The bedchamber, situated below the earth, was as silent and as dark as a tomb. Mikhail and Raven lay together on the huge bed, their bodies entwined. Mikhail's leg was over her thigh, his large frame curved protectively around hers, his arms sheltering her close to his heart. There was utter silence in the chamber, not even the sound of breathing. To all appearances they were devoid of life.The house itself seemed to be in slumber, silent, as if it were holding its breath and waiting for night to fall. Sunshine burst through the windows and spotlighted the centuries-old artwork and leather-bound books. Mosaic tiles gleamed on the floor at the entrance, the sun on the hardwood floors bringing out a blondish hue in the wood.Without warning Mikhail's breath began in a long, slow, continuous hiss, like a coiled, venomous snake prepared to strike. His dark eyes snapped open, malevolent, glowing with a predator's hunger, with the fury of a trapped wolf. His body was sluggish, his tremendous strength sapped by the need for deep sleep. Tuned to the cycle of day and night, he knew it was midday and the harsh, unrelenting sun was at its highest and most lethal peak.Something was wrong. Something had penetrated the deep layers of sleep to wake him from his needed slumber. His fingers curled, nails like claws raking the mattress beneath him. Too many hours to sunset. He scanned his surroundings, meticulous in his search. The house vibrated with sudden tension, the air stirring with unease. The very foundation seemed to flinch in terror at some unseen menace.Outside the wrought-iron fence. Rudy Romanov paced back and forth, black anger in his heart, in his mind. Every fourth step he pounded at the fence in a fury of frustration, a baseball bat cracking hard against the thick twisted poles of iron. "Evil! Undead!" The words were hurled into the air toward the house.Mikhail growled low, his body trapped in the layers of fog, his instincts fully aroused. His lips drew back in a silent snarl, exposing fangs. A long slow hiss escaped again.Accusations beat in his head with the force of Rudy's anger. "I found my father's proof. He's gathered it for years. Everything! It's all there. The list of your servants. You are evil, the head of the monster. Murderer! Unclean! You turned that beautiful woman into your perverted slave! She would have used me to add to your ranks."The madness of grief and rage blended with a fanatical desire for revenge. Rudy Romanov believed his father's records and had come to kill the head vampire. Mikhail understood the danger; the very air was thick with it. He called to Raven, brushed her mind with his, a loving, gentle caress.Wake, my love. We are in danger.Raven's breath began, slow and even. With his warning filling her mind, she automatically scanned the chamber. Her body felt limp and lifeless, the need for sleep intensely strong. Her brain felt sluggish, uncomprehending.Romanov is outside the walls.She blinked, tried to clear the fog.Hans Romanov is dead.His son lives. He is outside, and I can feel his rage and hatred. He is dangerous to us. The sun is up; we are weak. He cannot enter, but we cannot go out.It took great concentration and a supreme effort to rub her face against the tangle of hair on his chest. She cleared her throat experimentally. "I can answer the door, see what he wants. I'll tell him you're at work. He'll feel silly and leave us alone."He cradled her head against him. She was still thinking in human terms, unaware of the terrible price of immortality.You are still so groggy, you are not hearing him. He is in a dangerous state of mind.She had no idea of the price she had paid for loving him. The sun would destroy her should she ever find the strength to rise.Raven curled against him like a cat, her need for sleep overwhelming.Listen to me, little one. You must stay awake!The command was imperious. Mikhail's arms surrounded her with the intensity of his love, his need to protect her.Raven roused herself enough to scan her surroundings. The blackness of Rudy Romanov's rage was like a living entity, demanding death. The force of it beat in her head.He 's crazy, Mikhail.She lifted a hand, a slow, difficult movement, tried to push at the heavy fall of hair. The air was so thick or she was so weak; the simple movement took intense concentration.Last night he was so sweet, grieving for his mother. Now he's convinced we are his enemy. He's an educated man, Mikhail. Did I put us in danger? Maybe I did or said something to make him suspicious.Raven's mind was clouded with guilt.His chin rubbed the top of her head.No, he found something among his father's papers. He was not suspicious last night; he grieved. Something convinced him that his father's accusations were well founded. He believes us to be vampire.I don't think anyone will believe him, even if he shows them the evidence he supposedly has. They'll think he's in shock.She feared for Rudy's safety as much as for their own.Mikhail's fingers brushed her cheek tenderly. It was so like her to have compassion for a man whose entire being was bent on murdering them. Suddenly his body jerked hard against hers. The house flinched, screamed silently a split second before the first explosion reverberated in their ears. Above them, on the first floor, windows shattered; antique furniture splintered. A heartbeat, two heartbeats. Another explosion rocked the house, fragmenting the wall on the north side.Mikhail's fangs gleamed in the darkness; the hiss of his breath was a promise of merciless retaliation. The smell of smoke, acrid and rank, seeped through the ceiling into their bedchamber, where it swirled and gathered into a pungent, eye-burning cloud. Over their heads flames began to crackle and lick greedily at the books and paintings, at Mikhail's past, at his present. Orange and red tongues eagerly consumed possessions that Mikhail had acquired in the long centuries of his existence. Rudy wanted to destroy it all, little knowing that Mikhail had many houses, many treasures.Mikhail!She felt his anguish at the death of his favorite home burning above them. The putrid smell of hatred, fear, and smoke mixed.We must go below. The house will eventually fall.In her mind the grimness he felt echoed sharply.Raven attempted to drag herself into a sitting position, her movements painfully sluggish.We have to get out of the house. Going below will only trap us between the ground and the flames.The sun is too high. We must go underground.His arms tightened perceptibly, as if he could give her the courage to face what had to be done.We have no choice.You go, Mikhail, she said. Fear clawed at her. She was helpless in her present state. Even if she managed to move herself below to the cellar, she could never burrow into the soil, bury herself alive. She would be insane when the time came to return to the surface. She absolutely could not commit herself to such an act, but it was necessary to encourage Mikhail to do so. He was the important one, the one his people needed.We go together, my love.He interjected strength into his voice, a strength his muscular body did not echo. His limbs were like lead. It took tremendous effort to drag himself off the bed, and his body landed heavily on the floor.Come on; we can do this.The smoke was thicker now, the room beginning to heat like an oven. Overhead, the ceiling began to blacken ominously. The smoke hurt her eyes, stung enough to burn.Raven!It was an imperious command.She rolled off the bed, landing heavily enough to knock the wind out of her.It'sgoing up so fast.Alarm bells were shrieking in her head. There was so much smoke; the house was groaning above them.Raven dragged herself, inch by slow inch, following Mikhail's painfully sluggish movements across the floor. They could not even crawl; they were so weak, it was impossible to get on their hands and knees. They slid full length on their stomachs, using their arms to propel themselves forward until they were at the hidden entrance to the cellar. Raven would have done anything to get Mikhail to a safe sanctuary.Heat sucked the air from the room so that their bodies were bathed in perspiration; their lungs labored and burned. Even with their combined strength, it seemed impossible to lift the trap door.Concentrate,Mikhail instructed.Do it with your will.She blocked out everything: her fear, the smoke, the fire, Mikhail's agony and rage at his burning home, the predatory beast rising in him. She narrowed her thoughts to the heavy door, focused, aimed. With infinite slowness it began to move, a groaning creak of wood and metal protesting movement but obeying reluctantly. Mikhail fed her power with his own. When the door lay open to them, revealing the yawning chasm below, they slumped exhausted against each other, clinging for a moment, their hearts laboring, their lungs burning with the clouds of smoke whirling around them.Debris rained down from the roof to the ceiling above their heads. The fire roared like a giant monster, a stormy conflagration, loud and fearsome. Raven slipped her hand into Mikhail's. He locked his fingers around hers.The roof went; the ceiling above us is going to go up fast.You go, Mikhail; I'll wait here as long as I can.The hole below was as terrifying as the fire itself.We go together.Mikhail's orders were law. Raven could sense the change in him. No longer man, but full Carpathian, a beast gathering its strength, waiting. An enemy was destroying his home, his belongings, threatening the life of his mate. A slow, deadly hiss escaped from Mikhail. The sound made her heart pound. Always with Raven, he was gentle and kind, tender and loving. This was the predator unleashed.Raven swallowed her fear, closed her eyes, and cleared her mind. For Mikhail, she had to find a way to go down into that dark earth beneath the cellar below them. Mikhail swirled in her as strong as ever.You can do this, my love. You are light, like a feather, so light you float.He built the feeling for her. Her body seemed insubstantial, as light as the air itself. Raven kept her eyes closed even when she felt the air stirring gently around her, felt it fanning her skin. She could feel Mikhail in her mind, yet her body was no more than a fleeting wisp, tangled with his.Darkness enveloped them, caressed them, carried them down to the fertile soil. Raven opened her eyes, astonished and pleased to find herself in the cellar. She had floated like a feather through the air. It was exhilarating. For a moment her pleasure drove out the fear and horror of the fire. She had moved a heavy object using only her mind, and now she had gone through the air, floating like the breeze itself. Almost like flying. Raven leaned against Mikhail, wearily.I can't believe we did that. We really just floated.For the blink of an eye, she put aside the destruction happening all around them and reveled in the wonder of what she had become.Mikhail's answer was to pull her closer, his arms surrounding her, her slender body enclosed and protected by his large frame. Exhilaration faded. She was as much inside him as he was in her, and she felt the ice cold of his bitter, merciless resolve. It was nothing like the white heat of his black rage; this was far, far worse. This Mikhail was all Carpathian, as dangerously lethal as any mythical vampire. The utter lack of emotion, the entire strength of his iron will and total determination was frightening. He would retaliate swiftly and mercilessly. There was no middle ground. Romanov had become his enemy and he would be destroyed.Mikhail.Compassion and a gentle calm filled his mind.Losing your home this way the things that have surrounded and comforted you for so long it must be like losing a part of yourself.She rubbed her face against his chest, a small consoling gesture.I love you, Mikhail. We'll build another home together. The two of us. This is a terrible moment in our lives, but we can rebuild stronger than ever.His chin rested on the top of her head, his mind sending hers waves of love, of warmth. But inside that utter coldness remained, unmoved by her words. Only with Raven did he feel tenderness; with the rest of the world it was equal force, kill or be killed.Raven tried again.Grief does strange things to people. Rudy Romanov lost both his parents. His mother was brutally murdered by his own father. Whatever he found has made him blame you. He probably feels guilty for thinking his father was crazy. What he's doing is a terrible thing, but no worse than what you did to those who murdered your sister.I had no thought for my sister when I struck at the assassins.There was a grimness in Mikhail's thoughts.The two cases cannot be compared. The assassins attacked us first. I would have left them alone had they not come after my people. I failed you once, little one. I will not fail to protect you this day.We're safe here. The people from the village will come and put out the fire. They'll probably take Rudy to a hospital or jail. They'll think he's crazy. And don't worry about people thinking we died in the fire. They won't find our bodies. We can say we were visiting Celeste and Eric, planning our wedding.She didn't understand and he didn't have the heart to tell her. They weren't safe. The fire was roaring above their heads, consuming the basement floor just as quickly as the upper story. In a short time they would be forced to seek the sanctuary of the earth. He wasn't altogether certain their combined strength would be enough to open the earth. And if it was, he knew he could not send her into deep sleep. His powers were drained, all but gone this time of day.They would live or die together. They would be forced to lie in the ground. Raven would have to endure burial alive for the remaining hours to sunset, and there were many hours left. Rudy Romanov would inflict an unbearable torture on Raven. Mikhail knew her greatest fear - suffocation. His lips drew back in another silent snarl. The death of his home, beloved though it was, he could forgive, but to lie helpless while Raven suffered the agony of burial - that went beyond forgiveness.Raven's thoughts were all for Mikhail, for his loss. She felt compassion for Romanov; she worried that his evidence might endanger the others. If Mikhail could have summoned the energy, he would have kissed her. Instead, he did it with his mind. All of his love, his appreciation of her compassion, of her unconditional love, of her selflessness, he put it all into his mind's kiss.Her eyes widened, went dark violet, then sweetly slumberous, as if he drugged her with his kisses. His hand tangled in her hair. So much silk, so much love. For a moment he closed his eyes, savoring the moment, the way she could make him feel so loved, so cared for. He had never felt that in all his centuries of existence, and he was grateful that he had hung on long enough to experience a true lifemate.Overhead, the sound of the fire grew loud again. A beam fell, crashed on the ceiling above them, sparks raining through the open cellar door, bringing with them smoke and the fetid odor of death. The death of his home.We have no choice, my love.Mikhail was as gentle as he knew how to be.We must go to ground.Raven closed her eyes; panic welled up.Mikhail, I love you.Her words were wrapped in sorrow, in acceptance. Not of the sanctuary of the earth, but of inevitable death. She wanted to do anything he needed, but this was the one thing beyond her capabilities. The earth could not swallow her alive.Mikhail could not waste time on arguments.Feed my command with your remaining strength. Let it flow from you into me, or I will be unable to open the earth.Raven would do anything to save him. If that meant giving him her last ounce of strength, then so be it. Without reservation, with complete love and generosity, Raven fed his command.Beside him, the very earth opened, parted, as if a large cube had been neatly removed from the earth. The grave lay open, fresh and cool, its healing soil beckoning Mikhail, its damp darkness sending horror and sheer terror spiraling through Raven.She tried valiantly to keep her mind calm.You go first.She knew she could not follow him. She also knew it was imperative that he believe she would; otherwise there was no way to save Mikhail.In the space of a heartbeat Mikhail rolled, with Raven locked in his arms, taking both of them over the edge into the waiting arms of the earth. He felt her silent scream echoing in his own mind. He steeled his heart against the violent fear in her and with his last ounce of strength concentrated on closing the earth over them. Being a shadow in her mind made it easy to read her intentions. She would never have gone with him.She screamed and screamed; the sound in his head was wild and out of control. Sheer, primitive terror. She begged him, pleaded. Mikhail could only hold her, absorb wave after wave of terror. Her mind was a maze of panic and chaos. He was exhausted, having used his last ounce of strength to get them to safety.In his life, centuries of living, he had never known what it felt like to hate. Lying there, helpless to send her into oblivion, with his home burning above him and Raven walking the edge of madness beside him, he learned. Once again he had chosen life for them, and in doing so had committed her to terrible suffering. If he was to help her, he had to gather strength again. The only way he could regain what was lost was to cut himself off from her, to rejuvenate himself in the immortal sleep of his kind and allow the soil to replenish him. A fresh wave of hatred ate at him.Raven.Even their strong mental bond was becoming difficult.Littleone, slow your heart to match mine. There is no need for air. Do not try to breathe.She couldn't hear him, fighting desperately for air where there was none. Along with her panic and hysterical fear, she felt a sense of betrayal that he would force his will, his decision on her.Mikhail refused to commit himself to sleep; instead he stayed alert, his hands in her hair, his body relaxed, absorbing the healing richness of the soil. He would not leave her alone to face what she considered a burial. While she suffered, he was determined to share that terrible burden. The chaos in her mind continued for what seemed an eternity. As her body wore out completely, as exhaustion penetrated the mindless screaming, she began to strangle, the sound a horrible gurgle in her throat.Raven!His tone was sharp, an imperious command. Her fear was far too great and his powers no more than a mere shadow, insubstantial. Mikhail could feel her throat closing as if it was his own, heard the terrible death rattle.He closed off his mind for a moment to allow the soil to cradle him, the soothing, healing balm of the earth. It sang to him with soft whisperings, a crooning lullaby. It seeped into his body, revitalizing, energizing. The earth gave him the necessary calm to face her torment.Feel me, little one, feel me.Her mind remained chaotic; the strangling continued.Feel me, Raven, reach for me.He was patient, quiet, calm in the eye of the storm.Raven, you are not alone. Feel me, in your mind. Be calm and reach out, just for a moment. Block out everything except me.He felt the first stirring, her first try. The earth sang through him, filling his cells until they were like sails billowing in the wind.Feel me, Raven. In you, around you, beside you. Feel me.Mikhail.She was ragged, torn, fragmented.I can't stand this; help me. I really can't do this, not even for you.Give yourself to me.He meant to the healing richness of the soil, but he could make no references to where they were. He allowed her to feel the strength moving into him, a promise of rest and aid. In his mind he kept only warmth and love and the impression of power. She needed to believe in him, needed to merge with him so that she could feel the powers of the soil as he did.Raven knew she was going insane. She had always been terrified of closed-in places. It didn't matter that Mikhail said she didn't need air; she knew she did. It took several tries and every ounce of discipline she possessed to block out the fear, the terror, the truth that she lay buried deep within the earth. She crawled into Mikhail's mind with her last exhaustive effort and retreated from the reality of what she had become, and what she had to do to survive.Mikhail's hold on her was precarious. She was light, insubstantial in his mind. So quiet, never moving, not accepting the earth's healing powers, not fighting their situation. Raven made no response to his gentle inquiries. He was aware of her only as a small, huddled flicker in a corner of his mind.It took some time before he became aware of a faint shifting in power, a ripple of awareness, like a searching crystal, an eye opening in the earth beside them. They were not alone. The presence touched him, stirred in his mind. Male. Powerful. Gregori.You are well, my friend.There was that cool menace in his mind. They knew one another so well after all the centuries of standing together against all odds.Gregori had not voiced it as a question and Mikhail was shocked, truly shocked that he could make contact. Raven and he were deep in the bowels of the earth. The sun was at its greatest peak and all Carpathians were weak. How could Gregori accomplish such a feat? It was unheard of, even in the legends and myths of the past.Your woman needs to sleep, Mikhail. Allow me to assist you.Gregori was far away - Mikhail could detect that - yet the bond between them was strong. Sending Raven to sleep gave Gregori a semblance of power over her. Indecision. Did he trust Gregori? The power that Gregori wielded was phenomenal.Low, humorless laughter.She will not survive this day, Mikhail. Even locked with you, her human limitations will overcome her desire to aid you.And you can do this? Even at this distance? You can safely send her to sleep? Take away her torment? There will be no mistakes?Mikhail found himself wanting to believe it. Gregori was their healer. If he said Raven would be unable to last buried within the earth, that only confirmed his own belief.Yes, through you. You are the only person on this planet I have given my allegiance to. You have always had my loyalty. I count you as my family and my friend. Until your woman or some other gives me my lifemate, you are the only person standing between the darkness and me.Gregori would never have admitted such a thing unless he considered the situation a dire emergency. He was giving Mikhail the only reason he could to reassure Mikhail that he could be trusted.Affection and regret welled up, mingled.Thank you, Gregori, I am in your debt.I intend you to be the father of my lifemate.There was a faint note in his voice, something Mikhail could not name, as though Gregori had already insured that he would get his wish.I have the feeling Raven's daughter would be more than a handful.Mikhail tested his intuition.I have no doubt I am up to the challenge.Gregori's reply was purposely vague.I will send your lifemate to the sleep of our people that she will no longer be tormented by her human limits.Gregori's soft command was clear, imperious, impossible to ignore. Raven's breath left her body in a soft sigh. Her heart slowed, missed a beat, ceased. Her mind was closed to the yawning terror, her body open to the healing power of the rich soil.Sleep now, Mikhail. I will know if you are disturbed.You do not have to guard me, Gregori. You have done much for our people, things they will never know. I can never repay my debt to you.I can do no other, Mikhail, nor would I want to.Gregori withdrew.Mikhail allowed himself the luxury of sleep to give the earth the chance to bring him to his full, immense power. He would need the strength the soil gave him for retribution. He wrapped Raven tighter in his arms as he took his last breath, certain the immediate danger to them had passed.The sun seemed to take a long while to sink from the sky. The colors of the heavens were blood red, surrounded by shades of orange and pink. As the moon appeared, the clouds covered it like a thin veil. A ring appeared around the moon like some terrible omen. The forest was dark, eerily silent. Tendrils of fog wound low to the ground around tree trunks and bushes. A gentle wind lazily pushed the clouds, brushed at heavy branches and tried vainly to disperse the smell of smoke that lingered persistently in the forest. The wind fingered the black ashes and burned beams, the blackened stones, all that remained of what had once been Mikhail Dubrinsky's home.Two wolves nosed at the blackened remains, lifted their muzzles skyward, and howled mournfully. Throughout the forest other wolves answered, sang out their grief. Within a few minutes, the echoes of their tribute died away. The two wolves circled the charred ruins and sniffed at the two shadowy sentinels they found standing sharply alert near the wrought-iron gate.The wolves swung quickly away, finding something menacing in the two lethal figures. They trotted briskly back into the darkened interior of the forest. Silence once more blanketed the mountains like a shroud. The forest creatures huddled in their dens and holes, rather than face the smell of the ashes and the death of the home of one who was so much a part of them.Below the earth two bodies lay motionless, lifeless. Into the silence, a single heart began to beat. Strong, steady. Blood rushed, receded. A long, low hiss of air heralded the working of lungs. Dark eyes snapped open, and Mikhail searched the grounds above him. It was well after midnight. The fire was long out; firefighters, investigators, and curiosity seekers had long returned home.He sensed Jacques and Gregori above the earth. No others, human or Carpathian, were in the vicinity. Mikhail turned his attention to Raven. It was a huge temptation to command Gregori to awaken her, but that was selfish and certainly not in her best interests. Until she was completely out of the ground, Raven was best left asleep. She needed no reminder of her terrible ordeal. He tightened his arms around her motionless, cold body, held her for a long moment close to his heart.Mikhail burst through the earth's crust, experiencing an odd disorientation as he emerged into the night air. The moment he was able, he launched himself skyward, the better to protect Raven if necessary. Air rushed into his lungs, fanned his body. Feathers shimmered in the sliver of light from the moon; huge wings spread, pning a good six feet, and beat heavily, lifting the enormous owl into the sky, where it circled above the dark forest, seeking any enemy that might be foolish enough to threaten.Mikhail needed the freedom of the sky to dull the sounds of Raven's terror, which still echoed strongly in his head. He dived toward the earth, plummeting as close as he dared before dissolving into mist. The stream of drops poured through the trees and collected together until they formed a huge wolf. Mikhail ran effortlessly, sustaining great speed as he swerved through the underbrush, the trees, loped across a meadow and took off again as if shot from a bow.When his mind was once more clear and calm, Mikhail trotted to the blackened ruins, changing back into his own muscular form, complete with clothes, as he strode toward his brother. He was well aware that all of nature, everything he was so much a part of, could feel his ice-cold rage. It was buried deep, seething below the surface, disturbing the harmony in the air, in the forest. His enemies would not escape.Jacques straightened slowly, as if he had been waiting for hours. His hand went to the nape of his neck, rubbing at a kink. Mikhail and Jacques stared at one another, dark sorrow in their eyes. Jacques stepped forward and reached for Mikhail in an uncharacteristic show of affection. It was brief and hard, two stiff oak trees exchanging a hug. Mikhail knew Raven would have laughed at the two of them.Gregori remained hunkered down, low to the ground, his solid bulk rivaling the broad tree trunks. He was totally motionless, his shadowed face expressionless. His eyes were a slash of silver, of mercury forever moving restlessly in the granite mask. Gregori rose slowly, fluid power and raw danger."Thank you for coming," Mikhail said simply. Gregori. His oldest friend. His right hand. Their greatest healer, the relentless hunter of the undead."Romanov was taken to the hospital and sedated," Jacques said softly. "I told the townspeople that you and Raven were away for a few days. You are popular with the villagers and all of them are outraged by what happened.""Can we neutralize the damage done to our people?" Mikhail asked."We can minimize it," Gregori said truthfully. "But Romanov has already sent out whatever damning evidence he found to several others. We must prepare ourselves for a siege. Our entire way of life will be changed for all time." Gregori shrugged powerful shoulders carelessly."His evidence?""Fingerprints, photos. He was already drugged, Mikhail. The doctors believe he is completely insane and dangerous to himself and to others. The images I picked out of his mind were confused. His parents; mainly his mother. He evidently discovered her body. Your house. Guilt. The fire." Gregori surveyed the sky above him with a slow, careful sweep of his pale, silver eyes. His craggy features remained utterly still, harsh.Danger emanated from Gregori. His entire body, his very demeanor spoke of power, of menace. Although Gregori's expression was empty, Mikhail felt the monster in him, wild and untamed, lurking just below the surface, struggling to break free. Their eyes met in a kind of hopeless understanding. Another war. More killings. The more often a male had to kill, the more dangerous the whisper of power, the call to vampire became. Violence was the one thing that allowed a centuries-old male to feel briefly. That in itself was a terrible inducement for one in a dark, hopeless world.Gregori looked away, not wanting to see the compassion on Mikhail's face. "We have no choice but to discredit him.""Before anything else, Raven must be safe and guarded while we take care of this problem," Mikhail said abruptly."Your woman is very fragile," Gregori warned softly. "Bring her to the surface and clothe her before I awake her."Mikhail nodded. Gregori clearly read his intentions. There was no way he would have her awaken in what seemed to her a cold grave. Jacques and Gregori moved into the forest to give Mikhail privacy. Only after Raven was safe in his arms did Mikhail think to add her human American garb. Made of natural fibers, easy for a Carpathian to manipulate, he fashioned blue jeans and a long-sleeved shirt.Gregori.Raven woke strangling, clutching her throat, desperate to drag air into her burning lungs. She was confused, panic-stricken, struggling desperately. "Feel the air on your skin," Mikhail ordered softly, his mouth against her ear. "Feel the night, the wind. You are safe in my arms. The night is beautiful; the colors and scents speak to us."Raven's blue-violet eyes were all over the place, seeing nothing, taking in nothing. She inhaled deeply, and made herself as small as possible. The cool night air was working a slow magic, easing the terrible strangling in her throat. Tears glittered like gems in her eyes, tangled in her long lashes.Mikhail tightened his hold on her so that she could feel the enormous strength in his powerful frame. Slowly, inch by inch, her body became less rigid, so that she relaxed into him. He touched her mind with a gentle, warm stroke, finding her struggling for control."I am here with you, Raven." Deliberately he spoke the words out loud, so he would sound as human as possible. "The night is calling to us, welcoming us; can you hear it? There is such beauty in the song of insects, the night creatures. Let yourself hear it." He used a rhythmic, compelling tone, almost hypnotic.Raven drew her knees up, lay her forehead on them, hunching into herself. She was rocking back and forth, her hold on reality a tenuous thread. She simply breathed in and out, appreciating the ability to do so, concentrating on the mechanics of it."I want to take you to a safer place, somewhere away from here." His sweeping gesture took in the charred remains of his once beautiful home.Raven's head remained down. She simply breathed in and out. Mikhail touched her mind again. There was no thought of blame or betrayal. Her mind was fragmented, bruised and broken, trying desperately to survive. Her familiar clothes and his presence gave her a measure of comfort. His ice-cold fury, his need for violent retaliation stirred to life."Little sister." Jacques emerged from the edge of the timberline, flanked by Gregori. When Raven didn't look up, Jacques sat beside her, his hand brushing her shoulder. "The wolves are quiet tonight. Did you hear them before? They were mourning the loss of Mikhail's home. Now they are silent."She blinked, her lost gaze focusing on Jacques's face. She didn't speak; his identity didn't seem to register. She was trembling, her small frame shaking, locked between the three powerful men.You could remove her memories.Gregori suggested, clearly not understanding why Mikhail did not do the obvious.She would not like such a thing.She would not know.Gregori put a small edge in his tone. He sighed when Mikhail did not respond.Allow me to heal her, then. She is important to all of us, Mikhail. She suffers needlessly.She would want to do this on her own.Mikhail was well aware that Gregori thought he had lost his mind, but he knew Raven. She had her own courage, and her own ideas of right and wrong. She would not thank him when she learned he had removed her memories. There could be no untruths between lifemates, and Mikhail was determined to give her time to come to terms with what they had endured together.Mikhail found the rose-petal-soft skin of her face, traced her delicate cheekbones with gentle fingers. "You were right, little one. We will build our home together, stronger than ever. We will pick a place, deep within the forest, and fill it with so much love, it will spill over to our wolves."Her blue-violet gaze flickered with sudden awareness, jumping to Mikhail's face. The tip of her tongue touched her full lower lip. She managed a tentative smile. "I don't think I'm cut out to be a Carpathian." Her voice was a mere thread of sound."You are everything a Carpathian woman should be," Gregori said gallantly, his tone low and melodious, a soothing, healing cadence. Both Mikhail and Jacques found themselves listening intently to the compelling pitch. "You are fit to be the lifemate of our prince, and I give you freely my allegiance and my protection, as I have given it to Mikhail." His voice deliberately was pitched low, so that it seeped into her fragmented mind like a soothing balm.Raven's shattered gaze swung to Gregori. Her long lashes fluttered, her eyes so dark they were nearly purple. "You helped us." Her fingers sought and found Mikhail's, entwined with his, yet her gaze never left Gregori's face. "You were so far away. The sun was out, yet you knew, and you were able to help us. It was difficult for you; I felt it even as you reached for me to take away what I could not endure."The silver eyes, pale in Gregori's dark face, narrowed to a slash of quicksilver. Mesmerizing. Hypnotic. The voice lowered an octave. "Mikhail and I are bound together; we have shared long, dark years of emptiness without hope. Perhaps you represent hope for both of us."Raven regarded him steadily, seriously. "That would please me."Mikhail felt a surge of love for her wash over him, a surge of pride. Raven had so much compassion in her. Although she was mentally bruised and battered, although Gregori's mind was firmly closed to them, his harsh features impossible to read, she realized that Gregori was fighting to survive, that he needed to be drawn into the circle of light, of hope. Mikhail could have told her that Gregori was like water flowing through fingers - impossible to hold or control. He was a law unto himself, a dark, dangerous man on the edge of a yawning abyss of madness.Mikhail slipped his arm around her shoulders. "We are going to take you somewhere safe." He spoke softly, as if to a child.Raven's gaze clung to Mikhail's for a long, slow moment. Her smile was genuine this time, reaching her eyes and lighting them for the first time. "If only the three of you could see yourselves. It's very sweet of you to treat me like I'm a fragile porcelain doll, especially when I feel a bit like one, but Mikhail is in me, as I am in him. I feel what he feels and know his thoughts, although he tries to keep them from me." She leaned over to kiss his blue-shadowed jaw. "I love you for trying to protect me, but I'm not weak. I simply have to come to terms with the human bonds my mind puts on me. None of you can do it for me. I have to do it myself."Jacques extended his hand to Raven with old-world gallantry. She took it and allowed herself to be pulled to her feet. Mikhail rose beside her, his arm sweeping her into the shelter of his body. She needed the contact, the closeness, the solid reality of his hard frame. Gregori was the bodyguard, scanning the air, the ground, moving so that his body continually blocked the prince of their people and his lifemate.The three imposing figures surrounded the smaller one, moving as a unit, an honor guard, their paces slow and leisurely, their minds serene, with no hint of impatience or sign of their desire to get on to the night's work. Hunger gnawed at Mikhail, but that, too, was kept at bay. When her mind touched his, she felt only love and concern, the desire to please her.Raven enjoyed the feel of the soft leaves under her feet as they moved through the forest. She lifted her face to embrace the wind, inhaled deeply to take in every secret the breeze could carry and would divulge. Every insect, every rustle in the underbrush, every separate sway of a branch lightened the terrible dread in her heart, pushed the fearful memories a little farther away."I can take them away completely," Mikhail offered gently.Raven flashed him a small smile, meant to reassure. Her body moved briefly against his. She was well aware of what a temptation that had been for him, how the other two males thought him insane for not taking the choice from her. "You know I prefer to keep my memories. All of them."They walked for an hour, Mikhail subtly guiding her up a winding narrow track deeper into the forest and higher up the mountain. The cabin was hidden back against a cliff. The trees grew thick, nearly to the very walls. It looked small from the outside, dark and abandoned.It was Jacques and Gregori who transformed the dark interior of the cabin. The layer of dust disappeared with a hand wave. The logs in the fireplace burst into flame. Candles flickered, and the scent of the woods permeated the interior.Raven entered the cabin without protest. Gregori and Jacques moved quickly through the small building, supplying as many comforts as they were able in a brief period of time. Then they retreated to the sanctuary of the forest to give Mikhail and Raven some time alone.Raven paced across the wooden floor, putting distance between herself and Mikhail. She was still very fragile, and she wanted to spare Mikhail as much as possible. She touched the back of a chair, curling her fingers around the solid wood. The familiar feel of wood helped to lessen her trembling."Thank you, Mikhail, for my blue jeans." She gave him a faint smile over her shoulder. Mysterious, sexy, innocent, and so very fragile. In the depths of her blue eyes he could find no anger, no blame, only love for him shining there."I am happy you like them, although I still say they are garb for men, not a beautiful woman. I was hoping they would make you smile.""Only because you get that pained look on your face." She stood at the window, her eyes easily piercing the darkness. "I never want to do that again." She said it starkly, meaning it. Wanting him to know she meant it.Mikhail inhaled sharply, cutting off his first response. He chose his words carefully. "Our blood and, ultimately, our bodies, welcome the soil. Overnight the wound on my leg was gone. Your wounds, so deep, all mortal, were healed in six days."Raven watched the wind tug at leaves on the ground. "I'm very intelligent, Mikhail. I can see for myself that what you're telling me is true. Intellectually, I may even accept it, marvel at it. But I never want to do that again. I cannot. I will not, and I ask that you accept this failing in me."He crossed the distance separating them. His hand curled around the nape of her neck to drag her into his arms. He held her, there in the old cabin, deep within his mountains and forest. He grieved for the loss of his home, his books, grieved for his past, but most of all, he grieved over his inability to spare Raven. He could command the earth, the animals, the sky, yet he could not bring himself to remove her memories because she had asked him not to do so. Such an innocent, small request.Raven lifted her head, studying his shadowed features with serious eyes.. Very gently she smoothed the deep lines of worry from his forehead. "Don't be sad for me, Mikhail, and stop taking so much on yourself. Memories are useful things. When I am stronger, I can take this out and examine it, look at it from all angles and perhaps grow more comfortable with the things we have to do to protect ourselves." There was a trace of humor and a good amount of skepticism at the thought.Raven took his hand. "You know, my love, you are not responsible for my happiness, or even for my health. I've had a choice every step of the way, from our very first meeting. I chose you. Clearly, in my heart, and in my head, I chose you. If I had it to do over again, even knowing what I would have to go through, I would choose you without hesitation."His smile could melt her heart. Mikhail cupped her face in his hands, lowered his head to capture her mouth with his. Instantly electricity crackled between them. She could taste his love in the moist darkness of his mouth. Hunger rose, sharp and gnawing. The sound of blood surging hotly, the beating of hearts, the instant explosive chemistry was nearly overwhelming for both of them. Although his arms slipped around her, dragged her close against his hard frame, his tender mouth carried the unmistakable flavor of intense love. Mikhail's fingers tangled in her silky hair as if he would hold her for all eternity.Raven melted into him; for a heartbeat of time she was boneless, pliant, honeyed heat warming him. She pulled away first. It was easy to read the clawing hunger in him; it was growing in her. Her body needed nourishment after its grueling ordeal. She lifted long lashes to his beloved, masculine features, took in the sensual stamp of his mouth, the slumbering, sensual invitation in his black gaze.Raven kissed his throat, her hands going to the buttons of his shirt. Her body clenched, pulsing with heat and hunger. Her mouth moved over his skin. She inhaled his scent, the wild mystery of the night. Inside, the terrible craving grew and spread like wildfire. Her tongue tasted the texture of his skin, traced the line of his muscle, moved back to stroke across the pulse beating so strongly in his throat. "I love you, Mikhail." The words were whispered against his throat. A siren's whisper. Silk and candlelight. Satin and hot, steamy sex.Every muscle in his body tightened. Need swept through him, anticipation. She was a miracle of beauty, a mix of human frailties, courage, and compassion. Mikhail's fist, bunched in her hair, held her head to him. Her mouth was a silken flame moving over his chest, building heat and fire until his mind was a red haze of hunger."This is dangerous, little one." Black velvet seduction was in the molten huskiness of his voice."I need you." She whispered the truth, and her breath warmed his flat nipples, doing intriguing things to his chest. She did need him. His hard body, hot and wild, stamped out the feel of the cold earth closing over her head. Her body moved restlessly, suggestively against his. Her hands slid downward, parting the edges of his shirt and lower still to find the zipper where his sex strained to break free. His gasp was audible, a harsh groan of raw need answering the enticing brush of her fingers. "I need to feel your body in mine, Mikhail, real and alive. I need this more than I've ever needed anything. Touch me. Touch me everywhere. I want you deep inside me."Mikhail tugged her shirt over her head and dropped it to one side. His hands pned her narrow rib cage, arching her body backwards so he could rub his shadowed jaw across the soft creamy swell of her breasts. The abrasive brush sent flames licking along every nerve ending. His mouth moved up to trace the softness of her lips. His tongue stroked the fragile line of her neck where her pulse beat so frantically, the vulnerable line of her throat, slowly, with great care, before lowering with deliberately tormenting laziness to her nipple. She felt a rush of damp heat, a fiery ache. When his lips closed over her breast, hot and erotic, she cried out and threw her head back, arching into him, offering herself up to the strong pull of his hot mouth.Without warning, the monster in him broke free, growling possessively and clawing away her offensive blue jeans. Teeth scraped her flat stomach as he dropped to his knees. Through the thin cotton panties she felt the hot moist probing of his tongue, wild, wet, stealing her breath. He ripped away the thin material to attack, stroking and caressing.Raven cried out, welcoming the untamed beast in him, rising to meet his erotic assault. When he ripped the panties aside she pressed herself to the hot hunger of his mouth. Mikhail growled low in his throat, the sound a rumble of stark possession. He reveled in her wild response to his assault. He needed the uninhibited, abandoned grip of her clenched fists in his hair pulling him in closer to her, the husky, inarticulate cries issuing from her vulnerable throat. Her body clenched, white hot heat raging for release. Her cries became a plea.Growling with pleasure, his own body burning, scorched, and unbearably sensitive, he held her relentlessly on the edge. The power, the velvet heat, their mingled scents washed over him, became part of his insatiable desire. He wanted her to know that she was his, to burn and need mindlessly as he did.His own name echoed in his head with her soft, inarticulate pleas, the sound hardening his body to an unbearable ache. The power sharpened his hunger, put such an edge on his appetite, both sexual and physical, that he could barely find enough control to stop from devouring her. And his body demanded her touch, the silken heat of her mouth, the graze of her teeth over sensitized skin. His skin was so hot, aching for her.With a growl, he took her over the edge, her body rippling powerfully, clenching and unclenching, needing more, needing his invasion, needing his body filling hers. She dropped to her knees, pushed at his pants, tugged until they were at his thighs, until he was free and straining toward her. Raven's nails raked his buttocks; her tongue found his heavy chest muscles.Her taunting laughter, low, seductive, echoed in his mind. The brush of her silky hair over his thighs was nearly unbearable. It was his turn and he let her know with a growling plea, an imperious demand. When she complied, the hot satin of her mouth, moist and erotic, nearly drove him crazy. If he had been in control, if he had been the one with power, it was now Raven's, and she exulted in it, in what she could do to him.The growls rumbling in his throat became more animal, almost threatening. His hips moved in a frantic rhythm. Suddenly he could stand it no longer. Mikhail yanked her away from him, down to the floor, thrusting her knees apart to expose her for his possession. He pinned her down, took her with a single hard, powerful stroke of stark possession, filling her tight velvet feminine channel as deeply as was possible.Raven cried out as he buried himself harder, every thrust stormy and aggressive, each more wild and frantic than the one before. Her tongue stroked his throat. "Feed me, Mikhail. Feed me now while you take me, and then I'll give you everything you need." She whispered it like an enchantress, her very voice a drug adding to the excitement. She had never asked for his blood, his life's fluid, and the idea was as sexy as her mouth on him. His body tightened, impossibly hard, yet her request enabled him to slow down so that he could feel the anticipation as her tongue stroked over his pulse. As he surged deeply into her fiery hot sheath, her teeth sank deep into him. White heat and blue lightning slammed through his body. He threw his head back at the exquisite pleasure-pain of it.The hot, sweet odor of his ancient blood mingled with their musk scents, the strong pull of her mouth coinciding with the strong grip of her body surrounding his. He matched her movements deliberately, felt her take his blood, his seed, the essence of life into her body. Her body dragged at his, insistent, a sweet torment, a velvet clutching, a milking, with the same dark fire as her silken mouth.The stroke of her tongue sent an aftershock rippling through both of them and they lay locked together, his body covering hers, his arms holding her in place, his every muscle rock hard and still in desperate need, as if he had never touched her. His hunger was a terrible thing far beyond craving, far beyond anything he had ever experienced.Raven's hands smoothed his hair, then her palms rubbed over his jaw. She smiled, pure seduction, her hips arching deliberately into his, her muscles tight and gripping. She brought his head down to hers so that she could fasten her mouth to his, sharing the sweet taste of his blood, taunting, teasing, prolonging his need, bringing him to wild abandonment.He took control back, drinking deeply of her silken mouth, his tongue stroking down the line of her throat, lingering over her pulse, his teeth scraping, tantalizing, while his body took aggressive possession, plunging deep and hard.Raven murmured his name, dragged his head to her breast, lifting herself in pleading invitation. His chin rubbed over the creamy swell, delved into the valley between, his blue-shadowed jaw rasping sensitive skin. He cupped her breasts as his mouth closed over her, hot and moist, pulling strongly. She clutched him to her, her body exploding with pleasure, following the rhythm and pace he set.Mikhail lifted his head, his eyes slumberous, sexy, hypnotic, drawing her deeper into his very mind, his very soul. He nuzzled her breast, his tongue stroking, caressing. Openmouthed, he pressed wet, hot kisses over sensitive skin. His hips surged forward. Once more his eyes met hers, a clear demand."Yes, please, yes," she whispered urgently, dragging his head back to the heat of her body. "I want this, Mikhail."His teeth grazed, pierced above her breast, the pain white hot, even as her body rippled, fragmented with searing ecstasy. Fangs sank deep, the hunger in him insatiable. He plunged into her wanting more, needing the consummate friction of fire and velvet sheathing him. He drank her in, taking her very life into his body, his mind merging with hers, his body claiming hers in pure male dominance.Dangerous. Sweetly dangerous. Hot pure sex laced with pure love and a complete merging of souls. He wanted it to last forever, this moment while they shared the same body, same skin, same mind. Fast and hard, slow and deep, each stroke exquisite torment, her blood filling every cell, swelling his strength, draining her as her body drained him. He felt himself hardening impossibly, swelling, stretching, relentlessly pushing his invasion to the maximum, taking both of them soaring, careening over the edge without control, exploding into fiery fragments, dissolving, falling to earth.Raven lay beneath him, listening to their combined heartbeats, her fingers threaded in his dark espresso-colored hair. Her body belonged to him; she belonged to him. His tongue caressed her skin, traced a single drop of blood over the swell of her breast. He rained kisses over her breasts, up her throat to find her mouth, gently, tenderly. His hand pned her throat, stroked with the pad of his thumb, reveling in the soft satin texture.It amazed him that she had chosen this moment to commit herself to their life as Carpathians. He had no doubt that she loved him and was committed to him, but he had known she was repulsed by the idea of how she would be forced to live. After a horrifying, traumatic experience, she had committed herself to her new life without reservation. As long as they were together, Mikhail was certain she would never be predictable."Do you have any idea how much I love you?" he asked softly.Her long lashes fluttered, lifted, so that her violet eyes locked with his. A slow, fascinating smile curved her mouth. "Maybe, just a little." She smoothed a line from his forehead. "I'll be fine tonight. Do what you have to do and don't worry about me.""I would prefer that you slept for a while." He shifted, eased his weight off her, surprised to find that he was still partially dressed."That's only because you have so much anger toward Romanov you don't want me to know what you're doing." She propped herself up on one elbow so that her thick mane of silky hair spilled across her body, a thin veil over her breasts.His gut clenched hotly at the sight, his dark eyes going black with a sudden flare of desire. She laughed softly, tauntingly. He bent down to taste temptation, his tongue bringing her nipple to a hard peak.Her fingers stroked through his thick hair tenderly. "You think to protect Jacques by leaving him here with me as my bodyguard." Her eyes softened, warmed. "You think you are going to do something I will be unable to accept, but I believe in you, Mikhail. I think you are a great and fair man. You have every right to despise Romanov, but I know you can put that aside and do what is right. He is a young man, confused and angry, shaken and traumatized by his parents' brutal deaths. Whatever he found that linked you to those deaths has driven him into a breakdown. It's a terrible tragedy."Mikhail closed his eyes and breathed out slowly. She was effectively tying his hands. How could he go out and kill a man for torturing Raven when she was compassionate enough to forgive him?"Go feed before you see him. You made me weak, and if you'll forgive a little crude Carpathian humor, I'll expect you to bring me home dinner."Startled, he stared at her. For a long moment there was silence; then they burst out laughing. "Get dressed," Mikhail ordered with mock sternness. "I cannot have poor Jacques tormented by you.""I fully intend to torment him. He needs to learn not to be so serious.""Jacques is the least serious of all Carpathian males. He has retained his emotions far longer than most. It has only been a few centuries since he has lost them.""He is serious when it comes to ordering females about. He has definite ideas on how we should behave. I intend to take that up with him."His eyebrow shot up. "I am certain you will keep him occupied while we are gone. Do me a favor, little one; do not be too hard on him."They were both laughing as they dressed.