Authors: Christine Feehan
“Really big mess?” he echoed. What did she know that he didn’t?
“You. You’re the really big mess. I took a
risk coming here after that idiot Carpathian who stole the book. I thought he was protecting it, but instead of returning it to the prince, he took off with it.”
Isai sat back. She was staring at him and her eyes kept dropping to his lap.
“Do you think you could put some clothes on?” She had a wicked bite in her voice.
“I could if you asked nicer than that.”
She rolled her eyes. He could see their life together wasn’t going to go smoothly.
put on some clothes? It’s distracting when I’m trying to talk to you about this and it’s a serious matter.”
He supposed that was as good as it was going to get. She still had the tone. Worse, sarcasm was now a major part of it, but she at least used her manners. It meant she had some. He waved a hand to clothe himself. He could regulate his body temperature, so he hadn’t even realized he wasn’t dressed.
“Tell me what happened.” She could in no way fault his tone. He kept his voice pleasant and calm. Not in the least accusing.
“Do you have to make everything an order?”
So much for keeping calm. He felt a muscle jerk in his jaw. She was going to give him eye ticks fairly soon. “Tell me
He was on her in half a second, pulling her across his lap and smacking her hard over and over. He knew she wasn’t feeling it with the thick trousers he’d given her so, using mind commands, he removed them. There was satisfaction in seeing his handprint on her bare skin. She screamed when he connected. He wasn’t being gentle. His hands were large, and she was extremely petite. His palm took up one cheek easily. He reddened them both and only stopped when she was crying. He put her from him, back onto the rug, clothing her as he did so.
“That’s twice, you bastard,” she hissed. “I’m not without my own power. Don’t you dare do that to me again.”
“Then don’t talk to your lifemate that way.”
“Screw you and the lifemate crap. I
you’d be like this. Why do you think I didn’t want anything at all to do with the Carpathian people? I would never have gone near any of you. Not even Elisabeta, and she needed me.”
He remained silent, watching her carefully. She was mage, and at
some point she would try to retaliate. Tears streamed down her face, but she was as defiant as ever.
“Men don’t punish their wives anymore. That century is long past. We have equal rights in this world, or in most parts of it. You’re like some archaic dinosaur, trying to impose your will on someone smaller than you through brute force. You should be ashamed of yourself.”
“Perhaps,” he agreed mildly. “You also should be ashamed of yourself. You knew you were a lifemate to a Carpathian warrior, a man of honor. Instead of seeking him out, you chose to hide. Instead of treating him with respect when he finds you, you refuse to speak or acknowledge that you are his lifemate.”
He pinned her with a steely gaze. “Are you aware that if a lifemate isn’t found, the Carpathian male has no choice but to meet the dawn, meaning suicide, or he turns vampire and can murder hundreds, perhaps thousands of people before he is stopped by—guess who—another Carpathian male risking his life to save others?”
She looked down at the rug, a slow flush creeping up her face. “Yes, I’m aware. Put like that, it sounds far worse than when I was thinking about it.”
“That is our reality. I searched centuries for you and then locked myself away in a monastery to keep those around me safe because I was close to being a demon, something far worse than a vampire. I no longer even heard the whispers of temptation, yet you stubbornly and selfishly refused to come to my aid and save me.”
Her head went up. “Why should a woman have to sacrifice her life for a man?”
“Why should a man have to sacrifice his life to save mankind? To save that selfish woman?”
She leaned toward him. “He doesn’t have to. He can walk away.”
“Live without honor? Without doing his duty? Is that the kind of woman you are, Julija? You have no honor? You would refuse to do your duty because it is difficult?” He kept his voice very low, but there was disappointment.
Isai had searched for this woman for centuries, more years than even
most Carpathians could claim life. Throughout that time, he had done everything necessary to protect his people and the growing number of humans vampires fed on. His reward was a woman who didn’t believe in duty or service? She didn’t believe in honor? She had no code? He didn’t let it show on his face, but he felt shattered. Betrayed.
Dismissively, he waved away whatever she might say to back up her argument. “Tell me about the book and your part in its disappearance.”
She pressed her lips tightly together as if to keep from continuing their argument. He had no intentions of continuing. He didn’t want a woman who had no sense of honor. No code. A woman who would let a man become the very thing he had fought against. If she had studied Carpathians, and it was clear she had, then she knew Carpathian women were always happy. Their lifemates saw to that. He might be a dinosaur, but he would have done everything in his power to make his woman happy.
“My family, as you know, is mage. Xavier had a son named Soren. His mother was Rhiannon, of the Dragonseeker family. I know that’s a big deal with Carpathians, but I don’t know why. In any case, Soren was given a woman, a mage. They had a son, but when he was born, they both were told the baby died. Xavier had the woman killed for not properly taking care of herself and allowing the baby to be weak.”
“The baby wasn’t dead.”
She shook her head. “That man, Xavier’s grandson, Anatolie, is my father. My mother was a sixteen-year-old Carpathian girl named Francise. They wanted someone to use for blood to sustain them as they grew older. They used her until I was old enough and then they killed her.”
He frowned and rubbed his finger over the bridge of his nose. “You know they killed her, you know this for a fact? You saw the body?”
“Yes. I’m sorry. I know it’s hard to think that they would kill a young girl like that, but they did. I wasn’t that old, but I remember. They wanted me to remember. Before my mother, my father married a mage, a woman very powerful in her own right. She gave Anatolie two sons. She was on board with him impregnating Francise. Theirs isn’t a love match. She wants power just as Anatolie does.”
“She isn’t a very wise woman. They killed Rhiannon and then Francise. Why won’t they kill her when she no longer serves a purpose?”
“I hadn’t thought of that. In any case, I overheard them talking about the book and how whoever had it would wield a tremendous power and could destroy any species. It was the chance to rid the world of the Carpathians. My brothers, along with my father, had devised a plan. They were developing a creature everyone refers to as a shadow cat. These cats are part illusion, part shadow and part real. They are trained to slip in where no one can go. They’ve been training and practicing with them in other parts of the world away from the Carpathian Mountains because they didn’t want to tip off the prince that they were coming for the book.”
“You overheard them, broke with your family and set out to warn Mikhail.”
She met his eyes. “That’s the truth. I don’t understand why you look and sound as if I’m lying about this.”
“Perhaps because sacrifice seems out of character for you.” Again, he kept his voice mild. There was no point in arguing. He could look into her mind. She had a shield and it was a strong one, but he had no doubt that he could bring it down when he needed to do so.
She opened her mouth and then closed it, pressing her lips together tightly. Finally, she sighed. “Just because I don’t want to be with a dictator doesn’t mean I don’t do what’s right.”
“Are you telling me it would be wrong for a woman to save a man? Save a Carpathian male from turning vampire?”
“You’re twisting my words.”
Isai had the most beautiful sapphire blue eyes Julija had ever seen. They were so intense she was fairly certain they could melt the panties right off a girl—or accuse her of being selfish beyond all things. When he looked at her directly, she wanted the ground to open up and swallow her. She supposed from his perspective, she did look selfish. On the other hand, he didn’t know one single thing about her life.
“Please continue. It doesn’t matter anyway.” Isai motioned in the air with his hand as if dismissing the entire conversation.
Julija wanted to defend herself, but how? What could she say? She did know about lifemates and what that meant in the Carpathian world. Their world and their rules were far different than the human or mage world. She
wanted to save him, although she hadn’t thought of it in those terms. More like she wanted to save herself.
“I can sometimes connect with others if their feelings are overpowering. A Carpathian hunter doesn’t feel his emotions, but they are still there—inside of him—sometimes all the stronger because he can’t let them out. I found myself caught in the mind of a Carpathian hunter who had searched the world over for his lifemate and like you, had gone
centuries looking for her. He found her, but she was dying of old age. She had never married, and by the time he got to her, she was in a nursing home and practically taking her last breath.”
Just the memory made her so sad she wanted to cry. She pressed a hand over her aching heart. “He was unbelievable with her. So gentle. He held her and pressed kisses down her face. She couldn’t speak but she did open her eyes and look at him before she took her last breath. He took her with him and put her in the ground in some place that was sacred to him. It was a cave. The shadow cat that my brothers had bred was in that same cave.”
“Could you tell what he was thinking?”
His voice was strictly neutral, but for some reason, tension coiled in her. She was missing something important. “It’s more like I can feel what he’s feeling and when it gets intense then I see the images. I saw him become alert, but at the time, I didn’t know why. He had planned to stay with his lifemate until the dawn and then he was going to suicide.”
Isai shook his head and turned away from her. His hair was the true black of the Carpathian people, mixed now with gray strands. He didn’t look at all old, his body in superb condition without an ounce of fat and muscles rippling everywhere. If he’d been walking down the street, she would have stopped in her tracks and stared at him. Maybe she would have followed him. Okay, she would have followed him. She had a strong sex drive beyond imagining thanks to things she didn’t want to think about. True attraction for a man had never been so intense with anyone the way it had been with him. Not ever.
Yes, for certain she was missing something. His voice was mild, calm, but there was an edge to him.
“His name is Iulian Florea . . .”
“He’s my brother.”
Her heart thudded hard in warning. She took a cautious look around her. Would his first loyalty be to his brother? Was it a conspiracy? No. She
felt the sorrow in him. She also felt his utter and complete disappointment in her. His rejection of her as his lifemate. It was one thing for her to reject him, but it stung when it was the other way around. She told herself to be grateful that he didn’t want her, but she wasn’t.
If he didn’t claim her, what would that mean for him? She couldn’t think about that, but it was already there in her mind and now she wasn’t going to be able to get it out.
“He abruptly left the cave and it was clear he was following the shadow cat. I was elated. He would save the day and I wouldn’t be involved.”
“Of course not,” Isai said.
Did she hear sarcasm in his voice? Judgment? She clenched her teeth together and then let out a large sigh. “You’re determined to think the worst of me. You’re the one who
me. If you do that again, I’m going to stab you through the heart.”
“It won’t be necessary to spank you again. In my world, at least during the time I came from, a man treasured his woman. If she needed a lesson as you did, it was his duty to give it to her. He was responsible for all aspects of her care. Times were very dangerous, and obedience was necessary for safety. Others, not Carpathians, over the centuries abused their women and I suppose it became something else. Something not between two people who love each other.”
She started to tell him it wasn’t love, but then what he said caught at her. “What do you mean it won’t be necessary?”
“You are clearly not my treasure.”
She frowned and pushed a hand through her hair in agitation. She examined his tone. It was neutral. Matter-of-fact. Dismissive and, unfortunately, genuine. She didn’t care. He wasn’t making any sense. He was so old-fashioned he thought spanking was caring. People didn’t even spank their children anymore to correct their behavior.
“What are you going to do?” she whispered, afraid of his answer.
He shrugged. “Find my brother, get the book back, take it to Mikhail and return to the monastery. Hopefully, my emotions will fade with time.”
There was no self-pity, simply acceptance. She wasn’t the lifemate he had envisioned. She didn’t want to be a lifemate but . . .
She forced herself back to the main, very important topic. “The shadow cat did manage to steal the book. Iulian severely wounded the shadow cat. It was a terrible battle, but he was able to get the book back. I thought Iulian would return it to the prince, but instead, he took off with it. I knew because I saw the entire conflict in his mind. I didn’t want to waste time, so I didn’t continue on my journey to see Mikhail Dubrinsky, but instead, chased after him.”
Julija pressed her fingers to her eyes. She had run after him without too many supplies. “I had to get a regular flight. I’m also dodging my family. They pretty much want to kill me . . .”
His head jerked up. “What did you just say?”
“I am betraying them and now they know it.”
“They can’t know it. For all they know you were trying to get the book for them.”
“We had a terrible fight before I left. At least, my father and I did. He sent me to my room and put a holding spell on it. The thing is, I’m good at spells. Not just good,
good. I can blow my stepmother right out of the water matching her spell for spell. Same with my brothers. My father is used to dealing with them and he underestimated the force he needed to keep me in. I’ve always been careful not to show all my abilities or power.”
“You told him you would warn Mikhail?”
“Yes. He wants the book in order to carry on Xavier’s work. They all do. It’s been their goal all along. I wasn’t privy to it because they felt I had too much Carpathian blood in me and might betray them. Xavier had forced Soren to be with a mage because he needed his own bloodline to be the more powerful of the two in Anatolie. They needed me to be more Carpathian so they could live off of my blood.” She gave a little shudder and rubbed her hands up and down her arms. “All of them.”
“Where is Iulian now?”
She sighed again. “I was taken prisoner by Sergey. I would have broken loose when he wasn’t around but there were children and Elisabeta to free. I wanted to try to find a way to help them and I thought, even being
a couple of days behind Iulian, that I would be able to catch up. I’d been in his mind and I had a clear path to it. I just needed to find a direction.”
She shrugged helplessly. “I did connect with him briefly and knew he had come this way. He likes the high places, the lonely places. He doesn’t want to be around people at all, not even to feed.”
Isai frowned. He leaned closer. “Julija, that isn’t a good sign.”
“What does it mean?”
“He doesn’t expect to live or fight. If he thought he would need to fight in order to protect the book, he would stay where he could find sustenance. He doesn’t intend to have to fight. He lost his lifemate and he determined the book wasn’t safe where it was. He is taking it somewhere and he will suicide in order to stop anyone from finding the book’s final resting place.”
She couldn’t tell what he felt. Before, she’d connected with him, but once he determined she wasn’t lifemate material, he’d withdrawn and put up some impenetrable shield. She knew, because she tried to get in. He probably knew she’d tried, but he’d kept her out. She didn’t like being separated from him. It made her edgy. Uneasy. Incomplete. Still, if she could best a powerful mage, she could best a Carpathian hunter.
“Are you going to go after him?”
“Of course.” Isai unfolded his long frame. “I have to find a suitable place to sleep during the day. Your brothers are most likely the two campers I saw not more than a few miles from here. If you want to try to outrun them on your own, that, obviously, is your right. If not, you’re welcome to come with me. You need have no fears. I won’t try to change your mind, nor will I try to have sex with you.”
She should have reveled in his statement, but inexplicably she wanted to weep. She actually felt as if she’d lost something very valuable, and it wasn’t the sex even when she tried to tell herself it was. She detested that he had such a poor opinion of her. Again, he didn’t look at her when he spoke, and she wanted to remain silent, hoping he would turn those incredible sapphire eyes on her, but she couldn’t take a chance that he would just leave.
“I’d rather go with you,” she said hastily. “I’d really like to know about the tattoo on your back. It’s different. I believe it’s in the ancient Carpathian language, isn’t it?”
He said it tersely. Clipped. That hurt, but she persisted. “What does it mean?”
“It is for my lifemate alone. No one else.”
She stuck her chin in the air, challenging him. “But I can know then. I am your lifemate.”
Those blue eyes drifted over her. Remote. Not even judging her. She’d already been judged and found wanting. She found herself shivering and rubbing her arms. Waiting for him to tell her.
“Those words are sacred. To me, they mean something. So much so, I etched them into my body so I would feel them in the darkest of times. So she could pull me through the worst hell. The vows would not mean anything to you. You are not mine and I am not yours.”
Again, his tone lacked accusation or inflection. He had stepped back in his mind, so far from her, she couldn’t reach him. He was lost to her. Completely lost to her. She found herself so confused she didn’t know how to react. She wanted to weep at the loss when she should be celebrating. It shouldn’t matter what he thought of her, but it did. To hear him say he wasn’t hers was terrible. Each word felt like the slice of a sword in her bones.
Isai suddenly looked up but leapt right at her. Hard hands pushed her down and he hurdled right over top of her. Cognizant that sound carried great distances at night, Julija managed not to scream. He looked terrifying there with the moonlight spilling down on him. He was a warrior and he looked it, looked invincible. Fierce lines were carved deep into his face, and those blue eyes were so intense blue flames seemed to come out of them. He caught something in his arms. It was black, no gray, almost insubstantial, but it was heavy enough to bowl him over backward.
She scrambled out of the way as the shadow cat turned its head toward her. Glowing red eyes locked on to her. It was so evil, her entire body shuddered. She could feel hatred coming off of the creature in waves.
Isai refused to let go and the cat tore at him, shredding his shirt and leaving long bloodred streaks down his chest.
“Get out of here.” Isai snapped the command at her as cat and man rolled back onto their feet. The cat took two steps toward her and Isai mirrored the movement, forcing the animal to turn its attention back to him.
Her brothers had found her, or at least their killer cat had. Of course. It would hunt by scent. They had her blood. She would be easy to track. She refused to retreat and leave Isai to fight her fight alone. She lifted her hands into the air and cleared her mind.
That which is shadow and blood scent I bind.
The cat stopped in its tracks.
Sending you back to those who would seek to find.
The cat slunk away, over the rocks, back into the night. Something fierce yowled from out in the darkness a distance away.
Take back that which is shadow, now turn it to smoke.
By the power of air my will be invoked.
Isai sank down onto the rock ledge, looking down at his chest. “You did the majority of that. I was just the convenient weapon.”
She hurried to him. “That poor demonic creature tore up your chest.”
He held up his hand as if to ward her off. “I can heal the wounds. They’re deep scratches, but I’m used to wounds.”
“You’re very pale. You need blood.” Again, she moved toward him, driven by more than the fact that he’d saved her—and he had. If that thing had jumped on her from above, it would have killed her. Isai had sacrificed his body in order to protect her. She detested seeing him injured, and a compulsion so strong it bordered on desperation urged her to help him.
Isai smoothly stepped back away from her. “I’m used to dealing with these types of injuries. The cat has some kind of poison in its claws. Burns like hell. I need to examine it. Do they come in pairs? Whatever yowled out in the distance sounded as if it was calling to it.”
“I believe so. When I stumbled across the building where they were housing them, it was horrible, like a place where animals are butchered. Several cats were half formed and had parts missing. Some were starving because they couldn’t eat. It was clear some had been fed blood. The place was ghastly, truly out of a horror film. I was appalled and began sneaking in at night to try to help them. Some had to be humanely put down. I hated that, but what else could I do? Let them suffer? I brought water to them every night. They were so thirsty. I think my brothers were instilling hate in them. Once I came in and one had terrible wounds all over it. I tried to get close, but it snarled and warned me off. Eventually, I found a way to make it sleep and I cleaned all the wounds and dressed them. Each night I checked on the big cat and dressed the wounds.”