The sound of birds chirping nearby broke her blissful slumber, becoming aware of the soft mattress below her and the light feather doona around her. Her dreams dissolved into a distant oblivion as she slowly woke.
As she turned over lazily, the feel of the sheets and the smell of the pillow were unfamiliar. Her memories returned in an avalanche, shocking her awake in an instant.
Sitting up she took in her surroundings. She was in a large four poster bed with floral print bedding. The scent of freshly cut flowers delighted her nose from the vase on the bedside table, its hand carved design matched the bed. Across to her right were floor to ceiling panelled windows, the open curtains exposing the French doors onto a narrow balcony. Potted conifers flanked the doors at either side and a small cast iron table and two matching chairs sat neglected in one corner.
A pretty little jay bird sang its melodious tune from its perch on the balcony railing.
It was a dull overcast morning. Thick dark clouds hung low over the tall trees of the nearby forest. Distant thunder rumbled outside heralding the imminent downpour as wind whipped through the bare tree tops.
A chaise lounge occupied one corner of the room beside the windows, while the opposite corner sat an enormous hand carved wooden wardrobe, she'd need a ladder to reach the top, she thought. Its design matched both the bed and side tables. Between the two pieces of old worldly furniture was a fireplace.
Distracted in thought, Cassie didn't notice the bedroom door opening.
"Well, look who's awake." Mrs Philpot announced cheerily.
Cassie jumped. As the memory of last night had returned, so did her nerves.
"Sorry love. Didn't mean to startle you. Just bringing you a dress to change into. The master explained your pyjamas could probably use a wash," eying her dishevelled form. "So I've dug out one of my daughters old dresses for you," holding up a beautiful white dress almost as long as Mrs Philpot was tall. The hem was hand made, lace sewn into it in diamond shaped panels, ending in deep points, giving the hem a zigzag effect.
Cassie looked herself over. Her top particularly, was streaked with dried blood which ran through the fabric in a capillary fashion reminding her of her tie dying attempts when she was at school.
"This dress used to look lovely on Jocelyn, but I'm afraid she'll never wear it again," she said cheerily, hanging it on the wardrobe door. "She's had a couple of kids in recent years," a look of grandmotherly pride filling her frame. "Poor girl inherited my genes, now she has my figure," she laughed. "Although fortunately for her, she also has her father's genes. She's much taller than me and carries the weight much better." Her laugh was deep and hearty as she slapped her hips hard.
"If you're hungry, I've prepared some breakfast for you down stairs."
Removing the basket of pine cones and dried flowers from the fireplace, she set to replacing it with kindling and a couple of logs, fussing over the decorative basket as she placed it beside the hearth.
"Where exactly am I?" she asked in a soft voice that was a little shaky.
"You're in one of the guest rooms at the Manor of course," Mrs Philpot answered thoughtfully while adjusting the dress on the door of the wardrobe.
"The master brought you in early this morning. It sounds like you had a rough night, poor pet," plonking herself down on the bed, patting her hand in a reassuring manner. Her perceptive gaze was shadowed with understanding of her ordeal.
"When you're ready, get dressed and come down stairs. The others are here waiting to see you." She said in her warm and friendly manner. "You have your own bathroom," pointing toward a door between the fireplace and the wardrobe. "It's not terribly large but it's functional."
Cassie couldn't help but smile. This vivacious woman just exuded confidence and humour. It was infectious.
"Mrs Philpot, when you say everyone's here, who do you mean?"
"Your cousin's here and the Professor," the rosy shade of her cheeks deepened at the mention of his name. "And, Lilith too, of course," her brows furrowing together grumpily at the mention of the other woman.
"Can I ask you a personal question?" Cassie asked hesitantly.
"Of course. Ask away," making herself more comfortable on the bed. Her short legs dangled over the side.
"What is it about Lilith that you don't like?" She asked, her curiosity having gotten the better of her.
"Before I answer that, I have a question for you. How well do you know Lilith?" she probed.
"Not very well at all actually. I've barely even spoken to her before yesterday."
"Well, in that case, it's an easy question to answer. I find her insincere and a snob. She's as nice as pie to you when the Professor or the Master are nearby, but if you get her alone, she won't give you the time of day. Unless of course she thinks you're of some value to her." Mrs Philpot rarely had an opportunity to chat to anyone and conversation was a something she excelled in, barely taking a breath between sentences.
"She must be quite good at her job or the Professor wouldn't keep her around, I'm sure. Either that or she has him completely fooled." Concluding it was more likely the latter. "And, she's been after the Master's favour for several years, unsuccessfully, I'm glad to say," raising her hands in the air and rolling her eyes in exaggerated exasperation.
"Whereas your cousin, I like. He's very honest isn't he," a rhetorical question.
"Yes, you could say that. You can guarantee he'll always tell you exactly what he's thinking," grimacing at the thought of just how honest he is, but Alex wasn't the topic she wanted to discuss. Crossing her legs, elbows on her knees, she leaned forward ruffling the doona around her.
"Is the Master, um, Alaric attached already? Is that why he wasn't interested in Lilith?" He was the most strikingly handsome man she had ever seen. It was inconceivable that he'd be unattached.
"No. In fact, in all the years I've worked for him, I've never seen him with a woman or even heard him talk about a one. Until now," she chuckled, patting Cassie on the hand, "I thought he must be gay."
A burst of excitement pulsed through her. It wasn't just her imagination. There was an emotional undercurrent between them, one she had every intension of exploring.
"How long have you worked for him, if you don't mind me asking?"
"More than forty years," she answered.
Reminiscing on the years, she recalled the day she arrived for the job interview. She was a still a young woman with two small children in tow, having recently lost her husband, a soldier killed in action. Alaric had not only given her the job and the servants wing for herself and her children, but had also insisted on paying for their education in the best schools available in the area. She couldn't have asked for a better employer.
At the time she arrived at the Manor, she had looked several years his junior. Over the years as she aged, her attitude toward Alaric also changed. Her children grew and moved away leaving her alone in this the huge house with her perpetually young employer, who humoured her with the indulgence of mothering him instead. Ridiculous really, considering he was hundreds of years her senior.
"When did you find out he was a vampire?" This was the most enlightening conversation she'd had in a long time and couldn't soak up the information fast enough.
"At my job interview," she stated matter-of-factly. "He had to know firstly, if I could handle it, him being a vampire and all. And secondly, whether I could be trusted with his secret."
"How could he tell? Did he read your mind or something?" she asked, fascinated.
Her hearty laugh filled the room and her large bosom jiggled. "No. I merely explained my family background and once he knew my past, he had no hesitation in employing me. My family has been living in these parts for generations and Mr Neumann has been associated with many of my ancestors over the years. No doubt if he didn't think I was suitable, he would've wiped my memory and that would've been an end to it."
"He can do that?" she gasped. Molten heat rushed through her, settling in her loins, along with an equal amount a healthy respect for his abilities. She probably should have been afraid of him, but instead, the more she learned the more captivated she became.
"I'm sorry if I'm probing too much, I hope you don't think I'm rude. I'm just trying to come to terms with everything that's happened in the past few days, it's been a little, …overwhelming," confessing her uncertainty.
Disoriented. That's how she felt. The world had shifted on its axis in the last few days cracking the concrete stability her life revolved around, stripping away the illusion of her reality and leaving in its wake emotional turmoil.
"Not at all. I have to admit, I enjoy talking with you.
Her smile faded as her face tightened with seriousness. She was fiercely loyal to her employer, her mothering instincts were strong when it came to him. "You understand though, that anything you see or hear inside these walls, stays inside these walls."
"Of course. Who'd believe me anyway."
They laughed together, the momentary tension broken.
Cassie heaved a deep sigh as her anxiety levels settled to a more manageable level.
"Well, no more dilly dallying, time to be up and about." She said, sliding off the bed and smoothing out the ruffled quilt where she'd been sitting.
"Thanks for the chat," meeting her caring, all-knowing eyes. She had a look of someone who'd experienced a great deal of loss and upheaval in her life. It was an expression she recognised whenever she looked in the mirror. "And, thanks for the heads-up on Lilith."
"Don't take anything she says or does to heart, love. She's a cow to everyone," she said cheerily as she left the room closing the door behind her.
Cassie took the time to explore her room and wash in her small bathroom. The house was old but at least there were some parts of it that were modern, she thought, enjoying the warmth from the heat lamp above the bath before putting on the beautiful dress and heading down stairs. It wasn't her normal style of clothes, she rarely wore dresses but she couldn't deny she enjoyed the feel of it. She loved the way the heavy weight of the hem flared the skirt as she descended the sweeping staircase.
"I didn't say it was your fault, I said I was blaming you. There's a difference." Alex stated flatly, running his fingers through his hair in annoyance.
"If you hadn't texted me, I wouldn't have been distracted." Alaric accused. It wouldn't happen again.
Picking up Cassie's hair band from his desk, he stretched it between his fingers. He'd arrived back at the manor early this morning with it in his pocket, although he had no recollection of putting it there.
If he'd arrived only a second later… The thought was inconceivable. Alex's voice droned into the background as his mind envisioned the outcome that could have been.
No, it definitely wouldn't happen again.
"What's going on? Are you two arguing again?" Cassie asked, disrupting their animated discourse. Her scolding tone and gaze shrinking their testosterone inflated balls to the size of marbles in an instant. What was this, a pissing competition?
Alex stared momentarily, searching her for evidence of any injury. Only one. A shallow cut along her throat, beginning an inch below her ear, curving around to just above the top of her collar bone in a long thin sweep.
Alaric remained motionless and watched Alex rush to her side for a closer inspection, circling her, scrutinizing her carefully. Only a few insignificant red lines were evident on her arms, nothing of any consequence. Barely noticeable.
Satisfied, he hugged her, his smile full of concern and affection.
"You can let go now," she said, pushing away from him when he continued to hold on.
"Sorry. I'm just glad you're okay. No thanks to him," tilting his head towards Alaric with a snarly glare.
Alaric remained expressionless, composed, but irrational jealousy simmered just beneath the surface. No other man should touch her. He should be holding her, not Alex. And that dress. It never looked so good on Jocelyn. The way it highlighted her curves, it should be illegal.
"Actually, it's all thanks to Alaric that I'm still alive," she replied tersely. "And, the Professor," she continued, nodding in his direction seated behind the desk. "If the Professor hadn't insisted on us coming here last night to see Alaric, I would've gone home from Uni unaware that Jarvis was after me and I wouldn't be standing here now talking to you." She poked her finger in his chest to emphasise her point.
"So, before you go shooting your mouth off any more, think about that," she finished, aiming her wrath in his direction with a cool glare.
He couldn't argue with that. But, he needed something to take his frustration out on and Alaric was such an easy target. Dangerous, but easy. Alex may have been an academic nerd with an IQ to match Einstein, but common sense rarely went hand in hand with intelligence, and Alex definitely missed out in that department, at least when it came to self preservation.
"Apologise." She ordered in an authoritative voice.
"No." he responded sharply, his hands placed belligerently on his hips.
A Mexican standoff. Neither one had any intention of backing down.
"Cassie. Alex has a point. I should've anticipated that Jarvis would wait until my attention was diverted. Let it be." Alaric prompted. His voice was a soft caress sending goose bumps rippling over her body. Her attention turned fully in his direction, her face melting into a buttery smile, her cheeks turning a soft pink.
The Professor cleared his throat.
"Cassie, did Jarvis say anything to you?" he asked "Anything that might give us a clue who he was working for?"
"No. He only mentioned his colleague on the roof with Alaric." She inhaled a sharp breath, her eyes went wide as her focus returned to Alaric. She hadn't even given the other assassin a second thought.
The corner of his mouth tilted up and his eyes glittered with satisfied pleasure. She was concerned for him and, …he enjoyed it. Her attention was a welcome distraction from his normally dull existence.
So long as he kept his distance, a small voice in the back of his mind reminded.
"What happened to him?" she asked, taking a step closer toward Alaric, grabbing his hands and turning them over. She spied her hair band around his wrist and smiled inwardly to herself. Placing her hand on his chest she quickly scanned him for signs of the struggle with Jarvis. Ridiculous really, since any injury would heal almost instantly, and had.
It was going to take some getting used to, dealing with vampires.
"I could have sworn he ripped open your chest and pulled out your heart last night. I must've been tripping," she mumbled, barely audible enough to be heard nearby.
The warmth and gentle caress of her hand on his chest jolted and invigorated him at the same time. Desire was stirring. He had to get a grip on it. He felt her body temperature rise and the faint scent of sweet pheromones permeated his nostrils, sending a shiver of pleasure rushing through him.
His awareness of her was more acute than he'd expected.
He really had to get a grip. Think about something else. Cute little puppy dogs. Warm summer sun on a meadow. The warmth of Cassie's naked body locked in his embrace beneath him in that meadow.
The appeal was devastating.
Hells hairy balls. He needed a lobotomy.
He quickly changed the subject back to the relevant matter.
"His name is Cain, and he'll live. For now he's more valuable alive than dead. Unfortunately I didn't have enough time to get the information we need." Alaric stated flatly. It really irked that Cassie was nearly killed and that he'd let their best lead get away.
Not that Cain would have gotten far quickly. The moment he realised Cassie was in danger, he broke both his legs and threw him from the roof of the building. It had been his intension to interrogate him after dealing with Jarvis. Cain wasn't a very old vampire, no more than fifty years, so it would've taken him some time to heal. Needless to say, he hadn't anticipated the magnitude of the fight which brought the neighbours and police to the door so soon afterward, and he wasn't going to leave Cassie alone again, not even for a moment.
He'd catch up with him again, one way or another, and next time he'd make sure he got the information he wanted.
"Which brings me to another problem," he added. "Cain and the other assassin, the woman, are still out there. I can only assume that they have orders to finish the job that Jarvis failed," his intense gaze bored into her sending a shiver down her spine.
"What are you trying to tell me?" she asked nervously, the repercussion becoming clear.
"You can't leave the Manor." Alaric said bluntly.
She looked at Alex who noticed her subtly wince at his statement, but nodded his agreement with Alaric. He tried desperately to swallow the smirk. He knew what was coming, could see her anger simmering just below the surface, building. She doesn't take orders very well, never did.
"What do you mean exactly, I can't leave the Manor?" she asked coolly.
"Just that. You can't leave the Manor grounds for any reason, not until it's safe," he stated matter-of-factly, seemingly unaware of the thin ice he was skating on.
"So I'm a prisoner here. Is that what you're saying?"
Another flash of lighting and thunder ostensibly ignited by Cassie's fiery temper.
"Not at all. You can explore any part of the Manor house and grounds you like, including the entire Savernake Forest if you choose, but you cannot cross the boundaries. You can't leave here for any reason until I tell you. Am I understood?" his voice remained calm and unperturbed by the fire in her eyes and the ice in her voice.
Alex took a step back. He could see she was about to blow and he didn't want to be in the direct firing line. Heaven knows he been there enough times.
"I've already explained to Alex that by now there would be sentries watching both your homes and the university. Sentries who are loyal to the Guild and who would report your location. Vampires hibernate during the day but your scent is distinct and they can track you several hours after you've left a location. If the vampires don't pick up your scent and kill you, then the Guild who the sentries report to, will. Alex can't return home or to the University so he'll be staying here with you. But, you can't leave here until I tell you. I won't allow it."
It was beginning to annoy him that he had to argue a logical point. It bewildered him that his decision about her new living arrangements, which he made for her own protection, seemed to infuriate her so much.
The two men stood either side of her in agreement. They were ganging up on her. She preferred it when they argued with each other.
She shot them both a withering glare. Alex wiped the smile quickly from his face but it lingered along the edges of his lips. He couldn't help but enjoy the fact that the perfect Alaric Neumann was facing Cassie's wrath, just as he did so often. He wasn't however, about to inform Alaric that his method of informing her of the arrangements was the cause of her anger. No, it worked much better to his advantage this way. The more angry she was with him, the less likely she was to fall for him.
He did however agree with Alaric one hundred percent. It wasn't safe for her to return home or the University and if that meant he had to stay there too, so be it. In a house this size, surely it would be possible to avoid Alaric most of the time. Besides, he's a vampire. Don't they sleep during the day?
That thought prompted another question. It was ten in the morning, daytime by several hours. He'd just finished telling them that the vampires wouldn't show themselves in daylight. Why wasn't Alaric sleeping in a coffin somewhere?
"Won't allow me?" she snapped furiously. "You won't allow me?" she repeated, her voice rising an octave.
Alaric smiled tightly, tamping down the need to spank her stubborn pretty arse. Her eyes narrowed dangerously with her rising anger.
He sighed, running his fingers through his hair. "Is it so bad, Cassandra, that I want to protect you?" he asked softly, watching her with a heated lust-filled gaze.
Lightening flared through the window, illuminating the dim study as thunder cracked overhead and rattled the air around them. The tension in the room smouldered.
"I don't want to stay here." That was a flat out lie. There was nowhere else she wanted to be. She had a disturbing irrational need to be close to Alaric.
"Please don't take it personally. I may not sound grateful for everything you've done, which I am," she hastily added. "But I'm still trying to process everything. A week ago I was a normal human living a normal mundane boring life and today..." She threw her hands in the air looking for the words to describe the torrent of emotions roiling through her.
First and foremost, she resented being told what she could and couldn't do. She wasn't a child to be ordered around.
Furthermore, there were matters in her life she had to deal with, which couldn't be ignored despite the well meaning incarceration they were trying to enforce on her. She had to find another job and she needed to get her apartment fixed. She had to contact the trustees of her inheritance. She wasn't due to receive any of it until her twenty fifth birthday except to pay her tuition costs, but due to the exceptional circumstances, they may release some of the money. Not that she could explain how the damage was caused. She'd need to think up something plausible there. Might be tough though, since she couldn't exactly say that two vampires demolished the place fighting.
And on top of all that, she had her studies to complete. She was in her final year of her course in anthropology, and she'd worked too hard to drop out now.
She explained her situation rather aggressively, only to find that the major issues had already been taken care of.
A single brow raised at her petulant tone, his chiselled features softened as he reached out to move a wayward lock of hair behind her ear and stroked her cheek gently with his thumb.
It was a gentle nurturing moment and completely devastating. It affectively lassoed that part of her brain that had decided gibbering was a good thing.
He may not be able to glamour her, but he still had a couple of tricks up his sleeve to achieve the quiescence he desperately needed.
You're playing with fire, a small voice whispered in his mind.
Alaric had already spoken with her landlord and arranged to have her apartment repaired. He grudgingly agreed to allow her to repay him the cost of the repairs at a time when she was able. The Professor had made arrangements for her to study at home. All relevant material could be couriered to and from the University via the Professor for as long as necessary, including Library computer privileges giving her access to material not available in books, normally restricted to the Professors and Lecturers. He'd definitely pulled a few strings on her behalf.
As for the job. Apparently, as she was told, neither she nor Alex needed to worry about that while they stayed at the Manor, all expenses were paid for.
Her anger was completely deflated. She had no come back, except to feel guilty about being such an expensive guest.
"What about my things?" she asked as an after thought, spotting Alex's overly stuffed bag by the door. He'd obviously been told before coming to be prepared for an extended stay. "I don't have any clothes or even a toothbrush. It's very kind of Mrs Philpot to lend me this dress but I can't keep borrowing other people's clothes."
Alaric's jaw set in a hard line of tension and his eyes glowed with a covetous iridescent glitter as she held the dress against her body to emphasise her predicament. Lit by a flash of lightening, her silhouette clearly showed her form beneath the fabric. His vampire sight noted the evident lack of any underwear. He barely stifled a groan.
Having Cassie at the Manor was already testing his restraint and she'd only been there a few hours. If it weren't for his training in the Buddhist temple to strengthen his will against temptation, he'd already be lost to his ever increasing need for her. The pressure in his trousers became demandingly tight as his desire seared a path through him.
"I'll have someone pick up the things you need later today if you like," he offered smoothly, his face expressionless as he casually sat on the edge of his desk to disguise the bulge in his trousers.
Alex's eyes narrowed but he held his tongue, obviously not keen to draw Cassie's attention to his unmistakable attraction to her.
He'd already arranged for her furniture and other possessions to be transported into storage before the renovations started. What was left of them.
"I'll do it." All eyes turned to Lilith, almost forgotten on the sofa quietly observing the conversation.
"I'll pick up Cassie's things. I have to be in town by lunch time anyway. I could be back around four this afternoon if that would be suitable," she offered.
"Thanks. That would be great. Could I give you a list of things I need?" she asked, moving toward the sofa. Maybe Lilith was looking to score more brownie points with the Professor and Alaric but right now she didn't care, so long as she got some clean underwear, her toiletries and a change of clothes.
Alex and Alaric left the study heading in opposite directions, leaving the Professor at the desk to begin more phone calls, while Cassie wrote out her list of essentials for Lilith.
Alex followed his nose to the dining room where bacon and eggs were laid out next to a pot of fresh coffee. Cassie arrived a few minutes later, her own stomach growling loudly.
It was a grand dining room, elegant and refined, much like its owner. The table would easily seat twenty people which seemed superfluous since it was owned by a reclusive vampire who rarely entertained guests.
The few rooms of the house she had seen so far fascinated her. It was a tasteful mélange of an old world blended with the new although the overall ambience was of an undeniably rustic homely feel. There was nothing gaudy or ostentatious.
Alaric had told her she was allowed to explore any part of the house she wanted, and she intended to do just that. She was going to explore every room between the attics to the basement.
She'd get started right after breakfast, she was starving.