The wind picked up, tousling Luke’s hair as he sped down the back roads to Greg and Daniella’s house. He’d be a little early for the strategy meeting, but he needed the escape.
Breaking that punching bag felt good, too good, and he would have moved on to something else if he’d stayed home. His emotions had always been a little too intense—passionate was the word Luke liked to use—but while he was known for being a loose cannon, for the first time in his life he felt like one.
Luke took another deep breath, like Dani kept telling him he should do, and let the fresh air carry away his thoughts. He wasn’t alone here, even if he felt like it in his rage and anguish. He was surrounded by people who loved him, people who were willing to fight to help him get Johanna back. And even though that was more than most could ask for, it wasn’t enough. It would never be enough, not until she was by his side.
Luke’s somber mood engulfed him as he approached the house. He swiped his badge and froze at the entrance when he heard Dani laugh, knowing he’d intruded on something. The sound was cut short, and Luke sighed before shutting the door.
Greg and Daniella were sympathetic to Luke’s grief and tried not to do anything that would remind him of his pain, including being affectionate in front of him. It hurt Luke to be grateful for that. He wanted them to be happy and had always pushed for them to be together, but if he was being honest, he couldn’t stand seeing it now. And for that, he was a bastard. He loathed and cursed the part of him that couldn’t witness two people he loved be happy, not when he knew that his person wasn’t next to him.
But she will be, he reminded himself again.
As he entered the kitchen, Dani greeted him with a soft smile and met him for a hug. “Hey, you.”
“Hey,” Luke said as he feigned a small smile, but she was on to him. Dani squeezed his arm as they separated and her dark brown eyes met his, full of concern, worry, and something else.
Luke averted his gaze, not wanting her to see how close he was to drowning in the weight of his emotions, and instead looked over her head to Greg. “Sorry I’m a little early.”
“No, you’re actually right on time,” Greg said, exchanging a hug with Luke next.
Confused, Luke moved to join them at the breakfast nook, taking a seat on the barstool across from them. “Is something going on?”
Dani gave him a tiny smile, her voice soft as she passed him a manilla folder. “You should know before everyone else. I hope … I hope it helps.”
Luke looked between her and Greg, but their faces gave nothing away. Suddenly the folder seemed too heavy, as if it held the weight of his damnation, salvation, or both. Fear swam through Luke’s veins. He was terrified that if he opened the envelope, the small bit of hope he held onto would be ruined, that the ground would break open under him to swallow him whole.
“Go on, open it.” Dani squeezed his hand. “It’s okay.”
Luke looked at the comparison of their skin on top of one another—Dani’s dark brown, to his olive—and used it as a visual aid, an anchor to remind him that she and Greg were right there. He would not drown. They would keep him afloat.
With more care than Luke had ever taken with anything in his whole life, he opened the folder. In it was a pack of pages with faces of people who worked for their company. Luke tilted his head as he recognized the data from their HRIS system, and then he saw it. An extra number on the first page circled, another on the next, two on the next, five after that. Every page he flipped through had a circled set of numbers.
“I don’t understand. What is this?” Luke asked, squeezing the folder too tight as his nerves began to furrow and bundle under his skin, making his heart beat faster.
“It will make sense with this.” Greg handed him another folder, his hazel eyes gleaming.
Luke snatched it from him. Opening the folder, he first saw a header containing a key with numbers and corresponding page counts, which seemed familiar though out of place, and several sets of coordinates. On the other side were pictures of mapped areas.
The question of the key picked at Luke’s mind, and he studied it until he realized what it meant. His eyes darted from one folder to another, comparing the numbers and flipping through the mapped areas and overview points of each location. The pieces fell together like that of a giant puzzle, and he realized that the key referenced the HRIS data folder, and the coordinates were made from the circled numbers within it. Luke finally looked up at Greg and Dani, and jabbed a finger at the paperwork. “Where did these come from? What’s here?”
Greg slid his arm around Daniella’s waist as he leaned forward to tap on the first set of coordinates. “This is where we’re going today.”
“And as for where we got them from”—Dani’s eyes shone as they stared into his own—“they came from Johanna.”
“What?” Luke gasped, drawing back. “That’s impossible, she’s not … We didn’t—”
Find her, he finished internally, unable to say the words aloud.
“I asked Mya to look into what Johanna was doing before she was taken,” Greg began.
Luke’s throat constricted at the word ‘taken,’ and his shoulders tensed. Dani squeezed his hand again and he gave her a small nod, trying to convince them both that he was okay.
Greg tapped on one of the circled numbers. “Mya noticed that some of the employees’ ID numbers were too long, some by one number, others by several.” Greg tapped on the roster of locations next. “Once she figured out their pattern, Mya made the key and put together whatever coordinates she could. She was able to find seventeen locations. There’s more to work through, but Mya can’t make sense of them until we find Johanna.”
Luke shook. He didn’t know whether it was from excitement, hope or fear, but it was uncontrollable. It was only when Dani gave his hand another hard squeeze that his gaze flickered to hers and he realized he hadn’t been breathing.
Breathe. You can’t have a panic attack. You need to pay attention to what’s going on here.
“It’s okay,” Dani said, as if she were reading his mind. “Just breathe, it’s okay.”
Luke nodded like a child and followed her advice: One breath, in, hold, out, second breath, in, hold, out, and another, and another.
Greg leaned forward, and Luke’s wide eyes moved to his. Greg’s presence reminded him that he was safe, that if Greg was in control, Luke could also be in control. Luke nodded again, and then once more, not trusting himself to speak.
“Luke, you know that I am going to do everything in my power to get her back to you, don’t you?” Greg said.
Luke nodded again. He felt calmer, surer, and yet somehow still as if he were floating, as if he’d taken some sort of drug, maybe speed and acid mixed together, that had him flying through the clouds with a sputtering engine, constantly high but scared of the drop he knew would come.
“And you know that I wouldn’t lie to you, right?” Greg said, his voice calm but strong.
Luke’s hand balled into a tight fist under Dani’s, and he watched as her gaze slid to Greg’s and then back to his own. That drop, the free fall, the flipping of his stomach as gravity pulled him down, it was coming so fast, so soon, he could taste it. Still, Luke answered, “Yes.”
Greg gave a short, stiff nod and then sighed. “We don’t have any way to survey these areas before we attack them.”
Luke understood immediately. They had no way to confirm if Johanna was there, if his mate would be found in this location or any of the ones on this roster.
Greg continued. “We’re going to hit them hard and fast. But by doing this we’re running a risk. If Johanna is at any of these locations, we’ll grab her, but if she isn’t then they might move her … or worse.”
Luke swallowed. As far as they knew, she was the only one who had come into contact with the inner workings of both their group and Zachariah’s. It would be easy for Zachariah to suspect her of slipping them information at some point, especially if they didn’t find more information at the location they planned to raid in a few short hours.
“What’s important to remember,” Dani said, snapping Luke out of his thoughts, “is that somehow she found out about these locations. She could have found them on a computer or some sort of paperwork, but I don’t think that’s the case. There’s simply too many for someone to remember unless they saw them several times.”
“Or had been at those locations multiple times,” Luke said.
“Exactly.” Greg smiled. “And if she’s been at these locations multiple times—”
“Then we might find her there.” Luke breathed out heavily. The tightness in his chest floated out, and with it his eyes watered. He didn’t even know tears had begun to slide down his cheeks until a droplet fell on the folder, quickly followed by another.
“We will find her,” Greg said, his voice stern and sure. “There’s plenty to worry about, Luke, but of that I can assure you.”
“Th-thank you.” Luke’s voice cracked before he fully dissolved into tears, and his family wrapped him in their arms.
Luke took his seat at the table next to his cousin, Mya. They exchanged a small smile before he said, “Thank you.”
Something in her eyes flickered, her face falling into a sad sort of kindness that echoed his own pain. Luke’s heart broke for her. She was trying to help him fix his pain, when hers would never be resolved. Her mate, Erik, was dead.
“I’ll always do anything I can to help you, you know that,” Mya said.
Greg and Daniella entered the room, cutting their conversation short. Greg sat first, Daniella perching on the arm of the chair, as had become a custom for them. For the first time, Luke imagined Johanna there with him, her blonde hair flowing over her shoulders and down to her waist, her blue eyes scanning the room, studying everyone. He knew she’d be welcomed here, and not just because he was family and original to this circle. No, she would be welcomed because of the information Greg and Daniella had shared in the kitchen. In the history of their circle, no one had ever provided such important information about an enemy, and no one had ever risked their life to do so. When Luke found Johanna, he’d make sure to share with her exactly what he thought about her little contribution.
Mya kicked his leg under the table, calling attention to its restless bouncing. He immediately stopped, turning back to Greg and Daniella.
“We’ll attack this location at 10:00 a.m., then these three locations at 3:00 p.m.,” Greg said, using his pointer to identify each set of coordinates. “For the half of you that are here, we work like normal, three teams leaving in fifteen-minute increments to scope the location before we attack. However, when we return we will not have another strategy meeting. Instead, we will assign A, B, and C teams and hit the three locations at the same time. I will be in charge of team A. We’ve handpicked a team for Luke who will be in charge of team B—”
Luke blinked, his eyes widening at the statement. Never had Greg given him such a level of responsibility. Luke’s abilities were best in sneak attacks, but he never expected to be trusted to fight on his own away from Greg and Mya. He was impulsive, quick to anger, and his patience only lasted for as long as he had to use it to outsmart his enemy.
Luke’s mouth fell open, words coming to the surface, but it closed when he caught the look in Dani’s gaze, a simple smile that spoke volumes to him. We trust you.
Mya said something beside him, answered some question, and Luke snapped back to the present.
Greg gave her a single nod before turning back to the other members at the table. “We leave in fifteen.”
Luke met with his team.
Merida and Dominick were both people Luke admired and trusted. They understood his predicament; they were mated, and if there was anyone who could understand almost losing their mate and the trials to get them back, it was the two of them. Jason, Cara, and Anna completed their group, and he knew that their fighting styles and combined abilities strengthened an already incredible lineup that Luke couldn’t believe he’d been assigned to lead. Yet not a single member looked at him the way he expected them to, as someone who wouldn’t be able to guide them, whose irresponsibility would get them killed. Instead, they treated him with respect. Something about it made him feel proud, until the walls caved in and he realized this must be some sort of big mistake.
Luke excused himself and went to find Greg. He needed to tell him this was wrong, that Greg should not entrust him with the lives of others. After all, look how well that had gone for Johanna.
He spotted Greg with his arm wrapped around Daniella, speaking to another battle officer. Dani caught his approach and a mischievous look crossed her face. Then she tilted her head up and whispered something into Greg’s ear, causing him to turn to look at Luke as well.
Dani approached Luke, giving him a light pat on the shoulder. “Just accept it,” she whispered before she sauntered away.
Luke blinked for a moment and then glared daggers into the back of her head. He knew she could feel his stare, just like she knew why he’d come to speak to Greg. Dani was his best friend, and she understood him in a way most people didn’t. It also meant she was well versed on calling him out on his bullshit before he’d even opened his mouth, and she enjoyed doing it on a regular basis. But this wasn’t about him, not really. It wasn’t about pride, confidence, or his lack thereof. This was about the others and how they deserved someone who would lead them. Someone who could be cautious, level-headed, and would not snap at a moment’s notice. Someone who was not him.
Luke followed Greg into another room, all the while grinding his teeth at Greg’s nonchalance. He barely waited for the door to close before he started.
“What the hell were you thinking?” Luke shouted. “I’m not fit to run a team. I’m not reliable or responsible enough for this, and those people, your people, are going to be at risk!”
Greg cocked an eyebrow, his tone even as he spoke. “What are you talking about, Luke?”
“You know exactly what I’m talking about.” Luke huffed, burning a path into the carpet as he paced. “Greg, I’m not a leader like you are. Do I need to remind you that I ran off on not just you, someone who has practically raised me, but Mya, Dani, and the rest of your team, just because I thought I could rescue my mate? And I couldn’t even do that right. I even had Zachariah in the palm of my hand!” Luke hands balled into fists as he shook them. “I wasn’t able to kill him, and you think it’s a smart idea to have me lead a team?”
“Luke—” Greg began, but Luke interrupted him, his shoulders drooping as he went on.
“Greg, let’s just cut to the chase and be honest here. There’s a reason why people think of me the way they do, and they’re not wrong. I shouldn’t be trusted with other people’s lives. If we weren’t related, I wouldn’t even be this high in the circle. I’ve already failed enough for one lifetime, so please don’t make me ruin someone else’s life just because you’re trying to be supportive or give me a distraction. This isn’t the right way.”
“Lucas,” Greg bit out, his tone laced with anger. “Has anyone ever said any of those things to you?”
Luke rolled his eyes. “Of course not, but—”
“Then why the fuck are you saying them?” Greg shouted.
“Because they’re the truth!” Luke shouted back. “And you know they are too!”
Greg tensed. “The only negative things I’ve ever called you are crazy and a pain in my ass.”
“Let me finish.”
Luke ground his teeth but kept silent.
“Do you know what circle members have to agree to before we allow them to become battle officers?”
“No.” Luke crossed his arms, narrowing his eyes. “It’s another one of the many things I don’t know.”
Greg glared at him but continued. “They agree to take direction and action from us, to acknowledge that we are capable of leading. If any of them, any of them, ever said those things to you or disrespected you in any way, they wouldn’t have a seat at our table.”
Luke’s eyes widened. “But—”
“Furthermore, every single person who joined your team volunteered.”
“What?” Luke’s mouth fell open.
“Yeah, they volunteered.” Greg pushed a hand through his russet-colored hair. “Luke, have you always felt this way? That we … that I don’t value you?”
Luke averted his gaze from Greg’s form. “It’s not that, I just … No, I don’t think I felt that way before…”
Luke flinched at her name. “Yes. But still, I can be honest enough to say I haven’t always made the right decisions. I haven’t lived my life the way you’ve lived yours, being cautious and responsible. I’ve lived to have fun, to enjoy life. Then we lost Erik, and everything was just numb.” He smiled slightly. “Until Daniella.”
Greg’s lips tilted upward, just briefly. “Until Daniella.”
“It was so good to see that you had found your mate, especially with it being such a rare thing for us, and with Dani and I being so close it made me feel better, like I had some sort of purpose. But then Johanna came into the picture and everything has been upside down for me ever since. I handled everything wrong, Greg, everything, and I guess it’s just made me reflect on the other choices I’ve made in my life.” It was Luke’s turn to run a hand through his own brown hair, ruffling the strands, fraying them to match the state of his nerves.
Greg tapped the desk, then nodded to a chair. “Sit please, we need to work this out.”
Luke obliged and waited for him to speak.
“You said you weren’t like me, and that’s true, you’re not.” Greg’s eyes bore into Luke’s own. “But you don’t need to be. You’re just you, and that’s exactly who you should be. Yes, you’ve made brash decisions, but so have I. Yes, you can be more impulsive than I am, more impatient, and to some that makes you irresponsible.”
Luke’s gaze shifted away from Greg’s as shame filled him.
“But,” Greg said, his tone sharp enough to pull Luke’s attention back to him, “that doesn’t mean you’re less than anyone else here, including myself. The same people who would call you any of those things are the same people who may not like the decisions I make to keep this circle running. Do you really think everyone agrees with me all the time?”
Luke shook his head. “Of course not, but—”
“But nothing. If you can see that, then you should also be able to see that no one would believe you’re any of those things all the time. Yes, you ran after Johanna on your own, but did you know we all wanted to run after you, to abandon everything and make sure you were safe? The only reason anyone hesitated was because they rely on me, and I had to force myself to walk away from you. I had to trust and believe you knew how to keep yourself safe, and if you needed help, the others would do right by you.” Greg breathed. “Was I pissed? Of course, but not just at you. I was upset at myself for not being able to do what I wanted to, which was take care of my little cousin.” He smiled.
If Luke had felt like himself, he would have rolled his eyes at the sentiment, but he didn’t. Luke held onto Greg’s words with a vice grip, finally understanding just how much he needed them. Luke had thought his heart had grown cold, surrounded by the ice he believed he needed to keep his distance from everyone else, because if that ice cracked, he would hurt everyone and they would see just how weak he had become. But the look on Greg’s face, so soft, filled with a kindness that shone in his eyes and in his smile, made Luke realize that maybe the ice wasn’t his ally. Maybe it was keeping him trapped instead of keeping him safe.
“Luke,” Greg began, “I need you. I need you here and in the circle. You know me well enough to know I don’t say that lightly. It hurts me to know I made you think you were replaceable or not enough, even for a moment.”
Greg sighed. “I’ve always hated what happened during our childhood, so I wanted to take care of you. I didn’t want you to ever feel alone again. But I pushed too hard.” He slumped forward, clasping onto the desk with his palms to support his torso. “I wanted you to live your life as a child should, and then as a vampire should be able to. If you wanted money, women, fun, entertainment, whatever, I wanted you to have that. I wanted you to be able to enjoy your life with no attachments or responsibility, with nothing but support from me while not needing to concern yourself with me. That’s the reason I haven’t given you circle responsibilities, like Mya or Merida and Dom. But that doesn’t mean I could ever replace you. You are irreplaceable to me.”
Luke swallowed down the ball of emotions in his throat and watched as Greg did the same.
“You keep me honest, don’t you know that? You’re the only one who walks in here like he owns the place and has the balls to call me out. I trust you in that way. You argue with me, you fight with me to make sure I always do what’s right. Luke, you’re not only just as much of a part of this circle as I am, you run it with me. I may be the figurehead, the person who attends the meetings, puts things in place, and issues the orders, but it is not without your counsel.”
Luke was breaking apart, physically and emotionally. He had to use his arms to support his head, as his elbows dug into his knees to keep from sliding to the ground.
How could I be so stupid? No, stop. You’re doing it again. You are not stupid, you were just … blind.
“I envy you sometimes,” Greg whispered, making Luke’s head snap up. “You don’t know how many times I’ve had to stop my reactions and contain my emotions because the people around me needed me to be their sense of calm. But you don’t have to do that. Why would I ever want to chain you down and reduce you to what I go through on a daily basis? Look at myself and Ella. Look how long we waited. Do you think I would ever want you to go through something like that? You even helped keep me sane with her.”
Luke’s eyes widened. “What are you talking about?”
“I trusted you to look out for her, Luke. That’s why when I went out of town or overseas, I never asked anyone to look out for her. I knew you would. I trusted you with the safety of my mate. If nothing else can explain to you how I think of you, how much I value you, that should tell you everything.”
Luke grasped the bridge of his nose and took a long, deep breath. “I can’t … I didn’t even think of that.”
“Well, now you are, so late is better than never.” Greg smiled.
Luke glared at him before they chuckled, the laugh clearing the tension in the room. “I’m sorry for all of this. I guess … I just didn’t realize how much this had messed me up.” He sighed. “I never stopped to see things from your perspective, and that was wrong of me.”
“No, it was wrong of me to never tell you. We all have faults, right? I’m learning one of mine is that I tend to not share things. I would rather carry the burden alone so that it won’t hurt others.”
Luke chuckled. “Sounds like Dani is keeping you in line.”
Greg laughed with him. “She’s definitely trying. Listen, whatever it is you’re going through now, however you’re feeling, you need to know it’s okay. Luke, you’re worried about the safety of your mate. You’re in despair and that will fuck with you in the absolute worst ways. In those moments, everything you do feels like it’s not enough, like it’s caving in and you can’t breathe.”
Luke breathed for a moment before he settled, and a little more of the ice around his heart cracked. “You’re right, it does. I feel that way all the time. It makes me feel so … useless, and then I just become so angry. Angry at myself, angry at everyone, the world, fate. Do you know how many things I’ve broken at my house? It’s getting expensive.”
Greg’s eyebrow rose. “You have over a billion dollars in dividends from company stocks.”
“And if we don’t find Johanna soon, they’ll be finished by the end of the week.” He sighed. “It’s pitiful. I’ve never felt so weak.”
Greg nodded. “I’ve felt like that many times, especially recently.”
Luke didn’t need to ask. He knew what Greg was talking about. When Daniella had been attacked by Zachariah, Greg seemed broken. In that moment, Luke hadn’t known what Greg was feeling, but now he did, and watching him here, standing tall, seeming so strong, Luke could only ask, “How did you get through it?”
“With you guys. I may be resilient, but I can’t carry the weight of the world on my shoulders, and when I’m falling, you all help me up.” Greg’s gaze met Luke’s own. “Will you let us do the same for you?”
He nodded. “Please, I-I can’t do this on my own.”
Greg walked over to him and squeezed his shoulder. “And you will never have to.”
Luke desperately wanted to rush into the warehouses in front of him, rip everyone apart, and find his mate. The hope in his chest promised him that Johanna would be here and the constant, endless, gnawing grief in his soul would ease, even if just a fraction.
But that was him speaking emotionally, and his emotions had done a number on his head.
He looked at Greg. One conversation wasn’t going to change everything, but it did help. It had reminded Luke that he was better than this, and he would need to remember that in today’s battle and the next. He needed to be logical here.
There was a big possibility that Johanna wouldn’t be at this location, and from the poor state of the exteriors and broken windows which couldn’t keep out the cold wind, he hoped she wouldn’t be inside. The warehouses looked abandoned. Those with wood seemed rotted, warped, and filled with the elements of the nearby sea. The surrounding buildings seemed just as bad, their once silver metal now turned to rust.
But Luke and the rest of the battle officers believed these appearances to be a façade. This location had nine buildings from what they’d seen, and each was equipped with high quality cameras. While they hadn’t heard anything or seen any vehicles or movement from outside the warehouse buildings, none of the buildings they’d scoped had dust in front of the door, which meant someone, somewhere, was indeed home.
Greg nodded to them, and Luke knew the game was on. He squeezed his hands, rotating his arms and rolling his shoulders back. Daniella moved beside him and caught his gaze. If anyone had told Luke a couple of months ago that his best friend would be on the front lines with them, he wouldn’t have believed it. But Daniella’s life had changed greatly in a short amount of time, and she’d been forced to change with it or become buried by it. Daniella had taken the existence of vampires and immortals, her new relationship, and dedication to their circle the same way she did everything else, with committed determination.
Dani gave him a soft, reassuring smile, but as she turned to the building closest to them, her smile changed into a vengeful grimace that sent a chill down Luke’s spine. She wasn’t bloodthirsty. She didn’t enjoy killing others or being involved in this war—Luke knew that like he knew his own hand—but Daniella was an advocate for justice. Her wrath was prevalent in her abilities as she pulled the cold air toward her, creating a whipping gust that cut and sucked the warmth out of his body. That gust built into a mini tornado before it flew forward in the direction of each building. As it hit, the windows concaved to her power, sending shards of glass everywhere and slamming the doors open.
A click sounded from Luke’s right, and he watched as the door exploded, flying off the building while a fire raged inside. They were far enough away that the blast wouldn’t harm them, but the shockwaves and sound were jarring. Suddenly, the fire stalled its normal expansion, then shriveled and died.
She used her powers to build the wind again, and then sent it flying once more to each building to trigger the opening of any secret doors.
The second blast roused their adversaries, and at least twenty men appeared. Luke called his power to him. A fog rolled in from the sea, blanketing the area in shrouded mist. But there was a sound, metal singing through the air, and Greg surged forward, catching the knife that was meant for Daniella’s head. At Greg’s roar, they charged forward. Snarls and screams ripped through the air around him as Luke weaved through the enemy. The fog hid the bodies of those that fell, but he knew where each of his team members were.
As Luke cut the head off another vampire, ten more appeared. He vanished, dissipating into shadow. Luke slithered along the ground, jumping from place to place until he found Greg’s shadow. His darkness curled around Greg, curving into his power, a signal they’d long forged between them to alert to disturbances. Greg gave a small nod. As soon as he reached out with his own energetic ability to alert the others, Luke was off, jumping and sprinting from one shadow to the next until he was behind the vampires. His blood sang with the need to kill them, but he had other duties to follow.
Luke found their exit, a cellar beneath one of the buildings that seemed to connect to the others. That meant that the other buildings were either decoys, traps, or escape routes. Luke kept to his shadowed form as he slipped inside, the fighting continuing in the open air. He raced along the walls, only pausing to inspect doorways for more traps.
Deeper down the tunnels he found two vampires. He killed one of them within seconds, but the other one’s death he purposefully prolonged, cutting his arm off when he could have severed his head. The vampire screamed, giving Luke what he wanted. The sound would alert others that may be waiting.
When no one came, Luke cut off his other arm. The vampire fell to the ground, his cries of pain echoing so loudly they hurt Luke’s own ears. Still, no one appeared. Satisfied, Luke gave the man mercy by cutting off his head.
Even though Luke had proved that the nearby area was clear, or that any lingering vampires were otherwise preoccupied, he knew he couldn’t let down his guard. Zachariah loved to set traps. He got a sick satisfaction by trying to prove he was smarter than everyone else, and Luke was not about to give it to him. Doing the next best thing he could think of, Luke took the dead vampire’s arms and carried them on his shoulder as he sunk back into his shadowed form. When he neared the next entrance, he threw one of the arms toward the top, spiraling it so that it would clear the doorway vertically, like a body. When no explosion or threat appeared, Luke reclaimed the arm from the floor and continued along.
Nearing another passageway, Luke threw the arm again and was surprised when someone caught it.
Merida stepped through the door frame and cringed at the limb in her hand. “Really?”
“Don’t judge,” Luke said as he rematerialized from his shadows. “It’s a good way to test for traps. Your head didn’t get blown off now, did it?”
Merida handed the appendage back to Luke and dusted her hands off, although he didn’t know why—they were already covered in blood. “Yes, but you killed him. It’s a little weird to use his limbs this way. It’s kind of like violating the body.”
Luke side-eyed her. “You’re just mad that’s the appendage I cut off. If it would have been his dick, you would have been happy.”
Merida covered her mouth with the back of her hand, smothering her laughter. “You know what? You’re right. But please don’t ever do that. I can take a lot of things seriously, but dicks flying through doorways is not one of them.”
Luke laughed deep from his gut. His eyes watered and he wiped them with the shirt’s sleeves. “Duly noted.”
Recovering, he straightened his back and took in Merida’s appearance and the lack of Dom or any of his animal forms hanging off her. She noticed and nodded to the right. “Dom’s checking out that passage. We’ve got four more minutes before Greg wants us topside.”
Luke resumed navigating the passage with Merida in tow, and then she called out to him. He paused and turned toward her. “What is it?”
“There’s something at the top of the opening. Probably an explosive.”
Luke nodded. Taking a step back, he threw one of the deceased vampire’s arms at the opening. The moment it passed through, the mechanism ticked and then exploded, causing the passage to shake as the vibrations bounced and pulsed through the air. Compacted dirt and boulders rained down, effectively closing the earlier opening.
Behind them a whistle sounded through the air, making Luke tilt his head to the side. But when he glanced at Merida and saw her small smile, he knew what, or rather who, had made the noise.
The sound of a bird’s wings grew closer to them, and then feather turned to skin and bone as Dom’s figure appeared in front of Merida. He wrapped his arm around her shoulders, pulling her close to his side while her own arm found its way around his waist. Their heads tilted toward one another as they kissed.
Luke turned his head from the display of affection to give them some semblance of privacy and to keep his thoughts of envy at bay. But even though they spoke quietly, Luke heard Dom’s concern for his mate and Merida’s reassurance that she was fine loud and clear. Luke’s eyes closed, fingers tightening into fists as he fought against his racing, aching heart. He took deep breaths, not wanting them to see that he had such a clear weakness. That he was so…
Stop it! You’re not weak. You didn’t fail. The only way you do that is if you never get her back, and that’s exactly what will happen if you continue to think this way. Enough! Enough…
Luke swallowed hard and plastered a neutral expression on his face as he addressed Dom. “How was your passage?”
“Riddled with explosives. It seems they split half of the passages into safe routes and the other half into traps. While I was in animal form, I heard Greg and Daniella closest to the passage you went down, Meri. Seems like they’re waiting for us.” Dom gave Merida’s shoulder a squeeze before letting her go.
Luke nodded. “Then let’s go.”
He tossed the last remnant of the vampire he killed onto the ground and followed the couple out, hoping that the investigation at the other warehouse buildings had provided more information than they’d found down there.
Greg and Daniella’s house was buzzing with activity. The rest of the battle officers had arrived, anxious and excited to meet their new teams. Normally, whoever was called to a fight fought with the rest of the unit as one team. It was a good plan, one which allowed for more people to be available should an issue or surprise arise, but assigning and working with teams in this new way was the dawn of a new era. It was a signal of trust, trust that each member knew what they were doing and would work to support the others within their groups.
It was also a sign that Greg was letting go of his tight grip on the reigns. While everyone rested their weight upon Greg’s shoulders, each battle officer had proven themselves to be capable of fighting, surviving, and saving those they thought were worth the cause over the countless years. It was a celebratory moment for everyone there, especially Greg, and no matter the sadness in his heart, Luke could feel the joy too. He smiled as he watched their members from the bar, and for the first time in several lonely months he felt the comradery and familial bonds that had woven between each person. Those bonds spread as the hours passed by. Normally, Luke would have partaken in them, but he had other, bigger things on his mind.
He flipped through the paperwork they’d retrieved from the warehouse raid. Most of it was from the building that had exploded prior to the fight. Thanks to Daniella’s powers, several of the documents had been saved. Luke didn’t know what he would find in them, so he did his best to curve any hope that it would lead to Johanna. Hope had begun to feel just as much of a vice as fear and doubt, so instead he let himself get lost in the details, information, coordinates, and connections. He recorded, filed, and sorted the paperwork into what made sense to him. His creative mind painted a picture, one that continued to grow and expand into something he was sure would lead to an answer.
“There’s a lot of things I thought I would find you doing, but paperwork wasn’t one of them,” Dani said as she entered the room with a drink in her hand. She offered it to him, and he took it with a nod of thanks.
“Hey, just trying to make myself useful.” Luke smiled, but at the look on her face it turned to a grimace.
Her eyes narrowed. “Say that one more time and see what’s going to happen to you. You might be a vampire, but I can and will be more than happy to kick your ass.”
Luke couldn’t help but smile, even as she huffed. “You’re right, I’m sorry.” He sighed, leaning back in the chair. “On the plus side, Greg already chewed me out for being negative. Will that make you take pity on me?”
Dani pulled up a chair, turning the back of it to face him before she sat down, crossing her arms on the top. “Technically speaking, I have been taking pity on you, even though you’ve been ignoring me.”
“I have not—” He stopped at her glare and squeezed the bridge of his nose before softening more into the chair. “I’m sorry.”
Dani looked him over before sighing as well. “It’s okay. I understand, I do, and I know this isn’t something I can fix for you. I also know Mya was worse. With Erik, I mean.”
Luke gulped at the reminder of his cousin broken by the death of her mate. He had to clear his throat before he could speak. “I guess she was, but it’s hard to see a difference between her and I right now.” His gaze moved to the ceiling, studying the mosaic of lines and curves within the woodwork to try to silence his self-deprecating thoughts.
“There are differences,” she said, and he met her eyes. “You still have hope, and you haven’t given up. You’re angry. You have every right to be, and I know how easy it is to turn that anger onto yourself, but you still have hope. You might think that’s a weakness, but that’s the hardest part of it all. That hope is your strength, Luke.”
Luke stared at her, really stared at her for a moment. Then he stopped and thought about her circumstances. Daniella lost her mother when she was young, which had caused her to go into the foster system. That trauma was why she’d worked her ass off and hadn’t made time for the small things that made her happy. While a parental bond was not a mate bond, the grief felt was the same, and even though Daniella was hundreds of years younger than himself and his family, at times she seemed to be wiser than all of them put together.
Dani squeezed his wrist with her hand. “I know you’ll find Johanna and that the two of you will be a wonderful, beautiful couple. I don’t need anyone to tell me that. I know because I believe in you. You helped me turn my life around, Luke, and I wouldn’t have found the joy and love I have now without you.”
Her eyes began to water, and Luke bit his lip to stop from succumbing to tears as well.
“You will get her back, Luke. I swear it. I’ll help you get your mate, and once you have her, I’ll help you keep her. I promise. Even if I have to scream your praises from the top of every rooftop to convince her. You’re not alone. If you can’t believe in yourself, believe in me. I won’t let you down.”
Luke wrapped his arms around her, and they sunk into the embrace as he tilted his head back to keep his tears at bay. Finally, when he could speak, he whispered to her, “I believe in you. Even if I can’t believe in myself, I’ll always believe in you.”