Byron settled the young man against the wall of the building where he remained, dizzy and unaware of what had transpired, but uninjured. At full strength, Byron took to the sky, shape-shifting on the wing, something he could never have done even twenty years earlier. Hunting vampires had given him a hard edge, a coolness under fire, and complete confidence in his ability to handle a tight situation, but it hadn't prepared him for a woman like Antonietta.
Of course, his first impulse had been to carry her off, claim her with the ritual binding words, and let nature take its course. But he had been cautious, after learning from a lifetime of being impetuous. After having been captured and tortured and used as bait in an attempt to murder the prince and his lifemate and destroying his relationship with his best friend, Jacques Dubrinsky, Byron now believed in caution and patience and thinking puzzles all the way through. With a lifetime of mistakes behind him, he wasn't going to chance any more.
He was determined to know Antonietta. Unfortunately, the members of the Scarletti family had a built-in protective barrier in their minds. He couldn't simply scan their thoughts and learn all there was to know. He took his time, infiltrating the palazzo through his friendship with Don Giovanni. Waiting. Watching her. He realized she needed to feel in control.
She needed independence. She needed to be courted and won if he were to make her happy.
Byron sighed softly, allowing the wind to carry the sound out to sea. The murder attempt had changed everything. He needed to know she was protected, day and night. He needed to be able to touch her mind at will, needed to be able to know what was happening to her at all times.
Once more he dropped from the sky to the ground where he had left his gift for her. He knew Antonietta well enough to know she would take his present whether she liked it or not. Antonietta was far too polite to reject anything given to her by another.
The dog was the picture of noble elegance. From the moment Byron had seen the animal, he had admired the sheer poetry in its flowing lines. The borzoi was always graceful, whether in motion or standing perfectly still. Byron knew the accepted theory was that borzois had been around six to eight hundred years. He knew from personal experience that time line was a bit off. The breed had endured, refined perhaps, but stayed true. Byron bent over the dog, took the intelligent domed skull between his hands, and stared down into the dark, gentle eyes.
"This is your new home, Celt, if you would like it to be. She is here. The one who can be your new companion and one who will love and respect you as you deserve. She will admire you in the way I do and understand it is your choice to stay or go." They understood one another, the dog and Byron. He knew the animal was gentle but possessed a ferocious heart.
Celt was as fine an example of the borzoi as Byron had ever seen. The dog's head spoke of intelligence, his jaws were long and powerful and deep. His fur was pure black, his coat the texture of silk. And Celt's eyes reflected the true heart of the breed.
"You will have to wait out in the garden until I see her," Byron explained aloud. "I know it is raining and you are uncomfortable, but I will protect you from the elements for however long it takes. You know some there will be unkind to you." His hand stroked across the great head, found the silky ears and scratched. "I trust none of them, and neither should you. Look only to her protection. Be cautious of offers of friendship."
He felt the animal answer, the understanding and affection that passed between them, and he was doubly grateful to Antonietta for giving him back his emotions.
Byron's tall, broad-shouldered frame shimmered for a moment, nearly translucent in the rain, then he simply disappeared, droplets among the steady downpour. He found entrance into the house through a narrow gap in one of the second-story windows. At once he felt the terrible tension in the great palazzo. Fear and anger vibrated throughout the spaces, all the way to the great ceilings, up to the battlements, and along the traces.
Byron glided silently through the wide, marbled halls, down the sweeping staircase to inspect the damage near Don Giovanni's private room. Two people were collecting evidence, carefully putting bolts in plastic bags. He knew at once this was no accident but a deliberate attempt to harm someone, most likely the old man.
He could hear the boy, Vincente, crying softly for his sister, alarmed at her absence. Franco soothed the boy, singing softly to him, reassuring the child that little Margurite and his mother would return in the morning.
Byron, more than anything, wanted to see Antonietta. There was a strange, anxious feeling in the vicinity of his heart. Emotions were dangerous, he was discovering. Exhilarating, but quite dangerous.
Unerringly, he found Antonietta in a spacious room filled with plants and surrounded on three sides by glass. A large fountain dominated the center of the room and was surrounded by comfortable benches and several small chairs and tables positioned for conversations among the greenery. Outside the glass, the night was dark, with winds lashing rain against the panes and the roar of the ever-moving sea accompanying the distant growl of thunder.
A man in uniform stood unnecessarily close to Antonietta. Short, stocky, very muscular, his handsome face bent toward hers. His dark eyes were moving over her with obvious enjoyment. Byron snarled, a low, nearly nonexistent sound. The man lifted his head and searched the room with suddenly wary eyes.
Antonietta smiled, her head going up, inhaling, as if drawing Byron's scent into her lungs. "Please do sit down, Captain, there's really no need to be quite so formal." She walked with confidence through the labyrinth of plants and furniture, knowing where every obstacle was placed and making her way gracefully around it. Her fingers curled around the back of a chair and she slipped into it, folding her hands neatly in her lap.
"Signorina Scarletti, I trust you are well rested after your ordeal last night?" There was a caress to the man's voice that had Byron's incisors lengthening. "I am Captain Diego Vantilla at your service." He took Antonietta's hand and bent low, his lips skimming her skin.
Electricity sizzled, arced up the back of her hand, a small whip of lightning that zapped his lips loudly. Diego leapt back, dropped her hand, and pressed his palm to his stinging mouth.
Hidden behind lacy ferns, Byron leaned one hip against the wall in the midst of several leafy plants nearly as tall as he was, crossed his arms over his chest, and eyed the policeman with great satisfaction.
Tasha glared at her cousin. "Do sit down, Diego. I know this is impossibly bad manners, but may I call you Diego? It is so much easier than Captain Vantilla." She sent him a flirtatious smile and offered her hand as she sat in the chair beside Antonietta. "My cousin was very shaken by the events of last night and needs me to comfort her." She had wished for a few more precious minutes alone with the handsome officer, but Antonietta had arrived nearly as soon as Helena summoned her.
Diego nodded. "That is understandable, Signora Fontaine."
Tasha smiled sweetly. "Scarletti-Fontaine, but you may call me Tasha. All my friends do."
"Grazie, signora, " Diego acknowledged, his focus clearly on Antonietta. "I really must get your account of what happened last night. Don Giovanni was convinced there were two assailants and that both of you were drugged and dragged up to the top of the cliff."
Antonietta nodded. "I was playing the piano, but I felt strange. Unusually tired, my arms and body felt heavy. I heard a noise, and then someone put a cloth over my mouth. I struggled until I realized the chemical on the cloth would knock me out, so I pretended it had done so. At once I was carried outside the palazzo. I heard the other man dragging my grandfather. I couldn't tell who they were, their voices and their scents were unfamiliar to me. Once I meet someone, I nearly always recognize them again, but these men were strangers. I called for Byron. I don't know why, but as I began to struggle, I called for Byron Justicano."
"And why did you call for this man? Did you know he was near?"
Antonietta heard the sharp, alert note in the voice, and she smiled. Tasha's policeman was not up to playing cat and mouse with a man like Byron. She shrugged. "I just called his name as a talisman. To keep me safe. He's like that. He makes me feel safe."
Tasha sniffed her disdain loudly, drawing the officer's interest. "I see," he said when he clearly did not. "Please continue."
"I heard my grandfather go into the sea, and I fought harder, although how I could aid him, I didn't know. But then Byron came. He fought with the man who attacked me and then he told me to stay still. I could hear the wind shrieking and the waves thundering. The storm was furious, and even the ground shook and rumbled beneath us. And then Byron had my grandfather safe and was helping him to breathe, to get the water out of his lungs. They were both soaked with seawater and we were all so cold." She shivered at the memory. "I can't help you with a description of these men, although the one carrying me was tall and very muscular. His hair was short, and he was enormously strong."
"And where is this man now? Where is the man who attacked you?"
"I believe he is dead. I don't know for certain."
There was a short silence. "I do not see how this man, this Byron Justicano, was able to get your grandfather to shore. It is many feet from the cliff to the sea below. I doubt if it's possible to live through a dive into the sea at night. And last night the waves were high, and the storm was great."
There was a small silence. The air thickened. A shadow grew over the room. Tasha and the officer exchanged uneasy glances. Even the hair on the backs of their necks stood up in response to the sudden menacing atmosphere. Tasha rubbed her arms against a sudden chill.
Antonietta shrugged tranquilly as if she didn't notice. "You asked me what happened, and I told you. It's up to you whether or not you wish to believe me."
"Why weren't we called immediately?"
"You were called. I called the doctor to assist my grandfather, and I went to my quarters to shower and warm up. It was nearly dawn. I'm sorry I went to sleep, but we were both exhausted. Surely the housekeeper allowed you access to the music room and showed you where my grandfather was taken and also the site at the cliff."
"Yes, she did, but we could not wake you or your grandfather to speak to you, and the cliff site raised more questions than answers. There is evidence of a struggle, even of someone going over the cliff. We could see where your grandfather lay and evidence of someone kneeling beside him. But it is impossible, Signorina Scarletti, for a man to pull a drowning man from the sea and bring him all the way to the top of the cliff again. Why was your grandfather taken all the way back up the cliff? That is the question."
"Perhaps because a blind woman who was alone in a raging storm at the edge of that cliff needed help, too?"
"I think I can help, signor," Tasha said, her voice a soft invitation. "This man Nonno speaks so much of, Byron Justicano, he is a stranger to us. A fortune hunter out for my cousin's wealth. She is worth so much, the palazzo, the shipping company, her private trust. This is common knowledge. He seems to turn up at the most opportune times. How could he rescue a man from the sea? How could he save Antonietta at the same time? Do you see how ridiculous this story is? Of course he must be involved. And you heard Antonietta admit she thinks her assailant is dead. Dead by Byron's own hand and perhaps drowned in the very sea that nearly took my cousin." Tasha allowed a small sob to escape and reached to take Antonietta's wrist. "He is a seducer of innocents and a master criminal. You must save us all from this man. I must count on the kindness I see in your magnificent eyes, otherwise, there is no hope to save my dearest cousin from this man."
Antonietta would have laughed if she could have found her voice. She opened her mouth, but no sound emerged. Tasha so easily made up stories to suit her mood or her cause. She had just delivered Byron as a suspect to her handsome policeman. And she had betrayed Antonietta's confidence without a single thought.
Antonietta turned her head in Byron's direction.
You're here, aren't you? You heard my cousin tell the captain these lies about you. I'm sorry she's caused you trouble. She wants him to see her as a woman. Do not distress yourself over me, Antonietta. I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself.
There was a bite to his voice, the impression of strong teeth snapping together. The image was so strong in her mind, Antonietta envisioned a great shaggy wolf eyeing prey. She knew he was in the room, her every sense was on full alert. How could Tasha be so careless as to condemn him while he stood right in the same room with them?
Byron sauntered into one of the many alcoves, materializing behind the thick, wide fronds of several potted trees. He emerged from the greenery slowly, scanning the policeman as he did so, planting memories of an introduction and sending waves of warmth. He didn't bother to cover up for Tasha. She had the intricate Scarletti pattern in her brain. And he wanted her to be startled and uncomfortable, simply because she had upset Antonietta.
"Good evening," he greeted formally as he glided forward. "I am afraid Tasha's insecurities are showing, Captain. She is easily upset, and tonight the young child was injured." Deliberately stopping in front of her, Byron took Antonietta's hand away from Tasha and raised it to his mouth. He opened her fingers and pressed a soft kiss into the exact center of her palm. A slow, unhurried movement. Calm and deliberate and blatantly possessive. He lingered there for a moment, his thumb sliding over her skin.
Byron turned his head slowly and looked at Tasha. For a moment, in the dim lighting of the solarium, his eyes appeared to glow a fiery red. His teeth gleamed an amazing white and appeared, just for that second in time to Tasha, sharp and long, much like a wolf. She blinked and saw he was smiling, bowing low in a courtly, charming gesture.
"Tasha, my dear, I am sorry that your poor nerves suffered so on your cousin's behalf, but there is no need for hysterics. She is truly safe, and the captain and I will keep her that way." His voice was velvet soft, a blend of slight male amusement and arrogance, yet very compelling.
Byron turned the full force of his hypnotic voice and his mesmerizing eyes on the captain. "It is not so difficult to believe, with the evidence supporting every word Don Giovanni and Antonietta say. They are, of course, above reproach, and you have no trouble believing them. You are most concerned with protecting them. As we are good friends and you know it is my greatest concern, you wish to join with me, sharing with me all you know about this attack on them and aiding me in their protection." His tone held such purity and goodness, it was impossible to do other than agree.
Tasha stared at the two men in utter horror. Byron bared his teeth at her again.
Diego clapped him on the shoulder in a comradely way. "It's good you were here, old friend, or we might have had a grave tragedy. Signora Scarletti-Fontaine, surely you can see Byron has saved your grandfather and your cousin from certain death. Your family owes him a great deal."
Antonietta couldn't help but be swayed by Byron's velvet voice, but she noticed she couldn't quite remember his exact words. Only the tone. The perfect, pure tone. Her chin lifted.
Do you do that to me? What to you?
The laughter in his voice set her teeth on edge. Male amusement could wear thin very fast.
Mesmerize me with your voice so you get full cooperation. I try to mesmerize you with my kisses. My voice does not work on you. If only it would. My fondest dream would come true.
She wasn't touching that. It was far too unsettling to be sitting with others yet carrying on a private, intimate conversation that was flirting with sensuality. "Do you have the information you need, Captain?" She spoke to the officer, but her focus was on Byron. Every cell in her body was aware of him. Obsession. It was an uncomfortable feeling and one she didn't care for.
I feel the same way.
It was a deliberate reminder that he could read her thoughts. Antonietta had a great deal of pride, and Byron was well aware that craving a man would make her feel vulnerable and unsettled.
Tasha leapt up, her hands on her hips. "That's it? That's all the questions you're going to ask him? Byron Justicano is not at all what he seems. How did he get into this house? How does he ever get in? Why don't you ask him that!"
Byron swung his head around, his dark brows raised. Again she caught that fiery red glow, a devil's warning when he looked directly at her. "I turn into tiny molecules and seep under the doors. Take care you do not leave your window open, you never know what might creep in." He laughed softly, and the captain joined him.
Antonietta went still. She had no idea how Byron defeated their state-of-the-art security system. He often simply appeared in a room. She knew he was there immediately, even though others didn't seem aware of his presence. His entrance was always silent and instantaneous. She couldn't remember him coming through the door unless he met them on the grounds.
How do you get in? I thought I knew what you were, but even then, you couldn't just appear in a room.
Antonietta had the impression of laughter, yet there was no sound. And he didn't answer her.
"That isn't funny, Byron," Tasha snapped, "and it isn't an answer. Where do you live? What's the address? How come no one knows where you live?" She tapped her foot impatiently as she glared at Diego. "Do you even have his address down? Could you find him if he did turn out to be part of a plot to get my cousin's fortune?"
"Byron wouldn't inherit if I died, Tasha," Antonietta said. She stood up, knowing they would make way for her on the path winding through the flowers and shrubs. "You do. I doubt if Byron would gain from my death at all, or Nonno's. "
Tasha shrieked. "What are you saying? What are you accusing me of doing? Did I drag you to the cliffs and throw you over? What are you saying?"
"I'm saying leave Byron alone. He risked his life to save Nonno and me. There is no need for you to pursue this any further."
Few people argued with Antonietta when she was serious. Not even Tasha. Glowering, Tasha left the room, two bright spots of color on her cheeks and her eyes promising retaliation.
Byron reached for Antonietta's hand. "Do you need anything else, Diego?" His voice was friendly, filled with camaraderie. "Please do tell us what you know."
"It isn't much, I'm afraid." The captain responded instantly to Byron's tone. "We don't even have the body of the man you pulled off of Signorina Scarletti. It isn't on the cliffs, although it is possible the sea has swallowed it."
"I thought he hit his head as he fell. He did not get up, but I had to carry Don Giovanni to the palazzo, and I did not check him as I should have." Byron spoke easily with a casual shrug of regret. "It all happened very quickly."
"That is usually the way of it." Diego sighed and stared after Tasha. "She is a beautiful woman."
Byron felt Antonietta's fingers tighten around his. "Yes, she is," she responded. "Tasha loves children, and she is very distraught over little Margurite's accident. Do you think that ties into this attack on us?"
"I am certain your grandfather was meant to be harmed," Diego said.
"What of the security cameras? Is there nothing on tape to show how they got in and how they could move about so freely in the palazzo without triggering an alarm?" Byron asked quietly. He felt the small shiver that ran through Antonietta, and he drew her beneath the shelter of his broad shoulder.
"They had to have known the code to get into the house, and they knew where the security room was to shut down the system."
There was a small silence. Antonietta did her best not to sag against Byron. Not to reveal her emotions when she wanted to cry out at the betrayal. Someone in the palazzo, someone had to have aided her assailants. She rested her head against Byron. Behind the dark glasses, she closed her eyes tightly against the pain piercing her heart. Her family. She loved them desperately with all their idiosyncrasies. The thought that any of her family could possibly be involved in a plot to murder Don Giovanni was inconceivable.
The one thing that I have learned in this long life is to never jump to conclusions.
The voice purred in her mind, stroked heat and hope deep inside where a great, gaping hole had been torn. Just like that. With a few simple words and a magic voice, Byron had managed to heal her.
"Signorina? I believe you must be very careful until we find who is behind this attempt on your life and that of Don Giovanni," Diego warned.
Byron noted how often his gaze strayed to the hallway where Tasha paced just outside the solarium. He leaned closer to the man, looked him directly in his eyes to reinforce a powerful feeling of friendship and trust. "That is a good idea. Antonietta, I think being careful is very much in order. Are we finished here, Diego? Perhaps Tasha would be willing to provide you with a cup of tea while you talk to the kitchen staff about the disappearance of Enrico." He pulled Antonietta beneath the protection of his shoulder.
"I'm certain she would," Antonietta agreed. More than anything she wanted to be alone with Byron. She needed to be alone with him.
"I think that would be best," Diego said immediately. "
Grazie, for your time, Signorina Scarletti. I will be in touch."
Antonietta allowed Byron to retain her hand, although normally she made it a point to walk on her own. It was forbidden to move furniture in the palazzo, and she knew where every plant, chair, and table was. Byron Justicano was under her protection. She wanted to make it very clear to her family that they were to accept his presence in her home and in her life.
"Please come this way, Captain. Tasha is just outside." It was easy enough to identify the restless pacing. And she knew her cousin. Tasha wouldn't have gone far when she was so interested in the policeman.
Byron opened the door and stepped back to allow Antonietta to proceed him. As she went past, he whispered in her ear, "I brought a surprise for you."
Tasha swung around instantly as they emerged from the solarium, her large, dark eyes resting on Diego. "Do you have any idea who would do this?"
"Not yet, signora."
"Tasha!" Her lips formed a perfect pout. "If you don't call me Tasha, I'm afraid I won't answer. Signora Scarletti-Fontaine is so formal." Ignoring Byron, she stepped close to Antonietta and kissed her cheek. "I'm sorry, cousin. You know why," she whispered. Her voice was low, but Byron's acute hearing heard the words clearly.
Antonietta nodded. "Tasha, would you have time to take the captain to the kitchen and tell the staff to be most cooperative? Byron brought me a surprise, and I was hoping you wouldn't mind showing Diego whatever else he needs to complete his report."
Tasha's entire face lit up. "Of course I'll show him around, Antonietta. Diego, please do come with me." She tucked her hand in the crook of his elbow and gave him a smile designed to keep him focused on her.
"I would really like you to check on Margurite tonight," Antonietta said. "She'll be in the hospital overnight. I know she's asleep, and they're probably giving her painkillers, but if you can speed the healing process, I'd really like you to try."
"I'll go to her," Byron agreed, "but at the moment her mother is with her, and it would be better if I went in when she was alone. I cannot heal her in front of her parents or even doctors. They would think I was the devil."
"I suppose that's true," Antonietta conceded with a faint smile.
"I think you should take a look at my surprise. He's been stuck out in the weather all this time waiting."
"You brought someone?" For a moment her heart jumped. Did Byron have a son? She knew very little about him, although he visited often. Tasha had brought up a good point. No one really knew where Byron lived.
"In a manner of speaking," Byron replied enigmatically. "The garden entrance... he's waiting there."
"You should have brought him inside," Antonietta said.
"Well, I brought him for you and hope you feel the same way when you meet him." Byron opened the door and signaled to the borzoi.
Celt walked in majestically. True to his word, Byron had protected him against the storm, so his coat was completely dry. He went straight up to Antonietta and, as if knowing she was blind, thrust his head beneath her hand. His gaze was already fixed on her devotedly. Byron smiled. "I knew you would like her immediately," he said to Celt.
Antonietta's fingers sank into the silky fur in amazement. "A dog? You brought me a dog?"
"He is not just any dog." Byron closed the door against the lashing rain and wind. "Celt is a companion and protector. He knows how to stay out of the way yet will always be with you, completely devoted. As long as this dog is with you, should there be need, I will be able to aid you, even if I am a great distance away." He watched her face carefully for any indication of unease at his words. It wasn't logical for Antonietta to accept his differences so easily, yet she never seemed to question him.
Antonietta dropped to her knees as she ran her hands over the dog's powerful chest and down its back. "He's very large. And he seems built to run. How will I ever be able to give him adequate exercise?" She wanted to keep the animal. The moment she touched the dog's warmth, the moment she felt his long nose, gentle in her palm, she knew there was a connection. The dog was meant to be hers. She was desperate to have him, but at the same time she was aware of her limitations. "I want you to be happy."
"Celt. His name is Celt. Borzois do not stay with people who make them unhappy. It is his choice, and judging by the way he has taken up position at your side, I would say he has made it. He needs rest and to regain his strength. His former owner was quite abusive. Apparently, Celt was owned by a young lady who had the misfortune to marry the wrong man. He was locked in a tiny pen where he could barely stand, and he was starved."
"How awful. I feel his ribs." Antonietta rubbed the silky ears. "We'll get him strong again.
Grazie, Byron. Truly. You make me want to cry that you would think to bring me something so wonderful. How ever did you find him?"
Byron shrugged casually. "I heard his call. He is a powerful dog but extremely gentle. He will obey all commands from you, including to attack should there be need. He will watch over you when I cannot be with you. Did you hire a bodyguard?"
"Justine is working on that for me. I know a woman who runs an international agency. I met her several years ago and was impressed. She's an American, but all of her people are skilled and speak several languages. I'm certain whomever she sends will be fine." She allowed the dog his own inspection, knowing scent was important in the animal world. "So you are called Celt. I'm Antonietta. I've never had a pet in my life, so please bear with me. I'll do my best to learn quickly."
"He is not a pet," Byron corrected. "He will provide protection and companionship, but he chooses freely who he wishes to stay with. You can connect with me, so it is possible you can connect with him. The brain patterns are different, but if you practice, you can pick up his signals. It is all electrical currents."
"I never thought of how it worked or that telepathy could be used with animals. Can you pick up his feelings?"
"Of course. He picks up ours. An animal will become upset if a child cries or its companion is distressed or in danger. You will see."
"Grazie, Byron, this is a wonderful surprise." For a moment she hugged the animal, trying to remember the last time she had been given a gift. Her cousins thought she could have anything she wanted, so they never bothered. "You'll have to tell me how to exercise him properly."
"I think Margurite will like him," Byron said. "She has a natural affinity for animals. I have noticed she can draw wild creatures to her."
"Can she?" Antonietta was astonished. "No one has ever said a word to me, not even Justine, and she's my eyes here at the palazzo." With one hand resting on the dog's head, she tilted her chin at Byron. "What did you mean, when you were carrying me home from the cliffs, that there was a way I could see through you? You do incredible things. Is there a way you can make me see?"
Byron let out his breath slowly. His own hand found the dog's silky fur. "That question is difficult, Antonietta. It is wrong to tell an untruth to one's lifemate. Yes, I can aid you to see through my eyes, but it wouldn't be permanent. You would see what I see through our mind link. As long as I was with you, sharing my eyes, you could see. Anything beyond that is a different matter and one I do not have all the answers for at this time."
For a moment his wording threw her off. She'd never heard the words lifemate, but the idea of seeing was far too intriguing to change the subject. "I'd actually see? I would see little Margurite? My grandfather? The cousins? You? I could see myself in a mirror?"
"Yes, but you would be disoriented. Your body isn't used to signals from your eyes and would become confused. It would be better to start with something small while you are staying perfectly still. Moving would probably increase your discomfort." He wanted to gather her in his arms and hold her tight while he offered her an explanation. He could feel her confusion. It amazed him how much it bothered him when she was distressed.
Antonietta took a deep breath. "I'm going to settle Celt in my room and introduce him to the family when things calm down." She turned his words over and over in her mind, trying to make sense of them. Trying to puzzle out what he wasn't revealing to her. Trying to imagine being able to see, even if it was through his eyes.
She was surprised when the dog moved instantly to her side as she began to walk. It paced easily, not getting in her way yet remaining close to her.
"If he swerves in front of you, he wants you to stop, and there will be a reason," Byron said. "It would be good for you to try to connect, as he can also be your eyes."
"I don't like relying on anything if I can help it," Antonietta said. "It makes me more dependent."
"You rely on Justine." He kept his voice carefully neutral. "Celt is just a different tool as well as a companion. You might find he gives you even more freedom and independence. In any case, with him here, I will feel more at ease during the hours I am not with you. He needs rest now, but you will find, if he does bond with you, he will need to be with you most of the time for companionship."
Antonietta hugged the dog again. "Don't worry, Byron, I'll cherish every moment with him."
They went up the staircase and down the long hall to her rooms. After a brief inspection of the suite of rooms, Celt settled in as if it had always been his home. Antonietta was all too aware that Byron had closed the door to her quarters, leaving them alone. "It bothers you that I don't ask you questions about your life, doesn't it?"
"Why do you accept my differences so easily. Antonietta?" Byron asked curiously. "If I pushed beyond the barrier in your mind, I would be able to read your thoughts as lifemates do with one another, but I am trying to be considerate and wait until you wish to share your thoughts with me. If you do not talk to me, I have no way of knowing what you are thinking." He spared a thought for human males who had no way of reading their woman's mind.
Antonietta rubbed the dog's silky ears. "Do you know the history of the Scarlettis and the palazzo? Did you know that this entire building is riddled with secret passageways? The passageways guard Scarletti treasures as well as our secrets. I want to show you something." She leaned down to hug the dog again. "Stay here, be warm."
"You are not going into the passageway, are you, Antonietta? I heard enough to know that those passageways are dangerous. I understand lethal traps are built into the walls and floors."
She slipped her hand along the bottom of the wall until she located the mechanism to open the hidden door leading to the narrow passageway.
"The secret passageway is more than a means of escape to the sea," Antonietta said. "It has been used by our family for generations to store valuable antiquities that conquerors, governments, or even the church might covet."
"With all the traps in here, are you not afraid you might take a misstep and be killed?" Byron didn't like the idea of Antonietta moving with her usual confidence through the darkened hallways, knowing sharpened blades were hidden for the unwary.
Antonietta laughed softly. "The blades were removed many years ago, just for that reason. We no longer needed to escape into the sea when invaders were upon us, so for the safety of unwary family members, the traps were dismantled." She took his hand and smiled up at him. "It is quite safe. Come with me. I'm at home in the dark, and I won't let anything happen to you. There's something in here I discovered some time ago. To me it was worth more than all the golden treasures and artwork stored in the hidden rooms."
"You are certain the traps have been dismantled?"
"Yes. Even the Scarlettis had to come into the modern age." We even installed electricity here in the passageway. We needed it for the vaults as well as lighting. Her laughter was soft and inviting. How could anyone resist her laughter, least of all he?
Byron took her hand and followed her into the dark passageway. She didn't turn on the lights in the hidden labyrinth of hallways. She didn't need a light, and it said something about how well she knew him that she didn't bother with one for him.
"The night my parents died, I knew something was wrong. I woke up and could barely breathe. I called to them, but they didn't hear me. I ran up onto the deck. I could hear the sound of the clock ticking. Later, when I told Nonno , he said it was my imagination. But it wasn't. I knew there was a bomb on the boat. I jumped into the sea as it went off."
The door swung closed behind them, locking them in the narrow passageway. It was pitch black. No light seeped its way into the maze of halls. It was so narrow, Byron's shoulders nearly touched on either side. "It is possible you heard it and felt it, Antonietta. Many people have built-in alarms and even a kind of radar."
"For years I blamed myself. I left them there. They didn't come up on the deck when I yelled to them there was danger. I don't know why, but they didn't come." She led him through two sharp turns, steered him away from the wider of two passages. "That was the first time I ever felt the beast."
Byron felt her fingers tighten involuntarily around his. He immediately pulled her close against his body. "You were a child, Antonietta, five years only. You barely escaped death yourself. As it was, you must have hesitated long enough to get caught in the blast."
She ran her hand over his chest in a stroking caress, and her fingers were trembling. "I know that... now. Children tend to blame themselves. I turned back when I saw they hadn't come up on deck, and I screamed for them to hurry." For a moment she rested her head against his chest. "I was too small to climb up on the railing to get over the side, but I felt a power moving inside of me. It was growing and spreading. The night was so dark, there was no moon, and it was black. The sea was black. All of a sudden, I felt something moving under my skin, almost as if it were alive, and I itched terribly. And then I could see everything. Not like my normal sight - in a different way - but the night was suddenly clear. I heard my mother whisper to my father. She'd be right back, she was going to check on me. They thought I had a nightmare. But it was already too late. I leapt up on the railing. One single jump. It was so easy. And then the world went white, and then red and orange, and then black for me."
Byron could feel the deep sorrow in her. It didn't matter that the events had taken place so many years earlier, they were as fresh in her mind as the day they happened. He held her tightly, buried his face in the fragrance of her silky hair. "I am so grateful you survived, Antonietta. I am sorry for the loss of your parents. You must have loved them very much." He reached to breach that ever-present barrier in her mind. Wanting her memories. Wanting to know what the power inside of her had been. Where it had come from.
"They were wonderful. You rarely saw one without the other. They were so close. They always seemed to have secrets. Come on, I want to show you this." She stepped away from him to tug at his hand. "I've never told anyone what really happened that night. I knew they would think I was crazy. I was born with the Scarletti ability to heal. And several of us are telepathic, although the ability is limited. I've never been able to communicate so clearly with anyone as I can with you." She stopped in the middle of the long passageway and ran her palm along the top of the wall. "When I discovered this room, it was covered in cobwebs, I don't think anyone had been here for years."
Byron reached up to find her hand with his, to slide his fingers into the centuries-old depression to find the hidden mechanism for revealing the chamber. As the door opened, a light glowed from within, automatically coming on. At the same time a musty, stale air greeted them. Byron turned her away from it. shielding her with his larger frame while he blew into the room, at the same time creating a small wind with his arms. He waited until he was certain it was safe to breathe before he moved out of Antonietta's way.
"How did you do that? I can do a few things, but I can't carry two adults across the cliffs and down that narrow, slippery trail to the palazzo. I swear our feet never touched the ground, and you were moving so fast the wind blew in our faces. I can draw on the strength of the beast, and sometimes, I can see images of heat, much like an infrared I suppose, but I can't do the things you do. Like I saw the other night when it scared me. It wasn't me seeing, but something else."
She stepped into the small room. Byron followed her. It was no more than the size of a walk-in closet, long and narrow. And the walls were carved from floor to ceiling with a mixture of symbols, pictures, and ancient language.
"This is the history of my family," Antonietta said. "Our heritage, what we are. And after Nonno showed me this room, I wasn't afraid of myself anymore." She tilted her head toward him. "And I would never be afraid of you." She waved toward the wall. "I give you the cat you were looking for last night. The Scarlett! cats."
Byron stepped closer to the wall, ran the pads of his fingers over the intricate carvings in the same way she had "read" the images. There were pictures of jaguars, men and women half jaguar, half human, caught for all time in transition. The earlier carvings were crude but detailed. The later drawings quite beautiful as if great care had been taken in creating them. "This is amazing, Antonietta. Has anyone else seen this?"
"No, I felt it was better to keep it to myself."
Byron had to agree with her. The contents of the room would be very damaging to the Scarlettis and their position in society. But the carefully kept account of the Scarletti history was important to his people. His fingers flew over the wall, reading as quickly as he was able. "So this is the reason you do not fear my differences, and you accept them so easily."
"I knew immediately you had to be one of the males, and your bloodline must be stronger even than mine." She took a deep breath and let it out. "I know you won't stay, Byron, and that's okay. It really is. I have no wish to be married. I'm quite content with my life the way it is. I've never considered a permanent relationship with a man. Taking a lover is a different thing altogether. For as long as you want to stay, I think it will work out perfectly for the both of us."
He turned slowly, rested one hip against the carved wall, and folded his arms across his chest. There was a long silence. "So you will not mind when I leave you?"
Antonietta heard the soft underlying growl in his voice, the snap of his teeth. A shiver went through her, and for the first time unease crept into her mind. Byron seemed an easygoing, courteous gentleman, with old-fashioned, courtly ways. She remembered the way her assailant had been flung backward, the distinct sound of bone snapping. How carelessly the body was thrown away from them. Byron had never even checked to see if the man still lived, he had known he was dead.
"Well, obviously, I've read this many times. I understand perfectly the need for the male of this species to wander. I'm telling you I accept the inevitable and don't want you to feel bad about it." Even as she spoke, she took a small step backward, her hand going protectively to her throat. Her pulse beat frantically as if calling to him. The spot where he had left his mark the night before throbbed and burned.
"There is an inevitable, but I doubt it is what you envision." He reached out casually, almost lazily, and circled the nape of her neck with his palm, drawing her toward him. She went reluctantly, taking one small step at his urging, then another until she could feel the heat of his body right through the thin barrier of her clothing.
Both hands found his chest. "Why are you angry?"
He was smoldering with anger, with the thought that she was certain he would leave her. That he would want to leave her. That she seemed totally accepting, even grateful that he would leave her. Byron made an effort to tamp down the seething cauldron of emotions. That way lay disaster. "What it says on this wall is that a group of women and children arrived, seeking sanctuary. There were a few males, old mostly, or very young, but the women had no men to protect them. They wanted permission to live on Scarletti land, under the protection of the Scarletti family. They were foreigners, come from a distant land with strange ways. It is said these women had tremendous psychic abilities. They were telepaths. Healers. And all of them were shape-shifters."
Antonietta nodded. He wasn't holding her in place, his fingers were very light, almost gentle around her neck, but she still felt the tension vibrating in the air between them. "The picture clearly shows a large cat of some kind."
"The Jaguar," he supplied. "I have heard of this species. They are all but extinct. The males refused to stay with the females, and eventually the females took on human husbands. The bloodline thinned over the centuries."
She nodded her head in agreement. "I feel the cat inside of me at times. Warning me. I have an acute sense of smell. I'm blind, yet at times when the wildness inside of me is growing, I see in colors of red and yellow and white. Heat images. I thought when you smelled the cat last night perhaps one of my cousins is the same, and I'm not such a freak. It's true, Byron. This is the reason the Scarlettis made a bargain with the women in the village. They wanted the gift of the Jaguar people for their own. Some of the Scarletti men intermarried with those women, and some have the blood strong and some don't. I read the wall carefully. You are so correct about the men leaving. The women were willing to stay with humans because their males never stayed. They got them pregnant, and they left, even during times of war and hunger and plague. So the women turned to our race for companionship and love and a family."
"As they did in other places as well," Byron said.
"In the old days, women had few rights and little protection, but in the world today, we're quite capable of caring for our children and providing for them. I have a good life, and I never expected to meet someone I was so attracted to. Honestly, Byron, I'm just saying I didn't expect nor want a lover for more than a short period of time."
His breath escaped in a long, slow hiss of annoyance. "Unfortunately, that is not what I expect or want, Antonietta. I am not Jaguar. My people do not leave one another for reasons of convenience or wanderlust. We mate for life. For eternity. I do not want less, nor will I accept less. You have much to learn of who and what I am." His dark gaze roamed possessively over her face.
She could feel the impact, the intensity, as his gaze burned over her. She was immediately reminded of the suffocating darkness she lived in. Alone in the close confines of the room, it was too late to remember she knew very little of this man standing so close to her. She knew nothing of his family or his heritage or even his heart. He was always alone and very quiet, very polite, but he could be shockingly violent in an instant if need be.
"Who are you, Byron?" Her voice came out a husky whisper of fear when she needed her confidence most. "Tell me who you are then. Tell me what you are. If not Jaguar, like me, what are you then?" She held her breath, pressed her hand to her somersaulting stomach.
Byron's thumb tipped her chin up. She felt his breath on her face. Warm. Inviting. His lips skimmed the corner of her mouth. Velvet soft. So persuasive her heart leapt. "I am your lifemate. Keeper of your heart as you are the keeper of mine." The words were whispered against her eyes. His lips trailed down her face to find her mouth again. Soft. Insistent. Feather light, yet with all the power to rob her of breath. Of speech. Of sanity. Her brain refused to think of anything other than wanting him. Having him for her own.
His words sounded foreign and even formal, but it still didn't stop her from turning her mouth up to his. Of wanting him with every cell in her body. Byron. She had dreamt of him for so many lonely nights. Erotic, passionate dreams of wild sex and heights of pleasure she didn't believe really existed. His lips crushed hers, and he was devouring her, his mouth hot and male and exciting there in the dark of the hidden room where the bizarre secrets of her ancestors decorated the wall.
They simply melted together, two halves of the same whole. There was fire and electricity. There was a curious rippling of the earth beneath their feet. He pulled her closer, fit her body tightly against his, imprinting his every muscle on her soft flesh. He knew how she would feel, all soft curves and mesmerizing heat. The flood of passion welling up in her to meet his darkest cravings. Byron had known almost from the moment he had heard the first exquisite note of her music.
Antonietta circled his neck with her arms. Byron took her into a world of hunger and passion and light. Where her music came from. Her deepest joys and sorrows and erotic dreams. Her every want. She couldn't help wanting to be closer, wanting to feel the incredible heat of his skin. She slipped her hands beneath his shirt to feel his defined muscles. She ached with wanting him, her body already turning liquid and needy.
"Byron," she whispered his name, the voice of a siren. An invitation to paradise.
His teeth nipped her full lower lip. "Do you want me to make love to you, Antonietta? That would be so simple for you. No attachment. No love between us to get in the way." His hand shaped her breast, his thumb leasing her nipple into a hard peak. He bent his head to the temptation right through the thin fabric of her blouse. Her breasts were luxuriously soft and full. She had a woman's curving body and was generously endowed. His mouth closed over the soft, luscious mound, hot and moist and suckling strongly so that Antonietta arched back and caught his hair in her hands to drag him closer to her.
Her knees went weak, and she cried out, afraid she would have an orgasm right there, just from his mouth on her breast. His tongue licked along the valley between her breasts up toward her throat. "Is this what you want? Just a physical relationship?" He lifted his head, and she felt his eyes burning like lasers. "This is good enough for you?"
Antonietta's fingers bunched in his hair, nearly desperate to pull him back to her. There was no reason to feel guilty, but she did. "It has always been good enough in the past," she said defiantly, and then was instantly ashamed that he had managed to rattle her when it was none of his business what she did or even what she preferred.
Byron straightened slowly, his hands slowly releasing her. His body withdrew from hers, leaving her feeling cold and alone and bereft. "It is not good enough for me."
Antonietta pushed an unsteady hand through her hair deliberately stepping into the passageway to give herself space.
"You can't possibly want a long-term, permanent relationship with me. You don't even know me."
"That is not precisely true, Antonietta. There is very little about you I do not know. I took the time, sitting quietly in your home, listening to you. Hearing the music you play, watching you with your family. I know you far better than you think. You have not taken the time to get to know me. You thought you could have me for a lover, and your perfect world would remain intact. You wouldn't have to do anything different at all, but in truth, there is always change and consequences."
She didn't like seeing herself through his eyes. He made her feel shallow and self-centered. "There is nothing wrong with a woman being practical, Byron. Men take lovers and walk away all the time. They've been doing it for centuries. I'm practical, not unemotional. I have a family depending on me, I have a full-time career. Can't you see that I'm making sense? You're not in love with me." She dared him to lie to her and say he was.
He paced away from her, returned to stand over her. She felt his shadow even in the darkened passageway. Felt his presence, not the man she was so comfortable with, not the man she had come to think of as sweet and courtly, but a dangerous predator stalking her in the narrow confines of the Scarlett! passageway. She had the impression of lips drawn back in a silent snarl and fangs exposed. "How would you know what I feel or do not feel?" His voice was so low it could barely be heard, yet there was a note in it that increased her fear even more.
Antonietta put out her hand. A test. Byron instantly caught her hand, drew her palm to the warmth of his chest. She could feel his heart beating. Steady. Strong. A perfect rhythm, and her own heart seemed to want to follow. "I didn't mean to hurt you." She stepped closer to him. "I did, didn't I? I hurt you by saying I didn't want a permanent relationship with you. I didn't mean it the way it came out." Why had she been so afraid? How could she ever think that Byron, with his impeccable manners, would be anything but generous and courteous? She was becoming fanciful after her misadventure in the night.
"No man wants to be told he will be discarded gladly."
Byron said. "It is a bit hard on the ego." He brought her fingers to his mouth.
Antonietta expected a brief kiss. His mouth closed over her finger. And it was hot and moist and everything it had been when he had been lavishing attention on her breast. She thought she might fall down, simply melt into a puddle on the floor. "I think my hormones are in overdrive, Byron." She had no other defense besides humor. "If you keep that up, I might have to consider ripping your shirt right off of you."
"I do not think that is designed to stop me, Antonietta." There was a hint of laughter in his voice. His teeth nibbled at her finger, scraped along the pad of her thumb. "How did you discover this room? You do not come into the passageway that often, do you?"
His tone sounded mildly curious, yet she had the impression he was waiting for her answer. That his tone was quite at odds with his emotions. "Most of my life I could manage to read people, Byron. I've always thought it was because I was blind, and I had to rely on other senses to get by. You're very difficult, because you don't say very much and I can't rely on your voice to give away your emotions." She reached up to touch his face, gently mapping his expression with her fingertips.
"I have never been blind, Antonietta, although for a long time I was color-blind. I saw the world in shades of gray and white and charcoal. It is a condition in the males of my people. Most lose the ability to see in color when they come into full power, but I took much longer."
Byron seemed so sad, suddenly she pressed closer to him. "What is it? What are you thinking of?"
"A time long ago when I had a childhood friend. More than a friend. In my world, our siblings can be quite a bit older. My friend was my family. We were never far apart from one another, and he made life bearable for me. I worked with jewelry, and Jacques would try his hand at it." His mouth curved at the memory of Jacques's antics. Byron was a gem-caller, able to sing the stones of the Earth into revealing themselves, and Jacques often accompanied him into the deepest caves. "My friend disappeared for several years and was presumed dead. My life was hell after that. I felt alone, and maybe I was even angry with him for dying and leaving me behind. I felt lost, without an anchor. And one day I saw a woman. I could see her in color. I knew she had red hair and green eyes. When that happens, the male of our species knows she is the one woman. But I could not see anyone or anything else in color, which did not make sense if she were my lifemate, as colors are fully restored to us through our lifemate. I should have known better, should have taken the time to think things through, but I was not so patient back then."
The sadness weighed so heavily on him, it seemed a burden, a great sorrow. Antonietta felt it in her heart, in her mind, but she remained silent, hoping he would continue. She had a feeling he had never told the story to anyone else.
Byron turned his head to kiss her fingertips. "Later, I realized my friend Jacques and I were so close I was picking up visions from his head. He had been tortured, and he was half mad. He did not remember any of us, so it did not occur to me, at the time that I was still connected to him, still seeing through his eyes as we had often done, sharing information on our personal path. But by the time I figured out what was happening, it was too late; I had ruined our friendship and instilled a deep distrust of me in him. He needed me, and I let him down. I have regretted those rash days bitterly.""How sad, Byron. I hope your friend is better now. And if he was such a good friend, I'm certain as he heals, he'll forgive anything you might have done.""The connection between us is still there, should either of us decide to use it, but I no longer saw in colors. My life returned to grays and shadows. Until I met you."The way he said it, starkly, honestly, tugged at her heartstrings. Until I met you. It had to be his voice that affected her so completely. "What changed?" There seemed to be a lump in her throat. Antonietta gave herself a stern warning. He was a man, just like other men, one who would come and go just as they all did. It mattered little what sweet words he came up with, in the long run, the prenuptial agreement always told what they were after. And it was never Antonietta, the woman."My entire life," he said simply.And there in the absolute darkness, she wanted to believe him. "Kiss me, Byron. Just kiss me again." Her arms slid around his neck, and she pressed her body close to his. An offering. A hunger. A need. She might not want him to be special, might not want to believe he was different from all the others to her, but she needed him to kiss her. And she had never needed anyone.He murmured something in a language she had never heard before and bent his head to hers. His lips feathered over her face, along her cheekbones, a soft assault on her senses. There was tremendous strength in his hands as he pulled her even closer, fitting her body into the cradle of his hips. His mouth teased hers. His teeth tugged at her bottom lip, a sweet temptation that left her helpless to resist had she wanted.Antonietta moved restlessly, a deliberate enticement. When he was with her, when he was near, she had a difficult time thinking of anyone else. Anything else. She craved him in the way an addict might a drug. "A compulsion," she murmured. "That's what you are. A sorcerer, and you've cast a spell on me.""And here I thought it was the other way around." He whispered the words against her lips.Before she could answer, his mouth took possession of hers, and the world turned upside down. It didn't matter that there was no light, colors burst behind her eyes and exploded like fireworks in her mind. Beneath her feet the earth rippled so that she clung to him. She lost all ability to breathe, yet he was the very air for her. Antonietta clung to him, unprepared for the way her body simply went soft and pliant and needy. "This has never happened before."He kissed her again. Thoroughly. Hungrily. As if she were the only woman in the world, and he had to kiss her. Needed to kiss her. And then, abruptly, he lifted his head. His eyes glittered a fiery red above her head and for just a moment fangs gleamed white in the stark black of the passageway. "There is someone coming this way," he said. His tone was free of all menace, but she caught a brief glimpse of the inherent violence in him. A beast roared for release, struggled for supremacy. His calm demeanor never wavered, but she felt it just as if it were in her.She felt him reaching out with all his senses, inhaling deeply as if he could scent an enemy. "No one comes in here, Byron," she whispered. "We store great treasures, artwork, and jewels. The rooms are designed to keep them in the precise temperatures needed to preserve them. Not even family comes in here without first getting permission from Nonno or from me."He placed his lips against her ear. "Someone is in the passageway and moving stealthily, not with confidence. I doubt they have permission." He saw the glimmer of a light moving toward them. "They are nearing us. I can hide us from his sight, but the passage is too narrow for him not to bump into you. We will have to go into your history room and close the door."Byron felt her swift intake of breath in reaction to his words. The involuntary clenching of her fingers into a fist in the fabric of his shirt. His arm tightened around her. "You will be safe with me. I know the space is small, but I can get out, should something go wrong with the mechanism."There was complete confidence in his voice. Antonietta could not tell him of a world of suffocating darkness. Of waking up choking, strangling, her throat closed, fighting desperately for air. Her heart pounded with alarming force. She nodded wordlessly, not trusting her voice. She abhorred the mind-numbing fear that inevitably caught hold of her when she was on unfamiliar ground.Byron drew her into the small confines of the little room and nudged the door until it swung shut, sealing them in. He dragged her close beneath the protection of his shoulder. With the door closed, the light was gone, hiding the Scarletti secrets as it had for centuries. Byron ran his fingertips along the wall. The carvings were smooth and precise, a work of art, even as it was a kind of diary of each generation. He caressed the figure of a shape-shifter, first in human, then half and half, and then fully in cat form. The Jaguar. A sad ending to a species. The blood was so diluted it was doubtful if more than a handful remained with full abilities. So many species gone or nearly gone from the earth.Antonietta's fingers found him, tracing over the same beautifully drawn figure.If you are not, Jaguar, what are you, Byron?Instinctively she used the more intimate form of communication. Somewhere on the other side of the wall someone skulked about the passageway with a hidden agenda of their own.I am of the earth. My people have been in existence since the beginning of time, in one form or another. Then you do shift shape! You can, can't you?She was very excited.His breath was warm on her face. His lips touched her cheekbone.If I were to answer yes, would it in any way influence you to consider adding me to the Scarletti gene pool?He was listening to the furtive footsteps as they moved past their hiding place.That's not funny.But laughter bubbled up anyway. And joy. It was true. She wasn't losing her mind as she often imagined when the beast rose up strong within her, roaring to be set free.I'm too old to even consider having a baby.She said the last to sober up. She was too old to consider a permanent relationship, even if the man intrigued her and made her feel beautiful and young and filled with happiness. It was infatuation, physical attraction, a crush that would soon pass. It had to pass soon.His palm slid down the length of her hair, weighed the heavy braid in his hand.You do not know what old is, Antonietta.There was a wealth of amusement in his voice.I would like to find out who is out there. He is male, and a member of your family. Normally I can easily scan human thoughts, but the Jaguar influence is prevalent in this area. He feels like Paul, but I cannot scan many of the people here as easily as most others. If I press, he will feel my presence. But I can follow him and see what he is up to.Antonietta bit down hard on her knuckle to keep a protest from escaping. She had come into the maze of tunnels hundreds of times. It would be silly to be afraid of being alone. She could easily find her way back to her room once out of the history room. Byron would be the one in danger of being caught in the intricate labyrinth that ran through the many levels of the Scarletti palazzo.Scan them? You read thoughts? I thought it was only me, that we just had some form of telepathy together. You can read everyone? And you do not? In the board meetings your grandfather insists on dragging you to, do you not hear what the others are thinking?Before she could answer, he patted her hand.I will return in a moment.Antonietta opened her mouth. Whether she was going to agree or protest, she wasn't certain, but he simply disappeared. His body had been warm and solid, and then it was gone. They hadn't shifted position to open the wall entrance. She put out her hands, carefully explored all four walls. He had simply vanished. Silently. Completely.She pressed her hand against her open mouth and leaned against her ancestor's wall of records, shocked. What are you? She ran her fingers over the wall, searching every word, every symbol, and every picture in the hopes of finding another shape her people were capable of shifting into. There was nothing to indicate any of them could simply disappear. She believed in shifting shapes, but completely disappearing was an altogether different proposition. Why did Byron's ability to vanish make her so uneasy when finding her family's history had been such a relief?Antonietta nearly had a heart attack when Byron's body was suddenly crowding hers in the small confines of the room. She flattened herself against the wall as his much harder frame pressed against hers, but her fingertips went to his face, reading his expression, mapping his familiar face. As often as she did it, he never flinched away, never seemed to mind. "Byron." She breathed his name aloud, thankful he was back, wanting to know his every secret.Did I startle you?He kissed the corner of her mouth, left a trail of flames down the side of her neck in apology.It is Paul.Antonietta went still. "Paul." She said her cousin's name aloud. "He never goes inside the passageway. He's never even looked at a map. He doesn't like confined spaces. His father used to lock him in a closet when he was angry with him. Which seemed to be all the time. Are you certain? What would make him chance coming in here?" Her fingers were already searching out the hidden mechanism to open the wall. "He's bound to get lost in here. Unless you have the map and the key to the map, you could be lost for days.""It might do him good," Byron said grimly. "He is up to no good.""You don't know that." The door slid open without a sound, telling Byron that Antonietta came to the room often enough to keep the mechanisms running smoothly. She had that faint haughty note in her voice that always made him smile. He followed her into the passage. "Which way did he go?""To the left." He placed his lips close to her ear. "What is to the left.""The vaults. How would he know that? Only Nonno and I know the exact location of the vaults. He can't be going there." To her annoyance, she didn't sound certain."Perhaps he had help. When you come in here to catalogue, do you have a pair of eyes? I would venture to say Justine knows exactly how to get to the vault room.""She wouldn't - ""She is in love with him." Byron paced along behind her in the narrow confines of the tunnel. His breath was on the nape of her neck. His body heat warmed her. "What would you do for the man you loved, Antonietta? Would you betray your family? Your friends? Would you do anything for him?""Any man I loved would not want me to betray my family and friends." She lifted her chin as she moved confidently through the twists and turns. "If he did, he wouldn't be worth loving, now would he?""How do you know where you are going?""I count. I memorize everything.""You are amazing." There was sincere admiration in his words, in his tone.The genuine compliment made her insides glow. No one said things like that to her. No one else ever gave her personal compliments. Not even her grandfather. Her talent as a musician and composer was taken for granted. Don Giovanni simply shrugged and said with all the lessons she'd been given, she better be considered one of the best in the world. A Scarletti could never be second.Byron's hand simply rested on the small of her back, but it generated so much heat, so much desire, she felt her skin melting beneath this touch. The physical awareness was so great she had trouble concentrating. Antonietta reveled in the intensity of her craving for him. It had never happened to her before, and at thirty-seven, she never thought it would. She was determined to enjoy every moment with him if she could, as long as she had him, even here, in the dark passageways of the Scarletti palazzo with her idiot cousin sneaking to the vaults.Antonietta could feel the pressurized air flowing through an open door. She instinctively slowed down, keeping her footfalls soft on the cool tile. It was only then that she realized that, although she was very aware of Byron, she couldn't hear him. She could feel his hand melting through her back, at times his breath on her skin, but he moved so silently, she would never have known he was there without her heightened senses.Her heart was pounding overloud in alarm. In regret. Not so much at what her cousin was doing but the fact that Justine had to have helped him. Her Justine. Antonietta's eyes and ears in the palazzo. In the business world. In her profession. She trusted Justine implicitly. She had to. The door opened to the vault room tore apart her heart, shaking her hard-won confidence.Byron's heart was breaking for her. His Antonietta, who loved and trusted her cousins and Justine. She had made them her world, and yet they thought nothing of what it cost her. Anger swirled inside his gut, a hot, roiling emotion that thickened the air in the passageway, making it difficult to breathe. The tension magnified until raw energy ran through the tunnels, a forerunner of immense danger.Looking over Antonietta's shoulder into the vault room, Byron could see Paul examining several gold artifacts. Several times, he picked up an intricately detailed ship made of gold and put it back down. It was large, and he couldn't find a way to hide it under his shirt.He is helping himself to the Scarletti treasures. At the moment he cannot choose between a golden ship or a necklace of rubies and diamonds.Even from the distance, Byron recognized the glittering piece. He had crafted the necklace with great care, his hands fashioning the gold into the intricate setting for the beautiful gems. It had been a lifetime ago. And he thought of his lifemate while he worked, making it with infinite care, knowing he was making it for the bride of someone considered important in the political world. It fascinated and intrigued him that a Scarletti bride had worn his creation, A soft hiss of anger was trapped in his throat as he watched Paul's greedy hand grasping the necklace to him.Show me.He hesitated but shared the images reluctantly.Antonietta made a single sound. A soft cry of despair. She remembered that necklace, one of the few things she did remember from her days of sight. She had loved it, been fascinated by it, and the thought of her cousin stealing it, taking its elegance and fire out of the family, was horrifying. That small sound of heart-wrenching despair called to the demon already roaring for release buried within Byron.Startled, shocked, Paul swung around, his face twisted with fear and purpose. There was only one heartbeat of time to see the shiny metal object clasped in Paul's hand as he turned. Time slowed, tunneled, as Byron dissolved into molecules, to materialize once again in between Paul and Antonietta.The blow to Byron's chest was so hard it knocked him backward, off his feet, slamming his body into hers, driving them both against the opposite wall. In the small confines of the passageway, the explosion was deafening. The bullet tore its way through his body and out his back, slamming into Antonietta's shoulder. As he fell on lop of Antonietta, his body protecting hers, he tried to focus on Paul, focus on his throat to cut off all air. He could not leave Antonietta, helpless and vulnerable, alone with her treacherous cousin.Paul coughed, staggered, nearly went to his knees. The gun in his limp fingers wavered alarmingly. Byron's vision blurred. He was losing too much blood too fast. Without shutting down his system, he would be unable to recover. Animal instinct turned his head to see Celt racing toward them.The borzoi had sensed trouble and managed to nose open the hidden door. A silent hunter, the animal ran full out, his long legs covering ground like a well-oiled running machine. The eyes were fixed and focused on prey. It mattered little that it was human. Celt leapt over Byron and Antonietta, going straight for Paul, teeth slashing at the arm holding the gun. Paul screamed in pain and dropped the weapon."Antonietta! I didn't know it was you!" Paul yelled, struggling to hold off the dog. Already his arms were a mass of cuts from the slashing teeth. "Call him off, call off the dog!""Celt!" Antonietta used her most authoritative voice. She could see nothing. Byron's motionless body covered hers, pinning her to the floor. Her back hurt as well as the front of her shoulder. "Stay, boy. Paul, if you make one move toward me or Byron, I'm letting him loose, and I won't call him off." She had no idea what had happened, but she smelled blood. Her sensitive fingertips found liquid, warm and sticky. Pools of it."It was an accident. I didn't know it was you. The gun just went off by itself. You startled me." Paul realized he was babbling and started toward his cousin.The borzoi stood between them, head down, eyes alert, still in hunting mode. Paul stopped at once. "He won't let me get to you, and Byron's bleeding all over the floor. Dio, Antonietta, I think I've killed him.""You shot him?" Antonietta fought down hysteria and panic. "Get over here and move him off of me. Stop feeling sorry for yourself and help me save him.""The dog - ""Is going to tear you apart if you don't do exactly what I say! Now come here and move him. Be very careful, Paul. If he dies, you're going to spend the rest of your life in prison. I won't even help with your defense!""I'm telling you, Antonietta..." Paul carefully skirted around the dog. "I didn't shoot anyone on purpose. I didn't know what was down here, so I brought protection with me. I never even came in the tunnels when I was a child."Antonietta felt Byron's body shift, move off of her, allowing her to crawl out from beneath him. "You were an idiot to bring a gun with you. Where in the world did you get a gun, anyway? Why would you even have one?" She was frantically trying to find the wound, searching for a pulse.Paul moaned loudly. "He's dead, Antonietta, there's no pulse."She shoved her cousin hard. "Get away from him! He's not dead. I won't let him be dead. Byron! Don't you dare leave me alone. Come back! Damn you, Paul, how could you do this?"She couldn't find a pulse either, and for a moment her world stopped. There was no air to breathe. Her vocal cords wouldn't work. There was nothing. Emptiness. A black void where there had been life and laughter and her music. She had nothing.The struggle started in her mind. A voice whispering to her from far away. Soothing her. Telling her it wasn't so.I must see him.The words were the first she understood.Look at him. I must see him.She had never heard the voice, but it was low and compelling and insistent on obedience. He spoke in her language but with a definite accent, so velvet soft he seemed to purr.Antonietta took a breath, let it out slowly, her hands gripping Byron as if she could hold him to her. She forced herself to follow the path of that faraway voice. She wouldn't waste time on fearing it. She feared that the meaning of her entire life was spilling blood on the tiles there in passageway. Nothing mattered to her but to save Byron.I am blind. I cannot show you what I see.The borzoi pushed his nose against her face as if to remind her he was there.A dog is with you? This dog was Byron's dog? I have it now. Yes, the wound is bad. He is not dead but has shut down his system to conserve blood. He will need special care. Do you have help? My cousin. Paul is the one who shot Byron.There was a moment of silence and Celt shifted his body, his dark eyes focusing on Paul. "I don't like the way that dog keeps looking at me," her cousin said, "I think it wants to tear my throat out.""I should let him," Antonietta snapped, furious that Paul would want sympathy.Are you near soil of any kind? Rich soil? You will need to pack the wound with it. The bullet exited and tore a hole through his back. Your shoulder is injured as well."I'm going for help, Antonietta. We'll need the doctor," Paul said decisively. "I think you were shot, too."She didn't notice, she concentrated on the voice.Tell me what to do. She had to believe that distant voice. Who are you? Jacques. Byron has family in the area. If you can get him out of there into the open, they will come and care for him. I want to care for him.But Antonietta was already on her feet, tugging at Byron's dead weight, trying to drag him down the tunnel. The dog caught at Byron's jacket, adding his strength to hers."What the hell are you doing?" Paul demanded. "He's dead, Antonietta. We have to get you medical attention.""Just help," she snapped. "Don't say anything, or I may pick up that gun and shoot you myself! I can't believe you brought that thing into my home.""I have people after me," Paul admitted, reaching down to help pull Byron along the floor. "I got into some trouble with some people I owe money to. They aren't the kind of men you want to meet up with without a gun.""I thought you quit gambling, Paul.""Aren't we going the wrong way? We're going downhill, toward the cove.""That's right.""You aren't going to just dump the body, are you, Antonietta? I mean, grazie, but we have to inform the authorities. I could have killed you, too. We have to give them the body, well, we should give them the body, but if it was found in the sea, or never found - ""He isn't dead," she said between her teeth. "Shut up and concentrate. We have to get him outside.""You aren't making sense, Antonietta." But Paul continued to help pull the body down through the maze of tunnels until he could smell the sea.It took hard work, but between Antonietta, Paul, and the borzoi, they managed to get Byron outside. The rain was falling steadily, sheets of it, so that they were instantly soaked through. The wind whipped at them."Find me soil, Paul, rich soil, not sandy sod. I want good soil."Paul muttered and shook his head, but he did as his cousin wished, taking off his shirt to heap the soil from the beds the gardener had planted just above the cove. He was well aware Antonietta had remarkable powers as a healer, but even she couldn't bring back the dead. He rushed back to her side and knelt to watch as she packed the wounds, front and back, with the soil. "If you did manage to bring him back, he'd just die again with gangrene.""That's not funny." Antonietta wanted the reassurance of the voice again.We're outside, near the cove. I've packed the wounds with soil, but he isn't responding. Call to him. He will hear you.Antonietta didn't hesitate. Her insides were churning, and she wanted to scream and scream. To let the wind carry her horror and the fear held so tightly in check out over the sea and away from her. She never wanted to feel so afraid, so empty and dead again. She leaned close, sheltering his face from the rain.Byron. Byron, open your eyes.Her hand trembled as she stroked back his hair in a small caress.Don't leave me now that I've just found you. Wake up before I begin to weep and scream and plead like a ninny. I'm really afraid, and I need you.Byron became aware of many voices. At first he couldn't sort them out. There was chanting in the ancient tongue. Antonietta, summoning him imperiously back to her. Someone was yelling his name. He identified his sister Eleanor's voice. She sounded close to him, yet he knew she was far away. A man's voice called to him calmly yet with command. Jacques. Byron was certain he was hallucinating. He hadn't spoken telepathically with Jacques in years. "Maybe I really am dying." He muttered the words aloud to test his voice."No you're not! I refuse to allow it," Antonietta replied firmly. The relief was so tremendous she felt ill.Pain spread through him, and before he was fully aware, through her, so that she gasped and caught at him. "You need a doctor desperately. You've lost so much blood, Byron. You appeared dead, I couldn't even find a pulse.""No, I do not need a doctor, but I would not mind strangling your cousin. Was he trying to kill you or me or both of us?" Byron's black eyes had already found Paul kneeling beside Antonietta. Paul was very pale. He shook his head in denial. Byron noted Celt had positioned his body for a full-out attack should one be necessary. The dog was in alert mode, watching Paul's every move. Byron's dark gaze went back to Antonietta's white face. There were dark circles under her eyes and blood all over her. It took a minute before he realized not all the blood was his."Antonietta, you are injured." Byron made an effort to rise despite the weakness sweeping through him. The world tilted alarmingly, and blood gushed from his abdomen. His fingers found the gash in her shoulder, lingered there.Strangely, at his touch, the pain in her shoulder lessened. She pressed him back. "It's nothing, lie still. Your friend Jacques told me your family was close. He said they would come for you.""I had no idea any of my people were near. Go into the house. Keep Celt with you at all times. I will come as soon as I am able. Go now, Antonietta, or you will catch a chill. Your shoulder needs attention.""I'm not leaving you alone."Byron waved his hand to still all speech. His concentration couldn't be broken when his reserves were nearly gone. The rain fell steadily. The waves crashed and boomed endlessly. Paul knelt motionless, unable to move or speak. Celt stood over the man, eyes burning alertly. Byron reached for Antonietta. No one else mattered. Nothing else mattered. Not even his broken, torn body. He caught her to him, drew her down, his mouth finding her torn wound. He didn't have the energy to leave his body and enter hers, but he took his time, using precious minutes to heal her shoulder.Byron fell back, exhausted, watching the blood soak into the ground from a distance. He hurt, the pain intensified by his movements, but it didn't concern him as much as watching Antonietta come out from under his enthrallment, seeing her move much more easily, seeing the white lines of pain etched into her face ease.Paul pressed forward, jerky now that his body was once again his own. He blinked several times, trying to remember what he had been doing. He only saw Byron's nearly translucent face turned up to the rain. If a smear of blood had been on his mouth, it was gone now, washed away by the rain. "I'm sorry I shot you, Byron. The gun just went off.""And if Byron hadn't jumped in front of me, you would have shot me," Antonietta said, glaring at her cousin." Nonno is going to throw me out," Paul said."I'm going to throw you out," Antonietta countered, furious with him. Does he really think an apology is sufficient?She was shaking, and she preferred to think it was from anger and outrage rather than fear.Byron took her hand, brought her fingers to his mouth. Probably, but he will find out differently. Please do as I ask and go in. Someone is coming for me.Celt stiffened, his head going up alertly. Dark clouds swarmed across the sky, shadowing even the rain so that it went from silver to black. Plumes of white water swirled madly, rising in several towers toward the veiled moon. A bird of prey with a hooked beak and razor-sharp curved talons flew overhead and circled the small group in the cove. The wind rose to a howl. Faintly, far off, the sound of animals answering could be heard.The rain slashed at them, whipped into a frenzy by the sudden fury of the storm. The large owl landed on a tree above the path leading to the cove several yards from them. The heavens opened up and poured the rain down, a solid sheet, blocking sight of the bird. When it cleared, a man walked down the path toward them. He was enveloped in an old-fashioned, long, black cape. The folds swirled about his legs and body, and the hood hid his face. Rather than walk, he gave the impression of gliding, his feet not quite touching the ground. He halted a short distance from them, his outline vague and insubstantial in the silvery rain.Byron struggled to a sitting position, holding out his hand toward the stranger in warning. He tugged at Antonietta's wrist. "Go, now, take Paul and get him inside the tunnel. He is not safe out here. Do as I say quickly." He issued the command, nothing less, burying a push in his tone to force compliance.There was something so compelling in Byron's voice that Antonietta took Paul's arm without protest and hastened back into the Scarletti passageway. Celt stayed a moment longer to study the motionless figure in the distance, but he loped after Antonietta, disappearing into the dark caverns.The two men stared at one another in silence. Byron pushed himself up with an unsteady hand. Blood ran into the sand and dirt beneath him, staining the ground a reddish pink. He managed to get his feet under him."Do not be foolish and waste your energy." The voice rippled with power. It was quiet, almost soft, yet carried the force of nature.Byron studied the man approaching him, gathering his strength as he did so. Lightning flashed across the sky, lit up the ground to reveal the small river of blood. "I do not recognize you. Have we met before?" Byron knew he had never before met the ageless stranger. The eyes were shimmering fire, the face etched with hardship."Your kin was not close enough to reach you in time." The voice was very quiet, a pure, velvet tone. "I offer my blood freely that you may live."Byron knew even the most evil and cunning of vampires could appear noble and virtuous. They were master deceivers. Without taking his eyes from the stranger, Byron nodded slowly, even as he sought Jacques.Do you know this one?It had been years since he reached down that familiar path to his childhood friend. He felt awkward and stiff, but it was necessary. His enormous strength had run out onto the ground, leaving him swaying and weak. And there was Antonietta to protect. He would live to defeat any vampire to protect her.He must be one of the ancients sent out by my father. I do not recognize him, nor has he yet sworn allegiance to our prince. It was discovered ancients were sent out across the seas to protect where they could. The call has gone out to bring them home.Jacques was guarded in his reply.Do not lose consciousness. Focus on him.Byron burst out laughing. "Does one have control over losing consciousness? What do you think?"The stranger was on him, a tall man with old eyes and a faint, humorless smile. "My guess would be that you should remain alert so your friend, watching me so closely, may continue to guard you properly. I am called Dominic." He bowed low, an Old World, courtly gesture of respect. "I have been long from our homeland. You are one of the first of our kind I have seen in a long time.""I am Byron. I thank you for your assistance," Byron returned formally. "I would greet you in the proper way of the warrior, but I am afraid I would fall down." A faint smile took some of the pain from his face."It is not necessary. We are brethren. It is enough." Very casually, Dominic tore at his wrist with his teeth, opening a gaping wound that he pressed to Byron's mouth. "I am on my way to see our prince and to see for myself if it is true that his lifemate was human."The blood poured into Byron's starving cells, ancient blood, pure and strong. Byron tried not to be greedy when his strength was all but gone and the sudden infusion of ancient blood hit with the force of a freight train. The rush was heady and overwhelming."The borzoi guards your lifemate well. He would have attacked me, had I made a wrong move, yet he recognized what manner of creature I am. I had forgotten their loyalty and heart. I thank you for providing the memory."Byron sank down onto the earth, felt the soil reaching for him. Comforting him. Very politely he closed the wound on Dominic's wrist. "You have hunted long.""Too long. I have grown weary and wish to sleep, but I must bring news to our prince. There is something evil sweeping the land. It is subtle. So subtle I cannot find the source of it, and I have looked. But it threatens our prince and our people. It threatens our very existence and way of life. I must warn him and then continue in my hunt for my lost kin."Byron felt the blood moving through him. It had been so long since one of his own kind had shared blood with him that he had nearly forgotten the heady rush. "Lost kin? Is the prince aware one of our people is missing?"Dominic leaned down, gathered Byron into his arms as if the full-grown man were no more than a child. "My sister was an apprentice to a great wizard. She had amazing skills, and under his tutelage she became adept at many things now lost to our kind." Dominic shifted shape, still holding Byron securely, sweeping through the sky under cover of the storm.The words triggered a distant memory, a fairy tale told of magicians and wizards among their kind teaching safeguards and spells to their people. Byron closed his eyes, allowing weariness to sweep through him. He reached to connect with his other half. His soul.Antonietta? Are you well? Did they see to your wound? Byron? I left you alone. I can't remember what happened. Why would I leave you alone? There were tears in Antonietta's voice. She sounded forlorn, agitated. Not at all like his confident lifemate. How could I have done such a terrible thing? For my cousin? To save my cousin? I can't think why I would have left you. Be calm, cara mia, I am fine. I asked you to leave me so my people would heal me in our way. It would have been too complicated to allow a doctor to see to my wounds. They would have insisted on calling the authorities. This is best. No! It isn't best! I knew there was danger, I felt it all around us. It was storming and cold, and you lost so much blood. Tasha screamed when she saw me. I was covered in your blood. I should have stayed with you to protect you. To heal you. I have skills.Byron smiled. Even a Scarletti with her unusual legacy did not have sufficient skills. He sent her waves of warmth, of love.I shall be with you tomorrow night. Keep Celt close to you at all times. You will not be able to reach me until sunset tomorrow, so do not panic if you reach for me and I am not there. I need to touch you. To know you're really alive.Their connection was already fading. Antonietta tried desperately to hold on to the link between them. Byron drifted in and out of consciousness as Dominic took him to a series of caves deep beneath the earth."We will rest here this night." Dominic opened the earth, cutting into a section of rich soil before lowering Byron into the cool, welcoming ground."Tell me of your kin. How is it she is lost to you?" Byron roused himself enough to seek the companionship of his kind."I am a hunter of the vampire. I was born a hunter.""Where I was not."Dominic shrugged his shoulders. "One who hunts when it is not their heritage is a warrior to respect. It is all I have known, even in my fledgling days. Those were dark times, long before the wars that destroyed most of our people. My sister learned much, and even Prince Vlad consulted her. Some say she knew too much. Some say she turned on her people, wanting to rule, believing it was her right.""You are of the Dragonseeker blood." Byron leaned his head against the soft soil and looked up at the man who had shared his lifeblood. "When I was a fledgling, I used to go to the house where you once must have dwelled. The carvings, the artwork was so beautiful. I wanted to be able to create such wonders. That was a long time ago.""The old house still stands? It would be a miracle to see it again.""Out of respect for your lineage," Byron said. "Nothing has ever been touched, only to preserve it for you or any of your kin should they remain.""My sister was loyal to Prince Vlad and our people. No Dragonseeker has ever betrayed our people. Not one ever turned vampire. I cannot rest until I find who took my sister from us and clear our name.""I have never heard it whispered the Dragonseeker blood was tainted," Byron objected. He watched as Dominic swept his hand around the cave so tiny pinpoints of light leapt to life. The stranger took powder from a small container and blew it across the cavern. The scent was aromatic and soothing."I am grateful that in my absence, such a thing was never suggested." Dominic knelt beside Byron and began to gather handfulls of the earth. He mixed the soil with a second powder and his own saliva. "You will need more blood before you go to ground. The wound is quite extensive and did much damage to your internal organs. How is it you have hunted the undead, yet that human male was able to harm you?"If there was a reprimand in Dominic's voice, Byron couldn't detect it, only mild interest in how a human managed to injure a Carpathian hunter. "Perhaps I am a better craftsmen than hunter.""I have noticed several of the people in this place have strange barriers. It is better to take your lifemate and leave this place. Take her to our homeland. She will eventually get used to it and get over being annoyed with you." Dominic helped Byron to lean forward so he could pack the material tightly into the gaping back wound. "A craftsman who turned hunter to aid his people is always welcome at a warrior's camp fire. Craftsmen are meticulous and methodical. It is an honor to meet one such as you." Dominic's hands were gentle as he helped Byron to lie back down."The prince found his lifemate some time ago," Byron volunteered the news. "It seems that some human women possess psychic abilities, and those women can be successfully converted without fear of madness.""I have heard this rumor. How can this be?""I believe it is possible that the women we are finding with psychic powers are descendants of the Jaguar race."Dominic once again mixed the rich soil with his powder and saliva to pack into Byron's chest. "I had not thought that any remained unless deep within the jungle.""Not true Jaguar, but of their blood. It would explain why the women are compatible with our race. The Jaguar are shape-shifters, and they had many gifts, as our people had." Byron closed his eyes. "Do you leave tomorrow?""At sunset. I have not found the undead dwelling in this region," Dominic answered. "I will continue my travel as soon as I rise. You will heal in the ground and be safe for several risings.""I must be able to wake tomorrow evening. Antonietta will grieve. I do not want her to suffer.""You will not be at full strength, but I will make certain you wake."Byron's attention was caught and held by the piercing gaze. "You have green eyes." Not just green but glittering, metallic green. Eerie. Eyes that saw through to the soul. "I should have remembered, it is the Dragonseeker's legacy. Eyes of the seers.""I am weary now, Byron, I do not see what should be seen. Once I find the answers I seek, I will follow my kinsmen into the next life.""Or find your lifemate. I did not think it possible, yet there is no doubt that Antonietta is my other half.""My lineage is all but gone. Rhiannon and I were the last of our line. I doubt if either of us would have been so lucky." Dominic stood, looming over the deep cut in the earth. "Sleep now, and wake fully healed. I will give your regards to our prince and give him the news that another woman will join our ranks soon. That alone is cause for celebration.""I thank you for your courtesy and for my life."Dominic bowed low in the way of the Carpathians. "You must sleep now and allow me to attempt to heal these massive wounds."Byron could hear the voices again, many of them, male and female, chanting the healing ritual in his head.Sleep, old friend, we are with you, and we will watch over you while our brother heals your body.That single voice of friendship took him back in time, when he ran free with the wolves, sat in the tallest trees, and was simply a boy playing with a friend. He allowed himself to drift off, the soothing voices distant. And one feminine voice whispering, Come back.