He came from an ancient race, a species that could claim immortality. He had seen the passage of time, witnessed his race nearing extinction. Without women and children, it was impossible to live anything other man a bleak, soulless existence. Unless one was lucky enough to find his lifemate. Antonietta Scarletti was his lifemate. He knew it unerringly. She came from a long line of psychics, people gifted with talents beyond mere sight. Byron had listened often to the history of her family. He knew that many of Antonietta's ancestors, both male and female, were strong telepaths and healers. Only a human who was psychic could be lifemate to one of the ancient Carpathian race. Antonietta Scarletti was a very strong psychic.
Don Giovanni struggled to sit up, his chest heaving while he gasped for air. He caught at Bryon's wide shoulders with gnarled hands. "How did you know to come? The sea claimed my life, but you brought me back." His teeth were chattering with cold, his thin body shaking uncontrollably. "That is twice now that you have saved me."
Byron held him gently. "Do not talk so much, old man. Let me see what I can do to take the chill from you."
Antonietta couldn't see Byron, but as always, the sound of his voice intrigued her. It was beautiful and compelling, much like the symphony of music always playing in her head. She wanted to think of him as her grandfather's friend, but it was a difficult task when she listened for the sound of his voice and hungered for the slightest physical contact between them.
Antonietta learned years earlier that she was not the kind of woman men looked at for reasons other than her fortune. She had far too much Scarletti pride to be loved for her money. She didn't believe in buying a man, although she knew many women in her position did so. She was no young girl to dream of white knights. She was fully grown, with a woman's voluptuous figure and a face scarred by the blast of an explosion that had robbed her of her sight. There was no handsome lover on a white charger ready to whisk her away for endless nights of romance. She was a practical woman, a successful pianist and composer, who poured all of her dreams into her music where they belonged.
Antonietta carefully ran her hands over her grandfather, to see him, to assure herself he would survive his escape from the sea. Her hands encountered Byron. She rested her fingers lightly on the back of his hand. He never showed annoyance when she touched him. He never acted repulsed or impatient with her. He simply continued with what he was doing, while her hands rested on his. She could hear the steady rhythm of his breathing, slow and uniform, so that her breath, moving in and out of her lungs with such frantic intensity, slowed to follow his lead.
Byron's hands generated tremendous heat. She could feel it flowing like a fine wine into her grandfather's veins, slowly warming him. She didn't dare speak, but she felt him. Heard his breath, his heart. She saw things without her eyes that others couldn't see. She knew Byron was far more than a mortal man. Right now he was a miracle worker. She saw him so clearly, yet it was only through her fingertips resting so lightly on the backs of his hands.
Byron closed his eyes and shut out all the sounds and scents of the night. It was difficult to get beyond the touch of the woman he was always so aware of, but his examination had detected something in the older man's lungs. Don Giovanni was too old and fragile to fight off infection or pneumonia. Byron separated himself from his body, setting his spirit free to enter the aging man lying so cold and helpless on the rocks. Healing in the way of his kind, from the inside out, Byron made a thorough inspection, determined to give Antonietta's grandfather as many years of life as possible.
The wind rushed across the cliffs, pierced right through Antonietta's clothing in spite of the fact that Byron had positioned his body between hers and the wind. She could feel the warmth radiating from Byron into her grandfather. But there Was something much more, something even more rare. She understood it, and she believed in it. Byron Justicano had left his own body and entered that of her grandfather's. She didn't need eyes to see the miracle of a natural healer. She felt him. Felt the energy and the heat She knew it required total concentration, so she did nothing to distract him. She sat in the biting cold and thanked the heavens Byron had come to her family to watch over them.
"There is poison in his system." Byron's grim voice startled her. "Small amounts as if he is being fed them, but it is in his muscles and tissues."
"That can't be," Antonietta denied. "You have to be wrong. Who would want to harm Nonno? He is much loved by the family. And how could such a thing happen accidentally? You must be mistaken."
"When I was young and impetuous, I made mistakes, Antonietta. Now I am much more careful in the things I say and do. In the things I covet or seek to call my own. I am most careful in my friendships. Don Giovanni has been poisoned, much like his ancestor before him. Is that not the legend of the Scarletti family?"
Antonietta, shivered, lifted her hands away from Byron in hopes he wouldn't notice her reaction. "Yes, centuries ago, another Don Giovanni, an ancestor of ours, and his young niece were poisoned. The healer was sent for, and Nicoletta arrived to aid them. He chose her as his bride. I don't believe in curses, Byron. There is no curse over my home or my family." She slipped her arm around her grandfather.
"I tell you there is a poison in his system that will eventually kill him if more accumulates. There is also the remnant of a drug to make him sleep. When I examine you, I am certain I will find the same thing."
"Do you suspect my chef of trying to kill me?" Antonietta gripped her grandfather hard, hanging on to her poise by a mere thread. "That is ludicrous, Byron. He would have nothing to gain. Enrico's been in our family since I was a child, and he's completely devoted and loyal to every member of the Scarletti family."
"I did not mention your chef, Antonietta," he replied patiently. "That may be your best guess, but it is not mine." When she remained stubbornly silent, he sighed his exasperation. "I must remove the poison from your grandfather. Then I will attend to you." His teeth gleamed very white in the darkness, but she didn't see, she could only hear the promise of menace in his voice.
It made her shiver, aware that she knew very little about him. "Byron." She said his name to keep calm, to remind herself he had always been gentle with her. A guardian watching over them. Antonietta had always been safe with him. She wouldn't allow the aftermath of the attack to weaken her nerves and make her fear the very man who had come to her rescue. "It is true that accidents have always plagued the lives of the Scarletti family. There have been intrigues, political and otherwise. Our family has always had a great deal of power and money."
"Your own parents were killed when your yacht exploded. You were blinded, Antonietta. It was only luck that a fisherman was in the vicinity and got to you before the sea swallowed you."
"An accident." It came out a whisper when she wanted to sound certain.
"You want to believe it was an accident, but you know better." There was a distinct bite to his voice. She had the impression he wanted to shake her.
She would not talk about the explosion on the yacht that had blinded her and left her an orphan. There was guilt and fear and too many other emotions. She kept that door firmly closed in her mind. "Who is he?" She knew her assailant was dead. It should have frightened her that Byron had killed so swiftly, so efficiently, but truthfully, she was grateful.
"I have no idea, but he could not possibly have done this alone. Someone had to have drugged you both, someone within the palazzo. And it would take two people to bring you both up here. It isn't that far, but the path is steep, and with both of you drugged, it wouldn't have been easy. It would have made better sense to heave you both into the sea. One of them must have been in a hurry to do something else."
"What of my family, Byron?" Antonietta's fingers plucked at his sleeve. "They are perhaps helpless, drugged in their beds, awaiting their fate as we speak. Please go to them."
"It is more likely they are searching for something, not intending to murder your entire family."
Antonietta gasped, one hand going to her throat. "We have many treasures. Priceless art. Jewels. Artifacts. Our ships carry classified cargo, the manifest is usually kept in the offices at the palazzo rather than in the offices on the dock because the security system is so much better. They could be after anything."
"Go, Byron," Don Giovanni encouraged. "You must see to it that my family is safe. Scarletti is an old and revered name. We can't have any doubt on our reputation. Make certain nothing has been taken from the office."
"You want me to leave you both here, unprotected on the cliffs? That would be far too dangerous." Byron simply stood, lifting the old man, drawing Antonietta up as he did so. "I will take you both to the palazzo with me. Put your arms around my neck, Antonietta."
A protest welled in her mind. She was too heavy. He couldn't carry both of them. He had to hurry. Sensing his impatience, Antonietta remained silent and did as he instructed, circling his neck with her arms. Her body pressed close to his. Byron's muscular body was as hard as a tree trunk. She had never felt more feminine, more aware of how curvy and soft her form was. She simply melted into him.
Antonietta was thankful it was night and the darkness hid the faint blush stealing under her skin. She should have been thinking of the honor of her family name; instead, she was thinking of him: Byron Justicano. She clung tightly to him. One of his arms wrapped securely around her waist. Almost at once she felt her feet leave the ground. Her grandfather cried out in fear, thrashing against the restraint. Byron murmured something softly to him, something she didn't catch, but his tone was commanding. Her grandfather subsided, going so quiet she thought he must have fainted.
She turned her face up to the wind, relaxing, wanting to savor every moment. She was blind, but she was alive. She lived in a world of sounds and textures, rich and wonderful, and she wanted to experience everything life could offer. She was moving through space, across the sky, with the sea boiling and thundering below her and the clouds roiling above her. And she was safe in Byron's arms.
What should have been the worst night of her life had turned into the experience of a lifetime. "Byron." She whispered his name, an ache in her voice, thinking the wind would take the sound far from them, out over the ocean where no one would hear her most secret desire.
Byron buried his face in the fragrance of her hair as they soared across the sky. There was no fear in Antonietta. He rarely detected fear in her. Because her brain patterns were so different, it was difficult to read her mind, where he could most humans. Now that his heart had settled back to a natural rhythm, he could admire the way she fought for her life there on the cliffs. She was an extraordinary woman, and she belonged to him. She just didn't realize it yet.
Antonietta had a strong personality and a determination to control her life and her business. Claiming her in the way of his people, Byron suspected, would not only make her resistant but would cause her great unhappiness. Years earlier, he had learned a hard lesson of attempting to take something too fast, for his own benefit, without thought of consequences.
Antonietta was his world. He could put aside his own needs and urges and the terrible hunger to give her the things she needed. He would have her, he knew that. There was no other choice for either of them, but he wanted her to come to him willingly. To choose him. To choose his life, his world. And even more, he wanted to give her all the things he suspected she had never had in her life. He wanted her to know her own worth as a woman. Not a Scarletti. Not a pianist. Not a shipping magnate. A woman.
"Are you afraid?" He whispered the words, half aloud, half in her mind. Knowing she wasn't and wanting her to acknowledge what they were doing. He hadn't protected her from their method of traveling. She might be blind, but she was more aware than any other human he knew.
Antonietta laughed, the sound one of joy. "How could I be afraid, Byron? I'm with you. I'm not going to ask how you do this until my feet are safely on the ground." She answered him as honestly as she could. There was a wild exhilaration in her heart. If she was truly afraid, it was only of the unknown. Soaring through the sky was a dream, a fantasy come true. Her childhood dreams of flying had been so vivid she often believed she had soared across the night skies. "I do wish I could see the view." There was a wistful note she couldn't keep from her voice, and she was ashamed that he heard it. "I wish you had the time to describe it to me."
"There is a way you could see what I see." His heart was pounding now. The moment he noticed, he allowed it to seek the rhythm of hers. To connect them, heart to heart.
Antonietta's grip tightened around his neck. For the first time, she turned her face into his throat. He could feel her breath warm on his throat, and his body tightened in reaction. In anticipation. "What are you saying?" Now it was her heart that was pounding. He could work miracles. Heal. Hear a call for help across the raging sea. Dive deep into roiling surf and pull a drowning man from the depths, carrying him to safety. Soar through the night sky while carrying two adults as if they weighed no more than small children. She dared not hope for the impossible.
Her voice was low, but her lips were pressed against his skin. Against his pulse. Byron's body burned with heat, throbbed with need, with hunger. She seemed unaware of his reaction. He fought the nearly overwhelming urge of his kind, keeping his face turned from her, from the temptation she presented. He couldn't answer her with his incisors lengthened and his body craving hers.
Fortunately, they were close to the great palazzo. Byron turned his attention to finding the location of every human in the area. He scanned the villa and the surrounding region. The aftermath of violence still vibrated in the air, but if the other conspirator had rushed back to the villa to find the manifest for cargo or the Scarletti family treasures, he had already managed to do so and was long gone, or he was in his bed feigning sleep. Byron could detect no foreign enemy present within the walls.
Family members were sleeping peacefully in their own beds. The entire household seemed to be unaware of the attack on Antonietta and Don Giovanni. Suspicion found its way into his heart.
Byron did not put Don Giovanni or Antonietta down until he entered the old man's room.
"The alarms should be going off," Antonietta said. "Intruders should have triggered them. How did they get in? How do you get in?"
"Not the same way they entered," Byron replied with absolute conviction. "There is no intruder present in the palazzo at this time."
"You can't know that," Antonietta pointed out. "There are over a hundred rooms in our home. They could be hiding anywhere. You haven't even checked the office."
"I will conduct a search later, only to see what they have been up to. There are no intruders, only your family in their beds," Byron repeated patiently. "Don Giovanni is freezing from the seawater and chilling wind. His temperature is dropping at an alarming rate. Go to your room arid take a hot bath, Antonietta," he said, his tone abrupt and clipped as he began stripping the elderly man. "You are shaking with cold."
"I don't much care to be ordered about," Antonietta responded. Her teeth were chattering, although she tried desperately to stop them. She was cold through and through. "Don Giovanni is my grandfather and my responsibility."
"Then give him the dignity he deserves." Byron's voice had gone so soft it was black velvet. And it made her shiver.
Antonietta took a step backward. For a moment a lump welled up in her throat, threatening to choke her. Her eyes burned. She hadn't cried in years.
His fingers caught her chin in a firm grip. "I do not mean to sound abrupt, but I have little time for necessities. If I have offended you, I am sorry. Your grandfather's heart is weak, and his resistance is low, even with my earlier ministrations." He bent his head to hers. Touched his mouth to hers. Feather light, a mere brush. She felt it all the way to her toes. Heat curled in the pit of her stomach. For a moment she couldn't think clearly, couldn't think why she wanted to cry.
"Because someone tried to kill you and your grandfather," he answered for her. "Someone poisoned him and most likely you and also drugged you both. You are tired and cold, and I was curt in my manner of speaking. Anyone would cry, Antonietta. I will see to Don Giovanni while you take a hot bath and get in a warm bed."
Byron sounded so tender her heart turned over and tears burned behind her eyes. His hand dropped away from her, and she turned to go, compelled by the beauty of his voice, his soothing logic. She even took a step away from him before she realized what she was doing. "Grazie, Byron, but Nonno may need my assistance in the bath. I can't see him, I'm blind, you know." Byron was the only person who made her feel as if he never noticed she was blind.
Byron tossed Don Giovanni's sodden shirt to one side. "You do not have to do everything, cara mia. Go now. I will attend him in the shower and get him settled."
"Go." Don Giovanni waved a trembling hand toward the door. "Do as he says, Toni, go to your bath. I will be fine. In fact, both of you go. I want you to look after her for me, Byron. See to it that she changes into something warm."
"Nonno!" Antonietta was shocked. "I may be blind, but I assure you, Byron is not. I don't think he can attend me in my bath."
"I want her protected. Suppose they come back?" Don Giovanni ignored his granddaughter's protest. "You stay with her at all times."
"It will not matter, Don Giovanni, whether they come back or not They will never again put their hands on your granddaughter."
Byron leaned into Antonietta, and for the first time she felt his body tremble. Rage was a living, breathing entity in the room with them. The air thickened into a heavy mass, a dark cloud of roiling energy until it was difficult to breathe.
Deep inside Byron, the demon roared for release, called for retribution. Demanded he take her away where no harm could possibly reach her. "It is far safer in your bath alone than with me standing guard at the moment, cara. Allow me to attend your grandfather in peace." His voice hissed out between his teeth. A promise. A vow. An absolute conviction.
Trying to be dignified with her teeth clacking together and her body shivering uncontrollably was difficult, but Antonietta was a Scarletti. She lifted her chin. "The authorities must be notified. I think there's a body on the cliffs."
"A body?" Don Giovanni sank onto a chair while Byron gently removed his saturated shoes and socks. "Whose body?"
Byron shrugged casually. "One of them was trying to throw Antonietta into the sea. I may have wrenched him a bit too hard. I was angry and afraid for her, and I was not thinking of my own strength."
Don Giovanni shook his head. "Better the body go into the sea, and we know nothing of what happened to him. You, struggled, he fell. It is better not to take chances with the authorities in the matter of death."
"Nonno!" Antonietta was shocked.
"If you keep standing there with wet clothes, shaking like a leaf, I am carrying you up to your bath and putting you in it myself," Byron said. "I will not be responsible for what happens after that. Do not make the mistake of thinking I am jesting."
Her heart jumped, began to pound at his words. She did her best to look irritated before touching her grandfather's hand as she swept from the room.
"You never take your eyes off of her," Don Giovanni said approvingly. "That is good. I wanted a man like you for her. She's strongwilled, Byron." The red-rimmed eyes regarded him steadily. "You could hurt her."
"Not me, Don Giovanni. Never me." Byron helped the old man to stand. "Lean against me, and we will make our way to the shower."
"I'm too weak to stand by myself," Don Giovanni admitted, ashamed.
"I will not drop you, old friend," Byron encouraged gently. He allowed the man to take staggering steps to cross the room to his private bath rather than arbitrarily lifting him. Instinctively he knew Don Giovanni's pride would insist on that small independence, even if his body were too weak to walk without assistance. "It has been quite a night. You are aware, of course, that both your life and that of your granddaughter are in danger. She needs protection, as will you."
Don Giovanni sighed as he reached with gnarled fingers for the glass door to his shower. "She's a stubborn one. I've relied too heavily on her, and she feels responsible for all of us now. She won't want to hire a bodyguard."
"I know." Byron helped the old man shed the last of his clothing and adjusted the temperature of the spray. "But it will be necessary. I cannot be here during most of the day. Why would someone want you both dead?"
Don Giovanni turned his face up to the spray while jets of water helped to heat the rest of his body. Byron was very matter-of-fact about standing with him in the shower, allowing the old man to hang on to him while the water poured over them. He waited until the don had stopped shivering so violently before he turned off the hot jets of water and enfolded the elderly man gently in a towel.
Carpathians regulated their own body temperatures, and it took a heartbeat to dress in dry clothes. The don hardly noticed as Byron helped him to put on his pajamas and crawl into bed. "Go to her, Byron. See that she comes to no harm."
"I will," Byron assured. "Sleep now, and do not worry." He used his hypnotic voice to persuade the don.
"What of the others? My other grandchildren? You were going to check on them for me. And my great-grandchildren?" Don Giovanni slurred his words.
"Sleep now." Byron gave him another gentle push with his mind. He drew the covers up to the older man's chest
Because the elder Scarletti was restless even in his sleep, Byron chanted the ancient healing ritual aloud as he worked on ensuring all traces of poison were driven from Don Giovanni's body. It took longer than Byron thought it would, mostly because he worked on strengthening internal organs. "You cannot die for many years, old friend," he murmured as he rose. He looked around carefully, allowing his senses to flare out and reach the corners of the suite of rooms. "I have only recently met you, Don Giovanni, but you are important to me and to your granddaughter. I have great respect for a man such as you." He leaned very close, put his lips close to the don's ear. "You will live and be strong."
Someone had been in Don Giovanni's room recently. Someone who may or may not be of Scarletti blood. The scent permeated the room. Byron took his time, thoroughly canvassing the room for anything that could be lethal to Don Giovanni. He detected no living thing, not even a poisonous spider. The intruder had dragged the don from his bed. It would have taken only moments to overpower the old man. The intruder must have returned to the room after he had flung Don Giovanni from the cliff. And he was either a family member or servant, sleeping in the palazzo, although the scent wasn't familiar, or the intruder had left immediately after returning to the room, which didn't make sense.
Byron shifted shape, taking the form of a large wolf with dark reddish-brown fur. He lifted his muzzle to scent the room again. At once his lips drew back in a snarl. The odor was subtle but there. Wild. Feline. A predator. That explained the quick escape. Was a vampire involved in some act against the Scarletti family? A vampire would have taken the old man's blood, not simply thrown him into the sea. Vampires were wholly evil, wanting those around them to suffer endlessly.
The wolf began to search throughout the palazzo. How had the intruder come into the house without triggering the elaborate alarm system? Byron simply became mist in the way of his people and streamed through a partially closed window in one of the many unused rooms. Any vampire could do the same. The wolf trotted up the curving staircase on the east side of the palazzo where Antoinette's cousins made their home.
Antonietta shoved open the door to her rooms with the flat of her hand. She had moved much too quickly and was grateful the children hadn't left their toys out where she could trip over them. Ordinarily, they were very good about such things, but little Vincente sometimes forgot. More than once Antonietta had suffered a minor bruise and damaged pride stumbling over one of his trucks. Once, she would have tumbled down the stairs if Justine hadn't been with her to catch her. Vincente denied he was playing with his toys on the forbidden stairway, but his father. Franco, had punished him all the same. Marita, Vincente's mother, wrung her hands together and wept aloud for the terrible treatment of her son, but for once, Franco prevailed, furious that Antonietta had nearly tumbled down the marble stairs.
Thoughtfully, Antonietta closed the heavy door to her suite and leaned against it as it occurred to her that Vincente might have been telling the truth. Someone else could easily have put his toys at the top of the stairs in the hopes of causing an accident
Damn you! You have me thinking conspiracy.
There was a small silence. Byron was shocked that she had used the intimate form of communication between lifemates so easily. She was a strong telepath - and more. She often called him to her with her music, yet she seemed unaware of it.
You are finally coming to terms with what is happening around you. Deliberately closing your eyes to a possible threat is not wise.
Antonietta began to slowly slip the small pearl buttons from the fastenings on her blouse. Her fingers were shaking with cold and maybe fear, so it was difficult to manage.
I could come and help you.
Antonietta gasped, looked around her room as if she might glimpse him there in her world of darkness.
His laughter was soft. Flirtatious.
The night belongs to me. I come out of the shadows. I can be anywhere. Even there in the room with you right now, helping you to undress.
There was a drawling caress in his tone that sent liquid fire racing through her body and pooling low into an aching need.
I always know when you're in the room with me, and you're not at this moment.
Antonietta realized she was beginning to stop trembling, and she was smiling in spite of the events of the evening and the serious situation. Byron was deliberately warming her, making her relax.
I don't think helping me undress is a particularly good idea. What are you doing? The idea of helping you undress takes my breath away.
There was a short silence. Antonietta draped her blouse over the back of a chair. Her fingers trailed over the silk, wishing she were touching Byron's chest. The idea of him helping her undress robbed her of breath, too. Of speech. She couldn't think straight. Dragging the tie from her hair, she began to pull out the weave as she crossed to her bathroom.
I am searching the palazzo to see what the intruders were up to and examining your cousins to make certain they were not fed poison or drugged. A much more interesting question is, what are you doing? I'm taking the braid out of my hair.
Byron closed his eyes and inhaled sharply as if he could drag her scent deep inside his body.
There is something very erotic about a woman letting down her hair. Have you removed your slacks? My blouse.
She admitted it without hesitation. It was part of her dreamworld. He was far away and it was a harmless game. And it distracted her from thinking about the terrors of being nearly killed. Of someone hating her enough to want to kill her. Antonietta's fingertips moved across the swell of her breasts. She ached for his touch. She had never wanted a man more.
It doesn't make sense. It makes perfect sense.
She had never talked with any man this way, not even a lover. She had never blushed or stammered or deliberately tempted a man. Byron never once had given her an indication that he was interested in her as other than a friend. She might even be making a fool of herself, but it didn't matter. He was an obsession.
As she made her way across the tiled bathroom floor, colored images leapt in front of her eyes without any warning. Shades of vivid red and yellow. She cried out, closing her eyes instinctively. The colors were so intense they hurt her, made her feel ill.
What is it?
She was disoriented, frozen to the spot, unable to tell exactly where she was in her own bathroom.
I see something. Colors. Red and yellow. Like heat images. Take a deep breath, your heart is beating too fast. It is nothing. Let the images go. You may have been seeing what I was seeing. Our connection is strong.
Byron bit back the ominous growl in this throat, hackles rising. He shifted shape back to his human form and bent over her sleeping cousin.
Cautiously, Antonietta opened her eyes and saw the comforting darkness.
That made me sick to my stomach. How strange.
Rather than use the centuries-old bathing pools, now modernized, Antonietta filled her private bathtub and tossed in scented salts. She wanted to feel beautiful tonight She needed to feel beautiful.
Where are you?
She didn't want to be alone. In spite of her bravado, she was frightened by the events of the evening and wanted the comfort of Byron's powerful presence. She peeled off her damp slacks and laid them carefully on the vanity. The simple act of removing her lacy bra and panties made her feel sexy. A tempting siren.
She stepped into the bath, sank into the blessedly hot water, and allowed her head to fall back against the side of the tub.
I am standing over your cousin Paul. He is sleeping deeply, and I do not think it is a normal sleep. I must spend a few minutes examining him. Are the windows in your rooms closed and secured?
Her breasts floated on the scented water as she relaxed.
I didn't think to check. I will before I go to bed. Have you smelled a strange odor? A wild cat. Large breed.
Antonietta sat up straight, the water beading, rushing down her skin.
Why would you think that? What made you ask me that?
Byron was silent, analyzing her voice. There was fear in her tone. Fear in her mind, but her barriers were intact and strong. For a moment he considered pushing through to get the information he needed, but she was his lifemate, and he had learned, all too well, the danger of trying to force and manipulate. Patience, he reminded himself. Above all, a Carpathian male could endure.
Antonietta could not escape him, now that he found her. He had not counted on danger in her own home.
Byron? Why would you think I would smell a wild cat?
She sounded very anxious. For the first time he wished he could see images around her through her eyes. He felt textures through her, but there were no images to aid him. He had to use feelings. Emotions were still somewhat alien and overpowering. It made him dangerous and near the edge of control.
I smell a cat here, in this room. And also I smelled the same creature in your grandfather's room.
He answered truthfully because she was his lifemate, but his instincts told him she knew something he did not.
Are you with Paul or Franco? Paul.
There was another long silence. He tuned his acute hearing to finding her room. Bathwater splashed as if she were agitated. He closed his eyes with a small groan, picturing her lush body naked and floating in the scented water. Her silky hair would be surrounding her, an allure he would never be able to resist.
His entire body tightened, hardened to a painful ache. Antonietta. How much he wanted her. How difficult it was to wait. He savored every moment with her. And his creativity, so long gone, was returning, thanks to her.
Is it Paul? Does he have the scent of a cat?
There was reluctance to her voice, as if she might be betraying someone... or something she held dear. And there was an underlying note of fear. She tried to hide it, but it was there.
Byron leaned over Paul, examining every inch of him, paying attention to his fingernails, his arms, looking for scratches, for any telltale sign that would indicate he had been a party to the attack on Don Giovanni and his grand-daughter. There was one long scratch along the inside of his left forearm. It looked raw and angry.
Byron! Please, does he have the scent of the cat?
The Scarletti palazzo and the family dwelling there had nearly as many secrets as his own people. Byron inhaled deeply. The scent of the cat permeated the room. It was difficult to tell if Paul had the scent or not.
I have no idea. It reeks in here of the scent. If it is not Paul, the cat has been here. Do you keep large cats or know someone who does?
A slight noise downstairs distracted him immediately. Byron's head snapped up, and his black eyes flashed with instant menace. Someone was making their way up the long, curving staircase. Soft, stealthy footfalls. Furtive. The whisper of material against the thick banister sounded overly loud to Byron. A small, wolfish smile softened the hard edge to his mouth. Not bothering to scan, he simply waited in the darkness for his prey to come to him.
Of course not.
The footsteps were at the top of the first landing. Whoever it was hesitated, then turned toward Paul's suite of rooms. Byron shrank back into the shadows. His lengthened incisors were exposed, and when the door opened just a crack, the dim light from the hall turned his eyes a fiery bloodred.
He knew her instantly. Antonietta's trusted assistant, Justine Travis, stepped cautiously inside the room, closing the door behind her. She took several steps into the middle of the room but stopped, not attempting to cross to the bed.
Silence greeted her. The man in the bed didn't stir. Byron was certain he had been drugged, but it was necessary to check him. Either way, it didn't make him innocent. A smart man might try to commit murder and drug himself to make it appear as if he were in danger, too.
Hunger stirred, a dark and terrible need that welled up sharp and overpowering. Byron had not fed, and he had used considerable energy saving Don Giovanni from the cold depths of the sea. Healing had drained him, driving out the poison from the fragile system, and now he craved and needed. He could hear the call of the rich, hot blood rushing through veins bursting with the life his shrunken cells needed. He moved, a blink of the eye, no more, and he stood behind Justine. Her hair was drawn up into a simple ponytail, pulled away from her neck and leaving her throat exposed. He could see her pulse beating rapidly.
Justine sighed and wrung her hands together in obvious agitation. "Paul, wake up. I have to talk to you. I'm sorry we fought, but you have to understand I can't risk my job," Justine touched her throat with her palm, a defensive movement as if she sensed the predator so close to her. "You know I'll do anything to help you. We'll find another way to get the money. I'll help you, I will."
Paul didn't respond but continued to lie motionless on the bed.
Justine sobbed softly. "I didn't mean it when I said we were over. I'll find a way to help you, Paul. Don't do anything rash until I figure things out. You know you would feel so awful if you did anything that would harm or betray your family." She waited a moment. "Please, Paul, answer me." When Paul didn't answer or turn toward her, Justine jammed her fist into her mouth to muffle her weeping.
A dark shadow fell across her so that Justine shivered and half turned, her eyes widening with terror. The predator in the shadows spoke softly to calm her, whispered a command even as he enfolded her in his arms. She tilted her head and gazed up at him with blind rapture.
Byron looked down into her face. Her mind was chaotic, filled with thoughts of Paul. Of how she loved him, how she didn't want to betray Antonietta but... He smiled, and there was no humor in that smile, only a showing of fangs. "It is in you to be treacherous, and you have chosen the wrong alliance." His voice held a whip of contempt so that even under his dark enthrallment, Justine winced. Byron bent his head, teeth sinking into soft flesh, and drank.