Byron woke deep beneath the ground with the sound of Antonietta's voice calling to him. With the sound of her music summoning him. He lay there in his bed of rich soil, listening to the rhythm of his heart matching the beat of hers, of her music. The earth around him hummed with life, the sounds of insects and the trickle of water, all adding to the melody she was creating just for him.
Why won't you answer me?
His heart leapt at the little catch in her voice.
I am here with you. Here is not where you were when I went to sleep. You left me alone. I woke up and you were gone. It did not occur to me you would have sex with me and get up and leave.
He lay in the warm arms of the earth, listening to the nuances of her voice, paying particular attention to the shadows lurking in her mind. Peace swept over him. Antonietta was bound to him. Belonged with him. She had ideas that didn't quite match his own, but the ties between them were already formed and pulling tighter with each connection. It was fortunate she awakened as he did. By binding them, her discomfort level, if unable to reach him, would have soared.
His teeth gleamed white at the little bite in her voice.
Sex? You may have had sex with me, but I was making love to you with every breath in my body. You are the one who wants no emotion between us. He stretched, knowing she would feel his leisurely, tranquil movement. I told you separation could be difficult. Are you feeling the effects?
There was a small silence.
Difficult? I didn't use that word. I didn't even think it. You can choose to sleep anywhere you like.
Antonietta sounded regal, haughty, very much a Scarletti. And humming with anger.
Byron's smile widened. The soil fell away from him, allowing him to float free, clean his body, and dress in immaculate clothing.
You are very accepting of our differences.
Grazie, Antonietta, for your understanding.
Again he felt her pull back, a silent withdrawal while she attempted to regroup.
What differences? You didn't mention differences when we went to bed last night. I've slept the day away and thought I'd wake up with you beside me. I hoped I'd wake up with you beside me. Do you grow horns in your sleep? Is that why you left, so I wouldn't see that you are not human?
It was that tiny spurt of humor that melted his heart.
I have never looked, but the possibilities are endless. You aren't married, are you? Ouch. What a thing to ask me. I am your lifemate. I cannot be with another woman. I am afraid you are permanently stuck with me. Horns and all.
He reached for her in his mind, holding her to him.
I would much prefer to wake with you in my arms. I can bring you to my home this evening, and you can share my bed here.
She sensed a hidden trap. He could feel her moving through his mind, touching his thoughts. It took her a few moments before she realized what she was doing and how easy it was. She grew even quieter, withdrawing farther from him.
He prompted her, mocking male amusement brushing at her teasingly.
You're so charming, I guess I can't resist you.
Deliberately she sighed.
I should, but I don't think I can. I prefer to sleep in my own bed and have you here with me. Take your time coming up with a good reason for slinking off like a hound dog in the middle of the night, or day, or whenever you left. But make it good and somewhat believable.
Byron laughed. He began to move, floating upward, finding the chimney and slowly, without effort, drifting steadily toward the night sky.
You want to stay in your own home where you feel you have the power. Do not think I do not understand that is what you are doing.
You're flying. I feel it with you. You're flying through the air, aren't you? I want to do that. I am floating, gliding really. It is a pleasant sensation. Not nearly as pleasant as sharing your bed. Pretty words aren't going to get you out of trouble. Sure they are.
He was openly laughing, happy.
Are you on your way back to me? If so, you can take me flying tonight for your punishment for leaving me all alone in this great big bed. You are still lying in those silk sheets without a stitch on.
The thought of her warm and soft and waiting there for him left him breathless. Just that she would want him with her. Just that she was thinking of him.
Do you, Antonietta? Do you think of me? Dream of me? Always. I have since the moment you came into our lives. You humble me. I will be there soon.
Byron shot into the sky, wings spreading wide as he took the form of an owl and circled over the sea, enjoying the way the moon spilled light on the choppy surface. He needed to feed. He was not completely healed, as he couldn't afford to spend time in the healing earth when Antonietta was in danger. Even with Celt guarding her, Byron was uneasy separated from her.
She didn't have a clue what he was or what he intended. He was now used to the strange barriers in her mind and could easily maneuver around them. Antonietta wanted him, even accepted him, but she didn't think in terms of a future. Not ever. It didn't enter into her realm of possibilities.
Spotting prey, Byron circled lower, a silent drop, eyes fixed on his quarry. As he settled to earth and reached for the man staring up at him with such shock, he smiled. Antonietta had a few surprises in store for her. Someone needed to shake up her tidy little world.
He drank deeply, allowing the rush to hit him, allowed himself the feel, just for a moment, of absolute power. It would be easy to give in to the whispers calling to him if it weren't for her presence. Antonietta would call him back as she had unknowingly with her music in the past. He wasn't as near to the edge as most of the hunters. Byron rarely had to kill, yet the pull to feel absolute power was strong, even with knowing right from wrong.
You're feeling very sad.
Her voice startled him. He nearly dropped his prey. Antonietta sounded so close to him. So concerned. Quite gently, he closed the small, telltale pinpricks and eased the man to the ground.
A few moments ago you were so happy.
What's wrong. Byron? I can come to you if you can't get here. Tell me where to meet you.
Her voice, soft with concern, turned him inside out.
I am coming to you. I was just thinking of my kinsmen, some sadly lost to us. Hurry. I'm waiting to see you.
He took to the sky again, moving quickly toward the Scarletti palazzo. The rounded turrets drilled through the wisps of fog and clouds, a massive castle of stone and secrets. A ripple of awareness touched him. Another of his kind shared the skies with him. Female. Familiar. The owl came winging out from around the tower and rushed him, feathers nearly iridescent. Eleanor! His sister, gone from him many years.
Byron dropped down into the middle of the maze, signaling to his sister to do the same. He caught her in his arms, even as she shimmered into substance, dragging her close and burying his face against her neck. "How is that you have come to this place? I cannot believe that you are here, Eleanor. Let me look at you." He held her at arm's length, then pulled her close again. "I have not seen you for so long."
Eleanor hugged him back hard. "It has been too long, brother. You look so good, so strong and fit. I was so frightened for you. We were still too many miles away from you when we felt you go down. I collapsed. Poor Vlad had to attend me. I wanted him to leave me and go to you, but he said he would not make it before the sun rose. I am so grateful another of our kind was close. I did not recognize him when you showed us your mind. Who was he?"
"I will admit I was grateful also. He was an ancient, with powerful healing blood. Dominic of the Dragonseekers."
Eleanor drew back from him. "A Dragonseeker?" Her hand went to her throat in a purely defensive gesture. "I have not heard that name said in a long, long while. It brings back the memory of the ancient wars."
"That is all a fairy tale, Eleanor," Byron pointed out. "Much like the human stories of werewolves and vampires. No one has it right. They make it up as they go along. Maybe one or two people really saw a werewolf or a vampire, and they allowed their imagination to take flight, and the result is the silly stories they have now. I think much the same thing happened with our people and the stories of the wizards."
"I wish it were true, Byron, but the wizards were very real. Our races were close at one time, worked together for the good of the planet. The wizards were powerful and great seers. They studied magic and the things of the earth, much as we did. Many of our safeguards for protection came through their knowledge. Many of our people studied with them. Unfortunately, power can corrupt." She smoothed back her brother's hair. Touched his chest to assure herself he was alive and well. "I do not recall that Dominic had much to do with the wizards, but his sister did. She was incredibly talented..." Eleanor's voice trailed off, and she stepped back to study him with her dark eyes. "You look fit, completely healed, and it is a miracle. You look quite different. More powerful maybe, yet happy."
"I have found her, Eleanor. At long last, I have found my lifemate. She is here, at this palazzo, the concert pianist, Antonietta Scarletti. She is an amazing woman."
Eleanor flung her arms around her brother's neck again. "I am so happy for you. You must introduce us. Have you claimed her? Have you told our prince? When are you taking her home?"
There was a small silence while Byron hugged Eleanor a second time, grateful he could feel the flood of love for her. Grateful he could look at her and feel. Antonietta had given him that gift. A priceless gift of emotions and vivid colors.
"Byron?" Eleanor looked at him with all-too-knowing eyes. "You have not converted her." She made it a statement, almost an accusation, "We need every woman. You know we need women desperately. And you have suffered for so long. Surely your lifemate wants to be with you."
Byron smiled, a wolfish smile, more a baring of his teeth. "She has the strange idea that we will spend time together, and then she will send me on my way."
Eleanor studied his face. Her brother had an edge to him that had not been there before. "What are you up to?"
"Antonietta has to find her own way to me. She has lived a certain life, ruler in the palazzo, her family dependent on her. She also is safe there. It matters little in the palazzo that she is blind. Her life is set on a path, and she intends to follow it. She does not yet realize that her path is intertwined with mine. But she will."
"How long will you wait?"
"For what? Antonietta is bound to me. She is in my care. I have made provisions for her safety, and I will find who threatens her. She is mine, in heart and soul. She just needs to come to terms with who she will be when she embraces her choice."
"Of course you will return with her to our homeland." Eleanor made it a statement.
Byron smiled at her. "It is good to see you. Where is Vlad? Surely your lifemate did not allow you to travel unprotected?"
"I am not without my own protections," Eleanor reminded. "Vlad is here, and we have Josef with us. He wanted to visit other countries and see something of the world. We thought it best that we travel with him."
Byron couldn't stop the small step away from her as the horror of her words penetrated. "Josef?" The name came out a croak. "You have not brought that horrid child with you. Not here? Near the palazzo?"
"Byron, he is your nephew." Eleanor sank onto the curved marble bench seat and glared up at her brother. "What a horrible reaction."
Byron shook his head. "Benj is my nephew. I will be more than happy to claim him, but Josef is an altogether different matter. There is no blood between us."
"He is my son. I took him when Lucia died in childbirth. I love him no less than Benj. I know he can be difficult - "
"Difficult! The boy is a menace. Lucia had no business having another child. She was so old, an ancient spending most of her days in the ground and hiding from the changes around her. She had no intention of living in a modern world. What was she thinking to try such a thing?"
"She was thinking of the preservation of our people. Byron, you are being overly harsh, and it is so unlike you."
"I am not being harsh, Eleanor, only truthful. The boy has done nothing but get in trouble almost since his first step."
"He was orphaned, Byron. He lost his parents the very day he was born."
"Most of us lost someone, Eleanor, and he didn't even know Lucia and Rodaniver. You and Vlad have been his parents, and no one could have loved him more. Lucia and Rodaniver lived in the past; they would have made that boy's life hell had they lived, and you know it. Now he just makes our lives hell."
"Byron!" Eleanor twisted her fingers together. "He needs love and understanding. You should make an effort with him. Guide him on the right path."
"Why do I get the feeling there is more to this visit than luck? You did not just happen to come to Italy, did you?" His black eyes began to smolder.
Eleanor looked away from him. "Despite what you say, Josef is your nephew, and I think you should take an interest in him. He wants to paint. Italy is a wonderful country to paint in. Benj was too busy and could not escort Josef. He still needs looking after, and since you're here..."
"No! Emphatically no! I cannot possibly take care of a child. And I don't want him anywhere near the palazzo." Byron shuddered visibly. "He wears his pants ten sizes too big. In fact, when you took him to see Mikhail, he stood right there in front of our prince and his lifemate, wearing baggy pants, a ring in his lip, nose, and eyebrow." He shook his head. "I do not want to know where else he had one, but every time he opened his mouth, I saw something hideous attached to his tongue. And even worse, he wanted to perform for them, and you let him."
"He was only a young boy, Byron, and it meant so much to him."
"I prefer Mozart and Chopin, opera and even the blues, but not rap. What was that horrible song he made up? I still hear it in my nightmares. I believe he spat a lot and made strange sounds before he graced us with the lyrics." Byron showed his gleaming white teeth, his incisors slightly prominent as if he could take a bite out of his nephew. "It was so shocking, I cannot, nor ever will forget the lyrics. In case you have forgotten, they went like this: 'I'm the man, / The man you can't see, An invisible man, you ought to fear me, / Fangs and cat's eyes, / Your blood on my hands, /I come out at night when the moon rises high, I'm a blood-sucking fiend, a most fearsome sight.' I particularly enjoyed watching the prince's face when he sang the blood-sucking fiend part and the refrain of I want to suck your blood, blood, blood.' " Byron found he wanted to laugh at the memory, as he couldn't those many years ago. "The only good thing that came out of that was it made Jacques laugh. I had not seen him laugh in years. It was the only reason I forgave Josef for such an obvious attempt to draw attention to himself."
"But Byron, he has such talent. Even then, and he was only a child, he was creative." There was a small silence. Eleanor was exasperated with him. "He was only fifteen, and at that awful age. He is much older now."
"Do not give me that, sister dear. I heard he had taken to wearing all black, including a swirling black cape, and lying on graves in the cemetery with a group of his human friends. I heard he had so many rings in his bottom lip no one could look at him for fear of laughing."
"That is so unfair. Oh for heaven's sake, all the children try things out. He was going through his Goth period, at least that's what Vlad called it. That was years ago; he was only seventeen. You know by our standards, he is still a mere fledgling. He is your nephew, Byron, and he wants to visit other countries. It would not hurt you to show an interest in him. He needs attention."
"I do not care if he is a mere fledgling. The prince's daughter was forced to take her lifemate as a mere fledgling, and she rose to the occasion."
Eleanor made a rude sound. "And you know exactly what I thought of that. How dare the prince sacrifice his own daughter's childhood? It was an abomination. They deliberately tried to age her by sending her out on her own with only hidden guards to watch over her. She deserved a childhood. Mikhail has been around humans for so long, and Raven was human, so they they have forgotten our children are young for a much longer time. Fifty years, and they still do not have full power."
"We would have lost Gregori, our greatest healer, and ultimately, Savannah. You know that, Eleanor. All of you women were up in arms, but in truth, the prince had no choice in the matter."
"No child can learn what they need in that short of time. She was lucky to be able to shape-shift or even protect herself. I can forgive Raven. She was born human and thinks in terms of human aging. But Mikhail was desperate to save his second-in-command. No female ever had the males brought in while she was a mere child. Mikhail arbitrarily decided to introduce the practice of bringing in the males when they reached the age of eighteen in the hopes of finding lifemates. His daughter just happened to be the first. Two hundred was the coming of age, not a baby of eighteen. It was appalling. It was no wonder Savannah panicked and fled the country. I know her father sent protection, as did Gregori but, in truth, they allowed her to be on her own to help age her. I do not know a single woman who did not protest such an abomination. It is no wonder our race is dying out when our prince does not treasure his own child above his friend."
Byron sighed. "Mikhail is hardly responsible for the extinction of our race." It was a long-standing argument he hoped Eleanor had gotten over. "Next you will be accusing him of being responsible for the inability to feed our children naturally."
Eleanor had the grace to look slightly ashamed. "I have no idea why we can no longer produce the perfect food for our children. All of us have discussed it at great length, and Shea has done much research." There were tears in her voice. She wept for her people, for the mothers and babies who had lost so much.
Byron put a hand on his sister's shoulder. "I did not mean to make you feel such sorrow, Eleanor. Our males certainly do not blame our women for such a tragedy." He kissed the top of her head in silent apology. "What happens to one of us happens to all. Every child saved, however we can manage to save them, every lifemate found, every male saved, even at the expense of a childhood, is a step forward for our people. Savannah was far too young. We all know that, but she rose to the occasion. Perhaps it was her bloodline, perhaps she is simply an extraordinary woman, but Gregori will care for her and protect her and aid her in learning the things she must learn."
Eleanor rubbed her forehead. "I know he will, and I know he is needed. It is just that our children have suffered so much already. So many die. Such a simple thing, feeding and caring for a child, yet we, of the earth, cannot do this simple service for our children. We cannot afford to take anything more away from them. If they need a full fifty years to mature enough to allow them on their own, so be it. What is that to give to a child?"
"You are right, of course, Eleanor. I have every belief that Shea and Gregori will find an answer that will allow our women to once again carry our children without the loss of so many. And with that, you will be able to feed them with your own bodies as you were meant to do."
She took his hand. "You remember that Celeste and Eric had a son when we had Benjamin, and he did not survive? They have tried again, and the child was lost to them. She is very distressed, and Eric has taken her away to try to help her get over the loss. I know what it is like to watch a child die, to have a hole in my heart that will never go away. It is painful to see my friends suffering so. Vlad's sister Diedre spends more and more time in the ground. I fear we will lose them if she becomes pregnant and does not succeed again. Tienn has refused to try again, afraid, as I am, that she would choose to meet the dawn." She put her hand on his face, needing the contact with him. "I am so grateful that you have found your lifemate. Cherish her. Live for her. And hopefully she will live for you, and that will be enough."
"There is hope, Eleanor," he said softly.
"Is there? I wish that were true. Perhaps if we had the wisdom of the wizards or their power, we would find a way, but the war between our peoples destroyed all ties. If any remain, their hatred runs deep, and they would wish the destruction of our race."
The wind rushed through the trees so they swayed and danced. The bushes in the maze shivered with awareness. Eleanor waved a dismissing hand. "I did not mean to be melancholy. I am filled with joy for you. It is good that we are together as a family again, you with your new lifemate. Josef will love to meet her. Give him a chance, Byron, and you will see what a wonderful boy he really is."
Byron sighed. "I'm doing my best to make a good impression on Antonietta. The last thing I want to do is have her see Josef dressed in his whirling black cape and baggy pants, singing rap."
"He was a child, that was a long time ago. All children try things. She will find him endearing and charming."
"Charming?" Byron made a face at her. "As I recall, he went from lying in cemeteries to slamming into other people in a pit during concerts where singers tried biting the heads off living creatures. Really, Eleanor, the boy needs discipline. I do not intend to be the one to deal with his problems. Certainly not now. I would cuff the boy a few times on his ears in the hopes he would behave like a rational being."
Eleanor sighed heavily. "Byron, he is no longer such a handful, and you are still thinking in human terms. You have been away so long."
"Am I? What about the makeup? He was definitely wearing makeup and dyeing his hair all sorts of colors. I do not see how that was keeping a low profile and blending in with society."
"Who told you that? I cannot believe someone told you. The old gossips. That was his androgynous period. And he was blending in with his own age group. All children have to find themselves, Byron." Eleanor was outraged on her son's behalf.
Byron's long-suffering brother-in-law Vlad had told him in great frustration, but Byron believed discretion was the better part of valor. He didn't want Eleanor angry with her lifemate. Byron forced a cajoling smile. "The point is, at this time, I am trying to court my lifemate, and I have no time to monitor a fledgling."
"We must meet her," Eleanor leapt on that. "I cannot wait to see her."
Byron took both of his sister's hands in his and drew her to her feet. "You know I want to introduce you and Vlad to Antonietta, but the thought of Josef going anywhere near her or her family is frightening."
"You face vampires, Byron. You can face your nephew."
Byron sighed. There was no way to win, and he knew it. It didn't matter that he was a vampire hunter or a Carpathian male in full power. Eleanor was his sister, and like most Carpathian women, she was going to get her way. He might as well save himself the argument. "I will be happy to introduce all of you to Antonietta, but you must give me a period of time to adjust to having Josef around. He is not to do anything foolish."
"Of course he will not." Eleanor broke into another large smile. "Have you fed this night?"
"Yes, I am going to her. I will tell her that my family has arrived, and she will certainly invite you to her home. There is much going on. Someone is trying to kill both her and her grandfather."
Eleanor hissed, a long, slow sound of disapproval, her dark eyes flashing dangerously. "Take her and leave this place immediately, Byron. What are you thinking?"
He burst out laughing. "You are such a contradiction, Eleanor. Savannah's rights were stepped on, and you are up in arms, but my lifemate has no say in what she does or where she goes."
"If anything happens to her, it happens to you," Eleanor pointed out.
"Is that not the same with Gregori and Savannah?"
She bared her teeth at him. "Gregori is not my little brother. Go to your lifemate before I box your ears for your impertinence."
"Save your ear-boxing for that nephew of mine." He leaned down and kissed the tip of her nose. "Do you have a place you are staying?"
"We rented a villa. Josef wanted to experience the 'flavor of life,' as he puts it. Vlad found one we could use and still be safe. You are more than welcome to stay with us. Josef would be thrilled. He already has his paints set up on the balcony, and he looks stylish in his beret. What of you? Where are you staying?"
"Below the earth."
"You must seem a respectably human, Byron. I will see to it that we find you a place of your own. Do not worry, I will find something very suitable so you will be able to take your lifemate to a safe residence."
Grazie, I did not think of that. Let me know the location when you find one. I will send word to you after I have talked with Antonietta. I have seen no evidence of vampires in the area, but that does not mean they are not among us. Be careful, Eleanor."
"You, too. It is so good to see you." Reluctantly, she allowed his hand to slip from hers. "Do not delay too long in taking your lifemate to our world, Byron. You belong in our homeland, you know. You always have. You were the one who imposed a sentence on yourself, leaving our people, fighting the vampires when you are a true, gifted artisan."
"I long to feel the gold and silver in my hands, to find the perfect gemstones in the sacred caverns." Byron smiled at her, shadows in his eyes. "There are times I find myself fashioning jewels in my mind when I should be doing much more important things. Now that I have found Antonietta, I long to make her something beautiful."
"Every craftsman is highly prized by our people, Byron," Eleanor reminded. "Especially a master at finding the gem-stones."
"It is a world like no other. No one can understand such a thing unless they are born to the craft. Emotions bring back needs I wish I did not have."
"Your craft will always need you, Byron. You are a master such as our people have not seen in centuries. The prince has often commented to me that only you could design the perfect gift for Raven. He will not ask another."
"He is so certain I will return?"
"All hope it is so."
"Few brothers were luckier than I in having such a sister. I will see you later." Byron's solid form dissolved into droplets, and he streamed away from the labyrinth and toward the massive palazzo.
He circled above the towers and turrets, slipped through the sculptures of winged gargoyles, and dropped toward the second story and a window nearly always left open a few inches. Far below him he caught a glimpse of movement on a narrow, twisting path leading up the mountain, away from the palazzo and away from the city. Ordinarily, he might not have paid attention, but there was something furtive about the way Franco Scarletti's wife, Marita, was moving along the path. She was deliberately keeping to the tree line, rather than walking along the open trail. He could see she didn't want anyone from the palazzo to spot her.
Byron circled back, floating almost lazily in the clouds. He kept the woman in his sight as she slipped in and out of the trees. He could see her head continually turning left and right, eyes shifting restlessly, her body hunched. She was carrying a small package, plain brown wrapper tied with a single string. She took the more difficult climb winding steadily away from the city and the cliffs, moving inland, moving ever upward.
Byron caught the scent of the cat. The smell was wild and pungent and evil. At once his lazy facade disappeared entirely, and he was on the alert, streaking through the skies toward the groves of trees near the top of the mountain. Lines and lines of trees dotted the hillside. He swirled around the trunks. The odor was strong in the grove. A large cat had spent some time rubbing against the bark, stretching out in the branches. The wind shifted, whispering to Byron. Bringing with it the scent of freshly spilled blood. The coppery scent permeated the air, rose on the wind.
Marita screamed. The sound sent birds scattering from night perches into the air so that for a moment the flutter of wings was loud. Bats wheeled and dipped, performing their acrobatics. Byron moved with them, taking their shape to blend in, hunting for the cat. Knowing it was aware of him. Knowing it was hunting, too.
Marita's scream was cut off abruptly, forcing Byron to turn away from the search to ensure she was not being attacked. She lay crumpled on the ground. The leaves on the trees were smeared with a black, shiny substance. It dripped from the leaves to the ground just beside Marita's still body.
Byron dropped to earth, taking care to be light and airy, not wanting to leave prints behind. The torn, bloody body of a man hung in the fork of the tree branch much like cached meat. The moon revealed the trunk, black with blood. Marita lay at the bottom of the tree. Byron bent over her to check to see if she were injured. She appeared to be breathing without difficulty. The package had fallen from her limp hand, so he pushed it into his coat pocket without a single qualm.
The last thing he wanted to do was pack the woman down the mountain in the way of humans and waste time with hysterics. Marita was capable of sending the entire palazzo and the nearby city into a full-blown panic. Byron examined the victim. He appeared to be in his late thirties. He had seen it coming, died hard, been torn open by a wild animal, and partially devoured. The death had been only an hour or so earlier. Marita had stepped in a puddle of blood, slipped, and fallen into another puddle. Apparently, the fright had been too much for her.
The cat had been close, very close, and had sensed a predator coming near. It was gone, out of the area. He might have been able to track the jaguar, but he couldn't leave Marita to wake up in the midst of all the blood. With a little sigh he plucked her out of the mess and started down the mountain with her.
Almost at once Marita began to stir, moaning in fear and abject misery. Byron hastily put her on the ground, stepped back to give her room, and stood waiting. She thrashed for a moment, sat up straight, looked down at her bloodstained clothing, and screamed shrilly. Byron waited, but she didn't stop. Her eyes rolled back in her head, and she began to slump again.
"Marita." He said her name sharply, burying a compulsion. "You are safe here with me. Nothing can harm you."
She blinked rapidly, her hands fluttering wildly. "Did you see it? The body? It was horrible." She shuddered. "Utterly horrible."
"Allow me to escort you home, and we can inform the authorities." He held out his hand to her to help her up.
Marita obeyed the compulsion in his voice, placing her hand in his.
"What are you doing up here, so far from the palazzo, so late at night?" His tone was beautiful, a pure cadence that soothed her into a trusting state.
She frowned, squirmed in resistance, yet couldn't prevent the admission. "I was meeting someone. A man."
Dio, you must not tell. You must not tell." She fell into a storm of weeping, her cries reaching to the heavens. She clutched at her heart, the tears making it impossible to see so that she sat down again and covered her face.
Exasperated, Byron blurred her mind and simply lifted her, moving through the air to cover the long distance to the palazzo. He'd had enough of the screaming, weeping woman. He wanted Antonietta. To see her face, touch her, and know she was waiting for him, every bit as eager to see him as he was to see her.
Byron deliberately took Marita to the front entrance of the palazzo with its double doors and marbled stairway. So late at night, the doors were securely locked. He used the knocker ruthlessly. Holding her upright, he whispered the command to awaken her, making certain to plant the memory of a long, fast trek through the mountain path in her mind.
Helena opened the door. She took one look at Marita covered in blood and shrieked loudly. Two servant girls, gathering wraps for the evening to go home took up the cries until the palazzo was ringing all the way to the vaulted ceilings. Marita burst into tears again, wailing to the dead and everyone else in hearing distance. She clung to Byron like glue, holding him prisoner in the midst of drama.
Antonietta. lifemate. Rescue me. I cannot take these women and their histrionics another moment. Where are you?
She was as calm as ever.
Where were you when I woke to find my bed empty?
Byron sighed. The household erupted into total pandemonium. Helena drew Marita into the entryway, speaking so rapidly he could barely understand her. For a brief moment he was free. Marita collapsed again on the floor. He did the gentlemanly thing and caught her before she hit her head on the cool marble.
I could use a little sympathy. What happened? Marita found a dead body up in the grove. A dead body? How awful. No wonder she's carrying on like that. He had been dead for some time. It is not necessary for her to carry on. She did not see his throat ripped out. His throat was ripped out? Poor Marita, no wonder she is so upset. Upset is not the word I would have chosen. And what of me? I am a sensitive man, but you have no sympathy for my nerves when she is screaming so. Sensitive? You with the dead body and no reaction? Antonietta.
A gentle reprimand when she was having so much fun at his expense.
Was it Enrico? He is still missing.
Byron paused before answering. Antoinette was beginning to sound horrified. He didn't need her joining the other women with their hysteria and shrieking cries.
I do not get hysterical. A heartbeat. Two. Ever.
She was closer. The entryway was crowded with women talking, crying, and screaming. Byron thought he might break into a sweat if he wasn't rescued soon. Marita leaned heavily against him, clinging with hands that were trembling.
Antonietta, move it! I know you are coming as slowly as possible.
Franco rushed into the entryway, caught sight of his wife covered in blood and sagging against Byron's restraining hands as he held her up. Franco didn't even pause. He charged Byron, flailing at him with fists, nearly hitting Marita in the head when she bobbed in his way, trying frantically to grab him.
"Enough." Byron uttered the command between clenched teeth. His voice was ultralow, but the power and force of it swept through the room, could be felt all the way to the highest reaches. Vases rocked. Pictures on the wall shuddered and went still.
There was instant silence. No one moved or spoke. A wind swirled through the room, a rising howl of protest. Antonietta swept into the entryway, Celt close to her side. "Byron, do shut the door. The air's so cold, and poor Marita is in shock. Helena, quickly, see to it that Marita's bath is run. Franco, take her upstairs at once while I inform the authorities of the terrible tragedy in our grove."
The world narrowed and curved until his vision tunneled and the room was gone. The women disappeared. Franco was gone. There was only Antonietta coming toward him. Byron couldn't help staring at her. Her voice had always carried confidence, but now her tone was even more compelling. She seemed to glow. His Carpathian blood in her body was already enhancing her natural beauty. She carried authority like a mantle, dignified and unafraid while chaos reigned around her. She left him soft inside. Happy. At peace. Whole.
Her family responded to her voice. Marita collapsed in her husband's arms. Paul and Justine arrived together, breathless and wide-eyed. Tasha hovered near the archway, regarding Byron with suspicion.
"He saved me." Marita buried her face against Franco's chest. "I can't bear to have this man's blood on me. It was horrible."
Franco looked up at Byron. "
Grazie. I owe you."
Byron walked straight, purposefully, to Antonietta. In front of her entire family he pulled her into his arms, held her close to him until their hearts picked up the same rhythm. There was pure possession in his posture, a clear signal to the others that he was with Antonietta to stay. She responded immediately, wrapping her arms around him and turning her face up for his kiss.
He bent his head to hers. Her lips were warm and soft and welcoming. Her mouth was hot and moist and exotic. For a moment everything and everybody receded to a distant place. Antonietta tasted of honey and spice. Of love and laughter.
"Funny how he always shows up right when one of us is in danger," Tasha muttered loud enough for everyone to hear. She glared at Byron.
Byron lifted his head to look at her, his black eyes burning red, his fangs exposed when he smiled. He had enough of Cousin Tasha and her ugly games with Antonietta. If she wanted to play with no rules, he was more than willing. She often made Antonietta's life very uncomfortable. It wouldn't hurt the woman to have a taste of her own medicine.
Tasha gasped and stepped back, crossing herself. When she blinked, Byron's smile was normal, his face handsome. The red flames flickering in the depths of his eyes were merely a reflection of the many burning candles scattered around the entryway.
Tasha shivered, but she deliberately walked straight to her cousin's side, her huge, dark eyes angry. "How did you happen to come upon Marita and a dead body, Byron?" There was a challenge in her voice.
"Thank the good
you found her, Byron," Antonietta said. She touched Tasha briefly. "You must call the authorities at once. Say there has been a dreadful accident in the grove. Ask the good captain to come. Tell him our people are already used to his presence, and with everyone so nervous, I would appreciate it if he were to come personally." I sense her uneasiness. What are you doing to her?
What am I doing to her? She practically accused me of assaulting Marita.
Antonietta made a small gesture of acceptance.
That is just her way, to strike out when she is upset or afraid.
Byron set his teeth.
Cousin Tasha needs manners.
Tasha nearly leapt for the phone, forgetting her determination to save Antonietta from her own folly in the hopes of seeing the handsome captain. "Of course, Antonietta."
"Paul, go to Nonno and let him know what is happening. I don't want him any more upset than necessary."
Franco led a sobbing Marita away, with Helena clucking soothing nonsense and promising a bath immediately.
That was it, Byron decided. Antonietta was blind, yet she knew who was in the room, and she took instant command. She was incredible. His heart was beating loud, and he calmed it. Pride for her. It both amused him and alarmed him that he could read her thoughts of confusion in her relationship with him. She believed they would have a short-term affair, he would go on his way, and she would continue her life. She was slowly coming to the realization that she didn't want him to go, but she still expected it. Neither of them had a choice, but she had no way of knowing it, and he had no intention of compounding her resistance by enlightening her.
Antonietta moved closer to him, fitting her body into his, resting on his strength in the midst of the hysterics. She rubbed her face along his chest, went ramrod stiff, and stepped away from him.
You've been with another woman.
The accusation was a statement of fact, the words shimmering in his mind, orange red with flames. It was another betrayal, and it shattered her. He could feel the waves of anger mixed with a ferocious grief.
There will never be another woman. Never. Not for me.
He used his purest tone, one unable to utter an untruth.
"Antonietta," Justine said. "We have to talk, all of us. Paul, you, even Byron and me. We can't let this continue."
Antonietta lifted her chin, her body slightly swaying toward Byron's as if for protection or comfort. The small, telltale gesture turned his insides to mush. Byron put his arm around her and gathered her beneath the protection of his broad shoulder, sheltering her from the pain of Justine and Paul's treachery. He could feel Antonietta wanting to believe him, struggling against the purity of his tone and her own senses.
"This is hardly the time for me to try to make sense of what you did, Justine. I am too angry and hurt to listen to either of you. As for Paul shooting us, I still have no idea what to do. I suggest he stay out of the way of the authorities when they arrive." There was that faint haughty note in her voice that Byron was beginning to recognize as more of a defense than an offense.
I still can smell her on you.
He bent and kissed the tip of her nose.
My sister has arrived from my homeland. She has taken a villa with her lifemate and son near the city overlooking the sea. I believe we discussed Josef and his peculiarities. He wishes to paint, so they are allowing him the opportunity.
The suspicion in her mind cleared at once. Antonietta flung her arms around his neck.
I'm sorry. I don't know why I doubted you. Betrayal is a way of life in your family, Antonietta. It is not in mine. I say that only to reassure you. It is a natural conclusion when you wake alone, and I return with the scent of another woman on me.
Justine planted her body firmly in front of Antonietta even as Paul hurried off to his grandfather's room, carefully avoiding Byron's gaze. "Antonietta. I made a terrible mistake, but you can't just throw away thirteen years of friendship. You know you're my family. My only family. This is painful."
Byron's hand came up to massage the sudden tension from the nape of Antonietta's neck. His fingers were gentle, his mind soothing so that she was able to keep from shaking with anger and hurt.
Antonietta was silent a moment. "I'm glad it's painful for you, Justine. It should be. It's painful for me to know you would betray everything we had simply because you're sleeping with my cousin. I can't imagine the man I am with asking me to do such a thing, and if he did, I can't imagine complying or staying with him. Paul uses people. He's very good at it, but then you knew that going into the affair."
Justine turned a dull red, her eyes avoiding Byron. Her lips quivered for a moment, but then her chin went up, and she turned abruptly on her heel and swept away. Byron watched her go, noted that her back was ramrod stiff and her hands were clenched into tight fists.
"What are you going to do about her?" Byron asked. His hand moved from her nape to the small of her back, continuing the soothing massage.
"I have no idea. I should fire her, tell her to pack her bags and go, but I don't know if that's hurt talking or good business sense. Justine is just as entitled as everyone else to her mistakes."
The word hissed through his mind, a clear, scorching burn that left black smoke and a bad taste behind. Byron liked none of it, but Antonietta's sense of loyalty and responsibility to her family and friends was enormous. He tried hard to understand why she loved them so much. Why it was so important to her to help them. He wanted to see the things in her family she saw. He wanted to care for them as she did. Don Giovanni had earned his respect and loyalty. He doubted the others ever could, but he was determined to give them every chance.
"I wish you could grow to love my family, Byron," Antonietta said.
He could share her mind and view them the way she did, but Byron wanted nothing to inhibit his senses when it came to her family. "We will work it out."
"Is your sister really here, Byron?" Antonietta didn't want to think about either Paul or Justine.
"Yes, she is really here. Do not sound so happy about it. She has brought young Josef, and that alone is enough to have us all running for cover. If you think you have strange relatives, you have not met Josef."
"They must come for dinner," she said. "Tomorrow night. You'll invite them, won't you?" She rubbed her face along his shoulder much like a cat. "That way I can meet the infamous Josef. I'm really looking forward to it."
He groaned deliberately to make her laugh. "You just want to make me squirm."
"Well, there's that, too."
"Do you think it will help Tasha to remember I was not found under a rock?" There was wealth of amusement in his voice.
She tipped her head back as if she could see him through her dark glasses. "You honestly don't care whether she likes you or not, do you?"
"Not particularly. I have never cared one way or the other. Does it change who or what I am? My honor demands a certain code of behavior. I cannot change it for someone else."
"Can you really read minds? Literally? I have ideas, like a thought or image in my head, and I know I'm picking it up from someone else, but I can't read minds," Antonietta admitted in a burst of confidence when she was normally very discreet about her unusual gifts.
He laced his fingers through hers and brought her hand up to his mouth, nibbling on her fingers. "Sit down with me a moment in the solarium. After all the screaming, I could use peace before the captain arrives."
She went with him, intrigued by the idea he might be able to read other minds. They were connected, she accepted that, but it seemed different that he might be able to hear the thoughts of others. "Is that what you do," she asked curiously, "do you hear their thoughts?"
"I have the ability to scan minds." He held the door courteously, eager to be alone with her. He needed to be alone with her. "It is not so easy in this particular region or with your family as with most. You have built-in barriers, some more than others. I suspect it is due to your bloodlines. Marita is easy enough. I picked up the image of a man. She was obviously on her way to meet him."
"That can't be," Antonietta denied again. "I'm telling you, Byron, she loves Franco, almost to the point of obsession. She would never do anything to lose him. She loves being a Scarletti almost as much as she adores Franco. She would never have an affair. Is that what you're implying? I will never believe it of her."
"And why is
the only reason for a woman to meet a man clandestinely?"
Antonietta allowed him to seat her in the deep, comfortable chair facing the waterfall. She loved the chair not for its comfort but because she could feel the spray of droplets on her face. "You're right; of course it had nothing to do with an affair. It could have been any number of reasons."
"She was meeting a man, Antonietta, and she was going to deliver a package to him. For all I know, it was the gentleman found with his throat torn out."
Antonietta shivered. Byron sounded so matter-of-fact, even when discussing infidelity or brutal death. His fingers on her nape were soothing, gentle, tender even. "I highly doubt Marita was going to meet a man for any purpose. What package? You never said a word about a package." Celt pushed his nose into her palm, and Antonietta obediently scratched his silky ears.
"In all the excitement, Marita forgot she was carrying a package, but I am willing to bet she will remember when her head clears of fear and distaste. She did not want anyone to see. That was very important to her."
"I don't like this. I feel in the middle of a great conspiracy. I have no idea what's going on around me, or even why."
"I just happened to pick up the package when Marita swooned."
"She swooned? She is very good at that. Tasha is jealous and wants to be able to drop gracefully to the floor at a moment's notice. I doubt if anything is capable of making me swoon."He leaned into her, kissed her hard, possessively. "I can make you swoon if you wish it."She loved the way he sounded. Mischievous. Laughter in his mind. In his heart. He had a way of making her world right again. "I seriously doubt it.""I will take that as a challenge.""Did you open the package?" She had to ignore him. It was the only sensible thing to do when little flames licked over her skin at the heat in his voice."I waited for you." He pulled the brown wrapper from inside his coat and turned it over so that the paper rustled with invitation. "Would you like me to open it?""Have you looked into Paul's mind, Byron?" Her voice was suddenly tight. She caught at him. "Did he try to kill me? I love Paul. I'm not certain I can bear his wanting to murder me. Or worse. If he wanted to harmNonno. "For a moment, a black violence swirled in his belly, a reaction to her pain. His hand caught her chin. "I would take you away from this place and these people. We would love and live and never look back if you simply said the word to me."She heard the words in her head. Felt them in her soul. Byron was magical to her. If she was asked to explain it, she couldn't, but she longed to be with him. Not for a few stolen moments but always. In his arms. Listening to his voice. Laughing at his antics. His sense of humor appealed to her. He appealed to her on every level."This is my home." There was a trace of regret in her voice. "I love my family. I worked hard for my career. Would you be happy here, with me?"His gut lurched. The doubt in her tone had him tossing the package aside and pulling her right out of the chair and into his arms. "I can be happy anywhere, Antonietta, as long as I am with you." He pulled her to her feet, into his arms."I don't know what you are, do I?""Does it matter? Will you love me anyway? Can you? Does it matter that I am not Jaguar? Or human? Can you share my mind and know I am of the earth, a Carpathian male, with honor and integrity? Can you not see what I stand for?" His fingertips brushed her face, down her arms to slide up inside her white lace blouse. Her skin was warm and inviting. A lush temptation far too exotic for him to ignore. He cupped her breast, took the weight in his palm, his thumb sliding in a caress over her nipple, Celt, a little privacy would be nice.The borzoi shifted positions, padding a few feet away and dropping down to curl up, no doubt thinking him crazy."Can anyone see us?" Antonietta's knees were already weak with desire. Her body flooded with hot need. How could she possibly want him, no need him, so quickly? So completely? It was actually frightening to think she could be so out of control at a mere touch. So out of character for someone who thought through her every move and planned everything down to the smallest detail."Does it matter?" He demanded, "Tell me, Antonietta, will you want me if I am not what you expected?"She pushed her breast deeper into his palm, savoring the way her entire body responded to the friction. Behind her dark glasses, her lashes drifted down. "You aren't at all what I expected. This terrible hunger I have for you isn't at all what I expected. You make me feel desperate.""I am feeling a bit desperate myself.""You're distracting me from the package.""We would not want to forget the package." He leaned down to brush a kiss on the top of her head. His fingers massaged her body. "I cannot take my hands off of you. I am trying. But it is not working."Antonietta found it fascinating the way her body tightened and clenched in reaction to the stroking caress of his fingers. She wanted him right there. Right at that moment, in the solarium with its glass walls and hanging plants. With the waterfall in the background and her body wrapped around his."You are not helping," he said, confirming he could easily read her mind."Someone could see us, Byron, walk right in, couldn't they?" The package was beginning to be a distant memory. She should have been embarrassed that he could read her mind, read her every erotic thought, but she was grateful. She wanted him to take her, wanted to feel his body plunging deep and hard inside of hers.He replaced his hand with his mouth. Antonietta cried out with the wave of sensations swamping her. Her arms circled his head to cradle him to her breast. Ravenous hunger rose to swamp her. Her legs shook."Byron? What's happening to me? I'm not like this." She was always cool and confident and in control in her dealings with lovers. She was never a flame burning with the raw force of a firestorm. Uncaring where she was. Whether someone might see her. She was a private person. Sex was never intense and hungry. The most important thing in the world to her at that precise moment was ripping away Byron's clothes.He took her glasses from her nose and set them aside. "No one can see us, Antonietta. It is impossible. Even if there was someone in the room with us, I could shield us from view." His voice was husky. He drew her shirt over her head and let out his breath at the sight of her breasts. His senses were heightened by her needs. He could feel her through their mind link, the terrible pressure building and building deep inside of her. The heat. The shimmering fire.Antonietta shuddered. "What are you doing to me? I can feel you in my head, feel what you're feeling." There was a dangerous edge to his hunger. To his need. His body was heavy and full and thick, pressing tightly against her. And he was without clothing. Her hands found his broad back, traced the muscles there. Her neck throbbed and burned. A spot over her left breast throbbed and burned. In her deepest core, small miniexplosions seemed to be going off, rocking her, making her weak.Byron dragged her slacks down, stripping away her lace panties. "Keep your arms around my neck. Hold on, Antonietta. Hold tight."She wanted to protest. She should have protested if she had an ounce of decency. Instead, she wrapped her arms securely around his neck and held on tight. He lifted her. Easily. As if she had no weight to her at all. "This is crazy. And too fast. How can I want you like this?" And she was much too heavy for acrobatic lovemaking."Wrap your legs around my waist."The catch in his voice destroyed her. She obeyed him, her body open and vulnerable to the invasion of his. Antonietta cried out as he pressed against her very core. Wave after wave of sensation rocked her. Rocked him. She could feel herself through his mind. Hot. Wet. Slick. A velvet fist wrapping tightly around him as he entered her. She thought she might have screamed with the sheer ecstasy of it. But it might have been him, calling her in her mind. Pleasure shimmered around her, over her, and through her. Through him. He moved, his hips surging into her hard. Deep. She rose up, using her strength, slid down the length of him with exquisite slowness, paying particular attention to how she made him feel.The breath slammed out of his lungs and he burned for her. Antonietta accepted her own power with a very feminine smirk and took the initiative. She began to ride him, using his mind to guide her, searching for the perfect move, her muscles milking and gripping strongly. It was heaven. Paradise. She didn't want to ever stop.His hands massaged her buttocks in time to the wild ride, driving the passion up another notch, while flames licked from their toes to the top of their heads. Breath mingled, air disappeared, lungs burned. Nothing mattered but the waves of pleasure washing over them. The pressure continued to build. She could feel it like a gathering volcano in him. He could feel it like a racing storm in her.Antonietta suddenly tightened her arms around his neck, leaned into him, her teeth finding his shoulder as he plunged deep, dragging her hips downward to meet his body. Flames crackled and sizzled. Colors burst behind her eyes. Or maybe it was his eyes. It didn't matter. His mind was solidly in hers, his body sharing hers. The earth around them rocked, rippled with life, exploded into a thousand pinpoints of light.Antonietta lay on his shoulder, unmoving, uncertain she could move. Wondering why they both weren't a puddle of water on the floor. The most energy she could summon was to touch her tongue to the bite mark on Byron's shoulder. She could feel the tiny indentation with her tongue. "I bit you.""You do not sound sorry.""I think it was in retaliation. I'm fairly certain you bit my neck the first time we made love."His rumbling laughter caused an electrical vibration to sizzle through her body. Just that fast, it brought another orgasm. She rode it out, savoring every shudder. "I could just stay here forever.""I would not mind," he agreed companionably, "but we have company."The door to the solarium rattled, stuck for a moment, then fresh air circulated through the room, taking the combined scent of their lovemaking and dispersing it immediately. Misters on timers began a soft spray of the plants."Where are you?" Tasha demanded. "I swear they came in here," she said to the captain. "Antonietta? Byron? Diego is here. You don't mind me calling you Diego, do you?" Her voice was sultry with heat.Byron lowered Antonietta carefully to the ground, holding her until her legs stopped shaking enough to take her weight."There's her dog." Tasha spotted Celt. "Antonietta hasn't gone anywhere without that dog since she got him a few days ago. She's in here somewhere. She loves the exotic plants. Over this way."Antonietta stiffened, buried her face on Byron's shoulder. She was completely naked and only a large leafy plant separated her cousin and the policeman from her. Byron's large hands cupped her buttocks, pressed her tightly to him. They cannot see us here. Have no fear of discovery. He reluctantly let her go to drag her shirt over her head and settle her dark glasses back on her nose.Antonietta stood in silence and darkness while he retrieved her slacks. She jumped when his hand slipped between her legs, his finger pushing inside of her.I want to be alone with you,cara mia. I hate that we can never be alone. His finger stroked deep. Her highly sensitized feminine muscles convulsed around him. She clung to him while her body went up in flames again.Byron's hair brushed her face as he leaned close to help her into her slacks.You are my lifemate, always in my care.He was fully clothed.I don't think I can breathe. Carry me upstairs. Let's run away together.His mouth settled over hers, a long, leisurely kiss."What in the world is this?" Tasha picked up the package lying in the middle of the floor. There was a smear of blood on the brown wrapper.I fear it is too late, my love.Byron moved them so that they appeared together, walking around a giant potted palm, hands linked. Tasha found the package, and we need to know what is inside of it. We must reveal ourselves.Antonietta tried to appear calm and cool and not at all as if she'd been having wild sex only moments earlier. Laughter was bubbling up, a very unlike Antonietta characteristic. She hardly recognized herself anymore.Grazie, Tasha." Byron took the package right out of her hands and gave it to Antonietta. "I was not certain where we left that. Good evening, Captain Vantilla." Byron bowed low at the waist."Signer Justicano, its good you were there to rescue Signora Scarletti."Tasha made a sound of annoyance. "Diego, didn't you listen to a single word I said? What were you doing wandering the grove so late at night, Byron?""Tasha, you go too far," Antonietta said quietly. "I want you to stop. There is more at stake here than your petty jealousies."Tasha's breath hissed out. "Call it what you will. That man is dangerous, and I refuse to allow you get involved with him."Byron studied her scarlet face. She was humiliated in front of the captain, yet she persisted in spite of Antonietta's warning. It seemed at odds with her sense of self-preservation.Could she really be afraid for you? You're the one who reads minds. She would know. If I push beyond her barriers, she would know I was there. I am uncertain if I could fog her memory enough to make it worthwhile. Who knows why Tasha does and says the things she does?Antonietta sounded weary enough that Byron swept his arm around her and dragged her to him, giving her shelter against the steady rhythm of his heart."You do not seemed surprised, Captain," Byron said. "Is this the first kill? You must tell us what you know."The captain pushed his hand through his hair, a clear sign of agitation. "This is not the first person killed in this way.""Do you mean to say you've known of this creature, and you didn't warn everyone?" Antonietta was outraged."It has been in the newspapers, signorina. We brought in the best trackers we could find. The cat has not been found.""In the meantime, my cousin's wife could have been killed. That's completely unacceptable." There was a soft whip in Antonietta's voice. "I have employees who walk from the city to my home daily. I don't want to lose any of them to such a hideous fate as a wild animal killing them.""It doesn't bear thinking about," Tasha contributed with a shudder. "Marita had blood all over her. No wonder she collapsed.""No one should be walking around alone at night." The captain pinned Tasha with a steely eye. "There is no reason to be in the grove until this animal is found. I believe the gentleman we found is most certainly one of your grounds-keepers. Signor Franco Scarletti identified him.""Oh, no." Antonietta's fingers curled around Byron's, hung on tight. "One of ours? We must hire security to escort our people back to their houses until this creature is caught.""And this has been going on for some time?" Byron prompted, his voice a compulsion for truth."Unfortunately, yes. In other areas for some time. Our first discovery was a young woman's body by the sea with her throat torn out. We have plaster of the paw prints. It was identified as a jaguar, a rather large one. The general belief at the time was that someone had one of these cats as a pet, and it either escaped or, like so many others when the laws went into effect against exotic pets, it was dumped in the middle of the night."Tasha sank into a chair. "Our grounds are extensive, the wildest country around, and little Vincente and Margurite play all the time in the maze. They were in such danger, and we never knew."Diego put a comforting hand on her shoulder. "I have three children at home. Madre mia takes care of them, and she is old and frail. I've given orders that they remain indoors, but the two oldest get away from her. I worry myself. I do know how you feel. The killings have been far between in a range of well over a hundred miles. We didn't put it together until several months ago.""When did this start around here, Diego?" Tasha asked."The first body was found in our area nearly two years ago. We searched, of course, but nothing was found. There were two bodies found prior to that one, but it was thought they were dead and wild animals got to them. It took us awhile to put it together that one cat might be actually preying on humans.""And what does your wife say to this? Why does she not stay with your children?" Tasha asked.The question was unexpected, and Diego answered truthfully before he could stop himself. "My wife did not want our children or a policeman for a spouse. She left after the bambina was born and does not want to see any of them again." It was a painful moment for him, humiliation and anger shimmering in his dark eyes."Poor little bambini, abandoned and unwanted," Tasha said softly."I want them," Diego said adamantly. "They do not need a woman who will not love them.""What is it?" It was one of the few things about being blind that made Antonietta crazy. She always had to wait for identification."I am sorry, cara mia, it is sheets of music."Antonietta sucked in her breath. Finally, they were in the privacy of her sitting room with the doors firmly locked. Tasha had settled in for the evening to entertain the captain, and with all the other duties, Antonietta thought she would never be alone with Byron. Curiosity was slowly killing her. That, and wanting to be alone with him."My music? She was taking my music out of our home to give to someone else?" Antonietta's body didn't feel her own. Feverish. Needy. Incomplete. She moved away from Byron to keep him from noticing."No. It is not yours. This music is very old. I am afraid to touch it. It could crumble in my fingers."Antonietta went very still. Her hand went to her throat. "I know what it is. How did Marita get her hands on that? It's kept locked in Don Giovanni's private safe. No one but Don Giovanni has the code. At least they shouldn't, and believe me, Nonnowould never give away such a treasure. The existence of that composition is not even known outside our immediate family."Byron leaned back in his chair and stretched his legs toward the leaping flames in the fireplace. "It is very valuable?""Oh, yes, it's valuable. It is genuine, the original work of the composer George Frideric Handel. As a young man, he visited Italy, and of course, he was a frequent guest here at the palazzo. Even then the Scarletti family had power and wealth and was interested in music, and he was an exceptional talent. No artist would turn down such an invitation. He stayed on and off during the three or four years he was in Italy. He left behind many notations and a journal. He also left sheets of music, of cantatas and operas, even oratorios. But our most treasured is a full opera composed by Handel for the Scarletti family. He was not happy with it. He said it lacked the fire of Italy, and he did not want it kept. Our family agreed it would never be for public use then or in the future. The Scarletti word is sacred. We have kept that vow to him for generations."Byron whistled softly between his teeth. "George Handel. I had forgotten he stayed in Italy. It was only a short while. He left in 1710 for Hanover, as I recall, but left nearly immediately for London. His opera Rinaldo was produced the following year.""You studied Handel?" She was shocked.Byron looked down at his hands, surprised he had made such a slip. "I liked his work," he said carefully."So do I. He returned years later, when he was looking for artists and performers. Did you know in his later days he was blind?" She arched her back, tried to relieve some of the pressure building inside of her."I had heard, yes."His voice wrapped her up in silk and satin. Antonietta shook her head. "I need to put the score somewhere safe. I'll talk to Nonno tomorrow. He's long gone to bed. I seem to be sleeping later and later every day and miss the activities." She took the package from him, avoided his touch as she did so. "I'll be right back. I'm going to put this in the vault in the passageway. I doubt Marita will find it there.""Paul might." Byron rose, a lazy, fluid movement. He sounded like a great jungle cat rousing itself from a warm fire. And it irritated the hell out of her. "I am coming with you."She was already at the door to the passageway. The last thing she wanted was to be with Byron in such close quarters. "Just relax for a few minutes." She did her best to sound calm. "It won't take long.""I do not mind. I wanted to get another look at the wall with all the carvings." His body pressed close to hers. She could feel his body heat.Antonietta hurried forward, entering the labyrinth of tunnels without hesitation. Byron moved in his usual silent way, but she was all too aware of him. She could almost feel his muscles beneath her itching fingers. Erotic images danced in her head. She wanted him with every breath in her body. And he seemed so... unaware... uninterested.She wanted to shred the package in her hand, rip at something with her nails. Her shoes made noise on the ancient marble tiles. Her breath seemed overly loud. Her heart was pounding, and her mouth was dry. Antonietta counted silently to herself, making each twist and turn sharply."Our history is very colorful." She made every attempt to carry on a conversation if that was what he desired. A history conversation.Byron continued to prowl silently behind her. Breathing on the nape of her neck. Smelling good. Making his presence known by resting his hand in the small of her back. Burning right through her clothing. Branding her. Claiming her."I know you studied the carvings in the wall. Did you decipher the very first entry? I would think the earlier entries would be fascinating." Byron sensed her growing agitation. When he touched her mind, it was chaotic. There was no one thought. She was confused and angry. Brooding. Moody. Edgy. The gathering of a great storm. She was his lifemate, and whatever she needed he would provide. He was well aware she found the history of her family intriguing. He hoped to distract her for a time.Antonietta clutched the package tighter to her. "I spent some time studying the first bride's entry. She wasn't alone. Her husband did his share of carving also. I think it was his idea. I think he wanted his family to know the gifts he secured for them. He was very intrigued with the idea of shape-shifting. The earlier carvings are nearly all of shape-shifters. Women and even a few men changing to the jaguar. The earlier etchings are crude, of course, but they are detailed. I think they reveal more of the secrets than the later carvings." She made herself breathe in the oppressive heat of the passageway. If only his breath didn't tease the hair on the back of her neck, she might be able to think straight."In the later, more modern days, was there any evidence of shape-shifting?"She rubbed at her itching skin and stopped directly in front of what appeared to be a solid wall. Byron reached past her to run his palm over the smooth surface. Her fingers brushed his, caught, and instinctively guided his to the three shallow depressions guarding secrets. It was an admission of trust, and he knew it even before she did.The wall slid noiselessly away to reveal the air-sealed vault. Obviously she knew the sequence of numbers on the keypad. She punched several buttons carefully. The door to the vault opened. There was no light. The passageway was pitch black, but Antonietta didn't need light. She was at home in a world of darkness. Byron was impressed with her uncanny ability to know exactly where she was in her environment."I didn't see any. I think the blood is too diluted.""Could one of your cousins be capable of shifting?" Byron posed the question without inflection.Antonietta went still, her hands hovering just inside the vault. "One of my cousins?" she echoed, the idea unsettling. "I can't think that, Byron. That one of them would be this creature tearing the throats out of innocent people. It sickens me to even imagine such a possibility.""The smell of the cat was inside the palazzo. It permeated your grandfather's rooms. You say the sheets of music were kept in Don Giovanni's private safe. If a shifter was looking for them..."She thrust the precious music into the vault and slammed it closed. "I don't want to think a member of my family is capable of such cold-blooded murder.""In the body of a wild predator, it can be very difficult to control the urges. It is said that some shifters do not even recognize their human side. And some animals are much more difficult to control than others."Antonietta bent forward to lean her forehead against the vault in guilt. "I wanted to play the music." The confession came out in a little rush. "If I hear music, no matter how difficult or intricate, I can play it, but I can't see it. I had to ask Justine to read it to me. You can imagine how difficult it was for us to decipher the entire score between us, how long it took us. Don Giovanni knew, of course; he gave it to me, but I was to guard it so carefully. Each night I returned it to his room, but anyone could have seen Justine and me working together on it."The action of bending forward brought her buttocks in direct contact with Byron's body. He pressed against her, hard and thick and very male. Antonietta could have cried in frustration. Her skin crawled with need. Her body felt tight and alien to her. She straightened immediately to break the contact, pushing away from him to begin the walk down to the history room. She was aware of her own body. The swaying of her hips, the ache in her breasts. It was insanity that she lacked control."Antonietta, when I touch your mind, you are confused and distraught. I would help you, if you allow me access." Byron was going to push past that barrier if she didn't enlighten him soon. He couldn't take her being so upset. They had already exchanged blood twice. The Carpathian blood was definitely enhancing her senses, changing her, but he had no idea with her differences, what other changes the blood might cause."I prefer to work out my own problems," she said. "I'm sorry if I sound abrupt; everything feels like it's crashing down on me.""In a partnership, cara, one shares troubles.""I'm not used to a partnership yet." Antonietta softened her voice, not wanting to hurt him. "I'm trying, Byron. I really am. I've never had these feelings, and I've never felt so intense about everything. It's unsettling." And I have never been so aware of a man before.Byron caught that very feminine thought. She still didn't accept the power and force of the bond between them. It was unlike anything she'd ever experienced. She was both intimidated and a bit frightened: two emotions Antonietta Scarletti was unfamiliar with. He followed her in silence to the history room.The door slid aside, and the light automatically leapt to life, displaying the rows and rows, floor to ceiling, of pictures and words and symbols carved into the wall, much like the Egyptian hieroglyphics.Antonietta pressed her palm over one of the etchings. "Can you imagine the time it took to do this? And it will be here for all time unless the palazzo is destroyed. Someday, perhaps a hundred years from now, another Scarletti will stand in this room and see what went before them."Byron began reading, totally absorbed in the unfolding drama before him. Bride after bride was selected from the small village of Jaguar people. There were a few gaps, and as the generations lost touch with what the original Scarlettis intended, the brides from the village became fewer, until the bloodline was once again diluted. Many of the brides were unhappy with their husbands and the jealousies and intrigues that prevailed in the palazzo through the centuries. Some loved their husbands very much. Many had gifts of healing and telepathy. The latter stories seemed to indicate telepathy was common among the Scarlettis. "This is fascinating, Antonietta.""I used to come here often when I was younger. I could read the wall and most of the diaries myself, even though I couldn't see, and it made me feel independent. Of course I can read Braille, but most business documents are not put into Braille for me, so I rely on Justine to read them to me."And Justine had betrayed her. How could she ever trust her with such important and private information again? Byron rested his hand over Antonietta's. Linking them. Merging his mind with hers to feel the heart-wrenching sorrow. She no longer trusted her judgment. No longer trusted the sixth sense she used in her relationships with people. Justine had done more damage than he had first believed."And now you cannot rely on her."On anyone. The words shimmered unbidden in her mind. She wiped them away quickly. "I'm not feeling sorry for myself, Byron. I learned a long time ago to pick up the pieces and move on. I just feel like I'm in quicksand, and every step I take, everywhere I turn, I'm being pulled down. I want solid ground."He pulled her palm to his heart. "Right here, Antonietta. I am right here."She tugged to get her hand free. "How much do I know of you? You want complete trust. You want me to change my entire life for you."Byron kept possession of her hand. The jaguar in her was close. Wary. Wanting to run. The woman in her was feeling exactly the same way. Hunted. Under siege. She had no idea how much he intended to change her life, but she sensed he was dangerous to her. That was the jaguar's instincts, and they were strong in her."I want to be in your life, yes. I am not going to deny it. Allow yourself to completely merge with me. Your answers are there, in my mind."She pulled her hand away, her heart beating fast. His words were always a temptation. His voice was sinful and filled her with a lust she couldn't seem to control. One she didn't want. "The passageway is suffocating me." Her voice was breathless, husky. She wasn't going to merge with him and let him see the images dancing in her head. It would be humiliating.She turned abruptly and started back to her room. Byron stepped out of the history room, allowing the door to slide closed. He kept pace easily with Antonietta, his body close to hers, wanting to ease her distress but uncertain just how to do so.The wide-open rooms were cold after the suffocating heat in the tunnels. Antonietta gave a sigh of relief, shivered, and crossed her arms to hide the way her nipples hardened into pebbles, rubbing against the lace of her bra every time she moved. She said nothing when the fire leapt to life, certain Byron had misinterpreted her gesture, mistaking her for being cold."Did you have the Handel score copied, Antonietta?" Byron inquired as he seated himself in his favorite armchair. Celt was curled up in her bedroom. He could see the dog through the open door. The borzoi hadn't stirred, not with Byron guarding his charge.Antonietta stretched her arms over her head. Her body felt heavy and sensitive. She could smell Byron's masculine scent and for some reason it called to her. She was too aware of him only feet from her. The interlude in the solarium had been brief and ferocious. And not enough. She paced across the floor, a restless, edgy mood driving her. Her breasts felt full and ached for attention. Her skin itched for relief. "I did, just to make certain it was never lost. The copy would be worth something for the score alone; it is entirely his original work, nothing borrowed from other composers, but it still would never be worth what notations in his own hand would be.""Could Marita have the combination to Don Giovanni's safe?""No, he would never give it to either her or Franco. I knowNonno. He is not a trusting man, especially since Franco sold information to the Demonesini family." The fire crackled. Byron shifted, his clothes rustling. Antonietta wanted to scream. "Do you think the attack on Nonno and me the other night had something to do with Handel's composition?""I would think it likely. It would be too much coincidence for it to be otherwise. Those men were searching for something, and they spent a great deal of time in Don Giovanni's rooms."Byron's voice was killing her. Stroking her skin like velvet. Like a thousand tongues. She didn't think she could stand it much longer. She tried to force her body under control. She was going to have to send him home and get distance between them. Miles would help. Oceans maybe. "The opera is not common knowledge, even among family members. Franco could have told Marita, but I've never heard of him even asking about it. Someone must have seen it when I was so insistent on playing it." With restless abandon, she pulled the pins from her hair so that it tumbled down her back, a wild display mirroring her bizarre emotions. "It's hot in here, we shouldn't have a fire.""Come here, Antonietta." Byron said it softly, but she heard the command in his voice. It set her teeth on edge."Why? I say it's hot, and you want me to come to you." She paced away from him, wanting to tear at her own skin."You are uncomfortable."Antonietta had a mad desire to kneel between Byron's legs and work his trousers from his body. Her mouth would show him uncomfortable. She imagined how he would feel growing full and hard and thick. At her mercy. She would show him none, not when he was making her feel so out of control and frustrated. She kept the distance of the room between them, wary of what she didn't understand."Come here to me." He repeated the command, his voice coming between his teeth. Soft. Imperious. Frightening in that she wanted to obey him.She stood her ground, refused to move. Refused to give in to whatever was happening. "What is it? What's wrong with me?" The junction between her legs burned and ached for fulfillment.Byron touched her mind again, a shadow hiding while her mind raged and swirled with erotic images, with a terrible, insatiable hunger. "I suspect it is a combination of things, Antonietta. I do not understand why I cannot help you relieve your suffering.""Just tell me what it is."Byron sighed. "Carpathians must mate frequently. I have noticed you are very sensitive. I suspect between the Carpathian species and the Jaguar gene you must carry, you are feeling... er... heat.""Heat?" She whirled around. "I am not an animal in heat. That doesn't make me feel better, thank you very much.""Is the idea of mating with me so terrible?""Don't twist my words. I didn't say that. If you want to help, distract me." She twisted her fingers together in sudden daring. "I want to see, Byron. I want to see through your eyes. You said you could do it, and I want to try.""Are you certain that is what you want? It will not be easy."She lifted her chin. "I don't care. I want to try it.""It will be disorienting at first. You'll have to get past your senses and hold on to mine. Your own body will fight you. The images will be in your mind. You will see things the way I see them.""I don't care, as long as I see." There was determination in her voice."You will have to merge your mind fully with mine. What I see and feel, you will also. If you are uncomfortable, pull away from my mind. You will have the control to do that. Have you noticed that your power and sensitivity to the environment around you is growing?""Why is that?""You are my lifemate. As our lives merge, so do our bodies. I made my claim on you, the ritual binding, and we are tied in heart and soul." His smile was in his voice. "In this modern age, I suppose that sounds melodramatic and old-fashioned.""Not to me." She hesitated, suddenly afraid. "What do I do?"He went to her, recognizing she was close to tears. The intensity of her sexual need was overwhelming. Continually having to adjust the volume of hearing and coping with the separation without understanding why was daunting. He stood behind her, wrapped his arms around her waist, and held her to him.Antonietta shivered. "You really can do this?"He felt the small tremor that ran through her body. "I will be with you. Remember, you cannot see through your own eyes. You have to merge completely and see through mine. I can use Celt or any person I have a particular bond with to see, even from a distance. We have a strong bond. There is nothing to worry about. I can hold the merge, and you will be able to see.""I'm not certain I understand, but I want to try." She sounded scared but determined. Her hands gripped his. "Tell me what to do.""Let yourself reach for me. You know the path. It is the same as making love, merging minds completely. Just let it happen."Antonietta forced air through her lungs to calm herself. She was terrified it would work. Terrified it wouldn't. Very slowly she reached up and removed her dark glasses. Her fingertips touched her eyes. She felt him. Byron. Moving in her mind. Looking into places she didn't want anyone to see. She jerked away from him."It is all right, bella, I am not looking for incriminating evidence. You are in my head as well. It goes both ways with mutual respect. Try again, and this time relax."Antonietta dug her fingers into the back of his hand and let go with her mind. Allowed her barriers down to merge. It was a peculiar feeling, not unpleasant, a blending of two personalities. She waited. Held her breath. Colors shimmered and danced. Raw. Vibrant. Too much so. She cried out and put a hand over her eyes. The colors didn't go away."Just accept them and let them go."She tried. Her stomach roiled. She could make out something blurry in the distance. Byron was focusing on something. She strained backward, pressing against him. But she forced her eyes to stay open. She wasn't certain it was necessary to do so, she could tell the vision came from him, not her, but she wanted to feel as if she were truly seeing. The edges began to clear. Her stomach lurched again. Everything tilted and spun."This isn't right. I don't think I'm doing it right. Everything is moving and spinning so fast.""Hold on tight to my hands. Anchor yourself. It is not your eyes, Antonietta. They are mine. You do not need your fingertips to tell your brain what you are seeing."Something dark danced on the walls. She ducked to avoid it."A shadow, the firelight reflected on the wall. You can put your hand through a shadow. Concentrate. I am going to narrow our vision to see one thing. Celt is lying peacefully beside your bed. I want you to see him."Antonietta fought a very real case of vertigo. She turned her head, and objects burst at her much like rockets. She cried out. "It isn't working." She pressed her hand hard against her churning stomach. "I'm going to be sick.""No you are not. We can stop if you want." His hands held hers tightly."Just look at Celt. Only Celt." She was a Scarletti. Her family never backed away from a challenge. "I can do it."She focused on the distant, blurry object. The borzoi lifted his head, and everything dipped and spun. She refused to look away. The image began to clear. Celt. Sprawled next to her bed. He was enormous, black, a noble head. She had no way of judging distances. Antonietta flung out her hand, thinking him close enough to touch."He is across the room.""He's beautiful. I want to see your face. Show me your face."He used the small mirror in the vanity, staring at his own face. Her hands went to test for herself, moving over his face, mapping familiar territory. He was far too handsome, his eyes mesmerizing, his mouth sinfully kissable, his jaw strong. She loved his hair, even pulled back the way it was and secured at the nape of his neck.They examined a variety of objects in her room from her four-poster bed to her stained glass windows. "I do not want you to get tired. I want you to see yourself."Antonietta shook her head. Byron was behind her, his body pressed very close to hers. She could barely breathe with wanting him. His mind was fully merged within hers, and the sensation was unlike anything she had ever experienced. She didn't know how much longer she would be able to keep her hands off him. Especially after seeing his face. And the idea of seeing herself visually was disturbing. Although she had to admit to curiosity."Do you know what a mirror is?" Byron persisted. "Do you recall from the days of your childhood? You can see your own reflection. I want you to look at yourself."Her mouth went dry. "I'd rather not."The visual belonged to Byron. Antonietta experienced her sexual reactions from touch, but he had all of his senses. He wanted her to feel what he felt simply by looking at her body. "Look at yourself, Antonietta. Do not fear who you are.""I'm afraid. Whatever I see will be with me for the rest of my life.""Trust me. Trust in the way I see you."She reluctantly lifted her head and stared into the full-length mirror. A stranger stared back at her. Her hair was wild, cascading around her, shiny and black. Flickering lights from the fire put a glossy sheen in it. Her eyes were huge and black. She could see tiny white scars near the corners of her eyes when she stared long and hard. Her mouth was wide and generous, curving upward at the corners. Her skin seemed flawless, glowing even. She had a woman's voluptuous body.Antonietta reached a shaking hand toward her reflected image. Then reached up and felt her own face in wonder.She ran her fingertips over her face in an attempt to recognize her own features. She reached out again toward the mirror, touched the smooth, hard glass. She felt her own hair. "No one is that beautiful. I don't look like that. That can't be me.""That is how you look to me." His voice was soft in her ear.As deeply merged as they were, she felt his sexual excitement. The need to see her like this. He was aroused at the thought of her naked in front of the mirror. There was a heady power in the ability to make him want her so much. She was unbearably aroused already; to bring him to the same fever pitch was enthralling."Take off your blouse, Antonietta. See yourself the way I see you." He was temptation itself. The devil with his arms around her. She could see him in the mirror, his black hair shining in the firelight, his features hard and angular. His eyes burned over her reflection, stamped with possession and promise.Antonietta caught the hem of her shirt and pulled it over her head and for a moment, the image in front of her wavered. She felt Byron's breath leave his body. Her full breasts were encased in lace. It was an odd thing to be looking at herself, seeing and feeling through the eyes of a man. He was violently aroused. She could feel the thick length of him pressed hard into her buttocks."Take off your bra."She wanted to take it off. She wanted him to want her this way. She wanted to see him aroused, his features harsh with need and implacable resolve. Her hands went to the front clasp, her palms brushing her nipples. Lightning danced through her bloodstream at that small touch. Lace fell away. Her breasts jutted out, high and firm and tempting. Byron's hands came up under hers, pulled her hands to her aching flesh."Feel how soft you are. Feel what I feel when I touch you. This is you, Antonietta. Beautiful. Perfect. Mine." Her hands curved around her soft breasts, his hands holding her fingers in place. It was the most erotic thing she'd ever done.Keeping her eyes on her reflection in the mirror, she turned her head slightly to send her long, unbound hair cascading around her bare shoulders. Byron's hands gently began to knead her breasts, using her fingers. His thumb teased and stroked her nipples into hard peaks of blatant desire. Silky hair only heightened the effect on her skin. She couldn't stop the little moan that escaped from her throat.Byron rubbed his shadowed jaw against her neck. "Tell me you are not beautiful. You even feel that way to me." His hands left hers to drop lower to the waistband of her slacks. He kept his gaze fixed firmly on the mirror.Antonietta watched her own hands on her breasts, watched his hands unfasten her slacks and slowly peel them from her body. He hooked her thong at the same time, stripping it away to leave her bare. She stepped out of her clothes and just looked in wonder at her legs, the curve of her hips. It didn't seem possible that that woman in the reflection could be her.Byron stood behind her, fully clothed, his hands shaping and caressing the curve of her buttocks. His every touch sent waves of desire flooding her until she squirmed with need. She watched his hands move around her thighs, his long fingers stroking so close to that small triangle. Her muscles clenched, her knees went weak. His teeth nibbled on her shoulder, went to her neck. His tongue tasted her frantic pulse, swirled and glided. All the while his eyes were open. Watching her. Allowing her to watch."I am going to move around you. For a moment your vision will blur, but then my memories will be your memories, and you will see us together." His hands slid up her body to once more cup her breasts."Take your clothes off, Byron. I want to see you." She sounded breathless even to her own ears."I do not see me in quite the way I would want you to see me." There was a trace of self-mockery in his tone, but right there, in front of the mirror with her watching, he shed his clothes in the manner of his people.Antonietta gasped. "How did you do that?""I am Carpathian. Clothes are fashioned from natural fibers or simply illusion, whichever is easiest."He tried to look at himself objectively, to see his body the way a woman might see it and be pleased. His muscles were subtle but defined. His shoulders broad, hips narrow. His erection was large and thick and eager to find its way deep inside of her. There was a small silence while he waited for her response. When it came, he was unprepared for it. The flood of sexual excitement. The pouring of heat into her body, into her mind. The pleasure at seeing his naked body.He stepped to her side, careful to keep looking at his own reflection. His fingers were long, the hands of an artist. He never noticed it before, but against her skin, he could see the shape and size."You're beautiful, Byron." She watched her arm go up, her fingers twisting in his long, black hair. "I can't believe I'm really seeing us. I don't want it to end yet.""I'm moving around in front of you. Keep your eyes on the mirror and your mind firmly merged with mine. Expect the blurring and distortion, but it will not last." He moved around in front of her, watching himself over his shoulder. He saw the firm muscle of his buttocks flex and contract, felt her surge of damp heat and heightened pleasure. His gaze dropped to her breasts.Antonietta swayed, closed her eyes, but she couldn't block out the strange, dizzy feeling assaulting her. Shadows and edges blended. She wanted to cry out a protest. His tongue lapped at her nipple. Once. Twice. He drew her breast into his mouth, suckling strongly, teasing her nipple with his tongue. Her body nearly convulsed, and she wrapped her arms around his head and stared at the gray and black shadows in the mirrors while wave after wave of sensation swamped her.She saw them together the images so clear in his mind. Byron feeding at her breast. Devouring her body Ravenous for her and making no apologies. His hands moved over her, his fingers splayed wide to take in every bit of skin he could find. He stroked and caressed her, his hands cupping her breasts, then her buttocks, then gliding over her stomach to nestle his fingers in the tight, black curls."I don't care if I am a cat in heat," she said, widening her stance for him in invitation.He spent time lavishing attention on her breasts while liquid heat trickled on the inside of her thigh. Until she was hot and wet and couldn't stop moving her hips in sheer frustration. When his mouth left her breast, she cried out a protest, but then watched, fascinated, as his mouth drifted, feathered down her body to her waist, lower still to her navel. He stayed there a few moments, his tongue lapping gently, his hand cupping the heat between her thighs."I can hardly breathe." She wanted him so much. Her hands moved constantly, finding every defined muscle, wanting to touch him even while her mind saw them together. "I'm burning up, Byron."She watched as he knelt in front of her and without haste, wrapped his arms around her hips, forcing her body to him. Her mind nearly exploded with scent and taste and sensation rocketing through their merged senses, their merged brains. She heard her own small scream as his tongue stabbed deep, pushed inside of her.Antonietta caught two fistfuls of hair, held him to her, pushed her hips into him, tears running down her face. Their shared intimacy amplified her sexual need tenfold. She felt his heavy fullness. The gathering pressure that threatened to blow the top of his head off. She felt his possessive nature. The implacable resolve to hold her to him, to bind her for all eternity. Two halves of the same whole. His hunger for her. His need of her. His need to convert her, fully bring her over.She tried to hold on to that strange thought, but her body imploded, a vicious, wild orgasm that took her into another dimension. Her vision was gone as he swept her into his arms, carried her across the floor into her bedroom. Antonietta gasped for breath, her muscles convulsing as he thrust into her.He filled her completely, driving deep, his hands gripping her hips, holding her still while he surged forward relentlessly, mercilessly, demanding she take every inch of him. Skin to skin. Heart to heart. He took her body and gave her his as if he were possessed. Craving her. Never getting enough. As if it could never be enough.Antonietta didn't want to relinquish her hold on his mind. He was everywhere, in her, surrounding her, a part of her. When she was alone, in her wildest dreams, with her fingers on the keys of her piano, she allowed the intensity of her passion to pour through her, to envision such a joining between man and woman. Whatever strange needs her body had plagued her with throughout the evening, all the suffering was worth it for the time she spent in his arms.She clung to him, held on tightly as he surged deep and strong inside of her. She wanted him deeper still where the fierce pressure gathered and built until she was burning, a firestorm she couldn't control. "Byron." She whispered his name as her muscles tightened around him, gripped convulsively. As he shuddered with the effort to hang on. One long stroke sent them both careening over the edge.They clung to one another, fighting for air, fighting to calm their pounding hearts. Byron didn't move, his body melting into hers. They lay locked together as they were meant to be.Antonietta. My love. I love you very much.She knew his face now, even more vividly than she had before. Every detail was etched in her memory, both from her fingertips and seeing him through his eyes. His whisper was against her throat. His words found their way straight to her heart. Antonietta feared she was very much in love with her dark poet. She slipped her arms around him, holding him to her, not wanting him ever to leave her. All through the night she held him close. Each time he woke her to make love to her again, she turned to him eagerly. She loved the soft whispers and shared laughter, and she didn't want their time ever to end.