This book was written, with love, for my youngest daughter, Cecilia, who has managed to inspire more than one character for me! And also for Beverly Gladstone and her son, Tony.
Wishing you both all the best in the world.
Author's Notes and Acknowledgments:
Special thanks go to Alicia Miller, owner of Kat Avalon Habit of Perfection FCH, daughter of Celt. She is a member of the Borzoi Club of America and was invaluable to me in the writing of Dark Symphony. Alicia was so very generous with her time and knowledge and support. Without her, I would never have discovered the incredible breed of the borzoi.
CH Avalon Celtic Cross is owned and bred and very much loved by Sandra Moore. Sandra Moore is the owner of the real Celt, a wonderful borzoi with outstanding qualities. She is a member of the AKC, the Borzoi Club of America, and many regional clubs as well. She also has had nationally ranked borzois for many, many years.
Last, but not least, I must thank my daughter Denise, for coming up with the lyrics for Josef's immortal rap song!
Fog, thick and dense, blanketed the sky, muffling every sound. Muffling the sound of conspiracy. Of murder stalking the night. Of dark, ugly intentions hidden within the white, swirling mists and the deeper shadows. The fog was the perfect cover for the predator as he moved silently across the sky, searching for prey. He had been alone too long, far from his own kind, fighting the insidious call of power, of evil, that whispered to him every waking minute of his existence.
Far below him were the humans, his prey. His enemies. He knew what they would do to one of his kind, should they discover him. He still woke choking from his slumber, trapped for those first waking moments in his past His body would always bear the scars of torture, though it was nearly impossible to scar his kind. He was Carpathian, a species as old as time, with tremendous gifts to hold dominion over the weather, the land, even animals. He could shift shape and soar high, run with the wolves, yet without the light to his darkness, he could so easily give in to the whispers of temptation, the call for power, and turn wholly evil. He had the potential for becoming the undead, as so many of his kind had chosen to do.
He traveled the world, hunting the vampire, seeking to maintain a balance of life in a world of bleak loneliness. Seeking to maintain honor when he felt he'd lost it. And then he heard the music. It was playing on a television set in one of the stores he passed late in the evening, and the music caught him as nothing else had. Ensnared him. Mesmerized him. Wrapped his soul in golden notes until he thought only of the music. He could only hear the music playing in his head. It was so powerful it even dulled the relentless hunger that was ever present in his life. He traveled to Italy, drawn by the music. And he stayed for other, much more compelling reasons.
He flew across the sky with silent stealth, pulled in the same direction on every awakening. With his acute sense of smell he caught the scent of salt from the sea and the fuel from a boat tossed about on the rolling waves. The wind also brought him the scent of man. For a brief moment his lips drew back in a silent snarl, and he felt his incisors lengthen in hunger. In distaste. Most humans had become his enemy, although he sought their protection. Humans used him as a trap to draw others of his kind, nearly succeeding in killing the lifemate to his prince.
The stain of shame would always be on him. Would always keep him from being completely comfortable in his homeland and with others of his kind. He would never be able to bear their forgiveness. He could not forgive himself. His self-imposed penance had been service to his people. He actively hunted their mortal enemy, the vampire, engaging in battle after battle when he had never been a warrior. He went from country to country in a relentless, merciless hunt, determined to rid the world of the evil stalking his kind. Every kill brought him closer to the edge of madness. Until he found the music.
The night enfolded him, embraced him as a brother. In the darkness, his eyes glowed the fiery red of a predator on the hunt. Far below him, he glimpsed the lights of the villas dimmed by the thick bank of fog, houses crammed close to one another set precariously on the hillsides. In the distance he could just make out the Scarletti palazzo, a work of art created so many centuries before.
The music originated there, in the great palazzo. Concertos and operas were composed and played on a perfectly tuned piano. He stayed close by to hear the beauty of the masterpieces created and performed. The notes soothed him and gave him a sense of hope. He had even gone so far as to purchase several CDs and a machine on which to play them, keeping his treasures deep beneath the earth in the lair he kept to be close to the woman he knew belonged to only him.
Her family knew he was dangerous by looking at him. They sensed the predator in him, but Antonietta thought herself safe with him. And she was the only one he wanted. The one woman he would have.
Antonietta Scarletti stared blankly toward the elaborate stained glass window of the palazzo. Outside the walls of the villa, the wind shrieked and moaned. She touched the glass with her sensitive fingertips, tracing the lead and the familiar patterns. If she tried, she could remember them, the vivid colors and frightening images. She laughed aloud at the thought. As a child she had certainly been frightened by the gargoyles and demons decorating the fifteenth-century palazzo, now she simply appreciated their beauty, although she could only see them through her fingertips.
Her home had been modernized many times over the centuries, but the Gothic architecture had been preserved as closely as possible to the original. She loved every secret passageway with the Machiavellian traps and every carefully cut stone that made up her home. Strangely, she was sleepy. Most nights she wandered, wide awake, through the large hallways or played her piano, the music moving through her and onto the keys, to pour out the torrent of emotion that sometimes threatened to overwhelm her. Tonight, as the wind howled and the sea pounded on the cliffs, she plaited her hair into a thick rope and thought of a dark poet.
Tasha, her cousin, had commented at dinner that threads of gray were already beginning to appear in her mass of long hair. Antonietta knew she was vain about her hair, but it was her only call to glory, and now with the gray beginning to appear, it was only a matter of time before that small vanity would vanish. Her self-mocking laughter was soft as she moved without hesitation across the room, unerringly to the piano. Her fingers slid across the keys, immediately responding to the laughter in her heart.
She loved her life, blind or no. She lived it the way she wanted to live. Music flowed into the night. A summons. She knew the music called to him. Byron. Antonietta thought of him day and night. A secret obsession she could not get over. The sound of his voice touched her like she imagined his fingers on her skin would. A caress of sound. He was her only regret Her money and fame allowed her to lead the life she wanted in spite of her loss of sight, but it also provided a barrier between her and every man. Even Byron. Especially Byron. His quiet acceptance, his continuing interest so completely focused on her threatened to involve her emotions as well as her body, and that, she couldn't afford.
Antonietta seated herself at the bench, her body leaden with unexpected fatigue. Her fingers raced over the ivory keys. The music flowed into space, unrequited love, bound-less passion unanswered. Heat. Fire. A hunger that would never be sated. Byron, the dark poet. Brooding. Mysterious. A man for fantasies. She had no idea of his age. He often answered the summons of her music. Ever since the day four months earlier when he saved her beloved grandfather from a car accident, he would suddenly appear in the room with her, somehow getting past the security to sit quietly while she played. It was a degree of her obsession that she never questioned him, never asked him how he managed to get into her home, into her music room.
Antonietta always knew the moment Byron entered the room, although he never made a sound. Her family had no idea how often he came, appearing in the great music room late at night and staying up till all hours with her. He rarely talked, just listened to the music, but sometimes they played chess or discussed books and world affairs. Those were the times she loved best, sitting and listening to the sound of his voice.
He had courtly, Old World mannerisms and spoke with an accent she couldn't quite place. She imagined him a chivalrous prince coming to call whenever she allowed her girlish imagination to get the better of her. He rarely touched her, but he never objected when she touched him, reading his expressions. He took her bream away each time he came into the same room with her.
The music swelled beneath her fingers, rose to a crescendo of rioting emotions. Byron. Her grandfather's friend. The rest of her family were wary and on edge around him. Most left the room soon after he entered. They thought him dangerous. Antonietta thought he might be, despite the fact that he was unfailingly gentle with her. She sensed behind Byron's calm exterior a predator hunting. Watching. Waiting. Biding his time. It only added to his allure. The unattainable fantasy. The dangerous, dark prince lurking in the shadows... watching... her.
Antonietta laughed again at her own fanciful nonsense. She presented a certain image to the world: a confident, renowned concert pianist and respected composer. She dreamed her passionate dreams and turned each of them into soaring notes of music to express the fires burning deep inside where no one could see.
Her fingers raced across the keys, fluttered and coaxed, so that the music took on life. There was no warning whatsoever. One moment she was lost in her music, and the next, a rough hand clapped over her mouth and dragged her backward off the piano bench.
Antonietta bit down hard, reaching back to pound at the face of her assailant. It was then she really noticed how leaden her body felt, sluggish, almost unwilling to follow her orders. Rather than striking hard, she barely tapped the man. She had the impression of strength. He smelled of alcohol and mints. He thrust a cloth over her nose and mouth.
Antonietta coughed, thrashed in an effort to be rid of the foul-smelling material. She felt dizzy and lost the ability to move, sliding down, down toward semiconsciousness. At once she stopped fighting, slumping like a rag doll, pretending she was already unconscious. The cloth disappeared, and her assailant lifted her.
She was aware of being carried, of someone breathing hard. Of her heart pounding. Then they were outside in the biting cold and piercing wind. The sea raged and thundered loudly, and sea spray reached her face.
It took a few moments to realize that they were not alone. She heard a man's voice, slurred, incoherent, asking something. A chill went down her spine. Her grandfather, frail at eighty-two, was being dragged up the path to the cliffs right along with her. Determined not to allow anything to happen to him, Antonietta fought her way back, breathing deeply to draw oxygen into her laboring lungs, gathering her strength, biding her time. In her mind she began to chant his name, using it as a prayer, a litany of strength:
Byron. Byron. I need you now. Hurry, hurry. Byron. Where are you?