Paul writhed on the bed, drenched in sweat, the sheets twisted around his body. "I won't do it. Colby! Colby!" He screamed for his sister and pushed both hands flat over his ears. "I won't. You can't make me."

Ginny sat up, looking around the strange bedroom. She was sharing a room with her friend Tanya. She could hear her brother muttering and sometimes shouting for Colby. Immediately she got up and, with a quick glance at the sleeping Tanya, hurried out of the room and down the hall to where her brother was staying. Juan and Julio were already up and coming out of their rooms. Julio extended his hand to her with a warm smile. Ginny hesitated a moment before she placed her hand in his. "I think Paul's having nightmares," she whispered.

"Does he have them often?" Julio asked with a quick glance at his brother.

She shook her head. "Not Paul." She knocked once and pushed open the door. Paul knelt up on the bed, his eyes wild, his chest bare. Only his pajama bottoms covered him. The sheet was a tangle on the floor, ripped in several places. Ginny could see Paul's skin was coated in sweat. He had a knife poised over his wrist. There were several small cuts on his arm and each trickled blood.

He shook his head hard, tears welling up. "Get out. Get out, Ginny. Hurry."

Julio caught Ginny to him and pushed her behind him even as he held out his hand to Paul. "You cannot do this thing, Paul. Give me the knife. Fight it. Fight what the vampire orders you to do."

Paul looked helpless, a small child seeking an adult's understanding. "I have been fighting, for hours now. I can't hold out any longer. I can't. Where's Colby? You have to tell her I tried to fight it."

"Listen to me, Paul." Julio pitched his voice low, keeping the boy's attention centered on him so Juan could begin to maneuver his way along the edge of the wall toward their nephew. "It's the vampire. He's trying to use you to hurt Colby. You don't want him to hurt your sister, do you? If he can succeed in taking your life, she'll never be the same. He knows Colby loves you."

Tears poured down the boy's face. "He whispers to me all the time. I've tried, but I can't seem to stop myself."

Ginny made a single sound of distress, drawing Paul's attention. He shook his head. "Please, Ginny. Please get out of here. I don't want you to see me like this. You can't watch."

Paul felt the vampire stirring again. Just before dawn the creature had begun to work on him. He seemed distant and weak, at times losing the contact. Paul had the impression he was injured in some way, but then he would renew his attack, whispering commands, demanding compliance. Demanding Paul cut himself over and over, insisting he take his own life. Paul fought hard against the commands, but the vampire wore him down. Where was Nicolas? Where was Rafael? Both had promised to help him.

The vampire gripped him hard in his thrall. He'd gathered his strength and made one concentrated attempt to force the boy into compliance. Paul's eyes opened wide, staring into space as he felt the undead move within him. For one ghastly moment he was aware of the creature in his head, looking through his eyes in triumphant glee. He felt the terrible bite of the blade into his flesh. It hurt, a searing pain that lanced through his body. Time stopped. In that heartbeat, five separate people were joined together. Nicolas and Rafael had taken Paul's blood and they were suddenly aware, brought out of their sleep, sharing his head with the vampire. They could all see one another; feel one another. It was sobering and terrible, the vampire elated, his evil laughter a harsh echo in Paul's mind.

Through Rafael, Colby joined them. Paul felt her awareness, the scream of anguish welling up. The terrible moment when he was conscious of Colby, buried beneath the ground, trying to claw her way up through the soil to try to reach the surface and get to him. In that heartbeat they were all together and the vampire threw back his head and laughed in triumphant glee.

Juan dove for Paul, knocking him back on the bed, wrestling the knife from him. Paul blinked rapidly to clear his blurring sight and to try to focus on what was really happening. The thought of Colby buried alive made him ill. His wrist burned and his uncles were tying him down so he couldn't hurt himself while they worked on stopping the flow of blood. Paul could hear Ginny crying, but he couldn't move, couldn't find his voice, could only lie still with his heart pounding and a terrible dread beginning to flood his brain. The vampire wasn't finished.

Colby. Rafael caught her to him as she struggled wildly, tearing through soil with her bare hands to get to her brother. He had placed her in a deep sleep. Nothing should have disturbed her. Nothing should have penetrated the safeguards to awaken her, yet she was frantic to get to Paul.

It is her Dragonseeker blood, Nicolas explained calmly. She is far stronger than either of us realized.

It was true. Rafael knew her bloodline provided the iron in her will and also enhanced the tremendous sexual hunger she couldn't overcome when she was around her lifemate. The bloodline was both her strength and her downfall. Her pain and anguish tore at him. Querida. He smoothed her hair, pulled her hands away from the soil. Paul will not die. You cannot leave this place of healing. He could still feel the fire in her body, her organs still undergoing the reshaping.

Get away from me! What have you done? Oh, God, Paul's hurt. I have to get to him. Help me get out of here.

Nicolas and I will go to him. Juan and Julio have him and Sean is there. You cannot leave the earth yet. You are not healed and the light would harm you. Rafael tried to provide a calm, cleansing breeze of sanity in the nightmare Colby found herself in. His hands were gentle as he tried to restrain her.

She didn't stop clawing at the soil. Rafael was forced to pin her wrists together. She was going to do damage to herself. Colby, pequena, be calm. Nicolas is rising. We will stop him. You cannot do this without causing harm to yourself. He tried to be reasonable, but she was breaking his heart. He wasn't a man familiar with his gentle, tender side and his fierce, protective nature demanded he force obedience.

Damn you, I don't care about myself. I have to get to him. He's hurt. For God's sake, Rafael, he tried to kill himself. He's only a boy.

Her distress raked at him, tore his heart to shreds. I will make certain he is safe. Sleep, Colby. He pushed hard with the command.

She didn't succumb, her Dragonseeker blood rising to protect her. Go to hell, Rafael. He's my brother. If you don't get me out of here, I'll get out myself.

He was enormously strong and there was no way to fight him physically and win. You cannot, meu amor. Sleep now. This time he took command, not allowing her to use her blood or will against him.

I will not ever forgive you for this. She succumbed to his compulsion, reluctantly fading into the sleep of their people, but not before he felt the rift between them. It yawned wide, a great chasm that might not ever be bridged. And he couldn't blame her. For a moment, he lay beside her, holding her in his arms, his heart pounding with fear for her, for their future. There was steel in Colby. She might never be able to resist him physically, but if she made up her mind to keep from feeling anything else for him...

Rafael groaned. He couldn't blame her. He had converted her without her permission, forced her into his way of life, and while she was beneath the ground, the vampire had attacked her brother. He stroked her silky hair, his lips pressed against her temple. I could not survive without you, meu amor. I know you are my heart and soul. Find a way to love me through all of this. When he was alone thinking of her, when there was a knot of love in his throat so large he couldn't swallow at the thought of her courage and her strength, when he was longing to be with her, so aroused at the mere thought of her loving him, needing him, he thought of all kinds of poetic things to say to her. But when she stood in front of him, her green eyes blazing defiance and her mouth and body a sinful temptation, he lost all good sense and went for domination. How were they going to get through this one?

Rafael burst through the soil, the early morning light hurting his skin and eyes, but definitely tolerable. He shifted in the air, assuming his favorite shape of the harpy eagle, and began winging his way toward Sean Everett's ranch. Simultaneously he felt Nicolas rise, and knew he was heading for the ranch as well.

I should have considered that Kirja might retaliate against the boy. There was deep regret in Rafael. I knew he was wounded and thought he would go to ground to recover, not use his last remaining strength for revenge.

He will be in bad shape now. If we can find his resting place, we may be able to kill him before he can regain his strength, Nicolas ventured.

Rafael blistered Nicolas's mind with a string of curses. Do you have any idea what I have done? She will not forgive me.

She is your lifemate. Eternity is a long time even for a Dragonseeker to hold on to anger. Do you have an idea where the vampire has constructed his lair?

Maybe, Rafael said thoughtfully.

The ranch house was blazing with lights. He dropped low, into the front yard, shifting to vapor so he could easily enter the house and appear as if he'd come from his assigned bedroom. Nicolas met him in the hall and they hurried to Paul's room.

Sean Everett stood, grim-faced, his arm around Joclyn, while Julio comforted Ginny, who clearly refused to leave.

"Forgive me, Paul," Nicolas greeted. "I slept soundly when I should have been on watch."

"We thought you were safe," Rafael said. He closed his eyes for a moment, knowing he had no choice. Colby loved this boy. For her sake, for the child's sake, he had to be sent away where the vampire couldn't touch him should they fail in their efforts to destroy the undead. Colby would never forgive him. A dread began to settle in the pit of his stomach.

Paul lifted his head. His face was very pale, dark circles prominent under his eyes as he regarded the two Carpathians. "I held out against him a long time."

"I know you did. I am proud of you." Rafael reached out and deliberately circled the ragged tear in the wrist, his palm covering the gaping wound. "I have some ability to heal. Allow me."

Juan kept his hand on Paul's shoulder in a gesture of solidarity. "He fought hard, Don Rafael, Don Nicolas, and this time we were able to stop him. But what of next time'?" He looked at them. "There will be a next time."

Nicolas nodded. "We must put distance between Paul and our enemy." He looked straight at Rafael, reading the fear of what it would do to Colby. Rafael's nod was nearly imperceptible.

"Would someone like to tell me what is going on?" Sean said. "Juan and Julio refused to allow me to call the doctor. By rights, Paul should be in the hospital where he can receive psychiatric counseling as well as medical care."

Nicolas shook his head. "Our old enemy has found us and he is attempting to use Paul for revenge. Paul has been hypnotized to do his bidding." He smiled at the teenager. "Paul is much stronger than any of us realized. I am proud of you."

"We should call Ben," Sean insisted.

Nicolas turned his head to look directly into Sean's eyes. "It is better we handle this alone. It was only an accident. The boy was careless playing with his knife and we do not want him to be food for gossip in a small town."

Sean nodded. "I agree it's best not to say anything."

"If we were to take Colby, Paul, and Ginny to Brazil, Sean, would you and your men be able to run her ranch? We would he willing to pay you to care for Paul and Ginny's property until they came of age. If neither wanted it and wished to remain in Brazil with us, we would sell the ranch to you if you desired the property," Rafael offered.

"Colby's going to be pissed," Paul whispered.

"Colby told you not to use that word," Ginny said, sticking her head out from behind Julio. Her eyes were very large as she looked at her brother. "What's Rafael doing to you?"

Rafael's hand remained wrapped around Paul's wrist. The angry-looking cuts seemed to be fading into the area Rafael's palm covered.

"Does it hurt?" Ginny persisted.

"Not anymore. Rafael's making it feel better."

"What do you say, Sean? Can you and your crew handle the extra acreage and work load?" Rafael asked. He knew what Colby would think and he knew what he risked by sending the children away, but there was no other choice. He wanted to rip something apart, wanted to destroy everything around him. He wanted to forbid his brother to send Paul and Ginny away, but he knew she loved these two children. Through her, he had learned to love them and, more than his own happiness, he had to put Colby first. And that meant sending Paul away to keep him safe. Now, this night. As soon as possible.

"We are talking a large amount of money, Sean. You will need to pay your men," Nicolas added as a further enticement, glancing warily at his brother, reading his tormented thoughts and feeling the tension rising in the room.

"What about Colby?" Sean inquired. "The last I heard, she was hell-bent on running the ranch herself."

"Rafael and Colby are getting..." Nicolas glanced at Juan.

"Casamse," Juan supplied. "They are getting married."

"Naturally Colby and the children will return immediately to Brazil. Juan and Julio will make the arrangements to ship their belongings and horses home."

"And King," Ginny said. "I'm not going without King." She tugged at her uncle. "And I won't go without Colby." She sounded stubborn, a small replica of her sister.

Rafael raised an eyebrow. "I would never leave Colby behind, little sister. Have no fear of that."

"Are you certain about Colby agreeing?" Sean asked again, shocked that she might actually walk away from the ranch she'd spent her entire life on.

Nicolas turned his head and once again captured the man's gaze. "Colby wants to come with us more than anything else. She is with Rafael and wishes to make her home with him. Naturally she will take the children with her."

"Naturally," Sean agreed. "If you really are making the offer, Nicolas, you know I'm always willing to do business with your family. I could use the extra acreage and I certainly have enough men to run both spreads."

"Colby is never going to agree," Paul whispered to Rafael. "You know she won't. She'll be furious."

"You let me take care of that, Paul. The most important thing right now is to get you out of the vampire's range so he can't harm you while we are hunting him. I'm going to have Juan help you pack and you and Ginny will leave this morning. We have a private jet and it will take you to our home far from this place. I will bring Colby as soon as possible." He glanced at Ginny. "And, of course, the dog must go too."

"But don't we need passports? I don't have a passport. I've never traveled anywhere." In spite of himself, Paul was excited at the prospect of being on a private jet, of seeing another country, of waking up in the morning and not having to work from sunup until sundown. He felt a little guilty, but he was eager to try it just once in his life.

"I'm not going without Colby and neither are you, Paul," Ginny declared, glaring at the men in the room.

Rafael reached a hand out to the little girl. "You are much like your sister, Ginny. She will come. She is with me and must accompany me to our home. There is an indoor horse arena and a swimming pool."

"I like my garden."

"We have a wonderful garden and you will be able to spend time with your uncles and your entire familia. They are all very anxious to meet the three of you. Your dog will be welcomed and you can have as many horses as you like."

Paul suddenly tugged at his hand, trying to free himself from Rafael's grip. He didn't seem to notice when Rafael lightened his hold and turned his attention completely on the boy. Paul went very still, his eyes glazing over. His body began to tremble and his expression went slack as if he were far away from them.

Nicolas moved closer to the bed. Rafael kept the physical connection to Paul. The self-inflicted wounds were all healed, but both Carpathians were in the boy's mind, feeling his emotions and reading his thoughts.

"What is it, Don Rafael?" Julio asked.

"Take the child out of here. Sean, put her to bed." Nicolas gave the order, his voice a powerful weapon.

Sean Everett obeyed, taking his wife and Ginny with him. The Chevez brothers crowded closer to their nephew. "Has the vampire taken him over again?"

Rafael held up his hand for silence, his features grim. "The vampire is on the move. By rights he should be in the ground. He is badly wounded and the dawn is upon us. He has cloaked the sun with heavy clouds, but he should not be able to travel once the sun has risen. He has truly become far more powerful than most of his kind. Paul is tracking him."

"Good boy," Juan murmured.

"He is moving underground, not above," Nicolas said.

"Why would he be on the move?" Rafael mused aloud. A tightness was beginning to form in his chest. He glanced at Nicolas to see if he shared the sudden dread. Nicolas met his gaze with a dark sober one. "Colby." Rafael stood abruptly, his expression savage. "He is after Colby." Rafael's heart began to pound. Fear clogged his throat. Terror warred with rage.

"He knows where she lies," Paul said. He stared straight ahead, his eyes unfocused, but he said the words clearly. "He is making his way to her and he wants me to know he will kill me after he kills her. Then he will kill Ginny."

"He will not have the chance," Nicolas assured him. "Will the safeguards hold?"

"He is ancient. We invented the safeguards." Rafael's hands trembled. He itched to tear out the vampire's heart. The ground rolled ominously. Outside the building, lightning lit up the sky and the crash of thunder shook the house.

"He cannot possibly move fast and the light will slow him."

"Nothing stops Kirja." Rafael was already dissolving into a vapor, streaming from the room toward the early morning sky. When he is determined.

Outside the sky had turned black, matching his turbulent rage. Colby! Wake! He issued the command with tremendous force, the force of a powerful ancient.

He felt her instant response. Fear slammed into her, into him through her. The fear of being buried alive. He took hold of her with ruthless force, calming her mind. Kirja hunts you. How he does this thing in the early light, I do not know, but it is past the hour he should feel leaden. You are no longer human. You must get past all human fear and know you can do this. You are Carpathian.

Her reaction was to keep her eyes tightly closed, but a swirl of anger drifted through her. Where's my brother and get me the hell out of the ground.

Rafael felt the familiar clenching in his gut, the brush of fire through his veins. Colby had a temper and it always fascinated him, always aroused him. And he knew she would need it-that iron will and determination, the anger that pushed her when others would give up. Paul is safe and Nicolas guards the children.

I feel the vampire now. He's burrowing through the soil, like a mole. The ground is screaming. Get me out of here.

So the early morning light was too much for Kirja, but why wasn't he leaden as he should be? Rafael tore across the sky, speed uppermost in his mind. Your body is not yet ready to come out of the ground. You need the healing soil, querida. Can you still feel the fire raging in your organs? It is too dangerous.

He's close. He felt malignant, violent, a weapon of hate and vengeance so evil Colby shuddered with fear. Rafael, hurry. There was the feeling of urgency in her. She felt something moving over her. An exodus of bugs, running from the malevolence in the vampire, trying to escape him. Insects, they're everywhere.

Rafael could hear the hysteria in her voice. It is so like you to face down a bucking bronco yet be frightened of a couple of bugs. He tried to be soothing and calm, when he wanted to rip out the heart of his enemy for putting her through such terror. He forced his mind away from the fear in her and sought to feel how close to her Kirja actually was. The migration of insects meant he was approaching her resting place. The safeguards would slow him down, but Rafael doubted if he could reach her before Kirja had unwoven the spells guarding her.

Damn you for this. There was a sob in her voice that tore at his heart. I feel like I'm in a coffin. If you don't get me out of here, I'm going to lose my freaking mind.

Rafael began to throw barriers in Kirja's path. A solid wall of granite rock, impossible to break through. He would be forced to go around it and he had to be getting weaker. Whatever he had found to allow him to continue moving after the coming of the dawn could not possibly last long. The Carpathian people would have heard of such a feat and moved to counter it.

Please, Rafael. Please get me out of here. I swear whatever I did, I'm sorry.

She was weeping now, clawing at the soil. He could feel her heart pounding, accelerating until he feared it would burst. Her pleas only served to madden him. He wanted to weep with her.

Colby! Stop it. Stop crying. You can do this. You have to do this. I cannot bring you out of the ground. I want you aware so I can use you to fight him off if needed. You have power. You will do this. Stop crying and pull yourself together. His voice was a merciless command. He issued a warning, a deliberately harsh decree, rather than soothing her. She reacted exactly in the way he would expect from her. He felt the surge of anger at him.

The bugs are crawling in my hair, you bastard. In truth she could feel thousands of tiny legs moving over her fast, rushing away from the area and that was nearly as frightening as the insects touching her body.

She was fighting to stay in control. Rafael began to draw on the minerals from the volcano. He built a chamber of diamonds, first forming a roof over her head, a glittering transparent cavern, just large enough to keep her from feeling as if she were buried alive, and small enough that he could manage it quickly. The diamond fortress would keep Kirja out. Colby would be able to see the vampire, and it might be possible to further harm or even destroy the vampire using her sight.

What's happening? Colby touched the hard rock forming rapidly around her. Rafael please. Really, I'm not going to be able to do this. You have to get me out of here. I don't understand why you won't take me out of the ground. Is it the birthmark?

He read the desperation in her mind. Was he burying her alive? Leaving her to die a terrible death? Terror was returning fast. Her pleas were far worse than her anger. He had never felt so tormented in his life. His heart ached, a physical pain, and his belly churned with fury while fear was a knot in his throat.

You can open your eyes, meu amor. You are safe now. He cannot get past a chamber of diamonds. They are too hard. He is far too weak. When he pushes his way through the soil, I need you to look at him, keep your eyes on him at all times, no matter what he does. Can you do that, pequena? He couldn't prevent the gentle coaxing note from creeping into his tone. He ached to hold her close to him, to comfort her.

Colby opened her eyes with slow reluctance, terrified of seeing the dirt and bugs. She was lying in a rich, black soil, but encased in glass. She lifted her arm to touch the wall, shocked at how heavy her limbs felt. Not glass. Crystal? Her breath caught in her throat. Diamonds. He had constructed a fortress of diamond to keep her safe. She wasn't ready to forgive him, she doubted if she ever would, but at least she wasn't going to have a heart attack now, if she didn't look up to see the dirt over the top of her prison. Are you certain Paul is alive? That he's all right? She would never forgive him for holding her captive beneath the earth when her brother needed her.

Rafael allowed his memories to replay for her. His love for you and Ginny is very strong. Kirja did not take that into account.

Colby was caught by a sound. By a feeling of being watched. She turned her head and there he was. Her heart stopped beating, and then began to thump frantically inside her chest. She had never seen such malevolence and twisted hatred on anything or anyone's face before. The creature no longer appeared human. He had dragged himself through the mountain to reach her with the sole intent of killing her. Spittle ran down his chin, and his eyes glowed a fiery red. He was bloody and horribly burned. His chest had several puncture wounds.

Kirja reached for her with long, twisted stilettolike fingernails. He attacked the wall with a hard, driving stab, his red-rimmed eyes staring directly into hers. The talon shattered. The vampire screamed. He threw himself against the barrier.

Colby winced and tried to scoot back from the hideous creature. Only then did she realize she was naked and the undead could see her, vulnerable to his inspection. It made his grotesque leer all the worse.

He held up a hand, fingers spread wide as he stared at her throat. Slowly, oh, so slowly, he began to close his fingers. She felt the crushing squeeze, closing like a vise around her neck. For one moment she panicked, fighting for air.

You are underground, buried alive, remember, pequena? You do not need air. I am almost to him and do not want to give away my presence.

Her lips pressed together. Rafael was right, she was buried alive, something he was damned well going to answer for. She didn't need air. Let the undead try to strangle her. Deliberately, with defiance, Colby came up on her knees, tossing her long hair as a taunt. She didn't even care that she was naked. If the damned vampire could resist the terrible lethargy, so could she. Ignoring the way her insides burned like hell, she brought up her chin and her eyes blazed right back at him.

This was the terrible creature that had tormented her brother. He had tried to kill Rafael, but he was in for the shock of his life. The vampire had never met an honest-to-God cow-girl. "We breed them tough here," she said as she allowed her fury at everything that had happened in the last few weeks to come together into a raging inferno. "And we don't lie down for anyone, not even vampires."

Flames licked along the dirt floor of the tunnel Kirja had burrowed through to get to her. As if fed by a ferocious wind, the tongues of orange-red sprang to life, leaping high, enveloping the vampire in a whirling firestorm.

Colby! The command was sharp. Angry.

The vampire screamed, howled with rage and pain, too weak to continue the battle. He dared not remain longer; his strength was ebbing fast. He scurried through the tunnel, heading away from the hot springs, away from the rich soil that would heal his wounds. He needed a resting place where the hunters would never think to look. They knew he was severely injured and that he would have to have time to rejuvenate. He would need prey close as well as shelter and rich soil. He moved in the opposite direction fast, using every ounce of remaining strength to flee before Rafael could find him.

Rafael's reprimand was a slap in the face. Her own rage boiled over. It's just like you to leave me buried underground, you swine, a sitting duck for your foul-smelling friend, and then dare to yell at me for protecting myself! Colby's fist clenched. She ached to smash Rafael right in his too handsome face. I hurt so bad I want to throw up. Get me out of here. She stared in horror as the vampire's broken fingernail began to vibrate, to scrape at the diamond chamber encasing her. I am so not kidding, Rafael. Hurry up. Now his fingernail is alive. It's scratching at the wall. She didn't want to be afraid, but the thing seemed alive, determined to get at her. Get me out of here!

Rafael flinched at the undiluted anger in her voice, at the way it swirled in her body, but at the same time, his blood thickened and heated.

You're impossible. I'm in the middle of a crisis here. One you put me in, Rafael, and you're thinking about sex. You're perverted. Get me out of here. Colby began to run her hands over the surface of her diamond cage, opposite to the scratching nail, hoping to find a weak spot and crawl out. When she couldn't, she concentrated once more on focusing her fear and anger on the ghastly thing. It blackened slowly, smoked, and finally burst into flame. Pressing a hand to her wildly beating heart, she sagged against the wall. She just wanted to go home.

Your world scares me to death. Rafael, I need to see Paul and Ginny. Come get me out of here. She was weary of arguing, tired of being afraid. And her insides were beginning to feel as if someone had taken a blowtorch to them. She wanted comfort. She needed it. She deserved it.

Rafael wanted to gather her into his arms and hold her forever, but he had to find Kirja and destroy him. He would only have a scant hour or two to find the vampire's hiding place before his own lethargy would take over. He hardened his heart against the weariness in her. You will remain beneath the ground as I have commanded and go back to sleep and heal properly. It was a decree, a command delivered with hard authority. He issued the order and followed it with a hard push, one that sent her sinking into sleep, but not before he heard her curse him soundly.

In spite of the gravity of the situation he felt the warmth of joy spreading through him. So this was what it was to have a Iifemate. The calm, bleak emptiness of his previous life had been replaced by a roller coaster of emotions. Love yes, but also aggravation, worry, the fiery clash of tempers, and an incredible wanton desire. At least, now, he always knew he was alive.

He circled slowly above the ground where Colby lay, looking for signs of Kirja burrowing through the earth, but as always with the ancient vampire, there was no sign of his passing. Rafael shifted into his human form as he dropped to the ground, running his hands over the ground, feeling for a vibration, feeling for the telltale signs of the undead.

His fingers curled into a fist. He might just introduce Colby to how pleasurable a punishment could become after this mistake. He had to kill Kirja. The vampire would take his revenge and she had eliminated Rafael's chance of easily trailing the creature back to his lair.

An owl hooted, a soft cry in the night. The sound beckoned to him, an unusual call from this bird of prey. Not a near miss, not satisfaction, but a calling. Wary, he raised his head and looked cautiously around. Even with his acute vision, it took a few minutes to spot the large owl tucked high in the branches of a fir tree several yards away.

Rafael straightened slowly. It was no indigenous owl in the tree. The bird regarded him from his position high in the branches. It wasn't Nicolas-he was with Paul and Ginny, helping to get them ready for the move to Brazil. He would put them on the private jet and get them out of the country, using his hypnotic voice to get them through the red tape quickly.

"You may as well come out of the tree and tell me what you are doing here."

The raptor immediately spread its wings wide and spiraled down, shifting before it touched the ground. A tall man with wide shoulders stood regarding him. "I have not seen you for far too many years, Rafael." He stepped forward and gripped Rafael's forearms in the familiar gesture of one warrior greeting another.

"Vikirnoff Von Shrieder. I thought you had long ago met the dawn."

"I have often thought of doing so, but I had my brother to watch over. Nicolae has found his lifemate and now my time grows short. I have one last task to complete before I rest. What of you? What of your brothers?"

"Riordan has also found his lifemate. There is hope with the knowledge that some human women can be converted. My lifemate, Colby, is human."

"I was drawn to this place by the sound of the earth screaming, yet now there is no evidence of a vampire."

"He has vowed to kill Colby. I must destroy him. He has managed to take the blood of her younger brother and reaches out to use him against us." As he spoke, Rafael continued to search along the blackened terrain for hints of the vampire's passing.

"Then I will hunt with you. It will be like old times." Vikirnoff reached up to pull his nearly waist-length hair to the nape of his neck, securing it with a leather tie.

"Colby carries the mark of the Dragonseeker. She is a descendant of that lineage." Rafael sent his senses deep into the earth, stretching first north, then west where the fertile soil might draw Kirja to heal.

"We thought the Dragonseeker line long gone from us. A good alliance between two powerful houses. The prince will be pleased." Vikirnoff scanned the skies.

"How is it you came to this place, Vikirnoff?"

"I am following a woman. Nicolae and I, through accident, became aware that a master vampire had put out the word to his pawns that this particular woman was necessary to him. I have been trailing her with the intention of warning her and protecting her." He pulled a photograph from his pocket. "Have you seen her?"

Rafael reached for the picture but Vikirnoff retained possession of it, holding it up so Rafael could see it. His thumb moved in a small, involuntary caress over the beautiful face. "I am certain I am close."

"She was here, tonight, talking in the bar with Colby. Colby said this woman, Natalya Shonski, told her a hunter would kill anyone bearing the mark of the Dragonseeker. She is not only running from the vampire, but from you."

"She, too, bears the mark of the Dragonseeker clan? Why would she believe such a thing?"

Both men cast for signs along the ground. They laid their hands over the earth, willing the soil to give them news. They listened to the wind, to the rustle of the leaves in the trees. Even the insects and night creatures usually told tales, but there was no lead to the vampire's trail. It was as if he had vanished into thin air.

"If what she said is true, Rhiannon had triplets, two girls and a boy. They are not children of her lifemate, but of the wizard Xavier. He held her captive for some time, no one knows how, but she somehow managed to join her lifemate in another world, leaving the children behind. Or it is possible-even more, probable-that Xavier murdered her after the children were born. Xavier hated all Carpathians. He would have raised his children to fear us." Rafael shifted his focus to the south and then to the east. "This young woman you seek is a direct descendant. She has been long in this world, avoiding our people." He pushed his hand through his hair in utter frustration at finding nothing, no sign of the vampire. "Deus! This is getting us nowhere. Where would Kirja hide?"