"I do not believe this. Byron, you are nervous." Jacques Dubrinsky clapped Byron on the shoulder as he circled around his friend to check that the tails on the suit jacket were straight.
Byron glanced quickly at the other occupants of the room. Eleanor and Vlad grinned openly at him while Shea, Jacques's lifemate, tried to hide her smile.
"I am not nervous. Why should I be nervous? Antonietta is my lifemate. We are already tied together. This is just a ceremony to please her family." Byron straightened his tie and ran a finger under the collar of his immaculate white shirt. "Why are these things always so tight, like a noose around one's neck?"
Jacques laughed at him. "The noose has been there for some time. You just now are feeling it?"
Shea delivered a solid punch into Jacques's arm. "Ha-ha. You think you're so funny. His sense of humor is warped, Byron, don't pay him any attention. Your bride looks beautiful. I took a peek at her as her cousin helped her dress."
"She is nervous. Antonietta is so peculiar. She chose to convert without batting an eyelash. She was willing to fight off a dangerous jaguar. She walks blind onto a stage to perform in front of forty thousand people, but she's so nervous marrying me, she is making me nervous." Byron glared at Jacques as he said the last.
"Or perhaps it is the other way around," Jacques pointed out. "I think you are sweating."
"Don't listen to him, Byron. Jacques is the one nervous. You know how he just loves crowds." Shea gazed at her lifemate with love. "How's Antonietta's vision, Byron? Is she coping any better?"
"She has learned to understand what she sees but often the thermal images superimpose themselves over her normal vision, and she still has difficulty with depth perception. She also remains highly sensitive to the emotions and electrical currents around her." There was a note of worry in Byron's voice.
"Bring her back to the mountains as part of your honeymoon," Shea suggested. "The soil may speed the process up a bit. I've suspected for a while that many of the human lifemates who display psychic abilities may be descendents of the Jaguar race, not all of them, but at least a substantial majority. Antonietta's the first with such a strong Jaguar genetic code. I'm very interested in seeing how the conversion enhances her natural abilities."
Byron's eyes darkened. "She is not an experiment."
"Of course not," Shea laughed lightly, even as she put a restraining hand on Jacques's arm. "I do tend to talk in medical and researcher terms, don't I? Antonietta is a delightful, courageous woman, and she brings with her a rich history. I suppose you noticed this region has several humans with strong barriers to mind scanning."
"That has to be the Jaguar influence. Franco actually is capable of shape-shifting, which would lead one to believe his genetic code is mainly Jaguar, yet he has a tremendous sense of family and is a good father and husband," Byron said.
"I've talked to him," Shea admitted. "He's promised to allow us to witness his shape-shifting. It will be interesting to see the differences."
Byron looked up quickly. "He did not say a word to me.
I have serious reservations about that. I'll take you to the history room. Antonietta has agreed it is very important to us all. But I do not want Franco shifting."
Vlad nodded his head in agreement. "I have to go with Byron on this. The natural inclinations of the Jaguar seem difficult to control."
"It's important," Shea reiterated. "Franco, especially with his strong sense of family and yet the ability to shift, is important. He's been wonderfully cooperative. Antonietta, too. Both understand the importance to our people of unraveling the mysteries."
"What if he makes a kill while in the jaguar form?" Byron asked, turning to face her. "Franco also has other Scarletti traits. He is capable of violence; do not think he isn't. He wouldn't forgive himself if he harmed an innocent person while in that form."
"The Scarlettis are your family, Byron," Jacques said, his voice, as always, low but impressive. "Mikhail has accepted them under our protection for that reason, and all of us here have done so because of the strength of your feelings for them. I have found them to be just as loyal to you in return. Franco wants to help us with this. He cannot possibly escape the control of three fully mature male and three female Carpathians."
"If I can witness the differences during a shifting," Shea said, "I should be able to figure out how to better help Antonietta with her vision problems. The Jaguar genes are very strong in this family. This might be our only chance to really find out the information we need to help our people with so many things, Byron."
"I'll have to speak with Franco again about this. I would want him to understand the risks before he does it," Byron said.
"Of course," Jacques agreed. "And do not forget, he has shifted more than once, and he did not make a kill."
"He does not remember," Byron pointed out, "that is not the same thing as knowledge. He obviously did not have control of the beast; it controlled him."
Shea paced across the room, halted beside the stained glass window to touch the intricate artwork. "I know you're worried about Franco, Byron, but I'm really not as clinical as I sound. I appreciate that these people not only are loved by your lifemate but are family to you. I also appreciate that they accept us and our differences. I would never put one of your family members in jeopardy for research, no matter how important it is to our race. I just wouldn't do that."
Jacques went to her immediately and drew her into his arms. "No one thinks you would, Shea."
Byron shook his head. "I just have a difficult time understanding genetics. My expertise is elsewhere, and I can never figure out how something like watching Franco shift into a jaguar as opposed to watching Jacques shift could be of use."
"It is rather fascinating," Vlad said. "I watch poor little Josef working at shifting, and one time half his body will be a bird and the other half something else. He doesn't remember to hold one image."
"It's such a matter of focus," Shea said. "For me, because we have such a tremendous problem having children, genetics is a primary concern."
"I am grateful, too," Eleanor said. "Our women have just about given up all hope of successfully carrying children or keeping them alive beyond the first year."
"And yet we have had a success or two," Shea pointed out. "The Carpathian who fascinates me most, though, is Gregori's brother, Darius. He accomplished things as a boy that no one else ever has. I'd love to study him under a microscope." She laughed when Jacques nudged her. "I know, there I go again. I'll stop now."
"Actually, Vlad and I were discussing Darius just the other day. Josef is still struggling to learn these skills, yet Darius was able to hold images for not only himself but other children as well. We don't have the luxury of time for our children to learn the necessary skills," Eleanor said, "and the old ways don't work in this era."
"I am grateful I am a gem-caller rather than a healer," Byron said. "It is far too complicated to figure out."
"Speaking of which," Jacques said, "Mikhail is looking forward to your return. He wants to give Raven a special gift and was hoping you would put your gem-calling skills to use. He would have come himself, but Raven recently miscarried."
There was a short, shocked silence. "Please give my sympathies to your brother, Jacques," Byron said.
Vlad took Eleanor's hand. "As well as ours," he added.
They regarded each other with shared, heartfelt sorrow. It wasn't just the fact that the child belonged to the prince of their people, it was the fact that every child lost brought their race closer to extinction.
"Is Raven all right?" Eleanor asked.
"She was depressed, of course, but physically, she is fine. They'd been trying for another child for a long while, and they feel the loss tremendously," Shea said with a small sigh of regret. She pressed both hands over her womb protectively. "Whatever has affected our people's reproductive abilities must be in our blood or in the soil itself. I have my theories but nothing substantial yet."
"I never considered that by converting Antonietta, I would be asking her to cope with the sorrows of losing a child. Raven successfully gave birth to one child; I just assumed she would easily have more."
"Raven has Carpathian blood flowing in her veins, just as the rest of us," Eleanor said. "All of us hoped it wouldn't happen with her as it did with the rest of us."
Byron swept a hand through his hair. "Antonietta went through so much already just with the conversion. I should have thought this all the way through before I brought her fully into our world. I do not want her to have to face losing children." He remembered Eleanor's deep anguish as she lost baby after baby. And Diedre, Vlad's sister, suffering such depression after the losses.
"I don't want to give Antonietta false hope that we may have children. I always thought if I found my lifemate I would have children, but she's accepted the idea she never would have a family because she didn't believe she would ever find a man to share her life. I don't want her hoping for children only to lose her baby."
Eleanor sighed softly. "I have lost many children over the years, Diedre more than I, yet we tried over and over. Not, as many think, for the good of our race but because a child is a treasure we cherish, a gift unequaled on this earth. Tell Antonietta the truth, and allow her to choose for herself."
Byron? Do you need me? Why are you so sad? This is our wedding day.
Antonietta was there in his mind instantly, a warm, loving presence.
I will always need you. Are you nervous?
She laughed softly, the sound playing over his skin, tugging at his heart.
I'm afraid not; that's you, not me. I feel wonderful. Do not be late and leave me standing there looking like an idiot. I cannot imagine you looking like an idiot.
Antonietta laughed softly and turned away from the mirror. Her room seemed crowded with her family members all helpfully gathered around her. Even little Margurite, dressed in her finest, had been allowed to join them. Franco had placed her carefully in the most comfortable chair.
"Are you talking to Byron?" Tasha asked curiously. "He's telepathic, too, isn't he? Diego isn't at all. I've tried, but he's not originally from this area and has no telepathic ability whatsoever. You said you didn't mind if I invited him, and I've asked him to bring the children. I want everyone to meet them."
Antonietta kissed Tasha's cheek. "This is the perfect day for all of us to meet his children. I want all my family around me and, of course, everyone they love."
Franco reached out to touch a tendril of his cousin's hair. "This is what you really want, Toni? This man is for all time."
"I'm absolutely certain, Franco." Antonietta could feel happiness spilling out of her. "He's exactly right for me. Everything I've ever wanted. Is this the way you feel about Marita?"
"I knew from the first moment I saw her that she was my other half. I gave her no chance to get away from me. I spent weeks courting her. I think I frightened her with my intensity." He turned his head to look at his wife.
Her answering smile was tentative. She was busy fussing over Margurite's hair. Celt kept pressing his nose into the little girl's lap. Marita didn't scold, allowing Margurite to scratch the dog's silky ears.
Antonietta lowered her voice. "I know we took a loss undercutting the Demonesini company on the last three bids, Franco, and that you're worried about it, but you needn't be. It forced them to sell their stock in hopes of recouping the loss of revenue, and Nonno has been quietly buying it. We're taking that company down piece by piece. I didn't want to say anything to Marita because she seems as if she's finally happy again. What a terrible experience for her to endure."
Franco kissed his cousin, mindful of her clothes. "
Grazie, for your compassion. We are together, and we will always remain so." He, too, kept his voice low. "The additions on the lower floor have been completed to Byron's specifications. Paul and I will see to it that your orders are always carried out, Toni. You and Byron will be fully protected during the times Byron says you are most vulnerable."
There was no way she could express her joy, so Antonietta didn't try. It was so much easier for her three cousins to know the truth of what she was. She knew Byron had given them the choice and that he could monitor them at will, but they had accepted that condition readily. She hadn't lost her family or the life she loved so much.
Byron? If I haven't said so this evening, I love you.
He was there for her immediately. His warmth surrounded her, held her close.
I feel you laughing. What are you doing on this solemn occasion?
Antonietta's teasing voice spread warmth through Byron's body.
We are talking about Josef. Vlad caught him trying his Spiderman routine again. He was not very successful and fell into a flowerpot. As he was recouping, I think Eleanor grounded him. That sounds like our Josef. They are telling me I have to go to the chapel. See you soon. Our Josef.
Byron liked the sound of that. Somewhere along the line, his horror of his nephew's antics had turned to genuine amusement and affection. He didn't know when or how it had happened.
Eleanor rose from the chair by the window and kissed Byron's cheek, startling him, bringing him out of his thoughts. "In all the excitement and trauma, I honestly do not remember if I thanked Antonietta for saving Josef's life. He is fully recovered and is up and about again."
"Is the world safe?" Byron teased.
Jacques suddenly laughed. "I will never forget his performance in front of my brother. It was all I could do not to fall down laughing watching Mikhail's face when Josef sang his rendition of rap."
Vlad covered his face. "Do not remind me."
Byron nudged Jacques. "Antonietta has a sound room. I bet we could persuade Josef to cut an entire rap CD for Mikhail. I would not mind a copy for myself, just to put on every once in a while to watch Antonietta's face when she hears his lyrics."
"A brilliant idea," Jacques agreed. "Just the thing for that brother of mine."
"Byron! Jacques!" Eleanor was horrified. "Do not dare encourage Josef."
Byron wrapped his arm around her. "I think encouraging art is a wonderful trait."
"You will answer to me if you do such a thing," Vlad said in his severest voice.
Byron and Jacques exchanged a quick grin. Shea hid a knowing smile, shaking her head at their antics, pleased they were falling back into their old camaraderie.
A single knock sounded on the door, and Franco stuck his head in the room. "It's time, Byron."
Byron took a deep breath. "Has anyone noticed it's hard to breathe in here?"
Eleanor kissed him. "Do not disgrace us by being a baby about this. I will see you in the chapel."
"No running away now," Shea cautioned. "Your lifemate looks unbelievable." She followed Eleanor out.
Byron looked at Jacques. "There is something about standing up in front of a crowd. Why do women like these things?"
"To torment us," Jacques said.
"You have that right." Vlad opened the door and waved his brother-in-law through.