Mikhail wrapped his arms around Raven's slender form, pulled her tight against his hard frame. His body curved protectively around hers. She was heavily asleep, her body light, her face pale. There were deep shadows beneath her eyes. He whispered to her softly. "I am sorry for this, little one, sorry I have placed you in this position. Beast that I am, I know I would do it again. You will not die; I cannot allow it."He traced a line over the vein in his wrist, filled the glass beside his bed with the dark red liquid.Hear me, Raven. You need this drink. Obey me at once.He pressed the glass to her pale lips, tilted some of the contents down her throat. His blood was very healing, would ensure her life.Raven choked, gagged, tried to turn her head away as she had before.Obeyme at once. You will drink all of it.His command was stronger this time. She detested the contents, her body striving to reject it, but the force of his will won, as it always did.Mikhail!He heard the forlorn cry in his head.You must drink, Raven. Continue your trust in me.She relaxed and sank back into the layers of sleep, obeying him reluctantly.Mikhail had caught a brief glimpse of her confused thoughts, the swirl of alarmed emotions. She believed she was fighting a nightmare. Her color was better. Satisfied, he lay down beside her. She would remember the blood exchange as only a part of her nightmare. He propped himself up on one elbow, taking the time to study her face, her long thick lashes, her flawless skin and high cheekbones. It wasn't just her beauty, he knew that; it was what was inside her, the compassion and light that allowed her to accept his wild, untamed nature.It was beyond his imagination that such a miracle could occur. Just when he knew he would walk into the sun without hesitation, he had been sent an angel. A slow smile softened his mouth. His angel refused to do anything he told her. She responded far better when he thought to ask. He had been too long accustomed to obedience from all those under his protection. He had to remember that she was mortal, raised in a different time, with different values. It was imprinted on male Carpathians before their births that it was their duty to protect the women and children. With few women and no female children born in the last centuries, it was essential to safeguard every woman they had.Raven was mortal, not Carpathian. She did not belong in his world. When she left, she would take his color and emotions with her. She would take the very air he breathed. He closed his eyes against the thought. Where would he find the strength to let her walk away? He had so much to do before sunrise. He wanted to stay with her, hold her, persuade her not to leave him, tell her what was in his heart, tell her what she meant to him, tell her she couldn't leave him, that he might not survive. He wouldn't survive.He sighed heavily, rose once more. He needed to replenish himself, get to work. Again he crushed healing herbs, then thrust her more deeply into sleep. He was meticulous about the safeguards in his home and added a command to the creatures in the forest. If anyone came near his lair, threatened her in any way, he would know immediately.At Mikhail's call, Jacques and Byron met him in the trees above Noelle and Rand's home. Once the body had been discovered, it had been properly burned, as was their way. "You touched nothing else?" Mikhail asked."Only the body. All of their clothes and personal items were left as we found them," Byron assured him. "Rand did not go back in the house. You know they must have some sort of trap set for you. The body was left deliberately as bait.""Oh, I am certain of that. They will use all the modern technology they can come up with - cameras, videos." Mikhail's dark features were brooding. "They believe all the legends. Stakes, garlic, beheading. They are so predictable and primitive." There was a snarl in his voice, contempt for the murderers. "They take so much trouble to learn about our kind before they condemn us to death."Byron and Jacques exchanged an uneasy glance. Mikhail in this mood could be lethal. His hooded eyes, burning with fury, slid over them. "You stay and observe. If I get into trouble, you get out. Do not show yourselves." He hesitated. "If something goes wrong, I ask a favor."Mikhail had slipped into old-word formality. Byron and Jacques would lay down their lives for him. It was a rare privilege to be asked a favor by the prince of their people. "My woman is sleeping deeply. She rests in my home. The safeguards are many and perilous. You must be careful and take great care to unravel them meticulously. She is to be healed, taught how to shield herself, and if she chooses, to stay in your protection. Through our bloodline, Jacques, you will inherit the mantle of leadership. I believe it should be offered to Gregori at this time, to give you the time you will need to educate yourself to lead. If Gregori should refuse to accept - and most likely he will - my mantle must pass to you, Jacques. You will find it not to your liking, as I suspect you are already aware. If such becomes the case, you will have to ensure Gregori's loyalty to you and to our people. You will do these things for me. Byron, you will aid Jacques as Gregori has aided me. Both of you will give your sworn allegiance to Gregori should he accept."Both answered formally, speaking the words that bound them to their vow. Byron cleared his throat. "Have you... that is, is she one of us?" He ventured the question with great caution. They all knew vampires had attempted the conversion of human women. They had even discussed the possibility that they try, because they were in such a desperate situation. The risk far outweighed the advantages. The women that had been converted had gone mad, had murdered small children, and had been impossible to save. Carpathians were born with their abilities and taught rigid discipline. The few who broke their laws were dealt with instantly and harshly. The race respected all forms of life. Because of their tremendous power, it had to be that way.Mikhail shook his head. "I know that she is my true mate. The ritual was hard on her. I had no choice but to replenish her." His words were terse, surly, daring them to continue the inquisition, warning them that it would be at their peril. "I did not bind her to me. She is mortal and it would be wrong.""We will do as you wish," Byron reiterated with an uneasy glance at Jacques, who looked more amused than worried.Mikhail dissolved effortlessly, streamed down through the heavy branches of the fir tree. Once on the ground he took the form of a wolf. Mist couldn't scent, and he needed the unique capabilities of his furred brethren. He would find spoor and follow it. After all, first and foremost, above all else, he was a predator. His shrewd intellect only served to enhance his hunting abilities.The wolf circled the clearing warily, nose close to the ground, examining each tree in the vicinity near the house. The wolf smelled death. It filled his nostrils with its sour, pungent odor. He began to crisscross the ground, covering every inch in his search pattern, identifying Rand's odor, Eric, and Jacques. He found where the assassins had approached the house. Four men. He lingered over each scent until they were imprinted deeply in his mind. He took his time unraveling the macabre, gruesome story.The men had approached stealthily, even crawling from cover to cover at times. The wolf followed their path, straying here and there to cover ground, looking for hidden traps. At the door he paused, circled warily, backed off. Suddenly his hind legs dug into the dirt, and he launched himself straight through a window, shattering glass and landing a good six feet into the room. Deep within the wolf's body, Mikhail's laughter was grim and without humor. The four assassins had returned to the scene of their grisly murder to set up cameras to capture images of his kind. If the assassins had had guts, they would have stayed and waited for the body to be discovered. They had done their brutal business and had run like the cowards they were.Bile rose in his throat. The wolf shook its head, growled low. Three of the scents were unknown to him, the fourth very familiar.A traitor.How much had he received to betray Noelle? The wolf leapt again, crashing through a second window. The camera would record a huge wolf, a blurred movement of shattered glass and mist and the wolf again. Only Mikhail, and a few other hunters, Jacques and Gregori, Aidan and Julian were capable of such speed in shape-shifting.He began backtracking the assassins. One scent split off from the rest, wound into deep forest, came out near the timberline very close to Edgar Hummer's cabin and Dr. Westhemer's office. The wolf stayed in the trees, staring at the small house behind the office with cruel, red, unblinking eyes. Abruptly the wolf spun around, trotted back to where the assassins had split paths, and picked up the trail of the other three. It led straight to the inn where Raven was staying.Mikhail joined Byron and Jacques in the treetop. "Three of them stay at the inn. I will recognize them when I am close to them. Tomorrow I will escort my woman back to collect her things. While I am there, I will be able to pick out their scents. There is no way of knowing if others are involved. Until we find out, we will have to be very careful. They have a video camera set up in the house; the trigger is on the door. Everyone needs to stay out of there." Mikhail was silent for a long moment."Does Celeste go to Dr. Westhemer?" he finally asked softly."I think she sees Hans Romanov's wife. She works with the doctor and delivers most of the babies," Jacques replied."And Eleanor?" Mikhail asked.Jacques stirred uncomfortably. "I believe so.""This woman assisted Noelle's birth?"Byron cleared his throat. "Noelle delivered the child at home with Heidi Romanov helping her. Rand was there; I came at his call. After the midwife left, Noelle hemorrhaged. Rand had to give her blood. I stayed with Noelle while Rand hunted. And no, Mrs. Romanov did not see any of it. There was no one close; I would have known.""It was Hans Romanov who led the others to Noelle. I do not know if his wife was involved, but someone informed the assassins that the Carpathians were reproducing." Mikhail gave the information in a soft monotone. His eyes burned, glowed, his body trembled with fury; his hands opened and closed, but his voice was perfectly controlled. "It is necessary to know if the woman is involved.""She must be," Byron snapped. "Why are we waiting?""Because we are not the barbaric animals these evil ones have named us. We have to know if the midwife is a traitor. And it is not your duty to dispense justice, Byron. It is not an easy thing to live with, the taking of life." Mikhail had felt the weight of each of those lives down through the centuries, but as his power and responsibilities grew, so did the ease with which he killed. As his emotions had faded, it was only his strong will and sense of right and wrong that prevented him from losing his soul to the insidious whispers of the darkness struggling for supremacy."What do you want us to do?" Jacques asked."It is not safe for Eleanor or Celeste to be in their homes. No more trips to the midwife. Take Celeste to my home above the lake. Eric will be able to study the ancient arts, which he has neglected. It is an easy place to defend. Eleanor cannot travel as far.""They can use my home," Byron offered. "They will be close if they need help." Eleanor was his sister, and he had always loved her dearly. Despite the fact that his emotions were long gone, he remembered what it felt like."It is risky. If your relationship is known and she is under suspicion, or if you were seen assisting Rand..." Mikhail shook his head, not liking the idea. "Maybe they should take over my home.""No!" The simultaneous protests were instant and sharp."No, Mikhail, we cannot afford the risk to you." Jacques sounded alarmed."Our women come first before any of us, Jacques," Mikhail reminded him gently. "Without them, our race will die. We can have sex with humans, but we cannot procreate with them. Our women are our greatest treasures. Each of you must eventually mate and father children. But be certain the one you choose is your true lifemate. All of you know the signs: colors, emotions, the burning for her. The bond is strong. When one dies, the other usually chooses to die also. It is death or vampire. We all know that.""But Rand..." Byron trailed off."Rand became impatient with the waiting. Noelle was obsessed with him, but they were not true lifemates. I think they ended up hating each other, trapped in the sickness of their relationship. He will survive her passing." Mikhail worked to keep the disgust from his voice. True lifemates could not survive long without each other. That fact and the high mortality rate of their children, had taken a huge toll on their dwindling race. Mikhail was not certain his people would survive into the next century. No matter how hard he tried, he could not find the hope necessary to keep the males from turning vampire."Mikhail - " Jacques chose his words carefully - "only you and Gregori know the secrets of our race. You know Gregori will choose his solitary existence. Only you can teach the rest of us, lead us, help us to grow. If we are to survive, grow strong again, it cannot be done without you. Your blood is the life of our people.""Why do you say this to me?" Mikhail snapped, not wanting to hear the truth.Jacques and Byron exchanged a long, uneasy glance. "We have been concerned for some time about your continued withdrawal.""My withdrawal was inevitable and is hardly your business.""You have chosen to remain completely alone, even among those of us you call blood kin," Jacques went on."What is it you are trying to say?" Mikhail snapped impatiently. He had been away from Raven for too long. He needed to see her, hold her, touch her mind with his."We cannot afford to lose you. And if you do not wish to continue your life, you will begin to take greater risks, become careless," Jacques drawled slowly.Mikhail's dark, brooding eyes slowly warmed, and a smile tugged at the hard corners of his mouth, softening the lines in his beautifully chiseled features. "You young devils. How have you managed to watch me without my knowledge?""The alpha pair fear for you also," Jacques admitted. "As I am of your blood and under your protection, they accept and speak with me. They watch over you when you take your solitary walks and when you run with the pack. They say there is no joy in you."Mikhail laughed softly. "I need a good wolf hide for this winter. Whatever my feelings, Noelle was our sister, one of my people. I will not rest until her murderers are brought to justice."Jacques cleared his throat, a cocky grin dispelling the ruthless set of his dark features. "I do not suppose this woman you are hiding has anything to do with your sudden desire to rise with the night."The toe of Mikhail's boot nearly pushed Jacques from his perch in retaliation for his audacity.Byron caught at the branch with a tight grip. "Eleanor and Vlad can stay with me. It will be double protection for her and her unborn child."Mikhail nodded. Though he was uncomfortable with the decision, he could see that they would continue their protests if he insisted on taking the personal risk. "For a couple of days, until we find a safer solution.""Take great care, Mikhail," Jacques warned."Sleep deep tomorrow," he responded. "They hunt us."Byron paused, suddenly alarmed. "How can you go to ground if the human woman is with you?""I will not leave her." Mikhail's voice was implacable."The deeper we are in the earth, the harder to hear your call if you are in trouble," Jacques reminded quietly.Mikhail sighed. "You two are as relentless as two old maiden aunts. I am certainly capable of protecting my lair." His body shimmered, bent, and became that of an owl. He spread giant wings and soared into the sky, making his way back to Raven.He inhaled deeply, filling himself with the pure, clean scent of her, wiping out the ugliness of the night's discoveries. Her scent was in the library, mingled with his own. He took their combined scents deep within his lungs, bent to pick up their scattered clothing. He wanted to be inside her, to touch her, to fasten his mouth to hers, their blood one, to recite the ritual words so that they would be tied for eternity the way they were meant to be. The thought of her offering him that gift, accepting his offering, was so arousing that Mikhail had to stand still until the urgent demands of his body eased somewhat.He took a long shower, washing away the wolf from his body, the dust and dirt, the odor of a traitor. All Carpathians took great care to acquire the habits of mortals. Food in the cupboards and clothes in the closets. Lamps throughout the house. All of them took showers when there was no real need, and most of them found they enjoyed it. He left his coffee-colored hair hanging free and went to Raven. For the first time he took pride in his body, the way he hardened, thrusting aggressively at the sight of her.She was asleep, her hair spilling like a curtain of silk across the pillow. The blanket had slipped and her long hair was the only covering across her breast. The picture was erotic. She lay waiting for him, needing him even in her sleep. He gently murmured the command to release her from her trance-induced sleep.She lay gleaming in the moonlight, her skin soft, the color of peaches. Mikhail slid his hand over the contour of her leg. The feel of her jolted his insides. He stroked her hips, traced her small, tucked-in waist. Raven stirred, shifted restlessly. Mikhail stretched out beside her, pulled her into the shelter of his arms, his chin resting on the top of her head.He wanted her, any way he could get her, but he owed her some semblance of honesty. At least as much as he dared give her. She emerged from the layers of sleep slowly, burrowing against his hard strength as if for comfort from a bad dream. How could a human possibly understand the needs of a Carpathian male in the sexual frenzy of a true mating ritual? Down through the long ages, he had feared few things, yet more than anything he feared to see himself through her innocent eyes.He knew by her breathing the moment she was fully awake, and by her sudden tension that she realized where she was and with whom. He had taken her innocence brutally, had nearly taken her life. How could she forgive such a thing?Raven closed her eyes, trying desperately to separate fact from fiction, reality from fantasy. Her body was sore, hurting in places she didn't know she had. She felt different, more sensitive. Mikhail's body against hers was like hot marble, immovable and aggressive, unbearably sexy. She could hear the creaks and rustles of the house acutely, the sway of branches outside the window. She pushed at the wall of Mikhail's chest to try to put space between their bodies.Mikhail tightened his arms, buried his face in her hair. "If you can touch my mind, Raven, you know what I feel for you." His voice was husky, vulnerable.In spite of herself, Raven felt her heart turn over."I do not want you to leave me, little one. Have the courage to stay with me. Perhaps I am a monster. I do not know anymore, I truly do not, only that I need you to stay with me.""You could have made me forget," she pointed out, more for herself than for him, more of a question than a statement. He had been wild, but she couldn't say he'd hurt her. Rather, he had taken her to the very stars."I thought about it," he admitted reluctantly, "but I do not want that between us. I am sorry I was not more careful with your innocence."She heard the ache in his voice, felt an answering one in her body. "You know you made sure I felt pleasure." Ecstasy was more like it. A baptism by fire, an exchange of souls. He was wild, and he had swept her up with him in the firestorm. And she wanted him again, craved his touch, the driving strength of his body. But he was dangerous, really, really, dangerous. She knew that now. She knew he was different, that something lived in him, more animal than man."Mikhail." Raven pushed against the solid wall of his chest. She needed to breathe, to think without feeling the heat of his skin and the urgent demands of his body."Do not do this!" His voice was a sharp command. "Do not shut me out.""You're talking about a commitment to something so beyond anything I can imagine..." Raven bit at her lip. "My home is so far from here.""You have nothing but sorrow there, Raven." He refused the simple out for both of them. "You know you will not survive on your own, and although it is in your mind to deny them your talents when they come to you with another hideous crime, you know in your heart you will be unable to say no. It is not in you to allow a killer to go free when you might save his next victim." His hand bunched in the silken length of her hair, as if that could hold her to him. "They cannot care for you as I can.""What of our differences? You have this attitude toward women, as if we're second-class citizens and not too bright. Unfortunately, you have the capability to force your will on anyone who might oppose you. And I would. All the time. I have to be myself, Mikhail."He lifted the weight of her hair from the nape of her neck and brushed a kiss, feather light, on her exposed skin. "You know my attitude toward women reflects my need to protect them, not that I think them less than myself. Oppose me all you wish, little one. I love everything about you."His thumb was stroking the soft swell of her breast, heating her blood, sending a shiver of excitement down her spine. Raven wanted him wild and untamed, wanted him needing her. He was so in control; it was a powerful aphrodisiac to realize she could make him lose that control.Mikhail bent his head to the hardened nipple beckoning him. His tongue touched her gently; he kissed the velvet peak, drew her into the moist, hot cavern of his mouth. Raven made a sound, a soft sigh, closed her eyes. Her body was coming alive, every nerve ending screaming for his touch. She felt boneless, pliant, her body melting into the heat of his.She didn't want this. Tears burned in her throat, behind her eyes. She didn't want this, but she needed it. "Don't hurt me, Mikhail." She whispered the words against the heavy muscles of his chest. It was a plea for their future. Raven knew he would never hurt her physically, but their life could be very stormy together.He lifted his head, shifted so that his weight pinned her beneath him. His dark eyes moved possessively over her small, fragile face. His hand cupped her face, his thumb stroking across her chin, her full lower lip. "Do not fear me, Raven. Can you not feel the strength of my emotions, my tie to you? I would give my life for you." Because he wanted truth between them, he admitted the inevitable. "It will not be easy, but we will work things out between us." His hand stroked her flat stomach, moved lower to nestle in her midnight-black curls.Her hand stilled his. "What happened to me?" She was confused. Had she fainted? Everything was so jumbled. She knew for certain Mikhail had forced her to drink some disgusting medicinal concoction. She had slept. Later there had been nightmares. She was used to nightmares, but this one had been horrible. She had been forced to a naked chest, her mouth clamped to a terrible wound. Blood, running like a river, forced down her throat. She choked, gagged, fought, but somehow, in that nightmare world, she could not pull away. She had tried to call for Mikhail. And then she had looked up and there he was, looking down at her with his dark, mysterious eyes, his hand forcing her head against the wound in his chest. Was it because she was in the heart of Dracula country and Mikhail reminded her of a dark, mysterious prince?Raven couldn't help herself; she smoothed gentle fingertips over his unblemished chest. Something had happened to her and she knew she was changed for all time, that she was somehow a part of Mikhail and he was a part of her.Mikhail's knee gently pushed her legs apart. He shifted once more above her, blocking out everything with his broad shoulders. He took her breath away with his size and power, his strength and beauty. Very gently, the way he should have the first time, he eased into her.Raven gasped. She would never get over the way he filled her, stretched her, the way he could turn her body to liquid fire. If he had been wild the first time, he was tender and gentle this time. Every deep stroke built a heavy craving for more, an urgency that had her hands caressing the chiseled muscles of his back, her mouth moving over his neck, his chest.Mikhail worked at control, called on his extraordinary discipline. Her mouth was driving him mad, the feel of her fingers on his skin. Raven was so tight; hot velvet gripped him, fed the fires. He could feel the beast in him fighting to break free, his hunger raging, his body moving harder, faster, burying itself in her, merging their bodies, their hearts. He opened his mind, sought hers. The need in her drove him on. Her fingernails dug into his back as wave after wave rippled through her body. Mikhail gave in to the fire before the beast could break free. He surged into her, felt her body, tight and hot, grip his. He allowed himself a low growl of total satisfaction.Mikhail lay over her slender body, still joined to her, momentarily sated. He felt her tears on his chest. Lifting his head slowly, he bent to taste her tears. "Why do you cry?""How will I ever find the strength to leave you?" she murmured softly, painfully.His eyes darkened dangerously. Mikhail rolled over, felt how uncomfortable she was with her nudity, and dragged a blanket around her. Raven sat up, pushed the heavy fall of hair from her face with that curiously innocent, sexy gesture of hers that he loved. Her blue eyes were frankly wary."You will not leave me, Raven." His voice was much harsher than he intended. With great effort, he forced himself to gentle it. She was young and vulnerable; he had to remember that above all else. She had no idea what the cost of separation would be to either of them. "How can you share what we have and just walk away?""You know why. Don't pretend you don't. I feel things, sense them. This is all too bizarre for me. I don't know the laws in this country, but when someone is murdered, the law and the press are notified. That's just one thing, Mikhail; we won't even get into the things you're capable of doing - nearly strangling' Jacob, for heaven's sake. You're way out of my league and we both know it." She pulled the blanket closer around her shoulders. "I want you, I can't even think about being without you, but I'm not certain what is going on here."His hand stroked down the length of her hair in a disturbing caress, his fingers moving through silken strands to wisp down her back to the base of her bare spine. His touch melted her insides, curled her toes. Raven closed her eyes, laid her head on her knees. She was no match for him in any way.Mikhail shifted his hand to her nape, his fingers soothing. "We are already committed to one another. Can you not feel it, Raven?" He whispered the words, a husky blend of warmth and sensuality. He knew he was fighting her instincts, her innate sense of self-preservation. He chose his words carefully. "You know who I am, what is inside me. If distance separated us, you would still need to feel my hands on you, my mouth on yours, my body in yours, a part of yours."Just his words alone warmed her blood, fed the ache deep inside. Raven covered her face, ashamed that she had such need of what amounted to a total stranger. "I'm going home, Mikhail. I'm so wrapped up in you, I'm doing things I never thought possible." It wasn't only physical: She wished it were. She didn't want to feel his loneliness, his greatness, his incredible will and drive to keep those he led safe from harm. But she did feel it. She could feel his heart, his soul, his mind. She had talked to him without speaking aloud, she had shared his mind. She knew he was in her.His arm curved around her shoulders, drew her huddled form beside him. To comfort or to restrain? Raven swallowed the burning tears. There were sounds pouring into her head, rustlings, creaks. She put her hands over her ears to shut them out. "What's happening to me, Mikhail? What did we do that's changed me like this?""You are my life, my mate, the half of myself that was missing." His hand returned to stroking her hair with infinite gentleness. "My people mate for life. I am a true Carpathian; I am of the earth. We have special gifts."She turned her head, regarding him with enormous blue eyes. "Telepathic ability. Yours is very strong, much stronger than mine. And so developed. It amazes me, the things you can do.""The price for these gifts is high, little one. We are cursed with the need for one mate, a sharing of souls. Once this occurs - and the ritual can be brutal to an innocent woman - we cannot live apart from our mates. Our children are few; we lose many in the first year and most of those born are male. We are both blessed and cursed with longevity. For those of us who are happy, a long life is a blessing; for someone alone and tormented, it is a curse. It is one long eternity of darkness, a barren, stark existence."Mikhail cupped her chin in the palm of his hand, tipped her chin up so that she could not escape his dark, hungry eyes. He took a deep breath, let it out. "We did not have sex, little one; we did not make love. Ours was as close to a true Carpathian mating ritual as is possible without your, being of our blood. If you leave me... " His voice trailed off, and he shook his head. He needed to bind her to him irrevocably. The words were in his mind, his heart. The beast raged to say them. She would never escape, yet he could not do that to her, say the words to a mortal. He had no idea what would happen to her.The spot over her left breast ached, throbbed, even burned. Raven looked down, saw the dark evidence of his brand, touched it with her fingertips. She remembered the feel of his teeth pinning her to the floor, his strength, the warning growl rumbling in his throat like that of an animal. He had taken her body as if it belonged to him, wildly, a little brutally, yet something in her had responded to the ferocious hunger and need in him. At the same time, he had been tender, insuring her pleasure before his own, so careful of her size and the frailty of her small bones. The mixture of his tenderness and wild nature was so impossible to resist, Raven knew no other man could ever touch her as he had. There would only be Mikhail for her."Are you telling me you're of another race, Mikhail?" She was striving to put it all together."We believe that we are of another species. We are different. We hide it well - we have to - but we can hear things humans cannot. We speak to the animals, share our minds as well as our bodies and hearts. Understand, this information in the wrong hands would doom us all. My life is literally in your hands."Inmore ways than one.She caught the echo of his thought before he could censor it. "Would you have stopped if I had panicked?"He closed his eyes, ashamed. "I would like to lie to you, but I will not. I would have soothed you, made certain you could accept me.""Commanded me?""No!" He denied that vehemently. He would not have gone that far. He was certain of that. He believed absolutely that he could have persuaded her to accept him."These gifts." She rubbed her chin across her knees. "You are stronger physically than any human I've ever met. And that leap in the library - you reminded me of a great jungle cat - is that part of your heritage, too?""Yes." His hand tangled in her hair again, brought a fistful up to bury his face in it, breathing her in. His scent lingered on her, would remain in her. A trace of satisfaction touched his fathomless eyes."You bit me." She touched first her neck, then her breast. A sweet, hot ache filled her at the memory of him wild in her arms, his body frenzied with need, his mind a turbulent, red desire, his mouth working eagerly, hungrily at her.What was wrong with her that she wanted more?She had heard of women so enthralled by sex that they were virtual slaves. Was that what was happening to her? She flung up a hand as if to ward him off. "Mikhail, this is so fast. I can't fall in love in a couple of days, decide my life in a few minutes. I don't know you; I'm even a little bit afraid of you, of what you are, the power you wield.""You said you trusted me.""I do. That's what makes me so crazy. Can't you see that? We're so different. You do crazy things, yet I want to be with you, hear your laughter, argue with you. I want to see your smile, the way your eyes light up, the hunger and need in you when you look at me. I want to take that coldness from your eyes, the distant, faraway stare when your mouth hardens and you look cruel and ruthless. Yes, I trust you, but I have no reason to.""You are very pale. How do you feel?" He wanted to tell her it was too late, that they had gone too far, but he knew it would only build her resistance and alarm her needlessly."Funny, sort of sick to my stomach, like I should eat something, but the thought of food makes me ill. You gave me one of your herb concoctions, didn't you?""Drink water and juices for a few days, a little fruit. No meat.""I'm a vegetarian." She looked around. "Where are my clothes?"He grinned unexpectedly, a perfect male smirk. "I got carried away and ripped your jeans. Just stay with me tonight and I will get you new clothes tomorrow.""It's nearly morning now," she pointed out, unwilling to lie down with him again. She couldn't lie beside him and not burn for him. "Besides, I want a shower." Before he had a chance to protest, she slid off the bed, wrapped safely in the old-fashioned quilt.Mikhail kept his smile to himself. Let her feel safe; it cost him nothing. No way was she leaving his house, not with the assassins residing at her inn. To keep his mind off the image of her naked beneath the spray of water, he concentrated on the details of her emotions before he had taken her by force from the inn's dining room.What had caused her frantic distress that night? She had been literally sick, her head pounding. She thought her reaction was caused by his rage, but he had been enraged at her distress. He had felt it before that oaf of a human had laid an unholy hand on her.Mikhail touched her mind because he had to. He found what he expected, tears and confusion. Her body was changing, had changed with his blood running in her veins. Legend required a human and Carpathian to exchange blood three times for conversion. The blood he had given her from the cup would not count, because she had not taken it directly from his body. He had no intention of converting her, of taking a chance that she might become a deranged vampiress. As it was, he had gone dangerously over the line. He would once more. It would have to last an eternity.Raven had heard his words, all of which held truth, but he knew she had no idea of the reality. She would hear the whispers from every room in the inn, know when a bee entered the downstairs dining room. The sun would bother her eyes and she would burn easily. Animals would reveal their secrets to her.Most foods would make her sick. But most of all, she would need him close, need to touch his mind, feel his body, burn with him. She already felt it, and she was fighting it in the only way she knew how - fighting to free herself from him, fighting to understand what was happening to her.Raven leaned her body against the glass shower stall. She knew she couldn't hide in the bathroom like a runaway child, but he was so potent, so compelling. She wanted to ease those lines of strain around his mouth, wanted to tease him, argue with him, hear his laughter. She was curiously weak still, a bit dizzy."Come on, little one." Mikhail's voice wrapped her in a black-velvet caress. His arm reached into the glass shower, turned off the water. He shackled her wrist and pulled her from the safety of the large stall, enveloped her slender body in a towel.Raven wrung out her long hair, a blush stealing over her entire body. Mikhail was so comfortable, uncaring of his nudity. There was something untamed and magnificent about his raw strength, the casual way he accepted it. He rubbed her body with a large bath towel, buffing her skin until she was warm and rosy. The towel brushed her sensitive nipples, lingered along her rounded bottom, delved in the crease of her hip.Despite her resolve, her body came alive under his ministrations. Mikhail cupped her face, bent to brush his mouth against hers, feather light, enticing. "Come back to bed," he whispered, leading her there."Mikhail," she protested softly, breathlessly.He tugged on her wrist, unbalanced her so that her body came up against him. Her body melted into his, soft breasts pushing against heavy muscle, the evidence of his desire pressing against her stomach. His thighs were two strong columns welded with hers. "I could love you all night, Raven," he murmured enticingly against her throat. His hands moved over her body, leaving fire in their wake. "I want to love you all night.""Isn't that the point? It's dawn." Her hands had a mind of their own, finding every defined muscle with her fingertips."Then I will spend the day making love to you." He whispered the words against her mouth, bent closer to nibble at the corners of her lower lip. "I need you with me. You chase away the shadows and lighten the terrible load that threatens to drown me."She skimmed her fingertips across the hard edges of his mouth. "Is this possession, or is it love?" She dipped her head to press her mouth to the hollow of his sternum, to slide her tongue over the ultrasensitive skin above his heart. There was no mark, no scar, but the sweep of her tongue followed the exact line of his earlier wound, where he had forced her to accept his life's blood. She was merged with him, reading his mind, his erotic fantasies, wanting to bring them to life.His gut clenched hotly, his body responding with fierce aggression. Raven smiled at the feel of his hard length burning against her skin. She had no inhibitions when she lay with him, only a fierce desire to burn with him. "Answer me, Mikhail, the truth." Her fingertips brushed his velvet tip, fingers curled around the heavy thickness of him sending hunger raging through his body. She was playing with fire, but he didn't have the strength to stop her; he didn't want to stop her.His hands curled in her damp hair, two tight fists. "Both," he managed to gasp.He closed his eyes when her mouth moved over his flat belly, leaving behind a trail of fire. Wherever she touched him, her mouth, hot and moist, followed. He dragged her closer, urging her onto him. Her mouth was tight and hot and driving him mad. A low, ominous growl escaped, the beast shuddering with pleasure, needing primitive satisfaction.Her fingernails raked the hard column of his thighs, light, erotic, sending fire leaping, coiling in his gut. His mind blurred, merged more deeply with hers, a red haze of lust and need, love and hunger. He craved her touch, her hands, her silky mouth turning him into a living, breathing flame.Mikhail dragged her up, his hands like bands, although he made every effort to be conscious of his strength. His mouth took hers, mating, dancing, so much hunger beating in him she caught it, pressing closer, her body sliding against his, rubbing, heating."Say you want me." His mouth moved over her throat, closed over her aching breast. Every strong pull sent an answering rush of liquid heat."You know I do." She pressed him to her, wound a leg around his.She could barely breathe with her need, clawing at him to get closer, to crawl inside the shelter of his body, his mind, to feel his body in hers, taking possession as he was meant to, to feel his mouth at her breast, dragging her further into his world."All of it," he said hoarsely, his fingers probing the nest of tiny curls, stroking, caressing. "Mate with me my way."She moved in a kind of anguish against his hand. "Yes, Mikhail." She was frantic for release, frantic to relieve him. She was consumed with the same red haze, not separating love from lust or hunger from need. She was on fire, hurting, aching, body and mind, even her soul in torment, not knowing where his wild, uninhibited emotions left off and hers began.Mikhail lifted her easily with his enormous strength, slid her slowly, erotically down his clenching belly until she was pressed against his raging velvet tip. Her heat seared him, beckoned. Raven's arms slid around his neck, her legs around his hips, opening for him. Slowly he lowered her body over his, impaled her on the thick length of fire so that she surrounded him with such a moist, tight sheath he shuddered, somewhere beyond mere pleasure, a kind of erotic heaven and hell.Her nails dug into his shoulders. "Stop! You're too big this way." Alarm was spreading across her face."Relax, little one. We belong together; our bodies were made for one another." He slid in farther, began to move in a long, slow rhythm, his hands caressing, soothing.He shifted his shoulders so that he could see her face, his body claiming hers with deep, sure, possessive strokes. Without conscious thought, the words poured out of his soul. "I claim you as my lifemate. I belong to you. I offer my life for you. I give to you my protection, my allegiance, my heart, my soul, and my body. I take into my keeping the same that is yours. Your life, happiness, and welfare will be cherished and placed above my own for all time. You are my lifemate, bound to me for all eternity and always in my care." With those words, a male Carpathian bound his true lifemate to him for all eternity. Once said, she could never escape him. Mikhail had no intention of binding her to him, but every instinct in him, everything he was, forced the words out of his soul so that their hearts were one as they were meant to be. Their souls were finally united, their minds one.Raven allowed his words and the hot strength of his possession to calm her. Her body seemed to melt around his. He took them higher, bending his head to lap at her nipple, his hands cupping her small bottom possessively. She threw back her head, her hair flowing around them, over them, brushing their bare skin so that their flesh burned. She felt as if she truly was where she belonged. She felt wild and free. She felt a part of him, his other half. There could be no other than this man who was so hungry for her. Who needed her so desperately, who knew her own kind of lonely existence.He moved harder, deeper, turning so that he could lay her half across the end of the bed, so he could drive them closer and closer to the edge. He felt her body ripple, tighten, drag at his, once, twice. She cried out with pleasure, felt as if her body was dissolving into his. There was so much pleasure, wave after wave until Raven thought she couldn't possibly stand any more.He bent his dark head to her slowly, giving her every opportunity to stop him. His body continued to bury itself in hers, his dark eyes holding her blue ones captive. Mesmerizing, pleading, so in need. Raven arched her body toward him, thrusting her breasts invitingly, offering to assuage his burning hunger.Mikhail's soft growl of satisfaction rumbled in his throat, sent a thrill of excitement leaping in her blood. His body was aggressive now, his hands lifting her small hips for better access. She felt the brush of his lips so gently over her breast, her heart. His tongue slid over her skin, over his mark on her, erotic and warm. He surged into her powerfully, filling her, stretching her. He sank his teeth into soft flesh.Raven cried out as white-hot heat seared her breast. She cradled Mikhail's head to her, feeling the whirlwind of emotions storming through him as the fire in him built and built, higher and higher, until she thought they would both go up in flames. His mouth moved over her skin, devouring her as he took her, consuming them both. The feeling was like nothing she had ever experienced, erotic and burning.She could hear herself screaming his name in joy, in wild abandon, her nails digging into his back. She had a primitive desire to find the heavy muscle over his breast with her mouth. They were exploding together, disintegrating, flying to the sun. Mikhail lifted his head to give a throaty growl, dipped his head to feed more.He was careful this time, just taking enough for an exchange. His body was still locked with hers. He gave one last flick of his tongue to close the wound, heal even the smallest of pinpricks. Mikhail studied her face. Pale. Drowsy. He uttered his command, his body hard and eager at the idea of what he was doing.Her body was still rippling with life, accepting his long, possessive strokes. He made the slash across his chest, pressed her soft mouth to his burning skin. It was ecstasy, his body convulsing almost painfully. The beast in him threw back its head and roared with pleasure, contentment, the terrible hunger temporarily assuaged.He cupped the back of her head in his large hand, held her to him, stroking her throat, savoring the feel of her feeding. It was pure eroticism, pure beauty. He spoke softly, reluctantly, when he was certain she had taken enough for an exchange, enough to replenish what he had taken. He caressed the length of her hair, allowed her to surface.She blinked up at him, a frown creasing her forehead. "You did it again." She rested her head tiredly against the quilt. "Either that, or every time we get carried away I'm going to faint." She tasted a faint coppery taste in her mouth.Before she had a chance to identify what it was, Mikhail kissed her, his tongue licking along her teeth, the roof of her mouth, probing, exploring, dancing with hers. Very slowly he eased from her body, his hands caressing her soft skin."I can't move," Raven admitted with a smile."We will catch a nap and face the world later," he suggested, his voice pure black magic. Very gently he cradled her in his arms, placed her properly in the bed, and pulled up the blanket. Her long lashes caught and held his fascinated gaze. His fingertip stroked her throat, traced the valley between her breasts. She was still so sensitive, he could feel her shiver beneath his touch, and it flooded him with warmth."If I really wanted you to love me, I should have presented more of a challenge." She burrowed deeper into a pillow. "My hair is a mess."Mikhail sat on the edge of the bed, took the mass of silk in his hands, and gently began to weave the thick strands into a long, loose braid. "If you presented much more of a challenge, little one, my heart would never be able to take it." He sounded amused.Her fingertips brushed the bare skin of his thigh, but she didn't lift her long lashes. Mikhail sat for a long time on the edge of the bed, just watching her drift off to sleep. She was so small, a human, yet she had changed his life overnight. And he had taken hers. Taken her life. He had not wanted to say the ritual words; he had been as much under compulsion as his own prey when they exposed their throats to him.She might say he was a stranger, but they had been in one another's minds, shared the same body and offered their lives for each other. The exchange of blood as they made love was the ultimate in confirmation of their commitment. Each literally offered his life, vowed to give up his own life to safeguard the other. It was a beautiful, erotic ritual. It was a oneness of mind, heart, soul, body... blood.Carpathians safeguarded their sleeping quarters from one another. They were vulnerable in sleep and while they were in the throes of sexual passion. The decision to take a lifemate was not a conscious act; it was instinct, a hunger and need. They knew. They recognized their other half. Mikhail recognized Raven as his. He had fought the binding ritual, yet his animal instinct had overcome his civilized trappings. He had dragged her halfway into his world and he was totally responsible for the consequences.Light was beginning to filter in from upstairs. Mikhail completed the task of making his home safe against intruders. The next night would be long. Work had piled up, and he needed to go hunting. But he had this moment for peace and contentment.Mikhail slid into bed beside Raven, dragged her hard against his body, wanting to feel every inch of her. She murmured his name sleepily, snuggled into him with the innocent trust of a small child. Instantly his heart somersaulted, and a curious warmth and contentment spread through him. Peace. He touched her because he could. His hand cupped the fullness of her breast, his mouth brushed her nipple, feather light, just once. After pressing a kiss to the vulnerable line of her throat, he sent the command for deep sleep, regulating his breathing to join her.