Antonietta woke to the knowledge she was in danger. Tiny beads of sweat formed on her body, her heart pounded in terror. She fumbled at the nightstand for her dark glasses to cover her eyes even as her mind reached for Byron. She found a dark, black void instead of comfort. Her lungs burned for air. Where was he? And what manner of monster prowled just outside her windows, seeking a way in.
She called his name sharply. Imperiously.
Where the hell is my white knight when I'm in danger? Wake up!
Predatory eyes watched her with a single, focused purpose. Antonietta could feel the burning malice in the stare. With a slow, unhurried movement, she sat up and swung her legs over the side of the bed. Drawing the sheet up to her chin, her hand went out instinctively to the dog. The borzoi remained absolutely silent, but she could feel the tension vibrating in the animal's body. Celt was on the alert, his posture that of a hunter. It was night, Antonietta didn't know how she knew, but it was definitely night. Once again she had slept away the day. Something terrible and dangerous prowled outside on her balcony, looking for a way into her home. A dark malevolence poured into her room.
I am with you. Stay connected to Celt.
Byron sounded calm.
Something heavy thudded against the stained glass. Pushing relentlessly, steadily, scratching to get in. The dog bounded to the window, a ferocious protector rushing with teeth bared and ready. The breathing coming from behind the thick walls was a terrible thing to hear. It sounded like air rushing through a tunnel. The footfalls should have been silent, but Antonietta could hear the soft padding across the balcony, the nails scraping on her windowsill.
It's at the window, trying to get in. I can't hold Celt back. He's pacing between the windows. I'm afraid, Byron.
Antonietta pulled on her robe. She smelled the pungent odor of the large, heavy cat and wanted to gag.
It wants me. Not just anyone, but me. I'm not being hysterical. I can feel it reaching for me.
Her body itched beneath the skin, much like it had when she had been so terrified as a child, knowing a bomb was on her parents' yacht. Her senses sharpened even more. There was clarity in her mind and a tunnel narrowing to take in and amplify every sound. Colors shimmered, reds and yellows, brilliant and vivid and blinding. Antonietta couldn't shut them out. She was seeing with another part of her, not her eyes, and the colors remained in her mind. The colors took on the blurry but recognizable form of a large animal. Bright splashes of red at its chest and abdomen, surrounded by shades of orange fading to a perimeter of glowing yellow. She watched a paw print, pale yellow fade to blue and disappear and realized she was seeing body heat. Thermal images as the animal went from window to window, pawing and scratching and digging to get in.
I have it now. Jaguar. Large one. Celt is tracking its movements. Get out of the room. Go downstairs into Franco's wing and remain with him until I reach you. I am on my way.
Antonietta didn't need to be told. The sheer malevolence coming from outside the thick walls of the palazzo was alarming. She could feel black hatred. A need to rend and kill. "Celt, come with me." She yanked open the door.
The cat yowled. A nasty note that climbed to a high-pitched scream of rage. Sensing she was getting away, it slammed its body against the stained glass nearest the door. She heard the terrible thud as the heavy body rammed the glass and lead in a determined effort to gain entrance. There was the ominous sound of something cracking. Celt growled low in his throat. Antonietta heard a crunch as the borzoi closed its great jaws over something she was afraid to identify. She felt, more than heard, the dog shake its head savagely.
Get out of there. He will hold the cat at the window. Close the door behind you. I won't leave Celt alone in here. The jaguar is evil. I feel it.
She wanted to drag the dog out, but no amount of coaxing or commanding could call him from the window.
Do as I command.
Byron used a soft voice, pitched low, one that cut deep into her mind and forced obedience when her entire nature insisted she couldn't leave her dog behind to face evil.
Byron exploded out of the earth, a black vapor cloud streaming relentlessly through the sky. One part of his mind followed Antonietta's progress through the palazzo, down the sweeping stairs and through the long rows of rooms toward the wing where Franco and Marita resided. Another part of him stayed connected with Celt. The borzoi locked on to the muzzle of the cat, slashed and crunched and let go, springing back. The jaguar retreated with a hideous screech of pain.
The dog tracked the cat across to the far window. Outside, on the balcony, the jaguar leapt to the roof, scrambled for purchase, and jumped up to the battlements, running across the narrow ledge to reach the tower. Celt lost sight of the cat. The borzoi tracked back and forth between the windows several times.
Go to her. I will hunt.
Byron knew he was too late. The cat had a head start. Apparently some internal warning system had alerted the creature that a predator was stalking. Byron could only hope for a lead, a small mistake to give him an idea where the jaguar's lair was. The scent and trail would be fresh. He had no choice but to uncover the newest danger to Antonietta. Why did they all want her dead?
The borzoi easily opened the door to Antonietta's quarters and unerringly followed her scent through the palazzo, bringing a measure of relief to Byron. He turned his full attention to hunting the jaguar. The cat had to have a lair somewhere, unless it was a member of Antonietta's family. If that were the case, it might double back and enter the palazzo in human form.
If it is one of my cousins as you so clearly suspect, why wouldn't they simply shift inside the palazzo and attack me from within? And don't think you're going to get away with sending me from my room without Celt. We're going to have a long discussion about boundaries.
He ignored her comment, focusing on her intentions.
What are you thinking, Antonietta? Do not dare to search the palazzo. Don't you see? If the cat is out there, and my cousins are all in their rooms, it can't be one of them. I'm going to check on Franco and Marita, and if they're here, I'll check on Paul and Tasha.
Byron swore eloquently in several languages.
You will do no such thing. Where is that dog? Why is he not with you? He's here, and stop fussing at me.
Antonietta knocked on her cousin's door. Although dark, it was early enough in the evening that everyone should be up.
Byron! For heaven's sake. Did you invite your family to the palazzo for dinner tonight?
How could she have forgotten? She had told Helena the night before but hadn't checked with her to see if everything was going smoothly.
As soon as you asked me. Do not worry. I can easily un-invite them. For all of our sakes, it may be best. I would rather your family not be exposed to young Josef. No. Don't you dare uninvite them. I'm not going to allow a wild animal to scare me away from my chance at meeting your family.
Franco opened the door, startling her. "Have you come to see Margurite? She's better today. I brought her a computer, and I think it is the perfect idea to entertain her." He kissed his cousin's cheek as he drew her inside. "She'll love to see your dog. Both children are already wild about him."
"Where's Marita?" Antonietta asked as she waved to Vincente and crossed the room to kiss Margurite. Celt pushed his nose against the child in a display of affection.
"She's probably out looking for computer educational software," Franco said. "She's been agitated ever since she stumbled upon that..." He glanced down at his daughter. "You know. She's been upset."
"It was a frightening experience for her."
"And she's so sensitive and highly strung."
The word was in her mind before she could censor it. She heard the echo of Byron's instant agreement.
"I forgot to let you know Byron's family is in the area, and I've invited them to dinner this evening. If you're able, I would very much like you and your family to join us." She caught Margurite's hand. "How are you feeling, cara
? Does it hurt much?"
Margurite shook her head. "Byron comes in at night and does something when I'm crying, and then my leg doesn't hurt anymore. It works better than the medicine that makes me sleepy."
"I didn't know that," Franco said.
"You're asleep," Margurite pointed out with childlike candor.
"Byron is even more skilled than I when it comes to taking away pain," Antonietta explained. "I have to see to the details of tonight's dinner, but I wanted to make certain you knew we were having company."
Franco laughed. "The staff might take you seriously if you weren't in your bathrobe, Antonietta. More and more you are sleeping the day away. You artists enjoy keeping strange hours."
"So true." She kissed him lightly. "But you love us anyway."
"Yes, I do. Thank Byron for helping Margurite. And we will be at your dinner party, giving you full Scarletti support. Have no worries."
"Can Celt stay with me?" Margurite asked.
Deep inside of her, she could feel Byron still and waiting. He didn't protest. He didn't object, but she felt him hold his breath. His concern made her feel cherished. "I'll ask him if he'd like to visit a little later," Antonietta promised the child. "I need him just a bit longer." Her hand dropped to caress the dog's silky ears. The borzoi did give her more independence. She would never have entered Franco's quarters without taking him, afraid the furniture was moved in one of Marita's frenzied decorating schemes, or that the children had left their toys out. Celt simply steered her around all objects without seeming to do so.
The cat's scent is fresh in the grove. I see tracks around the garden area and the back courtyard in particular. The animal was trying to gain entry through the French doors. There is a distinct print on the door down near the bottom, as if he tried to pry it open. There are scratch marks up high on the frame.
Antonietta made her way through the long hallway separating Franco's suite of rooms from Tasha's. The sound of weeping made Antonietta frown and quickly knock on her cousin's door. Tasha could cut someone in two with her tongue, but she rarely cried.
There was instant silence. The rustle of clothes. Antonietta tried the door. It was locked. "Tasha. What's wrong?"
"Nothing, Toni, go away."
"I certainly will not. Open this door, or I'll get the master key." Alarm spread rapidly. Tasha would never lock herself in her room.
"Is anyone with you?"
"Just Celt. What's wrong, Tasha? You're scaring me."
Byron could feel Antonietta's anxiety escalating. He stayed a shadow in her mind, even as he crisscrossed the grounds for evidence of the jaguar. The cats were known for their stealth and ability to keep hidden. This one, he was certain, was far more cunning than most.
The door opened slowly. Tasha stepped back to allow her cousin entry and then shut the door firmly and locked it. "Watch the chair, Toni. Just a minute, let me push it back in. I didn't think about it being in the way."
Antonietta, sensitive to every nuance, heard the tremor in Tasha's voice, even though it was evident she made every effort to cover it up.
Something's wrong with her, Byron. She tells me everything. Every little detail. This is totally unlike her.
Direct Celt to look at her.
Byron focused, using the images from the animal. Tasha's face was swollen and wet with tears. He looked closer. Dark anger swirled in his belly. Use your fingertips, my love, someone has struck her. Her eye is swollen, and the left side of her face discolored, Antonietta caught her cousin's hand, drew her close. "Who dared to do this to you?" Her fingertips barely skimmed, careful of inflicting more pain. "You should have come to me immediately. I would have helped you."
"I was too humiliated." Tasha burst into another storm of weeping. "I didn't want anyone to see me, to know. And you were still in bed with... that man." She added the last accusingly.
"Christopher did this?"
"He came to visit today, as he does every day, with his demands. He doesn't like my clothes. He wants my hair differently. I don't know enough about art. The list of my shortcomings goes on and on, and he doesn't even know about the most damning of all." A sob escaped. Tasha wrapped her arms around Antonietta and cried into her shoulder as if her heart were breaking.
Antonietta held her. Even Celt pushed against Tasha's legs in an attempt to comfort her. "You did tell that man to go to hell, I hope."
"That's why he hit me. He was furious when I gave him back his ring. He said he refused to allow me to break the engagement. He said horrible things to me." Lifting her head, she pulled Antonietta's hand to her hip. "He hit me so hard I fell, and then he kicked me right here."
Fury welled up out of nowhere. Antonietta shook with it. She didn't know if it was her own anger or if she was so deeply merged with Byron she was feeling his anger. The combination was deadly. "I'd sell the palazzo before I would ever let that horrible man near you. Nonno would feel the same way, as well Franco and Paul. I'd like to do a little violence to Christopher myself."
She cupped the side of her cousin's face, concentrated on finding the power inside of her. Byron, help me. She knew he would help her, that his healing power was great, and combined, they would take away every ache. She felt him moving through her. Gathering strength, reaching for Tasha. Antonietta heard soft chanting, words in a language she didn't recognize, when she knew so many.
Tasha drew back when the terrible throbbing in her face lessened and nearly vanished. She touched her face. "It feels better.
Grazie, Toni." She paced across the room, pushing her hand through her hair in agitation. "Christopher can make trouble for us. For
Nonno. He said he'd cause a scandal. Our family can't afford any more scandals."
"Scarlettis were born to be embroiled in scandals. I think we should call your handsome captain and press charges against Christopher Demonesini. Maybe we can have the rat spend a few hours in jail."
"I just want to forget I ever had anything to do with him."
"It doesn't surprise me he was abusive. Christopher grew up thinking he was entitled to anything he wanted. I'm sorry he hurt you, Tasha, but truthfully, I'm grateful you broke it off with him."
"I wish you'd break it off with Byron. I'm not comparing Christopher to Byron, Toni, really, I'm not. But he frightens me in a way Christopher never could. I want you to promise me you'll be careful. Something's not right about him. Why don't we know anything about him?"
"His family is coming for dinner tonight. His sister, her husband, and their son. We can ask all sorts of questions."
"Tonight?" Tasha's voice rose. She covered her face with her hands. "How could this happen now, Toni?" She wailed it. "I want to meet his family. I can't very well sit at a table with my face like this. Do you have to have them for dinner tonight? Have them wait a week or two."
"Tasha, they're visiting the area. You know very well I can't ask them to wait. You always wanted to be in the middle of a drama. We should invite the captain for dinner, too. It's the perfect opportunity. And I need to get dressed. I want to look special tonight. I don't want to ask Justine to help me."
Tasha caught Antonietta's hand. "Of course I'll help you. But don't invite Diego. I don't want him to see me like this."
"I haven't told Paul about dinner yet, and I need to talk to Helena. I want to check that everything is perfect."
"I'll ring Helena and have her meet us in your rooms. Paul's gone. He left right after Christopher arrived."
A chill went down Antonietta's spine.
She reached for him, needing the comfort of his presence.
I am here, cara. I am always with you. Paul is often gone. It does not prove anything one way or the other.
Antonietta listened to her heartbeat. The fear beating at her subsided. Grazie, Byron. You always manage to say the right thing.
"We'll have to hurry." Tasha took another look at her face in the mirror. "It doesn't hurt very much anymore, but it sure looks awful. Come on before I change my mind. Let's go find you the perfect outfit."
Antonietta hurried through the palazzo and up the stairs, Celt at her side and Tasha leading the way. Helena was waiting at her door, doing her best to hide her exasperation with Antonietta's interference.
"I'm certain everything is fine, signorina."
"Fine then," Tasha snapped. "She was just checking, Helena. Go do whatever it is you do."
"That was rude," Antonietta said as the housekeeper hurried away.
"She was rude. She should know you never fuss. This must be important to you, or you wouldn't be so concerned."
"I am not fussing."
Yes you are.