The water in the Jacuzzi was hot and foamy, bursting around her and against her most sensitive parts. Even that sensation seemed to be highly erotic. Antonietta sighed blissfully. "This is perfection. Do you have candles?"
"If you want them."
"I can't see them, but if they're scented, it's always nice."
Almost at once the room was filled with the fragrance of honeysuckle and rain. Antonietta smiled and allowed her legs to drift to the surface, her arms spread wide to embrace the atmosphere. "My very own sorcerer."
Water washed over her breasts, across her belly button, over the triangle of dark, curls and the shadow between her legs. Byron leaned back and watched her, a peculiar emotion stabbing at the pit of his stomach. She was so tightly bound to him, so entrenched in his heart and soul, he wasn't certain how it happened. Just looking at her sent a spear piercing his body. It was a strange sensation, a physical pain, aching with love when he looked at her.
"So what kind of music do you like?" Antonietta floated in the gently rippling water, her hair spread around her like so much seaweed. Her head bumped against Byron's chest. His arms locked around hers to hold her in place while the water bubbled and fizzed over her sensitized skin.
"Josef sings a particularly interesting version of rap," he said.
Her mouth opened wide in a gasp of alarm. She slid beneath the water as she spluttered a protest. He caught her and pulled her to the surface, his soft laughter mocking. "I have all your music," he assured.
"That was really mean," she said. "In retaliation, I might point out we didn't use birth control. I don't even think about birth control when I'm around you, which is silly, because I'm always responsible. I can't see your face, and I hope you're frowning."
He took her hand, brought her fingertips to shape his mouth. "Does it feel as if I am frowning?"
She snatched her hand away. "You are impossible to upset. You'd probably be thrilled if I got pregnant, which isn't logical at all."
"I would prefer you wait until I convert you."
Antonietta sat up, scooted to the small hollowed-out seat beside him. "All this talk of conversion sounds suspiciously like a vampire. What's the difference?"
"A vampire is wholly evil. Carpathian males lose emotions around two hundred years when they are fully adults. At that time, the lure of power begins to work at them, whispers to feel the rush of the kill. We are predators, with some animal traits. We can be dangerous when provoked, but we do not kill indiscriminately. A vampire lives to bring pain and torment and ultimately death to others. We take blood but do not harm those we take from. A vampire kills for the adrenaline in the blood and also the rush of power, a momentary thrill, when he kills. It is the duty of our hunters to bring these males to justice and protect our species by concealing their existence."
"That was what you meant by a hunter. A vampire hunter."
"Yes, among other things. I have done so, but it is not my calling."
"For which I'm grateful. How long do you live?"
He shrugged, a lazy shift of his shoulders causing the water to wash over her skin. His hand caught her foot, pulled it into his lap so his fingers could massage her. "Unless there is a mortal wound and no one to supply blood, we can live as long as we wish."
"So if I became as you are, I would live, but I would watch my family die, and eventually even their children."
"Unfortunately, that is one of the difficulties we all face. We have people we lose, but then, everyone does. Don Giovanni is not going to live forever. You will have to face his death, no matter what. And young Margurite could have been killed when the shield fell. Anything can happen in life." His fingers moved up to her calf.
Antonietta slid down further beneath the water to extend her leg to him. "That's true; I can't argue with that. I wouldn't be able to be awake during daylight hours?"
"No, and you would have to acclimate your skin to the early morning hours slowly before you could be out during that time."
"But I would have you."
"You are my lifemate, Antonietta. You will always have me."
"Men leave women all the time, Byron. You're asking me to change my entire way of life for you. I love my family. I love the palazzo. I don't want to leave my home. And I don't want to quit my career. Music defines who and what I am."
"It is impossible for lifemates to leave one another. I have not asked you to give up your career or to leave your home. There are some Carpathians who live with humans, and it works out very well."
"How does conversion work?"
"We exchange blood three times. The blood works on your organs, reshaping and changing you to what you should be. Already there are signs of it."
She idly flicked the surface of the water, popping bubbles as they churned around her. "What about my eyes? The strangest things have happened lately. I've seen flashes of light, shadows, even colors, as if I'm seeing body heat. I thought it was because we're so closely connected."
Byron turned the information over in his mind. "I saw color through Jacques. It was not my memory I was tapping into, but his vision of his lifemate. That is unusual. We tap into memories to feel emotion, but it does not work that way with vision as a rule. Perhaps there is something in my lineage that allows for such a thing. I would think your sight would be restored as the blood heals and reshapes. Our eyes are different, more functional for night vision. Is the thought of seeing again more tempting than choosing to be with me?"
Antonietta laughed. "You are such a male. That's such a little-boy thing to say."
He tugged on her foot until she slid underwater. Antoinetta pulled her leg away from him and reversed direction beneath the water to bump her head against his stomach. She circled his waist with her arms to anchor herself and rested her head in his lap, her mouth closing over his floating penis.
Byron looked down at the wealth of silky hair floating in the churning water. Her mouth provided a strong suction that brought him to instant attention. Her tongue danced and teased and stroked until his body trembled and hungered all over again. She seemed to be pulling a volcano from the very center of his being. His blood thickened and pooled, and his every nerve ending seemed to be centered where her hot, passionate mouth was working. The breath slammed out of his lungs. She came up for air, a water nymph laughing at him.
"Come here, you crazy woman." He reached for her, pulled her to him. "We will live in your house with your family. You will travel the world playing your music for people, and I will once again make art from the gems I call to me. Live your life with me. I cannot bear to be without you. lifemates are for eternity, Antonietta. We can be married in the way of your people and live and seem to age. At times we may have to go away, but we will always return if that is your wish."
She tilted her head, a small siren's smile playing around her mouth. "Can you really make it so I'm not uncomfortable and we can make love all night?"
"I think I need proof before I commit to any more biting."
In answer, he lifted her, seating her on the rim of the Jacuzzi, parting her thighs wide enough to allow his broad shoulders between her legs. "A challenge I cannot resist." He bent his head to her, teeth nipping gently on the insides of her thighs, his breath warm on her most vulnerable entrance.
His hands gathered her hips and simply slid her into his mouth so that she cried out, grabbed fistfuls of his hair for an anchor.
Antonietta allowed her head to fall back. Her breasts seemed to ache with fullness. Every muscle in her body went taut. His tongue did incredible things, caressing, and stroking, and probing. Everywhere he touched, he soothed and heightened her pleasure. Her body coiled tighter and tighter, winding like a spring. She was wet and hot and impatient for him. She wanted to cry with the wonder and beauty of the way he could make her feel. And yet she needed. And hungered. For him.
Byron lifted his head, brought her mouth to his, sharing her taste, his tongue teasing hers before he spun her around and bent her over the edge. "Is that enough proof? I can give you more." His hands cupped her breasts while he pressed against her buttocks, deliberately showing her the fullness of his desire. "Do you need more?"
She reached back in an effort to guide him into her. Byron avoided her hand, rubbed again, his teeth nipping her firm bottom. Antonietta began to turn around, determined two could play. Byron held her against the rim, caught her hips, and pushed into her tight sheath with exquisite slowness. "You want slow and easy, remember?"
He was so thick, she could feel him stretching her, pushing his way into her folds, the slow friction driving her to the edge of madness. "I didn't say that. I'm sure I didn't say that." He was very strong, holding her with a gentle but completely unbreakable grip, all the while moving with leisurely, long strokes. Each surge forward made her shudder with pleasure. She had to remain completely still while he did the work.
She stopped trying to struggle back into him, just allowing the pleasure to wash over her in waves. Her breasts tightened, and Byron's every movement enhanced her experience, just as he meant it to. Antonietta reached for his mind to share her every orgasm, the beauty of giving herself up to heat and fire. To him. She could feel his growing exhilaration as her body became more and more stimulated, gripping him tightly and taking him with her right over the edge.
When she could breathe again, Antonietta found herself laughing as he stepped carefully backward, taking her with him into the bubbling water. "Are we permanently stuck together? My legs are going to give out, and I didn't do any of the work." The water bubbled over her buttocks, fizzed between their bodies, and teased her feminine core. "I hope you know you're never going to persuade me using sex. You can try, I hope you do try, but I'm going to make a decision based on other things. Important things like your choice of music." The laughter faded from inside of her. Antonietta went very still.
Byron slipped out of her body, turned her around to face him, his hands resting lightly on her hips. "What is it, Antonietta?"
"Do I have a choice, Byron? Are you asking me if I want this conversion or telling me about it because you intend to convert me, no matter how I feel?"
Her fingernails dug into his arms. He could feel the beat of her heart, hear the steady, frightened rhythm. Byron curled one hand around the nape of her neck. "I brought you here with every intention of converting you." His voice was very low. "My first duty to you and to my people is to protect you."
"I need to sit down." Her breath was trapped somewhere in her lungs, and her legs were rubbery. She felt behind her for one of the seats. Byron helped her to sit in the foaming water. "Turn off the jets."
He did so, and the room was suddenly quiet. She drew up her knees, wrapped her arms around them. "Do you have any idea how vulnerable a woman can feel? I'm a strong woman and not afraid of most things, but I'm intelligent enough to stay in an environment that works for me. I have managed to do most things I've wanted, but I've always made certain that I surrounded myself with people I trusted. Being blind makes me even more vulnerable. I can't slap your face and walk out of here like a drama queen. If I fell over a chair, it would ruin the effect."
"Do you want to slap my face?"
She pushed her wet hair from her face. "No, I want you to let me make my own decision. This isn't a small thing you're asking of me. This is even bigger than marriage, and I was never going to get married."
"Why wouldn't you marry, Antonietta?"
She shrugged her shoulders. The water held heat, and right now she needed heat. "How would I ever know a man wanted me for me? I'm not how you see me at all. I'm overweight, and I do have scars; not like Tasha led me to believe, but they're there. I've seen firsthand how damaging a wrong marriage can be. Paul and Tasha suffered so much. You have no idea. Their father was such a womanizer." She rubbed her hand over her face. "He was with every maid in the palazzo and every other woman he could charm. He was in all the tabloids. He didn't care where he was or who would see him. He was capable of having sex with a woman in front of the Paul and Tasha and laughing about it. He was abrupt and disapproving with Paul and showered Tasha with presents and little else."
"He had no honor, Antonietta. I do."
"Aunt Selena knew about all the women. She drank so she could pretend otherwise. There was a rumor that one of his women had his baby." Antonietta rubbed her hand across her mouth as if trying to wipe away a bad memory. "Aunt Selena died one day under what the authorities claim were suspicious circumstances. She and Anton were in the tower. There was a terrible fight. Nonno went up and tried to calm her and get her to come down. Even Helena tried. Selena fell or was pushed. It was a horrible time in our lives. If there ever was a baby, Uncle Anton paid the woman off, and she aborted it, because it was never mentioned again. He went on with his life as if nothing happened."
"How did he die?"
"A car accident. He was drinking and went off the road." She leaned the back of her head against the rim of the Jacuzzi. "Tasha's been married. Both times her husband cheated on her. Franco is married, and his life is miserable. The few men I've dated that seemed a reasonable partner ended up wanting my money and/or the Scarletti business."
"Is that what you think I want, Antonietta?" His voice was very quiet.
She shivered despite the heat of the water. "You want me to be a creature, another species that needs blood to survive. You want me to change what I am for you."
"Would you prefer me to walk away from you?"
The moment he said the words, she felt a wrenching panic inside of her. "I thought you said lifemates could never be apart."
"Do you want me to leave you? Do you want to go on with a life that does not include me in it? That is the question, more than any other, for you to decide."
"I want out of here." She stood up, the water pouring off of her.
Byron was there instantly, lifting her out of the Jacuzzi and wrapping a soft towel around her. Antonietta clutched it to her and made her way to the bed, using the map in Byron's mind. "Then there is a choice. You brought me here to convert me, but you're giving me a choice."
"You would never be happy or trust me completely if I made such an important decision for you, Antonietta. I know that much about you. I want your trust. And I want you to choose me. I do not want it to be because you are my lifemate, or because you might regain your sight, or even because we have good sex. I want you to say yes because you feel the same way about me as I feel about you. I want you to know you love me that much."
"Great sex," she corrected softly. He was tearing her up inside. If he had tried to force her, she would have fought him at every turn, but he was asking her. More than just asking her. He was stripping away his pride and laying his feelings at her feet. "Byron, if I ask you to live with me at the palazzo, the two of us together, married in my way, and we could find a way to be safe, would you do it if I didn't follow through with the conversion?"
"You are my lifemate. I would choose to live with you and grow old with you. I would end my life when you died."
Antonietta heard the ring of truth in his voice. She curled up on the bed, her head on the pillow. "Come keep me warm, Byron."
He went to her immediately, just as she knew he would, fitting his body around hers, his arms drawing her close, wrapping around her so that she felt safe and warm.
"I want a family wedding with Tasha standing up for me. And I want you to make peace with her."
"She is determined to have Captain Diego throw me in prison."
"She'll stop when you're family. We protect family, and that will include you."
"You are asking a lot of me, but I suppose for you, to keep you happy, I will find a way to get along with your provoking, impossible cousin."
She turned in his arms, found his face with her fingertips, moving her hands over it to take in every detail. She touched his lips, his teeth. "I choose you, Byron. I want to spend my life with you. So let's get to it."
He leaned into her, kissed her on her mouth. Her lips were trembling beneath his. "I want you to be certain. There is no going back. Once we do this, I cannot undo it."
"I would never say yes if I didn't mean it."
He kissed her again with such tenderness her heart somersaulted. He held her with such care, his enormous strength leashed. Even in the throes of wild passion, he was careful with her. She felt his breath, the soft velvet of his lips, the gentle tug of his teeth as they scraped back and forth in a mesmerizing rhythm over her skin. There was white-hot pain giving way immediately to pleasure. Whips of lightning danced in her veins. Antonietta wrapped her arms around Byron's head, her fists tangling in his hair. She felt his tongue, heard his soft whisper, words she didn't catch.
She felt him shift her in his arms, hold her close to his chest. She ran her hands over his body. His hand moved to the nape of her neck, pressed her mouth just above his heart. There was power and heat. Her body flooded with energy. Fire blossomed in her belly, in her breasts, between her legs. His body was over hers, surging into hers with the same fire and power. There was a dreamlike quality to their lovemaking. The taste in her mouth was hot and tangy. Salty. His hands were gentle, shaping her body, holding her close. His lovemaking was tender and gentle, completely unlike his earlier passion, making her feel cherished and precious. With every movement of his body, she felt the tension wind tighter and tighter, felt him rising with her. Their release rocked them both, yet left her exhausted, resting against him, limp and drained but filled with a strange peace.
She snuggled against him, burrowing against his shoulder, closing her eyes. I'm so tired, Byron. I don't think I can stay awake. If anything momentous is happening, don't wake me up; just let me sleep through it. She wasn't altogether certain if she had dreamt their joining. If she really had taken his blood. Her mind felt hazy, her body so limp she couldn't move.
"Why did you say yes to me, Antonietta?" He kissed her eyelids, the corners of her mouth. "Why would you choose something so unknown over a life you enjoy that is familiar? Your courage is terrifying."
She rubbed her face against his shoulder like a contented cat. "I think everyone wants to be loved, Byron. All of my life I dreamt of meeting a man who would really love me and want to share his life with me. I need to be loved. I look into your mind and I see that same need in you. It isn't so courageous to grab hold of life's opportunities when they come your way. Life is meant to be lived. I don't want to sit on the sidelines and watch it go by. I never have. Being blind has taught me to take the opportunities I can, the moment they're offered. With you it is easy. I see into your mind, and the way you feel about me is shattering." Her soft laughter played over his skin. "It's unrealistic, but if you want to view me as beautiful and wonderful, that's okay with me."
He wrapped his arms more closely around her, his touch possessive. "You already have certain abilities, and you are extraordinarily sensitive. It will be interesting to see how your gifts develop over the coming years."
"But we will live at the palazzo," she reiterated, wanting reassurance. " Nonno would not want me to leave. And no one understands Tasha."
"She never says what she means. Most of the time I would scan her mind and read her intentions, not paying any attention to her words, but your family and even some of your servants have those strange barriers."
"Will I be able to do that, too?"
"Yes. But in the case of your family, they would realize what was happening, and you would have to remove the memory. You learn, over time, it is better, if possible, to allow people the privacy of their own thoughts."
"I found it intrusive and a bit frightening when I realized you could read my mind. Thoughts come and go randomly at times. I wasn't sure I wanted you to see what I was really like."
He laughed softly, feathered little kisses into her hair. "I find it better to scan Josef at all times, and you might want to remember to do the same. He looks innocent enough, and sounds it, but in truth he is a holy terror."
"Do you think I'll really be able to see?" She drew up her knees. There was a strange burning in her stomach. With each passing minute it had increased until it was painful. Moving her legs didn't seem to help.
Byron slid his hand to her belly, fingers splayed wide to take in the expanse. His touch should have been soothing, but sharp spears of pain shot through her abdomen and down her spine.
"Byron?" Sweat broke out on her body. Cramps gripped her muscles. "What's happening to me?"
"The conversion is taking place." He merged fully with her, tried to shield her from the pain. No matter how hard he tried to block it, the burning ripped through her body. A convulsion lifted her up and slammed her back into the mattress, in spite of his restraining arms.
She felt something alive racing beneath her skin, itching horribly, trying to force its way out of her pores. She thought she screamed, but no sound emerged. A noise boomed in the room, annoying, hurting her ears. She couldn't seem to adjust the volume.
Jacques. Jacques, what should I do?
Byron reached for the one man who he knew had been through such an event. The one man who might aid him in helping to shield Antonietta from the worst of the pain. It was easy enough to allow Jacques to share knowledge of what was happening to Antonietta.
There is little you can do until her body is rid of all the toxins. Then you must send her to sleep and give her body time to heal in the earth. It is a difficult time, Byron. If you should need aid in any form, I am here.
Antonietta gasped as another wave of fire burned through her body, burst over her heart and lungs and gripped every muscle in her body. She forced air through her lungs, realized Byron was breathing for both of them. She reached out blindly for his hand. Byron tightened his grip on her, wanting to hold her to him.
A thousand needles stabbed her eyes; fire burned her eye sockets. The ends of her fingers went numb, then burst, hooked claws emerging, then receding. Byron was forced to let her hands go to keep from being ripped open. Her body convulsed again, arcing, stretching, contorting. She was slammed back to the mattress.
"I had no idea, Antonietta. I would never have asked you to go through this."
She rode out another wave, tried a small smile, but her face felt like it was lengthening. "Labor should be a piece of cake to Carpathian women after this." Her voice was constricted, not her own. A soft growl accompanied her words. The noise in her ears increased to a deafening roar. "I'm going to be sick. Get me into the bathroom."
Byron scooped her up, moving quickly. Tears burned in his eyes. Guilt rode him hard. "I should have known about this. Before I asked such a thing of you, I should have known what I was getting you into. I am sorry, cara. " He held her hair out of her face as she vomited repeatedly.
Byron had no idea how much time passed. It seemed hours. Endless. He was shocked at the pain, the terrible burning, a blowtorch assaulting her insides. He was grateful she couldn't see as something raised her skin rushing through her body time and again. Several times he was forced to restrain her when she would have ripped her skin from her bones or torn her own eyes from her face. He tried everything he could think of to lessen her suffering, but all he could really do was hold her to him and watch that she didn't harm herself. Exhaustion helped more than anything so that she rested between the waves of pain, holding his hand, keeping her mind carefully blank.
Byron was grateful the moment he sensed it was safe to send her to sleep. He issued the merciful command ruthlessly, and she succumbed without a murmur.