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A few hours later, unable to sleep, Bliss crept out of the room, thinking she would take a walk in the hotel lobby to try to find something to distract her from her thoughts.
Was it just two days earlier that she had been with Aunt Jane? How was it possible that so much had changed - meeting the boys, the attack by the hounds, looking for Tala and finding Ahramin instead? Bliss wasn't even sure what would happen next. She had to find a way to the hounds to find her aunt, of course; that was clear. But the boys - Lawson - what would happen to them - to him? Would he consent to doing as she asked? Would he consent to taking his pack to the vampires and fighting for them?
It was hours after midnight and the floor was deserted. Not even the front desk was staffed; there was only a bell to ring if you needed someone. Her footsteps echoed in the hallway. The lobby was standard-issue mid-range hotel, with a fireplace in the middle and comfortable armchairs and couches arrayed around it. She walked closer to the smoldering fire.
"Can't sleep either?" a voice asked.
She turned to find Lawson slouched down on a couch, an empty six-pack by his side. He was drinking from an open bottle of vodka.
"You planning on drinking that whole thing?" she asked.
"Only if you help me," he said. He was so obviously tipsy, slurring his words, his eyes bloodshot. But somehow, with his dark hair falling into his eyes, he still looked unbelievably sexy.
"Lawson - "
"Come on. I have chasers somewhere. That's what they're called, right? Chasers? To chase away the taste of alcohol. Although why anyone would want to do that, I don't know. Anyway, there's a box of orange juice ..." He waved feebly around the area.
Bliss took a seat next to him. Getting drunk was no way to react - but how could one react to such news, anyway? His pain was etched all over his face. He looked like a ghost, all the vitality and life drained from his face, his sorrow and grief manifested in his hunching walk, his hooded eyes. She reached for the vodka bottle and took a big gulp.
"That's my girl," he said, clapping her shoulder.
"Whoa," she said, feeling a bit dizzy. Alcohol had had no effect on her before; she kept forgetting she was human now. She put down the bottle and turned to him. "Maybe there's still hope - "
"There's not," he said, cutting her off. "Romulus will never let her go. Now that he knows what she means to me." He grabbed the bottle and took a swig. "I put her in danger ... I never should have left her. It's all my fault."
"You didn't have a choice, and she wanted you to go, to survive," she said, reminding him of what he'd told her about that fateful night. She took the vodka away from him.
Lawson shook his head. "I'm selfish ... I went to the oculus ... the hounds could have killed us all tonight ... and ... and ..." He began to hiccup and fell forward into her arms, his whole body shaking. "I failed her. I practically gave her to him ... who knows what he's done to her ... killed her ... maybe he turned her into a hound early ... maybe she died from the change ..."
"I'm so sorry," Bliss whispered. "I'm so sorry." She held him to her chest, put her arms around him, felt his tears soak her robe. It hurt her to see him like this, so destroyed. "I'm so sorry, you don't deserve this," she said, and without thinking she began to kiss his head, his hair. She just wanted to make him feel better somehow, to erase, and to bear, some of his pain.
Lawson put his arms around her back and drew her closer, and then they were kissing, and his tears fell on her face, but he was kissing her, so passionately, as if he had been awoken, inspired, and she was kissing him back, as fiercely as he was kissing her. And his hands were slipping off her robe and she was melting into him, slipping his shirt over his head, and her palms were on his abdomen, his sculpted stomach ...
And still he was kissing her, kissing her neck and groaning against her. He had stopped crying, she noticed ... and neither of them was thinking of Ahramin or Tala or anyone else. He began to unbutton her shirt while she tugged at the button on his jeans. He loomed over her, and he looked at her, truly looked at her, his golden eyes fixed on hers, and she realized he was not drunk in the least and neither was she; they were both completely sober, and they both wanted this, wanted each other, so much.
She pulled him toward her, pulled him closer, to feel his warmth and his strength, and she wanted him ... she wanted this to happen ... but ...
"Wait," she said. "Wait."
Not like this, she thought. Not like this. It would be too easy to discount it, too easy to pretend it was just a mistake, just an accident, just a hookup. Because he'd just found out about Tala, because they'd been drinking. She liked him too much for that.
"Wait," she said.
He fell against her, his body crashing on hers, and rested his head in the crook of her neck. She could feel him breathing against her skin - hard, ragged breaths - as the warmth between them began to cool.
"You're right," he said. "I'm sorry ... I didn't mean to ..."
Then he said no more. He pulled away from her and then he was gone, without another word, without a look back, and even though it had been her idea to stop, Bliss was the one who felt bereft, alone, seated in front of the fireplace, its ashes long gone cold. It was freezing in the room; she hadn't noticed. Lawson's body was so warm.
He had disappeared so quickly that for a moment she was uncertain whether anything had truly happened between them, or whether it had just been a dream.
The next morning the group convened at the van, sipping cups of lukewarm coffee and munching on free doughnuts from the hotel buffet. Bliss nodded to Lawson, who nodded back, tipping his cup toward her. She was determined to put it all behind them and to forget about what had happened the night before. They'd both been really drunk, right? That was all it was. From the way he was acting, it looked as if he felt the same way.
Part of her was annoyed at that, wanted some sort of sign from him that the previous night had mattered - even a little - that he hadn't just blocked it from his memory.
Then again, what did she really want from him, anyway? A relationship? It was too soon for both of them; she saw that now. Plus, what would happen if he found out who she really was? It was better just to forget about the whole thing. They'd made a mistake getting too close.
Earlier that morning she had bought them all a change of clothes at the gift shop, and of course Ahramin still looked good even in a silly tourist T-shirt and shorts. She was holding court in the middle of the group, the boys hanging on to her every word.
"What's going on?" Bliss whispered, sliding next to Malcolm. Ahramin and Lawson seemed to be in the middle of an argument.
"Ahramin has news," Malcolm said. "But Lawson's not sure if he believes her."
"What kind of news?"
"You said you knew about the Praetorian Guard?"
"A little, yeah," she said. "Timekeepers, the emperor's soldiers, something like that?"
"Something like that." Malcolm nodded. "It's what they called us in Rome, but the origin is much older. A long time ago, when the world was first made, the ancient wolves guarded the passages - the dark roads between time and space. We policed the borders between the worlds and guarded the boundaries of the abyss. But during the waning days of the empire, the Guard was corrupted by a Silver Blood emperor, Lucifer, who was called Caligula then. The Dark Prince used the wolves to find the paths of the dead so he could free the demons from the underworld and hold dominion over both earth and Hell. When we realized what he meant to do, we lent our power to Michael and his angels to build the Gates of Hell. But during the Crisis, we were betrayed by Romulus, our beloved general, who delivered us to Lucifer, who enslaved us and turned us into hounds as punishment for our insubordination. Before we were cursed, however, we were able to destroy the chronologs and the memories of the passages to keep them safe.
"Right before we escaped from Hell, Lawson heard that Romulus had found something important. We noticed that the general had taken to wearing an amulet around his neck, something silver and shiny. Rumor had it that it was a chronolog, that one of the packs had found one."
"What is it?" Bliss asked. "Is it like a watch?"
Malcolm nodded. "Sort of, it's a tool that the ancient wolves used to travel through time, a relic from the old empire. It guides you through the passages. All the guards used to have one, it was part of the arsenal." He sighed. "Anyway, there's been a lot of movement in the underworld - rumors that Lucifer is after more than just mid-world, that he's planning to storm the Gates of Paradise themselves. With the chronolog in hand, if Romulus ever found an entrance to the passages, the Dark Prince could control time itself, and become the master of all creation."
"That can't happen," Bliss said. Understatement of the century, she thought. Perhaps of all time. "So you guys didn't just escape because you were going to be turned into hounds; you wanted to stop Romulus from using the passages to help Lucifer."
"Yep," Malcolm said. "If Romulus and his armies could roam the passages, with the ability to alter time, we knew the world was no longer safe. We heard Lucifer had already given him orders - Romulus was to return to the beginning of Rome, to the founding of the empire, during the feast of Neptune."
"We don't know. But we knew we had to do something. Lawson decided he had to act, find a way to break out of Hell, find the passages before Romulus did, and guard them from him. When we broke out of Hell, Lawson kept a portal open for the others to escape."
"But no one has," Rafe added. "No one but us."
"That's where you're wrong," Ahramin interrupted. She had been listening to their conversation all along, Bliss realized, even as she had been arguing with Lawson. "Like I keep telling your brother here, you guys aren't the only wolves who've escaped from Hell."
Lawson shook his head. "It cannot be, I returned to the rendezvous again and again. I never found any others. Not a single soul."
"Maybe your portal doesn't always let out at the same place ... ever think of that?" Ahramin asked. "Maybe when they crossed, they didn't end up at the same location that you did."
"It's possible," Lawson admitted. "I barely know how the portals work myself. Or why I'm the only wolf able to make them."
"Believe me, when I was a hound under Romulus's command, yours was not the only pack we were tracking. There were many others. Marrok - "
"Marrok! Why didn't you say so earlier? He escaped?" Lawson said. His eyes were bright - Bliss saw a ray of hope begin to return to his face. She was glad for him, glad that he had found something to live for, and glad that she hadn't made a scene that morning. It was irrelevant - what had happened between them the night before - to what was at stake here. But still, would it kill him to acknowledge it with a glance in her direction?
Ahramin gazed at him evenly. "Yes. Why are you so surprised? It was his plan all along, wasn't it? For you to lead us out of the underworld and for him to follow with the others?"
"Was he successful?" Lawson asked, standing from his seat and in his excitement almost knocking his chair to the ground.
"Are you asking me if he has the chronolog? If he was successful in stealing it from Romulus?"
Malcolm gasped. "That's a suicide mission," he whispered to Bliss.
"That was the plan - you knew it as well as I do." Lawson frowned.
"And I was the only part that failed, wasn't I?" Ahramin said. "The only one who got left behind, got caught, who got turned into this."
"I have no time for self-pity. What is done is done. But if you really want to know, yes, the white wolf has the timekeeper, and he is aboveground."
Ahramin stubbed her cigarette into her half-eaten doughnut, the sugar sizzling upon contact with the ashes. Lawson watched as Edon wordlessly picked it up and tossed it into the trash. His brother was trying to make it up to her, but Lawson knew it would take much more than being Ahramin's penitent servant to win back her love. Ahramin seemed to enjoy Edon's misery, and ordered him to the corner store to buy her more cigarettes before they left the hotel.
She spun a lovely tale, one he was desperate to believe. Could it be true? That the plan had worked after all? That more wolves had escaped? That Marrok had been able to steal Romulus's chronolog? Ahramin had run with the pack that hunted the white wolf - and she alone knew where the wolves were hiding, the hounds had an idea, but she had left before revealing his location to her masters; she could take Lawson to Marrok now if he wanted. If he trusted her. But what if it was all an elaborate plot to serve them up on a silver platter for Romulus's taking?
There was no such thing as former hellhounds, he knew. Only dead ones.
And yet ... he had helped her out of the hospital; he had let her back into his pack. The brothers had accepted it - he was alpha now; he made the decisions for them, decisions they did not question. She swore that she was no longer a hound, that Romulus had broken her collar. But why was she alive, then? He had never heard of a hound surviving such an ordeal - even Ahramin had admitted as much. She was almost daring him to disbelieve her. Daring him to trust her again.
"Lawson?" Bliss said, breaking his reverie. "I'm going to go check out, okay? Boys? Want to come with me?" she asked. Malcolm and Rafe nodded, following at her heels like lovesick puppies, Lawson noted.
As if he had acted any differently, Lawson thought, feeling his face flush a little. What was that all about - the previous night? He couldn't think about his growing attraction to Bliss; his stomach twisted at the thought of it. He had wanted her the night before, that much was clear, and he still wanted her that day, he realized, watching her tall, slim form as she moved gracefully through the parking lot back to the hotel with his brothers. He hadn't wanted to stop what they were doing - and he wasn't entirely sure he was glad that they had, that she'd had the sense to stop it before they reached the point of no return. He remembered the way her body moved against his, his hands in her hair ... but it was too confusing to think about Bliss right then. There was Tala to think of ... Tala ... who was with Romulus now.
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