Byron Justicano circled above the small city before winging his way toward the palazzo. As he moved across the sky, hunger crawled through his body, demanding he feed, but he ignored it, answering the sudden uneasy feeling churning in his gut. Something was wrong. Some intangible vibration in the air made him aware of the drama unfolding on the rocks below. A snarl exposed his fangs. Eyes glowed a frightening red in the dark of the night. A savage, bestial growl escaped his throat as he increased his speed, hurtling through the sky over the towering palazzo with its many stories and turrets and battlements.
Above the many terraces and lofty stories loomed a high, rounded tower where it was rumored more than one woman had been murdered in the murky past, earning the palace the dubious name of Palazzo della Morte. Winged gargoyles stared blankly at him out of the heavy, white fog, looking almost real as the creatures seemed to swarm up the side of the villa. Sitting on the craggy cliffs above the raging sea, the sprawling castle was dark and foreboding with the blank eyes of the statuary always watching.
The heavy forests that had once grown wild, a refuge to a multitude of animals, were long gone, replaced by groves and grapes. Byron preferred the freedom of the forests and mountains of his homeland, where he could run with the wolves if he desired, but the need to protect the occupant at the palazzo had become all consuming.
Alarm spread, a premonition of danger he couldn't shake.
Byron increased his speed, streaking through the sky, flying low over the sprawling estate. The palazzo rose up out of the fog, architecture belonging to an era long gone, made of stone and stained glass, almost alive in the swirling mists. Byron ignored the ancient statues and the gleaming windows piercing the fog like so many eyes.
He first heard the voice whisper in his mind.
Byron. Byron. I need you now. Hurry. Hurry. Byron. Where are you?
She had never used a telepathic connection to him before. He had never taken her blood, yet he heard the words clearly and knew her need must be great to reach out to him.
Wicked forks of lightning whipped from cloud to cloud, anger he couldn't contain. She was in danger! Someone dared to threaten her. The sky roared, thunder splitting open the heavens to reveal a fury of flame. He took a breath, fought to control the elemental fear for her. The ground was reacting, rolling and buckling in answer to his mounting anger.
Byron hurried out toward the cove and the jagged rocks with his pulse pounding to the beat of the sea. The wind shifted and brought the haunting echo of a scream. His heart nearly stopped beating in his chest It was the sound of despair, of death itself.
He swooped even lower over the sea, uncaring that he might be seen and discovered for the predator he was. Waves leapt toward the heavens, foamed, and collapsed with an angry boom, greedy for a living sacrifice.
"Byron!" This time she called his name aloud, her only chance while the clouds spun dark threads and the fog thickened in an attempt to cut off all escape. "Help us." The wind whipped the cry out over the roiling waves, straight to him.
There was a plea in her voice, soft and musical and alive with awareness. She knew he was close, as she always seemed to know. Antonietta Scarletti. Heiress to the Scarletti fortune. Composer of the most beautiful music the world had known in a long time and owner of the priceless Scarletti palazzo. The Palazzo della Morte, palace of death. Byron feared the curse of the palazzo would bring death to Antonietta, and he was determined to stop it.
Her voice brought alive the colors of the night, sharp and vivid and focused, where for so long there had been nothing but bleak gray. His heart stuttered, stammered, as it always did at the unexpected gift. It was that way each time he heard her voice, when she spoke his name in velvet tones. When she lit his world with colors and vivid details he had long ago lost
Byron flew so low the churning waves splattered him with water as he raced over the choppy surface straight toward the sound of her voice. Through the swirling mists Byron saw Don Giovanni Scarletti in the greedy sea, clawing desperately for a purchase on the slick boulders. The waves slammed the old man hard, tossed him as if he were a small string of kelp, nothing more. The foaming water closed over the gray head and took him under.
"Byron!" The call came again. Haunting. Unforgettable. He knew he would hear that voice echo forever in his dreams.
She was up in the jagged rocks, near the edge of the crumbling cliffs, struggling with a large man. Below her, the water slammed against the rocks, reaching higher and higher as if to drag her down. It was only the increasing fury of the storm, the earthquake sending shocks through the cliff that prevented Antonietta's attacker from flinging her into the sea. The man staggered, nearly fell, even as he wrestled with her. Lightning exploded around them, whips of energy rained hot, glowing sparks. Thunder crashed so loud the man yelled in fear.
Fangs exploded in Byron's mouth, black venom swirled in his gut. He was on them in an instant, uncaring of his enormous strength, catching Antonietta's assailant by the nape of his neck and wrenching him backward, away from her. With the ferocity of his animal nature, with the rage of his human side, he shook Antonietta's attacker, his hands crushing the throat An ominous crack was loud, even with the sea roaring in accompaniment to his rage.
Byron dropped the body carelessly, allowing the empty carcass to crumple to the ground. He turned quickly toward Antonietta. She was moving to get away from them, her arms stretched out full length to try to feel her way. There was nothing but empty space in front of her and the sea below, swelling and booming with relentless fury.
"Stop! Don't move, not a single step!" The command thundered through the night air, reached her atop the cliffs. Trusting she would obey that merciless compulsion, Byron plunged straight into the sea. Diving deep, down into the cold, dark abyss until his fingers found the material of the old man's collar, and he grasped it hard in his fist, kicking strongly to bring them both to the surface.
Byron shot from the sea, straight into the air, dragging the leaden body against his own as he headed for the top of the cliffs. The white mist thickened and swirled around him like a living cape, creating a shield from prying eyes. The old man choked and gasped for air, for life. He clung convulsively to Byron, not quite aware of his surroundings, not able to believe he was hurtling through space. Don Giovanni, grandfather to Antonietta, had his eyes tightly shut while his chest heaved and saltwater spewed from his mouth. The water poured from their clothing and hair, adding to the droplets of mist in the air as Byron alighted on the ground.
The old man began to pray loudly in his own language, calling on the angels to save him, but he never once opened his eyes.
Antonietta turned toward the sound, but her feet remained perilously close to the edge of the cliff, exactly where they had been when Byron roared his command. His heart in his throat, Byron carefully stretched the old man out on the ground, well away from the edge, and rushed to gather Antonietta into his arms. Into safety. Holding her tightly, knowing she was safe, he forced air through his lungs, forced down his rage and fear to allow the violent storm to calm.
Despite the fact that his clothing was soaked, she burrowed close to him, her hands finding his face unerringly, mapping his features with loving fingertips. "I knew you'd come. Our guardian angel. My grandfather? Is Nonno going to be all right? I heard him fall into the sea. I couldn't get to him. I couldn't see to get to him." She turned her head toward the coughs and grunts the older man was making, tears glistening in her huge, dark eyes.
"He will be fine, Antonietta," Byron assured her. "I will not allow him to be anything else." And he meant it He couldn't bear the sight of tears in her eyes.
"You saved him, didn't you, Byron? That's why you're soaked. You always come to us when there's trouble. Grazie, I cannot live without my grandfather." She stood on her toes, her body soft and pliant, melting against his hard strength, oblivious to his soaked clothing, and she pressed her mouth to the corner of his.
That small tribute shook him to the very core of his being. Fire streaked through his veins. Every cell in his body reacted, reached for her. Needed. Hungered. His arms tightened possessively for just a moment. He made a conscious effort to remember his own strength, to remember she had no idea who or what he was.
Byron swung her up, cradling her body close. She was shivering in the biting wind. "Did he hurt you? Are you injured, Antonietta?" It was a demand, pure and simple.
"No, just frightened. I was so frightened."
"What were you doing on the cliffs?" His voice was much harsher than he intended. "And where is the rest of your family?"
Her fingers moved over his face, an intimate exploration. She had read him many times, but this seemed different somehow, or maybe he was far too aware of her. "Someone put a cloth over my mouth and nose and dragged me outside. I was so afraid for
Nonno. I could hear the sea." The pads of her fingers sent tiny flames dancing over his skin as she mapped his face. As she traced his frown. "The sea sounded angry, much like you sound right now. I couldn't get to Grandfather, and I heard him fall over the cliff." She was silent a moment, dropping her head to his shoulder. "I was struggling with the man who dragged me out here. He was trying to throw me into the sea, too." Her voice was shaking, but Antonietta struggled for composure.
"Did he say anything to you?"
She shook her head. "I didn't recognize anything about him. I'm certain he's never been to the palazzo before. No one said anything to us, they just tried to throw us into the water."
Byron set her carefully on the ground beside the old man. "I want to take a look at your grandfather. I think he swallowed half the sea. Do not move. It is dangerous up here. You are on the high cliffs, where the edges are crumbling, and the fall could kill you." He couldn't look at the innocence on her face, the childlike trust there. He knew she belonged to him, yet he had once again failed to keep safe those he was sworn to protect. "You do not realize it, Antonietta, but you are in shock. Do not move, just sit here and breathe for me."