Three towering figures stood facing each other in a loose semi-circle. The ruby red of their robes was the only discernible color in the darkness. From afar the color seemed like a bloody smear against the inky black of the cave’s wall. Up close, the splash of color only served to emphasize the seemingly empty space within the recessed area of their hoods.
There was no outward sign that the figures were aware of the storm raging just beyond the cave’s entrance. They were unmoving even as a flash of lightning filled the cavern with its blinding glare while an answering crash of thunder echoed along its length.
“The pieces are almost in place.”
“It won’t be long now.”
“She is finally ready to become who she was always meant to be.”
Two of the figures twisted their heads to face the one standing between them.
“But it has been foretold.”
“It is but one of two paths.”
The leftmost figure’s robe rippled, as if the person within was fidgeting restlessly.
“For all that we See, we cannot Know.”
“Not until it has come to pass.”
“There is always a choice.”
The figure in the center dipped its head in a nod. “And so you understand.”
The wind howled as the storm raged on.
“We will wait.”
“And bear witness.”
“Where is the Vessel now?”
The central figure’s shoulders shook with what might have been laughter. Without waiting to see if the others would follow, he turned and began to make his way deeper into the catacombs.
“She celebrates life before she must greet death.”
“Sweet Mother, yes!” Helena screamed as Von drove into her with one final, toe-curling thrust.
Von’s eyes glittered with wicked satisfaction as he leaned down to kiss her before rolling onto his side and pulling her limp body against his. “We should just stay locked in here tonight and skip the dog and pony show.”
Helena let out a snort of amusement as she twisted her head to look at her Mate. “That dog and pony show is your brother’s mating ceremony.”
“Yes, but I much prefer our mating ceremonies.” There was no mistaking his innuendo or the sexual promise shining in his silvery gaze.
Despite barely being able to keep her eyes open, Helena’s blood quickened at his words. “You’re trying to kill me,” she finally declared.
“But what a way to go.”
They chuckled together, sharing another brief kiss. Von moved to lie on his back, and Helena followed him, curling into his side and resting her head over the still thundering beat of his heart.
With her fingers lazily tracing the scrolling lines of his Jaka, she sighed and said, “I should probably go down to check on things. There’s not much time left before the guests start to arrive.”
Von grunted, holding her tighter.
Knowing better than to try and protest, Helena let her sleepy eyes take in the room. Last time she’d stayed at the Holbrooke Estate, they’d set her up in one of their guest rooms. This time she was sharing Von’s childhood room, and it amused her to see the evidence of the boy he’d once been still littered around the chamber.
“So how many women know about your penchant for drawing?” she teased.
Von raised a brow. “My what?”
Helena gestured toward the crudely sketched portrait of what she assumed was a Daejaran wolf.
Von followed her hand before bursting into surprised laughter. “Oh, that. Nial made it for me. When he was four.”
“And here I was thinking I finally found something you were terrible at.” Helena’s words were playful, and her smile grew at the thought of the proud little boy showing his big brother what he’d drawn.
He scoffed. “If I had drawn it… hell, if it was just a bunch of stick figures holding swords, and I told you I’d made it especially for you, you’d do the same thing.”
“What’s your point?”
“That the value is not in the skill.”
Von peered at her curiously. “You wanted to take it, didn’t you? When you thought I had drawn it?”
His chest rumbled with his laughter. “Do you want me to draw you a picture, Mira?”
“Only if you use stick figures.”
They laughed again.
“And what did you mean my women?” he asked once their laughter had faded. “Just how many do you think have been in my room?”
Helena’s cheeks grew warm. “Well, I mean… clearly you have a past. You don’t learn how to do that without experience.”
“Helena, look at me.” His warm voice grew serious. He didn’t continue speaking until her eyes met his. “You are the only woman I’ve ever allowed into my room, at least in any kind of romantic capacity.”
The pleasure and relief that filled her at his admission almost surprised her. “But surely you had conquests…”
“Aye, but never here.” At her confused expression, he elaborated. “It saves you from enduring a series of uncomfortable conversations. Not to mention it’s a lot harder to leave once you’ve finished when it’s your room.”
Helena shook her head with mock disapproval. “Quite the lover even then.”
Von gave her a wry smile. “Love had nothing to do with it, and there was never a reason to stay.”
“Not until you.”
Helena could feel the sincerity of his words filling her through their bond. “Lucky me,” she murmured, moving to kiss him.
“No, Helena. Lucky me,” he corrected, brushing a stray curl behind her ear before closing the distance between their lips.
Before their tender kisses could go any further, a knock sounded at the door.
“Your brother is looking for you,” Ronan called from the other side.
“He probably needs advice about what to do after the ceremony,” Von muttered dryly, making no move to get up.
Helena gave him a saccharine smile. “If you’ve seen the way Serena looks at him when she thinks no one’s watching, you’d know he doesn’t need any help in that regard.”
“How could you possibly know that?”
“It’s the same way I look at you.”
Von’s fingers wove into her hair as he pulled her down for a searing kiss. Ronan had to knock three more times before the lovers finally made it out of their bed to greet him.
“About damn time,” he said without any heat. Ronan’s blue eyes were twinkling with amusement as Von punched his shoulder by way of greeting.
“Fucker,” he said beneath his breath as he walked past the newest member of her Circle.
“Bastard,” Ronan returned, saluting Von’s retreating back.
“Meant you to.”
“See you down there,” Helena told Von, staying behind. She wanted a moment alone with Ronan before the ceremony.
“Don’t take too long. You know I can only handle my mother in small doses without you as my buffer.”
Helena’s answering laugh followed Von down the hall. “Poor Margo.”
Ronan lifted an inquiring brow.
“Seeing both of her son’s happy and whole is proving to be too much for her. She can’t seem to go more than ten minutes without bursting into tears. Von is finding it… trying.”
“Only a woman cries because she’s too happy.”
“What? It’s true.”
“I’m starting to think Von didn’t hit you hard enough.”
Ronan snickered. “He’s just lucky I stopped punching back.”
“Because you know you’d have to deal with me.”
Ronan’s answering smile was warm. “Can you think of a better reason?”
Weaving her arm through his, they started walking. Helena considered his question for a moment before replying, “No. Self-preservation is a powerful motivator.”
“Indeed, it is.” They walked a bit further in companionable silence before Ronan sighed and said, “Just ask. I know you want to.”
Not even pretending to misunderstand him, she blurted out, “Are you sure you’re okay with this?” Helena had hoped she’d be able to read his feelings through the Jaka, but all she could sense was a tangle of conflicted emotions. Her eyes searched his face, looking for physical signs of how he was doing, but it was a neutral mask. “If this is going to be too much for you, I can find some errand to send you on.”
“And leave you unprotected? Not a chance.” His words were gruff, but he raised his hand to place it over hers and squeezed. He appreciated her offer, even though he would never take her up on it.
“I am hardly unprotected, and I know several men who would take great offense at the implication.”
“Maybe if they’d stop losing all their sparring matches with me, I’d have a little more faith in their abilities.”
Helena laughed, remembering how the remaining men in her Circle had all found a reason to take her aside and complain about Ronan’s morning practices throughout the course of the week. She knew his words were a cover, Ronan didn’t doubt Von’s ability to protect her for an instant.
“Are you sure?” she asked again in a softer voice.
Ronan was silent for a long stretch. When he finally spoke, his voice was so soft she barely heard him. “It’s time.”
Time to really let go. Time to say goodbye. Time to move on. Yes, it was time.
“Then let’s go.”
There wasn’t enough space in the Holbrooke’s home to fit all Nial and Serena’s guests, so they’d decided to hold the ceremony outside. Even if that hadn’t been the case, and had it been her decision to make, Helena would have decided the same. It was beautiful being among the trees and mountainside. The roaring sound of the crashing ocean waves was a perfect soundtrack as the sun began its descent through the sky.
Further decoration was unnecessary, given the vibrant beauty of their natural surroundings, but a small pavilion had been erected and swathed in fresh flowers. The scent of roses and jasmine wafted in the mild breeze.
Ronan had left her once she’d made it outside, citing a need to check on his men. Helena scanned the yard, looking for someone that appeared to be in charge. Technically it should have been her, seeing as how the ceremony was her idea, but frankly she was tired of making decisions and gladly passed all decision making on to the couple. It was their day, after all.
Helena’s thoughts began to wander, and she closed her eyes only to find Rowena’s icy stare waiting for her. She shuddered and shoved the thought away, forcing herself to take a deep, centering breath. The Circle and their new allies would deal with her soon enough. Today was not a day for worrying about such things. It was a day for celebration, probably the last they’d have until the war was over. Today she would focus on love and life; two of the Mother’s most precious gifts.
She sent a caress down the bond, wanting her Mate to know that she was thinking of him. An answering ripple of warmth greeted her, washing away the chill her thoughts of Rowena had caused.
Helena looked back at the pavilion, watching the fragile flower petals flutter in the breeze. In a few short hours, she’d be standing there, speaking the words that formally commemorated what two souls had already acknowledged. It would have been nice to be able to stand on the sidelines and simply be a guest for once. But that was not who she was, or who she was meant to be. Not anymore.
Perhaps it never really was.
“Mira?” Von asked, sensing her disappointment.
She felt his curiosity as if it was a tickle up her spine, but he did not question her further.
“Isn’t it perfect?” Serena asked, joining her.
“That it is,” Helena answered with a smile. “Aren’t you supposed to be hidden away until the ceremony starts?”
“Alina just finished helping me get ready and I couldn’t stand being cooped up any longer. That woman is truly gifted. I’ve never felt so feminine in my entire life.” Serena laughed as she said the words, the warrior in her appreciating the irony. For years she’d had to pretend that she wasn’t soft so that the men around her would take her seriously. Today she could set that instinct aside and embrace the purely female part of herself. Still chuckling, Serena asked, “Isn’t this dress divine?” She performed a small twirl, holding her arms out to let her simple lilac gown billow around her.
Helena’s smile grew, completely understanding the sentiment. She was no stranger to Alina’s ministrations, or her miracles. “You look beautiful,” Helena agreed, but it was not because of the dress or her upswept curls that had been held back with a garland of flowers. Serena was glowing with the intensity of her joy. She was a woman in love; one who had been lucky enough to find her mate. It was a rare and beautiful gift that none of the Chosen would take for granted.
“Thank you!” Serena beamed brightly before her lips twisted in a grimace. “I’m just ready to get this over with.”
“Don’t say that,” Helena urged, placing a hand on her friend’s arm. “Cherish every second of today.”
Serena’s jaw clenched and her violet eyes hardened. She heard the words that Helena did not say: they were on borrowed time. Rowena could strike at any minute, although given her less than subtle invitation, it appeared that she was in the process of setting the stage for her next salvo.
The blonde woman took Helena’s hand in hers and squeezed, hard. “You’re right. It’s just my nerves speaking.”
“I think that’s normal,” Helena replied, remembering the way her stomach had felt like it was somersaulting within her the day she and Von made their vows.
“You’re probably right.”
“Aren’t I always?”
They shared a look before bursting into laughter.
“Now that’s what I like to see,” Nial said from behind them.
They moved to make room for him, Serena peering at him almost shyly as he took in the sight of her.
“Beautiful,” he murmured, his storm-gray eyes shining with a possessive intensity Helena instantly recognized.
Knowing that neither of them remembered she was still standing there, Helena quietly stepped away, giving the couple a few stolen moments of solitude before their ceremony began. She smiled softly as she watched the way that they fussed over the other, their tender caresses and heated looks making her long for something she couldn’t name.