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The Knowledge of Love

The Knowledge of Love

Book excerpt

Chapter 1: The Agony of Waiting

Standing on the ramparts, an icy cold breeze was blowing briskly, creating goose bumps on my exposed skin.  I’d chosen this spot on purpose, away from the carnage which had occurred outside the gates.  I didn’t want to witness the body recovery, knew there were innumerable of them.  Our people were working even now, collecting the dead and returning them to the city in preparation for cremations tomorrow.  The bodies of the youngling vampires were being cremated on massive bonfires.  Despite the brisk wind, the acrid scent of blazing wood reached my nose along with the sickening stench of burning skin.

Marianne stood at my side, had been close since our return from the woods.  She’d healed the wounds on my back from Archangelo’s Katchet but I’d refused assistance for my wrist.  It pulsated with pain but I wanted the pain, needed the pain – it was taking the edge off the anguish compressing my heart.

I’d shut down everything.  The spirits were hidden away, banished while I dealt with a grief which encompassed every part of my being.  I doubted the immediacy of another assault and even if we did come under attack, what good did the spirits do?  They would give us a few minutes warning at most, a few minutes to prepare for more carnage.  In all honesty, I couldn’t bear to hear them.  If I opened myself to the spirits, I would be subjected to hearing Lucas and Conal. 

No, I wouldn’t listen to the voices.  Couldn’t listen to the voices.  If I heard Lucas and Conal in my mind, I’d leap from the ramparts, throw myself to the ground below.  Death would be a welcome release.

Culpability for their deaths lay squarely at my feet, nobody could be blamed for their loss but myself.  Remorse coursed through my veins like demon toxin.  Regret filled my heart, my soul.  If I hadn’t rushed off as I did, Conal and Lucas would be alive.  They would be here now – with me.  I was being selfish, thinking only of myself, but I couldn't get past the idea of being abandoned by the two people I needed the most.  How could they leave me?  They should be alive.  I should be dead.

“Would you like me to check on them?” Marianne asked, pressing a reassuring hand to my shoulder.

I shook my head, squeezing my wrist more tightly against my breast, deliberately pressing to make it hurt.  Trying - and failing - to overwhelm the gut-scourging pain in my chest.  When Matt brought me back to the city, we'd gone to the hospital, waiting for an eternity outside the room where Jerome and the hospital staff worked feverishly on Conal and Lucas.  It seemed as if we’d stood there for days, waiting for news, wishing for somebody to come and say what was happening.  When nothing was forthcoming and the guilt became too overwhelming to bear, I’d walked out, knowing they were both dead or close to it.  Marianne, bless her heart, followed and stood on the ramparts beside me, standing sentinel as I wallowed in thoughts, analyzing what had gone so terribly wrong.  

Squeezing my eyes shut, I desperately tried to block out every thought, every second of misery.  Each time I closed my eyes they appeared in horrifying detail.  Conal lying on the ground, his body reverted to human.  Blood pumping from multiple stab wounds in his chest and abdomen, pouring onto the mossy ground underneath his body.  I was convinced he was dead, he’d reverted to human and that only happened when werewolves died.  Jerome was undoubtedly going through the motions in an attempt to resuscitate him, but I knew he was dead.  I’d seen it too many times before.  It happened on the battlefield and it happened there in the woods.  Conal was lost to me and I'd never hear his husky southern accent again.  He'd never again call me Sugar, never grin and flash his dimples when he teased me.

Lucas.  I squeezed my eyes tightly, picturing him lying motionless against the tree.  There’d been no movement, not a single indication to suggest he was alive.  When he’d been lifted onto the stretcher, his eyes were closed and his body remained limp.

After Epi portalled Lucas and Conal to the city, Matt and Marianne had escorted me back to Zaen, my father’s hand warm against my bleeding back. He’d spoken along the way, yet I didn’t have a clue what he’d said.  Words of encouragement, perhaps.  Maybe he’d been offering reasons why this wasn’t my fault, I didn’t have a clue.  All I knew was the two most important men in my life were dead.  I might as well have killed them myself.  If I hadn’t run after Archangelo, if I hadn’t left the battle and their protection…

A tormented sob burst from my throat.  Marianne rested her hand on my shoulder, enough pressure to assure me of her presence, that she shared my anguish.

How could I go on without them?  What point was there to all this if I had nothing left in life?  The men I’d loved with every part of myself were gone.  The men who’d loved me with every part of themselves were lost forever.  They were intertwined, Conal and Lucas, joined together in a heart which had splintered and broken in my chest.

Marianne’s grip tightened against my shoulder and I turned to find her gaze fixed on the three men walking towards us.  Matt walked slowly, his brown eyes filled with heartache.  Ben walked beside him, his clothes still covered in blood.  And Nick – returned to human and dressed, but dried demon blood still clung to his hair and skin.

I stumbled backwards, desperate to avoid them, unwilling to have Lucas and Conal’s deaths confirmed.  Marianne’s arm slipped from my shoulder to wrap around my waist.

“No… no, no, NO!” I moaned, holding my hand up as though the insignificant movement would prevent them from telling me.  I didn’t want to hear the news, refused to listen to it.  I squirmed and wriggled, escaping Marianne's grip and stumbling blindly across the ramparts.

Matt caught me, wrapping his arms around my body as I pummeled my fists against his chest, sobbing and moaning.  “Charlotte, baby.  Shhhh.   Shhhh, now.”

NO! NO!  I don’t want to know, don’t tell me.  Please, don’t tell me.  I can’t bear it, I can’t!”

Matt’s voice was strained when he spoke, his skin haggard with anxiety.  “Charlotte, listen to me.  You have to listen.”  He met Ben’s eyes, silently pleading for help.  I could see the emotions rippling across his face, knew he didn’t want to break my heart so completely that I would never recover.

Ben stepped forward and I vaguely noticed Nick, his grey eyes stormy.  Matt held me close against him and I buried my head against his chest, trying to close my mind and senses to what was to come.

“Charlotte, Conal is alive,” Ben said, tenderly brushing hair from my face with cool fingers.  “He’s alive.  He has multiple injuries, Jerome had to operate and remove his spleen and it will take a while for him to recover.  But he’s alive.”

I tilted my head to him, my cheeks wet with tears.  “He’s alive?” I echoed hoarsely.  “He’s not dead?”

Ben nodded, the motion reassuring.  “He’s very much alive, Charlotte.”

Relief flooded through me and my heart lifted.  Conal was mortal, he could be killed easily and he’d lived.  If he’d lived, then Lucas…

“Lucas?  He’s all right?  He’s alive too?”

The sheer agony which crossed Ben’s handsome features gave the answer before he uttered a word.  “I’m so terribly sorry, Charlotte.  There was nothing anyone could do.”

Chapter 2: Sympathy

I was surrounded by well-meaning people.  Quiet people who talked together in hushed voices, took turns holding my hand, touching my shoulder, patting my knee.  They offered cups of tea, glasses of brandy – as if anything could provide solace against the lancing pain in my heart. 

For hours I’d sat in Matt and Misaki’s cottage, distanced from a continual procession of well-meaning friends who arrived to offer comfort, share their support.  It didn’t make the slightest bit of difference.  Nothing would make this better, nothing could bring Lucas back.  Tears filled my eyes at the whisper of his name in my mind.  How could I go on without him?  How did I find the strength to come to terms with what happened, something which wouldn’t have happened if not for my impetuousness?

Matt and Nick brought me here hours ago.  Ben returned to the hospital to continue providing support to those who would survive their injuries, comfort for those who had lost loved ones.  Epi was here, along with Rafe, Gwynn and William, Marianne and Striker.  Rowena was beside me, had been sitting at my side for hours, clasping my hand in hers.  Her touch seemed to ground me, stopping me from floating away into the subspace where I wanted to hide from the world.  Yet I couldn't let go, needed her cool fingers in mine.  It was the only comfort I had.

Every pack leader had been to visit, their body language displaying unease when they’d offered their condolences.  People don’t like death.  People don’t like the discomfort of seeing someone trying to cope with grief.  There is no comfort in watching others breaking apart, destroyed by pain which amplifies through every nerve, every thought.  There are no right words, nothing which will take the pain away.  Yet they tried, these virtual strangers, tried their hardest to find something to say which would provide placation to their own terror of how they would feel, if the roles were reversed. 

This felt unnatural, surreal.  Lucas couldn’t be dead. 

It didn’t make sense. 

He was immortal.

The same thoughts swirled through my mind, endlessly, a swirling whirlpool of denial.  I nodded to the visitors, unwilling to speak.  Unable to voice a clear thought, frightened to speak in case the torrent of grief broke through the walls I'd built – holding the anguish back until I could understand the unfathomable.

We’d spoken about this so many times – my fears about growing old and dying.  And yet here I was – the one left behind.  The one left to deal with the memories.  The ache in my chest would kill me.  I didn’t understand how we’d made love only hours ago and now he was gone forever.  He’d been so worried about something happening to me – how could it be him who’d died?

I hadn’t cried since first hearing the news, the tears refused to fall.  They were bound together in a lump in my throat, compressed together and increasing the ache in my heart.  The pain grew incrementally worse with every passing minute, until I thought my body would explode with it.

I tortured myself – cruelly and painfully reminding myself of what I’d lost.  I would never smell his addictive scent again.  Never lose myself against his mouth, feel the hardness of his cool chest beneath my fingers.  He’d never lay in our bed, holding me against him throughout the night.  Never again would he swing me onto his back, race across the land until it felt as though we were flying.  He’d never make love to me again.

I stood up abruptly, unable to stand the claustrophobic atmosphere a moment longer and released Rowena's hand.  “I’m going home,” I announced, to nobody in particular.

Rowena wrapped an arm around my shoulder.  “Stay here, Charlotte,” she urged softly.  “Or come and stay with Ben and I.  You don’t want to go back to the cottage yet, give yourself some time.”

Shaking my head, I turned resolutely towards the door.  “No, I want to go home.”

“I’ll come with you,” Rowena offered.

“No, I want… I want to be alone,” I said.  I walked shakily towards the door and slipped through it, heading towards the cottage we’d shared.

Although darkness had fallen, people still wandered in the streets.  They glanced in my direction, then turned away, lowering their eyes.  I ignored everyone, walking slowly towards our cottage.  Our cottage.  The lump in my throat worsened, making it difficult to draw breath.  My chest wanted to collapse in on itself, close around my heart and kill me.  At this moment, right now, I'd welcome such an event.

I slowed as I neared the cottage, dragging my feet now that I was so close.  I forced one foot in front of the other until I was turning the door handle, the brass cool against my fingers.

Shutting my eyes, I took a deep breath, pushed the door open and stepped inside.

He was here.  Everywhere around me.  The slightest hint of his scent lingered and the lump in my throat tightened painfully.

I opened my eyes slowly, flicking the light switch and taking a minute to adjust to the sudden brightness.  My gaze drifted toward the couch where Lucas had sat beside me, his long legs stretched out before him.

How could he be dead?

I walked upstairs at a snail's pace, pausing on each step.  Dreading what came next.  On the landing I turned instinctively towards the bedroom, flicking the light switch.  The bed was still unmade, the covers pulled back and the sheets rumpled.  Rumpled where his body had lain so close to mine.  I scanned the room, pain building with each passing second.  A neat stack of his clothes on the chair, waiting to be put away.  A pair of his shoes.  On the floor his shirt, discarded hastily before we joined the battle.  I forced myself towards it and slumped onto my knees, picking it up and holding it against my chest.  I lifted the material to my face, smelt the strong aroma of him on it.  I closed my eyes, inhaling deeply.

The lump in my throat exploded and a guttural scream erupted from my lips, tearing through my chest like a primal reflex of agony.  I collapsed on the floor, clinging to the shirt and holding it to my face.

“Charlotte, come on…  Charlotte, please don’t.  Please, Charlotte.”  William lifted me bodily from the floor and carried me to the bed.  Gwynn lay down beside me, wrapping her arms tightly around my body while I cried endlessly.  William slumped at the end of the bed, holding his head in his hands.  I knew he was dealing with the same unbearable pain I was enduring.  The Tines had known Lucas for a long time, our pain was shared.  I was swamped by hurt, drowning under a tidal wave of agony and guilt.  It would kill me and at that moment, I wanted to die.  Wanted to be with Lucas, wherever he was now.

Jerome came into view, his face twisted with grief.  He sat down, taking my hand in his.  “I’m so very sorry, Charlotte.”  His voice wavered, the very words causing him pain.  Jerome, who’d fixed me over and over again couldn’t fix the one person I couldn’t live without.

I cried interminably – when eventually the sobbing eased, numbness took over.  Gwynn continued to lay beside me, her arms like a protective blanket.  Marianne arrived, held my other hand.  Striker and Holden stood in the doorway, faces solemn.  William remained frozen, still curled over with his hands cradling his head.

“I need to look at that wrist,” Jerome announced.

“Not now.” The pain was barely noticeable, swamped by the misery in my heart.  “I’m okay.”

“You’re not okay,” Jerome argued, “and it’s extremely swollen.”

I knew he was right, but I didn’t care.  What did it matter?  What difference did it make?  All the same, I knew it would make Jerome feel better, give him something constructive to focus on.  He looked exhausted, shattered.  He and Lucas had been friends.  He was grieving Lucas’s death, as acutely as I was.  “Fine,” I agreed hoarsely.

Protective Hearts

Protective Hearts

Knowledge Hurts

Knowledge Hurts