The heavy door swung closed behind Raven with a thud of finality. She shivered, rubbed her arms nervously. Mikhail whirled a cape around her, enveloping her in warmth, in his woodsy, masculine scent. He strode across the marble floor to throw open the doors to the library. Within minutes he had a fire roaring. He indicated a chair near the flames. It was high-backed, deep cushioned, an antique, yet curiously not worn.Raven studied the room with awe. It was large, with a beautiful hardwood floor, each parquet piece a part of a larger mosaic. On three sides there were floor-to-ceiling shelves, completely filled with books, most leather bound, many very old. The chairs were comfortable, the small table, in between the chairs, an antique in perfect condition. The chessboard was marble, the pieces uniquely carved."Drink this."She nearly jumped out of her skin when he appeared beside her with a crystal glass. "I don't drink alcohol."He smiled the smile that made her heart beat faster. His acute sense of smell had already processed that particular bit of information about her. "It is not alcohol; it is an herb mixture for your headache."Alarm slammed into her. She was crazy for being here. It was like trying to relax with a wild tiger in the same room. He could do anything to her and no one would come to help. If he drugged her... Decisively, she shook her head. "No, thank you.""Raven." His voice was low, caressing, hypnotic. "Obey me."She found her fingers curling around the glass. She fought the order, and pain sliced through her head so that she cried out.Mikhail was at her side, looming over her, his hand closing over hers around the fragile glass. "Why do you defy me over so trivial a thing?"There were tears burning in her throat. "Why would you force me?"His hand found her throat, circled it, lifted her chin. "Because you are in pain and I wish to ease it."Her eyes widened in astonishment. Could it be so simple? She was in pain and he wanted to ease it? Was he really that protective, or did he enjoy imposing his will? "It's my choice. That's what free will is all about.""I can see pain in your eyes, feel it in your body. Knowing I can help you, is it logical for me to allow you to continue to hurt yourself just so you can prove something?" There was genuine puzzlement in his voice. "Raven, if I was going to harm you, I would not need to drug you. Allow me to help you." His thumb was moving over her skin, feather-light, sensuous, tracing the pulse in her neck, the delicate line of her jaw, the fullness of her lower lip.She closed her eyes and let him put the glass to her mouth, tilt the bittersweet contents down her throat. She felt as if she was placing her life in his hands. There was far too much possession in his touch."Relax, little one," he said softly. "Tell me about yourself. How is it that you can hear my thoughts?" His strong fingers found her temples, began a soothing rhythm."I've always been able to do it. When I was little, I just assumed everybody else could do the same thing. But it was terrible to know other people's innermost thoughts, their secrets. I heard and felt things every minute of the day." Raven never talked about her life, her childhood, to anyone, least of all a complete stranger. Yet Mikhail didn't feel like a stranger. He felt like a part of her. A piece missing from her soul. It seemed important to tell him. "My father thought I was a freak, a demon child, and even my mother was a little afraid of me. I learned never to touch people, not to be in crowds. It was better to be alone, in places of solitude. It was the only way I could stay sane."Gleaming teeth bared above her head, a predator's menace. He wanted to be alone with her father for a few minutes, to show him what a demon really was. It interested him, yet alarmed him that her words could bring about such rage in him. To know she was alone so long ago, had endured pain and loneliness when he was in the world, angered him. Why hadn't he gone looking for her? Why hadn't her father loved and cherished her as he should have?His hands were working magic, slipping to the nape of her neck, his fingers strong, hypnotic. "A few years ago a man was murdering families, small children. I was staying with a friend from high school and when I returned after work, I found them all dead. When I went into the house I could feel his evil, knew his thoughts. It made me sick, the terrible things running around in my head, but I was able to track him and finally led the police to him."His hands moved down the length of her thick braid, found the tie and loosened the heavy mass of silk, tunneling his fingers to release the woven strands, still damp from her shower hours before. "How many times did you do this thing?" She was leaving things out. The details of horror and pain, the faces of those she helped as they watched her work, shocked, fascinated, yet repulsed by her ability. He saw those details, sharing her mind, reading her memories to learn her true nature."Four. I went after four killers. The last time I fell apart. He was so sick, so evil. I felt as if I was unclean, as if I could never get him out of my head. I came here hoping to find peace. I decided I would never do anything like that again."Mikhail, above her head, closed his eyes for a moment to calm his mind. That she could feel unclean. He could look into her heart and soul, see her every secret, know she was light and compassion, courage and gentleness. The things she had seen in her young life should never have been. He waited until his voice was calm and soothing. "And you get these headaches if you use telepathic communication?" At her solemn nod, he continued, "Yet when you heard me, unguarded, in pain, you reached out to me, knowing the price you would pay."How could she explain? He was like a wounded animal, radiating so much pain that she had found tears streaming unchecked down her face. His loneliness was hers. His isolation, hers. And she had sensed his resolve to end his pain, his existence. She could not let that happen, no matter what the cost to herself.Mikhail let out his breath slowly, astonished and shocked by her nature, so giving. She was hesitant to put into words why she had reached out to him, but he knew it was her nature to give. He also knew the call had been so strong because that something in him that reached for her had found whatever it needed. He inhaled her scent, taking her into his body, enjoying the sight and smell of her in his home, the feel of her silky hair in his hands, her soft skin under his fingertips. The flames from the fire put blue lights in her hair. Need slammed into him, hard and urgent and, as painful as the ache was, he reveled in the fact that he could feel it.Mikhail seated himself across the small table from her, his eyes drifting lazily, possessively over her alluring curves. "Why do you dress in men's clothes?" he asked.She laughed, soft and melodious, and her eyes lit with mischief. "Because I knew it would annoy you."He threw back his head and laughed. Real, genuine, incredible laughter. There was happiness in him and the stirrings of affection. He couldn't remember what those feelings were like, but the emotions were sharp and clear and a sweet ache in his body."Is it necessary to annoy me?"She arched an eyebrow at him, realizing that her headache was completely gone. "So easy," Raven teased.He leaned closer. "Disrespectful woman. So dangerous, you mean.""Mmm, maybe that, too." She slid her hand through her hair, pushed it away from her face. The action was an innocent habit, incredibly sexy, drawing his gaze to the perfection of her face, the fullness of her breasts, the smooth line of her throat."So just how good a chess player are you?" she challenged impudently.An hour later Mikhail leaned back in his chair to watch her face as she studied the board. She was frowning in concentration, trying to puzzle out his unfamiliar strategy. She could sense that he was leading her into a trap, but she couldn't find it. Raven leaned her chin on the heel of her hand, relaxed, in no hurry. She was patient and thorough and twice had gotten him into trouble simply because he was too sure of himself.Suddenly her eyes widened, a slow smile curving her soft mouth. "You are a cunning devil, aren't you, Mikhail? But I think your cleverness may have gotten you into a bit of trouble."He watched her with hooded eyes. His teeth gleamed white in the firelight. "Did I happen to mention, Miss Whitney, that the last person impertinent enough to beat me at chess was thrown in the dungeon and tortured for thirty years?""I believe that would have made you about two at the time," she teased, her eyes glued to the chessboard.He sucked in his breath sharply. He had been comfortable in her presence, felt totally accepted. She obviously believed he was mortal, with superior telepathic powers. Mikhail lazily reached across the board to make his move, saw the dawning comprehension in her eyes. "I believe what we have is checkmate," he said silkily."I should have known a man who walks in the forest surrounded by wolves would be devious." She smiled up at him. "Great game, Mikhail. I really enjoyed it." Raven sank back into the cushions of the chair. "Can you talk to animals?" she asked curiously.He liked her in his home, liked the way the fire burned blue in her hair and the way the shadows clung so lovingly to her face. He had memorized every inch of it, knew that if he closed his eyes, the picture would still be there, the high, delicate cheekbones, her small nose and lush mouth. "Yes." He answered truthfully, not wanting lies between them."Would you have killed Jacob?"Her lashes were beautiful and held his attention. "Be careful of what you ask little one," he cautioned.She curled her legs beneath under her, regarded him steadily. "You know, Mikhail, you are so used to using your power, you don't even stop to think if it's right or wrong.""He had no right to touch you. He was causing you pain.""But he didn't know he was. And you had no right to touch me, but you did anyway," she pointed out reasonably.His eyes glittered coldly. "I have every right. You belong to me." He said it calmly, his voice soft, with a hint of warning. "More importantly, Raven, I did not cause you pain."Raven's breath caught in her throat. Her tongue moistened her lips with a small, delicate gesture. "Mikhail" - her voice was hesitant, as she chose her words carefully - "I belong to myself. I'm a person, not something you can own. In any case. I live in the United States. I'm going back there soon and intend to be on the next train to Budapest."His smile was that of a hunter. Predatory. For a moment the firelight gleamed red, so that his eyes glowed like a wolf's in the night. He said nothing, simply watched her unblinkingly.Her hand fluttered defensively to her throat. "It's late; I should be going," She could hear the pounding of her own heart. What was it she wanted from him? She didn't know, only that this was the most perfect, frightening night of her life and she wanted to see him again. He was utterly motionless, menacing in his complete stillness. She waited breathlessly. Fear was suffocating her, sending tremors through her slender form. Fear he would let her go; fear he would force her to stay. She drew air into her lungs. "Mikhail, I don't know what you want." She didn't know what she wanted either.He stood up then, power and grace combined. His shadow reached her before he did. His strength was enormous, but his hands were gentle as they pulled her to her feet. His hands slid up her arms, rested lightly on her shoulders, thumbs stroking the pulse in her neck. His touch sent warmth curling in her abdomen. She was so small beside him, so fragile and vulnerable. "Do not try to leave me, little one. We need one another." His dark head bent lower, his mouth brushing her eyelids, sending little darts of fire licking along her skin. "You make me remember what living is," he whispered in his mesmerizing voice. His mouth found the corner of hers, and a jolt of electricity sizzled through her body.Raven reached up to touch the shadowed line of his jaw, to place a hand on the heavy muscles of his chest in an attempt to put space between them. "Listen to me, Mikhail." Her voice was husky. "We both know what loneliness is, isolation. It's beyond my imagination that I can be this close to you, physically touch you, and not be swamped with unwanted burdens. But we can't do this."Amusement crept into the dark fire of his eyes, a hint of tenderness. His fingers curled around the nape of her neck. "Oh, I think we can." His black velvet voice was pure seduction, his smile frankly sensual.Raven felt his power right down to her toes. Her body was boneless, liquid, aching. She was so close to him that she felt a part of him, surrounded by him, enveloped by him. "I'm not going to sleep with someone I don't know because I'm lonely."He laughed softly, low and amused. "Is that what you think? That you would be sleeping with me because you are lonely?" His hand was at her throat again, stroking, caressing, heating her blood. "This is why you will make love with me. This!" His mouth fastened on hers.White heat. Blue lightning. The ground shifted and rolled.Mikhail dragged her slender form against his male length, his body aggressive, his mouth dominating, sweeping her into a world of pure feeling.Raven could only cling to him, a safe anchor in a storm of turbulent emotions. A growl rumbled deep in his throat, animal, feral, like that of an aroused wolf. His mouth moved to the soft, vulnerable line of her throat, down to rest on the pulse beating so frantically beneath her satin skin.Mikhail's arms tightened, pinning her to his body, possessive, certain, his hold unbreakable. Raven was on fire, needing, burning, hot silk in his arms, her body pliant, liquid heat. She was moving against him restlessly, her breasts aching, nipples pushing erotically against the thin yarn of her sweater.His thumb brushed her nipple through the crocheted lace, sending waves of heat curling through her body, making her knees go weak so that only the hard strength of his arms held her up. His mouth moved again, his tongue like a flame licking over her pulse.And then there was white-hot heat, searing pain, her body coiling with need, burning for him, craving him. Waves of desire beat at her. His mouth on her neck was producing a combination of pleasure and pain so intense that she didn't know where one started and the other left off. His thumb tipped her head back, exposing her throat, his mouth clamped to her skin, his throat working as if he were devouring her, feeding on her, drinking her in. It burned, yet fed her own craving.Mikhail whispered something in his native tongue and lifted his head slightly, breaking the contact. Raven felt warm liquid run down her throat to her breast. Mikhail's tongue followed the path, sweeping across the creamy swell of her breast. Mikhail caught at her small waist, aware suddenly of the way his body raged at him for release. He had to claim her for his mate. His body demanded, burned.Raven caught at his shirt to keep from falling. He swore softly, eloquently, a mixture of two languages, furious with himself as he cradled her in his arms protectively."I'm sorry, Mikhail." Raven was appalled, frightened at her weakness. The room was spinning; it was difficult to focus. Her neck throbbed and burned.He bent his dark head to kiss her gently. "No, little one, I am moving us too fast." Everything in his nature, beast and centuries-old man raged at him to take, keep her, but he wanted her to come to him willingly."I feel funny, dizzy."He had been that little bit out of control, the beast in him hungry to put his mark on her, hungry for the sweet taste of her. His body was on fire, demanding release. Discipline and control fought with his instinctual predatory nature and won. He breathed deeply, carried her to the chair beside the fire. She deserved a courtship, deserved to know him, to come to feel affection if not love for him before he bound her to him. A human. A mortal. It was wrong. It was dangerous. As he gently placed her on the cushions, he caught the first warning of disturbance.He swung around, his handsome features dark and menacing. His body lost its protective posture, all at once threatening and powerful. "Stay," he ordered softly. He moved so fast that he blurred, closing the doors to his library, turning to face the front door. Mikhail sent a silent call to his sentries.Outside, a lone wolf howled, a second answered, a third, until there was a united chorus. When the noise subsided he waited, his face an implacable, granite mask. Mist drifted through the forest, tendrils of fog, collecting, moving, massing outside his home.Mikhail lifted his arm and his front door opened. The fog and mist seeped in, collected in pools until his foyer was thick with it. Slowly the mists connected; bodies shimmered and became solid. "Why do you disturb me this night?" he challenged softly, his dark eyes glittering dangerously.A man stepped forward, his fingers clasped solidly in his wife's. She looked pale and drawn, was obviously pregnant. "We seek your council, Mikhail, and bring you news."Inside the library, Raven felt fear slam into her, the emotion beating in her head, swamping her, driving out the heavy, trancelike cobwebs. Someone was distraught, crying, feeling pain as sharp as a knife. She staggered to her feet, clutched at the back of a chair. Images pushed in. A young woman with pale, white skin, a large stake protruding from her chest, blood running in rivers, her head detached from her body, something sickening placed in her mouth. A ritual killing, symbolic, a warning of others to come. A serial killer, here, in this land of peace.Raven gagged, both hands going to cover her ears, as if that could somehow stop the images pouring into her mind. For a moment she couldn't breathe, didn't want to breathe; she just wanted it to end. Wildly, she looked around her, saw a door to her right leading in the opposite direction from the overwhelming emotions. Blindly she stumbled to her feet, weak, disoriented, and dizzy. She staggered out of the library, needing to get some fresh air. Away from the details of death and horror that were so vivid in the minds of the newcomers.Their fear and anger was a living thing. They were animals wounded and ready to tear and rend in retaliation. Why were people so ugly? So violent? She had no answer, no longer wanted one. She had taken several steps down a long hall when a figure loomed up. A man a little younger than Mikhail, thinner, with glittering eyes and chestnut, wavy hair. His smile was taunting and held menace as he reached for her.An unseen force hit the man square in the chest, knocking him backward, and slamming him into the wall. Mikhail loomed up, a dark, malevolent shadow. He towered over Raven, protectively thrust her behind him. This time the throaty growl was a beast's roar of challenge.Raven could feel the terrible rage in Mikhail, rage mixed with grief, his emotions so intense they beat at the air itself. She touched his arm, her fingers curling halfway around the thickness of his wrist, a tiny deterrent to the violence swirling within him. She felt the tension running through him as if it was alive.There was a collective, audible gasp. Raven realized she was the center of the group's attention. There was one woman and four men. All eyes were on her fingers circling his wrist as if she had committed some terrible, criminal act. Mikhail's larger body moved to shield her completely from their scrutiny. He made no attempt to shake off her hand. If anything, he moved his body protectively, backing her farther into the wall so that he was pressing against her, obscuring their vision of her."She is under my protection." A declaration. A challenge. A promise of quick, savage retribution. "As we all are, Mikhail," the woman said softly, appeasingly.Raven swayed; only the walls were holding her up. Vibrations of rage and grief were beating at her until she wanted to scream. She made a sound, a single, threadlike sound of objection. Mikhail turned to her at once, his arms sweeping around her, enveloping her. "Guard your thoughts and emotions," he hissed at the others. "She is very sensitive. I will escort her to the inn and return to discuss this disturbing news."Raven had no real chance to see the others before he was striding past them, taking her with him to the small car waiting in the garage. She smiled tiredly, her head resting against his shoulder. "You don't seem like you belong in this car, Mikhail. Your views on women are so archaic, in a former life you must have been 'lord of the castle'."He glanced at her quickly. His gaze slid over the paleness of her face, dwelt on his mark on her neck, visible through the long mane of her hair. In truth, he hadn't meant to leave a mark, but now it was there, his brand of ownership. "I am going to help you sleep tonight." He made it a statement."Who were those people?" She asked because she knew he didn't want her to ask. She was so tired, even dizzy. She rubbed at her head and wished that for once in her life she was normal. He probably thought she was the fainting type.There was a short silence. He sighed heavily. "My family."She knew he spoke the truth, yet he didn't. "Why would someone do such a terrible thing?" She turned her face up to his. "Do they expect you to track this killer, to stop him?" There was raw pain in her voice, pain for him. Worry. His grief was sharp, edged with guilt and the need for violence.He turned her question over in his mind. She knew then, knew one of his people had been killed. She probably had picked the details out of someone's head. The worry and pain was for him. There was no condemnation. Simply worry. Mikhail felt the tension ease from his body, felt warmth curl in his stomach. "I will try to keep you as far from this mess as possible, little one." No one worried about him, about his state of mind or his health. No one thought to feel for him. Something inside him seemed to soften and melt. She was wrapping herself inside him, deep, somewhere he needed her."Perhaps we shouldn't see each other for a few days. I've never been so tired in my life." She tried to give him a gracious way out. Raven looked down at her hands. She wanted to give herself an out, too. She had never felt so close to anyone, so comfortable, as if she had known him forever, yet was terrified that he would take her over. "And I don't think your family was thrilled to see an American with you. We're too... explosive together," she finished ruefully."Do not try to leave me, Raven." The car drew up in front of the inn. "I hold what is mine, and make no mistake, you are mine." It was both a warning and a plea. He had no time for soft words. He wanted to give them to her - God knew she deserved them - but the others were waiting and his responsibilities weighed heavily on him.She raised her hand to the line of his jaw, rubbing gently. "You're so used to having your own way." There was a smile in her voice. "I can go to sleep all by myself, Mikhail. I've been doing it for years.""You need to sleep untroubled, undisturbed, deeply. What you saw' tonight will haunt you if I do not help you." His thumb stroked across her lower lip. "I could remove the memory if you wished."Raven could see he wanted to do it, believed that it would be best for her. She could see it was difficult to ask her to make a decision. "No, thank you, Mikhail," she said demurely. "I think I'll keep all my memories, good and bad." She kissed his chin, slid across the seat to the door. "You know, I'm not a porcelain doll. I won't break because I see something I shouldn't. I've chased serial killers before." She smiled at him, her eyes sad.He shackled her wrist in an unbreakable grip. "And it almost destroyed you. Not this time."Her lashes swept down, hiding her expression. "That's not your decision." If others persuaded him to use his talents to chase the insane, evil killers in the world, she would not leave him alone. How could she?"You are not nearly as afraid of me as you should be," he growled.She flashed him another smile, tugging at her wrist to remind him to release her. "I think you know what's between us would be worth nothing if you forced me to do your will in everything."He held her captive a heartbeat longer, his dark, dangerous eyes moving possessively over her fragile face. She was so strong-willed. She was afraid, but she looked him in the eyes and stood up to him. It made her ill, brought her to the brink of madness to chase evil, but she did it time and time again. He was still a shadow in her mind. He read her determination to help him, her fear of him and his incredible powers, but she would not leave him to face this horrible killer alone. He wanted to keep her with him safe in his lair. Almost reverently, Mikhail trailed his fingers down her cheek. "Go, before I change my mind," he ordered, abruptly releasing her.Raven walked away from him slowly, trying to overcome the dizziness that had taken hold of her. She was careful to walk straight, not wanting him to know she felt as if her body was lead, that every movement was difficult. She walked with her head up and kept her mind purposely blank.Mikhail watched her enter the inn. He saw her hand go up to her head, rub at her temple, the nape of her neck. She was still dizzy from his taking her blood. That had been selfish, beneath him, yet he couldn't stop himself. Now she was paying for it. Her head ached from the bombardment of emotions. His included. All of his people would have to be more careful to shield their minds.Mikhail unfolded his large frame from the vehicle, moved to the shadows, his senses flaring out to tell him he was alone. He took the form of mist. In the heavy fog it was unnoticeable, and he could easily seep beneath her unsecured window. He watched her as she sank onto the bed. Her face was pale, her eyes haunted. Shw swept her mane of hair back, touching his mark as if it ached. It took her a few minutes to kick off her shoes, as if the task was too great.Mikhail waited until she had flung herself face down, fully clothed on the bed.You will sleep.He gave the order forcefully, expected her compliance.Mikhail.His name echoed in his head, soft, drowsy, with a hint of amusement.Somehow I knew you would just have to have your way.She didn't fight it, but went under willingly, a smile curving her soft mouth.Mikhail undressed her, slid her slender body beneath the covers. He safeguarded the door, a powerful spell guaranteed to keep even the strongest of his own people out, let alone pathetic mortal assassins. He secured the windows and provided the same guards at every possible entry point. Very gently he brushed his lips across her forehead, then reached down to touch his brand on her neck before leaving her.The others fell silent when he entered his home. Celeste smiled tentatively, pressed a protective hand to the child lying in her womb. "Is she all right, Mikhail?"He nodded abruptly, curiously grateful for her concern. No one would question him, yet his behavior was completely out of character for him. He got right to the point. "How did the assassins find Noelle unprotected?"The others looked at one another. Mikhail drilled it into them never to forget the smallest details guarding their safety, but over the years it was so easy to forget, to slip up."Noelle had her baby only two months ago. She was so tired all the time." Celeste tried to excuse the slip."And Rand? Where was he? Why did he leave his exhausted wife unprotected while she slept?" Mikhail asked softly, dangerously.Byron, the man who had been in such trouble earlier, stirred uncomfortably. "You know how Rand is. Always after the women. He took the child to Celeste and went out hunting.""And forgot to provide Noelle with the proper safeguards." Mikhail's disgust was all too evident. "Where is he?"Celeste's lifemate, Eric, answered grimly. "He was crazy, Mikhail. It took all of us to subdue him, but he sleeps now. The child is with him deep in the ground. The healing will do them good.""We could not afford to lose Noelle." Mikhail pushed grief away; it was not the time to feel it. "Eric, can you keep Rand under control?""I think you should talk to him," Eric answered honestly. "The guilt is making him crazy. He nearly turned on us.""Vlad, where is Eleanor? She is at risk, heavy with child. We must protect her as we will Celeste," Mikhail said. "We cannot afford the loss of any of our women and certainly not their children.""She is so close to term, I was worried about her traveling." Vlad sighed heavily. "She is safe and well-guarded for the moment, but I think this war is starting again."Mikhail tapped a finger on the small table near the chessboard. "Perhaps it is significant that we have three of our women giving birth for the first time in a decade. Our children are few and far between. If the assassins somehow have gained knowledge of our women's condition, they will be afraid we are multiplying, growing strong again."Mikhail shot the most muscular of the men a quick glance. "Jacques, you have no lifemate to encumber you." There was the faintest trace of affection in his voice, affection he could never feel or show before and maybe wasn't aware anyone else knew of. Jacques was his brother. "Neither does Byron. You two will get word to all the others. Lie low, feed only in the deepest cover, sleep deep within the ground, and always use the most powerful safeguards. We must watch our women and get them to safety, especially those who are with child. Do not draw attention to yourselves in any way.""For how long, Mikhail?" Celeste's eyes were shadowed, her face tearstained. "How long must we live like this?""Until I find and dispense justice to the assassins." There was a fierce, savage note in his voice. "All of you have become soft, mixing so much with mortals. You are forgetting the gifts that could save your lives," he reprimanded them harshly. "My woman is mortal, yet she knew of your presence before you knew of hers. She felt your unguarded emotions, knows of the assassins through your thoughts. There is no excuse for that.""How can this be?" Eric dared to ask. "No mortal has such power.""She is telepathic and very strong in her gift. She will be here often; she will be protected, as will all of our women."The others exchanged bewildered, confused looks. According to the legend, only their strongest members might be able to convert a mortal. It simply wasn't done, was far too risky. It had been tried centuries earlier, when the ranks of their women had been depleted and the men were without hope. But no one dared try it anymore. Most of them believed it was a myth made up to keep their males from losing their souls. Mikhail was unreadable, implacable, his judgment never questioned throughout the centuries. He settled arguments and protected them. He hunted the males who had chosen to turn vampire, dangerous to mortals and immortals alike.Now this. A mortal woman. They were shocked and it showed. They were obligated to put the life of Mikhail's woman before their own. If Mikhail said she was under his protection, he meant it. He never said anything he didn't mean. And if she was harmed, the penalty would be death. Mikhail was a savage, merciless, and unrelenting enemy.Mikhail felt the weight of his responsibility for Noelle's death. He had known of Rand's weakness for women. Mikhail had objected to the union, but he hadn't forbidden it, as he should have. Rand was not Noelle's true lifemate. Chemistry would never allow a true mate to cheat on his woman. Noelle, his beautiful sister, so young and vibrant, lost to them forever. She had been headstrong, wanting Rand because he was handsome, not because her soul called to his. They had lied, but he had known they were lying. Ultimately it had been his responsibility that Rand continued to try to find emotion by being with other women, and Noelle had grown into a bitter, dangerous woman. She must have died instantly or Mikhail would have felt it, even deep in his sleep. Rand should never have had the care of one of their women.Mikhail had thought that, in time, each would find their true lifemate, but Nicole only grew more dangerous and Rand worse in his promiscuous behavior. It was impossible for Rand to feel anything with the women he bedded, yet he continued, almost as if it was a punishment for Noelle's tight hold on him.Mikhail closed his eyes for a moment, allowing the reality of Noelle's senseless murder to sweep over him. The loss was intolerable, his grief wild and intense, mixed with an ice-cold rage and deadly resolve. He bowed his head. Three blood-red tears made their way unchecked down his face. His sister, the youngest of their women. It was his fault.Mikhail felt the stirring in his head, warmth, comfort, as if arms had stolen around him.Mikhail? Do you need me?Raven's voice was drowsy, husky, worried.He was shocked. His command had been strong, far stronger than anything he had ever used on a human, yet his sorrow had penetrated her sleep. He glanced around him, took in the faces of his companions. None of them had picked up the mental contact. It meant that, as groggy as she was, Raven was able to focus, channel, and send directly to him without any spillage. It was a skill few of his people had bothered to accomplish, so complacent were they that humans could not tune into them.Mikhail?This time Raven's voice was stronger, alarmed.I'll come to you.Sleep, little one. J am well, he reassured, reinforcing his command with the tone of his voice.Be well, Mikhail, she whispered softly, succumbing to his power.Mikhail gave his attention to those awaiting his orders. "Send Rand to me tomorrow. The child cannot stay with him. Dierdre lost another child a couple of decades ago. She still mourns her many losses. The child will be taken to her. Tienn will guard them carefully. No one is to use a mental link until we know whether one of our adversaries possesses the same power my woman does."The shock on their faces was complete. None of them considered a human capable of that kind of power and discipline. "Mikhail, you are certain this woman is not the one? She could be a threat to us." Eric ventured the suggestion cautiously, even as Celeste's fingers dug warningly into his arm.Mikhail's dark eyes narrowed slightly. "Do you believe I have grown lazy, bloated with my own power? Do you think so little of me that I could be in her mind and not recognize a threat to us? I warn you, I am willing to step down as your leader, but I am not willing to withdraw my protection of her. If any of you wish to harm her, know that you will deal with me. Do you wish me to pass on the mantle of leadership? I weary of my duties and responsibilities.""Mikhail!" Byron's voice was a sharp protest.The others voiced quick, alarmed denials, like frightened children. Jacques was the only one who stood silently, one hip lazily resting against the wall, regarding Mikhail with a secret mocking half-smile. Mikhail ignored him."It is nearly sunrise. All of you go to ground. Use every guard possible. When you awaken, check around your dwelling; feel for intruders. Do not overlook the slightest incident. We must stay in close communication and watch each other.""Mikhail, the first year is so critical, so many of our children do not survive." Celeste's fingers were twisting nervously within her husband's hand. "I am not sure Dierdre could bear another loss."Mikhail's smile was gentle. "She will guard the child as no other, and Tienn will be twice as watchful as any other. He has been trying to get Dierdre to conceive and she has refused. At least this way, her arms will not be empty.""And she will long for another child," Celeste said angrily."If our race is to continue, we must have children. As much as I would like to provide them, it is only our women who can produce such a miracle.""It is heartbreaking to lose so many, Mikhail," Celeste pointed out."For all of us, Celeste." His tone was final, and no one dared to argue or question. His authority was absolute, his rage and grief beyond boundaries. Not only Rand had failed to protect Noelle, a young, beautiful, vibrant woman, but her life had been lost because of some sadistic game Rand and Noelle had played together. He knew that he was every bit as responsible as Rand for Noelle's fate. His loathing of Rand was directed at himself as well.