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Illusion (Chapter 5 Brother, Who Art Thou?)

"Breakfast?" Stefan asked as I walked into the kitchen, my hair still damp from our shower. I was pleasantly surprised to see him standing in the kitchen, shirtless and clad only in tight boxer briefs, scrambling eggs over the stove. He had a plate on the counter with bacon stacked in neat piles plate.

"You can cook? But you don't eat," I mumbled grumpily, plopping down on the bar stool on the other side of the island. It appeared Stefan was also good at cooking. It truly wasn't fair.

Stefan pushed a mug of coffee in my direction and rolled his blue eyes sarcastically. "I may not eat, however it is not rocket science to scramble eggs and fry bacon, vackra." He wrinkled his nose as he glanced at the skillet. "Even though it appears to be disgusting."

Stirring half & half into my coffee and adding sugar, I took a sip and sighed happily as I let the caffeine work its magic. "You're always surprising me, Stefan."

"Ah, stick around. There are many things I can do that you have not had the pleasure of seeing yet." Stefan leered at me, his eyebrows waggling.

Damn vampire sexy talk. It was only 10 am and he was already making me want to move back into the bedroom. At the rate we were going, we should find a big bed to live in and forward all of the mail there.

"I could not agree more. What a wonderful idea!" Stefan had read my thoughts. He placed the plate and fork in front of me with great flourish and I narrowed my eyes and started eating. He moved to sit down beside of me and opened his laptop, opening his e-mail and scrolling through his messages.

"Anything interesting?" I asked casually as I bit into a piece of bacon.

"Mergers, acquisitions. More work for my attorney to handle," Stefan said distractedly.

A thought occurred to me as I chewed. "How does this work? You are a never aging vampire running a company. Doesn't anyone get suspicious?"

"The company is run by a board of directors, appointed by my human attorney. He knows what I am and has ties into the vampire world. My identity is kept hidden. I simply make the final decisions and my attorney takes care of things for me." Stefan glanced at me and smiled. "You will have a visitor this afternoon."

"A visitor? Who?" I asked, my curiosity thoroughly piqued. Stefan glanced up at me and gave me a grin that reminded me of a cat that had eaten the canary.

"You will find out. It should be interesting. I will give you some privacy during the visit."

Stefan was being extremely cryptic. Seeing that he wasn't willing to play along, I finished my breakfast and slid away from the island, walking around to the sink and began rinsing the plates off and loading the dishwasher. I was wiping the counter down when I felt his hands reach around and cup the swell of my breasts and he bent slightly to inhale my hair. My breathing immediately hitched. It only took a touch from him to send my overworked libido into overdrive.

His hand slipped down the fabric of my t-shirt to slide inside of my jeans. His long fingers had no trouble slithering deep into my panties to gently stroke my clit as his lips dragged over my neck. Gripping the counter for support, a tiny moan fell from my lips and I widened my legs to give him better access. He complied and his fingers went inside of me, softly teasing me. His own breathing increased, sounding rougher. I was so close to orgasm and soft, mewing noises were the only sounds I could manage. I tensed around his fingers, crying out in protest when he withdrew his hand from my pants and playfully smacked my ass.

Stunned into silence for a moment and burning with unfulfilled longing, I spun to face him, open-mouthed and pissed off. "You have got to be kidding me. Stefan!"

He towered over me, his gorgeous face filled with mischief. A playful smile graced his lips as he leaned in to peck me on the mouth. "I have things to do, vackra. Lukas is next door if you need him. I assure you we will finish what we started. Later."

He disappeared down the hallway so quickly that I would have missed it if I'd blinked. Smacking my hand on the granite counter, I threw the sponge in the sink. Two could play at this game.

I walked down the hallway to our bedroom and stood in the doorway watching him dress. He only had a pale blue Oxford dress shirt on that was still unbuttoned. It exposed the sculpted planes of his chest and the muscles of his stomach. I could see the outline of his cock through his boxer briefs. I was drawn to him like a kid in a candy store and he was the most delicious treat available. It was if everything else in the room disappeared.

Gliding across the room to him, I glanced up at him longingly. My hands drifted across his waist, straight down his stomach. I couldn't help smiling when I felt his muscles twitch as my fingertips brushed over each of the pronounced ridges. I pushed his underwear down low enough that he sprang free, his cock falling into my waiting hands.

"Josephine…"

"Shhh," I murmured softly and I gripped him in my hand, stroking the thick velvet-hardness of his cock. I glanced up at him again, reeling as I watched his mouth slightly part and his eyes darken with lust.

I dragged my tongue down his chest until I had lowered to a crouched position with my hand still rubbing over his impressive length. He was growing harder with every twist of my wrist and when I took the head of his cock in my mouth, he let out a guttural growl so powerful that I could feel the pulsation in my mouth. Rolling my tongue around him, I groaned from the taste of him. His hands ran through my wavy hair until they loosely knotted there, urging me to continue. He started to swell inside my mouth and I knew he was close to his climax.

It was payback time. Letting him slip from my mouth with a pop, I stood and went on my tip toes to kiss the corner of his mouth and the cleft in his chin.

"Silly me! I forgot that you have things to do. We'll continue this later," I said, glancing over my shoulder, attempting to speak in the most casual voice I could muster.

"Josephine. Come back here," he moaned in a strangled voice.

"Sweetheart, when you play with fire, you get burned. Get dressed."

Adjusting my clothes, I walked into the living room. I plopped down on the sofa, picking up my book from the ottoman. I lost myself in reading and after a few minutes my concentration was interrupted when Stefan leaned down to capture my mouth in a kiss.

"Even though you are wicked, I love you." His mouth brushed against mine before running a long finger down my cheek and standing back up. I watched him swagger out of the apartment, my own personal walking fantasy wrapped up in faded jeans and a blue shirt.

Groaning and pulling a cushion over my face, I wanted to run after him and strip him naked, having my way with him from one end of the apartment to the other until neither of us could think or had the strength to move.

Knowing that was out of the question, I tucked the pillow behind my head and tried to immerse myself back in my book, half of my mind still focused on Stefan.

As I read, my eyes started getting heavy. I'd almost nodded off when a knock sounded at the door. Expecting it to be Lukas, I sighed heavily and took my time answering it. Yanking it open, my mouth was in high gear before he could get any of his sass out.

"Lukas, I'm not in the mood for your bitchiness today. If you can tone it down…" My voice tapered off when I realized it wasn't Lukas on the other side of the door. A tall man with light brown hair stood on the other side of the doorway. He was slim and lean, dressed in tight jeans, a white t-shirt and a black motorcycle jacket. It was his familiar green eyes that stopped me in my tracks. They appraised me with unconcealed curiosity as he leaned against the door frame.

"Knock knock, sister dear. Please don't make me tone down my bitchiness. Especially since it's time you heard the truth about daddy dearest." A wry smile spread broke across his thin face. It was covered with two days worth of stubble, his smile revealing straight white teeth. "Nigel told me you were in town. It's long overdue that we met, Josie."

Speechless, I gaped at him in confusion. I felt light-headed for a moment as his words slowly sank in.

"I'm Nikolaus Ahearne, your brother. I can see from your reaction that Kian neglected to tell you about me." He rubbed his stubbled chin and tried to smooth the wild disarray of his short wavy hair.

"N-no. He didn't tell me," I whispered, gripping the door tightly in my hand.

"Shocking," he said sarcastically, rolling his eyes. "As nice as your hallway is, I'm curious if you're going to invite me in?"

"Sorry! Come in," I mumbled and stepped aside.

He strolled past me and tapped my cheek affectionately as he stepped into our living room. He looked around and removed his jacket, dropping it carelessly over the stool at the island. He crossed to the wall of windows, glancing down at the street below. He turned to face me and shoved his hands in his pockets, the muscles contracting in his heavily tattooed arms. Nikolaus looked no older than me, and with the exception of his dark hair, the resemblance between us was there. We shared the same prominent cheekbones and almond shaped green eyes.

"I don't know what Kian has told you about this life or who he is. I'd be willing to bet my immortality that it's his skewed bullshit version of the truth. He's an accomplished fucking liar." He didn't mince words. He simply jumped in without any preamble.

Simply nodding, I said nothing. I was hoping he'd continue talking and I didn't want to interrupt him.

"Before I tell you about our father, let me tell you about what we are. We're hybrids, Josie. Once we hit our thirties we become immortal, unchanging anomalies. Our mother was tired of being Kian's pawn and little science project. She disappeared 28 years ago, a few days after you were born. One day I woke up and you both were gone. I was only 10 and too young to ask questions. I just missed my mom and my baby sister." He sat down on the couch and leaned forward to rest his elbows on his thighs. "When I started asking questions, the lies began."

"What kind of lies?"

"Kian tried to convince me that she left us and took you with her. That he was the victim in my mother's selfishness. I was na?ve and believed it until I found out our mother was having an affair with Nigel. She was going to leave our father the day she disappeared. Convenient timing, right?"

My mind flashed back to the day Nigel told me that my mother was almost as beautiful as me. I remembered his anguish as he sat in this very room, so strong that I felt tears fill my eyes now. "Nigel loves her. He keeps searching for her," I said. My mind was racing as I considered his story. I knew Nikolaus was telling me the truth.

"Yeah, Nigel doesn't want to accept she's dead. Fuck Josie, I don't want to accept it." He ran his fingers through his short hair again, leaning back on the couch. I noticed that it was his hair was streaked with strands of chestnut and gold as the sun from the windows gleamed across his face. "I know you're trying to figure out my angle, right?"

A sheepish smile tugged at my lips and my eyes narrowed. He was right. "How do you know what I'm thinking?"

"You're a psychic and I'm a telepath. If I'm right, drop your shields and you'll see." He pressed his index finger against his temple and raised up his thumb, imitating a gun. "Our father doesn't know I can read his mind. It's quite humorous to know I can do something he doesn't know about and he can't block."

Lowering my shields, I startled when my mind connected with his. Nikolaus' brain was like opening up an encyclopedia of memories. He gave me access to every bit of information he knew about my father, many of the recollections making me shudder. The one that I focused on featured our father gripping a beautiful, brown haired woman by the shoulders, shaking her violently. His face was twisted in rage as he sank his fangs into her neck, biting her so savagely that he nearly ripped her throat out.

Pulling myself out of his memories, I sank down on the couch beside him. "That was our mother, wasn't it? Kian killed her, didn't he?"

He reached over and took my hand. He turned to look at me and his eyes were so similar to mine that it was like gazing into a mirror, except that his burned with a bitterness that I felt compelled to make disappear. "Yes."

My mother… our mother. Dead at the hands of our father. It made sense why Kian didn't want to speak her name. Guilt could do strange things, even to a megalomaniac. Tears burned my eyes and one escaped to run down my cheek. "What do we do?"

He snorted drolly. "I'm sure you can guess what I want to do."

"I'm going to go out on a limb and assume you want to kill him," I answered, swallowing shakily.

He raised both eyebrows and his mouth twitched. "Bingo."

My head turned as I heard a key turn in the lock. The apartment door swung open and Stefan's large frame darkened the doorway, his pale blue dress shirt stretching across the broad expanse of his chest. He quietly strode in and closed the door behind him, glancing between Nikolaus and myself. Swaggering into the living room, he dropped into one of the armchairs across from the couch, the faded denim of his jeans clinging to his muscled thighs. He stretched his long legs out in front of him and his piercing gaze locked on me.

"I see your visitor has arrived," Stefan said coolly. He stated the obvious as his fingers tapped against the arms of the chair, what I'd finally come to associate as his tell when he was anxious or nervous. He looked huge, handsome and deadly, his blue eyes as cold as ice. He had no reservations in letting us know he was displeased to see me with another man, even if that man happened to be my brother. I dropped Nikolaus' hand and moved to stand at the edge of his chair, sitting down on his lap and curling up against his chest. His strong arms wrapped around me, sighing heavily against my hair.

"Have you enjoyed your visit with him, vackra?" Stefan's mental voice was unsettled.

"It's been informative." My stomach turned when I replayed some of the visions through my mind, knowing Stefan was methodically reading my thoughts. His entire body went rigid underneath me as he mentally sorted through each of them.

Tilting my head back, I pressed a kiss to his throat. "Stefan, this is my brother Nikolaus. Nikolaus, this is Stefan. My mate." I made sure to put the emphasis on mate to appease Stefan's more possessive side. His body relaxed slightly underneath me, pleased at my choice of words.

Men. They were so easy to please.

Nikolaus focused on Stefan for a moment and an impish smile spread across his face, two dimples appearing on both sides of his cheeks. He clapped his hands together once and then rubbed them together, his deep laughter resounding throughout the living room. "Josie, you're with Stefan Lifsten? Hell, yes! This is better than I expected. I know what you can do, Stefan. I just need to know if you're willing to do it."

Stefan's hand slowly stroked small circles on the small of my back. He chuckled and kissed my forehead affectionately. "And what is it that you know I can do, Nikolaus?"

Nikolaus leaned back against the couch, spreading his arms across the top of the cushions, the colorful sleeve of tattoos on display. "Kill our father of course."

Stefan didn't react to Nikolaus's statement. He continued to stoke my skin as he sat silently in the chair. "Why do you think I would want to kill your father? He is a Board member and such actions would be considered treason."

Nikolaus tilted his head back against the cushions of the couch, rolling his green eyes up to the ceiling. "Yeah, yeah. Treason and all that fucking vampire protocol bullshit that's been shoved down my throat for years. Don't you think it's time for things to change?"

Stefan's hand stilled on my back. "Josephine, I need to talk to your brother alone."

"Stefan," I began, my voice rising in protest.

"Josephine." His blue eyes were hard as he stared at me. This was obviously not open for discussion.

Huffing, I stomped out of the room. I went back to the bedroom and made a production of slamming the door. I pressed my ear against it so I could still hear what was going on. Their voices were muffled, but I could make out their conversation.

"Listen, Stefan. You don't know me and I get that you're trying to act like you're going to toe the line. Maybe you are and I'm wrong about who you are and what you stand for. But that's my sister in there and I know what Kian is capable of. She's next. He'll either willingly convince her to come or he'll kill you to get to her. If she tries to defy him, he'll kill her."

An icy chill washed over me at Nikolaus' last statement. He was right. If Kian would kill my mother, he would have no qualms in killing me.

Stefan's voice was level when he spoke. "Explain how you know what he is capable of doing."

"Kian has the ability to block most vampire's abilities, Stefan. Did you notice you can't see anything when he's involved? It's ironic that the smug bastard doesn't know that I can read him like a fucking book. His little experiment turned on him, never expecting that his genetics and my mother's abilities could be used against him. I know all of his dirty little secrets, the things he thought he had hidden away. He fucking killed my mother, Stefan." Nikolaus's voice broke. "The only reason I maintain any contact with him is so I can try to keep my eye on what he's doing. I'd rather kill the asshole than look at him. But I can't so I'm asking you. No, I'm fucking begging for you to help me. And if you don't want to help me, at least do it to save my sister."

I gasped as I listened to Nikolaus' hatred as it colored each of his words. It was slowly eating him alive.

"I will take your proposal under consideration, Nikolaus. I cannot promise you anything else."

"I won't ask for anything more. It burns my ass to even have to consider someone else doing my dirty work." He was quiet for a moment. "Can I ask you something?"

"You may ask. I may not answer."

I heard Nikolaus laugh and I shook my head at Stefan's cockiness. "I like you, Stefan. But back to my question. Do you love her?"

My heart thumped in my chest so loudly that I'm sure Stefan could hear it as I waited to hear his response.

"More than my own existence."

"That's the difference between you and my father. He doesn't love anyone except himself and his fucking insane need for power. You can sit there in that chair in this fancy apartment and pretend that you care about fucking protocol. I know you love my sister. You know you love my sister. And we both know she loves you. Fuck, even if I had doubts I saw her face when you walked in the room. It's a matter of survival now. It's either kill or be killed at this point. You are standing between what he wants and he'll stop at nothing to get it."

No one spoke for a moment. "Nothing will happen to her, Nikolaus. You have my word."

"Yeah, Nigel thought the same thing about my mother," my brother said emphatically.

"I am not Nigel, Nikolaus," Stefan's voice was cold. You could almost feel the shards of ice in his words. "Nigel is a decent man and a respectable vampire. He is tied into the Council too deeply and has not acknowledged that Armes is dead. Once he finally accepts that she was murdered, another ally bent on revenge will be created. An ally that seeks vengeance craves retribution more than he wants to live. It can become an all-consuming thing, Nikolaus. That combination can be deadly and the person will not be thinking of the big picture, only how to achieve it."

"Touche. I'm going to assume you're not just talking about Nigel."

There was a pause in the conversation. I pushed myself into Stefan's mind, sorting through the jumbles of his rapid moving thoughts. He was weighing the pros and cons of what the death of my father would mean to him, to me, to vampire society. He wasn't against the idea but he wanted to be careful and methodically plan.

"You are correct. I am not just talking about Nigel. I am very old, Nikolaus. I have not remained on this earth for almost 1,000 years by being impatient and impetuous."

"That's why I'm asking for your help. The Council trusts you."

The room went silent and I struggled to listen for any movement that would alert me to Stefan's approach so he wouldn't catch me snooping.

"If you are finished picking through my mind, please pull yourself away from the door and join us, Josephine." Stefan's mind voice was slightly irritated with my intrusion into his thoughts.

Blushing profusely, I cracked open the door and slowly walked down the hallway to rejoin Stefan and my brother. Stefan was still seated in the chair and he glanced at me with amusement. Nikolaus walked to my side and pulled me into a tight embrace.

He pulled back and his green eyes met mine. "I'm glad I finally met you, Josie. I can see our mom in you." He smiled in a sad sort of way, his eyes shining brightly with unshed tears. "Are you staying in New York?"

"We're heading back to Indonesia for a while to wrap things up. We'll be back though."

"Cool. Give me your phone." I went to my purse and pulled it out, handing it over to him. He typed away quickly before placing it back in my palm. "My number is in there. Don't be a stranger. Call me when you're on your way back."

"I will. Bye, Nikolaus."

He grabbed his leather jacket and nodded a goodbye to Stefan, pecking a kiss on my cheek before breezing out the apartment. His abrupt departure left Stefan and I staring at each other, both of us at a loss for words.

* * *

Stefan had insisted on taking me out to dinner for our final night in New York. He chose to drive us himself in the silver Mercedes, smoothly maneuvering through the New York traffic, darting from lane to lane. We pulled to a stop at Central Park West in front of Jean-Georges. My door was opened by the valet, but it was Stefan's hand that was gallantly offered to me. Placing my hand in his and threading our fingers together, he tossed the keys to the valet and took the ticket from the man's fingertips. His blue eyes swept over me and he leaned in to whisper in my ear, his breath tickling my skin.

"You look beautiful, vackra."

I felt beautiful. Dressed in a simple black sheath dress, I had my hair up in a messy bun, tendrils of hair framing my face. The necklace he had given me gleamed brightly against my chest and I could see the happiness on his face whenever his eyes fell on the pendant, which was quite often.

"You don't look so bad yourself," I retorted playfully. He was in another Armani suit, this time in a deep charcoal gray. His crisp white dress shirt stood out in contrast against the black silk of his tie, and once again, this suit appeared to be tailored to emphasize all of his many assets: his broad shoulders, narrow waist, and his pants accentuated his long legs and firm ass.

We walked in through the glass doors and into the restaurant, taken aback by the beautiful simplicity of the restaurant. Decorated in pale cream and oyster gray, Stefan led us to the ma?tre de. He gave his name and we were swiftly led to an intimate booth in the corner. We were seated and a menu presented to Stefan. I couldn't help but smile at the irony of the situation. The non-eating vampire would be doing the ordering for us tonight.

He looked over the menu and glanced at me over the top of the menu, winking at my apparent amusement at seeing him decide what food to order.

"You may smile now, however you need to keep in mind you must eat what I order," he said, with a hint of arrogance in his voice.

My amusement fading, I took a sip of water and smiled nervously. "I'm sure you'll do fine."

Our waiter appeared at our table and Stefan ordered the Spring tasting menu, along with a bottle of white wine. He nodded in approval and disappeared, leaving us alone again.

Stefan extended his hands across the table with both of his palms up, asking for my mine silently. I lightly traced the lines on them with my fingertips before closing my much smaller hands around his, making me think about all of the things those powerful, large hands had touched in the last 975 years. He squeezed my hands gently, his lips tensing slightly as he read my thoughts. Noticing his mood change, I gripped them a little tighter.

"Stefan, I'm sorry. It just boggles my mind sometimes when I think about all you've seen and experienced," I said softly, my eyes dropping to the white linen tablecloth. When I looked up at him, his face was thoughtful and his blue eyes looked ancient, the normal sparkle gone.

"Life. Death. War. Famine. Loss," he said darkly. "Yet never love until the moment I met you."

Feeling a blush creep over my face, I looked away shyly. My sweet, sentimental vampire. "Sweet talker," I admonished weakly, meeting the intense stare of his gaze. "I love you too."

"You will see the same things I see now. Centuries of evolution without seeing real change. It is both frustrating and amazing to watch." He cleared his throat and the sparkle came back into his eyes. "Enough of this conversation. It is depressing and inevitable."

My mind drifted to consider what it would be like to outlive everyone I knew. To never age, look forever 28. To watch the world change around you while I remained frozen in time. My thoughts then shifted to my week in New York and all I'd learned in the last week: finding out that I now had a father I detested, a mother that I would never meet and a smooth talking brother that wanted our father dead.

"No running, vackra," Stefan warned, his voice barely audible over the low din of the restaurant. He was obviously monitoring my thoughts frequently. He was still cautious and nervous about my inability to handle stress.

"No running. I might as well stop fighting what I am and start accepting it. I have a good teacher." I tried to make my voice light and teasing, although there was an undertone of remorse that I couldn't hide.

Our conversation was interrupted by our waiter and the constant changing of plates, the delicious food arranged artistically. Wine was poured and refilled without asking and there wasn't much time for conversation. Stefan moved the food around on his plate and watched me eat with a soft smile on his lips.

Feeling pleasantly full, the check was paid and we were waiting for the valet to bring our car around for us. As our car pulled up, the valet seemed much more interested in admiring my legs and ass than giving Stefan the keys. The man's lust slammed into me before I managed to slam my shields in place.

Stefan moved a little too quickly to his side, snatching the keys from the surprised valet's fingers roughly, a wide menacing smile on his handsome face, exposing his even, white teeth. "See something you like…" His eyes dropped to the man's name badge. "Seth?"

Poor Seth. You could see the sweat bead on his forehead as he shifted from foot to foot anxiously. "Uh…"

"Keep your eyes to yourself and we will not have problems. Understand, Seth?" Stefan asked, the smile on his face never fading. He patted Seth on the shoulder a little too hard and he staggered backwards from the impact. Seth's eyes widened and his face went so pale that I was afraid he'd pass out.

"Stefan, sweetheart. Let's go." I moved closer to Stefan and pulled on his arm lightly. He looked at me and his eyes went from threatening to tender instantly. He opened my door and helped me into the car and jogged around the car to the slide into the driver's seat.

He shifted the car into gear and peeled away from the curve, the soft purr of the engine filling the car. I glanced over at Stefan and he was clutching the steering wheel so tightly that I feared it might bend from the force.

"Was that really necessary? I thought he was going to shit his pants," I scolded him.

He regarded me for a moment as he glanced away from the road briefly. An amused smile turned up the right side of his mouth. "Was it necessary? No. Did I want to do it? Absolutely. He was disrespectful of you, and in turn to me."

I was silent as we made the short drive home. Vampires viewed their mates as their possessions. Even though that went against everything I believed, I was going to have to learn to accept it or fight Stefan at every turn.

He expertly parked the car in the assigned space and turned to face me. He took my hand and gently rubbed circles over the top of my hand with his thumbs. "All of this is new to you and I do consider you to be mine. However, I am yours. We are equals. Do you understand?"

"I get it. Women look at you all the time and I don't go all scary psychotic on them. You're gorgeous and women are going to ogle you. But I know I get to take you home. I get to touch you. Only me," I said, as my free hand snaked in his soft, golden hair. "Only me."

"Come. Let us go in before I take advantage of you in the car." He winked and exited the vehicle, heading for the elevator. He punched in the code and waited for the doors to open, his large hand over the small of my back. The doors smoothly opened and we were rising to our floor, neither of us talking during the ride.

As the elevator opened at our floor, we both noticed a large package sitting by the door. It was nearly four feet in width and height, wrapped in brown paper. Stefan and I exchanged a glance and he unlocked the door, letting me in to turn on the lights as he retrieved the package. He carried it inside, his eyebrows furrowed.

"It is addressed to you."

"To me?" I asked. Curiosity had gotten the better of me and I walked quickly to Stefan's side. I glanced at the package to see the label. It was addressed to Josephine Ahearne.

Fucking Kian and his overbearing bullshit! I viciously ripped the paper, gasping when I saw the swirls of red and blue. It was the painting from the art gallery.

"The painting," I breathed out in disbelief. There was a card attached to the back of the canvas and I held the heavy card stock with shaky hands, silently reading the exaggerated cursive writing.

My dearest Josephine,

I watched you admire this painting and couldn't bear to see something so beautiful belong to another.

There will be a day we will see eye to eye, either by choice or by circumstance. Until then, know that I will be waiting…and watching.

Your loving father,

Kian Ahearne

The meaning behind his carefully crafted words were crystal clear to me. He abhorred that I was with Stefan, knowing that Stefan considered me his property. My father only wanted me for what I could do. He valued people and vampires as collections. He was also reminding me that he was privy to exactly what I was doing and where I was at all times.

The entire situation made me sick.

"Josephine?"

Stefan's hand on my arm brought me back out of my thoughts. "Read this." I handed him the card and our eyes met for a moment before they dropped down, quickly scanning over the card.

His blue eyes flashed when he looked up from reading the note. He turned and grabbed a beautiful glass vase, throwing it at the wall with such force and speed that it damaged the drywall and the vase exploded. I jumped back as tiny slivers of glass splintered, my eyes widening as I watched the dust and shards settle over the wood floor. Fixing my gaze on Stefan, I watched him rise to his full height, his wide shoulders rigid and tension making the faint lines around his eyes more defined.

"I have had enough of his insinuations and threats, Josephine. He is giving you a warning. Can you see that?"

Not waiting for my answer, Stefan's phone was in his hand, his fingers flying across the keypad. He brought the phone to his ear and spoke so fast his voice sounded like a series of hisses and growls, becoming a blur as he disappeared down the hallway.

I stood in the middle of the living room, trying to make sense of what happened. I went into the kitchen and found a dustpan under the sink, busying myself in cleaning up the glass and drywall dust that was all over the corner of the living room. As I cleaned, an unsettling silence filled the the apartment. Dumping the glass in the trash, I headed off in search of him, the sound of my heels echoing in the hallway.

I found him in the bedroom, his eyes distant as he focused on a spot on the floor. He didn't look up when I entered and I silently watched him for a moment from the doorway.

He was slouched over, his long arms resting on his thighs as he sat on the edge of the bed, gripping his cell phone in his hands. His mind was moving at warp speed, searching the future and becoming annoyed at the black spots and holes he would encounter, causing his thoughts to become ominous with uneasiness and irritation. He was furious at my father, angry enough to start making phone calls and plans that would lead to Kian's death. Even though I wouldn't mourn my father's demise, Stefan didn't need to be impulsive. I refused to risk losing him over a silly painting and thinly veiled threats.

Walking to stand in front of him, I took the phone away and placed it on the dresser, putting his empty hands on my waist. Cupping his face, I raised it so I could caress the angular lines that made his face one of the most beautiful I'd ever seen. He closed his eyes when I kissed the tops of his cheeks, brushing his mouth with my thumb. He sighed wearily as he parted them for me, letting me caress the soft skin of his lips.

Crouching down, I knelt between his legs. "Kian isn't worth it, Stefan. What did you say to my brother about revenge?"

"Someone that seeks vengeance craves retribution more than he wants to live," he muttered under his breath, almost repeating his earlier words verbatim. "I hate it when you are right. I only spoke with Lukas. I promise that I will not act rashly."

Letting out a sigh of relief, I wrapped my arms around his neck and hugged him tightly to me. It only took a moment until I felt his strong arms wrap around me, a shudder shaking his chest. He was still worried and upset.

"I'm sending the painting back," I whispered assurances against his neck. "He can't touch me."

"You are mine, vackra. He cannot have you. I just found you and I refuse to let him take you away from me."

"I know. I'm yours." I pulled back to smooth his golden blond, silky hair away from his face. "We had such a beautiful time tonight. Let's not let Kian or Seth the valet spoil our last night in New York. I just wanted to come back here and have you make love to me, not turn this into a moment to map out revenge."

His eyes instantly turned dark at my words, his anger temporarily forgotten.

"You had something planned?" Stefan asked, leaning forward slightly. "I hate to spoil what you had in mind for the evening, vackra. However, I have my own itinerary for you."

"Oh really?" I questioned, raising a finely arched eyebrow. I continued to brush my fingers through his hair, the blond strands shining like gold.

"Ah, Josephine. I do enjoy your defiant side," he chuckled. "I plan on making you scream my name until your voice is hoarse and your legs are weak. Does that fit into your plans?"

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