Mikhail had been gone for two long hours. Raven wandered around the house, familiarizing herself with the rooms. She liked her solitude and was grateful for the time to try to sort things out logically. As hard as she tried, she could not make what she had become seem real to her. Only Mikhail was sanity. He was on her mind continually, invading her thoughts, pushing out everything insane until there was only him.His blood was in her veins, his scent on her body, his mark at her throat and breast. The feel of his possession was in every step, every movement of her body. Raven wrapped his shirt closer. She knew he was alive and well; he had touched her mind often, sending warm reassurance. She found she welcomed the brushing touch, craved it, was aware that he shared the same deep need to merge often with her.With a sigh she enveloped herself in his long, warm cape. All at once the house was too stifling, like a prison instead of a home. The long wraparound porch beckoned to her; the night seemed to call her name. She caught at the doorknob, twisted. At once the night air rushed over her, cooling and filled with intriguing scents. She wandered out onto the porch, leaned against a tall column and inhaled deeply, drawing the night into her lungs. She could feel a drawing, a calling. Without conscious thought she stepped off the porch and began to wander along the path.The night whispered and sang, beckoning her into deep forest. An owl hissed softly across the sky; a trio of deer stepped warily from cover to dip velvet muzzles in the cold stream. Raven felt their joy in living, their acceptance of their daily life-and-death struggle. She could hear the sap in the trees thrumming like the ebb and flow of the tide. Her bare feet seemed to find soft ground, avoiding twigs and thorns and sharp rocks. The rush of the water, the sound of the wind, the very heartbeat of the earth called to her.Entranced, Raven wandered aimlessly, enfolded in Mikhail's long black cape, her hair falling past her hips in a thick cascade of blue-black silk. She looked ethereal, her pale skin almost translucent in the moonlight, her large eyes so dark blue that they were purple. The cape parted occasionally to reveal an intriguing glimpse of bare, shapely leg.Something rippled in her mind, disturbing the tranquil beauty of the night.Grief.Tears.Raven halted, blinked rapidly, tried to determine her surroundings. She had wandered as if she was in a beautiful dream. She turned in the direction of the intense emotion. Without conscious thought, her feet began to move forward. Her mind automatically processed information.A human male. Early twenties. His genuine grief ran deep. There was anger toward his father, confusion, and guilt that he had arrived too late. Something deep in Raven responded to his overwhelming need. He was huddled against a broad tree trunk, down low near the timberline. His knees were drawn up, his face buried in his hands.Raven deliberately made a sound as she approached. The man lifted a tear-streaked face, his eyes wide with shock as he spotted her. He began to scramble to his feet."Please don't get up," Raven said quietly, her voice as soft as the night itself. "I didn't mean to disturb you. I couldn't sleep and came out walking. Would you prefer me to leave?"Rudy Romanov found himself staring in awe at a dream figure that seemed to materialize out of the mist. She was like nothing he had ever seen before, as shrouded in mystery as the dark forest itself. Words caught in his throat. Had his grief conjured her up? He could almost believe the ridiculous, superstitious tales his father had told him. Tales of vampires and women of the darkness, sirens luring men to their doom.The man was staring at her as if she were a ghost. "I'm so sorry," she murmured gently and turned to leave him."No! Don't go." His English was heavily accented. "For a minute, coming out of the mist like that, you hardly looked real."Aware that she had little on beneath the long cape, Raven drew it closer around her. "Are you all right? Can I call someone for you? The priest, perhaps? Your family?""There is no one, not anymore. I'm Rudy Romanov. You must have heard the news about my parents."An unholy vision burst in her head. She saw wolves boiling from the forest, red eyes gleaming fiercely, a huge black wolf leading the pack and bearing straight down on Hans Romanov. From the young man's head, she picked up the memory of his mother, Heidi, lying on her bed, her husband's fingers around her throat. For one awful moment she couldn't breathe. What this man had suffered! Both parents taken from him in a matter of hours. His fanatical father had murdered his mother."I've been ill; this is my first time out in days." She moved closer to him beneath the outstretched limbs of the trees. She couldn't very well tell him the truth - that she had been involved in the entire horrendous affair.To Rudy, she seemed a beautiful angel sent to console him. Rudy longed to touch her skin to see if it was really as soft as it appeared in the moonlight. Her voice was a gentle whisper, sexy, soothing, reaching into his mind to calm and heal. He cleared his throat. "My father murdered my mother a couple of nights ago. If only I had come home sooner. My mother called me, telling me some nonsense about him murdering a woman. He had delusions of vampires preying on people in the village. My father had always been superstitious, but I never thought he would go completely crazy. Mother said he and a group of fanatics were hunting vampires and marking prominent members of the community for murder. I thought he was just talking big, like he always did." He glanced down at his hands. "I should have listened to her, but she admitted that no one else seemed to know of the murder. I assumed he'd lied about killing a woman, that it wasn't the truth. Hell, maybe it wasn't, but he was nuts. He strangled my mother. She died with her rosary in her hands."Rudy wiped his eyes with trembling fingers. Somehow, he had no idea how, his mystery lady was in his mind, providing warmth and understanding. The illusion was so real his body stirred to life, and he became acutely aware that they were very much alone. Unbidden, the thought came to him that no one knew she was with him. The thought was disturbingly exciting in the midst of his grief. "I stayed one more day at the university to take a test I thought was really important. I didn't really believe my father would kill someone, least of all a woman. My mother was a midwife. She brought so many lives into the world, helped so many people. I told her I was on my way home and I'd take care of things. She wanted to go to the priest, but I talked her out of it.""I wish I had known her," Raven said sincerely."You would have liked her; everyone liked her. She must have tried to stop my father. The night of the storm, he went out with a group of outsiders. That's when he must have killed my mother, right before he left the house. He probably was making certain she didn't tell anyone or try to stop him. He was caught under a tree that was hit by lightning. He and the others were burned beyond recognition.""How terrible for you." Raven swept a hand through her hair, a slow tunneling of her fingers through the heavy fall of silk, pushing it away from her face. Sexy. Innocent. A potent combination.Mist streamed through the forest toward the house set back against the cliffs. It filtered through the iron gates and poured into the courtyard. The mist stacked into a tall, thick column, shimmered, connected, until Mikhail, in his solid form, stood in front of his door. Lifting a hand, murmuring a soft command, he released the safeguard and entered. Immediately he knew she was gone.Eyes darkened to black ice. White teeth bared, gleamed. A low growl rumbled, was suppressed. His first thought was that someone had taken her, that she was in danger. He sent out a call to his sentries, the wolves, to aid him in his search for her. Taking a deep, calming breath, he allowed his mind to find hers, to zero in on her location. It wasn't difficult to track her. She was not alone.A human. Male.His breath caught in his throat. His heart nearly ceased beating. His fingers curled into two tight fists. Beside Mikhail the lamp exploded, burst into fragments. Outside the wind rose, whirled in tiny tornadoes through the trees. Mikhail stepped outside and leaped into the air, spread giant wings and hurtled through the sky. Far below him the wolves howled to one another and began to run in tight pack formation.Mikhail glided silently to the heavy branches above Raven's head. She was pushing her hair away from her face in her curiously sexy, very feminine way. He could feel her compassion, her need to comfort. He could also feel how cold and exhausted she was. The human was grief-stricken, no doubt about it. But Mikhail could smell his excitement, could hear the pounding heart, the flow of blood surging and pooling. He could easily read the man's thoughts, and they were not all innocent.Furious, more than a little afraid for her, Mikhail launched himself into the air, then settled on the ground a yard away, out of sight. And then he was striding toward them, a tall, powerful figure appearing out of the night, out of the trees. He loomed over them, menacing, formidable, the hard angles and planes of his face harsh and merciless. Black eyes gleamed with something dark and deadly. The moonlight reflected there gave an eerie red glow, even a feral quality, to his unblinking gaze.Threatened, Rudy scrambled to his feet, making a grab for his mystery lady with a vague idea of protecting her. Although Mikhail was several feet farther away from Raven than Rudy, he put on a burst of blurring speed and his hand was there first, shackling her fragile wrist and yanking Raven behind him, locking her to him."Good evening, Mr. Romanov," Mikhail said pleasantly, his tone so low and silky both Rudy and Raven shivered. "Perhaps you would be so kind as to tell me what you are doing at this time of night meeting in these woods alone with my woman." As he uttered the last word, from somewhere close, a wolf howled ominously, the long, drawn-out note echoing a warning on the night breeze.Raven stirred, but Mikhail's grip on her threatened to crush her bones. Besilent, little one. If you wish this human to see the dawn, you will obey me. He is Hans Romanov's son. What is in his mind is what his father planted long ago.She paled visibly Mikhail, his parents...I am holding on to control by a thread. Do not snap it!"Mr. Dubrinsky." Rudy recognized him now, a powerful figure in his home village, an unrelenting enemy or a valuable friend. Mikhail's voice appeared calm, serene even, yet he looked capable of murder. "We didn't plan this. I came here because..." His voice trailed off. He could have sworn he caught sight of wolves lurking in the trees, their eyes glowing with that same feral quality as the hunter in front of him. One look at that merciless face and Rudy let go of his pride. "1 was grieving. She was out walking and she heard me."The wolves were silent shadows slipping closer. Mikhail sensed their eagerness, the cry of bloodlust. It washed over him and mixed with black jealousy. The pack whispered and called to him as their brother. The beast in him lifted its head, roared for release. The human male claimed innocence, but it was easy to read lust in his body, smell the scent of sexual arousal. It was easy for Mikhail to read the taint of sickness in the son, placed there by the father.Mikhail's dark gaze swept Raven's small figure. She could stop his heart, take his breath away. She never looked beyond the surface; she had trained herself not to. Mikhail read compassion, sadness, exhaustion, and something else. He had hurt her. It was there in the depths of her enormous eyes. And there was genuine fear. She knew the wolves were out there; she heard their voices urging him to protect his mate. It was a terrible blow for her to realize just how susceptible he was to their primitive logic, to realize how much animal was really in him. Instantly his ann swept around her, dragged her beneath his shoulder, close to his warmth. He sent out a silent command to the wolves, feeling their resistance, their reluctance to obey. They could sense his antagonism to the human, his own lust for blood, the need to vanquish an enemy that might threaten his mate's safety."1 heard of your loss," Mikhail made himself say, his arm curving around Raven protectively. "Your mother was a great woman. Her death was a tremendous loss to our community. Your father and I had our differences, but I would have wished his death on no man."Raven was shivering with cold and reaction to the knowledge that Mikhail could feel such intense animosity toward anyone. She was the light to his darkness, incapable of understanding that he was first and foremost a predator. His hand moved up and down her arm gently, seeking to reassure her. Mikhail reinforced his command to the wolves. "You had better go home, Mr. Romanov. You need sleep, and these woods are not always safe. The storm has left the animals edgy.""Thank you for being so kind," Rudy said to Raven, reluctant to leave her with a man who looked so capable of great violence.Mikhail watched the man retreat to the safety of the edge of town, beyond the clearing. "You are cold, little one," he said very gently.Raven blinked back tears, forcing her trembling legs to begin walking, one slow step at a time. She couldn't look at him, didn't dare. She had simply been enjoying the beauty of the night. Then she had heard Romanov. It was in her nature to help if she was able. Now she had triggered something dark and deadly in Mikhail, something that troubled her deeply.Mikhail paced beside her, studied her averted face. "You are going in the wrong direction, Raven." He put his hand at the small of her back to guide her.Raven stiffened, then twisted away from him. "Maybe I don't want to go back, Mikhail. Maybe I don't really know who you are at all."There was more hurt than anger in her voice. Mikhail sighed heavily and reached for her, his grip unbreakable iron. "We will talk in the warmth and comfort of our home, not here where your body is like ice." Without waiting for her consent, he lifted her easily and moved with a burst of speed. Raven clung to him, her face buried against his shoulder, her slender body shaking with cold and more than a little fear of him, of her future, of what she herself had become.Mikhail took her directly to the bedchamber, lit the fire with a lift of his hand, and placed her on the bed. "You could at least have worn shoes."Raven drew his cloak around her protectively, looking up at him from under long lashes. "Why? And I'm not asking about shoes."He lit candles and crushed a variety of herbs to fill their chamber with soothing, healing sweetness. "I am a Carpathian male. I have the blood of the earth flowing in my veins. I have waited centuries for my lifemate. Carpathian men do not like other men near their women. I am struggling with, unfamiliar emotions, Raven. They are not easy to control. You do not behave as a Carpathian woman would." A small smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. Mikhail leaned lazily against the wall. "I did not expect to come home to find you gone. You put yourself in danger, Raven, something the males of our race cannot allow. And then I find you with a human. A male.""He was in pain," she said quietly.Mikhail made a sound of annoyance. "He wanted you."Her eyelashes fluttered, blue eyes meeting his, startled and unsure. "But... no, Mikhail, you're mistaken; you must be. I was only trying to comfort him. He lost both of his parents." She looked close to tears.He held up his hand to silence her. "And you wanted to be in his company. Not sexually, but still, his human company; do not deny it. I could feel the need in you."Her tongue touched her lips nervously. She couldn't deny it. It had been entirely subconscious on her part, but now that he had spoken the words aloud, she knew it was true. She had felt the need for human companionship. Mikhail was so intense, everything in his world so unfamiliar. Raven hated that she hurt him, hated that she had been the one to push him to the edge of his control. "I'm sorry. I didn't intend to do anything but go for a short walk. When I heard him, I felt the need to make certain he was all right. I didn't know, Mikhail, that I was seeking human company.""I do not blame you, little one, never that." His voice was so gentle, it turned her heart over. "I can easily read your memories. I know of your intent. And I would never blame you for your compassionate nature.""I guess we both have difficulties to contend with," she said softly. "I can't be what you want me to be, Mikhail. You use the word 'human' like a curse, something less than what you are. Did it ever occur to you that you're prejudiced against my race? Carpathian blood may flow in my veins, but in my heart and my mind I'm human. I didn't set out to betray you. I went for a walk. That's all I did. I'm sorry, Mikhail, but all my life I've known freedom. Changing my blood is not going to change who I am."He paced across the floor with quick, fluid energy, all power and coordination. "I am not prejudiced," he denied."Of course you are. You view my race with a measure of contempt. Would you have been happy if I had fed, using Romanov's blood? Is that acceptable? To use him for food, but not for a few friendly words?""I do not like this picture you paint of me, Raven." Mikhail crossed the room to hold out his hand for the cape. The bedchamber was warm and smelled of nature - wood and meadow.Reluctantly Raven slipped the cape from her shoulders. Mikhail frowned when he saw she was clad only in his crisp white shirt. Although the tails reached her knees and covered her bottom, a generous portion of her thighs was exposed, right up to her hips. The effect was incredibly sexy, with her long, wild mane of hair cascading in waves down to the bed, framing her slender form. Mikhail swore softly, a few choice words in his own language, thankful he hadn't realized she was wearing nothing but his shirt beneath his cape. He probably would have torn out Romanov's throat. The thought of Raven approaching the young man, smiling at him, mesmerizing him with her siren's eyes, bending her head to his throat, touching him with her mouth, her tongue, her teeth... His gut clenched in total rebellion at the picture.He raked a hand through his hair, hung the cape in his closet, and filled the old-fashioned pitcher and basin with warm water. Once he had his imagination under firm control he could answer her with his usual gentleness. "No, little one, after giving it thought, I cannot say I would have been happy had you been feeding.""Isn't that what I'm supposed to do? A Carpathian woman preys on unsuspecting humans." There was an edge of unshed tears in her voice.Mikhail earned the water over to the side of the bed, knelt down in front of her. "I am trying to understand my feelings, Raven, and they do not make sense." Very gently he began to bathe her feet. "More than anything I want your happiness. But I feel the need to protect you." His hands were gentle, his touch tender as he removed every speck of earth.Raven ducked her head, rubbing her temples. "I know you do, Mikhail, and I even understand to a point your need to do it; it's just that I am always going to be me. I'm impulsive, I do things. I decide I want to fly a kite and the next thing I'm doing it.""Why did you not stay inside? I asked for time to come to grips with my terrible fear for your safety." His voice was so incredibly gentle, it brought tears to her eyes.She touched his coffee-colored hair with her fingertips, felt an ache in her throat. "I wanted to go outside on the porch for fresh air. I had no other thought, but the night just called to me."Mikhail glanced up at her, his dark eyes warm with his feelings for her. "It was my mistake, I should have set safeguards to protect you.""Mikhail, I am capable of looking after myself." Her blue eyes were very earnest, impressing on him the truth of her words. He really didn't need to worry.Mikhail did his best to keep from smiling. She was too good, always believing the best of everyone. His fingers circled her small calves. "You are the most beautiful woman in the world, Raven. You do not have a mean bone in your body, do you?"Raven looked indignant. "Of course I do. Don't smile like that, Mikhail; I really do. I can be just as mean as necessary. In any case, what has that to do with what we're talking about?"His hand moved upward to her rib cage beneath the thin silk of his shirt. "We are talking about me needing to protect the one person who matters to me, the one who can only see good in everyone.""I do not," she denied, shocked that he would think so. "I knew Margaret Summers was fanatical."His hand moved upward to caress the soft underside of her breast, to cup the weight of it in his palm. His eyes had gone black and deep with emotion. "You defended her, as I recall."He was taking her breath away with his absent, leisurely exploration of her body. It was more than physical; she felt him inside her, admiring her, even as he wanted to force her compliance to his will. She felt him in her body, stroking her mind, caressing her heart. She sensed his feelings for her growing and growing until they consumed him.Mikhail sighed softly. "I am never going to get anywhere with you, am I? You have a way of disarming me. I am the leader of my people, Raven. I cannot have this. I have no choice but to resort to orders."Her eyebrows flew up. "Orders?" she echoed. "You think you'll give me orders?""Absolutely. It is the only recourse open to me that prevents me from being a laughingstock among my people. Unless, of course, you have a better idea." There was laughter in the depths of his eyes."How do I divorce you?""I am sorry, little one," he answered blandly. "I do not understand this word. In my language, please.""You know very well you speak English far better than I speak your language," she said. "How does one lifemate split from the other? Separate. Break apart. No longer together."The glint of humor in the depths of his eyes deepened to total amusement. "There is no such thing, and if there was, Raven" - he bent very close, his breath fanning her cheek - "I would never allow you to go."Raven looked innocent and wide-eyed. The hand on her breast, his thumb stroking her nipple, was making it hard to breathe. "I was only trying to help you. Royalty has so few options these days. You have to worry about what the public thinks. You can rely on me, Mikhail, to help you ponder such issues."He laughed softly, tauntingly male. "I guess I must be thankful to have such a clever lifemate." His fingers slipped a button of the white shirt free. Just one, widening the gap across her breasts to give him more room for his lazy exploration.Raven's breath caught in her throat. He was doing nothing really, simply touching her, his touch so gentle and loving she was melting inside. "I really am trying to understand your way of life, Mikhail, but I don't think my heart can take it yet." She tried to be truthful. "I know nothing of your laws or your customs. 1 don't even know exactly what you are, what I am. I think of myself as human. We're not even married in the eyes of God or man."This time Mikhail threw back his head and laughed loudly, heartily. "You think the pale ceremony of humans is a deeper binding than that of a true Carpathian ritual? You do have much to learn of our ways."Her small white teeth scraped at her lower lip. "Has it occurred to you that I might not feel bound by Carpathian laws and rituals? You have so little regard for things I consider sacred.""Raven!" He was shocked, and it showed. "Is that what you think? I have no regard for your beliefs? That is not so."She ducked her head so that her silky hair fell around her face, hiding her expression. "We know so little about one another. I know nothing about who I've become. How can I fulfill your needs, or you mine, if I don't even know what or who I am?"He was silent, his dark, fathomless eyes studying her sad face, the sorrow in her eyes. "Perhaps there is some truth in your words, little one." His hands followed the contours of her body, shaped her narrow rib cage, her small waist, moved up to frame her face. "I look at you and know what a miracle you are. The feel of your skin, soft and inviting, the way you move, like water flowing, the brush of your hair like silk, the feel of your body surrounding mine, completing me, giving me the strength I need to continue a task that seems so hopeless, but so necessary. I look at the way you are made, so beautiful, your body so perfect, made for mine."Raven stirred restlessly, but his hands held her captive, tilting her chin so that she had no choice but to meet his black eyes. "But it is not your body that holds me, Raven, not your flawless skin or the perfection of the combination of our bodies when we come together. It is when I merge with you and see who you really are that I realize what a miracle really is. I can tell you who you are. You are compassion. You are gentleness. You are a woman who is so courageous, you are willing to risk your life for complete strangers. You are a woman willing to use a gift that causes you great pain for the benefit of others. There is no hesitation in your giving; it is who you are. There is such a light in you, it shines through your eyes and radiates through your skin, so that anyone seeing you can easily see your goodness."Raven could only stare at him helplessly, lost in his mesmerizing eyes. Mikhail took her hand, pressed a kiss in the exact center of her palm, slipped her hand beneath his shirt, and held it over his steadily beating heart. "Look beyond my skin, Raven. Look into my heart and soul. Merge your mind with mine; see me for what I am. Know me for who I am."Mikhail waited silently. A heartbeat. Two. He saw her sudden determination to know what she had bound herself to, to know just whom it was she had formed an alliance with. Her mind merge was tentative at first, her touch so light and delicate it felt like the brush of butterfly wings. She was cautious, moving through his memories as if she might discover something that would hurt him. He felt the breath leave her body as she saw the gathering darkness. The monster that lived within. The stain on his soul. The deaths and battles he was responsible for. The stark ugliness of his existence before she had come into his life. The loneliness that ate away at him, at all the males of their species, the barren emptiness they endured century after century. She saw his determination never to lose her. His possessiveness, his animal instincts. Everything he was, it was all there laid out for her to see. He hid nothing from her - not the kills he had made, not the ones he had ordered, not his absolute conviction that no one would ever take her from him and live.Raven pulled out of his mind, her blue eyes steady on his. Mikhail felt the sudden pounding of his heart. There was no condemnation there, only serene calm. "So you see the beast you are tied to for all eternity. We are predators, after all, little one, and the darkness in us is only balanced by the light in our women."Her hands crept around his neck, gentle, loving. "How terrible a struggle all of you must have, and you more than most. To have to make so many life-and-death decisions, to sentence friends and even family to be destroyed must be a burden beyond belief. You are strong, Mikhail, and your people are right to believe in you. The monster you battle daily is part of you, maybe the part that makes you so strong and determined. You see that side of you as evil when in fact it is what gives you your power, the ability and strength to do what you must do for your people."Mikhail ducked his head, not wanting her to see the expression in his eyes, what her words meant to him. There was an obstruction in his throat that threatened to choke him. He did not deserve her, would never deserve her. She was unselfish, while he had all but taken her captive and forced her to find a way to live with him."Mikhail." Her voice was soft; she brushed his chin with the softness of her mouth. "I was alone until you came into my life." Her lips found the corner of his. "No one knew me - not who I was - and people feared me because I knew things about them they could never know of me." She wrapped her arms around him, comforting him as if he were a child. "Was it really so wrong to want me for yourself, knowing I would end such a terrible existence for you? Do you really believe you must condemn yourself? I love you. I know that I love you totally and without reservation. I accept who you are."He raked a hand through his hair. "I cannot control my emotions at this time, Raven. I cannot lose you. You have no conception of what it was like - no daylight, no laughter, centuries of complete loneliness. I know a monster lives in me. The longer one lives, the more powerful he becomes. I fear for Gregori. He is but a mere twenty-five years younger than I am, but he has had the weight of hunting the undead for centuries. He isolates himself from his own kind. Sometimes we do not see or hear from him for half a century. His power is immense and the darkness in him grows. It is a cold, bleak existence, harsh and unrelenting, and always the monster inside fights for release. You are my salvation. At this time it is all so new to me, and the fear of losing you far too fresh. I don't know what I would do to any who would try to take you from me."Her hand found his, fingers linking them together."Noelle gave birth to a son. Eleanor did the same. There are no women to relieve the terrible black void for the men. Gregori suffers the most. He roams the earth, learning its secrets and conducting experiments none of us dare inquire too deeply into. I have never told anyone this, but he has more knowledge and more strength than I do. We have never had reason for conflict - he always comes through in an emergency - but I feel his withdrawal." Mikhail rubbed his eyes tiredly. "What am I to do? Sooner or later he will make his choice. Either way we will lose him.""I don't understand.""There is ultimate power in the taking of life while we feed, and it is so easy, drawing our victims to us. No one can survive darkness and despair for a thousand years. Gregori has lived from the Crusades to men walking on the moon, always fighting the monster inside. The one hope we have for salvation is our lifemate. And if Gregori does not find his lifemate soon, he will seek the dawn or turn. I fear the worst.""What is turning?""Killing for the pleasure of it, the power, becoming the vampire humans recognize. Using women before feeding, forcing them to become slaves," Mikhail answered grimly. He and Gregori had often hunted their own kind and discovered just how depraved a Carpathian turned vampire could be."You would have to stop Gregori?" Fear shot through her like a flaming arrow. She was beginning to understand the complexity of Mikhail's life. "You say he is more powerful.""Without a doubt. He has had freedom of movement, and far more experience in hunting and tracking the undead. He has learned so much, participated in life across the earth. His tremendous power is only exceeded by his utter isolation. Gregori is more like a brother than a friend. We have been together since the beginning. I would not wish to fail him or hunt him, nor attempt to pit my strength against his. He has fought numerous battles for me, with me. We have shared blood, healed one another, guarded each other when there was need.""What of Jacques?" She already felt affection for the man who was so much like Mikhail.Mikhail stood up, dumping the water wearily. "My brother is two hundred years younger than I. He is strong and wise and very dangerous given the right circumstances. The blood of the ancients runs strong in him. He travels, studies, is willing to take the responsibility of our people should it become necessary.""You carry the burdens of your people on your shoulders." Her voice was very soft. She caressed his coffee-colored hair with gentle fingers.Mikhail sat up carefully, regarding her with old, weary eyes. "We are a dying race, little one. I fear I merely slow the inevitable. Two of the known assassins escaped. Two other suspects, Anton Fabrezo and Dieter Hodkins, also left on the train. I sent word throughout the mountains, but they have disappeared. I have heard rumors of an organized group of hunters that has emerged recently in this time period. If these men ever hook up with true scientists, they will become even more dangerous.""I know Carpathians are of the earth, and their healing comes from the earth and all its natural powers. But, Mikhail, perhaps your prejudice and contempt for the human race has made you overlook some of its advantages.""You persist in thinking me prejudiced. I like many humans." Mikhail found he couldn't resist sliding the buttons open on the white silk shirt that covered her bare body. There was something deep within him, a primitive need that made him want to look at her, to know he could do so whenever he wanted.She smiled at him, sweeping her hair back in her curiously sexy gesture. The action created a gap in the shirt so that her bare skin beckoned, her full breasts thrust toward him invitingly, then disappeared under a cloud of ebony silk. The sight took his breath away. "Listen to me, my love. Having a few friends and feeling affection for certain individuals of a race does not remove prejudice. You have lived with your abilities for so long you take them for granted. Because you can control the human mind and you use them as cattle..."He gasped, shocked that she could think such a thing. His hand circled her ankle where it was tucked up on the bed. "I have never treated humans like cattle. Many of them are counted among my friends, although Gregori and some of the others think I am crazy. I watch humans grow and wish I could feel the things they feel. No, little one, I do not believe I treat them as cattle."She tilted her chin, regarding him steadily with her large sapphire eyes. "Perhaps not like cattle, but I feel what you feel, Mikhail. You can hide this from yourself, but I can see it clearly." She smiled to soften her words. "I know you don't want to feel superior, but it is so easy to control us."He snorted his disagreement. "I have failed to control you at every turn. You have no idea how often I wanted to force your obedience when you placed yourself in danger. I should have gone with my instincts... but no, I allowed you to go back to the inn.""Your love for me caused you to pull back." She reached out to touch his hair. "Isn't that how it should be between two people? If you really love who I am, and you want me to be happy, then you know I have to do what comes naturally to me, what I feel is right."His finger traced down her throat, through the deep valley between her breasts, making her shiver with sudden heat. "That is true, little one, but that is also true of my needs. You can do no other than to make me happy. My happiness is completely dependent on whether or not you are safe."Raven couldn't help smiling. "Somehow I think your devious nature is showing. Perhaps you need to examine human ingenuity. You rely heavily on your gifts, Mikhail, but humans must find other ways. We are uniting two worlds. If we decide to have a child..."He stirred restlessly, his dark eyes glittering.She caught the imperious Carpathian decree before he could censor his thoughts.You must."If we decide someday to have a child," she persisted, ignoring his authority, "if it is male, he will be raised in both worlds. And if it is a girl, she will be raised with free will and a mind of her own. I mean it, Mikhail. I will never, ever, consent to bringing a child into this world to be a brood mare for one of these men. She will know her own power and choose her own life.""Our women make their choices," he said quietly."I'm sure there's some ritual that ensures that she wants to choose the right man," Raven guessed. "You will give me your word you will agree to my terms or I will not bear a child."His fingertips brushed her face with exquisite tenderness. "More than anything I want your happiness. I would also want my children to be happy. We have years to decide these things, lifetimes, but yes, when we have learned to balance the two worlds and we know the time is right, I agree absolutely to your terms.""You know I'll hold you to it," she warned.He laughed softly, cupping the side of her face in his palm. "As the years go by, your strength and power will grow. You already terrify me, Raven. I do not know if my heart will be able to stand the coming years."She laughed, the sound like music. His hands shaped her breasts, cupped the soft weight in his palms, bent his head to her offering. His mouth was hot and moist and needy, his teeth scraping back and forth on sensitive skin. His hair brushed against her like tongues licking at her ribs. At once her arms circled him as she relaxed back against the headboard.Mikhail stretched out on the bed, his head in her lap. "You are going to turn my well-ordered world upside down, are you not?"She tunneled her fingers in his hair, enjoying the feel of its silky thickness against the bare skin of her hips and thighs. "I certainly intend to do my best. You people are in a rut. You need to move into this century."He could feel his body relaxing and peace stole into him, edging out the terrible tension. The beauty of her inner soul washed over him. How could he fault her need to reach out to someone in pain, when it was her very compassion that had drawn him out of the dark shadows and into a world of joy and light? He might feel pain and anger, but at least he was capable of feeling. Intense emotion. Joy. Lust. Sexual hunger. Love."You are my life, little one. We will ask Father Hummer to marry us in the way of your people." His white teeth gleamed at her; his dark eyes were warm with contentment. "I will accept the marriage as binding, and you will erase the word divorce and all of its meanings from your memory. That will please me." He grinned at her, male amusement taunting her.Her fingertips traced the hard line of his jaw tenderly. "How do you manage to turn everything to your advantage?"His hand found the bare skin of her satin-smooth thigh. "I do not know the answer to that, little one. Perhaps it is sheer talent." He turned his head and nuzzled aside the tails of his shirt to burrow against her.A low sound escaped from deep in Raven's throat as his tongue stroked her. Obligingly she moved her legs to accommodate him, to give him room. She tangled her fingers in his thick, coffee-colored hair.Mikhail delved deeper, drew a shudder of pleasure from her. He could feel the spreading flames in his blood, swift, savage excitement, joy singing in his veins. His arms circled her hips, dragged her closer to him so that he could burrow deeper. He intended to take his time, to give her pleasure. She was his woman, his lifemate, and no one could give her the kind of ecstasy he could.