Mortal Obligation (Dark Betrayal Trilogy #1)

Chapter 14

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“You know, you're right, Mel. It isn't fair for me to be upset about that. I think I just overreacted last night. I was so tired, and there’s so much happening.” Ree gave her a small smile. “I shouldn't have taken it out on Paden last night.”

“Yeah, and he shouldn't have said a lot of things either.” Melanie went and sat down on the bed.

“You could hear that?” Ree sat on the bed next to her and frowned.

“Super hearing is one of the perks.” Melanie started picking at the end of her braid. “And don't worry about Paden. You know how stubborn he can be when he has something stuck in his head, but he’ll come around eventually.”

“You really did hear everything, huh?” Ree grimaced.

“I wanted to come talk to you last night, but I figured you wanted to be alone.”

“I'm sorry, I hope I didn't keep you up.” Ree apologized, embarrassed.

“Nah, I had my own things to think about. And everyone deserves a good cry when their life is turned upside down.”

“Melanie, what’s wrong? There’s so much anger in you. I have no idea how you’re sitting here so calmly.”

“Know how Mom really freaked about me being out all night? Well, apparently she knew something along these lines might happen one day. Maybe not exactly what was going on, but she knew I might be involved in something dangerous one day.” She clutched her braid in one hand, her knuckles getting white from the tension. “You know my Dad died when I was nine, but I doubt you know very much about his actual death. I didn't really know very much about all of it until yesterday.”

Ree moved a little closer to her and grabbed her hand. She could sense that this was very hard for Melanie to talk about, but she needed to get it out. She had never met Melanie's father; he had died long before she had started school at St. Theresa. Melanie's mother owned the Old Carriage Inn and handled the day-to-day management. She and Melanie lived in a small house in the garden behind the main residence.

“Well, Dad got a call from the manager of the Inn late one night. We didn't live in the cottage at that point. We had a house near Forsyth Square. It wasn't in the best of shape, but Mom and Dad loved working on it together. Anyway, apparently there were some guests at the Inn causing a lot of trouble, and they were demanding to speak to the owners. Dad told Mom he would handle it. I don't remember him leaving; I was already asleep. I knew he never came home that night, but it wasn't until yesterday that Gram explained to me what had happened.” She took a deep breath and yanked on her braid. Ree squeezed her hand to reassure her.

“I thought he had been mugged, you know? I remember the headlines in the paper; his body had been found behind a tool shed near a private driveway. Mom never spoke about it, but the papers said he had suffered stab wounds and bled to death.” She gritted her teeth. “But apparently, he had actually been drained by Dark Ones. After they finished with him, they came to our home. Thankfully, Gram had placed wards around the house, and they couldn’t get closer than the front steps. They hollered from the sidewalk until Mom called the police. I remember the sirens waking me, and the blue and red lights flashing through the house.”

“Melanie, was it an accident the Dark Ones happened to find your father? Isn't he the one you get your immortal heritage from?”

“No. We smell good to the Dark Ones, and their ability to smell is heightened just like ours. Gram figures they had smelled us around the Inn. It doesn't help that Gram and Mom are from a line of witches. They have a distinct smell too. Anything that has some kind of power is appealing to Dark Ones. They can drain us, and it gives them far more energy than the blood of a regular human.” She stood up and started pacing.

“They came to the house that night for me. Gram had to tell Mom everything she knew, to explain the danger we were in. I knew Mom and Gram hadn't been on good terms for years, but I had always thought it was Dad’s death that brought them back together. Before, Mom thought Gram was a quack for believing in Wicca and worshiping Hecate; now she’s just as likely to smudge the house and set up wards as Gram.” Melanie stopped and stood in the middle of the room, looking lost. “Mom sold the house two weeks after Dad died, and we moved into the Inn. They took every precaution they could to make us as safe as possible. Until this weekend, I thought we were a pretty normal family, you know? Aside from the incense and crystals.”

Ree stood up and hugged her. “So when you didn't show up the other night, your Mom thought you had been taken, too.”

Melanie nodded her head and wiped a few tears from her eyes. “Yeah, she was pretty upset. But Gram understood what I had to do, and she told Mom it would make me stronger. Able to fight the Dark Ones and capable of protecting other people from what had happened to us.” She sniffed and smiled. “Mom may not be a Guardian, but she was pretty fierce. She was all set for me to never leave the Inn again. Gram had to do a lot of soothing to get me out of there. As it is, I got twenty-something text messages from her last night.”

“This is why you are so ready to be a Guardian?”

“Oh, yeah. I plan on kicking some serious Dark One butt. I don't want them taking any other fathers from their children.”

Ree squeezed her shoulders and smiled. “Well, I guess we have some more training to do then!”

Melanie nodded. “Yep. We need to be B.A.”

“B.A.?” Ree looked at her friend in confusion.

“Bad Ass!” Melanie smiled. Apparently she felt a little better after getting everything off of her chest.

Ree snickered and pulled her friend out of the room and headed toward the kitchen.

Chapter 19

After a breakfast of waffles, homemade hash browns, and bacon they all ended up in the main living area. Someone had taped plastic over the broken window panes in the French doors. The others were lounging around on the leather couch and overstuffed chairs. Sophie entered the room and waved at everyone cheerfully. She was eating a sandwich that looked to be made out of a folded piece of toast and bacon. After swallowing the last bite, she bent over and checked the laces of her shoes.

“Alright guys! Let’s run!” She bounced in place for a moment and then jogged to the door. Ree guessed she was going to be doing some physical stuff today, too. She tried to not grimace, wishing she hadn’t eaten such a large breakfast. She wasn’t athletically gifted like the others were, and it was going to be tough to keep up with them. Well, except for maybe Weylin. The only sport he participated in was flirting.

“But we ran five miles just last night,” Weylin groaned.

“And you didn't break a sweat,” Roland said entering the room. He shoved Weylin on the shoulder as he passed him and smiled. Ree thought it was a good sign Weylin didn't flinch or look upset at the contact. She glanced at Sophie and saw she had a small smile on her face as she looked away. If Ree had to guess, she figured having the Guardians train with Roland wasn't just so they could learn from the best, but to help them learn to trust this particular Dark One.

“Don't worry though; this morning will be an easy run. Ree is coming with us, so we won't be pushing as hard as we did yesterday.” He stepped close to her right side and smiled down at her. “I was told you aren't a big runner?”

“Uh, no. I'm more of a make-the-banner-for-the-team kind of girl. Painting is much more my sport.”

Paden gave her a small smile as he positioned himself on her other side. They hadn't spoken much since last night, and she was trying her best to not let it bother her.

“Well, we will take it easy this morning, but we’ll whip you into shape in no time.” He smirked when Ree cringed.

Weylin laughed and pointed at her face. “If only you could see your expression!” He chortled as he followed Sophie outside to stretch.

Melanie gave her a thumbs up, and Jules threw her an encouraging smile. Roland slung an arm over her shoulders and steered her out the door toward the others. Ree could almost hear Paden grinding his teeth behind her, and instead of pushing Roland away she smiled up at him.

“So, what did you guys do last night? You ran five miles? I hope we aren't doing that today!” She knew it was a pathetic attempt at flirting, but it just didn't come to her easily. Thankfully, Roland didn't seem to mind. In fact, she had the impression that he was enjoying it.

“I'm sure we will have you running five miles in no time. With those lovely long legs you should be a natural.” Ree smiled and looked down to hide her blush. She wasn't used to compliments, and it was weird to have such an attractive guy paying her any attention. Paden walked away from them and joined Bryce to stretch. Roland leaned down, his breath warm on his ear.

“Well played, little Ree. Do you think you made your point?” She looked up at him, not sure if he was bothered by what had transpired. He didn't move away so their noses were almost touching. She was struck by the sapphire color of his eyes. He gave her a slow, lazy smile and winked. “I think with a little more work, he may actually admit he is jealous.”

For a moment her thoughts were jumbled; his words not making sense. His eyes dipped to her lips and her pulse quickened. Was he just playing the part, or was it possible he was really tempted?

“Time to stretch, Ree. You don't want to get a nasty cramp.” That broke the odd connection stretching between her and Roland. His mouth twitched into its usual smirk.

She stepped away from him and went to stretch with Melanie. Her friend raised her eyebrows and tilted her head toward the Dark One. Ree shrugged slightly and went about trying to stretch. She knew this was going to be terrible, but nothing prepared her for just how difficult it would be to keep up with everyone else.

They started at the end of a stone path that led to a trail in the woods. Right away, she knew she was in trouble. The others took off at a sprint and left her behind without realizing it. They hadn't been told how far they were going, so she decided to pace herself if they were going to leave her, anyway. From the back of the group she watched as they gracefully loped away from her. Even Weylin was keeping up with everyone. He didn't seem to be straining or frustrated. In fact, he was laughing with Bryce and Jules. So much for commiserating with him.

Instead of focusing on running, she let her mind wander over how different they seemed to be now that they were immortal. It was almost eerie to watch them move. It was like they were dancing along the trail. At one point Bryce darted off the trail and then jumped on Weylin’s back from out of nowhere. They all laughed and kept running, with Bryce clinging to Weylin’s back.

She stumbled on a root, and a hand caught her elbow. Once she gained her footing again she looked up to thank whoever had helped her and met Padens' green eyes. His hand stayed on her elbow for a moment, and his expression clouded. She could sense his turmoil, but she wasn't sure what was causing it.

“Thanks.” She started jogging after the others, and he matched his pace to hers.

“No problem. We shouldn't have run ahead of you.”

“Nah, I don't mind. Besides, I have all of this beautiful scenery to keep me company.” She waved a hand at the giant oak trees covered in Spanish moss. Even in the cold of winter there was a great deal of greenery on the south Georgian island.

He didn't say anything in response; instead, he stared at the path ahead of them. She decided to let the silence rest between them. It had always been easy to be around Paden. Words weren't really needed. They fell into an easy jog, the sound of their breathing keeping time between them.

She really had meant what she said about the scenery. The trees were so large, their heavy branches swooping over the path like a canopy. Spanish moss hung down like thick tufts of gray hair. If it was a little warmer the wooded area would be overrun with green vines and palmetto plants.

“I shouldn't have said I only spent time with you because of Tristan.” Paden’s voice was quiet. “That was a lie, and I don’t want to lie to you.”

“I shouldn't have forced you to,” she replied. She slowed her pace because she was beginning to tire. Even though the temperature was very cold for south Georgia, she was sweating. They had to have covered at least a mile at this point, and she wasn’t really sure how long she would be able to keep running. It was sad, really – she was supposed to be in the prime of her life.

Paden again slowed his pace to match hers, but didn't say anything else. When they rounded the bend Ree stopped in amazement. The largest tree she had ever seen was just off the path, its branches reaching up as if to touch the sky. She stepped off the path and walked over to it; she wanted, needed to touch this beautiful old tree. She climbed up and over the massive roots and ran her hand over the bark. When she pressed her fingers against the rough bark, something in her chest warmed. Her power recognized this mother tree, and was responding to her close presence. It was a happy feeling, and she let herself bask in the warm glow as she crawled and climbed around the tree. She grabbed hold of a large, low-hanging branch and pulled herself up to sit on its curved length. The leaves of the giant oak seemed to turn in her direction, and a breeze ruffled her hair. For the first time in days, she was content to just be herself.

“I think it might take ten people holding hands to reach around this trunk. She’s massive,” Paden said quietly, leaning against the trunk beneath her.

The content feeling in her chest grew a little, and Ree was pretty sure the tree was amused by Paden.

Running her hand along the rough bark, Ree smiled to herself. She would have to remember this tree when she felt stressed. This place felt very comforting and restful.

Paden didn't say anything, just leaned against the tree in thoughtful silence. His attention seemed to be elsewhere, focused on something she couldn't see or hear. Suddenly the others appeared from the brush, their steps quiet and careful. They all stopped several yards away to look at the tree. Roland smiled at them, but there was something strained in his expression. Sophie was nowhere to be seen, which made Ree nervous. Before she could say anything, she felt like the world had shifted beneath her and she grabbed on to the branch to stay upright. The glowing spot in her chest grew in intensity, almost burning. It stopped suddenly, leaving her breathless.

She looked at everyone else to see if they had felt it, too. Everyone but Paden and Roland looked as if nothing had changed. Paden was grasping the tree and looking in the direction of the house, while Roland stared at her in curiosity.

Ree felt a surge of panic. “Did you feel that too, Pay?”

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