Byron swept his tongue across the pinpricks, whispered to her, commanded her so that she ceased her struggles and fell deeper into his enthrallment. Her head lolled back against his shoulder, and he couldn't resist the temptation of her neck. She tasted the way he knew she would. A woman of courage and sweetness. A conflicting mixture of confidence and self-doubt. A contradiction of innocence and experience.
He shifted her in his arms, his body hardening to the point of pain with the knowledge of what he was about to do. He opened his shirt, stared at his hand until one fingernail lengthened, razor sharp, and he swept it over his chest and pressed her mouth tightly against his skin, whispering another command.
At the first touch of her lips, he threw back his head in ecstasy, shaken by his reaction to her touch. To the sight of her face, so beautiful in the darkness. To the fall of her hair, shimmering like a dark cloud. Byron knew he had learned patience over the last years, a steady, carefully cultivated trait he guarded. Antonietta shook his self-discipline. He wanted her - worse, needed her. He had taken his time to learn everything he could about her, and he knew she had no thought of a permanent relationship. She wouldn't mind taking him as a lover, but she didn't think in terms of marriage or eternity.
His first thought was to simply take her, but he dismissed that impulse immediately, refusing to be selfish, refusing to make a mistake that might cause her to suffer in any way. He had been determined to court her until the moment he had seen her struggling for her very life on the cliffs. Safety came first, and he was of the earth, impossible to protect her during daylight hours. So he had to tie them together before she was ready to accept what he was.
His entire body shook with the effort not to say the ritual binding words that would tie them together for all time. She had to stay above, and he would have to return belowground while the sun was high. Trembling with need, Byron stopped the exchange at just enough to complete a true bond between them.
With most humans, scanning and reading thoughts was relatively easy, but Antonietta and many members of her family were more difficult to read. It was not only the Scarletti family but also a few people in the city and some of the servants in the palazzo. Their brain patterns weren't normal. If he simply pushed beyond the barriers, they would know he was there, reading their minds, taking their memories. He needed to work out their strange brain patterns before he attempted to do something he might regret. He had no idea what other differences the people in the region had. With the blood bond he established between himself and Antonietta, he could find her easily anywhere and touch her mind at will. There was no way she could escape him, and he had a better chance of protecting her should there be need. It was the only real solution and the only safe thing he could think to do to ensure her protection.
"Wake, Antonietta," he ordered softly.
She blinked up at him with her enormous, dark eyes, almost as if she couldn't quite focus on him. The pads of her fingertips found his lips unerringly. "I've never had anyone kiss me quite like that. I'm afraid if we went any further, I'd go up in flames."
"We cannot have that. The night is almost over, and I have yet to examine you for poison. When I make love to you, Antonietta, I want time to do it properly."
Her eyebrow shot up. "When? Not if?"
"I do not think there is much doubt we both want the same thing." He placed her gently back on the bed, his hands stroking the soft swell of her breast. "Lie quietly and allow me to ensure no poison remains in your system and no drug lingers."
Antonietta wished she could see him. She had the impression of great strength, of a tall, broad-shouldered man. She knew from Tasha that Byron was handsome and wore his hair long. Her cousin had particularly mentioned his chest and his firm backside. Strangely, she felt different. Her hearing, always so acute, seemed even more so, as if she could hear his very breath moving through his lungs. She was even more aware of Byron, of his every movement, of his exact location in the room.
"Sleep, Antonietta. Tomorrow your family will make their usual demands on you, and you must be rested."
Her eyelashes drooped down, almost as if he compelled it. She felt him gathering energy, felt heat and power, knew the precise moment he entered her body to find if she had been poisoned along with her grandfather. "Byron." She whispered his name because she was sliding into sleep despite wanting to stay with him. She didn't want to let go of her magical night.
"Do not worry, cara, no one will be allowed to harm you or your grandfather. Sleep now and be at peace."
A small smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. "I wasn't in any way thinking of either of us being in harm's way. I was thinking only of you." She succumbed to the lure of sleep with his name on her lips and the taste of him in her mouth.
"Antonietta! Wake up! If you don't wake up, I'm calling the doctor!" Natasha Scarletti-Fontaine shook her cousin over and over. "I'm not fooling around, wake up right this minute!" There was panic in the voice.
Antonietta stirred. Her lashes lifted partially, indicating she was awake. "What is it, Tasha?" Her voice was drowsy, and her lashes simply dropped down, covering her sightless eyes. Her head settled back into the pillows, and she burrowed beneath the covers. She was so tired, far too tired to get up. Everything in her urged her to sleep at least two more hours. It couldn't be sunset yet...
"No you don't! Antonietta Nicoletta Scarletti, you wake up this instant!"
Recognizing the absolute resolve in her cousin's voice, Antonietta made a supreme effort to shake off the need for more sleep. "Oh for heaven's sake, is there a major catastrophe I don't know about?" She rubbed her eyes and struggled to sit up, desperately trying to understand where such an absurd thought as waiting for sunset had come from. "What is wrong with you?" She felt slightly disoriented and hazy, as if there were a veil over her mind, and she couldn't quite remember important things. She wanted to sleep forever.
She pressed her hands over her ears. Her hearing was so acute, she could hear the steady beating of Tasha's heart. Like a drum. It threatened to drive her crazy. Tasha's breathing sounded like a rush of wind. Outside, the sea thundered and the rain poured down. Antonietta put her pillow to her ears in an attempt to muffle the sounds before she identified the whispering as actual conversations being carried out throughout the palazzo.
"Wrong with me?" Tasha was outraged. "I'll have you know it's nearly four in the afternoon, and none of us could wake you.
Nonno told us about the breakin and said both of you had been drugged. He said your attackers threw him from the cliffs. What utter nonsense to think Byron Justicano saved his life by pulling him from the sea. No one could do such a thing.
Nonno is getting senile. The authorities have been waiting for your account, and you just lie here sleeping the day away like nothing was wrong! And if that's not enough to have to deal with, the cook has gone missing, just up and left without a word, and we had nothing suitable to eat. The housekeeper is having hysterics."
Antonietta could not imagine the housekeeper, reliable Signora Helena Vantizian, in hysterics. The housekeeper was a steady, patient, matronly woman, well in command of the palazzo. "Why would Enrico have gone missing?" Cautiously she took the pillow from her ears, deliberately trying to turn down the volume on her hearing. It helped enough that her eardrums weren't ringing.
"How should I know what that silly man is thinking? And it's just like you to choose the most uninteresting and unimportant thing to deal with. The authorities came. Didn't you hear me? They waited all day."
Antonietta had a mad desire to laugh but wasn't altogether certain the impulse stemmed from mirth. She might have found it amusing that it was perfectly normal for Tasha to sleep until noon every day or perhaps the problem was she was slightly hysterical due to the strange phenomenon with her hearing. For a moment, she actually tracked an insect scurrying across the floor. She forced her mind to focus on her cousin's distress. "Are they waiting now?" Things were coming back to her, crowding into her mind. Not the details of attempted murder, but pure sensual pleasure. Byron.
"Nonno sent them away. He said you needed your rest after your ordeal last night. He can be so utterly rude sometimes. I wish you'd talk to him."
Antonietta recognized the petulant note in Tasha's voice. "You know perfectly well Nonno is as sharp as a tack." Although he could be quite abrupt if he thought someone was acting like an idiot. He was often abrupt with Tasha. "For a minute there, I thought you were worried about me."
"For a minute there, I thought I was, too, and I don't appreciate the worry one bit, Antonietta. I absolutely do not want to get those hideous worry lines you serious types get. And why is it you always get the adventures? Why can't someone try to kill me?" There was a rise to her voice now, a hint of a wail that forced Antonietta to shield her sensitive ears. "It makes no sense to waste it on you. You're so you. Look at you sitting there just as calm as you please. I could be such a perfect victim and look pale and brave and interesting. You don't look as if a single thing out of place happened."
"Believe me, Tasha, it wasn't a particularly fun experience. You don't need to have someone try to kill you to look interesting. You always manage that nicely. You don't need to be pale and brave, you're beautiful, and you know it."
Tasha waved the obvious away. "I know, I know." She sighed. "Mere beauty isn't always enough to capture attention, Antonietta. Some men are only interested in silly things like murder. What am I supposed to do? Hire someone to kill me just to get a little attention?" She stood up and paced across the floor with quick, angry steps. "It's utterly ridiculous to think of that man spending hours with you, and you can't even see him! It doesn't bear thinking about."
"Byron?" Antonietta tried desperately to follow her cousin's thinking and at the same time control the volume of her hearing. The sound of Tasha's shoes reverberated through her head.
"Oh that odious man! Not him. You know I can't stand to be in the same room with him. He's rude and obnoxious, and I hate him." Tasha stared at her reflection in the mirror of the vanity. "Why would you have a mirror in here? I've never understood that." She turned sideways and held her breath, checking her flat stomach.
"It came with the furniture," Antonietta said. "What man are you talking about? I don't spend hours with any man." She turned away from her cousin to hide the sudden color she knew was spreading into her face. She couldn't think too much about the time spent with Byron. About her reactions to him.
"The policeman, Antonietta," Tasha snapped impatiently. "For heaven's sake, follow along. This is important."
"This is all over a policeman?" Antonietta sighed with a mixture of relief and exasperation. "Tasha, you're engaged to be married. You have a fiance, a very wealthy fiance, I might add."
"What does that have to do with anything? I'm going to marry Christopher, but he's so boring. And he's so jealous. It's tiresome. His entire life is his family and church and business. All he can think about is ships and religion."
"His family does own the second largest shipping company in the world, Tasha," Antonietta said. "And Italian families are nearly always close."
"Mama's boys," Tasha sniffed, "or in Christopher's case, a daddy's boy. They insist I have to go to church with him."
"You knew going into the betrothal he wanted you to convert to his religion."
"I didn't realize I was supposed to take it so seriously. He brings that horrible priest over every week, and I'm supposed to study. All I should have to do is go and sit with him during the services. I don't need to know all the mumbo jumbo that goes along with it. I doubt if anybody else really knows it. In any case, why can't he just be a Catholic like everybody else? Who cares which religion is the true one and who broke away from what? It's just silly."
Antonietta sighed again. "You can't have a fling with a policeman when you're engaged to one of the more powerful men in the world. I think the tabloids would get wind of it."
"Who mentioned a fling? I could really fall for him. He has the most wonderful chest you've ever imagined. Even Byron doesn't have a chest like his, well, not as perfect anyway." She made a rude noise. "Why do you like him?"
Deliberately Antonietta misunderstood. "I've never met your policeman, Tasha, so how could I possibly have an opinion?"
"You know very well I was talking about Bryon!"
"Why don't you like him?" Antonietta countered.
"He doesn't look at me. Never. That's just not normal," Tasha said. "All men look at me. And he's scary. There's just no other word for him. His eyes are flat and cold, and he stares at people like he sees inside of them. He never smiles." She shivered. "He reminds me of a tiger I saw at the zoo one time, pacing back and forth in its cage and watching me without blinking."
"He bares his teeth, it isn't the same thing." Tasha gasped loudly. "Antonietta! What is on your neck? You have a love bite."
Antonietta could feel the sudden burning, a throbbing on her neck that caused an instant reaction in her body. Fire smoldered in the pit of her stomach. There was an answering throb between her legs. For a moment she could actually taste him in her mouth. Wild. Untamed. A dark, erotic dream better left for night yet persisting into daylight hours. The throbbing spread to include a spot on the swell of her breast. She tried not to blush, remembering the feel of Byron's mouth, hot and wet and wild on her skin. She covered her neck with the palm of her hand, captured his kiss there, holding him to her with that small caress.
"It is a love bite! He was here last night with you!" It was an accusation, nothing less, as if Antonietta were on trial for criminal behavior. "You took Byron Justicano into your bed! Look at you, what you're wearing!" Tasha was nearly hysterical. "That lace barely covers you! Have you no decency?"
"Tasha." Antonietta forced herself to remain calm when she wanted to order her cousin out of the room. "You bought me this gown. I sleep in it because it is comfortable, and I have always considered you to be the epitome of good taste."
"Well, yes, I am, it is true." Tasha was somewhat mollified. "But I didn't mean you to wear it for that horrible man. He's a fortune hunter, out for your money all along. All this time pretending to be friends with Nonno, but in truth he was willing to seduce a blind woman."
"Must you be so dramatic all the time, Tasha? I'm thirty-seven years old. Did you think I never slept with a man? This may surprise you, but you don't have to have sight to share sex with someone." Antonietta dragged on her robe and shoved her dark glasses over her eyes. "And I don't appreciate you telling me I have hideous scars when they are barely noticeable." She swept past her cousin toward the enormous bathroom. She should have slept with him. She'd been an absolute idiot not to sleep with him. It was all so hazy. She had wanted Byron to make love to her. Had she fallen asleep in the middle of it all? The idea was humiliating.
Tasha followed her. "That was years ago, Toni, you know it was. And the scars were much worse then. And you were getting so much attention from everyone. Poor little orphaned girl. It was like a movie. Just imagine what I could have done with that role."
"It wasn't a role, Tasha." Exasperation crept into Antonietta's voice in spite of her resolve to be patient. "I lost my mother and father. It was horrible. A tragedy."
"I know. I was born for tragedy."
"You have suffered tragedy."
"Not that I can talk about." Tasha sniffed indignantly. "And no one's thought about your scars in years."
"I thought about them every time I went out in public."
Tasha studied one perfectly manicured fingernail. "If you weren't so vain, thinking about your looks all the time, you wouldn't have even remembered."
Antonietta bit her tongue to keep from pointing out that Tasha spent half of her life in front of mirrors. "You should have told me they weren't that bad. Not being the center of attention your every waking minute is not a good enough reason to hurt me."
"Oh for heaven's sake, Toni, you know I'm sorry, it was years ago. And you know I can't help my need for constant affection. My shrink said it's Daddy's fault. He paid Paul all the attention."
"He showered you with presents," Antonietta contradicted. "You were his little princess. He gave you anything you ever wanted."
Tasha sank into a deep-cushioned chair. "Presents can never make up for parental affection, and you know very well Daddy's entire world was the polo fields. I couldn't stand getting my shoes dirty, and he never forgave me. And he took Paul everywhere with him." Her perfect pout was always wasted on Antonietta, so Tasha didn't bother with it.
"You certainly know how to rewrite history. Poor Paul couldn't do a thing right. He tried to please your father for years." Paul and Tasha's father had been obsessed with women, not with the polo fields, but Antonietta refrained from correcting Tasha's version of history.
"And then Paul gave up and began gambling and drinking and doing everything he could to embarrass our family," Tasha pointed out. "He went through every cent he inherited, first from Mama, and then Daddy. And then he lost all of my money. Daddy was perfectly right about his weak character all along."
"That isn't true. You went through most of your money yourself and then insisted on that investment Paul came up with. I told you it wasn't sound. You knew it was throwing money away, but you did it anyway."
Tasha jumped to her feet. "Ooh! How would you know what it's like? Everything you touch turns to gold. You don't have to sell yourself to a man who's about as cold as a fish."
"You and Paul have plenty to live on, Tasha, and you always have a home here, you know that. You don't have to sell yourself, either. I told you not to invest your money. As I recall, I was adamant about it, but you wouldn't listen." To prevent further argument, Antonietta firmly closed the bathroom door.