"Mrs P, this stew is really good. Thanks." She was so hungry, her taste buds practically absorbed its meaty goodness through osmosis on contact.
"You're welcome dear. Now eat up. You're eating for two now," hugging Cassie again in a zealous bear hug. "I don't know what I'm more excited about," she confessed. "My boy finally getting married, or having a baby in the house. My own grandchildren are practically grown and…"
Cassie placed her hand on the aging housekeepers arm to silence her excited banter. "My own mother died when I was young as you know, and you've been like a mother to me since I came here. I would love it if you would think of it as another grandchild….And, help with the wedding plans." Cassie reluctantly tacked the wedding part on when she could see Mrs Philpot waiting for an And.
Mrs Philpot's eyes welled up with emotion. "Love, you make an old woman very happy," she sniffled into Cassie's shoulder as she hugged her once again.
How could she disappoint her, Mrs Philpot had done so much for her. Cassie had no idea what kind of wedding it would be, but one thing was for sure, with Mrs Philpot in charge, there wouldn't be any forgotten details.
If she had to be honest, Cassie was grateful for her help but she wasn't about to admit it and openly confess her lack of organisational skills.
Cassie listened. Several voices transfused with only one set of footsteps as they approached the kitchen. A moment later four familiar faces appeared in the doorway, Alaric, Alex, Narayan and Abby.
"Where's Saladin?" she asked, leaning over on her stool to get a better view around them for the missing guest.
"He couldn't stay, unfortunately." Alaric answered, eyes sparkling. "He only came to give us some news he thought we might like to hear personally."
Cassie climbed down from her stool when Alaric continued to maintain his tenacious composure. "Well, spit it out. What did he tell you?"
"He received word a couple of hours ago that the Guild has officially taken you off their most wanted list."
"What? Are you serious?" her face breaking into a broad grin.
"Yes." Alex jumped in. "It seems that Alaric's appearance as Sammael the other night has convinced them that you're not worth the trouble."
"It's also the reason Saladin couldn't stay." Abby added. "The nightclub has doubled its patronage since then too. It's the new Mecca for vampires looking to get a glimpse of the legendary Sammael."
Wrapping her arms around him tightly, Cassie laughed at Alaric's obvious discomfort.
Being catapulted to movie star status from his preferred reclusive lifestyle, was not a welcome change. Fortunately his privacy was still secured at Havenswood Manor. Protected by Savernake Forest on three sides and a Druid's ward on the fourth side along the road. No one could approach the Manor without first being invited by one of its occupants. Any unwanted guests would either find themselves unable to find the driveway leading to the Manor or have a sudden change of heart about entering, turn around and leave.
"Does that mean I'm allowed to leave the Manor again?" she asked hopefully, her hazel eyes half pleading and half daring Alaric to deny her the opportunity to have her freedom. His eyes darkened and his lips pursed into a thin crease. The thought of letting her leave the protection of the Manor and forest even for a few hours made him itch with anxiety, but he had more chance of containing water in a sieve than he did of containing Cassie in his protective cocoon.
Conceding the futility of arguing, he nodded with a disgruntled huff. "We'll discuss the conditions later." He added quickly before she could start planning trips to London and Paris and where ever else she might decide to go.
Cassie chose to ignore the last comment and instead drew him down for a very appreciative kiss.
The room filled with sounds of clearing throats and embarrassed snickers before the couple finally drew breath and rearranged their clothing into place once again.
"Oh. I got so carried away with all the good news, I almost forget." Mrs Philpot piped up, her hands coming to her flushed cheeks. "The Professor called a little while ago. He isn't coming up tonight. He and Lilith are following a lead on Ahriman."
"It seems things are finally turning in our favour." Narayan encouraged. His cheerful enthusiasm almost breaking through his practiced calm exterior.
"I told the Professor the news about your engagement, I hope you don't mind." Mrs Philpot disclosed apologetically.
"No. Of course not." Alaric reassured.
"Did you tell him about our other news?" Cassie asked, pointing to her stomach, unable to bring herself to say the word 'baby'.
"Heavens no." she declared. "I admire the Professor greatly, but he tells Lilith everything. I don't know about you, but I for one do not want that cow of a woman to know that piece of good news until it's absolutely necessary. You're entitled to enjoy your happiness without her spiteful comments." Mrs Philpot opened a draw and pulled out a very large, sharp knife and began cutting into a bag of oranges. Whenever Lilith was discussed, she had an uncontrollable urge to dissect something.
Cassie sighed with relief.
"Lilith suggested you might like to celebrate with a night out. She thought the Drunken Duck in Cadley. And, as hard as it is for me to say this,…I agree with her. Especially now you're no longer being hunted by the Guild." Her knife sliced through another orange before grinding it to pulp in the juicer with a little more force than was probably necessary. "It might be nice for you two love birds to have a night out and celebrate."
There were moments, Cassie thought, that Lilith wasn't such a cold hearted, self-serving bitch. She was capable of thinking of others, sometimes. After all, she did volunteer to go to her apartment after Jarvis' attack and retrieve what was left of her things. She also went to the trouble to buy her a new toothbrush and razor. She did however take the whole 'Good Samaritan' thing a bit too far with Alex's toiletries and underwear. She doubted Lilith would ever live that one down, at least not as far as Alex was concerned.
"That sounds like a great idea." Cassie agreed, not in the least bit discouraged by the rumbling growl in Alaric's chest. This could work, she thought as her gaze flicked between Alex and Abby. A double date.
Alex and Abby both crossed their arms and glared at her. Having read Cassie's mind, Abby glowered at her in silent warning for setting her up. Alex glowered at her suspiciously, her brewing mischievous scheme betrayed in her expressive eyes.
Cassie's smile beamed.
As twilight shadows lengthened, Cassie's anxiety increased until she was a jittery mess, pacing a track through the grand foyer.
"Is anything wrong?" Alex asked, his brows furrowing with concern as he descended the stair case.
"No. No. Everything's fine," she assured him, taking a deep breath to compose herself. "I think I'm actually nervous about leaving the Manor, do you believe it? For weeks that's all I've wanted to do, and now when I get the chance I've got butterflies in my stomach."
"We can cancel. We don't have to go out tonight." Alex squeezed her hands in his in an effort to ease her anxiety. Her hands were cold and clammy and shook ever so slightly beneath his grip. Alex's gaze darkened as he lifted her chin meeting her agitated eyes to study her more carefully. Maybe he was as over protective as he'd so often been accused, but he knew Cassie better than anyone and she wasn't the skittish type.
"Yes we do," she retorted quickly with a cheerful smile. Tonight was not about her neurotic insecurities, she quickly reminded herself. It was about getting Alex and Abby together. "Don't worry about me. I'm sure it's just my hormones going on the fritz."
"What's this about cancelling?" Alaric asked hopefully as he approached along the long corridor from the study. He'd been searching for an excuse all day to cancel their dinner outing.
"Nothing. I was just feeling a bit nervous, that's all." Cassie visibly relaxed as Alaric's arms came around her. Her nervous tremor morphing into a sultry shiver of delight as she melded to the hard contours of his body. If it wasn't for her determination to play match maker or the frustrating two hours she spent struggling to put her hair up in an elegant twist, the accomplishment far exceeding her normal effort of a ponytail, Alaric could have easily talked her into staying at home and having dinner in bed.
Alaric and Alex's troubled expressions mirrored one another. Neither man was likely to relax during their evening out. Realistically though, how dangerous could it be? They were going to have dinner at the local pub, situated next to the safety of Savernake Forest and she'll be escorted by two vampires and her newly trained vampire killing cousin. Not to mention the fact that she was no longer on the Guild's hit list.
"Sorry I'm late. Are we ready to go?" Abby asked as she joined the group in the foyer.
"Wow. You look gorgeous," Cassie proclaimed.
Alex could only stare at Abby's mid thigh length, form fitting black dress as it hugged her figure intimately. The low neck line accentuated her full pouting breasts and tiny waist and her short dark hair was styled elegantly to frame her beautiful face. Her make-up had been applied immaculately, highlighting her chocolate brown eyes, long lashes and high cheek bones. She licked her glossy red lips nervously as she blushed from all the silent stares she was receiving.
"Wow." Alex seconded Cassie's comment, only a little more breathlessly. His cock had hardened into a steel rod in his pants and at least a dozen carnal images were running through his mind, none of which contained either of them wearing a stitch of clothing. For the first time he was not going to apologise for his thoughts. In fact he was glad she could see what he was thinking. It was forewarning of all the things he planned on doing to her, with her.
"Narayan helped me." She advised shyly, pointing to her hair and make-up.
"Narayan, I think you missed your calling. It appears you're a man of many talents." Cassie praised.
"I used to watch 'The Next Top Model'. It was very informative." He replied modestly.
"If you get tired of being a philosophical, kick-arse Monk, you could become a make-up artist or hair stylist." Alex smirked, earning himself a back hand to his stomach from Cassie. Not that Narayan seemed to mind the comment. To the contrary, he was quite chuffed that Abby had turned out to be such a masterpiece.
"What?" Alex protested with false innocence.
Abby's attempt to cover her snicker turned into an unladylike snort and quickly covered her mouth to try and stop anything else embarrassing from coming out, like the groan of desire that was building from much deeper within at the way Alex's eyes intimately caressed her body from the top of her immaculate hair-do, right down to the tips of her ruby red painted toenails.
Cassie smiled to herself. The night couldn't have started better. The way Abby and Alex were staring at each other, she doubted that they would need any encouragement to get together tonight.
The Drunken Duck in the nearby village of Cadley, was a quaint old blue stone pub with numerous small panelled windows and a heavy batten door at its entrance. Set off the main road, it stood alone in a clearing only a couple of hundred metres from Savernake Forest. Soft plumes of smoke wafted on the chilly breeze from its large chimney, hinting at the inviting warmth inside.
"I think we're a little over dressed." Abby remarked as they entered the busy pub. Hearty cheers from a group watching footy on TV and general chatter filled the room along with aromas of home style cooking, malt beer and aromatic wood burning in the open fire place. Plaques and photos covered the walls celebrating the achievements of locals both past and present.
"We have a lot to celebrate. It's worth dressing up for." Alaric replied sitting back onto the bench seat facing the doorway, his eyes skimming over every individual in the room assessing them for potential trouble.
A lifetime of paranoia was hard to overcome.
Alex nodded in agreement as he too scanned the inhabitants of the pub.
"Alex, isn't that Mr Harlow coming this way?" Cassie asked, drawing his attention away from Abby.
"Yes, I think it is," he agreed.
"You know Brian Harlow?" Alaric asked them, puzzled how they would have met.
"Yes. We met him in the forest a few weeks back. He seems like a very nice man." Cassie's smile broadened as Brian Harlow stopped at their table, depositing a pot of beer in front of each of them. Alaric casually slid Cassie's aside and replaced it with iced water.
"Brian, it's good to see you again. It's been a while." Alaric stood, shaking his hand and drew another chair over to their table for him to join them.
"Alaric, it's good to see you too," he replied, shaking his hand vigorously. "Alex and Cassie, isn't it?" he asked, turning his attention in their direction. "But, I don't believe we've met yet," his eyes settling on Abby.
"You have a very good memory Mr Harlow," Alex replied as they each shook his hand in turn.
"This is Abby." Alaric introduced her as the older man took her hand, his eyes flashing back to Alaric with a questioning glance.
"Abby is my progeny."
Brian Harlow's momentary tense stance relaxed as he changed his grip on Abby's hand, raising it to his lips to kiss the back of her hand. "It's an honour to have you all here. Have you come to celebrate anything specific?" he asked, humour flashing in his knowing grey eyes.
"I believe you already know the answer to that question, Brian." Alaric acceded, shaking his head slowly, a lopsided smirk encroaching on his ageless face. Mrs Philpot accused the Professor for having a loose tongue when she herself has probably already informed half the village of their 'good news'.
"Yes I do. Congratulations on your engagement." Picking up his glass he offered a toast to them. "But, rest assured, I believe Edwina has only spoken to my lovely wife, who told me. It hasn't gone any further than us I can assure you….She mentioned something about catering?"
Well, at least she knew who would be doing the food for their wedding.
"How is Tilly?" Cassie asked.
"Silly Tilly," he grumbled, shaking his head sadly. "I'm sorry to say, I don't think she's going to be maturing any time soon. Unfortunately I don't have the time to walk her and train her, so much of my time is occupied here at the pub and my lovely wife Fran, has a hard time managing the mutt," he sighed wearily.
"If you need someone to walk her regularly, I'd be happy to help out." Alex offered. The giant sized Irish Wolf Hound puppy had found his soft spot when they'd first met. He'd deferred his post graduate course at Oxford University and now couldn't restart it for another semester. He had more than enough time on his hands to walk the energetic dog.
"That is a grand offer. I may take you up on it. Thank you Alex." Gratitude clearly evident in his voice the older man shook Alex's extended hand.
"Great. That's settled then." Alex announced happily.
"Have you been in touch with the Alliance recently?" Alaric asked.
"Yes. I'm kept informed. We've started sending out extra patrols at night. There's been more activity around here in the last few weeks, scouts we think, assessing the area."
"Possibly. They don't hang around long enough for us to question them."
"You know you can call me if you need."
"That's good to know. Thank you," his serious expression falling by the wayside as he spied a potential disaster about to unfold at the bar. "Well, I'd better get back behind the bar. My grandson, Callum and his friend Marcus are helping out tonight, they're still learning the ropes I'm afraid." He grimaced as the dark headed lad knocked over the pot of beer he'd just finished pouring. "I'll send Fran over to take your dinner orders in a few minutes. Enjoy your evening."
If they had planned on a quiet cosy meal, they would have been sadly disappointed. It seemed at least half the patrons in the bar knew Alaric and all wanted to stop by for a chat with little more than a minute between visitors. Among them was Marcus, Mrs Philpot's grandson and Damon Harlow, Brian's eldest son, an extremely serious man with little sense of humour and the shortest crew cut Cassie had ever seen. Muscles bulged and stretched his army fatigues, emphasising an intriguing tattoo, a symbol which snaked around his upper arm. Between his outward appearance and his intense mind drilling stare, he was without a doubt the scariest dude Cassie had ever seen. Thank goodness he was one of the good guys.
Finally the traffic to their table died off and Cassie had the opportunity to ask Alaric something that had been bugging her since Mr Harlow stopped by for a chat.
"Who exactly is Brian Harlow that you would tell him Abby is your progeny?" she probed.
All three of them leaned closer to Alaric for his answer. "He's the Lycan clan's Alpha."
"He's a Lycan?" Alex asked.
"Yes. This is the local hangout for his clan."
"And, Brian Harlow is the clan's leader?" he asked again to clarify he heard correctly.
"And he knows who you are?" Cassie asked.
"He knows exactly who you are." Abby interjected before Alaric had a chance to answer. "I think every supernatural in the region now knows you're Sammael….I read it in his mind and everyone else's who've come to pay their respects to you," she tacked on sheepishly.
"That explains why we've been so popular tonight," he grumbled. Cassie squeezed his knee, massaging his inner thigh causing him to shift in his seat to relieve the pressure building behind the zipper of his pants. "I think we should be going home, don't you?" he propositioned suggestively.
She couldn't agree more. She still hadn't shaken her earlier jitters, curbing her appetite and dampening her ability to follow the various conversations throughout the evening. She hadn't felt this wired and agitated since she pulled her last all nighter cramming for a major exam with more than double the amount of caffeine that should be legal to consume, running through her veins.
However, it hadn't skipped Cassie's attention that Alex and Abby had at least one body part touching all night - knees, hands, shoulders. They might just need a little push to take the next step.
"Why don't Alex and Abby take the car, we can fix the bill here and catch up with them at home," she prompted, punching Alaric in the thigh when he opened his mouth to object. A little slow on the up-take, he finally caught onto her train of thought.
"Wonderful idea." Alaric handed over the keys to the Porsche. "Here, it's all yours."
"What? For the night?"
"No. To keep. I think it's time you retire that rusted metal death trap you call a car."
"Are you serious?" Alex stared at Alaric and then again at the keys in his hand, a huge grin broadening across his face.
"It's all yours. But, any speeding fines come out of your allowance," he added resolutely.
"I don't get an allowance." Alex retorted grimly, his brows furrowing together in serious thought. He'd given up his tutoring work when he came to the Manor. He was the poor cousin, a penniless pauper.
"Hmm. I see how that could be a problem. We'll discuss fixing that, tomorrow." Not giving Alex a chance to question him further or thank him, Alaric left the table and headed for the bar to pay the bill.
Alex's mouth flapped open and closed wordlessly in shock.
"Don't you two have somewhere else to be?" Cassie asked, maintaining a weakly suppressed grin in an effort to keep a straight face. She would never make a good poker player.
"You're behind this aren't you?" he accused.
"I have nothing to say." Cassie answered innocently. "But I would suggest you leave now before he changes his mind." Walking Alex and Abby to the door, she gave them each a hug and kiss before turning for the bar to join Alaric.
A light breeze swirled the fallen leaves about their feet as they stepped out of the doorway.
Alex couldn't believe his luck. The woman of his dreams walked beside him, her smaller fingers intertwined with his, and in his other hand he clutched the keys to his new Porsche.
Reaching the car on the far side of the car park, he couldn't wait any longer.
Placing the keys in his pocket, he drew her closer to him, trapping her between his heated body and the cold metal of the car. Her body was soft and delicate in his arms and he couldn't help the unfamiliar surge of emotions that welled within him. He held onto her, his hands moving to her back as he pulled her more tightly against him.
His hand lifted and gently swept his fingers through her hair, tracing the outline of her ear and stroking the length of her neck.
Breathing was a chore. Her chest was so tight with the need to hold back the moan rising inside it, she felt light headed from the effort. She was trembling so hard her shudders vibrated into his body, heating it further.
"You are so beautiful," he murmured against her ear, his lips brushing lightly against her flushing cheek.
Alex caressed the nape of her neck gently as she raised her eyes to meet his covetous gaze. Hunger and heat, emotion and need. It all began to clash and coalesce inside her. Her lips parted, her tongue flicking out to lick her bottom lip in anticipation of his kiss.
Alex hesitated in closing the last few inches between them as Abby's long dextrous fingers reached to grab his waist, gliding strokes traced over his ribs, his back and around to caress of his rock hard stomach. She was fascinated by the feel of his warmth and firmness under such a soft and smooth exterior. She felt his muscles clench beneath her touch, his whole body becoming rigid as her curious hands explored the hidden secrets his body offered her.
Alex groaned as her full breasts pressed against him, catapulting his awareness of her and sharpening his arousal with spearing intensity. The need to taste her lips consumed him with a haze of hunger.
Closing the distance between them, Alex felt her cool breath mix with his as his lips brushed every so lightly against hers.
Abby's breath caught on a hitch as a sudden gust whipped up from the opposite direction.
In a flash their positions were reversed. Alex was pressed against the car with Abby standing protectively in front of him.