Antonietta stepped from the bath, wrapping herself in a thick towel. It was precisely ten steps to her vanity, and she sank into the chair and reached for the brush that was always in the right comer. The handle was cool and smooth and fit in her hand as if made for her. It was an heirloom from the past, but she loved it and used it nightly to brush her hair. As she pulled the brush down the length of her hair, her neck throbbed and burned right over her suddenly wildly pounding pulse.
Startled, Antonietta dropped the brush and covered the spot, reaching for Byron automatically. She found not her calm, tranquil poet but a beast, raging with demonic hunger, feasting, drawing energy and vitality from a warm, living creature. From a human... Abruptly, the connection was broken.
Antonietta choked, her hands fluttering to guard her throat while her mind tried to grasp the implication of the dark, shadowed beast roaring for release. Had she somehow connected with the wild cat Byron had scented in her cousin's room? Was her imagination simply playing tricks on her?
She was tired and frightened and wanted comfort. Where was he? Why hadn't he come to her?
She called him sharply, terrified of needing him so much and torn between wanting him to come to her and hoping he would stay away. She was weak tonight, she might not be able to resist him. The last thing she wanted to do was destroy their friendship by making a fool of herself.
Byron heard Antonietta's beloved voice echoing through his mind. Touching his heart. Pulling at his soul. Awareness of where he was and what he was doing hit him. Immediately, he swept his tongue across Justine's throat to close the tiny pinpricks and slowly lifted his head, making every effort to pull back from the heady rush the infusion of fresh vitality gave him. For Antonietta's sake, because Justine was someone she cared for, he was gentler than he might have been as he lowered the woman to the floor and helped her to rest against the wall.
I am here.
Antonietta couldn't believe the relief sweeping through her body, through her mind. For a moment I thought something was terribly wrong. She felt along the floor for her brush. Her fingertips found the smooth handle. The towel unraveled, leaving her body exposed to the cool air. Outside, the rain began to pour against the stained glass windows. Antonietta walked across the floor. The marble tiles were cool on the soles of her feet. Her body was hot and flushed at the idea of him walking in on her unexpectedly. She had no idea why just the sound of his voice made her feel sexy. Made her want to tempt and entice him. He was always so cool and calm, and she wanted to drive him out of control.
I find I'm edgy and moody tonight, Antonietta admitted. She stood naked in front of the stained glass window, listened to the rain pouring down, and lifted her arms upward as an offering to the gods of fantasy. Of dreams. "Bring him to me. Let him come this night. Let me know he has looked at me as a woman and not as a bank account."
You should be in bed. Beneath the warmth of your covers, not flitting about your room. The idea was to keep you healthy.
How could a mere voice affect her so much? Set her body on fire, aching and needing and craving just one man. It made little sense to her. Antonietta turned from the window and moved unerringly to the tall dresser. Some time earlier in one of her moods of generosity, Tasha bought her a white lace nightgown, one Antonietta had never worn. It slithered over her skin, almost alive, heightening her senses and her body's terrible needs. It was a gown meant to lure. To tempt. It clung to every curve and showed off her skin. It made Antonietta feel a beautiful temptress.
Keep me healthy? How very prosaic. You are edgy and moody. So am I. That could be a dangerous combination.
Antonietta braided her hair, reveling in the way the lace material caressed her skin.
Do you think so? You're probably right. I'm in a strange mood and hardly recognize myself.
She sighed as she pulled back the covers and slipped between the sheets.
Byron leaned down to check Justine's pulse. She was fine, just dizzy. He whispered to her, a soothing chant, planting the idea to go back to her room with no memory of her visit to Paul. Justine obeyed like a sleepwalker, falling under his hypnotic spell and going out, even quietly closing the door behind her.
If is no wonder, Antonietta. I am certain you will be unsettled for some time to come, and rightly so.
Byron once more bent over Paul. Her cousin. A betrayer who might be plotting to take Antonietta's life. For a moment the urge to crash him beneath the strength of his hands rose up and nearly overwhelmed him. He bent closer, his incisors lengthening as he neared the pulse beating strongly in the neck. If he took Paul's blood, it would be easy enough to read his mind.
Antonietta's voice was sharp and frightened.
I have a terrible feeling you are going to hurt my cousin. Promise me you aren't.
Byron closed his eyes, took a deep, calming breath to settle the demons roaring for release. There was too close of a connection. She would know. She would feel him.
Your imagination is running away with you, Antonietta. Why is it you always call me Antonietta? Everyone else calls me Toni.
Byron concentrated on the sound of relief in her voice. Antonietta, his lifeline to sanity and control, when his emotions were as powerful as the raging sea.
Your family calls you Toni. Everyone else calls you Signorina Scarletti, a title of great respect. That does not tell me why you won't call me Toni. Antonietta is your name, and it is beautiful.
He said it simply, with no embellishment.
Antonietta allowed her lashes to drift down. She was tired, and the steady rhythm of the rain was making her sleepy. Byron didn't say anything particularly romantic or brilliant, not even poetic, but she thought of it that way.
Your voice is hypnotic. I could listen to you forever. That is a good thing. It is nice to know we are making progress. Well, I don't know why I'm suddenly telling you. I knew it the first time I heard your voice. I could just sit and listen to you forever. And after you leave, I hear the music playing in my head and through my body, and I know it's your music. It belongs to you more than it belongs to me. That is the nicest compliment anyone has ever given me.
Byron left Paul's room and made his way to the third floor where Franco Scarletti resided with his wife and two children.
I have decided you need a dog, Antonietta.
Antonietta burst out laughing.
Only you would think I need a dog. I'm blind. How would I care for a dog? And don't suggest a Seeing Eye dog. I don't know the first thing about animals. They've always shied away from me.
He could hear the interest in her voice in spite of herself, and he smiled.
You have not met the right dog. The animal world is unique and astonishing. The right dog is an invaluable companion. They can be devoted and loyal. The right dog picks you, bonds with you, and works with you. What kind of dog do you suggest is right for me?
Byron bent over the little girl sleeping so innocently and peacefully in her bed. The thought of an intruder harming the child had a snarl rising in his throat. The scent of the wild cat was strong in the room. Once Byron determined mere were no drugs or poison in her system, he examined the windows for points of entry. Someone could have rappelled from the battlements above. Or a cat might have leapt from the battlements to an open window. He could find nothing to indicate entry in either child's room. He moved to the parents' room, taking the precaution of becoming unseen to the human eye.
The borzoi, of course. They are renowned hunters, and the breed has stayed true throughout centuries. They have been owned by royalty and certainly would be at home here in the palazzo.
The borzois hunted wolf packs. Once, as a young Carpathian, not quite yet in full power, practicing his shape-shifting with Jacques, his best friend, two borzois had spotted them as they shifted to wolves in a field. The borzois were swift and silent hunters, running them down relentlessly. Neither were very fast at shifting at the time, and they barely made it to the trees, managing to clumsily shift shape and scramble for the high branches. Jacques had nearly fallen out of the tree laughing. It had taken them both several minutes to slow their heartbeats and connect with the borzois. Byron had a high respect for the animals ever since that time. They had the heart of a lion and the gentle nature of a lamb.
He had never seen an animal quite like the borzois and thought Queen Victoria very smart for wanting the creatures in her royal palace. It saddened him immensely when there was a wholesale slaughter of the intelligent, lethal, though gentle animals when the peasants rose up to destroy anything that could possibly have the mark of royalty. Perhaps he identified with them, as his species was hunted and they, too, could be both lethal and gentle. Byron didn't know the reason, but the borzois had always remained in his mind. More than anything, he wanted Antonietta to experience the bonding and loyalty as well as receive the protection of such a fine animal.
He couldn't very well tell her his own history with the borzois, so he chose another.
I saw a male one time protect its owner from everyone simply because she had an injured foot. He moved in close when she was limping, took her weight while they walked, and refused to leave her side the entire day, even giving up a hunt, which they are born and bred for. Hunting is in their bones, yet his devotion to his companion came first. They are extraordinary animals, and I do not say that lightly. Do you own dogs? If I did, I would own borzois. I travel too much, and it would be unfair to the dog but if I ever am lucky enough to call a place home, I will have several.
Franco Scarletti was turned toward his wife, one arm flung around her as if to hold her to him. Marita, his wife, faced away from him and even in her sleep looked unhappy. The air in the room was cold and Byron found the open window immediately. In spite of the wind, he could still scent the cat. It had visited Franco and Marita as well as the others.
With a soft, threatening growl, Byron made his way to Tasha's suite of rooms. She had the wing encompassing the dreaded tower where it was said a Scarletti male had strangled his wife and beat her lover to death. All of Tasha's rooms reeked of cat. The animal had spent some time in her wing of the palazzo. Like Franco and Marita and their children, Tasha showed no signs of either poison or drugs in her system.
The kitchen and the chef were next. The cat's stench invaded his lungs, clung to every part of the chef's private quarters and in the kitchen.
She was drowsy, and for some reason he found that more sensual than ever. He pictured her lying in bed, waiting for him. Her body already hot and wet and hungry for his. A soft groan escaped. Antonietta might flirt with him from a distance, but she had always remained aloof from him, even during their many quiet talks together. She didn't flirt often with men, which was a good thing, given that he found he had a jealous streak.
I'm still awake, thinking about having a dog. I don't know if I could care for it properly, but it would be nice not to feel so alone all the time. Yes, it would.
His answer was heartfelt and came directly from his soul. He was glad she was awake. He still had much to do. The body couldn't stay on the cliffs. Don Giovanni was right. It wouldn't do to give the authorities too much to think about. Yet Byron wanted to see Antonietta. He needed to see Antonietta. To touch her. To feel her warm skin beneath his fingers. To know she was alive and well.
"How did you get in here?" Antonietta wouldn't scream, although he had startled her from her sleep. It had always seemed a useless, pitiful reaction to an intruder. In any case, she knew exactly who was sitting on the end of her bed. She was more concerned that she had no dark glasses to hide her hideous scars and that the thick rope of hair was a mess from squirming restlessly. Waiting. Hoping he would come to her to tell her of her grandfather's condition. Certain that he wouldn't. It was one thing to carry on a long-distance conversation with him, flirtatious or not, and something altogether different to have him solid and real in her bedroom. Alone in her bedroom. Now that he was really there, her white lace gown seemed a ridiculous choice. She didn't want him to think she wore it on the chance that he would come to her, although of course, she had. She would not search for her robe and cover up the fine lace, drawing more attention to her lack of attire.
"You should be afraid of me, Antonietta," Byron reprimanded. "You have no sense of self-preservation whatsoever."
Antonietta cautiously sat up, gasped when his arm brushed her full breast as he reached past her to straighten her pillows. Her entire body went warm. He didn't apologize for the contact. Instead, his hands dropped lower to settle in her hair. She could feel the small tug on her braid. Her breath caught in her throat at the intimate contact. She was certain it was an accident, so she sat quietly with folded hands. To keep from feeling her burning body, she tilted her chin and concentrated on looking regal.
"I have plenty of self-preservation," she denied. "I had the presence of mind to call you when my grandfather fell into the sea."
"He did not fall into the sea, Antonietta. He was pushed. You know someone drugged the two of you and dragged you up onto the cliffs. And you know the man was hired to kill you both. This cannot be allowed to go on. I won't let it." There was resolution in his voice. "You cannot wish this attempt on your life away."
Something in his beautiful voice sent a chill down her spine. Byron was always so quiet. She thought of him as a dark, brooding, mysterious angel, sent to watch over her and her grandfather, yet he sounded dangerous. Antonietta forced a smile. "I don't wish things away, Byron, I deal with them. I run the palazzo, and my people believe in me. I don't let them down by pretending or wishing."
"Then stop closing your eyes to the possibility that someone wants you dead."
"You're reprimanding me as if I were a small child. I can't remember the last time anyone dared to do so. You even had the audacity to send me off to bed in my own home, which no one has dared to do since I was a child."
"You were freezing, Antonietta, and the temptation to put you in a hot tub and thoroughly bathe you was getting the better of me."
Her heart jumped. The sound of his voice was a caress, a stroke of fingers down her body. She felt it all the way to her toes. For a moment she couldn't think, let alone breathe. Antonietta held tightly to her fingers to keep them from trembling or to keep from reaching for him, running her hand over his chest. "That would have been quite an experience, Byron." She tried another carefree laugh, very much afraid it came out a husky croak. She could feel the intensity of his gaze burning over her face. A slow smolder began in the pit of her stomach.
"You have no idea what an experience it would be." His tone held a blatant sexual appeal. There was no mistaking it.
He was flirting with her. The idea was both exhilarating and frightening. "I need my dark glasses." She couldn't bear the thought of him staring into her dead eyes, seeing the scars, while she was going up in flames at the sound of his voice.
"Why? It is dark in your room. There is not even a small sliver of moon able to get through the clouds this night. And it is just me here with you." His fingers brushed her face. Feather-light. Tracing her high cheekbones, her wide, generous mouth. There was possession in the way he touched her, a man's clear interest.
Antonietta inhaled sharply, pressed back against the pillows, afraid she had made a fool of herself. "What are you doing?"
"Touching you. Feeling your skin. Maybe tonight did not scare you, but it terrified me. I have to know you are safe, so just sit there and let me do this."
"Byron, you're not making any sense. Of course I'm safe. I'm here in the palazzo, safe in my bed, thanks to you." She tried to be practical. Antonietta was always practical, even in her bed in a frivolous white lace nightgown.
He caught the nape of her neck, pulled her toward him. His mouth settled on hers and the earth moved. Shifted. Stilled. Antonietta melted. Byron burned. The kiss deepened into something molten; it was tender, hot, and merciless, all at the same time. The world exploded into a sizzling heat neither could recover from. Sparks leapt over skin, arced through them. Lightning danced in their veins.
Antonietta simply merged with him. She belonged. Had always belonged. Lord Byron, her dark, brooding poet with his black velvet voice and his mysterious ways. She gave herself up to him, embraced the magic of the moment, pouring the fiery passion welling up inside of her into her response, matching him heartbeat for heartbeat, flame for flame.
Byron growled deep in his throat, sounding more beast than man. He lifted his head just inches away from her. "Do you have any idea what you do to me?"
His breath was warm on her skin. His lips brushed the corner of her mouth. A caress? A tease? An accident? She had no idea which. Antonietta shook her head, touching her burning lips to make certain she wasn't locked in a dream. "How could I possibly know? You have never said anything to indicate you're attracted to me." It was difficult to talk. To maintain any semblance of normalcy when she wanted him with every fiber of her being.
"Attracted to you?" There was a derisive note in his voice, self-mocking. "I hardly call what I feel, when I am anywhere near you, attraction. I burn for you. Every waking moment, I burn for you."
Antonietta shifted back away from him, pushing deeper into the pillows. She pressed her trembling fingertips to her lips. She could still taste him. She could still feel him deep inside her as if he'd burrowed into her skin and wrapped himself tightly around her heart. "You've never said anything. Never."
Music was rioting in her mind, clear melodic notes begging to be given freedom. She clearly heard the sharper notes. The off-key tones. The sudden clashing of the cymbals, striking a discordant note. "After all this time, you suddenly decide you want me? I'm to believe it has nothing whatsoever to do with who I am? Just my good looks?" She forced the ugly accusation out, even when everything inside of her screamed at her to stay silent, to take what he offered for whatever his reasons. She might have done so had he been anyone other than Byron.
She felt the movement as his weight left her bed, but she couldn't hear a sound. The silence stretched until she wanted to give in to the tears burning behind her eyes. She lifted her chin and waited instead. Damn him for letting her make a fool of herself.
"I never once considered you might be a coward." His tone was thoughtful, not accusing. "You have such confidence in yourself. I have watched you perform in front of ten thousand people. You even walk onto the stage alone, without an escort."
Antonietta could hear the note of admiration in his voice.
He must be standing by the stained glass window, turned away from her, where the clear resonance of his tones was slightly muffled. She had deliberately worn the white lace in hopes of enticing him, and she was angrier with herself than with him for his reaction. Was she a coward? She never thought of herself that way.
"The first time I saw you was at a concert. I could not take my eyes off of you. You were so beautiful with the lights on your shining hair. You walked with perfect confidence, without hesitation, straight to the piano. You took my breath away, and you had not played a single note."
His voice moved away from the window, toward the door. Antonietta's heart beat loudly in reaction, terrified he would leave her and not return. She knew almost nothing about him. Byron. Man of mystery. The man filling her dreams. "My hair is streaked with gray, and I'm hardly beautiful, Byron, but thank you for the compliment." Her hand fluttered to her throat to hide her rapidly beating pulse. He said the sight of her robbed him of breath, yet his words alone left her breathless.
He laughed. It was a shocking reaction and the last thing she expected, given her precarious emotions. "Why would you think your hair is streaked with gray? Your hair shines like a raven's wing. If there is silver, it only adds to the depth and richness of your color. No one else has such beautiful hair. Surely you know that."
Antonietta squirmed under the sincerity of his words. She searched on the nightstand for her dark glasses, feeling more naked without the eye covering than with the lace barely skimming her body. Byron didn't help her as he normally would have. He was always the perfect gentleman, opening doors and placing her things close to her fingertips without a word.
"How is my grandfather?" She should have asked him immediately instead of reacting to his presence like a schoolgirl. She needed a way to get the spotlight off of her and her all too noticeable reaction to him. "You spent a long time with him."
"Don Giovanni is fine. I removed the poison from his body, and he is sleeping peacefully. I also examined the other members of your household."
Behind her dark glasses, Antonietta closed her eyes, feeling more foolish than ever. She could walk onto a stage and take command, but here, in her own home with this one man, she felt foolish. He had the strangest effect on her. She didn't want to think of him alone in a bedroom with her cousin Tasha. She fought to keep her voice cool. "Had any of them been poisoned?" She fought to keep from imagining Byron bending over Tasha in her bed when so many men were so vocal about her cousin's perfect body.
"Strangely enough, yes. Your cousin Paul had traces of the same poison in his system. Very small amounts. He also had been drugged just as Don Giovanni, and, I suspect, you had been. Not that it makes him innocent. In fact, it is interesting that he was drugged yet not dragged to the cliff."
Byron was closer to her. She couldn't stand being in bed, sitting there helplessly while he prowled like a great tiger around her bedroom. She tossed the covers to one side, intending to stand up, but with the terrible silence of a stalking cat, he was at the side of the bed. She could feel the bulk of his body, feel the heat radiating from him. Her hand accidentally brushed the hard column of his thigh. Her entire body clenched in reaction. Heat spread and pooled into a sweet ache. It was just possibly the worst night of her life. At the very least, the most embarrassing.
Antonietta swallowed hard. "Paul was drugged and poisoned? Are you certain?" She was uneasy with the soft growl to his voice when he said Paul's name. He sounded almost threatening, and it frightened her.
"Yes he was. I want to check you, not only for the drug, but for poison. I think you are going to have to consider that this was a personal attack on both you and your grandfather and possibly Paul, although why he was not thrown into the sea I cannot fathom. He would represent more of a threat than you, I would imagine. I also searched the palazzo. Someone went through the drawers in your office, leaving everything a mess, but I suspect it was to keep the police from finding out that what really happened here tonight was an attempt on your lives."
"I was awake still, I do remember being sleepy, although normally I go to bed in the early hours of dawn." She couldn't prevent the faint blush stealing into her cheeks. Byron would know her sleeping habits better than most. "Perhaps they broke in expecting us to be drugged and Grandfather and I were both still up. Maybe they tried to kill us out of fear."
"You do not believe that. The first time I met Don Giovanni, his car had gone off the cliffs and was falling onto the rocks below. I only managed to get him out seconds before the car hit the rocks and was mangled. He was lucky I happened by."
"His brakes failed. It happens, Byron." But she was be ginning to believe he might be right. "Why would someone want to kill
Nonno? He's loved by everyone."
"Money. It has been my experience with humans, it is nearly always about money. And you and your grandfather have far more than most people."
My experience with humans. She had come to know Byron for all his mysterious ways. He had used the expression deliberately. Just as he was deliberately crowding so close to her body. Just as he had deliberately brought up her grandfather's impossible rescue. She remembered the story well. Don Giovanni told everyone who would listen the absurd and totally unbelievable tale of the rescue from his vehicle as it fell over the cliff. The door torn from the hinges in midair and being pulled out to find himself on the cliff with Byron, his newfound friend. Byron merely smiled when the story was related, neither confirming nor denying the impossible story. Antonietta had come to believe it.
Tonight he carried her through the wind and clouds. She felt the rush of air on her face and her feet had not skimmed the ground. As ridiculous and as impossible as it was, she was certain he had carried her through the sky. If he could do that, he could pull her grandfather from a car plunging onto the rocks. A fairy tale. But she lived a fairy tale, so she knew all things were possible.
Antonietta rubbed her temple, forcing herself to marshal her thoughts and focus on the threat on her life and that of her grandfather. "You are implying someone in my own family, someone I love, would try to kill mio
Nonno? Would try to kill me? Maybe even Paul?"
Byron's fingertips skimmed her forehead, tucked stray tendrils of hair behind her ears, removed the dark glasses. Found her temples and lingered for a moment until the throbbing had ceased. "I think you have to at least entertain the possibility, Antonietta. No one likes to suspect their loved ones of such things, but avarice and jealousy are sins that have led many to murder." His hand dropped to her shoulder, gently but deliberately pressing her back against the sheets. "Your grandfather runs a very successful company. You inherited your father's stocks, his entire estate, so you actually own more shares of stock than any other family member. It is no secret that your grandfather relies heavily upon your advice. Your cousin Paul has taken no interest in the company. Your cousin Franco works hard, but he committed a grave error when he listened to his wife and she poisoned his mind with her constant nagging. Your grandfather has never trusted him since it came to light that he took a great deal of money in exchange for inside information into the bidding for contracts. That is common knowledge, cara mia, it was a very public scandal. Tasha has no interest in the company, would sell it in a heartbeat and spend the money within the first year. Again, it is no secret your grandfather intends to leave everything to you. If he does that, you would own more of the company than the others, unless they could get together and combine their stock."
"Have you forgotten I'm blind? It would be difficult for me to run the company efficiently with such a handicap. I would have to rely tremendously on others."
"It is not a handicap for you, Antonietta, it is an asset. In the boardroom you sit quietly without speaking. They treat you as if you are deaf as well as blind, and you are able to glean information that way. You use it to your advantage."
"How do you know these things?" Her hand went defensively to her throat, covered the telltale pulse beating so rapidly there. What other things did he know about her? There was much she did in her grandfather's boardroom, using methods best not known or spoken of to get the results they needed.
"And then you have Justine Travis. She is your eyes and ears and seemingly completely loyal to you."
"Justine is a treasure," Antonietta agreed. "I went through hundreds of applicants for an assistant, and I'm so grateful that I waited to hire the perfect person." She tilted her head, frowning as a sudden chill went down her spine. The air in the bedroom stilled. The palazzo held its breath. "What do you mean, seemingly loyal? There is no question about it. I pay Justine an enormous salary, and that aside, she's my friend and confidante, has been for years, and I trust her implicitly."
"Is she? Does she confide in you? Does she tell you her personal life?"
She could hear the wind rise, rattle the great stained glass windows. An ominous sound in light of the conversation. "Justine is a very private person, as am I. We don't share every detail."
"Were you aware she is in a relationship with Paul?" He asked it quietly, watching her face, knowing he was hurting her but having no other way to make her see she was surrounded by people she loved who had reasons to betray her. Even he had a hidden agenda, one she would not like but he knew was necessary.
Antonietta felt the twist of pain in the region of her heart, but she kept her chin up. She could feel the weight of his stare, knew he registered every small nuance of her expression. She didn't want him to know he'd scored a hit. She had an acute sense of smell. More than once she had been certain Paul was in the room when he hadn't been. She realized his scent must have been on Justine. "My assistant is entitled to any relationship she chooses to have. And that includes Paul."
"Even if that divides her loyalty?"
"I trust Justine. She's been with me for years. I might point out I have known you only a short while."
Again he laughed softly, his response unexpected. He didn't seem to take offense but was amused by her reaction. "I think you have a built-in radar for people who are allies, which is one of the reasons your grandfather prefers to have you in on every major deal."
"If you think that, Byron, then it is unnecessary to tell me things about my family and the people I regard as family." In spite of her intention to keep her tone neutral, she sounded faintly haughty, even to her own ears.
"Oh, but your family is an entirely different matter. You refuse to listen to your warning system."
"I have a warning system?"
"Absolutely you do. I suspect you have other gifts as well that are an asset to you." His hand on her shoulder still held her in place, preventing her from rising as his intention was to examine her body for the aftereffects of drugs and to see if she had the same poison in her body as her grandfather.
It was a measure of how Byron managed to mesmerize everyone and everything that she didn't protest his pinning her to the bed. She would never allow anyone else to dictate her movements, yet she couldn't manage to voice a protest. And how could he know such things? "Who are you, Byron?"
There was a small silence. The room seemed filled with the fragrance of flowers. She inhaled the scent, took it deep into her lungs. Several candles were burning, she could tell by the faint odor of the wick along with an unfamiliar aroma.
"Right at this moment, cara, I am your healer."
Antonietta lay all the way back against the pillows at his urging. She couldn't help but put her hand over her eyes.
"Why do you do that?" Byron gently removed her hand and stroked her eyelids, stroked around her eyes.
For one heart-stopping moment she was certain he was tracing the lines of her scars. She didn't dare breathe. The earth stopped spinning in just the way it had when he kissed her. She reached up to catch his wrist. "I don't like people to stare at my scars."
"Scars? You mean these small, thin lines one needs a microscope to see?" Byron shifted closer to her, leaning down so that his breath was warm on her face. She knew he was peering at her eyes, but all she could think about was how close his mouth was to her skin. "I have scars much worse than those. Do physical imperfections bother you?"
There was silence. His lips, velvet soft, brushed her eyes. Brushed the corners with exquisite tenderness. For a moment she couldn't find her voice. She forced air through her lungs. "No, of course not, how could any physical imperfection possibly bother me? I can't see, Byron." She hated that he might think she would be so shallow as to care about someone else's scars. "I know my face is a mess from the accident." She shrugged, trying to look casual. "It happened a long time ago, and I've learned to live with it."
Byron settled his weight on the bed beside her. He was beginning to understand. "Someone told you that you had scars." He didn't want to think how difficult it would be for a little girl to lose her parents and her eyesight and be told she had terrible scars.
"I wanted to know." She excused her cousin.
"She lied to you. You do not have to tell me who told you such a lie. I know who it was. Tasha has a malicious mouth on her when she thinks another woman is getting too much attention. I can see that she would have a difficult time with you. You are beautiful and talented and unafraid of hard work." His fingertip brushed along her skin again. "You have several very thin white lines along the outside edge of your right eye. The lines are not at all noticeable unless you are looking for them. Around your left eye, you have several small white lines, again barely visible. There is one larger scar running from your temple to the corner of your eye. It is not unsightly, but it is wider than the other scars." Byron deliberately kept his tone clinical. He had a sudden urge to go to Tasha's room and bare his fangs, allow her to see what could make an unattractive scar. He traced the longer line, showing Antonietta the slight curve. "In some countries, when an item is made for a home, a small flaw is added because it is believed that if something is too perfect, evil will be drawn to the maker."
Antonietta smiled. "I'm hardly flawless, Byron."
"Perhaps others do not share your opinion."
She wasn't touching that. "What do my eyes look like?" She didn't know whether to believe him or not about the scars. He had such a way of speaking, it was nearly impossible to think he could lie, even to make her feel better. But would Tasha keep up a lie for years? Antonietta never asked her grandfather about her face after Tasha had screamed in alarm, crying out that the scars were hideous. "I was told the plastic surgeon hadn't fixed the damage to my face." A lump formed in her throat at the painful memory of that outburst.
"You have large, very black eyes. Your eyelashes are an extraordinary length. I am particularly fond of your eyelashes." Byron studied her enormous eyes, trying, without success, to be clinical. "You have high cheekbones and a beautiful mouth. I have had my share of fantasies about your mouth."
Antonietta's entire body blushed. She grew hot with the thought of him fantasizing over her mouth. "Why are you suddenly telling me these things?"
Byron shrugged, uncaring that she couldn't see. "Maybe because you scared me tonight. Maybe because there should be honesty between us, and my silence could be construed as a form of deception. In any case, I cannot be with you during the days. I would very much like you to consider hiring a personal bodyguard."
Antonietta stiffened. Byron's hand moved from her silky hair to her shoulder with exquisite gentleness. "Before you protest, hear me out. You are capable of doing research and finding a bodyguard yourself. If you do not want to go to the trouble, allow me. I have a few connections. I am willing to spend my evenings and nights here with you, watching over you, but I cannot possibly be here all the time. If you do this, it will go a long way toward alleviating my worry."
Antonietta knew instinctively he was not telling her everything. There was a warning note in his voice. Something she couldn't quite put her finger on. She was a Scarletti, and Scarlettis had a way of seeing things others did not. Byron was delivering an ultimatum. He didn't like doing it, but he was resolved on some path she couldn't fathom. And one she was certain she wouldn't agree with.
She lay quietly, feeling the weight of his body as he leaned over her. Feeling his heat. "You aren't quite human." The words slipped out before she could censor them. Before she could stop herself. A challenge. A demand. A mistake.
The silence lengthened. Grew. She knew it was deliberate, a reprimand for her audacity. Her dark poet didn't like questions. Outside the windows the wind blew against the stained glass. Whispered ominously. Always sensitive to vibrations, a chill swept through her.
Antonietta curled her fingers in the bedcovers but kept her expression serene. She was unshakable. She had no regard for authority or threats. She was a law unto herself. Let him glare his disapproval.
"You are a Scarletti. I doubt if you are entirely human either. What are you?" His hands slipped to her throat, stroked her rapid pulse.
His touch was mesmerizing. It dazzled her, threw her off balance when she needed to keep her senses about her. "Well, there is the tale told to all of our children," she replied, trying to introduce a lightness to their conversation. She wanted to believe the howling wind rattling with such persistence at her windows caused her chill. "Perhaps you would care to hear that explanation. There are some carvings in the hidden passage and obscure references in the diaries, enough to make it seem a grain of truth might be in the absurd tale." She hoped to distract him. Hoped to keep him with her just a bit longer. And she was revealing things she shouldn't.
"Tell me this tale."
"Are you going to let me sit up?" Let him think it an amusing bedtime story.
His hand remained resting on her throat, his fingers splayed wide. The heel of his hand rested on the soft swell of her breasts. The lace was stretched over her breasts, barely covering them, and she could feel the heat of his hand with every breath she took. It was becoming difficult, nearly impossible to breathe.
"No, I am going to kiss you."
The words were said against the corner of her mouth. She felt his warmth, the anticipation, the clenching of her muscles and the thousand butterfly wings suddenly brushing at her stomach. Her breath caught in her lungs, was trapped there. Was she really going to lie there like a Sabine captive and wait for his mouth? Wait for him to take possession of her heart and soul? Instinctively she brought both hands up to push at the wall of his chest. Her palms touched him. Felt hard muscle. Felt heat.
There was no way to push him away. Her strength was gone in an instant, her body melting with desire so intense she shook with it. She wanted him with every breath she took. The hunger rose up out of nowhere to consume her, to take away her every good sense and replace it with need. She made a single sound of protest. Or a plea for his dark embrace. She honestly didn't know which it was. She only knew she was born for him, born to be in his arms. He was forbidden, just by nature of who she was, what she was. By who and what he was. But it didn't matter. There in the dark of her bedroom, with the wind shrieking a protest, Antonietta simply gave herself into his keeping. And took what she wanted.
She turned her mouth into his neck. Tasted his skin. Inhaled his scent. Her mouth trailed, featherlight over his neck, over his throat. Daringly, her teeth nibbled on his chin. She felt his body's reaction, hardening, thickening against her, molded as they were together.
His hands tightened on her, caught in her hair and dragged her head up to his. "Are you sure this is what you want?" He demanded the truth from her. Compelled the truth. "There is no going back, Antonietta. I will not give you up. I refuse to go back to being your grandfather's friend and sharing only polite conversation with you."
"I want you to kiss me, Byron," she said, more certain than she'd ever been of anything else in her life. "I dreamt of your kisses." And God help her, she had.
His mouth was hot and hard and possessive. It was everything she had ever dreamed of. Perfect heat. A perfect fire blazing through him, through her. He devoured her, kissing her as if he would never get enough of her. She could lose herself in his smoldering passion. She knew she could. Simply go up in flames and rise into the wind and clouds and night sky where she would soar free from the daily intrigues and dramas in the palazzo.
"Byron." She whispered his name into the silken heat of his mouth, her hands in his thick, long hair, tangling there, every bit as possessive as he.
His hand closed over her breast, and flames licked her skin, seared her belly, and drove the breath from her body. His mouth left hers, trailed little kisses to her throat. His tongue swirled over her pulse, while his palm cupped her breast through the fine lace and his thumb stroked her nipple into a hard, aching peak.
Antonietta gasped with pleasure, with excitement. How long had she dreamt of him? Longed for his touch? From the first moment she heard his voice, she knew he would be a perfect lover. Be an instinctive lover.
His mouth roamed lower, his tongue replacing his thumb, laving her nipple, until her hands gripped fistfulls of hair in reaction. His mouth was hot and wild, suckling strong at her urging. She heard her own moan, a soft whisper of need that spread from her aching breasts inside her body, thickening her blood. Hunger and need were sharp and terrible, so much so that she was afraid. She had never been so on fire, her body ruling her mind. She couldn't stop herself from thrusting deeper into his mouth, from making the small, urgent noises that escaped her throat.
His mouth left her breast, and she cried out with bereavement. His arms tightened around her, pulled her fully into his arms. His heartbeat was strong and fast. Her heartbeat followed the rhythm of his. She cried out with longing when his teeth began to scrape teasingly back and forth over the telltale pulse beating so frantically in her neck. Desire pounded through her blood when she felt the tiniest of nips. She had never expected such a thing to be so erotic.
He whispered to her. Antonietta could not catch the words, but she felt them. She was restless and edgy, her body ached for relief. For the possession of him. She moved in his arms, unable to be still when every inch of her was inflamed. Still, he took his time, his mouth roaming lower until he reached the swell of her breast. She felt his teeth again, and a thousand butterfly wings fluttered in the pit of her stomach. Hot liquid desire trickled along her thigh. Her muscles clenched.
Then there was white-hot lightning, a flashing pain that gave way to sheer pleasure. Instinctively she cradled his head to her, feeling as if she belonged to him. As if they were two halves of the same whole, and they were merging, skin to skin, blood to blood. She heard his voice whispering in her head, soft words in an ancient dialect she couldn't place, although she spoke several languages. The actual words didn't matter to her, just the sound of his voice as it slipped past her guard and branded his name on her heart. On her soul.
She didn't want his name on her heart. She wanted a lover with no strings. The terrible enchantment he cast was wrapping her up in something she couldn't afford. For a moment she did her best to struggle, to come up for air, to find a way for her melted brain to function again.