Estimated reading time: 40 – 66 minutes
“Looking into the Mirror”
Show whatever part of me you’d like.
I won’t say a word.
Because finally I am real and you are not.
Northeastern United States
My name is Katherine Merror and I will not make the same mistakes as before.
Her silent words rang somberly throughout the confines of a world not defined by human rules and expectations.
Do you hear me, Mikhail DeMontier? Husband, lover or enemy, you can’t stop me. I WILL be a different woman.
An inaudible growl colored the air. Katherine watched the physician, Dr. Kelrich, take one slow slide backwards. His face paled to match his bleached collar. Fear suffocated the small room with noxious asphyxiation.
“Is something the matter, Dr. Kelrich?” She spoke softly, cautiously, as if trying to gentle a creature ready to bolt.
His neck moved with a marionette’s grace. The physician fumbled with his words but only managed to sputter nonsensically.
Katherine turned to face the man on her right in frustration. She stabbed him with a fiery glare.
What are you doing to make this doctor want to piss himself?
Mikhail DeMontier’s proud shoulders immediately slid into a petulant slump. However, his back straightened with a snap when he met her angry gaze. Shock made his stunning features slack. Mikhail’s mouth parted with a horrified breath.
What’s wrong? She spoke to him with her mind, instinctually conscious of the need for discretion. What’s happening?
No answer came—telepathic or otherwise. Mikhail’s pupils continued to dilate and his terror dwarfed Dr. Kelrich’s.
Katherine whispered his name. She screamed it silently but Mikhail continued to stare at her in fascinated horror. Katherine’s back quickly slicked with sweat.
The tiny thread masquerading as her voice finally spurred him into action.
“Dr. Kelrich.” Gentle yet uncompromising, Mikhail’s tone beckoned the other man’s attention. “Surely there are other patients to see.”
The word obviously failed to elicit the appropriate response. Mikhail stepped forward. The muted hospital lighting burnished his hair with the patina of an old, gold coin. His jade gaze glowed eerily from a white face. “As you can see, my wife is fine. There’s nothing the matter here.”
Frozen, Dr. Kelrich stared up at the much larger man.
“You can go now.”
Normalcy jolted the physician’s limbs. He rocked back slightly before recovering. “Oh, of course. Yes. You’re right.” Dr. Kelrich kept his eyes averted. Questions sped across his brow, jerking and relaxing before seemingly giving way to safe, infallible logic.
“She’s perfectly, perfectly fine. It’s true. Well, ah, Ms. Merror…I mean Mrs. DeMontier…Katherine…I’ll be making my rounds now. A nurse will be by to check your vitals. Tomorrow you’ll be free to go with your husband—” His throat closed before he added hastily. “Or by yourself.”
Katherine watched in confusion as the slender physician began inching his way back to the door. Despite his words, Dr. Kelrich’s fear still clung to the membrane of her empathic psyche.
“Good bye. Thank you again for all your care.”
He paused, his calm expression melting by degrees. “By the way, most accidents that happen this time of the year on that mountain don’t usually have a happy ending. You’re a lucky girl.”
“So you’ve told her,” Mikhail reminded him gently. “When you first came in.”
“Mmm. So I did.” Flustered, he glanced down at Katherine’s chart. “Still, you truly are one of the lucky ones, Ms. Merror.” The statement surfaced like a buried curse, surprising Dr. Kelrich if his pink color was any indication.
“Lucky. That’s me.” Despite Katherine’s attempt at keeping surface humor, traces of her melancholy laid claim to those words.
The physician paused and looked up. An air of compassion lightened his gaze as well as wary curiosity. However, he couldn’t bear to look into her eyes. Fear of what was or wasn’t there robbed him of cold intellect. The man of science instantly loathed Katherine for that alone.
“Ah, well.” Crimson spots of rage stained his smooth cheeks. His voice trembled. “I’ll be by to check on you in the evening. As I mentioned before, the nurse will be here to take your vitals soon.”
“Thank you. See you tonight.”
Dr. Kelrich merely grimaced before turning away.
Watching her doctor make his harried retreat, Katherine turned her attention to the subdued male a few feet away.
“What the hell is going on? Why are both of you so scared, Mikhail?”
He reached into his pocket without a word. A tiny, silver compact lay within his palm.
“How…I thought I left that behind.”
“You did.” Sadness plucked the corners of his soft mouth. Flicking the lid open with his thumb, Mikhail instructed, “Look.”
Katherine’s gaze slinked to the pretty mirror in his hand. She blinked several times, not allowing her mind to comprehend the vicious unnaturalness staring back.
“No. This can’t be right. It’s just the lighting. You told Dr. Kelrich the truth. I’m fine.”
The helplessness in Mikhail shrouded Katherine’s denial, rendering it invisible. She thrust his hand away, severing the awful reflection. Her breath grew choppier with each spoken word.
“My eyes…it shouldn’t…it’s not right!”
He sank onto the bed before she finished speaking. His arms clung to Katherine tightly while she clawed to get even closer.
“Why are my eyes red? Why are there fucking flames in them?!”
“You were caught between worlds. It’s just a temporary side-effect.”
“Don’t lie to me, Mikhail! Nobody—”
“Katherine.” The growl passing as her name silenced her immediately. “Remember there’s much that lies beneath the world most humans live by. You know this,” his hand passed through the air with graceful fluidity, “is only one side.”
She nodded her head slowly, ready for him to continue.
“What was the last thing you saw, Katharina?”
His accented use of her name instantly calmed Katherine. “Azer…the door…fire.”
“Okay. You’ll be fine. It’ll wear off within a few hours…a few days at most. After all, it’s just a little fire in the eyes. Nothing else.” Even to his jaundiced ears, it all seemed too cavalier. Doubt touched him and sent Katherine back into a frenzied state.
“A little fire? Nothing else?” She shrieked low in her throat. “That’s all you have to say?!”
“Calm down!” Mikhail clasped her face in his hands. “You need to stay focused!”
“Dr. Kelrich saw this. That’s why he was so terrified. Oh, God. What if he tells?”
“He won’t talk. Not and keep his reputation.”
“But what if—”
“He won’t.” Mikhail forced her head back, refusing to allow Katherine to look away. “You don’t have time to worry about the good doctor.”
Mikhail’s mouth parted slightly. Indecision crawled across his brow. “I want you to come with me.”
“Because I don’t want to leave you alone.”
“Why?” The low growl made Mikhail tense. “You’re not telling me everything. What are you keeping from me?”
Seeing his stubborn discretion, she reached out. Her golden eyes narrowed in rage when Mikhail moved away. Katherine lunged forward and her fingers managed to cling to Mikhail’s wrists.
“If you won’t tell me, then I’ll find out MY way. Either way, you WILL tell me what I want to know!”
In one moment, an invisible cinder became an unforgiving inferno.
Katherine’s lips parted with a frightened cry. She tried to release him, but she couldn’t. It was as if her skin was fused with Mikhail’s. Katherine’s gaze ricocheted from her grip to his.
“Pull me off!”
“What do you mean? Just let go.” His face tightened and fear flowed through their connection. “What did you see, Katherine?”
She shook her head in answer. Her fingers flexed and injustice controlled Katherine’s mind. Every cruel thing this man had ever done to her sprang to life.
“This isn’t going to work. I should’ve never jumped into our relationship.”
“You’re beneath me.”
“We’re not in grade school, Katherine. This just proves that it was a mistake getting involved with a child like you!”
“Do you really have to make this harder than it has to be? Don’t you have any fucking pride?”
“Stay out of my goddamned mind!”
“I’m not coming back for my things. Sell them, give them away—do whatever you want.”
“I WILL NOT GIVE UP WHO I AM FOR YOU!”
Katherine moaned from the terrible agony ripping her heart to shreds. Heat burned the back of Katherine’s lids. She watched Mikhail’s haunting features dissolve in a torrent of fire. Hatred whispered his name. Katherine clenched her eyes shut in fresh terror.
I want you dead for what you did to me. But I could never really…
“YES, YOU CAN.”
The voice came from within, startling Katherine with its molten venom.
“What’s happening to you?” Mikhail watched helplessly as his wife fell into chaos. “Please don’t shut me out. What’s wrong?”
He didn’t hear anything. Not her thoughts and not the other.
Low agonized moans erupted in her throat. The monitors began screaming Katherine’s distress. She felt her veins boil as something foreign burst to life.
“IT WILL STOP IF HE’S GONE.”
Self-preservation forced Katherine to listen to the darkness.
My heart hurts so much. He’s the reason why. What if he wasn’t here?
Mikhail’s mouth suddenly whitened. His pulse accelerated to her dangerous rhythm as he suffered Katherine’s trauma through their emotional and physical connection.
“IT WILL BE OVER IN LESS THAN MINUTE. JUST KEEP YOUR HOLD ON HIM.”
“NO!”Somehow, Katherine managed to rip her hands away. However, satisfaction lasted only a moment when hatred poisoned her mind. Katherine’s chest heaved as she fought violently to draw in breath.
“I…I don’t want…I don’t want to feel this!”
Helpless yet anxious to soothe her, Mikhail whispered, “I’m here, Katharina. I’m not going to leave you.” Dry lips brushed over her closed lids. Mikhail recoiled instantly with a loud hiss. “Open your eyes!”
Katherine saw crimson flames blazing in the darkness within her. She shook her head frantically.
“Because I’m afraid of what will happen if I do.” And because I hate you so much right now. Katherine rocked back as Mikhail’s terror and hurt added to her own. “You heard me.”
“Don’t lie.” Irrational anger blanketed any guilt she carried. “You heard me and now you’re afraid.”
“I’m not afraid of you.” He said the words in hoarse challenge, pitifully trying to convince them both. “I’m not.” I refuse to judge her. I refuse to fear my past. I’m in control. Not like before.
Mikhail’s silent words set off an inferno in Katherine’s soul. The tentative peace they had achieved in the hours before scattered like ashes. Overwhelmed by hatred, Katherine cut her unconscious connection with Mikhail.
“Judge me? What about judging yourself? And by the way, you are NOT in control, Mikhail. You never have been when you should be. At least not when it counted.” An evil grin spread across her face. “What do you see when you look in my eyes? Do you see yourself or what you fear?”
Mikhail’s features hardened. “I see fire.”
Her laughter cut through him. “You answered my question perfectly. It doesn’t burn. Did you know that? But I can feel something else. I can feel that whatever’s happened to me is unforgiving—just like the past. YOUR past. Isn’t that right?”
“Go ahead and run, Mikhail. Run like you always do in every lifetime we’ve had the misfortune to spend together.”
“Sure you did!” Katherine scrambled to her knees. Leaning forward, she taunted, “First as Lazai, then as Nikolaus, and now as Mikhail DeMontier—the coward wolf prince.”
His body tensed and rage transformed his eyes into something equally as frightening as Katherine’s. “I never ran from you then, Katharina. It was always YOU running from ME.”
“Mmm. It’s a relief knowing that maybe I wasn’t always so dumb. But then again it did take me three times to learn my lesson. Probably because you’re such a good goddamn liar.”
Mikhail slammed his hand against the bed railing. “I NEVER lied about who or what I was!”
“So offended!” Katherine’s mouth lifted in a rude smirk. “I’m just supposed to take that as gospel. I’m sorry but I can’t do that, darling. I didn’t even know who I was until yesterday—” Katherine shrugged her shoulder in a manner meant to be mocking and offensive. “But then again, I don’t need to know about THEN when I know so much about you NOW.”
Mikhail growled deep within his core. The rumble only charmed her spite.
“Did I touch a nerve?”
“You don’t know everything, Katherine.”
“Really? Hmm. But you never did give me a chance to know, did you? All you did was lie about everything.”
Defeat took him by the throat, bleeding Mikhail’s anger away along with his pride. “And I’ve regretted it everyday of my life since. I’ll regret it every day of my life from here on out.”
Katherine bit her lip hard, welcoming the pain instead of her constant confusion and shame. “You knew it couldn’t last.” The brittle statement dared him to lie.
Once more, Mikhail disappointed Katherine—this time with honesty.
“I didn’t want to think about it, but I knew it was a possibility.”
Katherine slammed her fist against the bed. “Goddamnit, Mikhail! If you knew, why the hell didn’t you just keep walking? Why did you fuck up my life?”
“Because I wanted you.” Mikhail’s fingers spread across the bridge of his nose and his tone deepened into notes of defiant disgrace. “Because I saw you and couldn’t say no.”
Mikhail struggled, opening his mouth several times. Nothing came out.
“TO WHAT?!” Crimson flames overtook her sight, promising hell if he continued his silence.
“To the dream your eyes said could be mine.” Mikhail heard the angry hiss of air and rushed to explain, “I saw it, Katharina. I swear I did. I saw the future…OUR future. I saw a lifetime of being together, building a life where who we were didn’t matter.”
Katherine’s gaze burned bright but for a different reason.
Emboldened by her tears, Mikhail’s hand reached out and pushed back the curls from her temple. “I saw you looking up at me with these eyes and I knew I was meant to be standing there on that sidewalk at that exact moment. How could I walk away from Fate?”
Her mouth tightened into an uneven slit. Her tears doused the terrifying flames, leaving a broken sadness behind.
“You can feel my touch, Katharina. If you read me now, you’ll know that I what I say is true.”
Katherine felt her heart lurch with regret. She was tempted to delve into his, but instead, she allowed herself to speak without censor.
“Nothing else mattered to me after that day. I wanted to grow old with you. I wanted to devote my entire life to you. I wanted to make you happy. I wanted to love you.”
“That’s what I wanted too.”
Katherine shook her head. “That’s not all you wanted.”
“No, I just wanted you.”
“Liar. You wanted something else. Something I couldn’t give you.”
“You’ve been lying to me from the beginning, Mikhail. Do you even know the truth anymore? You say things you don’t mean. You don’t do things even when you really want to. You’re as much a mess as I am. Were you always this weak, Mikhail? Why couldn’t I see it until now?” The last part was whispered in a small voice, making Katherine sound like a lost, little girl.
Mikhail murmured her name in an unfortunate plea.
She ignored him.
“You’re not American and neither is your family. You alone have millions of dollars to your name yet you lived like you were broke. Why?”
Mikhail drew back with an uncertain frown. “Money…I didn’t…” Even now he couldn’t discard centuries of breeding and secretive impulses.
“Stop.” Katherine refused to say another word until Mikhail finally folded.
“How did you know?”
“You’ve been my obsession for years,” she answered calmly. “Would you like to know more?”
His entire body vibrated wariness. Katherine took it as an affirmative answer.
“I know you own estates in France, Romania, Germany, China, and Japan. I know you’ve never owned any property in the United States until five years ago. I know that you hide the DeMontier name behind shell companies. I know you’ve built the bulk of your fortune in medical technology. I know that you’re NOT thirty-one. Should I go on?”
The even cadence of Katherine’s voice obviously unnerved Mikhail. His fingers jumped across the bed railing with anxious speed. “I never suspected…wait. What did you say about my age?”
“Don’t bother to lie to me, Mikhail. You’re at least a hundred and thirty.”
“There’s no way—”
“Wrong. There are at least two pictures of you in existence. One from Berlin in 1935 and the other from Paris circa 1895.”
He stilled, digesting her facts with an uneasy stare. “Maybe what you saw was one of my ancestors.”
Katherine whipped her hand through the air. “You’re still talking to me like I’m stupid! I know your fucking face, Mikhail. It’s all I know! It was YOU.”
Mikhail looked away. Softly, he stated, “It couldn’t have been easy to find.”
“No, it wasn’t.”
“There was very little I wasn’t willing to do to know more about you,” Katherine admitted with a sickly smile.
Mikhail drew his own conclusions with reasonable accuracy. His jaw twitched but he remained silent.
“I need to know one thing from you, Mikhail. Why would a werewolf break away from the only thing that he knows? Why did you leave your pack?”
Mikhail violently turned away from Katherine. His long legs ate the distance between her bed and the door. Instead of flinging it open, he just laid his forehead against the wood.
“Are you reading me?”
“No. I haven’t done that since Dr. Kelrich left. Are you going to make me do it?”
“No.” Mikhail sighed in defeat. “It was before I met you. It has nothing to do with you.”
“Wrong. It has everything to do with me. You left me because you couldn’t leave them. So why did you in the first place?”
Mikhail turned around. He dropped his head back against the door. “I wanted to be a normal man with you. I never wanted you to know about the DeMontiers.”
“That’s not true.” Katherine clarified her statement with a caustic arch of her brow. “You didn’t want them to know about me.”
Mikhail dropped his gaze. “No.”
“And when they found out, you just tossed me aside.”
“I didn’t want to.”
“But you did it anyway.”
He kept his eyes lowered and whispered, “It was wrong.”
“I was your wife!”
“You’re still my wife.”
Katherine closed her eyes, wishing she could find a way out of her frenzied emotions.
Why didn’t you keep me? Why did you come back? Why do I feel so sick?
She still loved this man.
She still hated him as well.
Especially when his possessive claim of her once more stirred up memories of his faithlessness.
Mikhail’s head whipped up. His already pale face whitened even further. He didn’t bother to blink back his tears. “You were always my wife. Those women meant nothing.”
“Just like me?”
“No. Never like you.” The softly spoken words begged for compassion. Katherine had none.
“You’re like a beaten dog, Mikhail. All it does is piss me off even more. Fucking werewolf scum.”
“Katharina, please don’t say that. I love you so much.”
Katherine loathed his utter lack of pride. “You still love someone who hates you?”
“You don’t love me, Mikhail. You’re obsessed with a past that no longer exists. If you love anything, it’s a ghost.”
“That’s not true. Remember? I didn’t know who you were this time, Katherine.”
“Meaning you would’ve been different?”
“Katherine, don’t twist my words. You don’t understand…”
“No, I do! It was okay to lie because I was just a disposable human. Just a pet, right? You get tired of it and you just leave it on the side of the road—or in our case—a tiny, one bedroom apartment.”
Mikhail lowered his head until Katherine couldn’t see his face anymore. His voice became rough and guttural. “It was better for us both, Katharina, that I didn’t know.”
She glowered in disgust at her former lover. “If you knew I was your precious First Mother you’d have been a different person. That’s what you’re saying to me?”
Mikhail’s foot connected with the door. The explosion of noise fell beneath his restrained yells. “Yes, I would’ve been different! I would’ve married you, I would’ve fucked you until you whelped, then I would’ve locked you away until it was time to do it again.”
“Locked me away?” Katherine’s eyes shimmered with tears even as her pain threatened to burn right through them both. “That’s very bloodless, Mikhail. I would’ve never agreed to it. And you know what? I think you’re still lying to me.”
Stirred by feral rage, Mikhail’s inheritance finally broke through surface humanity. Gold smothered every bit of jade, transforming his eyes into a cold, animal stare. Lips curled over a wicked, deadly smile.
“Lying? I don’t have to lie about this.”
Mikhail stalked back to Katherine. He didn’t bother to hide his hands, instead displaying the dangerous claws with every stride. With lengthened ears, Mikhail heard Katherine’s blood rush faster through her veins long before he reached the bed.
“I would’ve made you do whatever I wanted. I would’ve created you into an image of my choosing. I’ve done it before. I’d do it again. Only this time I would’ve been different.”
Mikhail leaned forward, long canines glinting in warning, until his lips hovered over hers. “I would have DIED before I let you into my heart.”
Pain lanced Katherine before fueling her awesome rage.
“You’re right. You did make me into an image of your choosing. I was barely more than a little girl and you ripped me apart without conscience.”
“Katherine, I already told you—”
“SHUT-UP! You ABANDONED me. You abandoned US!”
Mikhail visibly turned inward. All anger dissipated in a show of defeat. His features shifted into their human mask.
“Did you do it because I was pregnant?”
“NO! If I had known I would’ve never left your side!”
Katherine wound her fingers into the blankets. “But you did.”
Mikhail tried to contain his misery. “I promise I’m not going to run away from you again. Not ever again.”
“Even if it means I’ll kill you?” Menace ebbed and flowed in frightening waves. Katherine’s stare pinned Mikhail in place, much like a predator with her prey. “Even if it means that I want you dead more than anything else in the world?”
Mikhail’s heartbeat captured the pain her question boldly stirred. A melancholic pall dimmed his vivid green eyes. “If it’s your wish.”
Katherine’s lips trembled. She swallowed several times before letting her spitefulness rule. “You’re so docile about it. Would this be the first time, Mikhail? Or did I already kill you before?”
Her observant gaze caught his imperceptible flinch.
“Which life was it—Mei Li or Adria?” Katherine watched his exquisite face tighten with stoic indifference. “Which one?”
“Just drop it, Katherine.”
“I’m not seventeen anymore. You’re not going to bully me into silence.”
Mikhail’s jaw flexed once. “I’m not trying to bully you.”
“But you won’t tell me.” Memory righted itself in the form of one name. “But you don’t have to because I already know.”
His eyes clouded in centuries-old pain. “Don’t say her name. Just don’t.”
Katherine recoiled. “My God. You still love her.”
“Stop. Don’t say her name.”
“Her name? Don’t you mean MY name?”
“You’re not the same!” he snarled. “You are not Adria.”
Katherine slammed her hands down on the bed. “ADRIA! ADRIA! ADRIA! ADRIA!” Her hateful screams dwindled into muted sobs. “I can’t believe it just clicked for me. Even after everything we’ve talked about I didn’t put the two together until right now. I remember how you whispered her name once. Right before you left. It ate me up inside to think you were cheating, that maybe you’d found someone else to love. Then later I thought maybe SHE was the reason why you left.”
He shook his head but remained quiet. This only spawned a dangerous reaction within Katherine.
“What’d she do, Mikhail? Did she eventually kill Nikolaus for being such a bastard? Huh?” His stubborn silence made her livid. Katherine clenched her teeth and hissed, “You’re a filthy fuck, Mikhail.”
“You’re a selfish, dirty bastard. The least you owe me is the truth.”
Mikhail’s breath caught in a soft sob of misery. “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry. That’s all you can say? That’s supposed to make the silence and lies okay?” Madness flowed from the open wounds scattered across her psyche. “Why’d you even get with me, Mikhail?”
“Don’t you understand yet? I’ve loved you for centuries. Nothing can change that. Not even me.”
Suddenly, words from recent memory entangled Katherine within another’s obsessive embrace. Carmine locks, emerald eyes, and wings tipped in black composed a palette drenched in compassionate madness.
“I’m not forgotten.”
“When you cried tears of pain, I cried blood. No matter the distance, no matter the years, your humiliation was mine.”
“When you stood over at the edge of that forsaken bridge, it was ME who called your name. Not Mikhail, me! When you were covered in blood in that filthy motel room, it was MY voice you heard, not his!”
“I’ve wanted you for thousands of years. I’ve dreamt about you in ways you can’t possibly imagine. I’ve hated you. I’ve cursed you. But I have never abandoned you because I love you.”
“I love you. I love you. I love you.”
“I love you because there can never be anyone to replace you in my heart. I love you because my greatest wish is to see your happiness.”
“What you don’t get is that I finally understand you, Precious.”
“Love. It’s been a curse for us both, hasn’t it? Whether we will it or not, we can’t seem to break free from its binds. No matter how much we hate it.”
“Your world only sees what it wants. Honorable men fall over themselves to court their angel, but never bother to look past the smile to see her empty eyes. And you never force them to see differently.”
This time Mikhail heard the voice reverberating in her mind.
Everything disintegrated from that point.
“Katharina, it’s HIM, isn’t it?”
Exorcising her fury left Katherine psychically battered and defiled. The magnitude of what had just transpired defeated her will. Two tears scored a path down her ashen cheeks.
“Oh, Jesus. It’s not temporary then.” Animosity forgotten, Mikhail slumped forward, carrying Katherine with him. She was too tired to fight his touch. They lay entwined in a momentary repose of utter desolation. “Azer did this to you. He made you into something else.”
“I know.” Katherine wanted to wail and die from her grief. She escaped a dream and returned, taking hell with her. She had no idea what was going to happen to any of them now.
I can’t even recognize who I was a few minutes ago. I wanted Mikhail dead. I wanted to make him suffer. How can I start over and be a better person if I’m carrying all this hate? I thought I had moved past that already. I’m damned. I’m fucking damned and I always will be.
She felt her insides roiling with suppressed rage and chaos. In response, the secret fire immediately heated her skin, this time burning Mikhail if his choked whimpers were any indication.
Katherine gasped. His physical pain became hers. “Let me go.”
“No.” He tightened his grip on her wrists and folded his body over hers.
“Mikhail, stop! You have to stop touching me!”
“NO!” He gritted his teeth and dominated his instincts. “I’m not abandoning you again. Not when you need me!”
“I don’t want to hurt you. Not like this,” she begged while watching his hands turn red. “Please let go. Don’t keep making me hurt you.”
“I…you’re not. It’s…okay.”
“We don’t know exactly what’s happening to me, Mikhail. We don’t know what my body’s capable of.” She arched away, attempting to keep even her hair from brushing against him in accidental violence. “Damnit! I could kill you if you don’t let go!”
Katherine’s tortured pleas finally broke through his stubborn pride. He rolled away, powerful chest heaving as the agony continued its course. A few minutes passed before Mikhail reluctantly left her and the bed. His feet stumbled to an inelegant stop. He raised his hand. The marks on his palms were gone, leaving his beautiful skin unblemished in a way it never was before.
“There’s no lines or scars.”
Katherine raised her head and stared at him in sick awe. “What?”
“It’s perfect.” His mouth trembled as he let out a watery sigh. “So fucking perfect…”
Katherine’s body seemed to right itself with their distance. The awful heat melted away into normalcy. She felt her eyes fill with more tears and whispered, “I’m so sorry I did that. I didn’t mean to…”
“Which means I can’t touch you anymore.” Mikhail’s body became rigid. He looked brittle, vulnerable to shattering at any moment. “I couldn’t have done it better myself. The thing I fear is what you possess…” Bitter laughter swept the room before dissolving into his murmur of despair. “What am I going to do now?”
Katherine’s hand reached out before recoiling violently.
Hearing her thought, Mikhail bowed his head. “This is Azer’s perfect revenge, Katharina.”
“How can you be so sure?”
Mikhail’s expression became grim. “Because I know exactly what he’s done, Katharina.”
She blinked slowly, never expecting Mikhail to have the answer this quickly. Katherine leaned forward, hanging in dreadful anticipation. “You know?”
Mikhail jerked his head once.
“What is it?” She opened their connection, still not trusting him to be completely honest. Her emotional skin immediately paid the price as impotence, helplessness, and terror raked across Katherine.
“IT is something SO fucked, SO wicked IT could only from the gods themselves.”
The pained sarcasm in Mikhail’s voice made Katherine wince. The air continued to thicken with impotence, making it difficult to breathe. “I know you’re angry, but please stay with me.”
Mikhail scowled in answer.
“Your rage is suffocating me, Mikhail. You’re losing yourself.”
His jaw tightened repeatedly. Many minutes expired before his large body went limp. Mikhail ran an agitated hand through his hair. “I’m sorry, my love.”
Katherine experienced immediate relief along with extreme exhaustion. Combining their natural bond along with her empathic nature was draining her quickly. She blinked several times in an effort to dispel the insidious weakness. “It’s okay.”
“No, it’s not, Katharina. I know better than that.” Mikhail walked over to the empty carafe next to the bed. Taking it to the sink, he filled it with water.
“Don’t be so hard on yourself. We haven’t exactly seen each other in seven years.”
“Which is proof of why I can’t afford to make any more mistakes with you. Especially now.” Mikhail returned, pitcher in hand, and poured her a cup of water. “Thirsty?”
“A little. Thank you.” Katherine took several small sips before passing the plastic tumbler back to him. “Mikhail?”
Satisfied that she looked less wilted, he responded to the unspoken question with one of his own. “Have you ever heard of Kundalini?” Mikhail waited until
Katherine shook her head. “It’s known as a divine fire. It can heal, change, and transform the body.”
Relief tinged her uncertain smile. “Then it’s good.”
“It can be. But right now your Kundalini is on a manic scale, one obviously not meant to be carried by any mortal.”
“How do you know? I mean, how do you know that this is Kundalini?”
“Because of this.” Mikhail held out his palms. “You couldn’t do this without Kundalini. What’s worse is your divine fire burns impurity away until it reaches perfection.”
“I don’t understand, Mikhail.”
“It means that with one quick touch you can cure physical flaws. Anything longer and you’ll melt the flesh away in order to free a soul.” Mikhail blew out a defeated puff of air. “This kind of divine fire burns through the imperfect shell of mortality so the perfect soul can fly free…like the phoenix.”
Katherine’s countenance crumbled. She shook her head in denial even while she fought to keep a never-ending scream locked inside. “No. I can’t believe Azer would purposely try to hurt me.”
“I told you he was a demon. What can you possibly expect from something so twisted? Honor? Affection? Selflessness?”
“You don’t understand what happened there. Azer let me go. He helped me come back—even though he knew it was probably to you.” Katherine dropped her gaze. The next mournful murmur admitted to uncomprehending betrayal. “He loved me…so very much.”
Mikhail’s jade eyes burned with unnatural splendor.
“This is what it means to be loved by one of us, Katharina. Forever apart, belonging to neither, and dying just to be loved again.” His words tumbled into one another. “Azer will continue to dog your every step, plotting and planning to find a way from his world into yours. He’ll never let you go—even if it destroys you.”
Time slid into hellish eternity. Katherine’s vision became a watery, white blur—a reminder of the unreal dimension she had shared with Azer.
“If it makes you happy.”
“And if my hate extends to wanting to hurt you, should I just make myself happy?”
“If you need it.”
“What do you get out of it?”
“Pleasure. Didn’t you know, Azer? I’m one of those masochist freaks. Pain makes me wet.”
“So I should just exorcise my demons on your willing body? Masochist? I don’t think so.”
“Then what would you call it?”
“I call it something far more disturbed. Martyrdom.”
“So the martyr makes her appearance—sacrificing herself for the greater good. So tell me—do you want my sacrifice or not?”
“Why are you like this?”
“Don’t try to understand something that already is. Just accept that it isn’t as it was.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Neither do I.”
All in the quest of destroying every trace of the girl she had been with Mikhail.
Like divine fire?
Katherine braved a glance from beneath wet lashes.
I can’t deny it. I don’t want him to go. And Azer knew that about me. He HATED that about me—more than he hated Mikhail.
She forced despair into submission. “Will you leave me again?”
In one moment of reckless resignation, Mikhail let his weakness rule him.
“I told you this is what it means to be loved by one of US.” The slash twisting Mikhail’s lips barely passed for a smile. He came closer, predatory in his fervor. “I’ve loved you for thousands of years. Strip away all my layers, my incarnations, and your soul is in the center of mine. I love you and I die for my love for you. And do you know what?”
Mikhail leaned forward, hands on either side of Katherine. His lips brushed hers and incandescent heat flared between them. With careful movements, his mouth feathered her skin, void of fear and hesitation despite the physical pain spiraling inside. His lips, red and raw from their testimony of devotion, stopped next to her ear.
“I’ll spend eternity dying if I can just be with you.”
Katherine understood that Mikhail was offering himself to her, beckoning with fatalistic glee to die in her embrace. Terrible desire threatened to consume Katherine’s conscience.
It was then that she knew what Azer had done and why.
“You still love someone so cowardly and beneath contempt? Have you forgotten how he left you?”
“I’ll never forget but it doesn’t change my core. I know it’s sick, Azer. I know it’s fucked up. Goddamnit! Don’t you think I get that? But it doesn’t mean I want Mikhail back.”
“Liar. You won’t let him go.”
“Because I can’t right now.”
“Because he taught me love! Even if I became corrupted by it! That’s not something I’ve been able to easily throw away!”
“I want your purity, Katherine. I want you to live a life without the disease of constant reincarnated pain!”
Katherine’s gaze slid to meet Mikhail’s.
Azer thought I would fall back into his arms. He counted on it. So this is his punishment. I can’t touch Mikhail without hurting him. If we force it, Mikhail will die.
“I don’t care.”
The words slashed her faltering control, exposing horror and betrayal. “How can you say that?”
“Because it’s true.”
“No. Not you, Mikhail. You’re strong. You wouldn’t be Alpha if it wasn’t—”
The lifeless syllables silenced her. She sat there, arms limp and without grace.
“I’m a slave to my own genetics. My position isn’t due to strength or cunning or merit. I’m my family’s god because a random combination of DNA markers called my soul back into this body. It has nothing to do with nobility or worth.”
Katherine processed the words as if they belonged to a stranger. She had never seen Mikhail so despondent and without spirit. She probed his aura and found it to be as broken as hers.
“Why do you think I could forgive you for being a whore, Katharina?” Mikhail choked back a sob. “It’s because I know all about whoring yourself for comfort, safety, and greed.”
“That’s not why I did it.” The words fell hard with reproach. “I never did it for gain.”
“I know. You did it to escape life. I did it to cling to it. That’s why I’m a far more disgusting creature than you can ever think to be.” He coughed once. “I had hope when you came back to me. I thought we could start over again. But now…”
“Now…” she repeated numbly.
Mikhail’s eyes reflected hopeless insanity. “Consume me, Katharina. I’ve tried living without you for seven years and it’s been a slow death. After being with you now, I can’t go back to that again. If this is it, just let me die in your arms.”
Katherine suffered his weariness. It lay in direct contrast to what she heard only a day before when he had been fighting to keep her in this world. Now she understood his passion. He needed her alive. He needed her because Mikhail cared nothing for his own life.
She couldn’t allow that.
Just as she couldn’t allow anyone else to pull the strings guiding her fate.
So Katherine did what she did best. She pulled away.
“Why not?” The feral challenge failed to hide its owner’s despair.
“Didn’t you just promise not to leave me ever again? What the hell do you think this is now? You’re willing to die. Why? Because it’s noble? It’s not! It’s selfish! Not only would I have to deal with this all by myself, but I’d have your death on my hands. What do you think that would do to me? First our son and now you?”
The truth forced Mikhail to fold into himself. He began to tremble violently with shame. “I’m sorry.”
“Look at me.”
He obeyed with reluctance. His eyes were liquid with remorse. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me…why I act this way. Everything I do only ends up hurting you, but I never see it until it’s too late.”
“I don’t want you to talk. I want you to listen. Can you do that?”
Mikhail swallowed once, quailing beneath her unforgiving glare. “I’m listening.”
“I swore not to make the same mistakes.” Katherine’s tone held neither softness nor compassion. “If you’re going to bail on me, Mikhail, then leave now and don’t ever come back. But don’t use me to make you into a martyr.”
Mikhail flinched. Each word was designed to flay open his frailty. “I didn’t know that was what I was doing. I’m sorry. I won’t let it happen again.”
Satisfied with his honesty, Katherine gentled his voice into one he was familiar with. “I want you to remember something, Mikhail. The martyr never saved anyone—least of all himself. Don’t ever be one.”
Mikhail’s features shuddered with loathing. “Sometimes it’s all I know.” He stepped back, regal grace transforming his posture. The weakness had passed, hiding away behind centuries of superior breeding.
Just as she didn’t recognize the recent side of her husband, Katherine didn’t recognize this one either. Mikhail appeared to be untouchable, above mortal concern. She picked at her blanket with nervous fingers.
Is he still going to stay?
“I’m not leaving. I’m going to stand by your side and be the man I should’ve been seven years ago.”
Katherine’s throat fluttered with emotion. “Thank you.”
“Can I ask you something?” Mikhail waited until she nodded her head. “What does this mean for us? You told me today you didn’t come back to be the same person. That you didn’t want to be with me. Do you still feel the same?”
Katherine paused several moments before replying. “Does my answer influence the amount of help you’re willing to give me?”
His imperial demeanor vanished. “No! I wasn’t trying to imply…” Mikhail took a deep breath before letting it out in exasperation. “Why do I lose all eloquence and meaning when I talk to you? I can’t seem to say anything right.”
Katherine laughed softly. “Mikhail, I think it’s just called being a man.”
He nodded his head in consternation before a rueful grin tugged at his lips. “I think you’re right. Let me start over.”
“No, it’s okay. I know what you’re trying to ask.” Katherine fought her impulse to cover his hand with hers. “My feelings are different than what they were fifteen minutes ago, but in some ways they’re still the same.”
“In what way?”
“It means we’re going to face this together. What happens afterwards…we’ll face together as well.”
While not exactly the answer he hoped for, Mikhail somehow managed to accept it with dignity. “All right, Katharina. It’s what a relationship is supposed to be, isn’t it? You make the decisions together because it belongs to you both.”
Companionable silence encompassed them briefly before Mikhail cleared his throat and awkwardly admitted, “But I’ve never done it.”
“Neither have I.”
They smiled together, clinging to any bit of humor to make their present circumstances more bearable. The mood deepened when Mikhail reached out to brush her hair back only to let his hand fall.
“I don’t know where to go from here.”
“I do.” Katherine answered his unspoken question swiftly. “We have to find Azer.”
Mikhail’s posture radiated primitive rage as he sprang backwards. “I don’t want you anywhere near him!”
“We have to find Azer, Mikhail. He did this to me—there has to be a way for him to undo it.”
Mikhail came forward and dropped to his knees beside her bed. He visibly fought a battle to restrain his desperate anger. “Impossible, Katharina. No one can change this.”
“That’s where you’re wrong.” She ghosted her fingers over the melancholic lines bracketing his mouth. “There’s at least one person who can.”
“Who? Azer?” Mikhail spat the name like poison.
Katherine smiled brilliantly, despite the shadows in her future.
Image Credit: lunar @ Stock.Xchng