He could no longer fool himself. Slowly, with infinite weariness, Mikhail Dubrinsky closed the leather-bound first edition. This was the end. He could no longer bear it. The books he loved so much could not push away the stark, raw loneliness of his existence. The study was lined with books, floor to ceiling on three of the four walls of the room. He had read every one, committed a great many to memory over the centuries. They no longer provided solace for his mind. The books fed his intellect but broke his heart.He would not seek sleep at dawn, at least not the healing sleep of renewal; he would seek eternal rest, and God have mercy on his soul. His kind was few, scattered, persecuted - gone. He had tried it all, skifis, physical and mental, every new technology. Mikhail had filled his life with art and philosophy, with work and science. He knew every healing herb and every poison root. He knew the weapons of man and had learned to become a weapon himself. He remained alone.His people were a dying race and he had failed them. As their leader, he had been committed to finding a way to save those he looked after. Too many of the males were turning, giving up their souls to become the undead in desperation. There were no women to continue their species, to bring them back from the darkness in which they dwelled. They had no hope to continue. The males were essentially predators, the darkness growing and spreading in them until they had no emotion, nothing but the dark in a gray, cold world. For each it was necessary to find his missing half, the lifemate that would bring him forever into the light Grief overwhelmed him, consumed him. He lifted his head and roared out his pain like the wounded animal he was. He could no longer bear to be alone.The trouble is not really in being alone, it's being lonely. One can be lonely in the midst of a crowd, don't you think?Mikhail became still, onily his soulless eyes moving warily, a dangerous predator scenting danger. He inhaled deeply, closing his mind instantly, while all senses flared out to locate the intruder. He was alone. He couldn't be wrong. He was the oldest, the most powerful, the most cunning. No one could penetrate his safeguards. No one could approach him without his knowledge. Curious, he replayed the words, listened to the voice. Female, young, inteffigent. He allowed his mind to open slightly, testing paths, looking for mental footprintsI have found it to be so, he agreed. He realized he was holding his breath, needing the contact. A human. Who gave a damn? He was interested.Sometimes I go into the mountains and stay by myself for days, weeks, and I'm not lonely, yet at a party, surrounded by a hundred people, I am more lonely than ever.His gut clenched hotly. Her voice, filling his mind, was soft, musical, sexy in its innocence. Mikhail had not felt anything in centuries; his body had not wanted a woman in hundreds of years. Now, hearing this voice, the voice of a human woman, he was astonished at the gathering fire in his veins.How is it you can talk to me?I'm sorry if offended you.He could clearly hear that she meant it, felt her apology.Your pain was so sharp, so terrible, I couldn't ignore it. I thought you might like to talk. Death is not an answer to unhappiness. I think you know that. In any case, I'll stop if you wish it.No.!His protest was a command, an imperious order given by a being used to instant obedience.He felt her laughter before the sound registered in his mind. Soft, carefree, inviting.Are you used to obedience from everyone around you?Absolutely.He didn't know how to take her laughter. He was intrigued. Feelings. Emotions. They crowded in until he was nearly overwhelmed.You're European, aren't you? Wealthy, and very, very arrogant.He found himself smiling at her teasing. He never smiled. Not for six hundred years or more.All of those things.He waited for her laughter again, needing it with the same craving an addict felt for a drug.When it came, it was low and amused, as caressing as the touch of fingers on his skinI'm an American. Oil and water, don't you think?He had a fix on her now, a direction. She would not get away from him.American women can be trained with the right methods.He drawled it deliberately, anticipating her reaction.You really are arrogant.He loved the sound of her laughter, savored it, took it into his body. He felt her drowsiness, her yawn. So much the better. He sent her a light mental push, very delicate, wanting her to sleep so he could examine her.Knock it off!Her reaction was quick withdrawal, hurt, suspicion. She retreated, slamming up a mind block so swiftly, he was astonished at how adept she was, how strong for one so young, strong for a human. And she was human. He was certain of it. He knew without looking that he had exactly five hours till sunrise. Not that he couldn't take the early or late sunlight. He tested her block, careful not to alarm her. A faint smile touched his well-cut mouth. She was strong, but not nearly strong enough.His body, hard-corded muscle and superhuman strength, shimmered, dissolved, became a faint crystal mist seeping beneath the door, streaming into the night air. Droplets beaded, collected, connected, formed a large winged bird. It dipped, circled, and swept across the darkened sky, silent, lethal, beautiful.Mikhail reveled in the power of flight, the wind rushing against his body, the night air speaking to him, whispering secrets, carrying the scent of game, of man. He followed the faint psychic trail unerringly. So simple. Yet his blood was surging hotly. A human, young, full of life and laughter, a human with a psychic connection to him. A human filled with compassion, intellect, and strength. Death and damnation could wait another day while he satisfied his curiosity.The inn was small, at the edge of the forest where the mountain met the timberline. The interior was dark, with onily a few lights glowing softly in one or two rooms and perhaps a hallway, while the humans took their rest. He settled on the balcony outside her second-story window and became still, a part of the night. Her bedchamber was one of the rooms with a light proclaiming that she was unable to sleep. His dark, burning eyes found her through the clear glass, found her and claimed her.She was small-boned, curvy, with a tiny waist and a wealth of raven hair tumbling down her back to draw attention to her rounded bottom. His breath caught in his throat. She was exquisite, beautiful, her skin like satin, her eyes incredibly large, intensely blue, fringed with thick, long lashes. Not a detail escaped him. A white lace gown clung to her skin, hugged her high, full breasts, and bared the line of her throat, her creamy shoulders. Her feet were small, like her hands. So much strength in so small a package.She brushed her hair, standing at the window, looking out with unseeing eyes. Her face held a faraway expression; there were lines of strain around her full, sensuous mouth. He could feel pain in her, and the need for sleep that refused to come. He found himself following every stroke of the brush. Her movements were innocent, erotic. Imprisoned within the bird's form, his body stirred. He reverently turned up his face to the heavens in thanks. The sheer joy of feeling after centuries of enduring no emotion was beyond measure.Every action with the brush lifted her breasts invitingly, emphasized her narrow rib cage and small waist. The lace clung to her body, revealing the dark vee at the juncture of her legs. Talons dug deeply into the railing, left long scars in the soft wood. Still Mikhail watched. She was graceful, enticing. He found his hot gaze dwelling on her soft throat, the pulse beating steadily in her neck.His.Abruptly, he pulled away from the thought, shook his head.Blue eyes. Blue.She had blue eyes. It was only then that he realized he was seeing in color. Vivid, brilliant colors. He went utterly still. It could not be. Males lost the ability to see anything but drab gray about the same time they lost their emotions. It could not be. Only a lifemate could bring emotions and color back into a male's life. Carpathian women were the light to the male's darkness. His other half. Without her, the beast would slowly consume the man until he was complete darkness. There were no Carpathian women left to give birth to lifemates. The few remaining women seemed able to produce only males. It was a seemingly hopeless situation. Human women could not be converted without becoming deranged. It had been tried. This human woman could not possibly be his lifemate.Mikhail watched as she snapped off her light, lay on the bed. He felt the stirring in his mind, the searching.Are you awake?Her question was tentative.At first he refused to answer, not liking that he needed this so much. He couldn't afford to be out of control; he didn't dare. No one had power over him. Certainly not some slip of an American, a small woman with more strength than good sense.I know you can hear me. I'm sorry I intruded. It was thoughtless of me; it won't happen again. But just for the record, don't try flexing your muscle on me again.He was glad he was in the form of a creature, so he couldn't smile. She didn't know what muscle was.I was not offended.He sent the reassurance in gentle tones. He had to answer; it was nearly a compulsion. He needed the sound of her voice, the soft whisper brushing in his head like fingers on his skin.She turned over, rearranged her pillow, rubbed at her temple as if she ached. One hand curled over the thin sheet. Mikhail wanted to touch that hand, feel her warm, silky skin under his.Why did you try to control me?It wasn't purely an intellectual question, as she wanted it to be. He sensed he had hurt her in some way, disappointed her. She moved restlessly, as if waiting for her lover.The thought of her with another man enraged him. Feelings after hundreds of years. Sharp, clear, in focus. Real feelings.It is my nature to control.He was exhilarated, joyous, yet at the same time all too aware that he was more dangerous than he had ever been. Power always needed control. The less emotion, the easier the restraint.Don't try to control me.There was something in her voice, something he sensed more than named, as if she knew he was a threat to her. And he knew he was.How does one control one's nature, little one?He saw her smile even as it filled his emptiness, as it registered in his heart and lungs, sent his blood soaring.Why would you think I was little? I'm as big as a house.I am to believe this?The laughter faded from her voice, her thoughts, lingered in his blood.I'm tired, and again, I apologize. I enjoyed talking with you.But?He prompted gently.Good-bye.Finality.Mikhail took flight, soaring high above the forest. It wasn't good-bye. He wouldn't allow it. He couldn't allow it. His survival depended on her. Something, someone had aroused his interest, his will to live. She had reminded him that there was such a thing as laughter, that there was more to life than existence.He soared above the forest, for the first time in centuries marveling at the sights. The canopy of waving branches, the way the rays of the moon spilled over the trees and bathed the streams in silver. It was all so beautiful. He had been given a priceless gift. A human woman had somehow managed to do this for him. And she was human. He would have known instantly had she been of his race. Could her voice alone do the same for the other males on the edge of despair?In the protection of his home, he paced with a long-forgotten restless energy. He thought of her soft skin, how it would feel beneath his palm, under his body, how it would taste. The thought of her mass of silky hair brushing his heated body, the line of her vulnerable throat exposed to him, excited him. His body tightened unexpectedly. Not the mild physical attraction he had felt as a fledging, but a savage, demanding, relentless ache. Shocked at the erotic twist his thoughts began to pursue, Mikhail imposed rigid discipline. He could not afford real passion. He was shocked to find he was a possessive man, deadly in his rages and protective beyond measure. This kind of passion could not be shared with a human; it was far too dangerous.This was a woman of freedom, strong for a mortal, and she would fight his nature at every turn. He was not human. His was a race of beings with animal instincts, imprinted before birth. Better to keep his distance and satisfy his curiosity on an intellectual level. He meticulously locked every door and window, safeguarded every point of entry with impassable spells before descending to his sleeping chamber. The room was protected from even greater threats. If he gave up his existence, it would be of his own choosing. He lay down on the bed. There was no need of healing soil deep within the earth; he could enjoy mortal comforts. He closed his eyes, slowed his breathing.Mikhail's body refused to obey. His mind was filled with pictures of her, with erotic, taunting scenes. A vision of her lying on her bed, her body naked beneath white lace, her arms outstretched to greet her lover. He swore softly. Instead of his body taking hers, he pictured another man. A human. Rage shook him, raw and deadly.Skin like satin, hair like silk. His hand moved. He built the picture with deadly precision and purpose in his mind. He paid every attention to detail, even to the silly polish on her toenails. His strong fingers circled her small ankle, felt the texture of her skin. His breath caught in his throat, his body tightening in anticipation. He slid his palm up her calf, massaging, tantalizing, moved up farther to her knee, her thigh.Mikhail knew the precise moment she awakened, her body on fire. Her alarm slammed into him, her fear. Deliberately, to show her what she was dealing with, his palm found the inside of her thigh, stroked, caressed.Stop!Her body ached for his, for his touch, for his possession. He could hear the frantic pounding of her heart, feel the strength of her mental struggle with him.Has another man touched you like this?He whispered the words in her mind, dark, deadly sensuality.Damn you, stop!Tears glittered like jewels in her lashes, in her mind.All I wanted to do was help you. I said I was sorry.His hand moved higher because he had to, found heat and silk, tiny curls guarding treasure. His palm covered the triangle possessively, pushed into the moist heat.You will answer me, little one. There is still time for me to come to you, to put my mark on you, for me to own you,he warned silkily.Answer me.Why are you doing this?Do not defy me.His voice was husky now, raw with need. His fingers moved, probed, found her most sensitive spot.I am being exceptionally gentle with you.You already know the answer is no, she whispered in defeat.He closed his eyes, was able to calm the raging demons knifing pain through his body.Sleep, little one; no one will harm you tonight.He broke contact and found his body hard, heavy, bathed in perspiration. It was far too late to stop the beast in him from breaking free. He was burning with hunger, consumed with it, jackhammers beating at his skull, flames licking along his skin and nerve endings. The beast was unleashed, deadly, hungry. He had been more than gentle. She had inadvertently released the monster. He hoped she was as strong as he believed her to be.Mikhail closed his eyes against his self-loathing. He had learned centuries ago that there was little point. And this time he didn't want to fight it. This was not simply a strong sexual attraction he felt; it was far more than that. It was something primal. Something deep within him calling to something deep within her. Perhaps she craved the wildness in him as he craved the laughter and compassion in her. Did it matter? There would be no escape for either of them.He touched her mind gently before closing his eyes and allowing his breath to cease. She was weeping silently, her body still in need from the effects of his mind touch. There was hurt and confusion in her, and her head was aching. Without thought, without reason, he enveloped her in the strength of his arms, stroked her silky hair and sent warmth and comfort to surround her.I am sorry I frightened you little one; it was wrong of me. Go to sleep now and be safe.He murmured the words against her temple, his lips brushing her forehead in gentleness, brushing her mind with tenderness.He could feel the curious fragmentation in her mind, as if she had been using her mental capabilities to follow some sick and twisted path. It was as if she had raw, gaping wounds in her mind that needed to heal. She was too worn out from their previous mental battle to fight him. He breathed with her, for her, slow and even, matching her heartbeats until she relaxed, drowsy and worn. He sent her to sleep, a whispered command, and her lashes drifted down. They fell asleep together, yet apart, she in her room, Mikhail in his sleeping chamber.The pounding on her door penetrated the deep layers of sleep. Raven Whitney fought the thick fog forcing her eyes closed, making her body heavy. Alarm spread. It was as if she had been drugged. Her gaze found the small alarm clock on the bedside table. Seven o'clock in the evening. She had slept the day away. She sat up slowly, feeling as if she was wading through quicksand. The pounding on her door began again.The sound echoed in her head, thundered at her temples. "What'?" She forced her voice to be calm, although her heart was slamming against her chest. She was in trouble. She needed to pack quickly, run. She knew how futile it could be. Wasn't she the one who had tracked four serial killers following the mental path of their thoughts'? And this man was a thousand times more powerful than she. The truth was, she was intrigued that another person had psychic abilities. She had never met anyone like herself before. She wanted to stay and learn from him, but he was far too dangerous in his casual use of power. She would have to put distance, perhaps an ocean, between them to be truly safe."Raven, are you all right'?" The male voice was filled with concern.Jacob. She had met Jacob and Shelly Evans, a brother and sister, last night in the dining room when they had first come in off the train. They were traveling with a tour group of about eight people. She had been tired and the conversation was a blur.Raven had come to the Carpathian Mountains to be alone, to recover from her last ordeal of following the twisted mind of a depraved serial killer. She had not wanted the company of the tour group, yet Jacob and Shelly had sought her out. They had been wiped from her thoughts very efficiently. "I'm fine, Jacob, just a touch of the flu, I think," she assured him, feeling far from fine. She shoved a shaky hand through her hair. "I'm just so tired. I came here to rest.""Aren't we having dinner'?" He sounded plaintive, and that annoyed her. She didn't want any demands on her, and the last thing she needed was to be in a crowded dining room surrounded by a lot of people."I'm sorry. Another time, maybe." She didn't have time to be polite. How could she have made such a mistake as she had last night'? She was always so cautious, avoiding all contact, never touching another human being, never getting close. It was just that the stranger had been broadcasting so much pain, so much loneliness. She had known instinctively that he had telepathic powers, that his isolation far exceeded hers, that his pain was so great, he was considering ending his life. She knew what isolation was. How it felt to be different. She had been unable to keep her mouth shut; she had to help him if she could. Raven rubbed her temples in an attempt to relieve the pain pounding in her head. It always hurt after using her telepathic powers.Pushing herself up, she moved slowly to the bathroom. He was controlling her without contact. The thought terrified her. No one should be that powerful. She turned the shower on full force, wanting the steady stream of water to clear the cobwebs.She had come here for rest, to clear the stench of evil from her mind, to feel clean and whole again. Her psychic gift was draining to use, and physically she was worn. Raven lifted her chin. This new adversary would not frighten her. She had control and discipline. And this time she could walk away. No innocent lives were at stake.She pulled on faded jeans and a crocheted sweater in defiance. She had sensed he was Old World and would frown on her American clothes. She packed quickly, haphazardly, tossing clothes and makeup as fast as she could into the battered suitcase.She read the train schedule in dismay. There was no service for two more days. She could use charm to beg a ride from someone, but that meant being in the small confines of a car for an extended period of time. It probably was the lesser of two evils.She heard male laughter, low, amused, mocking.You would try to run from me, little one.Raven sank down onto the bed, her heart beginning to pound. His voice was black velvet, a weapon in itself.Don 't flatter yourself, hotshot. I'm a tourist; I tour.She forced her mind to be calm even as she felt the brush of his fingers on her face. How did he do that? It was the lightest caress, but she felt it down to her toes.And where were you thinking of touring?He was stretching lazily, his body refreshed from his sleep, his mind once more alive with feeling. He was enjoying sparring with her.Away from you and your bizarre games. Maybe Hungary. I've always wanted to go to Budapest. Little liar. You think to run back to your United States. Do you play chess?She blinked at the strange question.Chess? she echoed.Male amusement could be very annoying.ChessYes. Do you?Of course.Play with me.Now?She began to braid her heavy mass of hair. There was something captivating in his voice, mesmerizing. It tugged at her heartstrings, put terror in her mind.I must feed first. And you are hungry. I can feel your headache. Go down to dinner and we will meet at eleven tonight.No way. I won't meet with you.You are afraid.It was a clear taunt.She laughed at him, the sound wrapping his body in flames.I may do foolish things occasionally, but I am never a fool.Tell me your name.It was a command, and Raven felt compelled to obey it.She forced her mind to go blank, to be a slate wiped clean. It hurt, sent darts of pain through her head, made her stomach clench. He was not going to take what she would have given freely.Why do you fight me when you know I am the stronger? You hurt yourself, wear yourself out, and in the end 1 will win anyway. I feel the toll that this way of communicating takes on you. And I am capable of commanding your obedience on a much different level.Why do you force what I would have given, had you simply asked?She could feel his puzzlement.I am sorry, little one. I am used to getting my way with the least amount of effort.Even at the expense of simple courtesy?Sometimes it is more expedient.She punched the pillow.You need to work on your arrogance. Simply because you possess power does not mean you have to flaunt it.You forget, most humans cannot detect a mental push.That isn't an excuse to take away free will. And you don't use a push anyway; you issue a command and demand compliance. That's worse, because it makes people sheep. Isn't that closer to the truth?You reprimand me.There was an edge to his thoughts this time, as if all that male mockery was wearing thin.Don't try to force me.This time there was menace, a quiet danger lurking in his voice.I would not try, little one. Be assured I can force your compliance.His tone was silky and ruthless.You're like a spoiled child wanting your own way.She stood up, hugging the pillow to her protesting stomach.I'm going downstairs to dinner. My head is beginning, to pound. You can go soak your head in a bucket and cool off.She wasn't lying; the effort to fight him on his level was making her sick. She edged cautiously toward the door, afraid he would stop her. She would feel safer if she was among people.Your name, please, little one.It was asked with grave courtesy.Raven found herself smiling in spite of everything.Raven. Raven Whitney. So, Raven Whitney, eat, rest. I will return at eleven for our chess match.The contact was broken abruptly. Raven let out her breath slowly, all too aware that she should be feeling relief, not feeling bereft. There was seduction in his hypnotic voice, his masculine laughter, in their very conversation. She ached with the same loneliness as he did. She didn't allow herself to think of the way her body had come alive at the touch of his fingers. Burned. Wanted. Needed. And he had only touched her with his mind. The seduction was far more than physical; it was some deep, elemental thing she could not precisely put her finger on. He touched her inside her soul. His need. His darkness. His terrible, haunting loneliness. She needed, too. Someone to understand what it was like being so alone, so afraid to touch another being, afraid to be too close. She liked his voice, the Old World elegance, the silly male arrogance. She wanted his knowledge, his abilities.Her hand trembled as she opened the door, breathed the air in the hallway. Her body was her own again, moving lightly and fluidly, obeying her instructions. She ran down the stairs, entered the dining room.Several tables were occupied, certainly more than the night before. Ordinarily, Raven avoided public places as much as possible, preferring not to have to worry about shielding herself from unwanted emotions. She took a deep breath and walked in.Jacob looked up with a welcoming smile, stood, as if waiting for her to join the group at his table. Raven made herself smile back at him, unaware of the way she looked, innocent, sexy, completely unattainable. She crossed the room, greeted Shelly, and was introduced to Margaret and Harry Summers. Fellow Americans. She tried not to let her alarm show on her face. She knew her picture had been plastered all over the newspapers and even on television during the investigation of the last killer. She didn't want to be recognized, didn't want to relive the horrible nightmare of the man's twisted and depraved mind. There would be no discussion of such a hideous thing at dinner."Sit here, Raven." Jacob graciously pulled out a high-backed chair for her.Carefully avoiding skin contact, Raven allowed herself to be seated. It was hell to be so close to so many people. As a child she had been overwhelmed by the bombardment of emotions around her. She had nearly gone insane until she learned to protect herself, to build a shield. It worked unless the pain or distress was too concentrated, or if she physically touched another human being. Or if she was in the presence of a very sick and evil mind.Right now, with conversation flowing all around her and everyone seemingly having a good time, Raven was experiencing classic signs of overload. Shards of glass pierced her skull, her stomach roiled in protest. She couldn't possibly eat a thing.Mikhail inhaled the night air, moved slowly through the small town, seeking what he needed. Not a woman. He couldn't bear to touch another woman's flesh. He was aroused, dangerous in his highly sexual state, and far too close to turning. He might lose control. So it had to be a man. He moved among the people easily, returned greetings from those who knew him. He was well respected, looked up to.He slipped up behind a young man who was physically fit, strong. His scent spoke of health, veins bursting with life. After a brief, easy conversation, Mikhail spoke his command softly, laid a friendly arm across the other's shoulder. Deep within the shadows he bent his dark head and fed well. He was careful to keep his emotions firmly in control. He liked this young man, knew his family. There could be no mistakes.As he lifted his head, the first wave of her distress hit him.Raven.He had unconsciously been seeking contact with her, touching her mind gently to assure himself that she was still with him. Alert now, he finished his task quickly, releasing the young man from his trance, implanting the continuing conversation, laughing amicably, accepting the handshake with ease, steadying the man when he was a bit dizzy.Mikhail opened his mind, focused on the thread and followed it. It had been years - his skills were rusty - but he could still "see" when he wanted. Raven was seated at a table with two couples. Outwardly she looked beautiful, serene. But he knew better. He could feel her confusion, the unrelenting pain in her head, her desire to leap up and run from everyone. Her eyes, brilliant sapphires, were haunted, shadows in the paleness of her face. Strain. It amazed him how strong she was. There was no telepathic spillage, no way for anyone with telepathic ability other than he to tell she was in distress.And then the man beside her leaned forward, looked into her eyes, raw longing on his face, desire in his eyes. "Come for a walk with me, Raven," he suggested, and his hand moved from the table to rest just above her knee.At once the pain in Raven's head increased, crushing at her skull, stabbing at her behind her eyes. She jerked her leg out from under Jacob's hand. Demons leaped, raged, burst free. Never had Mikhail felt such terrible fury. It rushed over him, claimed him, became him. That someone could hurt her like that, so casually, without even knowing or caring. That someone might touch her while she was so vulnerable and unprotected. That a man would presume to put his hands on her. He hurtled through the sky, the cool air fanning his rage.Raven felt the force of his anger. The air in the room thickened; outside, the wind rose, whirled fiendishly. Branches pelted the outside walls; the wind rattled ominously at the windows. Several waiters crossed themselves, looking with fright out into the black, suddenly starless night. The room was unexpectedly, strangely silent, as if everyone was collectively holding his and her breath.Jacob gasped, both hands going to his throat, tearing at it as if at strong, strangling fingers. His face was first red, then mottled, his eyes bulging. Shelly screamed. A young waiter ran to assist the choking man. People were standing, craning their necks to see.Raven forced calmness into her slender body. Emotions were running far too high for her to remain unscathed.Release him.Silence answered her. Even with the waiter behind him, desperately working at the Heimlich maneuver, Jacob fell to his knees, his lips blue, his eyes rolling back in his head.Please, I'm asking you, please. Release him. For me.Jacob suddenly inhaled, a terrible gagging sound, labored and harsh. His sister and Margaret Summers were crouched at his side, tears in their eyes. Instinctively, Raven moved toward him.Do not touch him!The command was stark, without any mental enhancement, more frightening than if he had forced her compliance.Raven was besieged with emotion, from everyone in the room. Jacob's pain and terror. Shelly's fear, the innkeeper's horror, the other Americans' shocked reaction. They were swamping her, beating at her already fragile state. But it was his all-consuming rage that sent needles shooting through her head. Her stomach heaved, cramped, and Raven nearly doubled over and looked desperately for the ladies room. If anyone touched her, tried to come to her aid, she might go mad."Raven." The voice was warm, sensual, caressing. Calm in the eye of the storm. Black velvet. Beautiful. Soothing.A curious hush fell in the dining room as Mikhail strode in. He had a hard arrogance, an air of complete command. He was tall, dark, well muscled, but it was his eyes, burning with energy, with darkness, with a thousand secrets, that drew immediate attention. Those eyes could mesmerize, hypnotize, just like the power in his voice. He moved with purpose, sending waiters scurrying out of the way."Mikhail, it is such a pleasure to have you join us," the innkeeper gasped in surprise.He spared the woman a glance, his eyes sweeping over her buxom figure. "I have come for Raven. We have a date this evening." He said it softly, imperiously, and no one dared argue with him. "She has challenged me to a game of chess."The innkeeper nodded her head as she broke into a smile. "Enjoy yourselves."Raven swayed, pressing her hands into her stomach. Her sapphire eyes were enormous, taking up her face at his approach. He was on her before she could move, his hands reaching out for her.Don't.She closed her eyes, terrified of his touch. She was already on overload; she would not be able to take the overpowering emotions radiating from him.Mikhail didn't hesitate, gathering her into his arms, imprisoning her against his hard chest. His face was a granite mask as he whirled around and took her from the room. Behind them the buzzing started, the whispers.Raven tensed, waiting for the battery on her senses, but he had closed his mind and all she knew was the enormous strength of his arms. He took her into the night, moving fluidly, easily, as if her weight was of no consequence."Breathe, little one; it will help." There was a trace of amusement in the warmth of his voice.Raven did as he suggested, too worn out to struggle. She had come here to this wild, lonely place to heal, but instead, she was all the more fragmented. She opened her eyes cautiously, looking up at him through long lashes.His hair was the color of dark coffee beans, a dark espresso, drawn back and tied at the nape of his neck. His face was that of an angel or a devil, strength and power, with a sensual mouth that hinted at cruelty; his hooded eyes were black obsidian, black ice, pure black magic.She couldn't read him, couldn't feel his emotions or hear his thoughts. That had never happened to her before. "Put me down. I feel silly with you carrying me off like some pirate." His long strides were taking them into deep forest. Branches swayed, bushes rustled. Her heart was beating out of control. She tensed, pushed against his shoulders, struggled uselessly.His eyes moved possessively over her face, but his pace didn't slow, and he didn't answer her. It was humiliating that he didn't appear to notice her struggles.Raven allowed her head to fall back against his shoulder with a slight sigh. "Did you kidnap me or rescue me?"Strong white teeth gleamed at her, a predator's smile, a man's amusement. "Perhaps a little of both.""Where are you taking me?" She pressed a hand to her I forehead, not wanting a battle, physical or mental."To my home. We have a date. I am Mikhail Dubrinsky."Raven rubbed at her temple. "Tonight might not be so good for me. I'm feeling..." She broke off, catching a I glimpse of a moving shadow pacing them. Her heart nearly stopped. She looked around, sighted a second, then a third. Her hand clutched his shoulder. "Put me down, Dubrinsky.""Mikhail," he corrected, not even slowing down. A smile softened the edges of his mouth. "You see the wolves?" She felt the indifferent shrug of his broad shoulders. "Be calm, little one; they will not harm us. This is their home, as it is mine. We have an understanding and are at peace with one another."Somehow she believed him. "Are you going to hurt me?" She asked the question softly, needing to know.His dark eyes touched her face again, thoughtful, holding a thousand secrets, unmistakably possessive. "I am not a man who would hurt a woman in the way you are imagining. But I am certain our relationship will not always be a comfortable one. You like to defy me." He answered as honestly as he was I able.His eyes made her feel as if she belonged to him, as if he had a right to her. "You were wrong to hurt Jacob, you know. You could have killed him.""Do not defend him, little one. I allowed him to live to please you, but it would be no trouble to finish the task."Pleasurable. No man had the right to put his hand on Mikhail's woman and hurt her as that human had done. The inability of the male to see that he was causing Raven pain did not absolve his sin."You don't mean that. Jacob is harmless. He was attracted to me," she tried to explain gently."You will not speak his name to me. He touched you, put his hand on you." He stopped abruptly, there in the heart of I the deep forest, as wild and untamed as the pack of wolves surrounding them. He was not even breathing heavily, though he had covered miles carrying her in his arms. His black eyes were merciless as they stared down into hers. "He caused you much pain."Her breath caught in her throat as he lowered his dark head to hers. His mouth hovered inches from hers, so that she could feel the warmth of his breath on her skin. "Do not disobey me in this, Raven. This man touched you, hurt you, and I see no reason for his existence."Her eyes searched his hard, implacable features. "You're serious, aren't you?" She did not want to feel the warmth spreading through her at his words. Jacob had hurt her; the pain was so intense, it had stolen her breath and somehow, when no one else knew, Mikhail had known."Deadly serious." He began moving again with his long, ground-eating strides.Raven was silent, trying to work out the puzzle. She knew evil, had chased it, soaked in it, the obscene, depraved mind of a serial killer. This man spoke casually of killing, yet she could not feel evil in him. She sensed that she was in danger, grave danger from Mikhail Dubrinsky. A man with unlimited power, arrogant in his strength, a man who believed he had a right to her."Mikhail?" Her slender frame was beginning to tremble. "I want to go back."The dark eyes drifted over her face again, noting the shadows, the fear lingering in her blue gaze. Her heart was pounding, her slight body trembling in his arms. "Go back to what? Death? Isolation? You have nothing with those people and everything with me. Going back is not your answer. Sooner or later you will not be able to take their demands. They continually take pieces of your soul. You are much safer in my care."She pushed at the wall of his chest, found her hands trapped against the heat of his skin. He merely tightened his hold, amusement spreading warmth to the coldness of his eyes. "You cannot fight me, little one.""I want to go back, Mikhail." She worked to keep her voice under control. She wasn't sure she was telling the truth. He knew her. He knew what she felt, the price she paid for her gift. The pull between them was so strong, she could hardly think straight.The house loomed up, dark, threatening, a rambling hulk of stone. Her fingers twisted in his shirt. Mikhail knew she was unaware of that nervous, telltale gesture. "You are safe with me, Raven. I would not allow anyone or anything to harm you."She swallowed nervously as he pushed open the heavy iron gates and mounted the steps. "Just you."He allowed his chin to brush the top of her silky hair, feeling the jolt in the core of his body. "Welcome to my home." He said the words softly, wrapping her up in them as if they were firelight or sunshine. Very slowly, reluctantly, he allowed her feet to touch the threshold.Mikhail reached past her to open the door, then stepped back. "Do you enter my home of your own free will?" He asked it formally, his eyes burning on her face, over it, dwelling on her soft mouth before returning to her large blue eyes.She was frightened, he could read it easily, a captive wild thing wanting to trust him yet unable to, run to the ground, cornered, but still willing to fight with her last breath. She needed him almost as much as he needed her. She touched the door frame with a fingertip. "If I say no, will you take me back to the inn?"Why did she want to be with him when she knew he was so dangerous? He wasn't "pushing" her; she had too much talent of her own not to know. He looked so alone, so proud, yet his eyes burned over her with hungry need. He didn't answer her, didn't try to persuade her, simply stood in silence, waiting.Raven sighed softly, knowing she was defeated. She had never known another human being she could just sit and talk with, even touch, without the bombardment of thoughts and emotions. That in itself was a type of seduction.She started across the threshold. Mikhail caught her arm. "Your own free will; say it.""My own free will." She stepped into his home, her lashes sweeping down. Raven missed the look of savage joy that lit his dark, chiseled features.