Raven woke slowly, in a dense fog, layers and layers of it. Somehow she knew she wasn't supposed to wake, but never the less it was imperative she do so. She pried her eyes open and turned her head toward the window. Sunlight was streaming in. She pushed herself into a sitting position, the covers sliding away to expose bare skin."Mikhail," she whispered aloud, "you take altogether too many liberties." She reached out to him automatically, as if she could not deny herself that need. Sensing he was asleep, she withdrew. The slight touch was enough. He was safe.Raven felt different, happy even. She could talk to someone, touch someone, never mind that it was a bit like sitting on the back of a hungry tiger. The freedom to relax in another's presence was a joy. Mikhail had heavy responsibilities. She didn't know who he was, only that he was someone important. Obviously he was comfortable with his talents, unlike Raven, who still felt she was some kind of freak of nature. She wanted to be more like he was: confident, not caring what others thought.She knew very little of Romanian life. The rural populations were poor and superstitious. Yet they were a friendly people and truly artistic. Mikhail was different. She had heard of Carpathians; not Gypsies, but a people who were well educated, had money, and lived deep in the mountains and forests by choice. Was Mikhail their leader? Was that why he was so arrogant and aloof?The shower felt good on her body, rinsing away the heavy, groggy feeling. She dressed carefully, in jeans, a turtleneck, and a sweater. Even with the sunlight, it was cold in the mountains, and she intended to go exploring. Her neck throbbed for a moment, burned. She peeled back her top to examine the wound. It was a strange mark, like a teenager's love bite, but more intense.She blushed at the memory of how he'd put it there. Did the man have to be sexy on top of everything else? And she could learn so much from him. She noticed that he was able to shield himself from the ever-present bombardment of emotions all the time. That would be such a miracle - to be able to simply sit in the middle of a crowded room and not feel anything but her own emotions.Raven pulled on her hiking shoes. A murder in this place! It was a sacrilege. The villagers must be frightened. As she passed through the doorway she felt a curious shifting in the air. It felt as if she had to push through some unseen force. Mikhail again? Trying to lock her in? No. If he was capable of such a thing, the locks would stop her. More likely he was protecting her, locking others out. Torn by grief and rage at the senseless, hideous murder, Mikhail had still helped her go to sleep. The thought of him taking the time to protect and aid her made her feel cherished.It was three in the afternoon - well past lunch but too soon for dinner - and Raven was hungry. In the kitchen the landlady obligingly fixed her a picnic dinner. Not once did the woman mention a murder. Indeed, she seemed totally oblivious of any such news. Raven found herself reluctant to broach the subject. It was strange; the innkeeper was so friendly and engaging - she even talked of Mikhail, a long-time friend of whom she spoke very highly - yet Raven could not bring herself to say a single word about the murder and what it meant to Mikhail.Outside, she shrugged into her backpack. She couldn't sense the horror of murder anywhere. No one at the inn, no one in the street seemed unduly upset. She couldn't have been wrong; the images had been strong, the grief wild and very real. The images of the murder itself were very detailed, unlike anything her imagination could conjure up."Miss Whitney! It is Whitney, isn't it?" A feminine voice called to her from several feet away.Margaret Summers hastened toward her, anxiety on her face. She was in her late sixties, frail, with gray hair and a down-to-earth, sensible way of dressing. "My dear, you're so pale this morning. We all were so afraid for your safety. That young man carrying you off the way he did was very intimidating."Raven laughed softly. "He is rather intimidating, isn't he? He's an old friend and overanxious about my health. Believe me, Mrs. Summers, he watches over me very carefully. He really is a respectable businessman; ask anyone in the village.""Are you ill, dear?" Margaret asked solicitously, moving closer so that Raven felt threatened. "Recovering," Raven said firmly, hoping it was true."I have seen you before!" Margaret sounded excited. "You're that extraordinary young lady who helped the police catch that murdering fiend in San Diego a month or so ago. What in the world would you be doing here of all places?"Raven rubbed her forehead with the heel of her palm. "That type of work is very draining, Mrs. Summers. It sometimes makes me ill. It was a long chase, and I needed to get far away. I wanted to go somewhere remote and beautiful, somewhere steeped in history. Somewhere people didn't recognize me and point me out like I was a freak of nature. The Carpathian Mountains are beautiful. I can hike, sit quietly, and let the wind blow all the memories of a sick mind out of my head.""Oh, my dear." Margaret put out her hand in concern.Raven sidestepped quickly. "I'm sorry; it bothers me to touch people after I follow a demented mind. Please understand."Margaret nodded. "Of course, although I noticed your young man thought nothing of touching you."Raven smiled. "He's bossy, and he has such a flair for the dramatic, but he's really good to me. We've known each other a while. You see, Mikhail travels quite a bit." The lie seemed to roll easily off her tongue. She hated herself for that. "I don't want anyone to know about me, Mrs. Summers. I dislike publicity and need solitude right now. Please don't tell anyone who I am.""Of course not, dear, but do you think it's safe to go wandering off by yourself? There are wild animals roaming these parts.""Mikhail accompanies me on my little jaunts, and I certainly don't go poking around in the wilds at night.""Oh," Margaret looked mollified. "Mikhail Dubrinsky? Everyone talks of him.""I told you, he's overprotective. Actually, he likes the landlady's cooking," she confided with a laugh, holding up the picnic basket. "I'd better get going or I'll be late."Margaret stepped aside. "Do be careful, dear."Raven gave a friendly wave and sauntered unhurriedly along the path that led through the woods, up the footpath into the mountains. Why had she felt compelled to lie? She liked her solitude, never felt the need to justify herself. For some reason she didn't want to discuss Mikhail's life with anyone, least of all Margaret Summers. The woman seemed too interested in him. It wasn't anything she said; it was in her eyes and voice. She could feel Margaret Summers watching her curiously until the path made an abrupt turn and the trees swallowed her up.Raven shook her head sadly. She was becoming such a recluse, not wanting to be close to anyone, not even a sweet older woman worried about her safety."Raven! Wait up!"She closed her eyes against the intrusion. By the time Jacob caught up with her, she managed to plaster a smile on her face. "Jacob, I'm glad you recovered from that terrible choking spell last night. It was lucky the waiter knew the Heimlich maneuver."Jacob scowled. "I didn't choke on a piece of meat," he said defensively, as if she was accusing him of bad table manners. "Everyone thinks so, but it wasn't that.""Really? The way the waiter grabbed you..." Her voice trailed off."Well, you didn't stick around long enough to find out," he accused sulkily, his brows drawing together. "You just let that... that Neanderthal carry you off.""Jacob," she said gently, "you don't know me; you know nothing about me or my life. For all you know, that man could be my husband. I was very ill last night. I'm sorry I didn't stay, but once I could see you were fine, I didn't think it would be appropriate to throw up all over the dining room.""How do you know that man?" Jacob demanded jealously. "The locals say he's the most powerful man in this region. He's wealthy, owns all the petroleum rights. Quite the businessman; very high-powered. How would you meet a man like that?"He was crowding close to her, and Raven was suddenly all too aware of how alone they were, how secluded their surroundings. He had a spoiled, petulant look twisting his boyish good looks. She sensed something else - a kind of sick excitement in his guilty thoughts. She knew she was a big part of his perverse fantasies. Jacob was a rich boy thinking he could have any new toy he wanted.Raven felt a stirring in her mind.Raven? You fear for your safety.Mikhail was heavy with sleep, fighting his way up through the layers to the surface.Now she was worried. Mikhail was a question mark in her mind. She didn't know what he would do, only that he felt protective toward her. For herself, for Mikhail, for Jacob, she needed to make Jacob understand that she wanted no part of him.I can handle this, she sent a sharp reassurance. "Jacob," her voice was patient, "I think you should leave; go back to the inn. I'm not the kind of woman to be bullied by your attitude. This is harassment, and I'll have no compunction about registering a complaint with the local police, or whatever they're called." She held her breath, feeling Mikhail waiting."Fine, Raven, sell yourself to the highest bidder! Try to find yourself a rich husband! He'll use you and dump you; that's what men like Dubrinsky do!" Jacob shouted. He spat out a few additional ugly words and stomped away.Raven let out her breath slowly, thankfully.See, she forced laughter into her thoughts.I took care of the problem all by my little feminine self. Amazing, isn't it?From the other side of a grove of trees, out of her sight, Jacob suddenly screamed in terror, the sound fading to a thin wail. The roar of an enraged bear mingled with Jacob's second scream. Something heavy crashed through the underbrush in the opposite direction of Raven.She felt Mikhail's laughter, low, amused, very male.Very funny, Mikhail.Jacob was broadcasting fear, but not pain.You have a questionable sense of humor.I need sleep. Quit getting into trouble, woman.Ifyou wouldn't stay up all night, you might not need to sleep the day away, she reprimanded. How do you get work done?Computers.She found herself laughing at the thought of him with a computer. He didn't belong with cars or computers. Go back to sleep, you big baby. I can handle things just fine, thank you very much, without any great big he-man to protect me.I would much prefer that you return to the safety of the inn until I rise.There was the merest hint of command in his voice. He was trying to soften his manner with her and she found herself smiling at his efforts.It isn't going to happen, so learn to live with it. American women are veryd ifficult.She continued on her way up the mountain, his laughter still playing softly in her head. She allowed the stillness of nature to seep into her mind. The birds sang to one another softly; the wind whispered through the trees. There were flowers of all colors carpeting the meadow, lifting their petals to the sky.Raven climbed higher finding peace in her solitude. She perched on a craggy boulder up above a meadow surrounded by forests of thick trees. She ate her lunch and lay back, reveling in her surroundings.Mikhail stirred, allowing his senses to read his environment. He lay in shallow earth, undisturbed. No human had come near his lair. It was less than an hour to sunset. He burst from the earth into the cold, damp cellar. Even as he showered, adopting the human way to cleanliness, although it wasn't necessary, his mind reached out to touch Raven's. She was dozing in the mountains, unprotected, with the darkness gathering. He frowned. The woman had no idea of safety measures. He had an urge to shake her, yet more than that, he wanted to gather her up and hold her forever safe in his arms.He made his way out into the setting sun, climbing the mountain trails with the speed of his kind. The sun touched his skin, warmed his coolness, made him alive. The specially constructed dark glasses protected his ultrasensitive eyes, yet he still felt a pinprick of unease, as if a thousand needles were waiting to stab at his eyes. As he approached the rock where Raven slept, he caught the scent of another male.Rand. Mikhail bared his teeth. The sun dipped low beneath the edge of the mountain, cast a dark shadow across the rolling hills, and bathed the forest in murky secrets. Mikhail moved out into the open, his arms held out from his sides, his body a fluid combination of power and coordination. He was pure menace, a stalking demon, silent and lethal.Rand had his back to him, approaching the woman on the rock. Sensing the power in the air, he spun around, his handsome features grief-stricken and ravaged. "Mikhail - " His voice cracked, his eyes dropped. "1 know you can never forgive me. You knew I was not a true lifemate to Noelle. She would not let me go. She threatened to kill herself if I left her, if I attempted to find another. Like a coward, I remained with her.""Why do I find you crouched over my woman?" Mikhail snarled, fury rising until the bloodlust coiled in him like a living thing. Rand's excuses sickened him, true though they might be. If Noelle had threatened to walk into the sun, the matter should have been brought before him. Mikhail had power enough to stop Noelle from her destructive behavior. Rand well knew that Mikhail was their prince, their leader, and, although he had not shared blood with Rand, he still could read the male's perverse pleasure in his sick relationship with Noelle, his dominance over her and her obsession.Behind them, Raven stirred, sat up, shoved at her hair from long habit. She looked drowsy, sexy, a siren waiting for her lover. Rand had turned his head to look at her, and there was something sly and crafty in his expression. She felt Mikhail's instant warning to be silent, Rand's unrestrained grief, his jealousy and dislike of Mikhail, the thick tension between the two men."Byron and Jacques told me she was under your protection. I could not sleep and knew she was alone without safeguards. I had to do something or I would have chosen to join Noelle." There was a plea for understanding, if not for forgiveness, yet Raven was unconvinced that Rand meant anything he said. She didn't know why because his sorrow was real. Perhaps he was desperate for Mikhail's respect and knew he would not get it."Then I am in your debt," Mikhail said formally, working at controlling his loathing of a man who would leave unprotected a woman who had just given birth to his child to deliberately torment her with another woman's scent on him.Raven slid from her perch, a small, fragile woman with compassion in her enormous blue eyes. "I'm truly sorry for your loss," she murmured softly, careful to keep her distance. This man was the murder victim's husband. His guilt and grief crawled through her body with torturous intent, yet she worried for Mikhail. Something was not right with Rand. He was twisted inside; not evil, yet not completely right."Thank you," Rand said tersely. "I need my child, Mikhail.""You need the healing earth," Mikhail disagreed calmly, implacable in his decision, merciless in his resolve. He would not turn over a precious, helpless baby to this male in his present state of mind.Raven's stomach knotted, twisted, and pain went through her heart at the cruelty in those words. She only partially understood what Mikhail's decree meant. This man, grieving for his murdered wife, was being deprived of his child, accepting Mikhail's word as absolute law. She felt his deep pain as if it were her own, yet on some level she couldn't help agreeing with Mikhail's decision."Please, Mikhail. I loved Noelle." Instinctively, Raven knew Rand was not pleading for his child.Fury lent darkness to Mikhail's features, cruelty to his mouth, a red glint to his eyes. "Do not speak of love to me, Rand. Go to the earth; heal. I will find this assassin and avenge my sister. No longer will I be swayed by sentiment. If I had not listened to her pleading, she would be alive today.""I cannot sleep. It is my right to hunt." Rand sounded defiant, sulky, like a child who wanted respect and equality, yet knew it would never come.A flicker of impatience, of menace, crossed Mikhail's brooding features. "Then I will command you and give you the healing rest your body and mind require." His voice was as soft and neutral as ever. If it hadn't been for the fury burning in his black eyes, Raven would have thought him gentle and caring toward the man. "We cannot afford to lose you, Rand." His voice softened to velvet, enticed, commanded.You will sleep, Rand. You will go to Eric and have him prepare you, guard you. Youwill remain until you are no longer a threat to yourself or others.Raven was shocked and alarmed at the absolute power in his voice, the power he wielded as if it was his due. Mikhail's voice alone could produce a hypnotic trance. No one questioned his authority, even over so grave a decision as keeping a child. She bit at her lip, confused over her feelings. He was right about the baby. She sensed something wrong in Rand, yet that a grown man would obey his order - had to obey his orders - frightened her. No one should have such a voice, such a gift. Something so strong could be misused, could easily corrupt the one who wielded it.They stood, regarding each other in the gathering darkness once Rand left them. Raven could feel the weight of Mikhail's displeasure pressing down on her. She lifted her chin defiantly. He moved closer, gliding unbelievably fast, his fingers finding her throat as if he might strangle her. "You will never repeat this foolhardy act again."She blinked up at him. "Don't try to intimidate me, Mikhail; it won't work. No one tells me what to do or where I can go."His fingers slipped to her wrists, tightened, threatened to crush her fragile bones. "I will not tolerate any foolishness that might put your life in jeopardy. We have lost one of our women already. I will not lose you."His sister, he had said. Compassion warred with self-preservation. Most of this confrontation was because he was so afraid for her. "Mikhail, you can't put me in a box and keep me on a shelf." She spoke as gently as she could."I will not argue over your safety. Earlier, you were alone with a man who thought of forcibly taking you. Any wild animal could have attacked you, and if you had not been under my protection, in his present state, Rand might have harmed you.""None of those things happened, Mikhail." She touched his jaw with gentle, placating fingers, a tender caress. "You have enough to worry about, enough responsibilities, without adding me to them. I can help you. You know I'm capable."He tugged at her wrist so that she lost her balance and fell against his hard strength. "You are going to make me crazy, Raven." His arms came up, pinning her soft slenderness against him. His voice dropped to a drawling caress, mesmerizing, pure black magic. "You are the one person I long to protect, yet you will not obey. You insist on independence. All others lean on my strength, yet you seek to help me, to shoulder my duties." He lowered his mouth to hers.There was that curious shifting of the ground beneath her feet, the crackle of electricity in the air around them. Flames licked over her skin, heated her blood. Colors whirled and danced in her head. His mouth claimed hers, aggressive, male, totally dominating, sweeping all thoughts of resistance aside. She opened her mouth to him, allowed his probing exploration, his sweet, hot assault.Her hands found the broadness of his shoulders, crept up to circle his neck. Her body felt pliant, boneless, like hot silk. Mikhail wanted to press her to the soft ground, tear the offending clothes from her body, and make her irrevocably his. There was far too much innocence in the taste of her. No one had asked to share the weight of his countless burdens. No one, until this little slender slip of a mortal, had even thought of the price he continually paid. A human. She had the courage to stand up to him and he could do no other than respect her for it.His eyes were closed, savoring the feel of her body against his, the fact that he could want her with such intensity. He held her, wanting her, needing her, burning for her, not even understanding how such a firestorm could consume him. Reluctantly he lifted his head, his body raging at him. "Let us go home, Raven." His voice was pure seduction.A slow smile curved her soft mouth. "I don't think it's safe. You're the kind of man my mother warned me about."He kept his arm possessively around her shoulders, shackling her to him. Mikhail had no intention of allowing her to leave his side again. His body urged her in the direction he wanted. They walked together in companionable silence."Jacob wasn't going to hurt me," she denied suddenly. "I would have known.""You were not touching him, little one, and it was lucky for him.""He's certainly capable of violence. It's always hard to miss violence." She flashed him her mischievous smile. "It clings to you like a second skin."He tugged at her thick braid in retaliation for her teasing. "I want you to come stay in my home. At least until we find and dispose of the assassins."Raven walked several steps in silence. He had said we, as if they were a team. That pleased her. "You know, Mikhail, it was the strangest thing today. Not one person at the inn or in the village seemed to know of the murder."His finger flicked along her delicate cheekbone. "And you said nothing."She flashed him a quelling glance from under long lashes. "Of course. Gossiping is not my form of entertainment.""Noelle died cruelly, senselessly. She was Rand's lifemate...""You used that term before. What does it mean?""It is like a wife or husband," he explained. "Noelle had given birth to a child only two months ago. She was my responsibility. Noelle is not food for gossip. We will find her killers ourselves.""Don't you think if there's a serial killer loose in so small a village, the people have a right to know?"Mikhail chose his words carefully. "The Romanians are not in any danger. And this is not the work of one individual. The assassins wish to stamp out our race. True Carpathians are almost extinct. We have bitter enemies who would see us all dead.""Why?"Mikhail shrugged. "We are different; we have certain gifts, talents. People are afraid of what is different. You should know that.""Maybe I have Carpathian blood in me, a diluted version," Raven said with a trace of wistfulness. It was nice to think she had an ancestor with the same gift.His heart went out to her. Her life must have been terribly lonely. Mikhail wanted to wrap her up, safe in his arms, sheltered from life's unpleasantness. His was a self-imposed isolation; Raven had no choice."Our petroleum and mineral rights in a country where most have very little is cause for concern and jealousy. I am the law to my people. I deal with the threats to our position and our lives. It was my poor judgment that placed Noelle in danger; it is my duty to hunt her killers and bring our justice to them.""Why haven't you called the local authorities?" She was struggling to understand, feeling her way carefully."I am the sole authority to my people. I am the law.""Alone?""I have others who hunt, many in fact, but it is at my command. I hold the sole responsibility in all decisions.""Judge, jury, and executioner?" she guessed, holding her breath for the answer. Her senses couldn't lie. She would have felt the taint of evil in him, no matter how good a shield he constructed. No one could be so good that they never once slipped up. She didn't realize she had stopped walking until his hands ran up and down her arms, warming her shivering body."Now you fear me." He said it softly, wearily, as if she had hurt him. And it did hurt. He had wanted her to be afraid of him, had deliberately provoked her fear, yet now, his goal achieved, it wasn't at all what he wanted.His voice tugged at her heartstrings. "I don't fear you, Mikhail," she denied gently, tipping her face up to study his in the moonlight. "I fear for you. So much power leads to corruption. So much responsibility leads to destruction. You make life-and-death decisions that only God should make."His hand caressed her silken skin, moved to trace the fullness of her lower lip. Her large eyes were enormous in her small face, her feelings naked to his mesmerizing gaze. There was concern, compassion, the beginnings of love, and a sweet, sweet innocence that shook him to his very core. She worried for him.Worried.Mikhail groaned aloud, turned from her. She had no idea what she was offering to one such as he. He knew he wasn't strong enough to resist it, and he loathed himself for his selfishness."Mikhail." She touched his arm, sending flames licking along his skin, heating his blood. He hadn't fed, and the combination of love, lust, and hunger was explosive, heady, but very, very dangerous. How could he not love her when he was in her mind, reading her thoughts, knowing her intimately? She was light to his darkness, his other half. Forbidden though it might be, mistake of nature probably, he could not help loving her."Let me help you. Share this terrible thing with me. Don't cut yourself off from me." Just the touch of her hand, the concern in her eyes, the purity and truth in her voice, brought out an unfamiliar softness in him.He dragged her to him, all too aware of the urgent demands of his body. With a low, animal growl he lifted her, whispered a soft command to her, and moved with all the speed of which he was capable.Raven blinked and found herself in the warmth of Mikhail's library, with the fire throwing shadows on the wall, unsure how she had gotten there. She didn't remember walking there, yet they were within the walls of his home. Mikhail's shirt was open, exposing the heavy muscles of his chest. His black eyes were steady on her face, watching her with a stillness, a watchfulness reminiscent of a predator. He made no attempt to hide his desire for her."I will give you one last chance, little one." He spoke the words in a harsh, hoarse voice, as if they tore painfully at his throat. "I will find the strength to let you go if you say it. Now. Right now."The length of the room separated them. The air stilled. If she lived to be a hundred, that moment would be etched forever in her mind. He stood waiting for her decision to share herself with him or damn him to eternal isolation. His head was held up proudly, his body fiercely hard, aggressively male, his eyes burning with hunger.He drove every sane thought from her head. If she condemned him, wasn't she condemning herself to the same fate? Someone needed to love this man, care for him just a little. How could he continue so alone? He waited. No compulsion, no seduction, just his eyes, his need, his total isolation from the rest of the world. Others relied on his strengths, demanded his skills, yet they didn't show him affection, didn't thank him for his unceasing vigilance. She could sate his hunger where no other could. She knew it instinctively. There would be no other woman for him. He wanted her. He needed her. She could not walk away from him."Take off your sweater." He said it softly. There was no other path for him now. He had read the decision in her eyes, in the soft trembling of her mouth.She stepped back, her blue eyes widening. Very slowly, almost reluctantly, she pulled off the sweater, as if somewhere deep inside she knew she was giving him more than her innocence. She knew she was giving him her life."The shirt."Her tongue touched her lips, moistened the satin finish. The answering jolt in his body was savage, primitive. As she drew off the turtleneck, his hands went to the buttons of his pants. The fabric was stretched taut and confining, hurting him. He was careful to use the human form of disrobing, not wanting to frighten her any further.Her bare skin gleamed in the firelight. The shadows brushed the contours of her body. Her rib cage was narrow, her waist small, emphasizing the generous fullness of her breasts. The man in him inhaled sharply, raged with need; the beast in him roared for release.Mikhail dropped his shirt on the floor, no longer able to stand the feel of the material against his ultrasensitive skin. A sound started deep in his throat, animal, feral, a fierce savage claim. Outside the wind began to rise, and dark, ominous clouds roiled across the moon. He kicked aside human garments,-exposing his body, chiseled muscle and burning need.Her throat worked convulsively as she slid the lacy straps of her bra loose, let the material slide to the floor. Her breasts thrust invitingly, nipples hard and erotic.He took the length of the room in a single fluid leap, uncaring of later explanations. Age-old instinct was taking over. He ripped the offensive jeans from her body with a single slash and tossed them aside.Raven cried out, blue eyes going smoky with fear at his intensity. Mikhail calmed her with a touch, stroking his hands over her body, committing every line to memory. "Do not fear my hunger, little one," he whispered softly. "I would never hurt you. It would be an impossibility for me to do such a thing." Her bones were small, delicate, her skin hot silk. The mass of hair came loose with his marauding fingers, brushing the hard length of him, sending fiery arrows piercing his groin. His body tightened, raged. God, he needed her so much. So much.His hand closed over the nape of her neck in an unbreakable grip, his thumb tipping back her head to expose her throat and lift her breasts to him. His hand moved slowly, tracing the swell of her breasts, resting for a moment on his mark on her neck so that it burned and throbbed, returned to cup velvet softness. He traced every line of her ribs, feeding his hunger, soothing her fears. Mikhail trailed his fingers over her flat stomach and the ridge of her hipbones, to rest in the triangle of silky curls at the juncture of her legs.She had felt his touch before, but this was a thousand times more potent. His hand created desperate need, a sensation of drowning in a world of pure feeling. Mikhail snarled something low in his own language and took her to the floor in front of the fire. His body was so aggressive, trapping hers against the wood floor, that for a moment she had the impression of a wild animal forcing its mate into submission. Mikhail had not realized until that moment just how close to turning he really was. The emotions, the passion and lust, were swirling together until he feared for both of them.The light from the flames cast a demonic shadow over him. He looked huge, invincible, a dangerous animal as he crouched over her. "Mikhail." She said his name softly, reaching out to ease the lines in his contorted features, needing him to go slower.He caught and pinned both her wrists in one hand, stretched her arms above her head and held her there. "I need your trust, little one." His voice was a combination of hoarse demand and black velvet magic. "Give it to me. Please give it to me."She was afraid, so vulnerable, stretched out like a pagan sacrifice, like an offering to a long-dead god. His eyes moved over her, hot, glowing, burning her skin everywhere his gaze touched. Raven lay quiet beneath his merciless strength, sensing his implacable resolve, aware of some terrible inner struggle within him. Her blue gaze drifted over the lines etched in his face; his mouth, so sensual, capable of such cruelty; his eyes, burning with such fierce need. Raven moved her body, testing his strength, knowing it would be impossible to stop him. She feared their joining because she was unsure of herself, of what to expect, but she believed in him.The feel of her soft, exposed body writhing beneath his only inflamed him more. Mikhail groaned her name, his hand sliding up her thigh, finding her heated core. "Trust me, Raven. I need your trust." His fingers sought velvet, probed, claimed, produced a rush of hot liquid. He bent his head to taste her skin, the texture, the scent of her.She cried out softly when his hot mouth found her breast, when his fingers probed deeper in her center. Her body rippled with pleasure. He moved lower, tracing the earlier path of his hands with his tongue. With every stroke his body tightened, his heart opened, and the caged beast became stronger. A mate. His. He inhaled her scent deeply, drawing her into the very essence of his body; his tongue slid across her slowly, a long caress.She moved again, still uncertain, but subsided when he raised his head and looked at her with stark possession burning in his eyes. Deliberately he pushed her knees apart, exposing her vulnerability to him.His eyes holding hers in warning, he lowered his head and drank.Somewhere deep inside, Mikhail recognized that she was too innocent for this particular brand of wild lovemaking, but he was determined that she would know pleasure from their union, pleasure he gave her, not some hypnotic suggestion. He had waited too long for a mate, endless centuries of hunger and darkness and total desolation. He could not be gentle and considerate when his entire being was demanding that she belong to him totally for all time. He knew her trust was everything. Her faith in him would be her safeguard.Her body convulsed; she cried out. Mikhail dragged himself over her, savoring the feel of her skin, her softness, how small she was. Every detail, no matter how small, was imprinted on his mind, became part of the savage pleasure in which he was indulging.He released her wrists, bent to kiss her mouth, her eyes. "You are so beautiful, Raven. Belong to me. Belong only to me." He was pressing against her, his body still, corded muscle, unbelievably strong, trembling with his need for her."There could be no one else, Mikhail," she answered softly, her fingers soothing on his burning skin. She smoothed the lines of deep despair from his face, reveled in the feel of his hair in her palms. "I do trust you, only you."Mikhail caught her small hips in his hands. "I will be as gentle as I can, little one. Do not close your eyes; stay with me."She was hot liquid, ready for him, but as he eased his hard length into her, he felt her protective barrier. She gasped, stiffened. "Mikhail." There was real alarm in her voice."Just for a moment, little one, and then I will take you to the heavens." He waited for her consent, waited and burned in agony.Her blue eyes shimmered, looked up at him with wondrous trust. No one, his kind or hers, down through the centuries, had ever looked at him the way she was looking at him now. Mikhail surged forward, buried himself in her tight, fiery sheath. She moaned softly, and he bent his head to find her mouth, to erase the pain with his tongue. He held himself still, felt their combined heartbeats, the blood singing in their veins, her body adjusting to accommodate his.He kissed her gently, tenderly, opening his mind as much as he dared, wanting to share himself with her. His love was wild, obsessive, protective, certainly not given easily, but given completely to her. He moved then, slowly and carefully at first, judging her reaction by her expressive face.Mikhail's body's demands began to assert themselves. Fire licked along his skin, roared in his belly. His muscles contracted, flexed, little drops of perspiration beading on his skin. He dragged her closer, claiming her for his own, his body burying itself in hers over and over, intent on sating an insatiable hunger.Raven's hands moved to his chest, fluttered there as if in protest. He growled a warning, bent his dark head to the spot over her left breast. Soft velvet skin, a fiery hot sheath. He burned, drove harder, seeking relief in the only way he could. They were one; she was his other half. She moved again, shifted away from him, a breathless, inarticulate cry voicing her fear of the rippling pleasure consuming her. He growled again, the animal protesting, sinking his strong teeth into the hollow of her shoulder, pinning her to the library floor.The fire built into a conflagration, turbulent, out of control. Thunder cracked, shaking the house as bolt after bolt of lightning struck the ground. He roared, a cry to the heavens, as he took her with him beyond the earth. It went on and on, pain edging pleasure, needing more and more. His body's seed spilling triggered a ravenous, sensual hunger, the beast in him totally aroused.Mikhail's mouth slid from her shoulder, traced a path along her throat to find the steady beat of her heart beneath her full, inviting breast. His tongue stroked her hardened nipple, returned to trace the swell of her breast, once, twice. His teeth sank deep and he fed, his body taking hers again, hot and fast, insatiable in its sexual frenzy. The taste of her was sweet and clean and very addicting. He craved more and more, his body building power and strength, driving harder and harder, burying himself deeply in her, pushing her toward another shattering release.Raven struggled with herself, not recognizing Mikhail in the beast whose emotions were pure sensual hunger and ravenous appetite. Her body responded to him, seemingly endless in its need for his. His mouth burned and tortured her skin, fed an endless, spiraling climax. She could feel herself weakening, a curious euphoria stealing over her, languid and sexy. She cradled his head to her, giving herself up to his terrible hunger as his body convulsed over and over.It was her acceptance that brought him back to sanity. This woman was not in a trance; she was offering herself freely because she felt his raging need, because she trusted him to stop before he hurt her, before he killed her.Mikhail's tongue lapped across her breast, closed the wound. He lifted his head, his dark eyes still glowing with the beast, the taste of her in his mouth, on his lips. He swore softly, bitterly, his self-loathing total. She was under his protection. He had never hated himself or his kind more. She had freely given of herself; he had taken selfishly, the beast in him so strong he had given in to the ecstasy of uniting with one's lifemate.He gathered her limp body to him, cradled her in his arms. "You will not die, Raven." He was furious with himself. Had he done this on purpose? In some dark corner of his mind, had he wanted this to happen? He would try to find the answer to the question at a later date. Right now she needed blood, and she needed it fast."Stay with me, little one. I remained in this world because of you. You will have to be strong for both of us. Can you hear me, Raven? Do not leave me. I can make you happy. I know I can."He slashed a burning wound across his chest. He pressed her mouth to the dark crimson stain pouring freely from the slash.You will drink; obey me in this.He knew better than to have her drink directly from his flesh, but he needed to hold her, needed the feel of her soft mouth against his skin taking his very essence, his life's blood, into her starving body.Her obedience was reluctant, her body threatening to reject his life-giving fluid. She gagged, tried to turn her head away. Ruthlessly he clamped her to him. "You will live, little one."Drink deeply.Her will was incredibly strong. Even his own people did not require so much effort to force obedience. Of course, his people trusted in him, wanted to obey. Although Raven was unaware of what he was forcing on her, some deep sense of self-preservation fought his commands. It didn't matter. His will would prevail. It always prevailed.Mikhail carried her to his sleeping chamber. He crushed sweet, healing herbs around the bed, covered her small, still form. He placed her in a deep sleep. In an hour he would make her drink again. He stood for a moment staring down at her, feeling the need to cry. She looked so beautiful, a rare, precious treasure he had treated cruelly, when he should have guarded her against the beast in him. Carpathians were not human. Their lovemaking was intensely wild. Raven was young, inexperienced, a human. He had not been able to keep his newly acquired emotions under control in the heat of passion.With trembling fingers he touched her face, a light caress, then bent to kiss her soft mouth. With an oath, he spun around and left the room. The safeguards were the strongest he knew, locking her in, everyone and everything out.The storm raged outside, as furious and turbulent as his soul. He took three running steps and launched himself into the sky, hurtling toward the village. The winds whirled and screamed around him. The house he sought was no more than a small shack. He stood at the door, his face a mask of torment.Edgar Hummer opened the door silently, stood aside to allow him entrance. "Mikhail." The voice was gentle. Edgar Hummer was eighty-three years old. Most of his years had been spent in the service of the Lord. He considered himself deeply privileged to be counted among Mikhail Dubrinsky's few real friends.Mikhail filled the small room with his presence, his power. He was agitated, deeply disturbed. He paced restlessly, the storm outside increasing in fury, in strength.Edgar settled himself in his chair, lit his pipe, and waited. He had never seen Mikhail anything but completely calm, without emotion. This was a dangerous man, a man Edgar had never even glimpsed.Mikhail slammed a fist against the rock fireplace, creating a fine network of lines across the stones. "I nearly killed a woman tonight." He confessed it harshly, his dark eyes wounded. "You told me God made us for a purpose, that we were created by him. I am more beast than man, Edgar, and I cannot continue to delude myself. I would seek eternal rest, but even that is denied to me. Assassins stalk my people. I have no right to leave them until I know they are protected. Now my woman is in danger, not only from me but from my enemies."Edgar puffed at his pipe calmly. "You said 'my woman.' You love this woman?"Mikhail waved a dismissing hand. "She is mine." It was a statement, a decree. How could he say love? It was an insipid word for what he felt. She was purity. Goodness. Compassion. Everything that he was not.Edgar nodded. "You're in love with her."Mikhail scowled darkly. "I need. I hunger. I want. That is my life." He said it in torment, as if he could make it true."Then why do you feel such pain, Mikhail? You wanted her; maybe you needed her. I presume you took her. You hungered; I presume you fed. Why should you feel pain?""You know it is wrong to take the blood of women for whom we feel other appetites.""You have said you have not felt sexual need in centuries. That you cannot feel at all," Edgar reminded him softly."I feel for her," Mikhail confessed, his dark eyes alive with pain. "I want her every moment of the day. I need her. God, I have to have her. Not only her body, but also her blood. I am addicted to the taste. I crave her, all of her, yet it is forbidden.""But you did it anyway?""I almost killed her.""But you didn't. She still lives. She cannot be the first time you fed too deeply. Did the others cause you pain?"Mikhail turned away. "You do not understand. It was the way it happened, what I did afterward. I feared it from the moment I first heard her voice.""If it never happened before, why did you fear it?"Mikhail hung his head, his fingers curling into fists. "Because I wanted her, I could not bear to give her up. I wanted her to know me, know the worst. See all of me. I wanted to bind her to me so she could never leave my side.""She is human.""Yes. She has abilities, a mental link to me. Compassion. She walks in beauty. I told myself I would not do this thing, that it was wrong, but I knew I would.""And knowing you would do something you believe is wrong, you still did it. You must have had a good reason.""Selfishness. Did you not hear me? I, I, I. Everything for myself. I found a reason to continue my existence and I took what did not belong to me and still, even now, talking to you, I know I will not give her up.""Accept your nature, Mikhail. Accept yourself as you are."Mikhail's laughter was bitter. "Everything is so clear to you. You say I am one of God's children. I have purpose; I should accept my nature. My nature is to take what I believe is mine, hold it, protect it. Chain it to my side if necessary. I cannot let her go. I cannot. She is like the wind, open and free. If I caged the wind, would it die?""Then don't cage it, Mikhail. Trust it to stay beside you.""How can I protect the wind, Edgar?""You said cannot, Mikhail. You cannot let her go. Not would not, will not. You said cannot; there is a difference.""For me. What of her? What choice am I giving her?""I have always believed in you, in your goodness and your strength. It is very possible that the young lady needs you as well. You have heard the legends and lies associated with your kind for so long, you are beginning to believe the nonsense. To a true vegetarian, a meat-eater can be repulsive. The tiger needs deer to survive. A plant needs water. We all need something. You take only what you need. Kneel, receive God's blessing, and go back to your woman. You will find a way to protect your wind."Mikhail knelt obediently, his head bent, allowing the peace of the old man and his words to comfort him. Outside, the fury of the storm abated abruptly, as if it had spent its anger and now could rest in the aftermath."Thank you, Father," Mikhail whispered."Do what you must to protect your race, Mikhail. In the eyes of God, they are His children."