Ree awoke slowly that morning, as she always did when the medical staff drugged her in an attempt to secure a solid night’s sleep. But this morning, rather than struggling her way from a slumber that was usually anything but restful, she found herself rising gently to consciousness, wrapped in a deep sense of contentment. She felt as though she had slept more deeply last night than any time since that night, and she liked it.
She lay there for some time, savoring the rare sensation of peace and the even more unusual lack of pain. Her bones had knit, the cuts scarred, but it would be far longer before the echoes of that nerve rending pain fully subsided, if they ever did.
It wasn’t until an odd movement jostled the still sensitive scars over her ribs that she realized there was an arm flung around her waist. She waited for the panic to come, the terror that accompanied almost any contact she had shared with another person since that day, but it stayed away. Eyes still closed, she realized there was no panic because she knew the person cuddled up behind her would never harm her. Sergei would never harm her, and she knew it was he by the warm touch of their mental link.
Now she knew why she had slept so well. He was here. She had long since realized that they did better close together, as had the medical staff and her parents. The only person not to realize it was her grandmother, the old bat, and it was she who controlled their interactions with an iron fist. For now.
Actually, the old bat had probably realized it just fine. The problem was, she still didn’t approve of the black sheep of the Ivanovich family as a companion for the Aradia heir.
Now realizing the full rarity of this moment, Ree settled deep into Sergei’s arms, savoring the physical closeness as well as the mental peace. It was in moments like this, when she was barely awake and he was fully asleep, and only moments like this, when she dared to admit to herself just how much she savored his company. Since their bond had deepened in the events of that day, she had found it harder and harder to hide just how deeply she cared for this man. No, not just cared for, loved. Truly, madly, deeply. It was a love she had felt for years, and had denied for just as long. She would continue to deny it every moment she could, for the rest of her life if need be, for she would not come between him and his love for Belle. Dear Belle. Her dearest friend, his dearest love, and the one of them who had not made it through that day. It should be her who lay here in his arms, healing slowly in body and mind, and Ree reminded herself of that truth every day as she hid her heart deeper and deeper.
Peace and self recrimination were both short lived, however, as the echoes of concerned shouting penetrated both the door and her groggy state, followed closely by the sound of the door to the room slamming open and the bellow of a voice she could not help but identify.
Ree hauled her eyes open as best she could, turning slightly within Sergei’s arms as she attempted to make sense of the words her grandmother was screaming. Something about betraying her trust, disrespecting her family … Ree tuned her out after that and simply waited for the sounds to stop long enough to get a word in edge wise. Sergei had awoken with a start and tried to roll away, to get up, but she did not let him. She could feel the pain left over from his travels to reach her last night and didn’t want him to exacerbate the problem. Well, that, and she didn’t really want him to move. With his arms about her, she felt like she could do anything.
Stay right where you are, and don’t worry. I’ve had enough, she told him through their mental link, echoing it with her concern and caring.
His movements stilled, except for shifting back over to be close to her, ignoring the twinges of pain it caused. He waited for what he knew was going to be a huge confrontation, because from Ree's mind he could tell she truly had had enough. He let her feel his support for her in the very top of his mind.
Finally, as the current medical staff slunk in through the door, the great Aradia herself began to taper off in her bellows. The staff were all fairly recent arrivals, the last lot having been sent packing after they helped Ree and Sergei get anywhere near each other, against her grandmother’s wishes. They seemed relieved to have found both their patients safe and sound. She was glad to see that they, at least, were being reasonable. Her grandmother, however …
“Nonna! Enough!” she yelled as loudly as she was able in her groggy and weakened state. Amazingly enough, the words penetrated the old woman’s fog of rage and her mouth actually shut.
“I’ve had it up to here with this shit,” Ree continued, not bothering to provide any visual reference to where ‘here’ was. Her meaning was clear and her arms were starting to hurt. If she had a time machine, she would be happy to head back and murder the men who created pain curses before they could invent the blasted things. The left over nerve damage seemed to be set off by any stress at all these days, and she had a feeling that she was going to be in a great deal of pain in just a moment.
“I’m not dealing with this anymore,” she continued, glaring out from her position buried in pillows and blankets, Sergei's arm still wrapped around her middle, giving her support.” Let me make this clear. I am a grown adult and I can afford my own doctors. If you don’t stop overriding the opinions of the medical staff you hire, I’ll just hire them out from under you and leave. They say we do better together, and I damn well agree.” She looked over at the head doctor and saw him nodding slightly, and the nurses behind him nodding rather fervently. Sadly, her grandmother just looked hard headed.
“They tell me I need to be honest, to express my pain if I ever want to get past it. Do you want to hear the stories of what I went through, of the pain I still endure?” She paused a moment, panting as the pain in her arms flared up for a moment. Sergei stroked a comforting hand down her arm in response to the echo of pain he said in himself through their link. “Can you even begin to understand any of it? I think not.
“But that’s ok, you don’t have to. Why? Because, strangely enough, Sergei knows exactly what I’m talking about, exactly how I’m feeling. When we are together, we can share all this, and it makes it easier to face.” She waited a moment, expecting an interruption, but oddly enough, it seemed her grandmother was waiting to hear her finish her case.
“I lost my best friend that day. I won’t let you take away the only one who understands just what that means.” She felt tears slip down her face, but did not seek to hide them. It would take too much effort, and might just strengthen her case. “I’d like to stay. I appreciate all you have done for us since that day, but I will not permit this madness any further. He stays right here, or neither of us stays at all.”
Sergei felt so proud of her as she issued that ultimatum, for finally standing up to this harridan of a woman and for defending him to her face. Everything she said was true. Not only did sharing it here make it easier, but they had shared it that day as well. Their link had made them share every moment of the pain then. Who better to share the memory with now?
Her grandmother studied her, nothing softening the harsh glare that molded her features. “So you call it madness to insist propriety be observed under my roof? You think I should let my heir just fall into bed with someone in the name of healing?” Each question was louder and in a harsher tone.
“I call it madness to disrupt the healing of your heir for a mockery of propriety no one cares about,” Ree replied harshly. She hated it when her grandmother called her just her heir, as though she had no existence beyond being the next leader of the Aradia family. “And I call it stupidity to think that even if he had the energy or capacity for anything untoward to happen, that I would let him.” She was positively snarling now and half sobbing, not happy with the memories this brought up. “Not that anyone would care a damned bit since the whole world is quite aware that I am not, and never will be, the innocent virgin bride you have so looked forward to serving up to enhance the family.”
That was it, she had stepped over the line to be airing the family dirty laundry before others. But Ree didn’t care. She could not reclaim her virginity from the bastard who had raped her, and she refused to let her grandmother hold that against her. The world knew what had happened to the Aradia heir, the Savannah, and the fiancée of the Savannah that day, in disgusting detail of she recalled the newspapers right. There was no more reason for the game her grandmother was playing.
Oddly enough, she didn’t get her head bitten off.
“And if I say no?” was her grandmother’s only question.
“Then I walk out of here, and take him with me. I’m sure my parents would put us up. The money from our patents will take care of the medical bills and living expenses until we can work again.” Ree knew just how risky the move would be, and while her parents would take them in they could not provide the security of the De Julie family compound. Those bastards were still out there and would be happy to try again before their victims had recovered enough to fight back.
Yet she would leave all the same, and her grandmother knew it. The old bat turned from the room and stalked out, saying, “There are two linked rooms next to the hall you have been using for rehab. Move them there, but try to keep them in separate beds when you can.”
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