The jaguar had deliberately used the water to confuse the scent. Byron could not find a clear trail leading from the cove. Many human scents were mingled together, impossible to pick out any that might have been a shifter. He masked his presence and soared upward to Antonietta's balcony, sending a quick reassurance to Celt so the borzoi wouldn't go on guard and alert the women. The damage to one window was enormous. The jaguar had tried to force its way into the room. It had definitely wanted to attack Antonietta.
Byron gripped the balustrade tightly. Antonietta was out of time. He could no longer afford to wait when such an enemy was stalking her. She had to be with him.
What is it? You're so sad. Come to me and stop thinking about things that make you sad. Nothing happened to me, and nothing will. You gave me Celt, remember?
Her voice filled him with happiness yet tore at his heart. He had to find a way to make her understand. He wanted her to choose his life. To love him enough to choose him. Her family and her music were her world. There had to be a way to give her everything and still share in and protect her life.
Byron, what is it? I share my troubles with you. Share with me.
Hurt had crept into her thoughts. Byron straightened.
Later. After you meet my family. We will have plenty of time to talk. I'm coming.
He used the cracks in the window to seep through, mist pouring into her bedroom and then under the door to gain the hallway so when she stepped out, he was waiting. He even remembered to dress in a suit for her.
Tasha turned her face away and for once said nothing to him. He could see the color sweep under her skin as she squeezed Antonietta's hand and then rushed away. He simply stood there, staring at his lifemate. In that moment he knew he would always feel that first moment of wonder each time he saw her. Of joy at her existence. She stood there dressed in some blue creation that clung to her curves and swirled and moved as if alive when she walked. He was speechless, unable for a moment to think.
"Is the chef really upset?"
He cleared his throat, feasting his eyes on her. She obviously had no idea how she affected him, and that might be a good thing. "Listen; you can hear him arguing with the housekeeper and his assistant."
Antonietta found she could. She simply had to want to hear it. An argument was raging in the kitchen. She sighed. "Nothing is ever easy, is it?"
Byron took her hand. Celt fell in beside her. They made their way downstairs to the large kitchen. Several workers were chopping and cutting, and the smell of bread and broth permeated the room. Everyone fell silent when they entered.
Antonietta forced a smile. "Surely there is no problem here. We have very little time to pull this dinner off. Our guests will be arriving any minute, and everything must be perfect. I sent the revised menu and asked for the Irish lace tablecloth and our best china. The palazzo must be spotless. If you have to ask the maids to work overtime, please tell them they will be compensated accordingly." For a moment she hesitated, so used to having Justine at her side taking care of details, she was unsure how to proceed. In truth, she rarely went beyond giving Helena orders.
Helena's face flushed a dull red. "I'm capable of attending to these matters, signorina." Her voice was stiff. "Have you lost confidence in my capabilities to handle the staff?"
"No, of course not, Helena," Antonietta said hastily. "It's just that this dinner is very important to me. I heard the chef possibly objected to the menu - "
Cara, bella, truly, my family will be happy with whatever you choose to serve. It matters little to them. They are coming to meet you.
Byron rested his hand on Antonietta's shoulder, searching for a way to ease her nervousness at the idea of meeting his family.
They are so happy I found you. And they will welcome you into our family. Eleanor was so pleased when she heard we were bound. It matters to me. She was clearly distracted and not paying attention to him.
Byron slid his hand down her arm until their fingers tangled, intertwined.
"Signorina..." Helena shifted her weight nervously from one foot to the other. "The Irish lace has gone missing. Earlier I told the maids to put the cloth on the formal dining table, and they reported it is gone. The Medici lace is quite beautiful."
"Gone? What is wrong with everyone? How could the Irish lace be gone? It was my mother's."
Byron tugged until she was beneath his shoulder. She was acting out of character, fussing at her staff because she was nervous about meeting his family. And he saw immediately the importance of the tablecloth to her.
"I'm sorry, signorina, I understand, and I'll try to have it found, but if we can't, there must be something else." Helena sounded a bit desperate.
"I want everything to be perfect, Helena. I can't have Byron's family show up for dinner and not have the Irish lace tablecloth."
"I'm sorry, Signorina Antonietta, I'll check the laundry at once." The housekeeper signaled to the chef and his assistant frantically.
"This family, your special guests," Esteben said suddenly, "are they business associates or friends? Perhaps both?"
Alfredo broke into a torrent of rage, waving his arms and clipping Esteben sharply about the ears. "You never ask such a thing from the signorina."
Antonietta heard the dull thud of his fist making contact, and she winced. "Alfredo!" she reprimanded sharply. "I don't believe in striking another person. Please keep your hands to yourself in my home. Surely you know I don't allow my people to be treated in such a manner."
"I thought it would make a difference in the menu, Alfredo," Esteben apologized. "Forgive me, signorina."
"There is nothing to forgive, Esteben." Antonietta put her hands on her hips. "Can you pull this dinner together for me, Alfredo? Yes or no?"
There was a distinct challenge in her voice. Byron also heard a hint of desperation. The dinner didn't matter at all to his family, but it did to Antonietta. He narrowed and focused his gaze on the chef. For a brief moment, the flames of the demon flickered in his eyes.
Alfredo looked from Antonietta to Byron. His face cleared. He spread his hands out in a passive gesture. "Of course, signorina, if you wish to change the menu, I'll be most happy to oblige."
Grazie, Alfredo. You have no idea how important this is to me. I'll get out of your way." She turned with a swish of her long skirt, catching Byron's hand. "I'm so glad that's settled. I'm so nervous."
Byron brought her hand to his mouth and nibbled on her knuckles. "There is no need. Eleanor will love you immediately. How could she not? Vlad is a very calm, even-tempered man. He adores Eleanor and gives her most anything she wants."
"Is he a jeweler, such as yourself? An artisan?"
"In his way. I have a special knack for finding gems, for calling them to me. The perfect gem for the piece I envisage. Vlad does not like to design jewelry. He enjoys sculpting. His work is highly prized. Eleanor was so pleased he was in the crafts. She could never have been happy with a hunter."
"Hunter? What do they hunt?"
He should have known she would catch that mistake. He was growing too comfortable with her. Antonietta was so connected to him, he hardly knew where he began and she left off. He was beginning to realize just how close lifemates were. "I should have used the term enforcer. Much like Captain Diego. I'll explain it when we have more time."
Antonietta lifted both hands to his face, her sensitive fingertips mapping his expression, feature by feature. "Yes, I think you will have to explain this to me, Byron. Not only are you frowning, but I feel your reluctance in my mind. We have a lot to talk about, don't we? Things like boundaries."
He winced. "I was looking out for your safety."
"That's not what I want to hear."
"Our mind link is becoming a nuisance."
"Only when you try to hide things from me. I can't wait to meet your family," Antonietta said. "Especially your sister. She can tell me wonderful stories of your childhood. She can tell me whether you will ever understand the term boundary or not."
He groaned. "Eleanor is prone to making things up."
Antonietta laughed. "You're lying to me. She probably doesn't need to make things up. I can't wait to find out what you were like as a child."
"Antonietta, I would hate to have to throw you over my shoulder in front of our two families and carry you upstairs. One mention of my childhood, and that is bound to happen."
Joy swirled in her. How had she ever managed without the excitement of sharing? Without the sheer fun of Byron in her life? "You wouldn't dare. I happen to be a famous concert pianist. I'm very respectable, and things like that aren't done."
"You happen to be a world-famous concert pianist, and that is exactly what will happen to you if you dare to embarrass me."
"If you're going to be a baby about it, I'll just wait until your sister and I are alone to ask her all the little humiliating details of your childhood. I'm also going to tell her your penchant for being bossy and demanding your way. Perhaps she will give me tips on how best to control that little flaw you have."
Byron took her hand again. He had no intentions of allowing Eleanor ever to be alone with Antonietta. "Have I told you I love the way you look in that skirt?"
"No, but you can if you'd like to. I wanted to look nice for your family."
"You look beautiful. Tempting. I could carry you off right now," he said hopefully. Deliberately, he conjured up a picture in his head, paying great care to detail: Antonietta stretched out naked on the bed, her hair a silken cloud over the pillow. His head pressed between her thighs while she writhed with passion.
Color swept under her skin. Antonietta fanned herself.
"Stop that right this minute. Your family is coming, and I have work to do."
"I thought your work was taking care of me." Under cover of the nearest piece of furniture, Byron pressed her open hand to the front of his slacks. He was already as hard as a rock.
Antonietta rubbed her palm over the thick bulge. "Poor bambino, so neglected. If you didn't keep running off to leave me to sleep alone, I might have more sympathy for you." Her fingers danced over the rigid length of him, a tantalizing promise. Her teeth nibbled on his chin. "As it is, I have... none." She hurried away, laughing, her skirts swirling around her ankles. "Where's Helena gone to? She has to check that each room has been thoroughly cleaned. What if your family would like a tour of the palazzo?"
Byron found walking could be painful. "You are not getting away with torturing me, Antonietta." Her laughter was soft and so contagious, he found himself smiling. "Stop worrying. My family is coming to meet you, Antonietta, not tour the palazzo. It will not matter what you prepare for dinner. You will charm them. Trust me. I have been looking for you for a very long time, and they are thrilled I finally found you. Helena raced off to find the missing tablecloth."
He slowed the pace, walking with her through the wide hall. As they passed the music room, an object crashed on the marble tile. They could hear pieces breaking and scattering across the floor.
Antonietta turned her head toward the sound in alarm. "What is that? Surely not another crisis? Your family will be here any minute."
"No one should be in your music room. I thought that was your private domain." His voice was soft. A whisper, no more.
Antonietta stiffened. Her mind was so caught up in meeting his family, she hadn't considered that someone might be rummaging through her work. "Probably Vincente. He's so bored without little Margurite to play with." Vincente had never gone in her private music room. The room, with its perfect acoustics, was considered strictly off limits to everyone in the house while Antonietta was composing, which was nearly all the time.
"I doubt it is the boy. Stay here with Celt." Byron scanned the music room. He knew exactly who was frantically searching through the musical scores.
Antonietta gasped. "Marita." She picked the image right out of Byron's mind. "She must be looking for the Handel piece. I'm not staying here while you confront my sister-in-law. If she's betraying my family, I want to know about it."
Byron was astonished. Antonietta was moving in and out of his mind with the touch of an expert. Telepathy was natural to her. She wasn't afraid of it at all. "It sounds as if there is glass on the floor. I do not want you to be injured."
"I'm wearing shoes."
He glanced down at the smooth Italian leather. "Open-toed sandals. That does not count as shoes."
She made a small sound of annoyance. She had dressed with care, wanting to look her best for his family. Everything seemed to be going wrong. And now Marita was rummaging around in the music room.
Byron moved silently, masking their presence from Marita. He watched as the woman opened cupboard after cupboard and rifled through the contents.
What is she doing? Searching for something.
Byron reached for Marita's mind, scanning to see her intentions, merging with Antonietta at the same time.
Marita was crying softly, murmuring prayers as she rummaged through papers and musical scores.
"I have the Handel safe," Antonietta announced.
Byron hastily uncloaked their presence as Marita whirled around. She emitted a high-pitched squeak and covered her face.
"Do not cry." He ordered it, biting out the words in sheer self-preservation.
"Why would you do this, Marita? You are a Scarletti. If you and Franco needed money, why wouldn't you come to me?" Antonietta's heart was aching. "I don't understand."
"Franco knows nothing of this. He cannot know. Please, Toni, don't say anything to him of this."
The great knocker at the main entrance resonated throughout the palazzo. Antonietta clutched at Byron's arm. "They're here. We need a maid in here to clean up the glass immediately."
"What are you going to do, Toni?" Marita demanded. "If you tell Franco what I've done, you will destroy my marriage. He will send me away. You know he will."
"I can't help what Franco will do, Marita. You attempted to steal a great treasure from our family. Who were you taking it to?"
"I can't say."
The image shimmered in her mind. Loathing surrounded the image. Loathing and fear. Merged as she was with Byron, Antonietta caught the image from Marita's mind. "Don Demonesini? You were delivering a Scarletti treasure into the hands of that horrible man?"
"How could you know? I didn't say. I would never utter his name aloud, the name of the devil himself." Marita crossed herself several times.
Waves of distress and fear swamped them from all directions. Running footsteps clattered down the marble hall. "Signorina Antonietta, may the good
save us all." Helena ran into the room, her bosom heaving, her hands fluttering in the air wildly. "We've found him. We've found Enrico. He's in the laundry chute, wrapped in your good Irish lace tablecloth."
Behind Helena a young maid appeared. "I've shown Vlad and Eleanor Belandrake and their son, Josef, into the conservatory, Signorina Antonietta."
The silence was deafening. Byron wrapped a comforting arm around Antonietta. "I take it Enrico is no longer alive." He had a sudden urge to laugh at the ridiculous situation but was certain Antonietta wouldn't appreciate his sense of humor.
"Dead as can be," Helena admitted, pressing a hand to her mouth. "The maids went looking for the missing tablecloth, and the smell was so bad - "
Antonietta held up her hand. "Spare us, please, Helena. This can't be happening, Byron. I can't have your family for dinner with a dead body in the laundry chute. What am I going to do? Poor Enrico. He's very large. I can't imagine how he got in there."
"He's stuck," Helena reported. "I have no idea how we're going to get him out."
"I will speak to my sister and her husband, Antonietta. I am certain they will understand. Call Captain Diego and inform him we have found the missing chef." We will discuss Marita later, when things have settled down. I'm sorry about your chef, and your mother's tablecloth.
"We can't possibly uninvite your family for dinner," Antonietta was horrified. Poor Enrico. He kept to himself, but he was a fixture here.
Marita gasped aloud when Franco walked in, dressed in a charcoal gray suit. "Gossip travels fast here in the palazzo. Tasha is informing the authorities and asking them to be discreet and use the servant's entrance. Nonno is entertaining your guests in the conservatory, and you know he can be very charming." Franco squeezed his cousin's shoulder in sympathy. "We can pull this off, Toni. Don't panic. Marita, I'm allowing Vincente and Margurite a movie while we're dining. Please go quickly and get dressed. This dinner means a great deal to Toni, and we won't fail her."
"We can't possibly sit down to dinner with a dead body in the laundry chute," Marita said.
"Don Giovanni is explaining right at this moment that we've had a death in the palazzo. Enrico lived here practically his entire life. He's one of ours, and he'll be taken care of. Toni, you look beautiful. Go with Byron and meet his family. I understand there is some hysteria in the kitchen. I'll go down and see that the new chef, what's his name?"
"Alfredo," Antonietta supplied.
"I'll make certain Alfredo calms down and doesn't disgrace us. I'll take care of this, Toni. I know what this means to you. Marita, do as I say." He glanced around the room, noted the broken glass on the floor and the papers clutched in Marita's hands.
She looked desperately at Antonietta and Byron as if they might save her, then she turned and ran from the room.
"Helena, calm the maids and make certain this room is cleaned," Franco ordered.
"Yes, Signor Scarletti."
Franco took Antonietta's hand. "It will be all right, Toni. We'll get through this together, the way our family always does. Byron's relatives will be charmed by you."
"In spite of the dead body in the laundry chute, wrapped in my mother's Irish lace tablecloth," Antonietta said wryly. "I just don't believe this is happening. Poor Enrico. Who would want to hurt him?"
Byron hugged her close. "We will find out, Antonietta. I promise you. There is not much we can do for him at the moment. Come meet my family. It will not matter in the least to them if there is no dinner. They came to meet you, not to eat." Bella, do not be so distressed. I know you held affection for Enrico, I feel it in your heart. Marita's behavior is not what it seems. I read her mind, and she does not want money. She detests and fears this man. I could not tell why. She is very emotional, and it was difficult to see past the intensity to the real reason she took the Handel score. When I have time, I will examine her memories and find out what is going on.
Antonietta leaned her head against his chest. "I feel as if my entire life has been turned upside down. Franco, did you see Tasha's face? You've known Christopher since he was a child. Did you know he was capable of such a thing?"
Franco shook his head. "I plan on calling on him tomorrow."
"There is no need, Franco." Byron spoke low, but his voice carried power. "I will have a talk with Christopher Demonesini about how one treats a woman. You have too much to risk, while I do not have a reputation to protect."
"Neither one of you needs to be talking to Christopher about anything," Antonietta said firmly. "I think the captain should have a talk with him."
The two men looked at one another over the top of her head. Byron took her arm and strolled casually from the music room, Franco pacing beside them, just as a maid came rushing in to clean up the glass. "You know as well as I do that he has too much money for anything to happen to him, even if it was Tasha he struck," Byron said.
"Then we ruin him socially and financially," Antonietta said seriously. "Their business is already in trouble. It wouldn't take that much to tip them over the edge. No one hurts my family."
"That is a true Scarletti speaking, Byron," Franco said. "Let that be a warning to you. We seek revenge."
"Retribution," Antonietta corrected. "Justice. It isn't quite the same thing as revenge. Ask
Nonno. I'm certain he'll agree." I mean it, Byron, I feel strongly about this. How dare that horrible man hit and kick my cousin and think his life can continue without a single consequence.
I said nothing, bella. I just want you to know what I'm capable of. Perhaps you won't find me so appealing.
She sounded very much as if she were issuing a challenge.
Byron leaned down to brush the corner of her mouth with his.
On the contrary, I think you will fit right in with my people.
There was a trace of amusement in his voice.
Franco cleared his throat. "Surprisingly, little cousin, I agree with you about retribution, too. I'm off to the kitchen to tackle Alfredo. I'll wait for the captain to show so I can talk to him without causing a scene."
Grazie, Franco, I really appreciate your help." Antonietta reached her hand out, and her cousin caught it in a show of solidarity.
"Go enjoy yourself. Byron, see that she does."
"It will be my pleasure." Byron tucked Antonietta's fingers into the crook of his arm and walked her through the open rooms of the palazzo. "I am really very sorry about the tablecloth. When a loved one dies, we cling to the things they treasured."
"I know it's silly to feel so upset over it, with poor Enrico dead in our home." Antonietta sighed. "I feel ridiculous to even think of the tablecloth."
"I have a medallion I made for my mother. I was a boy, and I certainly would not consider it good work at all, but she treasured it. She wore it always. Even later when my skills improved, and I gave her other, much more valuable pieces, she still wore the medallion." Byron could hear his sister laughing, her voice low as she spoke with Don Giovanni. It gave him a wrenching sense of homesickness.
"Byron?" Antonietta halted abruptly, just outside the door to the conservatory. "I know I don't tell you how I feel about you, mostly because I can't put it into words, but you're very important to me." She shook her head. "That's not what I wanted to say."
She looked so close to tears, he gathered her close. "I know how you feel about me, cara. I feel what you feel, remember? We are connected. You do not have to say words to me. They will come in time."
"I just wanted you to know."
Byron caught her chin and tilted her face up to his. "I know." His mouth found her temple, drifted, feather light, from the side of her cheek to the corner of her mouth. He drew her closer, his arms tightening possessively, tongue teasing the seam of her lips until she opened for him. He gave her no chance to pull away, no chance for a chaste kiss. He took control with ravenous hunger. He wanted her with every fiber of his being, and he poured the intensity of his need into his kiss. He wanted her to feel loved, to feel beautiful and confident. To be confident of him and the way he felt about her.
Fire burned instantly between them. His body reacted, thickening, hardening. He ached to bury himself deep inside of her. Deep within, the ever-present beast lifted its head and roared for its mate. Demanded his rights. Byron's hands slid down her back, shaped her waist, memorized the curve of her hips and found her buttocks. She was wearing one of her sexy little thongs. There wasn't a single line under the silken material of her skirt.
Byron deepened the kiss, forgetting everything but the sheer, hot passion of her mouth. Of her body. He urged her more closely into him, imprinting the hard length of his need into her soft flesh. He held her there, took pleasure in the way her hips moved urgently against him, seeking relief. He couldn't stop kissing her, his mouth hard and hot and persuasive. Do you want to run away with me? Right now?
A low whistle cut through the erotic images in Byron's mind. Merged as deep as they were, Antonietta heard it, too.
Holy Smoke. Uncle Byron! Hey, Dad, check this out. He's going at it hot and heavy out there. I never thought he had it in him. I think they're going to melt right into the floor.
Antonietta pulled away with a small gasp of alarm. "Who is that, Byron, and why can I hear him?"
He stroked a small caress over her head. "That would be my nephew, the one with no manners. Are you absolutely certain you want to meet him? I can send him away," he said hopefully. "It would save me the mortification I am certain to undergo should you insist on following through with this."
"How is it I heard him in my head? He's in the conservatory, yet I heard him in the same way I heard you. I don't generally hear everyone speaking in my head." The idea clearly bothered her.
"Not in the same way. Our people are strong telepaths, lifemates have their own wavelength, a private path, if you will. Our minds were merged together, and my nephew spoke on the general path my people all use. You heard him through me, just as you used my eyes to see."
"That's incredible. My family are telepaths but not to such a powerful extent. Let's go in, I don't want to seem rude, now that your nephew has announced us."
"That boy needs to learn manners." Disengaging his mind from Antonietta's, he sent a private reprimand to his sister.
Eleanor, Josef is too old to act like such a child. I want a word with him later. He is just excited, Byron. He has not seen you in years. Eleanor, he spoke so a human could hear him. He endangered our people by such an act. That cannot be tolerated, and you know it.
"You're muttering under your breath," Antonietta said. Her fingertips touched his lips. "And you're frowning."
"After meeting my nephew, you will be frowning, too," he predicted. With a sigh of resignation, he pushed open the door to the conservatory. His fingers twined with hers, clung, and held on.
"You're turning into a big baby," she said.
"Here she is, my granddaughter, Antonietta." Don Giovanni rose quickly. "Antonietta, our guests have arrived. Byron, how good to see you. Your sister is lovely."
Grazie, Don Giovanni," Eleanor said. She hugged her brother and touched Antoinette's hand. "You have no idea how much it means to me to finally meet you."
"My sister Eleanor, her husband Vlad, and my nephew, Josef." Byron introduced. "This is Antonietta Scarletti." Byron's tension communicated itself to Antonietta. She tightened her grip on his fingers.
"You must call me Toni," Antonietta said.
"A pleasure to meet you," Vlad acknowledged. He lowered his voice. "Josef, I asked you to remove that beret."
"She's blind; she can't see it," Josef whispered back.
My nephew is wearing one of those silly berets, a smock, and a kerchief. It is obvious he thinks he looks like a painter.
Byron was very careful to keep his mental path private. The last thing he needed was for Eleanor to know he was describing her son's attire to his lifemate.
Antonietta laughed. "I'm blind, Josef, not deaf. It's good to meet you. Your uncle has told me so much about you. He's says you're very talented musically."
Mischief maker. You are going to be sorry you said that.
Antonietta heard Byron's mournful moan in her head. She had the image of him throttling her. She had to cover her mouth to keep from laughing harder. Byron made her feel so alive. His teasing, the way he shared his innermost thoughts. He was casual about their strong telepathic link.
"Josef is very talented," Eleanor agreed. "We have come to Italy, as Josef is eager to paint your beautiful country."
"I love the palazzo," Josef said enthusiastically. "I would love to try to paint it."
"Well, of course you're welcome to come anytime," Don Giovanni invited. "The courtyard would be a good place to see a good portion of the architecture."
Grazie, signor, I appreciate the offer."
Byron's teeth snapped together in frustration. The last thing he wanted was for Josef to spend any more time around the Scarletti family than strictly necessary. He could hear the police downstairs, interviewing the housekeeper. Alfredo was nearly hysterical, talking so fast it was difficult to understand what he was saying. Byron was well aware his family could hear every word, but they continued a pleasant conversation with Don Giovanni and Antonietta as if they were completely oblivious to the drama unfolding in the lower regions.
He let the conversation flow around him, Eleanor trying to draw Antonietta out in vain. Antonietta was far too conscious of the police in her home. She had a vivid imagination, and the thought of Enrico stuck in the laundry chute was distressing to her.
A second disturbance at the courtyard French doors caught Byron's attention. He heard Franco's startled cry, broken off. There were hurried footsteps rushing through the palazzo, calls for Tasha. A soft scream from Justine.
Something is wrong. What else can go wrong?
Antonietta wanted to yell in frustration.
Franco opened the door to the conservatory, smiled at their guests, and leaned close to his cousin. "You must go to Paul immediately," Franco whispered. "It's urgent, Toni, you must hurry."
Do you know what is wrong?
Antonietta automatically reached for Byron.
Byron took her arm even as he smiled at his sister. "Please excuse us for a few minutes. I am certain Don Giovanni and the others will entertain you in our absence."
Paul is injured. It is severe. Franco's concern is very real, and Tasha is crying. Justine is radiating tremendous fear.
He guided her quickly from the room, and they hurried up the stairs to Paul's rooms.
They could hear Tasha's muted weeping and the murmur of voices. Justine's raised in alarm. "We have to call a doctor, Paul. You're going to die if we don't."
"Just get Antonietta. She can take care of this," Paul's voice was weak.
"You're being unreasonable. Tasha, you're his sister. Call a doctor. I swear you Scarlettis are so stubborn. Don't you understand? Paul is dying. If you let him die, I swear I'll have you all arrested."
Antonietta and Byron entered the sitting room. The door to the bedroom was wide open. Tasha and Justine hovered near the bed.
There's blood everywhere. Antonietta. If it is all Paul's, he has lost far too much.
It was Byron's matter-of-fact voice that steadied her. Antonietta took a breath and walked with confidence to the bed. "Paul. What have you done?"
"I have to talk to you alone, Toni."
"Paul..." Justine protested. "Toni, please, I'm begging you to call a doctor for him. He says no, but it isn't too late. It can't be too late."
"A doctor cannot help him, Justine, you already know that," Byron said softly, his voice as mesmerizing and hypnotic as his eyes. "You must leave this to Antonietta."
Tasha wrapped her arm around Justine's waist. "Toni can help him. Let her, Justine. We're wasting time he doesn't have." She led Justine from the room, firmly closing the door behind her.
Eleanor, I need herbs now. Hurry. Vlad, I will need your help, too.
Byron didn't try to keep his communication from Antonietta. She had every right to know Paul's life was seriously at risk.
"What is it, Paul?" Her hands were already moving over his body. Byron crowded close, applied pressure to the worst of the wounds.
"He has been stabbed several times, Antonietta. He needs blood fast. I can help him. Eleanor will bring what I need."
"I need to tell you, Toni." Paul caught at Antonietta's arm.
"Don't talk until we get this bleeding under control."
"It's too late, you know that. You always know. This is important."
"Shut up, Paul," Antonietta hissed. "I mean it. You're not going to die on me. Byron, do whatever you have to do."
"I have to give him blood, Antonietta." Byron waved his hand to still Paul's struggles, continued to apply pressure to the wounds. "If I do this, we will be connected for all time. Do you understand?"
"I want you to save him. I don't care how you do it, just do it." Antonietta stroked back Paul's hair. "I love him as if he were my brother."
"You do not have to say anything else, lifemate. Lock the door. No one must come in this room. Set Celt on guard. Then open the window about two inches."
"Your sister - "
"Has her own way of getting in. She will be here soon. Sit by Paul and listen to my voice. I want you to join in. You are a strong healer."
Antonietta didn't understand, but there was an urgency about him. She trusted Byron where she might not have any other. She locked the door, gave the order to Celt, and obediently cracked open the window.
Almost immediately Byron saw mist creeping through the crack. "Eleanor. Good girl. Go around to the other side. See if you can pack the wounds. Antonietta, I am going to place your hands on him, and you have to press hard. I need my hands free." He guided her palms to Paul's stomach.
Antonietta could feel the warmth of the blood. She smelled a strange, soothing odor. She knew Eleanor was close to her. It didn't matter to her how Eleanor had gotten through a locked door or why Byron thought she could help, only that they save Paul. She merged with Byron, determined to follow his movements.
Byron was detached from his own body. She could feel his spirit soaring free. His energy, white-hot and glowing, moved toward Paul. It was strange to feel how small and huddled and tired Paul was. He was moving away from them, his energy dismally low. Antonietta's heart began to pound loudly at the realization that Paul was dying. She forced herself to remain still and quiet, to trust in Byron. She could feel determination, confidence even.
Voices began a chant in an ancient tongue. The words felt familiar to her. When she knew she had the correct pronunciation, she added her voice to the others. All the while she concentrated on sending Byron her strength. What he was doing was demanding physically and mentally. He meticulously began closing wounds from the inside out, paying particular attention to detail, removing bacteria from the gashes to prevent infection.
Antonietta felt a female presence joining them, working with Byron even as they chanted. Another joined in, Vlad, strong and sure, providing a steady flow of energy to the two working on Paul. Eleanor remained behind when Byron pulled out. Antonietta took the opportunity to wash her hands in Paul's bathroom, feeling slightly ill with so much of her cousin's blood on her. She hurried back to Byron's side.
"Antonietta. I have to give him my blood. Even a mortal transfusion would not save him. Are you certain you can live with this decision? Perhaps it would be better if you broke off the contact with me while I do this."
"I'll see it through. You're doing this for me. The least I can do is provide you with energy." She reached out her hand, finding his face unerringly. "I know you're tired, and I feel you're afraid that whatever you have to do will upset me, but it won't. I trust you, Byron."
He leaned into her, brushed her lips gently with his. She was in darkness, but she felt every sensation, as closely connected as they were. She felt the burning pain as he cut his wrist, a terrible, gaping wound. She felt the way Paul's mouth clamped on, the drawing of Byron's lifeblood from his body. Shock numbed her, protected her, just for a moment. She fought her way past that protective barrier. There was realization that Byron had used his own teeth to tear his wrist. That Paul was devouring the lifesaving blood instead of being transfused. That the smell of blood was producing a craving she couldn't understand in herself. Instead of being repelled, she was fascinated. She was also very aware that Byron was monitoring her reaction.
Antonietta lifted her chin, continued to chant, fought her human reactions, and concentrated on what they were doing, saving her beloved cousin's life. Byron had taken an enormous chance in allowing her to know what he was. He had entrusted her with a secret even larger than her own. She had Jaguar in her lineage. He was something altogether different. Something loathed and feared by humans. He was... vampire.
Byron's protest was sharp.
Never that. I am not undead.
Deliberately, Antonietta leaned into him again, framed his face with her hands. While her cousin fed from him, she found his mouth with hers.
You amaze me, Byron.
She poured her gratitude and her feelings, as confused as they were, into her kiss, trying to tell him without words what it meant that he trusted her enough to save Paul's life in the only way possible.
Tears glittered for a moment in Byron's eyes. He had to look away from his sister and her lifemate. Antonietta had given him a gift more priceless than seeing in colors. She gave him acceptance.
"No more, Byron," Vlad said abruptly. "You are already too weak."
Antonietta felt him sway, his energy gone, his body drained of his enormous strength. He staggered and sat down abruptly, despite her trying to catch him.
"What's wrong with him? Eleanor? Vlad? Tell me what's wrong with him?" Panic rose fast, a terrible fear in her heart and lungs.
"He has not fed this night," Vlad answered calmly. "Healing as he did, holding Paul to earth while doing so and giving him blood, takes a toll. I will take care of his need. Eleanor will need help, too. You are being very brave, Antonietta."
"I haven't done anything to help at all. If Byron needs blood, he can take mine."
There was a sudden stillness in the room. Even Eleanor, deep within Paul's body, was quiet. "
Cara mia, you steal my heart with your generosity. Vlad will provide what is needed."
"Vlad is not your lifemate. I am. I am quite able to provide for you." Her neck throbbed and burned. Her breasts ached. Sexual hunger swirled in the pit of her stomach and spread a slow, burning heat through her body. Excitement blossomed, yet at the same time she tried to analyze why she would feel such a need to provide blood for him.
Byron pulled her into his arms. "There is no other like you, bella. " In truth, just the thought of you giving me your blood fills me with a hunger I dare not name. We are not alone. Allow Vlad to give me his powerful blood, and when we are alone, I will thank you properly.
She could hear the aching sexual hunger in his voice. "Is Vlad's blood more powerful than mine? Will it make a difference?" She tried to ignore the answering fire in her bloodstream.
"Yes, his blood will give me energy very quickly."
"What does it feel like?"
"Merge with me, Antonietta." Byron wrapped one arm around her waist and took Vlad's wrist to his mouth.
The rush hit him hard, hit her. Power pouring into his starved body. Cells and tissue, muscle and bone soaked up the life-giving fluid greedily. She tried to detach herself, to feel horror at the thought of Byron drinking blood, but she saw his power, felt his power. When he had taken what he needed, she realized she was barely breathing.
"How do you stop the blood from flowing?"
"We close the pinpricks with our tongue. The healing agent seals the wound and if we desire, the skin itself."
Antonietta felt a blush stealing up her neck and face. There had been a bite on her neck; Tasha spotted it. "You've taken my blood, haven't you?"
"Of course; you are my lifemate." Deliberately, Byron caught the nape of her neck and dragged her to him, his mouth taking possession of hers, sharing the flavor and power of Carpathian blood. His tongue swept inside her mouth, tangling with hers, a primal mating while her senses leapt to life, every nerve ending on overload.
Eleanor pulled out of Paul's body and into her own, swaying with weariness. "It is done, Antonietta. He will live."
Vlad swept his lifemate into his arms. "You are a miracle worker, Eleanor."
"She is," Byron agreed. "
Grazie, both of you. I could not have saved him without your help."
"I guess my dinner party is thoroughly ruined. You must have such a bad impression of my family." It hit Antonietta that if Eleanor and Vlad were like Byron, they would have heard the police in the lower stories, conducting interviews with staff with sealing off the crime scene. "Poor Enrico deserved better than being shoved down a laundry chute. I have no idea what is happening in my own home."
"At least they wrapped him in the best lace available.""That's not funny."Vlad kept Eleanor firmly in his arms. "Welcome to the family, Antonietta. It has been our pleasure to meet you. I need to take my lifemate home and care for her."Graziefor all you have done, both of you. The next time we meet, hopefully things will be back to normal.""Until then."Antonietta listened, but there were no footsteps. She knew they were no longer in the room. "How do you do that? Just vanish into thin air? Not use doors?""I will teach you." He pulled a chair to the edge of the bed. "Paul will be different, more aware, as you are. His hearing, his sight, everything will be that much more acute. And I can always touch his mind. It will be a different path than ours, but the connection will be there.""Did you pick up on what happened to him?""I am going to wake him briefly so we can talk. He will be weak. His body does not have the ability to heal as quickly as mine does." Byron took her hand. "I know you have many questions for me. I will answer all of them before the night is over." He brought her fingers to his mouth, nibbled on the sensitive pads. "Paul. Paul, come back to us now. You can rest soon, but you need to speak with Antonietta. You want to tell her something. It is very important to you to tell her the truth."Antonietta heard the compulsion buried in his voice, was astonished that she recognized it for what it was. "Your voice is hypnotic, isn't it?""Yes, when I choose."Paul stirred, moaned softly. "Toni?""I'm here, Paul." She tugged her hand free to rest her palm on her cousin. "You're going to live, but you mustn't move around too much.""I had strange dreams.""I know. It can happen that way, Paul. How did this happen? Tell me. We need to talk to the police.""No. You can't do that, Toni. Promise me. Please promise me you won't go to the police." His agitation rose sharply.Byron rested a hand on his shoulder, calming him instantly. "Tell us, Paul. We will handle whatever it is together."Do not mention the authorities again. He will undo all we have wrought."I know you thought I was stealing from the family, Toni. I don't blame you for believing that. I wanted you to think I was gambling again.""Why, Paul?" There was hurt in her voice, pain in her heart.Byron's fingers curled around the nape of her neck, began a slow, soothing massage to ease the tension out of her."I went to a party a few months ago on a yacht. The owner had a priceless painting on display. It was one of ours, Toni. I went immediately to the police, and they told me they had been investigating the theft of treasures from prominent families for months. I knew someone in our family had to be helping whoever was behind the thefts. No one knew the way to the vaults, let alone the codes to get in, except you, Nonno, and Justine. I knew you and Nonno would never sell out our family. So I volunteered to help the police find the thieves.""Paul, what were you thinking?""I was perfect for it. I already had the bad reputation. I always needed money. I was believable. It was easy enough to start paying attention to Justine." Paul's voice was weak, his breathing labored. "She was under suspicion, the one person who would have access to all the security codes. And she would know the way to the art rooms and the vaults.""This is too hard for you," Antonietta said. "We'll talk later when you're stronger."Paul's hand covered hers. "I fell in love with her, Toni. I know you're angry with her, and she probably deserves to be in jail, but I'm asking you to let her go. Tell her to go back to America. Just don't put her in jail."Byron shook his head.She is not involved in any conspiracy other than trying to help Paul find a way to pay off his gambling debts. She has never stolen anything from the Scarletti family. Unlike your family, Justine is easy enough to read."I would never believe such a thing of her. After all these years, why would she suddenly decide to steal?" Antonietta asked Paul."It has to be her. There is no one else," Paul said. "She had access to everything. She's the one who drew me a map to the vault and gave me the access code.""You were willing to die instead of going to a hospital so she wouldn't go to jail? Lie and take the blame for missing objects, for Justine? Paul, you aren't thinking clearly. You should have come to me with this immediately."Antonietta, Justine did not steal. She regretted giving Paul the codes and the map. She wanted to give him money, but he refused. She believed he was in trouble and wanted him to tell you, but he refused that option. He convinced her he would be in danger from the men he owed money to. It is clear he thought she would involve him in the theft ring, but she did the only other thing she could. She gave him a map and the codes. I felt it was a betrayal of your friendship. But that is all it was. She is not involved in any theft ring."I'm not going to turn Justine over to the police, Paul. But you need to tell me who did this to you. They have to be dealt with.""Stay out of it, Toni. These people play for keeps."He did not see his attackers. There is nothing he can tell us about the men who assaulted him. The thing uppermost in his mind is protecting Justine."Send him to sleep. I'll let Tasha and Justine in to watch over him tonight. Nonno must have been informed by now; I can't see Franco keeping it from him."You know Marita is more likely to be the person stealing and handing the goods over to someone else. And it was the elder Demonesini she was going to meet with the Handel score. Franco will be devastated if it is so.She made her way to the sitting room while Byron issued the order for Paul to sleep. Tasha and Justine practically fell into the room with Franco and Don Giovanni on their heels."He is alive," Antonietta reported. "Just barely. He needs sleep. And plenty of liquids. Can you clean him up and fix the bed? We're both exhausted. Byron has a talent for healing much greater than mine, and he did most of the work.""I would like to take Antonietta to my home where she can rest," Byron added.I can't go anywhere. Paul will not wake until we return. Just enough for them to give him fluids. Too much is happening. I need you this night, Antonietta."Your family excused themselves," Don Giovanni explained. "They could see we were uneasy. I'm afraid we didn't make much of an impression on them, my boy.""They understood," Byron assured. "Have the police left?""They've questioned everyone but Paul and the two of you. We said Paul was out, and you two would be available tomorrow," Franco said.Grazie, Franco," Antonietta said, "I doubt if I could sit through more of their questions."Byron took Antonietta's hand firmly in his. "Good night everyone, we will return tomorrow evening.""What are we doing?" Antonietta lifted her face to the wind. She hadn't been out on the battlements in years. It was far too dangerous. Even with Byron, she was afraid. It would only take one careless slip, and she would fall to her death. When she inhaled, she could scent the faint odor of the cat's presence lingering. The idea that the jaguar could be near, could be watching them at that very moment, was terrifying."I am going to take you flying. You said you wanted to try. The sky is clear, just a trace of fog rolling in. I think you will enjoy it after such a difficult evening."She studied his voice not the words. "What is it, Byron?" He pulled her to him, buried his face against her neck. "You are in my keeping, Antonietta; always your safety comes before all else. Your acceptance of what and who I am means everything to me. I want to give you something special. Something you will always remember."Her fingertips moved over his face. Byron found it curiously intimate each time she read his expression. There was a caress lingering on his skin whether she knew it or not. He knew she was reading his apprehension of what was to come. She was too connected to him. So much had happened from the moment she awakened, so much more would be demanded of her."If flying is so memorable, why are you afraid for me?"For the first time he caught her wrists and pulled her hands from his face, cradling them against his chest. He leaned his forehead against hers. "I have to talk to you tonight about what I am, about what being my lifemate means to both of us.""And you're afraid I can't accept you? I've already done that. I won't say I don't have a million questions, Byron, but how can I be afraid of what you are, if you aren't afraid of what I am, especially now when some jungle cat is killing people? I feel the jaguar in me sometimes. My skin literally itches to change. Or are you afraid for me because you think the killer is someone in my family, perhaps Paul?""It is not Paul. Or if it is, he has no memory of taking the shape of a jaguar."She sagged with relief. "I was so afraid. I don't know what to think about Paul and his bizarre behavior. Why would he think he could help the police uncover a professional theft ring? Believe me, I know Paul; he's not the undercover type. It's just like him to be stabbed and come here instead of going to a hospital and to manage to convince everyone he can't go. All to save Justine from prison." She shook her head. " Nonno would never leave Paul in charge of the shipping business, no matter how astute he is. When it comes down to it, he'll make an emotional decision every time.""You do not want the business." Her hair was soft. Her skin too tempting. He removed her dark glasses to allow freedom to his lips to drift over her eyelids."No, I'm an artist. I want to compose my music. I'm selfish, I guess. I really don't enjoy stopping what I love to attend endless meetings. Paul has the ability but not the personality for it."His hand cupped her chin, lifted her face to his. "I love kissing you. I could spend a lifetime or two just kissing you.""Funny, I feel exactly the same way." She opened her mouth to his, let the magic take hold. The breeze coming off the sea was crisp and cool, but it only acted as a counterpoint to the flames leaping between them.A shadow passed over them, a brief gray over the moon. Byron was aware instantly they were no longer alone. He whirled around, sweeping Antonietta behind him.Do not move; do not make a sound. What is it? I do not know yet.On the alert now, he scanned the surrounding areas for signs of an enemy. There was no sign of the vampire and no scent of the jaguar. The disturbance came from above him on the turrets and tower looming above their heads.Byron narrowed his vision to search, his gaze moving continually, restlessly, working every inch of the eaves and rooftops. He caught a slight movement out of the comer of his eye and froze. The gargoyle crouched just above his head stared down at him with red, burning eyes. There was a loud creak as the giant sculpted head turned slightly, and the wings spread outward a good six feet in preparation for flight.Antonietta's fist tightened in his shirt at the small of his back. She immediately merged with him. She couldn't see what he was seeing, but she had the sharp impression of it.That's impossible. Those gargoyles aren't alive. Their eyes are stone. There aren't even gems in them to capture or reflect light. And they can't spread their wings or turn their head. You are so right, Antonietta.The grim note in his voice sent a shiver down her spine. I only know one person who would dare to try to play such a joke on me.Byron concentrated on the gargoyle. The head turned further, facing back toward the rooftop. As the head swung around, the giant mouth yawned open, and huge teeth filled the jaw. The mouth snapped closed, a vicious bite of warning. Josef yelped, scooting out where Byron could see him."You almost took my leg off," he accused."That was the idea," Byron replied calmly. "Next time you try to sneak up on me, I will make certain the gargoyle takes a chunk out of you."Josef sat on the back of the gargoyle, dejected. "I can't get it right. No matter how many times I try to make an inanimate object move, it's always clunky. If it had been smooth, you wouldn't have known it was me."Antonietta put a restraining hand on Byron when she felt him gathering himself for a lecture. "It sounds difficult to do, Josef. I think anyone would have trouble making a sculpture of a gargoyle move.""I thought you were blind," Josef said."I'm not nearly as blind with Byron around. I catch images through him, at least awareness of what's happening around me. You shouldn't be out this late. I don't know if Byron warned you, but there's a jaguar out killing people. I'm serious. I don't think your mother would want to lose you.""I can take care of myself," Josef assured. "Do you shape-shift yet?""I can't shape-shift, but it sounds fun.""It's hard to do on your own. I practice a lot, but I still get it wrong sometimes. Why haven't you tried it yet?""I'm not like you.""Yes, you are. You're Byron's lifemate. You're - ""Josef." There was a distinct warning in Byron's voice. "Enough. You get back to the villa. Antonietta is right; it is not safe out here for you."Although I think it is more likely he would come to harm through me rather than another source. He is just a boy. So Eleanor keeps reminding me."Can't I go with you, Uncle Byron? Mom won't let me do anything. I was scaling the wall of the villa, and she just about screamed the house down. I can get a running start and leap pretty high, but then I can't quite get the hang of going up a vertical wall. I have to use toe- and fingerholds."Byron sighed. "You are trying to use your body. Use your mind. You are too aware of your physical body."Antonietta shivered. The wind could be biting cold. Byron immediately removed his suit jacket and wrapped her in it. She was surprised it was so warm."Go on back to the villa, Josef. I will work with you tomorrow on some of these things, although you have to remember you are not supposed to use these gifts or discuss them outside of our people. The idea is to blend in." Byron did his best not to sound as long-suffering as he felt."No one else is around. You were so busy kissing Antonietta I thought I could sneak up here and play a joke.""You are very lucky I did not zap you with a lightning bolt. Go home. I want to be alone with my lifemate."Josef sighed heavily. "I never have any fun. I don't think it's fair the way I'm always told I have to wait to learn anything."Enough!Byron bit the silent command out between bared teeth.Do as I say.Josef stood up, looking extremely petulant. He shimmered several times but nothing happened. Byron closed his eyes and sent up a silent prayer for patience. "Josef, you hold the image in your mind.""Dad always does it for me.""Then how did you manage to get up there in the first place? If I do it for you, you will never learn."Antonietta leaned into Byron. "If you're going to take me flying, we could escort him home, couldn't we?"Byron kissed her temple. "You are a very understanding woman."Graziefor noticing." Antonietta waved in the direction she knew Josef to be. "Come with us. Byron's going to take me flying. I've never been before.""I will take the shape of a dragon with wings. That way I can hold you close to me. If you become alarmed, I will know, and we will go back to earth immediately.""Will you have scales?""Yes, I can do scales.""Can I have any color?"Byron laughed. "What color do you want?""When I was a little girl, my mother always read me a book where the dragon had beautiful iridescent blue scales. I loved the sound of that. I still picture the dragon shimmering with watercolor blues, just like in that book. It's a very vivid memory.""Then your dragon will be iridescent watercolor blue." He held her close to him, nuzzled her neck."Why can't I ride on the dragon's back? In all the books, a rider was on the dragon's back. Only the idiot who was going to be eaten was clutched in the dragon's claws." Antonietta could feel his teeth scraping back and forth across the pulse beating strongly in her neck. Her entire body tightened in response. There was something mesmerizing and erotic about the motion. His teeth nipped, sending darts of fire racing through her bloodstream. His tongue swirled over the ache."I do not want to take a chance that you could fall." The words were whispered against her neck, his breath warm on her cold skin. His teeth closed over her pulse, teased gently while desire burned hot in her deepest core."I won't fall, Byron. I'll hold on tight. Please let me do this."How could he deny her anything, her slightest wish, when he knew what was in store for her? "I will be most unhappy with you should you slip, Antonietta.""You do growl like a bear sometimes, Byron.""I want to be a dragon, too," Josef called. "I've never done anything like that before. That would be too cool."Byron threw his hands up in the air in defeat. "Hold the image that you find in my mind, Josef. Make certain you are able to maintain it before you step off that roof. You cannot be distracted. This is a large beast, quite unlike a bird. It is not as easy because it is unfamiliar. Study the details in my mind, and hold that image at all times. I want you to stay close to me in case you get into trouble.""You really are a sweet man, Byron." Antonietta smiled at him."You cannot do that, cara, I have trouble thinking when you smile at me. If one hair on Josef's head is damaged, my sister will rip my head off. And if anything should happen to you, I do not know what I would do."Her laughter at his suffering tone drifted up to the clouds. "I'm excited. Be my dragon, and let's go flying."He didn't wait. He was afraid he would change his mind if he thought too much on what could happen. He shifted his shape, holding the detailed image of the iridescent blue dragon in his mind for his nephew. Carefully, so as not to knock into Antonietta accidentally, the huge dragon lowered itself so she could climb onto its back.Antonietta let out her breath slowly and reached out to the great bulk so close to her. The huge back was cool, scaled, and felt much like a large python she had once touched. "Oh, Byron, this is unbelievable." She felt tears burning in her eyes at the unexpected gift. In her wildest dreams, she never imagined such an opportunity. She took her time, feeling her way over the great hulk, the neck, even the wedged head, seeing with her fingertips. "It's beautiful. Perfect. I'll never forget this moment."She stepped up on the offered leg. It took several tries to make it onto the back. There was a small saddle for her to fit into, stirrups for her feet. Her heart turned over at his thoughtfulness. Byron seemed to think of the smallest detail to make everything easier for her. She leaned forward and wrapped her arms around the dragon's neck, the reins tight in her hands. "I'm ready, Byron. Go."The dragon rose with great caution, fearful of jarring his rider.Josef? Are you ready?The smaller dragon, crouched upon the roof of the turret, unfolded its wings, and shook them experimentally.Antonietta laughed as she felt the rush of air on her body. She felt Byron extend his wings. Again he used the same careful movements, but the dragon was large and the wings enormous. When he launched himself from the battlement, into the air, she was unprepared for the way the pit of her stomach dropped away. She clutched at the dragon's neck convulsively, the air slamming out of her lungs.I can hold you, cara.She forced her body to sit up, to find the motion of the beast between her legs. Antonietta lifted her face to the sky.No, you can't. I'm going to fly by myself. I love this.And she did. It was exhilarating to be moving through the sky, great wings flapping, roiling the air so that she was aware every moment of the mythical dragon with its iridescent blue scales beneath her. It was a fairy tale come to life.Can you breathe fire? We could sweep over the Demonesini palazzo and singe Christopher's hair.Byron felt her laughter right through the dragon's body. Through his body. Deep within the dragon, Byron felt elation sweeping through him.Joy burst through Antonietta. The wind blew her hair in every direction, rushed at her face, robbed her of speech, made her eyes water. She couldn't see the night sky, but she could imagine stars sparkling over her head like gems. She leaned over the dragon's neck, urging him to fly faster.Watch this, Uncle Byron.Josef attempted to spin around, the body of the smaller dragon coming dangerously close to the larger one so that Byron had to perform a quick maneuver to avoid a collision in midair. Antonietta clutched the reins as her hips rose away from the dragon's back. Byron rose with her, reseating her before she could slide off. She clamped her legs as tightly as possible, her heart pounding.I'm fine. This is great. I feel so alive. She said it hastily as she felt his rising ire at his nephew.Josef didn't seem to notice what he'd done. He continued with his antics, dropping fast toward earth and pulling up sharply, nearly somersaulting. He was instantly disoriented. Vertigo hit hard. Panic replaced the image in his head. He plummeted toward earth.Byron, great wings laboring, put on a burst of speed, dropping below the youth. Watch yourself, Antonietta.He is falling, coming from above you. I will try to catch him and hold him in my claws. The idiot should be eaten.Byron reached for the falling boy. Josef saw the huge, wedge-shaped head, the mouth filled with sharp teeth, and he panicked. He punched the dragon on the snout, kicked viciously at the reaching claws, driving his body away from the dragon.Byron swore and dropped hard and fast, coming up under his nephew.I will direct him toward the tail section. Try to help him, but do not fall yourself.Josef hit the dragon's back, careened downward toward the dragon's tail. Antonietta had already dropped the reins and reached instinctively behind her. She brushed Josef's shirt, caught, and hung on. His weight nearly pulled her from the dragon's back, but Byron, inside the large bulk, adjusted his body to help her stabilize and keep from rolling off. Josef clung to the dragon, digging his heels in hard.He pulled himself up behind Antonietta, wrapping his arms firmly around her waist. She was shocked at his size and strength. It didn't feel as if a boy were behind her. He felt like a grown man.How old is your nephew? In human years, he is twenty-two. In our years he is considered a fledgling. A child still learning our ways. Shape-shifting is difficult. Most parents hold the image for the child over and over until the child learns to pay attention to detail. You have to operate on several levels at the same time. When you learn to do this, I will be the one to hold the image for you. I don't have the ability to shape-shift, Byron. I really don't. I feel the jaguar close at times, it is in me, but I can't make the change, not even when I try.Antonietta was grateful for Byron's jacket and the perpetual warmth it generated as they soared through the sky. She felt the dragon circling, spiraling in long, sweeping circles, until it hovered in one spot, wings flapping ferociously. Josef slipped off onto the balcony of the villa where he was staying. The dragon immediately streaked skyward.Antonietta leaned forward and wrapped her arms around the dragon's neck. "I don't want this ever to stop. I think we should fly all night."Byron was grateful Eleanor had thought to secure a second smaller and much more secluded villa for her brother and his lifemate. He didn't want to take Antonietta to a cave deep below the earth and explain his life to her. Explain what her life was to become. He wanted a beautiful setting where she might feel comfortable and completely at ease. He sent his sister his silent thanks for her thoughtfulness. He didn't know how she had accomplished it in so short a time, but Eleanor was always efficient.The dragon settled on the wide verandah overlooking the sea. Antonietta waited while the wings folded against the great body before she felt around for the extended leg. Her feet found firm ground as Byron shifted into his human form. She laughed and threw her arms around him. "Grazie. You have no idea what that meant to me. I could learn to love flying."His fingers curled around the nape of her neck, drew her to him. "I will have to teach you.""I still don't understand why it is so difficult for Josef, yet you have no trouble shifting. I saw the image clearly in my head.""Because I was holding it for you. It is much like breathing. You do not think of the mechanics of breathing, your brain tells your lungs, and everything just works in the background as you go through the day. Shifting is different. You have to control it even as you do other things. The details have to be uppermost in your mind no matter what else is going on. Carpathians have to think on several levels at the same time, and our children must learn this; they are not born knowing how. Of course, some have more ability than others. And we have our geniuses."His fingers were massaging her neck. There was possession in his touch. Antonietta brought her hands up to catch his wrist. He had given her the most extraordinary experience of her life. She fit her body into his, turning her face up to his with trust. With love and acceptance.Byron groaned softly and lifted her, cradling her against his chest. "I want to make love to you more than anything in the world right now.""You say that as if it's a bad thing. I want it, too." Her fingertips caressed his finely chiseled lips. She loved his mouth, the shape and texture. The way he tasted. Every nerve ending was alive after her wild ride through the sky. She wanted him every bit as much as he could possibly want her.Byron carried her into the villa. Eleanor assured him one room was reasonably safe to use as a sleeping chamber. He moved unerringly through the furniture as if he had been there numerous times, finding the winding stairs to the luxurious bedroom belowground. The windows were heavily covered with rich velvet drapes. The room was large, with an expanse of thick carpet underfoot. A step down led to a large sunken marble Jacuzzi, tiled with an intricate mosaic pattern."This is your home?" She was puzzled by his sudden reserve. So used to his continual presence in her mind, his withdrawal was distressing to her. "I don't have Celt with me, so show me the layout of the room. I memorize rather well, and it will cut down on the accidents. I've never liked falling over chairs. It's very undignified."Instead of laughing, Byron's tension level seemed to increase. He lowered her feet to the floor, beside the bed. She felt the thick quilt with her palm."I would never allow you to fall." He immediately provided the map of the room for her.She deliberately smiled at him. "No, of course you wouldn't. Nice room. I wouldn't mind sitting in the Jacuzzi after being in the night air. How about you?"Byron raked his hands through his hair and obligingly turned on the water spigots before seating himself on the edge of the bed.Antonietta studied the map of the room in his head, then slowly walked around, feeling her way down the single step until she could seat herself on the edge of the Jacuzzi. "Why are you so troubled, Byron?" She didn't have a sense that he wanted out of their relationship, more than he feared she might want out. "Is it because of the way you had to give blood to my cousin?" She shrugged out of his jacket, folded it neatly, and set it away from the filling tub. "You may as well talk to me. You want to, you just are having trouble figuring out how to explain everything to me. Am I that difficult to talk with? I was there. I recall I begged you to save Paul. Do you think I'm going to quibble over how you managed to do the impossible?"Byron lifted his head to look at her. "I do not know what I ever did to deserve you, Antonietta. You are truly remarkable."Her soft laughter was inviting, a sultry siren teasing him with the sexual allure of her voice. He was instantly mesmerized as he watched her slowly slip her sandals from her feet. There was something very feminine about the way she ran her hand over her nylon-encased feet. "Does any man deserve a woman? I'll have to give that some thought. But you're definitely my choice." She leaned toward the sound of running water, dipped her hand in to test the depth."My people exist on the blood of others. It is how we feed. Food makes us ill, particularly meat. We can force ourselves to eat, but it is uncomfortable. Most of the time, we give the illusion of eating. If we do consume food, we have to rid ourselves of the contents as soon as possible." He tried to keep his voice matter-of-fact, but his gaze burned over her face, watching her closely for the smallest reaction."I see. You really were telling the truth when you tried to assure me your family wouldn't care what I served. I was anxious for no reason at all." A small, self-mocking smile curved her mouth. "That does put things in perspective, doesn't it?"Byron kept his touch in her mind light, a mere shadow monitoring her reaction. She absorbed what he said without judgment. She tapped her fingernail on the marble. "So you have fangs? Like a vampire in the books?" Antonietta held her palm over the pulse on her neck."When I need to feed, yes, my incisors lengthen." He didn't take his eyes from her face.Antonietta turned off the water. "Do you have music in this room?"The question was so unexpected, he was startled. "Did you hear what I said?""Of course I did. Here's the thing, Byron. Before we take this any further, I need to know some important things about you.""The fact that I have fangs might be considered important by some people, Antonietta," he said patiently, wondering if he was losing his mind. He was beginning to feel frantic. She was so beautiful to him, so courageous. He ached to hold her. He had carefully planned the way he would break his heritage to her, the way he would lovingly reassure her, yet she didn't seem to be in need of reassurance."I suppose so, but I'm more concerned with your choice of music. I can live with some things, but music is my life. If you had atrocious taste, I don't know, I'd have to reconsider this entire affair."He pushed his hands through his hair again with growing agitation. "That is another thing. We are not having an affair. In the eyes of my people, in my eyes, we are husband and wife. More. We are bound for all eternity. The binding ritual has already taken place."She turned her head then, her eyes finding his face unerringly, as if she could see him. "Where was I during the binding ritual? Because I don't actually recall such a thing. And while you're at it, you might explain it to me."Her direct gaze shook him. She looked serene sitting there on the edge of the Jacuzzi in her stocking feet and long skirt. "A female is bound to her lifemate when he recites the ancient bonding words. The power of those words is imprinted on every male of our species before his birth. We are two halves of the same whole. When the words are said, the souls become one as they are meant, and neither can be apart for long without the other.""And this can be done without her knowledge or consent?" Her tone was mild. She dipped her hand in the water, created swirling patterns."We have few women. Our race is nearly extinct. We found that a few rare women who possess psychic ability are born the other half of a Carpathian male.""So without their knowledge or consent, you bind them to you," she repeated."The male has little choice in the matter if he chooses to survive. She is light to our darkness. We cannot feel emotion or see in color without her influence. Too many of our males have turned vampire or walked into the dawn because they could not find their lifemate. It is our duty to see that our species survives. Lifemates belong together."She nodded her head, but he caught the flash of anger in her mind. "A male has a choice, Byron. There is always a choice. The reason I don't wake up until the sun is down is because of you, isn't it? And the reason my hearing and my ability to smell is so acute is also due to you.""We exchanged blood twice. Lifemates often exchange blood during lovemaking.""Am I like you? Is that why Josef was so certain I could shift into a different form?""Not yet. It takes three blood exchanges to convert a human. The human must be psychic. You are far more sensitive than most.""But that's why you brought me here tonight. You intend to convert me to be like you are. That's why you're so troubled.""I wanted to wait, Antonietta. I wanted it to be your decision.""What changed your mind?" She stood up, drew the silk blouse over her head in one motion. There was curiosity in her voice but no real censure that he could detect. And no real fear. In fact, she seemed very sure of herself. She folded the blouse and set it on top of his jacket, facing him in her blue lace bra, long swirling skirt, and stocking feet.Byron was distracted by her mild reaction. By her full breasts, a temptation in nearly transparent lace. He watched as she pulled the pins from her hair and shook the long rope free. Her breasts moved in invitation."Byron? What changed your mind? Why did you decide to bring me here tonight and convert me without my knowledge or consent?" Antonietta shimmied out of her long skirt and stood in her stockings and tiny thong.It took him a moment to find his voice and sort out his thoughts in between the lust rising so sharply. "The jaguar this evening. I was not there to protect you. I gave you Celt, but it is not good enough to rely on the borzoi. I need to know you are completely safe." Even to his own ears his voice sounded strangled. He held his breath as she peeled the nylon stockings from her legs."Why can't you just stay with me at the palazzo?""We do not sleep in the same way. I would appear dead to the world and to you. If you woke and thought me dead to you, your grief could be life threatening. You had a small taste of it when Paul shot me. I am also very vulnerable during the daylight hours. I could not adequately protect you or myself at the palazzo."His heart nearly stopped when she turned her back on him, bent at the waist to step out of the small thong. He had no conscious thought of moving, but he found himself across the room, his hands smoothing her firm buttocks.Antonietta rested both hands on the tile, pushing back against his hand, arching like a cat. "So you think converting me to what you are would make me safe from the jaguar?" His hands roamed over her body, slipped into secret hollows, turning her insides to a pool of lava.Byron leaned forward to press a kiss in the small of her back. "I know you would be safe, Antonietta."There was absolute conviction in his voice, in his mind. His hand slipped between her thighs, urging her legs farther apart. His clothes rubbed against her sensitive skin. Antonietta obligingly widened her stance. "Do you like the taste of my blood?"His entire body hardened, thickened, became painfully full. "You are trying to seduce me, Antonietta.""I'm so glad you noticed, Byron. I would hate to think you brought me here with only the intention of saving me from a wild cat." She pushed back against him, rubbed her bottom with delicious slowness over the thick bulge in the front of his trousers. A soft moan of pleasure escaped as his finger found her feminine channel and pushed deep.His teeth teased her buttocks, small, little nips, his tongue lapping gently."I want you to take my blood now, Byron. And I want to feel it this time."The husky note in her voice as she uttered the enticement was the most sexually exciting thing he'd ever experienced. Very slowly he withdrew his finger and straightened her, turning her to face him. "Do you mean it, Antonietta? You are not afraid?""I don't want an exchange, only to see what it's like. To be honest, the idea excites me, and I don't know why. I should be grossed out. I was upset that Vlad gave you blood. I wanted to give it to you. I felt like I should be the one to give you whatever you needed." Antonietta slid her hands under his shirt. "Get rid of your clothes. All of them. We really don't need them, do we?""No." Byron caught the back of her head and fastened his mouth to hers as he shed his clothes. They were skin to skin. He found he was ravenously hungry, his body tied up in knots. He fed on her mouth ruthlessly, Antonietta matching him heat for heat. Tongues tangled and dueled. Hands went everywhere, touching, exploring, claiming. Desperate for the feel and taste. On fire.When his mouth left hers to trail kisses down her throat to her breast, she threw her head back, her body arching into his mouth eagerly. Byron knew he was on the edge of control, his incisors already lengthening, so he had to be careful as he suckled and teased her nipples into hard peaks. He kissed the swell of her breast, her collarbone, pressed a kiss into the hollow of her throat.She caught fistfuls of his hair, breathless with need, with anticipation. Her body pulsed with hunger, with heat. His breath on her neck made her muscles clench in anticipation. Her breasts ached, her womb throbbed. His tongue touched her skin. His teeth scraped gently. Tenderly.Byron shifted her into his arms. Held her body in the shelter and protection of his. "Antonietta. You are certain this is what you want? I can protect you from the experience if you are afraid.""Do I feel afraid? I need this as much as you need it. I ache for you, Byron. I think about you every minute I'm awake. I want to know everything about you. I want to see what my life would be like. You're offering me things I can't fully comprehend." Her fists tightened in his long hair. Her entire body vibrated with sexual tension.His teeth found her pulse, his tongue swirling over the spot so that she caught her breath. He found love welling up, swamping him, mixing with lust, with erotic hunger. "I love you." He whispered the words to her and sank his teeth deep.Antonietta cried out, her legs nearly giving out as white-hot pain whipped through her body, then gave way immediately to a burning pleasure. Byron's mind was fully merged with hers, and she felt his reaction to her blood. The hot taste. Sating a hunger that was nearly impossible to sate. Lightning danced through their bloodstreams, long whips that crackled and sizzled and set them on fire. She held him possessively. She had to have him, had to feel his body beneath her fingertips. Had to have him buried deep inside her.Do not. I am already at the end of my control.He didn't have to warn her; she knew. She didn't want him in control. She wanted him to burn the way she was burning. She wanted him to need. To hunger. To be so aware of her that nothing else mattered. Her hands slid over his broad shoulders, mapped his chest, his belly. Found the thick length of his erection.She felt the jolt go though his body, through hers, at the touch of her fingers. The intensity of his desire shook her. She stroked, massaged, teased, her fingers danced over the velvet head until she felt the fire roaring in his belly.He swept his tongue over the pinpricks, caught her chin, and welded their mouths together. She tasted the hot, sweet spice of blood, the passion in his kiss. Then they were feeding off each other, so frantic to get close, Byron drove her backward against the wall, pinning her there, his hands everywhere. She curled one leg around his hip, fighting to align their bodies perfectly, fighting to get him inside of her.There was never enough. The storm raged ferociously, wild and out of control and so hot they had to feed each other air. She wanted to share his skin. She needed him in her body. He had to touch every inch of her, hear her gasp, the soft little cry that escaped when his hands found every spot that sent her reeling with pleasure.Outside the wind lashed the windows of the villa. Lightning streaked across the sky, and thunder cracked and boomed, shaking the earth. The dark sky lit up with fiery sparks, a shower of star gems, raining from the sky into the churning sea.Byron took her to the carpet, unable to make it to the bed with his body raging at him and his mind swamped with her hunger. Immediately he indulged his need for intimate exploration, leaving the haven of her mouth to rain kisses over her breasts and stomach, teasing her navel, lifting her hips and plunging his tongue deep.Antonietta screamed, her orgasm so intense her hips bucked. He rode it out, holding her in strong arms, laving and teasing, working carefully around her hottest spot until she pushed hard against him, squirming for more. The instant he touched her, her body spiraled out of control again, even wilder than before.Byron dragged her hips close to him, pressing tightly against her wet, slick entrance. He could hear her heart pounding. She writhed against the thick carpet, pushing into him, trying to impale herself, seeking relief. He wanted the image in his mind for all time, her black hair a stark contrast to the white carpet, her body sprawled out, flushed with excitement, her breasts a tantalizing sight, and the soft demand in her voice as she ordered him to take possession of her.He surged forward, a hard, deep stroke, filling her with the thick length of him, just for the joy of hearing her scream again. She was always uninhibited with him, wild and passionate, wanting him with every fiber of her being. With their minds so deeply merged, he could feel her hunger for him. He knew exactly what she wanted, thrusting deeper with every stroke. The carpeted floor had no give to it, so his body pounded into hers and still it wasn't enough.Antonietta clutched him to her, dragging him even closer, lifting her hips to meet him in a wild, sensual ride. She couldn't tell where one orgasm left off and the next one started. A tidal wave swept through her body that went on and on, each stronger than the last, yet never enough. Her appetite for him seemed insatiable. Her fingernails dug into his skin, dragging his hips into her while her entire body rose up to meet his, bucking beneath him in the thrall of total pleasure.Byron reveled in the way she gave herself completely, without reservation, to him. His body swelled beyond his expectations. There was a roaring in his ears, a dark storm of sensual hunger overtaking him a rush.I want you to hear the words, cara mia, to know what I am giving you, what you give me. This is the mating ritual. The words that have the power to restore the two halves of our souls to one. I claim you as my lifemate. I belong to you. I offer my life for you. I give you my protection, my allegiance, my heart, my soul, and my body. I take into my keeping the same that is yours. Your life, happiness, and welfare will be cherished and placed above my own for all time. You are my lifemate, bound to me for all eternity and always in my care.Her feminine sheath was tight and hot, a velvet friction driving him utterly mad. He felt the fiery blast start somewhere around his toes and drive up through his body with the force of a battering ram. Antonietta took him deeper, driving her hips up to meet the fury of his body so that they were welded together in the midst of explosion. He thought he might have disintegrated, holding fast to Antonietta and his sanity.Antonietta lay beneath him, clinging to his arms, fingertips rubbing at his biceps, exploring the shape and definition of his muscles as she tried to regain her ability to breathe and her equilibrium. Byron buried his face against her neck, his lips soothing on her pulse, his body so deeply buried in hers she was certain they were locked together forever."Do you think we know the meaning of the words take it easy and slow?" There was humor in her voice. "I thought we were going to set the room on fire.""My skin is scorched," he said. He propped himself up on one elbow to take some of his weight off of her, his other hand shaping her breast.Antonietta felt the ripple of reaction through her entire body. "Don't even breathe on me. I've melted into the carpet." Her lashes drifted down. "I'm going to go to sleep right here on the floor, and I want to wake up with you still inside of me." She sighed blissfully. "You may just be the greatest lover in the history of the world."He bent his head to the temptation of her breasts, his tongue swirling around her nipple. The way her body tightened around his made him smile. "May be the greatest lover?" He sucked hard on her breast to punish her, laughed when her hips thrashed again, the rippling of an orgasm washing over her. "You respond so beautifully, Antonietta." She was soft and giving, her body so welcoming of his.She tangled her fingers in his hair as his mouth worked greedily at her breast. "Do you plan on spending the night lavishing attention on my breast? Not that I'm complaining, but you're making me crazy. I can't afford to get any hotter. Now I know why there are rare cases of spontaneous combustion.""I was thinking I might spend the night chewing on other parts of your anatomy," he answered. "I have decided I want to try every way in the world there is to make love to you. What is that famous book with all those intriguing positions and ideas?"Her fingers caressed his hair, laughter bubbling up so that her muscles clenched around him intimately. "Well, not tonight. Tonight you are somehow going to figure out how to get me from here to the Jacuzzi without both of us falling in a heap on the floor.""We are already on the floor. In any case, it would require me removing my body from yours, and I think I have found a home. You are the hottest thing on the face of the earth. I am staying right where I am.""Lazy man. I promise to make love to you all night, but if I don't get into some soothing water, I might not be able to keep that promise. We were a bit on the vigorous side." For a moment she held his head to her breast, allowing waves of pleasure to wash over her. She felt cocooned in sensual delight.He kissed her nipple with a soft sigh of regret. "I suppose you are right, but I want you to know, I was enjoying myself.""When we go to bed, I'll let you have all the fun you want. You can indulge your every fantasy." She had been in his mind; she saw each fantasy and was excited with the knowledge of his intentions. "I wish I had your stamina, but I don't. I need to rest. I don't want to be sore.""My saliva contains a healing agent. We do not have to worry about that. I will not allow you to feel discomfort." He slowly began to withdraw from her body. Her muscles reacted, gripping at him, trying to hold him to her. Byron kissed her throat. "See how you are? Even your body does not want us to separate.""Don't listen." She wrapped her arms around his neck when he scooped her up to cradle her against his chest. "I can't move. I may not ever again."