

Mr. Smythe nodded. “The way his face lit up when he saw you, I knew you were his soul mate. That’s why I kept asking you questions and practically ignoring that tedious girl. What was her name?”

“Laetitia, sir.”

“Laetitia. That’s right. She bored me terribly.”

“She bores me, too,” I admitted. “I get along with the twins alright, but Laetitia and I have never shared a nice moment. None of the memories I have of her are pleasant.”

“Well, then, it is my pleasure to take you away from her.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Gabriel returned with a glass of water with ice in it. I accepted it from him, sipping it mildly.

“What are we talking about?” Gabriel asked.

“Laetitia.” Mr. Smythe said.

Gabriel rolled his eyes. “That woman is a mess.”

“She’s spoiled,” I said. “Mother gave her everything she’s ever asked for. She was just unused to hearing the word ‘no,’ especially from a guy she wanted.”

“It’s a good thing it was you Gabe imprinted on, then.” Mr. Smythe said and Gabriel nodded vigorously in agreement.

I smiled. “I thought you wouldn’t approve of me,” I admitted sheepishly.

“So I’ve heard,” Mr. Smythe said. “But you could not be more perfect for our Gabriel.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Of course, Luciana. You are family now.”

I smiled as Gabriel wrapped his arms around me from behind me and rested his chin on top of my head. He pressed a kiss to my hair. Leaning his head down to whisper in my ear, he breathed, “I love you.” He pressed a warm kiss to my neck then and I blushed because his father was watching us.

Mr. Smythe smiled knowingly. “I’ll leave you two alone, then.” He stood and shut the door to his office behind him on his way out.

“Words cannot express how much I love you.” Gabriel said, turning me around in his arms to face him.

“I love you too much to say.” I agreed.

“Now we have an important matter to discuss.”

“Which is?”

Gabriel grinned playfully and teased, “What kind of panties do you wear?”

“Oh my god.”

Gabriel smirked. “Just kidding.” He sobered. “Do you want to be turned before or after our wedding?”

“Before.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life.”

“It will hurt,” Gabriel warned.

“You know, I do have one concern,” I said. “And it isn’t the pain.”

“What is it?”

“What if, once I’m turned, I imprint… on someone else?”

“You won’t. Fate wouldn’t make a soul mate triangle. That doesn’t make sense. If you’re my soul mate, I can guarantee I’ll be yours.”

“Oh,” I exhaled, relieved.

Gabriel tightened his grip around me.

“Is soul mates merely a werewolf principle?”

Gabriel shook his head. “Werewolves, vampires, zombies—”

Vampires exist?”

Gabriel laughed at my expression. “Well, if werewolves exist, why can’t vampires?”

I shrugged. “I suppose you’re right. So it’s just a supernatural thing?”

Gabriel nodded. “Yeah.”

“And it lasts forever?” I asked before I realized it was a dumb question.

“My love for you will never fade,” Gabriel promised.

“That’s what I want to hear.”

“I like making you happy.”

“Your presence makes me happy.”

Gabriel smiled.

“Your dad totally thinks we’re banging in here.”

Gabriel chuckled. “I know.”

Laughing with him, I blushed. “That’s embarrassing.”

“It doesn’t have to be,” Gabriel said.

“What do you mean?”

“Don’t let it get to you. He’s just teasing.”

“Really? He looked pretty damn serious when he left.”

“I promised you I wouldn’t touch you until after marriage, unless you ask for it. I refuse to defile your honor.”

I smiled. “What a gentleman.”

Gabriel tugged me against his chest, cradling me there. “You are so beautiful and tempting, Luciana. It is so hard for me to wait. But I respect you and your body.”

“Thank you, Gabriel,” I said, touched.

“I would never do anything you didn’t want. Especially not by force.”

I smiled and kissed him. “That’s very sweet of you, Gabriel.”

There was a knock on the door.

Gabriel went to open it. I was surprised when Aukmelle-Aunora entered.

“Aukmelle,” Gabriel said tensely. “What do you want?”

Aukmelle-Aunora glared daggers at me. “To stop a mistake.”

“What do you mean?” Gabriel asked, rolling his eyes and grinding his teeth in annoyance. His anger was evident in his eyes and posture, as well.

Aukmelle-Aunora pinned me with a serious look. “Don’t do this, Luciana.”

“Do what?”

“Marry Gabriel.”

“That’s enough, Aukmelle-Aunora.”

Aukmelle-Aunora continued, ignoring Gabriel. “This union will ruin your life, Luciana.

Assez!” Gabriel snapped in French before repeating it in English. “Enough, Aukmelle-Aunora.”

Aukmelle-Aunora looked me dead in the eyes before she said flatly, “Whatever you do, do not sleep with him. It will only bring you pain and regret.”

Gabriel sighed in exasperation and pushed Aukmelle-Aunora unceremoniously out of the room, slamming the door in her face.

“What the hell was that?” I asked, bewildered.

Gabriel shrugged. “I told you she doesn’t like me.”

“That was bizarre.”

“No kidding,” Gabriel agreed. “It’s getting really old, her trying to warn you away from me.”

“Definitely.”

Gabriel turned thoughtful.

“What is it?”

“You said you wanted to be bitten before our wedding. How much before?”

“Now.”

“What?”

I was scared, but I wanted this. To be with Gabriel forever. “Now,” I repeated. “Do it now.”

“Are you sure?”

I nodded. “Positive.”

“It’ll hurt.”

“I know.”

“You want it anyway?”

“I want you. I’ll endure it for you.”

Gabriel smiled distantly. “I’m just reluctant to hurt you.”

“Then I’ll get your father to turn me.”

No,” Gabriel growled, focusing on my face. “I will do it.”

“Okay.” I smiled. “I only wanted it to be you, anyway. Afterwards, we can have eternity together.”

“I like that thought.”

“So do I.”

Gabriel gripped me tighter. “I will never let you go.”

“I never plan on leaving.”

“I’ll die if you do.”

“Then I’ll stay. Forever. Just remember that when I’m annoying, it’s your fault I’m here.” I teased.

Gabriel smiled and then captured my lips with a low, lusty snarl.

 

Pain lanced through my body. I was dressed in a white gown and lying on Gabriel bed. The bite mark on my wrist had healed.

My body was in pure agony. It felt like fire was ripping through my veins, tearing my human body to pieces. I screamed.

It was only me and the pain. I couldn’t hear or feel anything outside of my body. All I was aware of was the pain.

My back arched, my spine cracking and realigning. It hurt like Hell. Like I was actually, physically going through Hell.

My skin burned, tingling sensitively. I threw my head back and screamed again.

A picture of Gabriel’s face formed in my mind. He was so beautiful. He would be worried, watching me in this much pain. I needed to stay calm for him. I needed to contain my agony and not show him how much it hurt.

Cool hands brushed against my forehead. “Luciana?”

Suddenly I was aware of the room. Gabriel’s face floated in my vision.

“Gabe?”

“I’m here, sweetie. How do you feel?”

“Weak and strong all at the same time.”

“Do you feel well enough to shift? Try it.”

I stood up shakily. I closed my eyes and pictured me as a wolf. When I opened my eyes again, my gaze was level with Gabriel’s thighs. It had worked.

“You’re beautiful,” Gabriel breathed.

“The wedding should be soon,” Mr. Smythe said. “Now that you are one of us.”

“You make such a lovely wolf, Luciana,” Mrs. Smythe said.

Aukmelle-Aunora, who had been forced to be there and was standing against the farthest wall, snorted in disdain.

Mr. and Mrs. Smythe left the room, ordering Aukmelle-Aunora out with them.

Once we were alone, Gabriel shifted and I discovered I could hear his thoughts.

Is this a werewolf thing? I asked mentally.

No. It’s a soul mate thing.

Oh. Does the shift ever get easier? I asked. I had so many questions.

Yes. The pain lessens eventually until the transformation is easy and fluid. The first time hurts like a bitch… no pun intended.

I love you, Gabriel.

I know. And I love you more.

I love you most.

I love you more than the most.

I wrinkled my nose at him playfully.

Gabriel nudged my shoulder with his nose, nuzzling my neck. Let’s go for a run, shall we?

I followed Gabriel outside. It was dark, about two in the morning.

Gabriel took off running and I kept pace with him.

Iroe must miss you greatly.

A strong feeling rushed through me at his words, a sort of angry, bloodthirsty need for revenge. Without thought, I veered to the left and kept running. Finally, I reached the outskirts of Iroe’s village.

I could feel Gabriel behind me, hear him calling out my name in my mind.

I crouched I the underbrush, watching the village. It was empty except for a few drunken patrons stumbling from the pub.

Luciana, what are you doing? It is too dangerous for you to see her now. Wait until you learn to control—

I’m not here for Iroe.

Why are we here, then?

I’m here for vengeance.

What do you mean?

I could feel Gabriel’s concern and alarm. I stared straight ahead at the house I was targeting. I said two words: Erid Laks.

Who is that? Gabriel called after me, but I was already moving stealthily towards the farmboy’s house.

You will pay for what you did to Iroe, I thought furiously. My words weren’t intended for Gabriel, but he heard them anyway.

Wait, Luciana. Is this boy the father of Iroe’s child?

Yes and he deserves to answer for how he’s treated her.

That’s sweet and I’m sure Iroe appreciates your loyalty, but you can’t just go around killing people.

I felt a spark of annoyance at Gabriel’s logic. They’ll think it was a wolf. They won’t be looking for a person, so we’ll go unsuspected.

My family would have to move, Gabriel said. Far away from here.

I want Erid dead.

Gabriel shifted back into human form. He approached me slowly and reached his hand out to stroke my back.

The second Gabriel’s hand touched me, I calmed. Shifting, I stood.

Gabriel hugged me, continuing to stroke my back. “Erid Laks is a dick, I agree, but I don’t want you to put yourself needlessly in danger.”

“Defending one’s friend is not ‘needlessly.’”

“Iroe probably appreciates your protection, but the damage is already done, Luciana. By killing Erid, you won’t unmake the baby.”

“He’s an asshole.”

“Again, I agree. However, as much as Iroe curses Erid and says she hates him and blames him for what’s happened to her, she still loves him.”

“How do you know?”

“She slept with him.”

“So, what? Sex can’t be recreational?”

“Luciana. Iroe has a part of Erid growing inside her. She may curse his name and his family, but she doesn’t truly hate him.”

I do.”

“Don’t make Iroe’s baby grow up without a father.”

“He’ll grow up without a father anyway. Do you really think Erid gives a damn that Iroe is pregnant and the child is his? Erid doesn’t care about Iroe if he’s letting her go through this pregnancy alone. She’s terrified, Gabriel.”

“I know.” He said, dropping a quick kiss to the top of my head. “I know, Luciana.”

“I don’t think I can just let this go, Gabriel.”

“Let’s go home, okay?” Gabriel linked his fingers through mine and tugged on my hand.

I hesitated and then let him pull me back the way we’d come. “You don’t think Erid deserves to die?”

“I think,” Gabriel said carefully. “Erid deserves many bad things to happen to him. I would happily let you go after him… But you didn’t hear her after we got back from the doctor’s. We talked while you were asleep of a great many things. But when she spoke of Erid… the way she spoke of him. I could tell she still has feelings for him.”

“But he’s a rotten bastard.”

“You’ll hear no argument from me on that. But Iroe loves him. Respect that, Luciana.”

I sighed. “I do. It’s stupid, but if you say Iroe truly cares for him and wants him alive, even if she thinks he’s lowly scum for what he did, I’ll leave him alone.”

“She’s mad at him, of course. But she does care for him.”

“Fine. I’ll let the little rat live.”

Gabriel chuckled. “Thank you. You’re making the right decision.”

We shifted and ran back to Gabriel’s mansion.

In Gabriel’s room, Gabriel wrapped his arms around me.

I snuggled into his chest, lying on top of the covers on his giant four-poster bed. I tucked my head under his chin.

“I am the luckiest man alive.”

I smiled, gazing up at him. “And I’m the happiest woman on the planet.”

Gabriel grinned. “We should get some sleep.”

I stood and headed toward the door.

“Wait,” Gabriel called after me.

I turned back, my heart fluttering expectantly.

“I need you with me, ma prune de sucre.” He said.

“What does that mean?” I asked, going back and sitting on the bed.

“My sugar plum.”

I frowned. “That’s an odd endearment. Cute, but odd.”

Gabriel smiled and raised up to capture my lips with his. “Stay with me?”

“What will your parents think?”

“They won’t care. They think we’ve already done it.”

“Earlier, in your father’s office?”

Gabriel nodded. “I promise all we’ll do is sleep. No funny business.”

What if I want funny business? A voice whispered in my brain, tempting me with naughty pictures and scenarios.

I lay down next to Gabriel, pressed against his side. Quickly, I made a decision. “I want it,” I said softly.

Gabriel glanced down at me. “You sure?”

I nodded. “I want to give myself over to you completely, body and soul.”

“I already have your soul, soul mate,” Gabriel said pointedly, putting strong emphasis on what I was to him, indicating exactly what I meant to him. “We are to be married. I’ll have your vow then, too.”

“I want to give you my body, too. I want you to have all of me. I want to give you my most precious possession: my virginity.”

Gabriel smiled and kissed me sweetly. “You’re giving me your innocence?”

“You’d have it anyway, on our wedding night.”

“You’re positive you don’t want to wait?”

I nodded. “I love you, Gabriel Smythe. Now and forever.”

“Not as much as I love you, Luciana Black,” he replied, his sapphire eyes burning with intense fire into mine. Slowly, he leaned in, keeping his gaze locked with mine, and kissed me breathless. “You are my forever.”

Advertisements