Celt greeted Antonietta in his dignified but obviously affectionate manner, falling in at her side to guide her up the stairs to Paul's room.
Tasha turned quickly from her vigil by the bed and threw herself into her cousin's arms with a glad little cry. "I was so worried about you, Toni. No one was with you. You were gone so long."
"I was with her, Tasha," Byron said quietly. "I can make you a sincere promise that nothing will ever harm her when she is with me."
"He took wonderful care of me, Tasha. How is Paul?" Antonietta kissed Tasha's cheek and hurried quickly to Paul's side. She had to keep her eyes tightly closed or she became disoriented and suffered vertigo. If she were still, she could use her eyes if she remained cautious and concentrated.
I hope your friend is right about my eyes. It is difficult to remember to keep them closed. Even with the dark glasses, I still see objects that aren't there. We will find a way to fix this problem, Antonietta. I know it is disorienting for you and nearly impossible to keep your eyes closed.
"Paul slept all day. He just woke a couple of hours ago." Tasha stroked back her brother's hair. "Justine and I have been taking shifts. We kept up on the fluids."
Paul is pale and weak, but he will live. We need to reduce his pain.
"That's good, Tasha." Antonietta laid her palm on Paul's brow. "I saw Christopher in the maze earlier."
Tasha sighed. "He pounded on the door. I was afraid he would break it down. I couldn't get him to go away, but then Franco came with Nonno , and they told him to leave. I'm not altogether certain he would have, but Diego arrived, and Christopher left."
"Not exactly," Antonietta said. "Diego had a short talk with him out in the maze. Christopher threatened to ruin his career and said a woman like you would never stoop to looking at a man like Diego."
Tasha pressed her hand against her mouth. "No. How could he say that?" Her voice was strangled. "Christopher is very vindictive. He might really do something to ruin Diego's career. Why? We've only talked a few times. It's not like I've slept with Diego. He's a very nice man with children to think of. I wouldn't involve him in a scandal, and Christopher would make it one."
"Diego didn't seem very afraid. Or maybe your protection mattered more than his career, because he grabbed Christopher by the throat and told him to leave you alone."
"He didn't?" Tasha looked to Byron for confirmation. "He grabbed him by the throat? For me?"
"He was very angry with Christopher for striking you." Byron shrugged. "If Diego had not made it very clear to Christopher that he was not wanted here, Franco or I would have." When Paul stirred, he placed a restraining hand on the man's shoulder. "Or Paul when he recovered. The nice part about having family who loves you, is they protect you when it matters."
"Byron asked me to marry him, and I said yes," Antonietta announced as she seated herself on the bed beside Paul. She tried to sound casual and matter-of-fact, but there was a tremor in her voice.
Celt pressed close to her, put his head in her lap to show camaraderie. Byron laid his hand gently on Antonietta's shoulder, his dark gaze on Tasha, willing her to say whatever Antonietta needed from her.
There was a short silence, a stilling of the air as if everyone held their breath. "What did Nonno say?" Tasha asked.
"He gave us his blessing," Antonietta said, rubbing Paul's arm. "How are you feeling, Paul? You're drinking plenty of fluids, aren't you? Do you need me to take away the pain?"
"Grazie, Toni, I was hoping you'd offer. Congratulations, Byron. There's no one in the world like our Toni. You'd better take good care of her."
"You do not have to worry, Paul. She will always be my first priority."
Antonietta waited for Tasha to say more. When her cousin remained silent, Antonietta turned her attention to directing healing energy to Paul. She could feel the steady flow Byron fed her, but he stayed in the background, allowing the actual healing to come through her.
When it was obvious Paul was more comfortable, not moving restlessly, Antonietta handed him a glass of water. "Drink this. Did you talk to Justine about your absurd suspicions? Because she is not part of a conspiracy to steal. She isn't, Paul. I can't tell you exactly how I know, but I do."
"Then who is selling our things? I saw the painting. The one my mother loved so much. It was moved down to the temperature-controlled room with the filtered air to preserve it until we could remodel the art room." He eased his body into another position. "I loved that painting. There's no mistake, and I'm going to get it back." There was determination in his voice.
"Then I'll ask Justine to take an inventory to see what else is missing."
I thought you were going to fire her. Paul's in love with her. He was willing to die to keep her out of jail. I can't very well fire her. If he feels that strongly about her, hopefully she feels the same way about him and thought she was saving his life. You are far too softhearted. I cannot imagine what our children will be like. Josef is thoughtless because he has been spoiled. Can you imagine ten Josefs running around the palazzo barefoot and clinging to the sides of the walls and making the gargoyles come alive? Singing rap music? What have you gotten me into? I can't imagine ten of anything, let alone ten little Josefs. And they will sing opera. How did I become responsible? You walked onto the stage looking so beautiful and courageous, you stole my heart.
Antonietta burst out laughing. There was a sudden silence in the room. "I'm sorry, I know we're discussing a serious subject. I just..." She trailed off, mentally kicking Byron in the shin.
The strange phenomenon of objects rushing at her face had lessened enough that if she held her head very still, she could see through the heavy black lenses. Tired of closing her eyes and anxious to see her family members, she stared toward where she knew Paul's face would be and lifted her lashes.
"Someone in this house is stealing," Paul reiterated. "The police know it, Interpol knows it, and no one but a family member would know the way through the passageway. Who else but Justine?"
Antonietta's heart gave a funny jump when Paul's face stopped moving. The blurred image cleared, and she was staring at her cousin. "Paul." She breathed his name softly. Reached out to brush at the hair spilling across his forehead. There was a curious burning sensation behind her eyes.
He looks just like I remember my father looking. Tell me where Tasha is. She's so quiet I can't tell exactly.
Byron shifted closer to wrap his arm around her shoulders. "We do not know who could be doing this, Paul, but we believe you. If it is someone living in this house, it should not be that difficult to find out who it is."
Tasha is standing to your left.
He gave Antonietta the mental image of height to her face.
Her heart pounding, Antonietta closed her eyes and turned her head carefully to stare up at Tasha. She pressed back against Byron for comfort and opened her eyes. For a moment Tasha swam in front of her, distorted and out of focus. Antonietta persisted, forcing her brain to connect with her eyes. Tasha stared back at her. Antonietta couldn't prevent the small cry of joy.
Tasha's eyes widened in shock. "You can see me.
Dio, Toni. You can see me. That's not possible. How can you see me?"
Antonietta burst into tears. Tasha immediately began weeping with her. Byron looked at Paul helplessly.
"Is it true?" Paul asked as his sister and cousin clung to one another. "It was you, wasn't it, Byron? You are like she is, you have the gift."
"She has to be careful of light and movement, but we are hoping it will improve for her. Most of the time she keeps her eyes closed or she feels sick," Byron explained.
"Have you told Nonno ?" Paul asked the inevitable question.
Before Byron could answer, Tasha flung her arms around him. "I don't care if you scare me to death.
for this. You can't imagine how much I'd hoped we could find a way to restore Toni's sight. Our money seemed so useless at times. She's always been so patient, but there were so many times she wanted a particular book and she couldn't get it right away... So many things. Just
He could feel the genuine love and gratitude pouring out of Tasha, and it made him feel humble. Antonietta's family relationships were very complex, not at all black and white like his world seemed to be for so long. He thought in terms of enemy or ally. They were far more than that. There was so much joy radiating from Tasha and Paul at the knowledge that Antonietta might be able to see, that Byron wondered how he could have ever suspected either of them of conspiring to kill her, yet he felt he had to be certain. He couldn't afford to take a chance with Antonietta's life. .
Tasha and Antonietta began to laugh together, sitting on Paul's bed, holding hands. "I think they're hysterical," Paul commented.
Byron waved his hand to still the room.
"I think you are right." Byron glanced at Antonietta.
Forgive me, cara mia, I feel I have no choice but to be certain. I am certain.
Her protest was instant and adamant.
Byron ignored her and leaned down to stare into Paul's eyes. He did the same to Tasha. Antonietta pulled out of his mind, her anger nearly tangible. "Neither is involved in the thefts or the poisonings, and if they can shape-shift, they are not aware of it. I do not like the way Tasha feels to me. I want to examine her. Merge with me."
They found traces of poison in Tasha's cells. Antonietta was outraged. "Who could be doing this? Christopher? He was often at dinner with us. He could have slipped something into Nonno 's drink or food. I can't see, so it's possible he could have with any of us, and I wouldn't have known. Get rid of it, Byron. I know you did for me, so get it out of her. Hurry. It makes me sick to think she has that in her."
"Paul did not eat anything today. We need to check the others. Even the children. Someone is introducing poison into food or drink." Byron closed his eyes and sent himself seeking outside his body and into Tasha's. Antonietta merged with him, watching how he separated body from spirit, became a bright ball of pure energy, and meticulously went through Tasha's body, examining every cell, muscle, and tissue.
He showed her what to look for, how to maintain outside his own body while he worked, and the intense concentration it took. He seemed much weaker when he was through pushing the poison from Tasha's body, staggering a little as he reentered his own body.
"What's wrong with you?" Antonietta asked, alarmed.
"I have not fed this night, and we have used a tremendous amount of energy." He added a command to her cousins to forget his invasion into their thoughts.
Your family has tremendous barriers. It requires a powerful command to keep them from knowing we have intruded. If you have no choice but to read them, remember to remove the memory. I told you they weren't involved.
His weariness was beating at her. She couldn't help herself. She laid her hand on his arm.
Go find whatever you need to be strong again. Or use me.
He laughed softly and leaned down to kiss her on her upturned mouth.
Thank you for the invitation, but I cannot touch you in front of your family. I would want to retire to your bedroom.
It was his voice, a velvet-soft symphony of seduction, that teased the color into her face. Before she could respond, Tasha hugged Antonietta again, completely unaware of the interruption. "Are there things you can do to help you see better? Glasses? Maybe an operation? The laser techniques are supposed to work miracles."
"I've had my miracle," Antonietta said. "Byron, you have that one thing to take care of. If you want to do that now, I'll sit up here and visit with Paul."
My tyrant lifemate.
He was secretly pleased that she was worried enough to be insistent he feed.
Antonietta tried to watch him leave, but the room spun, and the strangely shaped objects flew at her eyes. She closed them tightly. "Movement makes it more difficult. I have to look at something stationary to really see it. We think that will change with time and a little practice."
"Antonietta." Paul reached for his cousin. She responded immediately by threading her fingers through his. "Please make peace with Justine. I know you're hurt by what she did, but I told her they were going to kill me. I laid it on pretty thick. She begged me to go to you. She begged me to lay low until she could get the money together herself. We had a terrible fight about it. I felt like such a lowlife, but I was certain she was involved in the theft ring."
"Have you told her what you thought? Does she know you nearly died coming here and not going to a hospital? I couldn't have saved your life, Paul. Byron was the one who worked on you and managed to keep you alive."
"I feel different. And it's strange, Toni, but I swear there was a noise this morning, this weird whirring sound. Justine tracked it all over the bedroom. It turned out to be a bug, and the noise was its wings. I just feel more alive, even though I hurt like hell most of the time." He rubbed his shadowed jaw. "Justine is going to marry me. She was pretty angry with me, especially that I would think she would sell out our family, but I convinced her. It helped that I look pathetic right now."
Antonietta sighed. "She really hurt me, Paul. I trusted her, and I depended on that trust for my confidence. She took that away from me."
"I took it away. You know how I am. Tasha, talk to her, she always listens to you. This is important."
Antonietta felt Tasha's sudden stillness. "You do, Toni. You do listen to me. I always matter to you."
"Silly. Of course. I love you. Your opinion has always mattered to me. You know how I think and feel. You know what's important to me. What would you do? I love Justine, but I don't know if I can forgive what she did."
Tasha laughed softly. "Toni, don't be an idiot. You forgive everybody, everything. That's just how you are. You couldn't carry a grudge if your life depended on it. Not with family. Whether you like it or not, Justine falls under the family umbrella, so no matter what, you're going to forgive her. You're hurt, not angry. There speaks undoubtedly die voice of true wisdom." Tasha sounded self-mocking.
"Great, Tasha, you're not entering in the spirit of the thing. I wanted to wallow in self-pity, and you're not letting me."
"It isn't your style."
"I'm going to ask you both a crazy question. Do either of you ever feel strange, like there's a beast inside of you, trying to get out?"
"Like a cat," Paul said. He rubbed his arm. "Sometimes I itch, and I feel an incredible power."
"And all your senses come alive," Antonietta added.
"I don't feel that way," Tasha said, "but I can speak to Paul telepathically. We've done it ever since we were children. I can't with anyone else but him."
"You never told me."
"Only because I didn't want you to feel left out." Tasha sighed softly. "Do you really love Byron, Toni?" There was a catch in her voice.
"More than I ever thought possible. I can't imagine my life without him."
"Where does he want to live? What does he do? Do you know anything at all about him?"
"He works with gems. He has his own money. We will have to take trips to his homeland, but we'll reside here at the palazzo. He can make his jewelry here. He'll travel with me when I tour."
"How did you know for certain? Aren't you afraid?" Tasha looked down at her hands. "I always marry the wrong man."
"You marry for the wrong reasons," Antonietta replied softly. "You know going into the marriage it's wrong for you."
"I really like Diego. I really do, Toni. He makes me laugh, and I feel good about myself. He talks to me like I have a brain. We've spent quite a bit of time together, just talking. I'd like to meet his children. But what if I can't be married to a man like him?"
"You mean a man who isn't wealthy?"
Tasha waved her hand exasperated. "It isn't the money. I'll have plenty of money in time. I can borrow money from you if I don't have it. He would expect me to be a wife and mother. Full-time. I've never done anything full-time."
Antonietta laughed. "Tasha, you don't have to be anything but yourself. You spend most of the day with Margurite and Vincente. You watch Nonno like a hawk, even when it makes him crazy. I hear you pushing chairs in when I'm walking because someone else was careless and left them out."
"I detest giving orders to the servants."
"I doubt if Diego has servants."
"I have to have servants, Toni. Certainly he wouldn't expect me to do the laundry." She shuddered. "The thought of touching dirty, smelly clothes is awful. But I did love cooking. I took that gourmet course, and I was really good. Cooking was fun. Sometimes Enrico let me cook in the kitchen, but I know Alfredo would never let me."
"For heaven's sake, Tasha," Paul burst out. "Afredo doesn't own the kitchen, we do. If you want to cook, tell him to get out and leave you to it."
Justine knocked on the door politely as she entered. "Paul, you're looking so much better."
"Byron and Toni worked their magic on me." Paul held out his hand to her. "Come and join us. I told Tasha and Toni I badgered you until you agreed to marry me. Toni has big news. Even bigger than ours." He didn't wait to see if Antonietta would relate the information. "Byron was able to heal her eyes enough that she can see."
"That's impossible. Toni saw every specialist possible, and they all said it couldn't be done." She turned to her employer. "How could he have healed your eyes?"
"He has the gift. It isn't perfect, Justine. My brain doesn't have the connections it needs between sight and objects. I try to keep my eyes closed most of the time and rely on my other senses. It's much easier. If I have my eyes open, and whatever I'm looking at moves, I feel very sick. Sometimes I see strange shapes and objects, like I'm connecting with the wrong image. It's weird."
"But exciting," Justine said. "Toni, I know you're very angry with me. I know I deserve it, but I don't want to lose our friendship. This is my family. I love you very much. It was wrong of me. I can't change what I did, as much as I'd like to, but I'd like to find a way to show you how sorry I really am."
"I'm hurt, Justine, not angry. I'm trying to understand."
"I'm going to stand up for Toni on her wedding day," Tasha announced, "so there's no need to get all buddy-buddy, you two. And Marita can forget it, too."
"Well, of course you'll stand up for me, Tasha, but there's room for Marita and Justine, too."
"You're really limiting your colors, Toni," Tasha warned. "Marita looks awful in pastels, and Justine is so pale - "
"Tasha." Paul reprimanded.
Celt suddenly lifted his head from Antonietta's lap. His entire body tensed alertly. Antonietta moved uncomfortably, her skin itching, her stomach doing a strange flip. Dark dread gathered in the pit of her stomach. A shadow seemed to pass through the room. It was more in her mind than in reality. An ominous warning.
"Toni," Tasha rubbed her arms as if suddenly cold. "What's wrong?"
"I don't know. Do you feel something odd?"
Paul slumped back against the pillows, his hand in Justine's, his eyes closed. Justine shook her head for both of them. "Everything seems fine to us, Toni."
"The dog is acting funny," Tasha reported. "He looks dangerous."
"Stay with Paul," Antonietta said. "I want to check on
Nonno. Celt can go with me. He's a good guide."
"Do you really think something's wrong? I can call Diego," Tasha offered.
Antonietta didn't answer. She didn't bother to try to use her eyes. She needed speed, and it was so much easier to rely on Celt. He paced at her side, his body maneuvering her around every obstacle in the hall and down the stairs. Byron. She connected instantly with him.
How far away are you?
She sent the impression of the dark shadow. Of impending danger. Of dread.
Stay inside the palazzo. I will come to you immediately, and Eleanor and Vlad are on their way. I have tried to touch Josef, but he is not responding or is incapable of it. Vlad says the same. He was with Nonno in the courtyard. Stay inside, Antonietta.
"As if I would," she muttered rebelliously. "Franco!" She raised her voice, something she seldom did, hating to interrupt what she knew was an important talk, but needing him. "Helena! Come out to the courtyard and help me find
Nonno. " She leaned down toward the dog. "Celt, I'm counting on you. We don't want anything to happen to Nonno or young Josef." She pushed open the French doors leading to the terrace that opened into the courtyard.
Celt didn't growl, but a nearly inaudible sound rumbled in his throat. His body seemed to vibrate with tension.
Antonietta inhaled deeply and caught a pungent odor. Something wild. Something deadly. She hung on to Celt. "Find Nonno , Celt. Show me where he is."
"What is it, Signorina Scarletti?" Helena asked, coming up behind her.
"Have you seen my grandfather?"
"Don Giovanni was out in the garden as he is most evenings. That young man, Josef, was with him. They must have walked into the maze."
"Please tell Franco to follow me. I'm going to look for
"Yes, of course, I'll tell him immediately. Do you need me to help you?"
"If you would get Franco and tell him to be careful," Antonietta said, "that would be wonderful." She didn't want Helena exposed to any danger. Cautiously she stepped down the terrace stairs into the courtyard. "Find him, Celt, find
The dog fairly shook with the effort to contain his need to hunt. He started off toward the maze, but just feet away from one of the entrances, he stopped and swung back toward the palazzo.
Antonietta released her hold on the dog and opened her eyes very slowly. It was dark enough and with the glasses, the terrible lurching and flashing lights didn't intrude. She looked up toward the battlement, trying to focus on one of the gargoyles, just to get her bearings. It took a few moments for the image of the sculpture to clear. She saw the wings spread wide as if about to launch into the air, teeth bared, eyes wide open and staring. Her breath caught in her throat when she saw the body of young Josef lying motionless, his beret hanging off the gargoyles' wing tip. Crouched over him was a large spotted cat. The cat turned its head and looked down at her, malice in its eyes.
Byron. Quickly, I need the image of an owl. Hold it for me.
Antonietta waited a heartbeat, an eternity, and then the image was there for her. Thankfully, Byron didn't make the mistake of asking questions or chastising her. He caught the terrible sense of urgency and provided the data she needed. Her skin prickled, her body compressed. She closed her eyes tightly as she shifted into the shape of the night predator.
It was much more difficult to launch from the ground, but she managed. As she leapt, a great gust of wind swept under her to aid her in rising. She flew straight up to avoid having to open her eyes until the last possible moment.
Link with me.
The command was impossible to ignore. There was a mixture of fear and anger tinged with respect, but Byron's tone held a compulsion Antonietta had to obey. She felt him take her mind completely, force her eyes open. She waited for the strange, disorienting sickness, but it didn't come. She realized he was using her eyes and making the connections himself. He understood what he was seeing, and he instantly translated.
Fog rolled in, unexpectedly, from the sea. It was so thick, wisps seemed to hang in the sky like a barrier. The owl flew silently, stealthily, using the fog as cover. It took only seconds to make its way over the battlements and drop like a stone at the cat as it bent its head to Josef's exposed throat.
Antonietta was startled when she heard a far-off scream of anguish followed by the echo of a male voice crying out his promise of retribution. Razor-sharp talons ripped at the eyes of the jaguar, slashing and digging, driving the cat backward away from its prey. The wind howled, nearly drowning out the snarl of the beast. It spat and swiped with its paws, then whirled and ran, leaping easily over a multitude of gargoyles to race along the banister toward the far side of the tower.
The owl settled down close to Josef, shifting back into human form. Antonietta bent over the young man. There was a terrible gaping wound on his throat. He had bled profusely. She couldn't get a pulse.
Byron. Is he dead?
Black threads swirled and spun overhead. Lightning raced across the sky. Thunder boomed, shaking the palazzo. Dark cauldrons of clouds boiled and seethed, spitting out rage and anger and a terrible grief that was hardly to be borne.
Antonietta fought past the weight and intensity of the storm of emotion raging in the heavens. Her hands covered the wounds as she attempted to assess the damage done to his body.
Josef shut down his heart and lungs when the blow was struck.
Byron hoped he was telling her the truth. Josef was young for their people. Shutting down completely after suffering a mortal wound was not an easy task.
Eleanor and I have him now. His life force is weak. Holding him to earth will slow us down.
Byron heard Vlad's voice, filled with fear and determination.
I cannot help you track the cat and hold our son to us. I will get the cat, Vlad, just keep him alive. Where is the jaguar now?
Antonietta sought for a way to close the wound. Nonno
is in the courtyard, and Franco is coming to look for him. Hurry Byron. The cat came here with the intention to kill.
Byron burst out of the darkness, a creature of power, hurtling past Antonietta to follow the cat. She felt the brush of his hand on her face.
You know what to do.
His voice was very soft. Filled with complete faith.
She had to take the boy to the ground below. She needed the soil and her own saliva. Byron didn't tell her, but somehow she gleaned the knowledge from his mind. She was up on the battlements.
Do you see Celt or Nonno ? Or even Franco? Franco could carry Josef down to the garden.
Byron flew out toward the cove. The cat would go for the water to cover its scent.
I do not see any of them.
He reached for the dog, a connection he had established weeks earlier. For a brief moment, Byron caught glimpses of shrubbery, a bench, Don Giovanni sitting on a bench, trapped and unable to leave, with Celt pacing around him. Byron sent the reassuring image to Antonietta and dropped down closer to earth under cover of the fog.
The danger hadn't passed. Antonietta wanted to rush to Byron, make certain that he was safe. Her skin was crawling with the need for change. Inside the pit of her stomach, darkness spread, every bit as black as the clouds spinning over her head. She sighed Byron's name, wanting to warn him of the danger, afraid she would distract him at the wrong moment.
Antonietta caught the whisper of cloth brushing against one of the sculptures. She turned her head toward the sound and inhaled. "Helena. Thank the good Dio. Please find Franco at once. We need to get this poor boy some help. He was attacked by a wild cat. The same one that made a kill the other night."
"Are you certain it's the same one, Signorina Scarletti?"
Antonietta opened her eyes cautiously, trying to focus on her housekeeper. The woman continued to move toward her. Antonietta couldn't tell how close she was. The body was distorted, rippling in a sickening way. Spots leapt at her eyes, flying at her face. Colors shimmered. Reds, yellows. A dark blue. She dug her fingernails into her palm for an anchor and kept her eyes trained on Helena, willing herself to see. "I doubt there are two cats, Helena. Please get Franco. We need to save this boy's life."
Helena just kept coming. Faster now, her face lengthening until she appeared to have a muzzle, her body contorting, bending, until she was on all fours.
Antonietta waited, timing the cat's leap, throwing herself to one side, using her new abilities to take her over the jaguar and land on the edge of the battlement. The jaguar snarled, shifted into half-human form. Helena bent over Josef, all the while keeping her eyes focused on Antonietta. There was hatred there.
"Why would you do this, Helena?" Antonietta asked, her voice gentle. The wind lashed at them, ruffled the fur on the large cat, and tore strands of Antonietta's hair loose from her braid to whip across her face.
"Signorina Scarletti." Helena spat the words at her. "How I hate that name. Your precious family. It should have been my family. I belonged, but none of you wanted to see it. I was right there under your noses, but you all refused to see."
Antonietta strained for sight. Helena was shifting her weight, rumbling with rage and hatred. One clawed hand reached down to push Josef's body toward the edge of the battlement. Antonietta didn't stop to think; she launched herself, kicking hard, connecting with Helena's startled face. Her momentum carried her beyond her housekeeper. She tucked and rolled, coming back onto her feet facing Helena, shocked at her own agility. She didn't hesitate, leaping back toward Josef, planting another kick squarely in Helena's face, knocking her off the battlement.
Helena twisted in midair, shape-shifting completely, landing on all fours on the rolling lawn. The jaguar lifted its muzzle toward the palazzo and snarled. The cat immediately leapt into a nearby tree, using the branches as a highway, rushing toward the ramparts with deadly purpose.
Antonietta dragged Josef from the edge of the battlement, picking him up, cradling his leaden body to her as if he were a baby. As the jaguar gained the first-floor balcony, Antonietta jumped from the battlement to the ground below, landing in a crouch, in the shadow of the palazzo. She sprinted, under cover of the thick fog, to the garden. She knew how many steps it took, and she counted as she ran, her eyes closed tightly.
"Toni? Are you out here? Where's Nonno ?" Tasha called from the terrace overlooking the courtyard. "Can you believe this fog? It was supposed to be clear tonight."
"Tasha, hurry, get over here," Antonietta said softly. Her voice sounded strange and muffled in the swirling mist. She laid Josef in the garden bed, uncaring that she squashed her grandfather's flowers. There would be only minutes to do what needed to be done. Scooping up handfuls of the rich soil, she mixed her own saliva and packed the wounds carefully.
Tasha came out of the eerie fog, looming over them. "What in the world are you doing, Toni?" She crouched down, saw the thick congealed blood shining black in the mist, and covered her mouth. "Good God, are you crazy? You'll kill him putting dirt in his wounds like that."
"Don't ask questions, just help me. The jaguar did this. It's hunting us now."
Tasha dropped to her knees, scooping up the dirt, glancing around warily. The fog was too thick to see much. "Shouldn't we get him inside?" She kept her tone low.
"His mother and father are coming to help him. I just have to keep the jaguar off of him. Nonno is in the maze with Celt."
It didn't make sense to Tasha, especially with Antonietta's sight problems, but she leaned over Josef protectively. "He's a nice kid, a little young for his age." She shivered in the howling wind.
"It's Helena." Antonietta rose, placing her body between her cousin and the expanse of lawn. "The jaguar is Helena. She can shape-shift."
"That's not possible, Toni." Tasha spoke very distinctly, as if to a child.
"Yes it is. I'll explain later, but I saw her. Why would she hate us so much? She said she belonged, and we didn't see it. I don't understand. How could she be a Scarletti?"
"She was the one. It had to be Helena."
"The one that what?"
"Don't you remember? When we were children? My father carried on with every woman in sight. Helena was so beautiful. Of course he would have chased after her. She must have been the woman who became pregnant. Remember she was gone for months taking care of her father when he was ill. She could have been pregnant then."
"She was friends with our mothers," Antonietta protested. "She was family to us."
"I was never friends with your mothers." Helena limped out of the fog, her face bloody, her nose crooked. Her eyes glowed strangely, much like a cat. She was across the lawn, and the mist clung to her, curling around her legs and body. "We were lovers. He should have married me. We could have had it all. With Antonietta and her parents out of the way, he would have inherited so much. He talked to me about it, but I was the one who did something about it. What did he do to repay me? He refused to get rid of his wife. He despised her, a weak woman, but she clung to him. I had to take care of her, too. He knew I loved him. I had his child inside of me. I would do anything for him, but he wanted me to get rid of it. He called my son a bastard."
"That was wrong of him," Antonietta said. "Very wrong of him. He should have been proud of his child." Her hand behind her back, she signaled Tasha to silence.
"He deserved to die. Out with his whores, refusing to many me, refusing to claim his son, even when I freed him from his miserable marriage. It was so easy with him drinking the way he did. I didn't even feel bad about it." Helena's voice vibrated with a strange, raspy growl.
Lightning ripped across the sky, slammed to earth very close, shaking the ground beneath their feet. The howl of a predatory cat accompanied the sound of thunder. Helena smiled. "My son. Esteben. He is killing Don Giovanni. Soon there will be no one left to inherit but my son."
The cat screamed again. An orange-red fireball broke off from a dancing whip of lightning overhead, streaking to earth, disappearing in the thick fog. The silence was deafening. Antonietta strained to keep Helena in focus. "You sold Scarletti possessions, didn't you?"
"Esteben is a Scarletti. We took what belonged to us. What should have been ours. If he had done as I said, in the kitchen, we would have been rid of most of you, but he wanted accidents. Poison works just as well, and we could have blamed Enrico." She moved slightly, her body contorting.
"Enrico found out, didn't he? That's why you killed him." Antonietta forced her eyes to stay focused on Helena. Her arms were becoming mottled, fur racing over her skin, the spots dancing and leaping at Antonietta.
She took a breath, let it out.
Byron? You killed Esteben, didn't you? Nonno and Celt are safe? So are you, my love. Stay away from her. It's easier for me to fight with my eyes closed and rely on my other senses. There is no need.
Tasha gasped in alarm. Antonietta didn't dare take her eyes from Helena's body, now half human and half cat. "What is it, Tasha?"
"Aside from the fact that our housekeeper is a demonic murdering psychopath, and is, at this moment turning into some kind of possessed, twisted half-human killer, I would say Byron's sister and brother-in-law appeared out of thin air and startled me."
"Step back, Antonietta," Vlad cautioned. "We need you here, to save our son. Byron will handle the cat.
Grazie, for protecting Josef."
"Tasha, maybe you should go back inside."
"And miss all the drama? Not a chance. I can spit as well as the next person. I think." Tasha tugged on Antonietta's hand until she knelt beside her. "Tell me what to do to help."