His body shuddering with pleasure, Byron put his lips against her ear and whispered a command. His fingernail lengthened, razor-sharp, and slowly opened a wound on his chest. He pressed her mouth to his skin. The first touch of her lips had him gasping, whips of lightning dancing in his bloodstream. He heard the words beating in his mind. His heart. His soul. Clamoring to be said aloud. The beast lifted its head, unsheathed its claws, and roared loudly for its mate. Ti amo.
If I have been remiss in telling you, ti amo, Antonietta.
He took a deep, calming breath for both of them, holding on to his control while he fought down madness. "I claim you as my lifemate, I belong to you. I offer my life for you. I give you my protection, my allegiance, my heart, my soul, and my body. I take into keeping the same that is yours. Your life, happiness, and welfare will be placed above my own. You are my lifemate, bound to me for all eternity and always in my care."
He could feel the ties binding them, millions of threads tying them together for all eternity. Everything inside him shifted and settled. Peace stole into his heart and mind. He gently stopped her from taking more of his lifeblood than necessary for a true exchange. He woke her from the enthrallment with a long, drugging kiss, taking the haze from her mind, pouring the intensity of his emotions into the kiss.
Antonietta wrapped her arms around Byron's neck, giving him back kiss for kiss, reveling in the thickness of his body buried deep inside of her. "I've never felt like this in my life. Never." For one moment there was a peculiar taste in her mouth, not unpleasant, but unfamiliar, but then it was gone, and fire sizzled hot and out of control.
"You sound so astonished." Byron nuzzled her throat. "You obviously had little expectations."
She laughed, and there was real joy in her voice. "I had great expectations, and you lived up to every one of them." She wanted to hold him forever. Her hands smoothed his hair, found his back, moved to inspect his chest. "Roll over. I want to check your stomach. I still can't believe you're alive. I was so certain you were dead. I reached for you, over and over, but I couldn't connect."
Reluctantly, Byron eased out of her, separating them. At once he felt bereft. "I think I will have to make love to you again, Antonietta."
Her fingertips found the wound in his chest. "You should be dead."
"Yes. My kinsman saved my life by giving me his blood. Where is Paul? Has he been questioned?"
She pressed her lips to the wound. "Not by me. I couldn't bear to talk to any of them. I didn't want to hear his excuses." She shivered suddenly. "I didn't realize that it was cold in here. I didn't even notice, you should have told me."
"I rarely get cold. I will start the fire, and we can sit in front of it." He stood up in one smooth motion and tugged at her hand.
"I don't have any clothes on. I can't just walk around naked." The thought of him staring at her body alarmed her. For once she wished she really knew what she looked like.
"Of course you can. You do not need clothes," he said softly. "I prefer to look at your body. It is beautiful. A woman is such a miracle of soft curves. And it gives me the opportunity to touch you when I have the need." His palm skimmed over the swell of her breasts, over the small mound of her belly, and nestled for a fiery moment in her dark curls. His finger slid into her, teased and caressed until, wet and hot, she pushed back with her hips, riding his hand with a gasp of shocked surprise. "I love this about you, you heat up for me so fast."
She gasped as an orgasm rippled through her. "I've always enjoyed sex, but I had no idea it could be like this. I really didn't. It's frightening how good it feels. Frightening and addicting."
"Good," he said with evident satisfaction.
"I can't just stand here naked while you stare at me. It's cold in here." Her body was tingling, throbbing with life and pleasure.
Byron brought his fingers to his mouth. "You taste good. Did you know that? I'll start the fire. The chairs are comfortable, and we can stretch out while we talk. I would like to hear how Don Giovanni took the news that Paul not only shot me, but you, too." He waved his hand toward the large fireplace, and it leapt to life, flames crackling around the logs. "Surely your grandfather was informed. You were injured. They must have brought in the doctor to treat you properly."
"I didn't need to be treated. The bullet was already out of my shoulder, and it was nearly completely closed. You did that, didn't you?"
He touched her shoulder, the lightest of touches. "I would never leave you in pain. I knew it would take time to return, but I thought your family would insist on a human doctor to make certain."
Antonietta was certain he hadn't moved, hadn't stooped over to start the fire, yet almost as the words left his mouth, she felt the warmth of the flames. She could smell a wonderful, aromatic fragrance. "What is that?"
"Candles. My people believe in the benefits of aromatherapy. Both of us could use healing and more energy." His fingers skimmed her bare shoulder a second time, traced the wound there lightly, lingered with a soothing touch. "Your cousin is very lucky to be alive." He wanted to rip Paul's throat out for even coming close to endangering Antonietta.
"My cousin is an idiot. I have no idea what I'm going to do with him."
"Is it possible to read the mind of your family in the same way you eavesdrop in the boardroom? Perhaps next time, we should probe to see what he is going to do next."
"I don't eavesdrop," she denied. "I listen, there's a difference. Read the minds of my family? My cousins? Why would I want to do that? I know what they think about, and its scary just contemplating it, let alone actually hearing it." The smile faded from her face. "I believe in privacy, Byron. I wouldn't want to spy on my family's private thoughts."
"Let me get this straight, Antonietta." Byron sat in the deep-cushioned chair and leaned comfortably against the high back. "It's perfectly okay to eavesdrop on business conversations using your acute hearing, a gift most humans do not have, by the way, but it is not okay to eavesdrop on family." There was something frightening in his voice, so much so that a shiver went down her spine. She knew she would never be in danger from him, but at times, he seemed more a wild animal, untamed and prowling and capable of great violence.
Antonietta took the chair facing his. The warmth of the fire reached her and took away the chill of the aftermath of fear. "When you put it like that, I'll admit it doesn't sound right, but business is what keeps our family and our lands. Nonno is having a much more difficult time remembering details. I've had to stop him several times from signing something that would have cost us an enormous amount of money. Fortunately, we have great lawyers, and Justine reads everything to me so we have a net, but without me listening in, we could have problems." Her sigh was loud in the quiet of the room. The rain outside fell softly on the French doors, matching her melancholy mood. "I had hoped that Paul would take an interest in the company."
There was something very sexy about sitting naked in front of the fireplace. She could feel his gaze, hot and intent and entirely focused on her.
"I would worry that perhaps he has taken an interest in the company. The gun was aimed at you."
"It was an accident. I know it was. Paul has admitted he made terrible mistakes. He owes money to people who he says will get rough if he can't pay them back. He bought a gun but didn't really know how to use it. I spoke with Justine - "
Byron nodded. "Ah, yes, the loyal and trustworthy Justine."
Antonietta frowned at him. "These people are my family, Byron. I know you've been wonderful about not going to the authorities and reporting Paul. You have no idea how much I appreciate it. He would go to prison, and we both know he wouldn't stand a chance there." Without conscious thought, she leaned her head back, the action jutting her generous breasts toward him. "You should have seen him when we were young. I wish you could have known him. He has a brilliant mind, and he was so wonderful as a boy. His father stripped him of all self-confidence and the will to even try. Adults certainly have a way of ruining children."
For the first time Byron laughed. "That is the truth. My sister took in a boy a few years ago. He is proving quite a handful. Eleanor, of course, thinks he is an angel and indulges his every whim." He couldn't resist the silent invitation, his hand cupping the weight of one breast in his hand, his thumb caressing the tempting peak.
"You have a sister?" She was surprised. He never talked of his past or his future. And he never talked of his family. "That man the other night, Jacques, said you had family in the area." Her entire body was hypersensitive. She never wanted him to stop. She needed his touch, the way he always seemed to have to touch her. It was addicting.
"Did you think my parents found me under a rock? I have in-laws as well." Reluctantly, Byron let her go, leaned back, stretched his legs toward the fire, and watched the way the flickering light played over her face and body. "You have beautiful skin." The words slipped out before he could stop them. Personal observations made Antonietta uncomfortable.
She was startled by the honesty in his voice. It was impossible to keep pleasure from rising. "
Grazie. It's nice to know that."
He reached out and took her hand. "Eleanor lost several children, and it was very hard on her. She had one son and managed to raise him into a reasonably decent man. You would like him. Vlad, Eleanor's lifemate, took him firmly in hand when Eleanor would get too carried away with spoiling him."
"Why don't you use the term husband? You always say lifemate."
"In my language, in my people's world, we refer to our other half as lifemate. Unlike the Jaguar, we mate for life and beyond. Not for momentary pleasure. We consider the art of making love and keeping our mate happy to be a lifelong commitment."
There was something very wicked in his voice, almost a challenge. She had the feeling he was smiling. Antonietta decided discretion was the better part of valor. "So you have a nephew, too." She was all too aware of his fingers stroking her skin. His thumb slid over her inner wrist. She had no idea how sensitive a wrist could be. Her insides instantly melted.
"Yes, Eleanor managed to carry a son. Benjamin. Benj was - is - a miracle to all of us. He is shaping up quite nicely, and we are all very proud of him. My family is of the crafts. Benj prefers to work with gemstones just as I always have. I would love to take you to the caves where you could pick a gem from the walls of the cavern." There was a note of longing in his voice.
"I would love to go to a cave with you. Do you still make jewelry?"
"I have plans to begin again, now that I have found you. Looking at you sitting there with your hair spilling around you and the firelight dancing over your breasts, you inspire me. I would make a necklace of fire and ice to lay around your throat."
His tone created a very real sensation of cool gems on her skin, so much so that she reached to touch her throat, expecting to find a necklace of gold, diamonds, and rubies. "I would love to have something you designed."
"I will make you something beautiful to go with your skin and hair. It would be such a pleasure for me."
"Your nephew makes jewelry?" Antonietta loved feeling his eyes on her. She didn't need sight to know he was watching her. She was past embarrassment. She wanted his gaze on her. She wanted him to feel ravenous hunger for her. She was feeling it for him. It was even becoming difficult to keep her mind on the conversation. She was too busy thinking of straddling him right there in the chair in front of the fireplace.
"My understanding is he has begun to work as an apprentice. I have not seen him in some time. But Eleanor also has young Josef, and he is another story altogether. His birth mother was quite old when she had him, and she died within an hour of his birth. Eleanor and Vlad immediately offered to take him. Deidre, Vlad's sister, and her lifemate, Tienn, were chosen at first to watch over him, but Deidre lost so many children Tienn was afraid it would prove to be too much if the baby did not survive. It is very hard on the parents when they lose so many children. Many of our children do not survive beyond the first few months."
"I couldn't imagine losing Margurite and she isn't even my child," Antonietta said. "How sad for your sister and sister-in-law. So many people have children who really don't want them, and yet so many want them that can't have them."
"What about you? Do you want children?"
She shrugged. "There was a time I dreamt of having children. I think most women do, Byron, but I had responsibilities, and my career was taking off. I didn't find a man who appealed to me as a lifetime partner and, although I considered raising a child on my own, I decided it would be cheating the child. I often go on tours, I'm in demand when one of my operas is chosen, and I am always involved in my family's business. It leaves little time for a child."
For some reason Antonietta immediately felt defensive. It was a silly reaction, when his words held no inflection whatsoever, but she had the feeling he was misinterpreting things she said. Over the years, she had learned to live without sight, judging reactions by voices and even tension in the air, but she couldn't do that with Byron, and it made her feel vulnerable and off balance. She pulled her hand out of his, aware he could feel her pulse jumping in her wrist. "Do you? That would be a miracle, when few people have a clue what my life has been like."
"But then I am not most people, am I?" There was the merest trace of mocking amusement in his voice.
"No, you're not," she agreed. "You are someone very special. If you are not Jaguar and you are not quite human, what are you? What exactly? And don't just put me off with some strange answer that doesn't make sense."
"I am Carpathian, of the mountains in that region. My people are as old as time and we are of the earth. You have your legends of vampires and werewolves and jaguars, and we belong to that realm." He answered honestly in the way of lifemates. His gaze didn't leave her face, judging her expression there in the darkness.
"I know you're different, Byron. It's funny, I can accept the thought of Jaguars so easily, but a werewolf or vampire seems preposterous." She laughed softly at herself. "Why would that be? Why would my mind so easily accept one as reality but refuse to give the possibility of credence to the other?"
"A Carpathian is neither werewolf nor vampire. We are a species of people near extinction and fighting for our place in the world."
She turned his words over carefully in her mind, examining them for signs of a hidden meaning. "Are you like either of those species? You must be a shape-shifter just as a Jaguar is. I've done a tremendous amount of research on the legends and mythology of the Jaguar people. Can you shift your shape? I can't. I feel it reaching for me, and I know its somewhere inside of me, but on command, I can't really do it. I have summoned the power of the creature but never really managed to bring the power out all the way."
"Yes, I can shift."
She hadn't really expected him to admit it. The idea was exhilarating and frightening at the same time. She took a deep breath. "Can you fly?"
"Yes. You know I can. I didn't erase your memory of it."
She was in the dark, where she had grown most comfortable, and she waited there for several heartbeats in silence to give her mind time to assimilate what he was telling her. Flying. Her heart soared at the idea of it, even when her human mind set limitations. "That would be such an enormous gift." Her lashes lifted. She couldn't see him, but she looked directly at him. "For a gift so wonderful, there must be a terrible price."
Byron looked at her and wanted to laugh. She was sitting across from him. His lifemate. Her bare skin gleaming in the firelight. His world of color dancing in front of his eyes. His emotions so raw and intense he could barely control them. What price had he paid? Centuries of a bleak existence. A world of gray and despair. The relentless whisper of evil calling to him. The endless minutes and hours and days and years of being truly alone. Her very existence had wiped it all away in a moment.
"I live, Antonietta. I have a way of life, and I live it. It is neither good nor bad to me to be the way I am. I simply am. I accept who I am, and I am proud of my people. We have honor and loyalty and many other traits of strength, but we also have weaknesses just as any race. I cannot walk in the sun. It would harm me. That is why I cannot be with you to guard you through certain hours of the day." His voice was very matter-of-fact. "I see beauty in the night, it is my world, my existence, and I love it. I want to share my world with you so you are never afraid in it. So you see its beauty for yourself and not just for me."
Antonietta didn't know if it was what he said to her or how he said it, but she melted inside. Craved him. Wanted to wrap herself up inside of him, deep in his heart and soul. And she wanted to see his world and experience it. His voice nearly purred when he called the night beautiful. She lived in darkness, and she wanted to see it that way.
Antonietta couldn't resist the temptation any longer. She simply stood and took the few steps to stand in front of him. Byron didn't disappoint her. He reached for her just as she imagined he would, his hand sliding up her thigh, caressing the inside of her leg with graceful, expert fingers. Her body responded instantly with a heated liquid welcome, an eager anticipation of the sheer magic waiting for her.
His hands urged her closer, and she went, standing between his legs while his palm found her wet channel, pressing heavily in exploration. Flashes of light burst behind her eyes, a show of brilliant color, while her body pulsed with pleasure. His finger slipped inside, and her muscles clenched around him.
"When I'm with you, Byron, you make me feel like I can fly with you." She had to catch his head for balance when her legs threatened to give out. Her hips pushed against his hand, wanting more, wanting him.
Impatient, she simply moved forward, straddling his thighs so that he had no choice but to remove his hand and allow her what she most needed. Her hunger was rising rapidly, almost ravenous, an insatiable appetite that could only be appeased momentarily. She settled her body over his. He was thick and hard and pierced her sheath slowly, filling her, stretching her, until the tight friction was incredible and perfect and everything she wanted.
Her breasts brushed his chest, her hair fell in wild abandon as she began to move with her dancing rhythm, with all the volcanic passion inside of her, waiting for him, waiting for Byron. She rode him hard and fast, slow and leisurely, giving them both exquisite pleasure. She heard sounds. The wind. The beat of her heart. Whispers somewhere far off. She felt everything. The texture of his skin, the shape of his bones, the definition of his muscles, and the endless rush of an orgasm that rocked their world in complete harmony.
"How could she not?" He lifted her chin to kiss her mouth lightly. "They are whispering together."
"How is it we can hear them, Byron? They're downstairs. In the conservatory, I think. Why would we be able to hear them? And why don't they all go to bed and leave me alone?"
"Because, cara, you are important to them, and they love you. They are only showing their concern."
"Well, I wish, just for this one night, they would leave us alone."
The second set of footsteps, this time undeniably determined, was coming up the stairs. They listened as the door was approached. This time the knock was authoritative. "Antonietta.
Cara mia, you must open the door for me at once, or I'll use the master key I've collected from Helena and open it. I mean it. I must see that you're all right. You don't have to talk to me, but you must allow me into your room. You're scaring Nonno and the children." Tasha was very firm.
"She'll open the door, too. Tasha would never bluff. I haven't a stitch on and the room is... Well, it's obvious what we've been doing." Antonietta panicked.
Byron waved a hand toward the bathroom. At once there was the sound of running water coming from Antonietta's private bath. The heady scent of their lovemaking dissipated, to be replaced by the fragrance of her favorite bath salt. Byron bent his head, took his time kissing her thoroughly. "You take a nice, refreshing bath. I know you have been secretly longing for one. I will let Tasha in and keep her occupied until you feel up to facing her."
Antonietta slipped from his lap. "Well, please put your clothes on. I don't want her suddenly thinking you're so hot she has to have you.
Grazie. You amaze me how thoughtful you are." It was a measure of how upset she was with her family that she allowed him to handle the details, that she would allow him to meet with her cousin alone while she bathed in the adjoining room.
Byron waited until Antonietta had closed the door to the bath before sauntering over to the door. Another wave of his hand made the bed and clothed him in the way of his people.
He pulled open the door just as Tasha thrust the key in the lock.
Tasha screamed, a cry of shock and horror. Her hand flew to her mouth, her eyes widening. "We all thought you were dead." Her voice came out a whisper. "Thank the good
Paul didn't kill you."
Byron stepped back courteously to allow her entry. Celt inspected their visitor and turned to follow his mistress into the large bathroom, making it clear he was on the alert. The closed door didn't present a problem, the borzoi merely turned the knob with his strong jaws and disappeared into the steam.
"Antonietta is taking a bath. I think it will help to calm her and make it easier for her to talk with her family," Byron volunteered. He followed the borzoi across the room, pulling the door closed to allow Antonietta complete privacy. He was hoping it would give Tasha time to recover. She was so pale he was afraid he might have to deal with an old-fashioned swoon.
"I had no idea you were here, or I wouldn't have interrupted." She glanced at him from under long lashes. There was a mixture of weariness and relief in her dark eyes. "Antonietta was devastated over what happened, you know, and she blamed herself for leaving you when you were so injured. Paul doesn't remember why they left either."
She sighed and paced away from him, putting distance between them to help recover from the shock. Tasha always found Byron's presence unsettling, and up close, in her cousin's bedroom, she found he seemed more powerful than ever. Tasha cleared her throat nervously. "I know I haven't been very welcoming to you, but it is more than obvious Antonietta cares for you, and if you don't mind, I'd like to start over."
Byron regarded her with a raised eyebrow. Her words had been forced out, and there was a small underlying spurt of distaste he caught in her tone. "Why the turnaround? You do not need to pretend with me in order to save Paul from prison. The incident will not be reported to the authorities. You have your cousin to thank for that."
A small smile tugged unexpectedly at the corners of Tasha's mouth. "You don't think much of any of us, do you?"
Byron didn't answer her but crossed the room to the stained glass window. "Why do you dislike me so much, Tasha?"
She laughed softly, but there was little humor in her tone. "Because you are the first real threat to ever come to us."
He swung around, frowning at her, his dark eyes puzzled. "I am not a threat to you. You are Antonietta's cousin. Unless you sought to harm her in some way, I would do my utmost to protect you. Why would you think me a threat?"
She turned her head away from him quickly but not before he caught the sheen of tears shimmering in her eyes. "That's so like you." She waved a dismissing hand.
"Tell me." This time his voice was low and compelling. If she didn't cooperate with a slight push, he had no problems pushing past the natural barriers in her mind to find her thoughts. As far as he was concerned, Antonietta's family deserved little consideration.
"Look at me, Byron. You've never looked at me. I'm beautiful, my body is absolutely perfect." There was bitterness in her voice. "That's all anyone sees when they look at me. They never look past it to see me. And if they did, I'm not talented like Antonietta or brainy like Paul. I can't have children like Marita. The moment Christopher finds out I'm barren, he'll get rid of me or take a mistress to have his child. Even if he didn't, the moment my looks go, and they will eventually, he will abandon me. Nonno barely tolerates me, and Paul is too busy feeling sorry for himself. Franco doesn't notice me because, why bother? I can't talk about stocks and the business to him." She picked up her cousin's perfume bottle and inhaled the fragrance. "I only matter to Antonietta. She can't see the way I look, and she loves me for myself. Unconditionally. I never even had that from my parents. Of course you're a threat to me. She's actually interested in you. Really interested, not some passing whim."
Tasha did turn to face him then. "I can see you're a dangerous man, anyone can see it. It's all over you, yet I know you'd never hurt her. But you'd take her away from us. Is it any wonder I fight for my own survival? Without her, I have no one." There was no self-pity in her voice, only stark truth.
"I think you are selling yourself short, Tasha. It is true that I have not seen you as a person other than Antonietta's cousin. I have been rather obsessed with Antonietta since the first moment I laid eyes on her. I knew immediately she was born for me, my other half." He smiled at her, a genuine smile. "Please forgive me for not taking the time to know you. Antonietta is my world, and that means anyone in her world is in mine also. I have no intention of doing anything that would make her unhappy, and you are very important to her."
"You do have a certain charm, I can see why she might have fallen hard." Tasha made an effort to smile at him, in spite of her feelings.
"And you have many admirable traits you do not seem to regard as assets. You are wonderful with the children. They prefer you to their own mother."
"I haven't quite figured out Marita yet," Tasha admitted. "I think about her a lot and wonder why she isn't happy. If I had the children and a devoted husband, I wouldn't need anything else."
"Not even money?" His eyebrow shot up.
"I've always had money, it's just been a part of my life. I don't know how not to have it, but it's never made me happy," Tasha conceded.
"So your greatest wish is not to have more money?" There was a certain soft note to his voice. A mesmerizing, pure tone.
Tasha tilted her head toward him, her eyes suddenly dreamy. "My greatest wish is to have a child. I want a baby to hold in my arms. Just to love. I would have made a good mother. I would have liked the chance."
"I have missed much by my ignorance, Tasha. You are a special woman."
Tasha flashed a tentative smile. "Just for that, I suppose I could call a truce between us."
"I would very much appreciate that."
Grazie, for saying I am important to Antonietta." She looked around the room. "How in the world did you manage to get in here without any of us seeing you? I think that's one of the reasons everyone is a little afraid of you. No one ever sees you come and go."
He grinned at her. "Like the proverbial ghost."
Tasha took a deep breath. "Do you really think Paul was trying to kill Antonietta? Do you think he's capable of murdering her and Nonno because of a gambling debt?" Her questions came out in a little rush.
Byron hesitated, weighing his words carefully. "People do things they would not ordinarily do when they are very afraid. It is possible someone has threatened his life and he is desperate. I would hope not, but you know him better than anyone. What do you think?"
"I think I wish we were discussing Marita, not my brother. That one is so hungry for money and social position. She can't even see what she has, she's so greedy for more."
It was a typical Tasha comment, one Byron would have expected of her, but he felt he knew her a little better, and she simply said things for effect, not necessarily because she thought they were so. It was either a habit or a protection. Byron couldn't decide which, and it didn't matter.
Tasha sighed. "Paul used to have the sweetest heart. I hardly recognize him anymore. He takes advantage of everyone." She looked down at her hands. "If you had known him before, you could never have considered that he would try to harm Antonietta."
"Yet you are considering the possibility that Paul might choose to harm her now. Tell me this: If something happened to your grandfather, who inherits?"
"The bulk of his fortune would go to Antonietta. For all I know, it could already be in her name, but the rest of us would receive several million each."
"Several million each? That much? All of you?"
"Yes, of course. I don't know exactly what Nonno 's worth, but it's massive. He's quite wealthy. All of us will receive enough for a lifetime, even an excessive one."
"So everyone would benefit financially if Don Giovanni died? And if something were to happen to Antonietta? Is there a will?"
"Of course. A Scarletti doesn't turn around without a will." Tasha looked uncomfortable. "I don't really know who would inherit, but it is possible most of it would come to me."
Two bright spots of color stained Tasha's cheeks. Her enormous eyes flashed fire at him. "How dare you! What are you implying? Are you accusing me now?"
He raised his hand to calm her volatile nature. "I was merely gathering facts. I have no idea who would want to harm your cousin, but I doubt very much if you would do such a thing for money." Jealousy maybe. But not money. Byron thought it prudent to keep his thoughts to himself.
"What is going on out here?" Antonietta swept out of her private bath, fragrant and alluring.
Bryon's breath caught in his lungs. Everything about Antonietta glowed from the inside out. He took her hand, brought her fingertips to his mouth. "Tasha and I are getting to know one another. We have, for your sake, decided to call a truce."
Tasha went right past Byron and gathered her cousin to her. "I was worried about you, Toni."
"I was worried about me, too," Antonietta admitted. "I honestly felt if Byron was gone, I couldn't continue." She hugged Tasha back, feeling the trembling in her cousin's body.
"You are far too sensitive, Antonietta. I should have taken precautions," Byron said. "Another Scarletti gift." The first blood exchange had bound them dangerously close. If one had nearly made her mad with grief, what repercussions would the second exchange bring? He frowned, suddenly worried.
"Byron is obviously alive and well," Tasha pointed out. "You can't make yourself sick with grief like this again, Toni. And poor Nonno is beside himself. You must go to him, or he'll never go to bed."
"I will, Tasha. Until I knew Byron was safe and out of danger, I couldn't bear to look upon anyone. And I need to check on Margurite, too. Is she happier now that she is home? Is she better tonight, Tasha? In less pain?"
"She's very restless. Marita has been harping on her that Scarlettis do not cry, that we don't make a fuss, that she should take the time confined as she is to study and fill her mind with great things. What do you suppose is wrong with that woman?" Tasha was clearly exasperated. "I've spent several hours reading to Margurite and playing games, but Marita won't even allow television. She wants Margurite to read. Franco can't even dissuade her, and he tried, I heard them argue. If you would look at her again and see if you can speed her healing, it would be wonderful."
Byron was intrigued with the way they took the Scarletti gifts for granted. It was a natural part of their lives, just as his gifts were. They were comfortable with the use of them.
"Byron has some ability in the area of healing. He's the one who attended my shoulder, even when he was in such danger," Antonietta said. "Maybe between the two of us, we can speed her recovery. As for Marita, she seems to be obsessed with Margurite becoming a great scholar and is forgetting to allow her to be a child. She was never like this before."
"That's true," Tasha agreed. She sighed. "Honestly, Antonietta, everything seems to be falling apart all of a sudden. Tonight, I asked Helena to have a tray brought for Nonno , and he seemed reluctant to eat the food. He was muttering to himself, and I swear, he said I was trying to poison him. He denied it when I confronted him, but I swear that's what he said, and he didn't touch the food. The crazy part is, Paul did the exact same thing. I took the tray up to his room myself, and he threw it against the wall and said I was trying to poison him." She waved her arms. "I don't know how you put up with them all. Two minutes later, he was acting like I dropped the tray."
"Why would you take the food personally to your grandfather and cousin?" Byron demanded. "You have never done such a thing in your life."
Tasha glared at him. "I was trying to take Antonietta's place. Nonno was so upset, and he hadn't eaten all day, so I insisted on a food tray for him."
"Where is the food? Was it taken to the kitchen?" Byron nearly growled the question. Antonietta turned her head sharply toward him in inquiry.
Tasha shrugged. "How would I know? I certainly didn't clean either mess myself, I had Helena handle it. I doubt if they kept the food. It must have gone in the garbage can." She lifted her eyebrow. "Surely you're not hungry. And if you are, please don't eat from the trash. We do have decent food elsewhere."
"Your truces do not last long, do they Tasha?"
"Not when you behave like a moron." She looked down her nose at him. "I often do good deeds around the palazzo. Why wouldn't I?"
Antonietta decided to intervene. "What of Enrico? Has there been any word on our missing chef?" She casually tucked her hand into Byron's arm to hold him to her side. The moment he had heard of Don Giovanni's and Paul's strange behavior, she sensed he knew what their actions meant.
Tell me. Let me go to the kitchen and do a little investigating first. You think the food had poison in it, don't you? How could either of them possibly know such a thing?
"Enrico is still missing. The wonderful captain was here, but of course we couldn't allow him to know what had transpired, so we entertained him briefly, allowed him to search Enrico's room again, and he left." There was regret in Tasha's voice. "He's quite nice, Antonietta. And he loves the opera. I told him that for your next performance, I would try to get him good seats, and he said only if I attended with him."
"Did you keep him away from Paul?"
"Paul wouldn't come out of his room except to speak with Don Giovanni. He wouldn't see Franco or me, but Justine was in and out several times. I wasn't about to allow the captain near him. Paul was so upset, I was afraid he'd turn himself in." Tasha glanced warily at Byron. "You aren't really going to go to the authorities, are you?"
"No, Tasha, I have no intentions of turning your brother in."
Grazie, you are a good man to be so kind."
"Do not mistake my intentions for kindness." There was a distinct bite to Byron's voice, and for a moment his teeth gleamed white like that of a wolf. A fierce flame burned in the depths of his eyes, giving his pupils the illusion of a fiery red.
Tasha gasped and stepped away from him, her hand going to her throat protectively. She blinked the illusion away, feeling foolish when there were only Byron's familiar dark eyes glinting at her. Watching her. Without blinking. Much like that of a predator. She shivered, afraid all over again.
Beside Antonietta, Celt lowered his head, his eyes focusing on Byron, his hair up. The ever-present supreme hunter.
Antonietta put her hand on Tasha's shoulder. "What is it? And don't say 'Nothing.' " Gently she touched the dog's head in a gesture meant to soothe. "Celt senses something. A wild animal perhaps." Do you smell the cat, Byron?
Tasha hesitated. "I'm being silly. For a moment Byron frightened me. He reminded me of a..." She trailed off. She could hardly say wolf.
Byron bowed from the waist. "I did not mean to alarm you, Tasha. I just do not want you to get the wrong impression. Paul nearly killed Antonietta. If he is the one behind the attacks, he will not get away with it. I will see to it personally. And if he proves to be innocent and someone else has targeted her, I will find them."
Celt smells the shape-shifter in me. Do not worry. There is no danger near us.
Byron wasn't bragging, Tasha decided, he wasn't even threatening. He meant every word and uttered each with absolute conviction. The thought set her heart pounding. There was retribution buried in his tone.
"I will go down to the kitchen to investigate and then meet the two of you in Margurite's room."
Celt, forgive me, my friend, the wolf comes out in me at the thought of Antonietta in danger.
Byron placed his palm in front of the dog's nose, allowing him to catch the mixed scent.
The dog's alert posture changed immediately, the tension draining from the animal, although he stayed protectively close to Antonietta. She stroked the dog's head with caressing fingers. "Celt is already such a part of my life, I can't imagine what I did without him," Antonietta said.
"He's so devoted to you," Tasha observed, "but he's so big and sort of scary. We've never had a dog in the palazzo. Margurite will love him. Is he good with children?"
"Celt loves children. A borzoi is a great family addition. A companion and protector. Believe me, the children will come to love him," Byron assured her. He reached out to scratch Celt's ears. His hand brushed Antonietta's. Instantly, electricity sizzled and arced between them. The sexual tension in the room was shattering.
Antonietta rubbed her body along his, a contented cat, stretching leisurely. Byron bent his head to hers. Heat raced over Antonietta's skin, spread through her body instantly.
She wrapped her arms around Byron's neck, her mouth melding to his. The world was gone in an instant. There was only heat and fire and the feel of his hard, masculine frame pressed so tightly to hers.
Tasha's gaze narrowed in disgust, bored into their backs. She made a soft hissing noise of distaste. Byron swung Antonietta around, moving her toward the stained glass window even as he seemed to be devouring her, feeding on her mouth with voracious hunger. Tasha blinked, and the couple was difficult to see. The moonlight hit the glass in some way that spread a hazy veil around Antonietta and Byron. Tasha curled her hand into a fist, her fingernails driving into her palm.
She felt his eyes on her. Dark. Brooding. Filled with speculation. Engulfed in Byron's arms, Antonietta couldn't be seen, but his head went up alertly as if sensing danger. The hair on the back of her neck actually stood up in response to the intensity of his gaze. Tasha shivered and hurried to the door.
"Are you coming, Toni? It's so late, Nonno
should already be in bed."
"Of course I'm coming." There was a multitude of shared secrets in Antonietta's voice. She kissed Byron again. "I won't be long."
"Keep Celt with you." It came out a command. Byron buried enough of a compulsion in his voice that Antonietta didn't hesitate, even though she frowned. Antonietta was clearly used to going her own way and making her own decisions, and very few people attempted to tell her what to do.
"Toni!" Tasha said sharply.
Antonietta touched fingertips with Byron, the merest brush, signaling camaraderie. She knew very well that Tasha, in spite of her truce, was displaying her disapproval. She's temperamental.
She is mental.
Antonietta burst out laughing. Tasha glared at Byron, suspecting the two of whispering together, or worse, of being amused by her jealousy. She reached out to grab her cousin's wrist with every intention of yanking her out of the room. Somehow the dog was there, inserting its body almost casually. The dark eyes looked quite innocent.
"I feel like kicking you," Tasha said, closing the door to Antonietta's bedroom with a louder than necessary thud. She hoped she shut it on Byron's nose.
"Why would you want to kick me?" Antonietta asked as she followed Tasha into the wide hall.
"Not you, the idiot dog and that man you are climbing all over. What kind of a display is that, Toni? You have a certain position to uphold. You shouldn't be making a fool of yourself over a man."
The whip of contempt in Tasha's voice made Antonietta wince. "I was in my own private quarters, so I don't see how I could have been making too much of a fool of myself."
"You're acting like a lovesick teenager. It's embarrassing. And that dog is annoying. He's too big and gets in the way all the time. Why would you want a dog underfoot? I don't know what Byron was thinking giving him to you. If Marita finds out he's dangerous, there will be hell to pay."
"Why would you think he's dangerous?" Antonietta allowed her exasperation to show. "You may not like Byron, Tasha, and that's okay with me, but don't you make trouble for Celt just out of spite."
"I'm never spiteful." Tasha's feet beat out a rhythm of annoyance. "Five minutes with a man, and you're turning on your own family. I hope you realize you're totally infatuated. It's sickening to watch you make an utter fool of yourself, but by all means, don't listen to my advice."
"I haven't heard any advice," Antonietta said, "just sour grapes."
Unexpectedly, Tasha laughed. "That's so true. I'm so jealous I could tear out that man's eyes. I want to be involved in a love affair. In a drama. In something. Someone tries to murder you, Paul even shoots you. You spend an entire day in mourning. It was so perfect, the palazzo silent and all of us caught up in your grief. And then I come up to find a man in your bedroom and you positively glowing. It's enough to make me throw myself from the battlements in absolute envy. Well," she hedged, "the lower balcony."
"He's so wonderful," Antonietta said. She found it easy to walk with Celt beside her, his body posture guiding her far better than even Justine had managed.
"I'm sure you think so. He still frightens me, Toni, and I don't know why. Paul said he saved your life at the risk of his own, yet I'm still afraid of him. There's something about him that isn't right."
"Everything about him is right for me." Antonietta went down the long, sweeping staircase with total confidence. Sometimes she felt Celt shared his eyes with her. She saw nothing, yet she knew exactly where to step as if he were guiding her through imaging in her mind.
Tasha placed a hand on Antonietta's arm to stop her before she turned toward Don Giovanni's rooms. "Why was Paul in the passageway? And why would he have a gun? Did he tell you?"
"He owes money to some dangerous people. He said he purchased the gun for protection. And he was in the passageway to steal the Scarletti treasures and pawn them to pay his debts."
Tasha shook her head sadly. "I thought he quit gambling. He promised us. He didn't tell me he needed money. Did he go to you? Or Don Giovanni? Why would he make a decision to steal from the family?" She sank down abruptly on the bottom stairs. "I'm sorry, Toni. I didn't know. I thought he would come to me if he were in trouble. I'm so ashamed."
Antonietta heard her weeping softly. She laid a comforting hand on her cousin's shoulder. "You aren't responsible for Paul, Tasha. He's a grown man, and he makes his own decisions. He'll have to face up to this. He nearly killed both Byron and me. Hopefully, he'll think about that and get help before it's too late."
Tasha lifted her head, swiping at the tears, careful of her makeup. "You have to tell Nonno the truth."
Antonietta sighed. "I suppose so, but I'm not looking forward to it." Where are you? She needed comfort. A battle with her grandfather over Paul's fate was more than she wanted to deal with. She had a mad desire to dash back up the stairs and lock herself in her bedroom, keeping Byron a prisoner there.
I am raiding your kitchen, looking for clues. I think my detective skills need work.
Antonietta wrapped his laughter around her like an invisible shield.
I like the idea of being your prisoner, by the way. Especially if the door were locked, and your family stayed away for a very long while. There are traces of the same substance I found in you, your grandfather, and Paul in the remains of the food in the rubbish.
Antonietta's smile faded. If she believed Byron, someone in her own home was trying to kill all three of them.
There's no mistake? You're certain?
Cara mia, I would never alarm you without cause. He sent her waves of warmth and reassurance. Go to your grandfather. He is distressed and needs to sleep. You can talk to him about Paul later.
"I'm going in to Nonno , Tasha. Would you like to come with me?"
"I think I'll just sit here awhile and feel very sorry for myself, and then we can meet in Margurite's room. I promised her I'd sleep in her room tonight."
"You hate that, Tasha. You've always hated not being in your own bed at night. Margurite is old enough to sleep in her room alone."
"I know she is. She just looks so fragile. The house has so many noises, and with the break-in and all the commotion of you being shot, she's afraid. It won't hurt me to stay in her room one night."
"Unless Marita catches you," Antonietta warned.
Tasha made a rude noise. "The day I can't handle Marita is the day I deny being a Scarletti."
"Give me a few minutes with Grandfather, and I'll meet you." Antonietta stood beside her cousin while the silence of the palazzo pressed in on them. "While you're thinking about things, please do decide you're going to make an effort with Byron. He's going to stay."
Tasha sucked in her breath sharply. "Surely you wouldn't contemplate marriage? Permanency? He's a toy. A plaything. You know he could never be more to you. There's too much involved."
"You mean money."
"Not just the money." She waved her hands to encompass the palazzo. "All of it. All of us."
Antonietta didn't answer. She sensed Byron's stillness. The waiting. "I so appreciate your understanding, Cousin." She wouldn't give either of them the satisfaction. She went in to comfort her grandfather. It was easy enough when she knew Byron was waiting to share the rest of the long night with her.