Mikhail loomed over her, a dark shadow holding one of his herb concoctions in his hand. "And what if I was a mythical vampire, little one, holding you captive in my lair?"She smiled up at his serious face, the pain in his brooding eyes. "I would trust you with my life, Mikhail, vampire or no. And I would trust you with the life of my children. You're arrogant and sometimes overbearing, but you could never be evil. If you are a vampire, then a vampire is not the creature of the legends."He moved away from her, not wanting her to see how much her words meant to him. Such total, unconditional acceptance. It didn't matter to him that she didn't know what she was saying. He felt the truth of her words. "Most people have a dark side, Raven, I more than others. I am capable of extreme violence, cruelty even, but I am not a vampire. I am a predator, first and foremost, but I am not a vampire." His voice was husky, strangled.Raven moved to close the distance between them, to touch the edge of his mouth, smooth a deep line. "I never thought such a thing. You sound like you believe such a terrible being exists. Mikhail, if such a thing was true, I would know you could not be one of them. You always judge yourself so harshly. I can feel the good in you.""Can you?" he asked grimly. "Drink this.""It better not put me to sleep. I'm going back to the inn to my own bed sometime this night," she told him firmly as she took the glass from him. Her voice teased him, but her eyes were anxious. "I do feel the good in you, Mikhail. I see it in everything you do. You put everyone else first in your life."He closed his eyes in pain. "Is that what you think, Raven?"She studied the contents of the glass, wondering why her words were hurting him. "I know it. I have done what is being asked of you, yet I did not have to follow through and bring the killer to justice. That must eat away at you all the time.""You give me far too much credit, little one, but I thank you for your faith in me." His hand curled around the nape of her neck. "You are not drinking. It will help with your headache." His fingers found her temples with their soothing magic. "How can you go back to that inn when we both know the assassins are staying there? It is the old woman who leads them to our people. She is curious about you already.""She can't possibly believe I'm a vampire, Mikhail. Why would I be in danger? I might even be of some help to you." A mischievous smile curved her soft mouth. "I can hear so much better these days." She toasted him with the glass and drank the mixture."There is no argument when your safety is involved. I will not have you in the middle of this battle." His black gaze was clearly troubled."We agreed to compromise. Your world and mine. I have to be my own person, Mikhail. I have to make my own decisions. I know you would never let me go through the torment of tracking a killer by myself. I want to help you, be there for you. That's what a partnership is.""Being apart from you even under normal circumstances would torment me. How can I tolerate such a thing as you being in the same house with those who murdered my sister?"She attempted to tease him, wanting the darkness to recede from his eyes. "Do one of your sleeping numbers on yourself, or teach me how to do it. I'll be more than happy to put you out."His hand slipped around her throat experimentally. "I bet you would. How does your head feel, little one? Better?""Much, thank you. So, tell me what you know so far." Raven watched him pace across the hardwood floor, all restless energy. "I have done this Mikhail. I'm not an amateur, and I'm not stupid. Mrs. Summers may look like a sweet old lady, but she's very sick. If she's targeting people as vampires and has a fanatical following, a lot more people could be hurt. And these people must believe Mrs. Summers. They killed the woman...""Noelle," he supplied softly. "Her name was Noelle."Her eyes touched his face, her mind flooding his with warmth and comfort. "Noelle," she echoed gently, "was killed in a textbook style for vampires. Stake, beheading, garlic. This is a sick group. We at least have a place to start. I think it would be safe to assume Mr. Summers is involved. So that's two of them.""That silly girl Shelly is a blind. They are using her to help them by asking her ridiculous questions. She is not directly involved; they do not trust her to keep her mouth shut. Her brother planted the idea of studying folklore in her head and this tour is supposedly a research trip for her. She is easily led by him." He raked a hand through his thick hair. He needed to feed soon. There was a dark, cold anger in him. It crawled through his body, dangerous and deadly. Jacob was unscrupulous, even with his sister, it seemed. And he had looked upon Raven with lust.Raven looked up and found unblinking eyes on her. They were dark, fathomless, the eyes of a hunter. A prickle of unease ran down her spine. She felt her hand tremble as she smoothed out her skirt. "What is it?" Sometimes Mikhail looked like a stranger, not the warm man she knew with laughter and tenderness in his heated gaze, but someone calculating and cold, someone more lethal and cunning than any she could imagine. Automatically her mind reached out to his.Do not!He slammed a block down hard.Raven's lashes fluttered against a sudden spurt of tears. Rejection was painful, and coming from Mikhail it hurt like hell. "Why, Mikhail? Why are you shutting me out? You need me. I know you do. You're so willing to help everybody, be everything for everybody. I'm supposed to be your partner, be all things, everything to you. Let me help you." She approached him slowly, cautiously."You do not know what could happen, Raven." He stepped backwards away from temptation, away from her pain.She smiled. "You always help me, Mikhail. You look after me. I'm asking you to trust me enough to let me be what you need." He was allowing his mind block to fragment, bit by bit. She sensed grief mixed with rage at Noelle's senseless murder and fear for Raven's safety. Love, strong and growing, a hunger, sexual and physical. Raw need. Someone definitely needed to love and comfort this man."I need you to do as I ask you," he said in desperation, fighting the beast lifting its head hungrily.Her laughter was soft, enticing. "No, you don't. Too many people think your word is law. You need someone to defy you a little bit. I know you won't hurt me, Mikhail. I can feel your fear of yourself. You think there's something in you I can't love, some kind of monster you're afraid for me to see. I know you better than you know yourself.""You are so reckless, Raven, so heedless of danger." He gripped the back of a chair so hard the wood threatened to disintegrate into dust. As it was, it would hold the imprint of his fingers for all time."Danger, Mikhail?" She tipped her head to one side, her hair falling in a slide over one shoulder. Her hands went to the top button of her blouse. "I would never be in danger from you, even if you were furious with me. The only danger right now is to my clothes." She took a step back, laughing again, letting the sound warm him, ignite the fuse deep inside him.Heat coiled, spread; need slammed into him, hard and urgent. Hunger tore at him, a blind red haze. "You, little one, are playing with fire, and I am totally out of control." He made one last attempt to save her. Why couldn't she see how selfish he really was? How he had taken over her life and would never release her? He was the monster she couldn't see. Perhaps with the rest of the world cold logic and justice ruled him, but not with her. With Raven he was taken over by emotions with which he was so unfamiliar that he could not control them. He did things he felt were unconscionable. He let her see the violence in his mind, tearing her clothes, taking her body without thought or control.She answered him in her mind, warmth, love, her body eager for his, receptive, accepting of his violent side. She had total trust and faith in his feelings for her, in his commitment to her.He swore softly, ripping the clothes from his fettered body, leaping upon her like an attacking jungle cat. "Mikhail, I love this dress," she whispered against his throat, laughter still spilling into his mind. Laughter. Joy. No fear."Get out of the damned thing," he said hoarsely, not realizing he was confirming her belief in him.She took her time, teasing him by fumbling at buttons, making him find the hook in her skirt. "You do not know what you are doing," he objected raggedly, but his hands were gentle on her body, carefully stripping away her clothes until she was all bare satin skin and long silky hair.Mikhail curled strong fingers around the nape of her neck. She felt so small and fragile, her skin warm. She had a woman's haunting scent, like wild honey, a breath of fresh air. He backed her into the bookcase, his hands shaping her body, stroking the soft swell of her breast, absorbing the feel of her into his skin, his tissues, his very insides. He lowered his head, found the dark tip of her nipple with his tongue. The demon in him receded at the feel of her soft skin, her acceptance of his nature. He didn't deserve her.Raven's body went weak at the first touch of his mouth, so hot and demanding, fastened on her breast. The shelf behind her held her up, pushing against the bare skin of her bottom. Excitement surged through her, anticipation. His eyes drifted over her with so much hunger, so much possession. With so much tenderness. That melted her heart, made her want to cry that he could have so much feeling for her. Everywhere his gaze traveled, her skin burned for him, her body ached for his touch.She reached up to loosen his hair, to fill her hands with it, to revel in her ability to smooth her fingertips over his heavy muscles. She could feel him tremble under her caressing hands, feel the wildness in him striving to break free. It touched something wild in her. She wanted to feel him in her arms, trembling for her, his hard muscles against her soft skin, his body surging into hers. She sent him the erotic pictures dancing in her head as she tasted his skin with her soft mouth.His hands were everywhere, and so were hers. His mouth blazed fire, and so did hers. His heart pounded, and hers matched it. Their blood surged like molten lava. His fingers found her moist and open to him. Mikhail dragged her to the floor, lifting her hips so he could join them. Blood roared in his ears, his every emotion swirling together in a violent storm of need. The harder and deeper he thrust, the more soft and welcoming she became. Her body was hot and tight, taking his, accepting his storm.Hunger raged dangerously. He craved the sweet taste of her, wanted the ecstasy of the ritual exchange. If he fed... He groaned at the temptation. He would never be able to stop without needing to replenish her. He could not do that. She had to consciously make the decision to become fully a part of his world. It was too big a risk. If she did not survive, he would follow her into the unknown. He knew exactly what the ancients meant when they said one lifemate could not survive the passing of the other. He would not want to live in the world without her. There would be no Mikhail without Raven.His body, his needs, his battered emotions were taking over again, pushing him to the very edge of control. He had never known such a depth of feeling, such a total, encompassing love for another. She was everything. His air. His breath. His heart. Mikhail's mouth found hers in long, drugging kisses, moved to her throat, her breast, found his mark. One taste. Only one.Raven moved in his arms, turned her head to give him better access, her hands entwined in his hair. "I'd better marry you, Mikhail. You need me desperately." He lifted his head, looked at her face, so beautiful with his lovemaking, so accepting of him and his needs. Her heart wrapped his in love, her mind soothed his, fed his, teased his, matched the wild-ness in him. His hands framed her face, his black eyes staring into her blue-violet ones, drowning in his feelings for her. Then he was smiling."Mikhail," she protested as he very gently eased out of her.He turned her over, dragging her hips back toward his. When he entered her, his hands pinning her small waist, he felt exultant. She was safe! Joy surged through him and he gave himself up to the sheer pleasure of her body. He moved; she moved. She was incredibly tight, fiery hot, velvet soft. The combination was explosive.The wolves had said he no longer knew joy, but Raven had brought it back to him. His body sang with it, shone with it. Twice he felt her body ripple, pulse, and still he went on wanting their bodies to be one for all eternity. The dark shadow across his soul was lifting. This small, beautiful woman had given him that. He built the pace of their rhythm, reveling in the way her body followed the lead of his. He felt her body clench, grip, heard her cry out over and over, soft little mewling sounds in her throat that sent him over the edge. His own body burst into flames, carried them both into the sky so that Raven called his name as her anchor.Mikhail's hands were gentle as he helped her to lie down. He caressed her silky hair, bent to kiss her tenderly. "You have no idea what you did for me tonight. Thank you, Raven."Her eyes were closed, lashes lying like two dark crescents against her soft skin. She smiled. "Someone has to show you what love is, Mikhail. Not possession or ownership, but real unconditional love." Her hand rose and, even with her eyes closed, her fingertips unerringly found the lines around his mouth. "You need to remember how to play, to laugh. You need to learn to like yourself more."The hard edges of his mouth softened, curved. "You sound like the priest.""I hope you confessed that you took advantage of me," she teased.Mikhail's breath caught in his throat. Guilt washed over him. He had taken advantage. Maybe not the first time, when he was so out of control after such isolation. It had been necessary to make the exchange to save her life. But the second time had been pure selfishness. He had wanted the sexual rush, the total completion of the ritual. And he had uttered the ritual words. They were bound. He knew it, felt the right-ness of it, felt the healing in his soul only a true lifemate could effect."Mikhail? I was teasing you." The long lashes fluttered, lifted so her eyes could confirm what her fingertips tracing his frown told her.His teeth caught her finger, his tongue stroking over her skin. His mouth was hot, erotic, his eyes burning down at her. Answering heat leapt into her eyes. Raven laughed softly. "You have it all, don't you? Charm, you're so sexy you should be locked up, and you have a smile men would kill for. Or women, however you want to look at it."He bent to kiss her, one hand closing over her breast possessively. "You need to mention what a great lover I am. Men need to hear these things.""Really?" She arched an eyebrow at him. "I don't dare. You're already as arrogant as I can stand.""You are crazy about me. I know. I read minds." He suddenly grinned mischievously, like a little boy."Next time you make love to me, do you think we might go for convention and find a bed?" She sat up gingerly.Mikhail's arm curved around her in support. "Did I hurt you?"She laughed softly. "Are you kidding? Though I wouldn't mind a long soak in a hot tub."He rubbed the top of her head with his chin. "I think we can arrange that, little one." He should have realized the wood floor would not be the most comfortable of spots. "You tend to drive every sane thought from my head." It was an apology as he lifted her into his arms. His long strides took them through the house to the master bathroom.Raven's eyes warmed, melted, her smile so loving his breath caught in his throat. "You do tend to get a little primitive, Mikhail."He growled at her, lowered his head to hers slowly, fastened his mouth to hers. There was such a mixture of tenderness and hunger, she ached for him. Very gently he set her on her feet, her small face framed in his hand. "I will never get enough of you, Raven, never. But you need to soak in the tub and I need to feed.""Eat." She bent to fill the tub with hot, steamy water. "In English you use the word eat.I'm not the greatest cook, but I could put something together for you."His white teeth gleamed like a predator's as he lit candles for her. "You are not here as my slave, little one. At least not in the domestic 1 sense." His eyes watched without blinking as she knotted her hair on top of her head. It was unnerving, yet Raven's body tingled under the heat of his gaze. He held out a hand to help her into the large tub. The moment his strong fingers closed around hers, Raven had the peculiar sensation of being captured.Raven cleared her throat, then lowered her body gingerly into the steaming water. "So, do you believe in being faithful?" She tried to sound casual.A dark shadow crossed his craggy features. "A true Carpathian of my race does not feel the shallow, childish, pale version of human love. If you were to be with another man, I would know, feel you, your thoughts, your emotions." He traced his fingertip along her delicate cheekbone. "You would not want to face the demon in me, little one. I am capable of tremendous violence. I will not share you.""You would never hurt me, Mikhail, no matter what the cause of your anger," Raven said softly, with complete conviction."You will always be safe with me," he agreed, "but I cannot say the same for anyone who would threaten to take you from me. All of my people are telepathic. A strong emotion such as sexual passion is impossible to conceal.""Do you mean to say those of you who marry...""Take a lifemate," he corrected."They never are unfaithful to one another?" she asked incredulously."Not a true lifemate. There have been instances - " Mikhail's fist clenched tightly. Poor sweet Noelle, so obsessed with wanting Rand. "The few that do betray their chosen mate do not feel as they should; otherwise it would be impossible. That is why it is so important to know absolutely in one's mind, heart, soul, and body. As I know it is so with you." The ritual words could not bind two who were not already one. Life mating united two halves of the same whole, but he could not find a way to express such a thing in terms she would understand."But, Mikhail, I'm not one of your people." She was beginning to realize there were differences besides customs that she needed to be aware of, to take into consideration.He crushed herbs into a bowl, dumped the mixture into her bathwater. It would help with her soreness. "You would know if I touched another woman.""But you could make me forget," she mused aloud, a small frown pulling at the corners of her mouth. He could feel her heart begin to race, the sudden doubt in her mind.He crouched beside the tub, cupping her face with gentle fingers. "I am incapable of betraying you, Raven. I might force your compliance for the sake of your safety or your protection, for your life and health, but not to get away with betrayal."She touched the tip of her tongue to her full lower lip. "Don't force me to do anything unless you ask the way you did when I was feeling sick."Mikhail hid a smile. She always tried to sound so tough, his small package of dynamite, with more courage than good sense. "Little one, I live only for your happiness Now, I have to go out for a little while.""You can't go looking for the murderers by yourself. I mean it, Mikhail; it's too dangerous. If that's what you're doing..."He kissed her, his laughter genuine. "Business, Raven. Take a long soak, look over the house, my books, anything you want." He grinned at her boyishly. "I have a stack of work beside the computer if you want to try your hand at looking at bids for me.""Exactly how I planned to spend my evening.""One last.thing." Mikhail was gone almost before she could blink, and returned nearly as fast. He took her left hand in his. "Your people will recognize this as a clear sign that you are taken."She hid her smile. He was so territorial, like a wild animal staking his claim. Like the wolves roaming so freely in his forest. She touched the ring with a reverent finger. It was antique, gold, a fiery ruby surrounded by diamonds. "Mikhail, this is beautiful. Where did you find such a thing?""It has been in my family for generations. If you prefer something else... something more modern - " It looked as if it belonged on her finger."It's perfect and you know it." She touched it reverently. "I love it. Go, but hurry back. I'll find out all your secrets while you're gone."Mikhail was hungry, needed to feed. He bent to brush her forehead with his mouth, his heart aching. "Just for one day, little one, I would like to have a normal, happy conversation with you. Court you as I should."She tilted her head to look at him, her blue eyes dark with emotion. "You court me just fine. Go eat now and leave me be."Mikhail touched her hair just once before he left.He moved among the townspeople, breathing in the night. The stars seemed brighter, the moon a gleaming silver light. Colors were sharp and clear, smells drifting on the breeze. Wisps of fog trailed here and there in the street. He felt like singing. He had found her after so long and she made the earth move and his blood heat. She brought laughter back into his life and taught him what love was.The hour was growing late, the couples drifting toward their homes. Mikhail chose a trio of young men. He was hungry and needed strength. The night would be long. He had every intention of confirming or eliminating Mrs. Romanov as one of the assassins. The women needed a midwife and a sorrowing, bereaved one was better than one who might betray them at the first opportunity.He drew the trio to him with a single silent command, marveling, as he had so many times, at how easy it was to control his prey. He joined their conversation, laughing with them, confiding a couple of hot business opportunities. In their early twenties, they were thinking more about women than making money. It always amazed him how disrespectful human men were toward their women. Perhaps they could not understand what their lives would be like without them.He led them to the safety of the darkened trees and drank his fill, making certain not to take too much from any of them. He finished as he did everything, carefully, completely. That was why he was the oldest and the most formidable. He paid attention to the smallest of details. He walked with them for a few more minutes, ensuring that they were all fine before leaving them with a casual wave and a feeling of friendship.Mikhail turned away from them, the smile fading from his lips. The night concealed the hunter in him, the dark, terrible purpose in his eyes, the cruel edge to his sensuous mouth. His muscles rippled with raw power, flexed and contracted with his enormous strength. He moved around the corner and simply disappeared. His speed was incredible, without compare.His mind reached out for Raven's, craving the contact.What are you doing all alone in that spooky old house?Her soft laughter filled his utter coldness with warmth.Waiting for my big bad wolf to come home. Do you have your clothes on?This time her response sent fingers playing over his skin, touching him intimately, heating his body. Warmth, laughter, purity. He hated being away from her, hated the distance separating them.Of course I have my clothes on! What if more unexpected visitors arrive? I can't very well greet them naked, can I?She was teasing, but the thought of anyone approaching his home with her alone and unprotected made a sliver of fear slice through him. It was an unfamiliar emotion and he almost couldn't identify it.Mikhail? Are you all right? Do you need me? I'll come to you.Stay there. Listen for the wolves. If they sing to you, call me right away.There was that brief hesitation that meant she was annoyed with his tone.Idon't want you to worry about me, Mikhail. You have enough people who make demands on you.Perhaps that is so, little one, but you are the only one I truly give a damn about. And drink another glass of juice. You will find some in the refrigerator.He broke the contact, found he was smiling at their brief exchange. She would have argued over the order for nourishment if he had waited long enough. He rather liked to irritate her sometimes. He liked the way her blue eyes deepened into sapphire, and how she got that little edge in her carefully controlled voice.Mikhail?Her voice startled him, low and warm and filled with feminine amusement.Try making suggestions next time, or just plain asking. You go do whatever it is you're doing, and I'll go search your extensive library for a book on manners.He nearly forgot he was crouched at the base of a tree only a few hundred feet from the shack belonging to Hans and Heidi Romanov. Mikhail managed to suppress his urge to laugh.You will not find one.Why am I not surprised?This time Raven broke contact.For a brief moment he allowed himself the luxury of wrapping himself in her warmth, her laughter, her love. Why God had chosen this time, when Mikhail was in his darkest hour, to send him such a gift, he had no idea. What he had to do was inevitable; the continuation of his race demanded it. The brutal ugliness of it filled him with revulsion. He would have to return to her with death on his hands, the deaths of more than one human. He could not walk away from it, could not hand the job over to someone else. His regret was not in taking the life of Noelle's murderers, so much as in having to ask Raven to live with his deed. It would not be the first time he'd taken a life.With a sigh, he shape-shifted. The small rodent scurried easily through the leaves on the ground to cross the open space to the shack. The beat of wings came to his ears and the rodent froze. Mikhail hissed a warning, and the owl gliding in for the attack veered off. The rodent gained the safety of the wooden stairs, flicked its tail, and began to search for a crack or hole in the wall to gain entry.Mikhail had already picked up two familiar scents. Hans was entertaining. The rodent squeezed through a chink between two rotting boards and found its way into a bedroom. Silently the creature raced across the floor to the doorway. Mikhail allowed the odors of the household to be processed by the rodent's body. He moved carefully in little stops and starts until he managed to gain a position in a darkened corner of the room.Heidi Ramanov sat in a wooden chair directly across from him, weeping softly, a rosary clutched in her hand.Hans faced three men, a map spread between them on a table."You're wrong, Hans. You were wrong about Noelle," Mrs. Romanov sobbed. "You've gone crazy and you've brought in these killers. My God, you have murdered an innocent girl, a new mother. Your soul is lost.""Shut up, old woman," Hans shouted rudely, his face a mask of fanaticism. He blazed with it, a crusader fighting a holy war. "I know what I saw." He crossed himself, his eyes darting left and right as a curious shadow like that of a winged creature seemed to pass over the shack.For a moment everyone in the room went quiet. Mikhail could taste their fear, hear the sudden frantic pounding of their hearts. Inside the house, Hans had hung wreaths of garlic at every window and over the doors. He stood up slowly, licking suddenly dry lips, grabbing at the cross hanging around his neck and moving to a window to assure himself the wreath was in place. "What about that? That shadow just now? You all still think I made a mistake because we found her in a bed and not sleeping in the ground?""There was nothing, no dirt, no protections," a dark-haired foreigner said reluctantly. Mikhail recognized the man's spoor. Assassin. One from the inn. Inside the rodent, the beast unsheathed its claws and flexed. They had murdered Noelle without even being certain she was what they sought."I know what I saw, Eugene," Hans declared. "After Heidi left, the woman began to lose blood. I had arrived to walk Heidi home because the woods are dangerous. I was going to tell the husband I would bring Heidi back to help. He was very agitated and did not see me as I looked in. I saw it with my own eyes. She drank so much, he was weak and pale. I got out of there and contacted you immediately."Eugene nodded his head. "You did the right thing. I came as soon as I could and brought the others. If they've learned a way to whelp, we'll be overrun with the devils."The largest man in the room stirred uncomfortably. "I've never heard of a vampire breeding. They kill the living to enlarge their ranks. They sleep in the ground and guard their lairs. You acted before we could investigate this thoroughly.""Kurt," Eugene protested, "we saw the opportunity and we took it. And how come her body just disappeared? After we did it, we ran. The husband and child have not been seen since. We know the woman is dead - we killed her - yet there is no hue and cry over her death.""We must find the husband and child," Hans decreed. "And any others; we must stamp them out." He peered nervously out the warped glass into the night. He let out a low exclamation of alarm. "Look, Eugene - a wolf. That damn Dubrinsky protects them on his land. Someday they're going to overrun our village and make off with the children." He reached down for the old rifle propped against the wall.Eugene jumped up. "Wait, Hans! Are you certain it's a wolf? A real wolf? Why would a wolf be out of the woods and staring at your house?""Who is this Dubrinsky who keeps wolves?" Kurt demanded."He is of the Church!" Heidi hissed, shocked at the implication. "He is a good man, in church every Sunday. Father Hummer is one of his dearest friends. They often eat supper together and play chess. I have seen this with my own eyes."Hans waved her testimony aside. "Dubrinsky is the devil himself. See it out there, the wolf slinking in the bushes, watching the house?""I tell you, that's not natural." Eugene lowered his voice. "It's one of them.""They couldn't know it was us," Hans denied, but he betrayed his fear with his trembling hands. He lifted the rifle to his shoulder."You'll have to get it with the first shot, Hans," Eugene warned.The rodent raced across the floor into the bedroom and squeezed through the small crack. Mikhail burst from the rodent's body, his mind reaching out into the night with a warning, shape-shifting as he ran, becoming a huge black wolf with burning eyes of vengeance.He covered the ground in a rush, leaping at the smaller wolf's body. As his heavier frame crashed into the smaller one, Mikhail felt fire exploding in his flesh. The smaller wolf slunk into the heavy woods. Although blood gushed from its hindquarters, the huge black wolf didn't utter a cry, didn't run away. Instead, the wolf turned its large head and stared at the house with two burning coals for eyes, staring with a promise. Vengeance. Retribution. The dark promise of death itself.Mikhail!Raven's sharp cry rang in his head.The black wolf stared a moment longer, holding Hans Romanov in his power; then it turned and simply vanished into the night. There was no way that any of the men would dare attempt to track it. The huge wolf had come out of nowhere, leaping to protect the smaller wolf. The black wolf was no ordinary wolf, and not one of them wanted to follow it into the timber.Mikhail trotted to the safety of the deep forest before pain and loss of blood drove him to take his human form. He staggered, caught at a thick tree branch, and sat down abruptly.Mikhail! Please! I know you're hurt. Where are you? I can feel your pain. Let me come to you. Let me help you.Behind Mikhail the bushes rustled. He didn't bother to turn, knowing Byron was there, ashamed, embarrassed, filled with remorse. "Mikhail. God, I am sorry. Is it bad?""Bad enough." Mikhail clamped his hand over the wound to stop the blood flowing so freely. "What were you doing there, Byron? It was madness, foolhardy."Mikhail.Raven's fear and tears were filling his mind.Be calm, little one. A scratch, no more.Let me come to you.She was pleading with him, and it broke his heart.Byron tore a strip from his shirt and bound Mikhail's thigh. "I am sorry. I should have listened to you, should have known you would be hunting. I thought..." He trailed off, looking uncomfortable."Thought what?" Mikhail prompted wearily. The wound hurt like hell. He felt sick and dizzy, and somehow he had to reassure Raven. She was striving to comfort him, to find him; she was even trying to "see" through his eyes.Stopit, Raven. Do as I say. I am not alone. One of my people is with me. I will be with you soon."I thought you would be so involved with that woman, you might not have time for the hunt." Byron ducked his head. "I feel like such a fool, Mikhail. I was so worried about Eleanor.""I have never shirked my duties. The protection of our people has always come first." Mikhail could not attempt to heal the wound with Raven dwelling in his mind."I know, I know." Byron raked a hand through his chestnut hair. "After what happened to Noelle, I could not bear for the same thing to happen to Eleanor. And this was the first time you ever warned one of us off a woman."Mikhail managed a wry smile. "The experience is new to me. Until it is not quite so new and raw, it is best I keep her as close to me as possible. Right now she is arguing with me."Byron looked shocked. "She argues with you?""She has her own mind." He allowed Byron to help him up."You are far too weak to shape-shift. And you will need blood and healing sleep." Byron sent a call for Jacques."I dare not go deep. It would leave her unprotected. She wears my ring and bears my mark. One wrong move and they would murder her.""We need you at full strength, Mikhail." Whirling leaves like miniature tornadoes heralded Jacques's arrival.Jacques swore under his breath as he knelt beside Mikhail. "You need blood, Mikhail," he said softly, immediately beginning to unbutton his shirt.Mikhail stopped him with a slight gesture. His eyes, world-weary, pain-filled, made a slow study of their surroundings. Byron and Jacques went still, senses flaring out, scanning the forest. "There is no one," Jacques whispered softly."There is someone," Mikhail corrected.A low warning growl escaped Jacques's throat as he instinctively placed his body in front of his prince. Byron was frowning, confusion on his handsome features. "I can detect nothing, Mikhail.""Nor can I, but we are being watched." It was a statement so certain, neither Carpathian chose to dispute it. Mikhail never made a mistake."Summon Eric with a car," Mikhail ordered and laid his head back to rest. Jacques was on the alert, and Mikhail trusted his judgment. He closed his eyes weakly, wondering where Raven had gone. She was no longer nagging at him. In order to maintain the contact, he would have had to use up precious energy, energy he couldn't spare right now. Yet it worried him, her silence, so unlike her.