Authors: Christine Feehan
Julija didn’t hear hope in Elisabeta’s voice. Not one small bit. Her lifemate had done that. The thought of having one had overwhelmed her friend, not made her happy. Julija was no closer to an answer than she had been before, but she had to help Elisabeta. She couldn’t leave her to suffer in terror hiding beneath the ground.
You say lifemates have to make their women happy, Elisabeta.
Yes. The pairs are meant for one another.
Elisabeta fell neatly into Julija’s trap.
Then this man has been made for you and you for him. He will make you happy.
I wish I could believe that, but I am no longer the one who carries his soul.
You must, or he wouldn’t know it was you, right?
I worded that incorrectly. I do not know how to say this. I have guarded his soul carefully from Sergey and it earned me my worst punishments, but I was adamant, he could not bring down my shield. I would have suicided first.
Now Julija could hear the terrible screams of agony Elisabeta had made when Sergey punished her for not giving him what he demanded. She shivered, desperate to reach out to her friend. No prisoner of war could have been treated as cruelly as the vampire had treated the one he’d captured and kept for himself.
You are more than worthy of this man who claims you.
Was it trading one prison for another? Was that how Elisabeta saw it? That was how Julija saw it for both of them.
Maybe I can steal you away somewhere they can’t find us until we sort things out and have the chance to decide our own fates.
She half joked, half made the offer.
That is a wonderful thing to offer me, Julija, but I cannot accept.
Elisabeta took her seriously.
I will honor my commitment to him once he knows that I have been changed for all time and we might not fit. He would feel responsible for me once he ties us together, so I hope to get the chance to speak before he does so.
Just talk to him as soon as you surface.
Elisabeta gasped, clearly horrified.
I cannot speak to him, not without permission.
Julija went very still, fighting down a surge of anger.
What do you mean? You have to wait for permission to speak before you can talk to a lifemate? Isai didn’t tell me that.
Instantly Julija had the overwhelming impression of shame. Her heart sank. She pressed her fingers to her eyes, wishing the pounding headache would go away.
It was too late to take back the blunder and Julija inwardly cursed herself for her carelessness. Elisabeta had spent centuries asking permission to speak. She was so conditioned that by now, that law was so
ingrained in her that she probably
speak without permission. All along, Julija had thought she was the only one who would understand Elisabeta’s special needs, but she was already failing her.
There is no need to be sorry. I have told you, and it is true. I am much altered. I believe when my lifemate becomes aware I cannot even think for myself, he will free me.
Now her voice shook with terror.
I do not want him to despise me for being the way I am, and yet I must confess to him. He has waited centuries to find me. Gone through so much, and I have nothing of value to give him. I am ashamed and feel sorrow for him.
Elisabeta took on such a burden, despising who she was and what she’d become because she didn’t feel she had anything to give her lifemate, while Julija had turned hers down. She was beginning to feel the urgent need to see Isai. To hear his voice. To touch his mind.
Don’t, Elisabeta. Don’t think that of yourself.
It is the truth. I cannot blame him if he turns me away, but without someone to guide me, I do not know what I will do.
Julija swallowed hard.
I will come to you.
You must sort out your life,
You are willing to sacrifice yourself for me, but not for your lifemate. Do you have any idea why?
Julija abruptly pulled out of Elisabeta’s mind, slamming the door hard on any memories that tried to creep in. She would not go there. She would not let her past define her as Elisabeta was doing. She sank down, back to the rock, knees to her chest, looking down at the scorch marks on the granite surface. Who was she kidding? Not Elisabeta, and not herself. She was already allowing the past to define her. No one could escape their past.
Elisabeta was forever shaped into a submissive woman who needed someone to gently guide her back to a place where she could feel strong and believe in herself again. Julija needed . . . what? Someone. Someone had come along and she’d rejected him. Not only had she rejected him, she’d deliberately insulted him and the Carpathian culture.
There was no sound, but she knew Isai was there, almost as though by thinking of him, she had conjured him up. When she opened her eyes, he was crouched beside her, looking utterly male, all muscle and hard lines,
totally at odds with the way his finger traced a line down her cheek. She realized she was crying and instantly felt vulnerable.
She lifted her gaze to his and the impact of his sapphire eyes caught her right in the stomach like a hard blow.
“Why the tears?”
She shook her head mutely, but the burn behind her eyes increased. So much was lost to her. She couldn’t even say lost when she’d never had it. Never. She’d never had love. Or a real family. She’d never had anyone to care whether she was hurt or not. His touch on her skin felt shockingly beautiful. She felt trapped by him, by what he held out to her when she knew it was most likely an illusion. She’d lived in illusions until finally, one day, she’d realized what was happening and become mistress of them.
“Julija, simple politeness requires you to answer.”
Her face flamed red and she tried to jerk her head back to get away from his touch. She hit the back of her head hard against the rock. Pain added to the already pounding headache. She let herself cry. For Elisabeta and for herself. Two women trapped in cages they could never break out
Isai brushed at the tears on Julija’s face. His heart clenched hard enough to be painful. The sight of her crying tore at him, caused a completely visceral reaction. She might have rejected him, but while he was with her, he had no choice but to take care of her. The need to stop her tears was so strong he moved closer to her, sheltering her with his body.
“Julija, you must tell me what is wrong. I cannot aid you if you do not communicate with me.”
She pressed her face into her hands and shook her head, but the sobs didn’t stop. Now his gut was churning. He sighed. “Little mage, you will be the death of me. If you do not tell me what distresses you, you leave me no choice but to extract the information from you.”
Her head snapped up and she glared at him. The effect wasn’t what she was looking for because her face was splotchy red from crying and her eyes were watery. Her feathery lashes stuck together, giving her the appearance of a drowned kitten.
“You have a million choices, Isai. A
Your last choice should be taking something I haven’t offered you.”
“At least you are talking, even if what you say is pure nonsense.” He
stood up and held out his hand. “We have to go now if you’re coming with me.”
With a show of great reluctance, she put her hand in his. He closed his fingers around it and pulled her to her feet. “You do not have to come with me if you do not want to,” he stated. “You want to make your choice, make it fast.”
She seemed to wince as if he’d struck her, but she just nodded her head. “I’m going with you.”
“If you’re going with me, Julija, I will still be the same man you have rejected. I lead. I will always lead. It will be that way until we part ways.”
Her long lashes lifted, and she glared at him. “Less talking and more leading would be good.” She managed to use her snippiest voice.
For some reason, that made him want to laugh. He didn’t, but he wanted to and that shocked him. He couldn’t really remember laughter, but he felt it. Without preamble, and maybe just to retaliate and shock her a little, he wrapped his arm around her waist, pulled her tightly into his chest and took to the air.
Julija gasped and pressed her face against him. She felt small and fragile in his arms. He kept her warm, cognizant of the fact that she couldn’t regulate her body temperature.
Wrap your arms around my neck.
She did so without hesitation, and his heart jerked wildly in his chest. His body reacted to hers. There was no way to stop it, not even with his tremendous control. She . . . belonged. He closed his eyes for a brief moment, wondering how he was going to give her up. She was born for him. He was born for her. They matched. But how could they? Something had gone wrong.
Over the centuries, whether she had died and been reborn with his soul more than once, perhaps the bond had weakened between them. He hadn’t thought that could happen, but she wasn’t the woman he envisioned, nor, clearly, was he the man she had. That saddened him. He was finding emotions weren’t as easy to cope with as he’d thought they would be. So much time had gone by since he first had lost all feeling that he didn’t remember how much trouble emotion could bring to him.
There was a small flutter in his mind. He had forged a connection to speak to her telepathically, and that pathway remained open between them. He was a little shocked that he could feel her exploring it tentatively.
Why are you so sad?
Her voice sounded soft and warm, stroking at the walls of his mind every bit as intimately as fingers caressing his skin. Lifemates didn’t lie to each other but he didn’t believe he should continually point out his disappointment in her—although once he examined the situation from every angle, he realized the disappointment and embarrassment was with himself. He was too far gone from the modern world and didn’t understand her. He couldn’t change what he was or who he was. His characteristics were ingrained in him. Deeply. He was a leader and he did expect his woman to follow. That wasn’t her fault.
It is of no consequence, but I thank you for your concern.
There was a silence. He felt the press of her face against his chest. She rubbed a little caress there with her cheek as if trying to comfort him. Her fingers linked behind the nape of his neck. He wanted to continue with her across the fading night sky, but knew he needed to take her to the cave he’d found. It was small, but it would definitely protect both of them during daylight hours.
It is of consequence to me.
He liked that—too much. Being in her company was the equivalent of walking through a minefield. One false step and everything would blow up in his face, but the adrenaline was there. Excitement. He felt alive. Truly alive, when he had been a robot going through life on automatic. She made him feel everything.
I do not wish you to think you are in any way at fault because we are not compatible. I am centuries old. I have been locked away behind impenetrable gates for centuries. I cannot change what I am to make myself into someone else for you. I hope you can find a way to forgive me.
The path between them allowed him to feel the rising sorrow in her. She pressed closer to him and he tightened his arms as he took them to the small cave he’d found hidden in the rock. The entrance was a slim
crack, which he widened as he dropped down from the sky. Inside the opening blossomed into a large room that enabled him to stand. He set Julija on her feet and waved his hand to close the crack.
“I’ve got to prevent anything from entering, from innocent man to vampire puppet,” he said, turning away from her. She still had tears on her face and he detested the sight. It made him feel weak. The need to hold and comfort her was so strong it was all he could do to turn his back, giving her a semblance of privacy.
“The shadow cat,” Julija reminded. “They seem to be able to slip in anywhere. The book had to have been safeguarded yet they still managed to get to it. Once you lay the foundations of a safeguard, I’ll add to it.”
That brought him up short. He had never trusted anyone with his resting place, other than his brethren in the monastery. Even then, he’d used his own safeguards and changed his exact resting place nightly. Each had their own small place where they kept the façade of a house. That was considered a private place for each and they slept somewhere in the parameters of that area.
He glanced over his shoulder at her, but she was looking around the cave as if she was going to decorate it. “In a minute I will provide seating for you and a bed with a comfortable mattress.”
She turned to look at him and then at the slender crack. “If something happens to you, I’m not positive I can get out of here.”
“You’re mage. You can get out if you need to.” His voice carried absolute conviction. He didn’t have a doubt in his mind that she could widen the opening enough to allow her body through. Apparently, he said the right thing because she smiled at him, and this time that smile lit her dark eyes.
She waved her hand and sconces with candlelight flickered along the walls of the cave, high up, illuminating the interior. Another wave took the dirt and debris from the floor, replacing it with a thick carpet. She flashed a conspirator’s grin at him, inviting him to share her happiness. “Not bad for an illusion.”
It was near perfection. “Nice job.” He let admiration creep into his tone. He didn’t want to like anything about her, not even her sense of fun.
Many women would be complaining after what she’d gone through. The tears weren’t even dry on her face, but she didn’t grumble at all. In fact, she clearly was trying to make things nice for them.
“Where will you sleep, Isai?” She began to pace the chamber.
The cave was small, but no one had noticed it. There was no evidence of man, mage or Carpathian using it prior to the two of them. Again, he hesitated before answering her. Carpathians didn’t allow others to know where their resting places were. But even if he wasn’t going to claim her, she was his lifemate.
“Beneath you. Directly beneath you. Should you have need you can reach out to me on the pathway we have established.”
Isai turned back to the crack and began weaving layers of safeguards. When he was certain the layers would stop even Xavier himself, he turned to her. “If you can stop the shadow cat from entering, add your safeguards now and I’ll finish after you.” He stepped back and waited to see what she would do. He was going to layer more weaves on top of hers in order to ensure nothing could get to them.
The shadow cat worried him just for the reason she’d stated. Not only were the caverns protected with the strongest safeguards the prince of the Carpathian people could weave, but the book itself had been protected. Mikhail had contacted Tariq Asenguard, his voice in the United States, and asked that the ancients spread out and look for Iulian Florea and the book, and the mage as well. The moment Isai had heard his brother’s name, he had volunteered to go. His blood would call to that of his brother and he would be able to better find the trail.
Julija came to stand right beside him, under his arm, and playfully bumped his thigh with her hip as if she could move him out of her way. Laughing softly, she pushed a second time until he stepped to the side, although her shove hadn’t even rocked him.
“Bossy little mage.”
“Someone has to get it right.”
She lifted her hands into the air and began to weave another complicated pattern. He watched closely, imprinting every graceful movement on his brain. Her voice was musical as she began to chant.
Spiders scurry, spin your web.
Winds that flurry, catch their threads.
Sink them deep within the earth’s wall,
Let none who seek hear my call.
Twist and turn, weave and bind,
Set these wards so none may find.
Isai added the closing safeguard to her webbing and then turned to the room. He created two comfortable chairs and a bed with plenty of covers for her. He didn’t like that she sometimes shivered for no apparent reason. He was careful to keep her body temperature up yet he’d noted several shivers as if a sudden chill would take her.
“Julija, are you afraid of me?”
Her dark eyes revealed shadows until her lashes feathered down. She twisted her fingers together and he reached out and stilled her hands.
“You are mage and very powerful in your own right,” he said softly. “Claimed or no, I am your lifemate. It would be impossible for me to harm you.”
She stood very still, almost frozen to the spot, but he felt the tremor that ran through her body and her lips trembled slightly before she bit down as if conscious that he could see that revealing sign.
“Why didn’t you use the ritual binding words and tie us together?”
He didn’t understand her at all. There was a note of hurt in her voice, as if he had arbitrarily rejected her. “Clearly that was not your desire, and it is my duty as your lifemate to give you what you wish.”
“Maybe I just wished you wouldn’t spank me.” She rubbed her bottom as if she could still feel his hand smacking her.
“I was careful not to hurt you.”
“It didn’t hurt more than your dignity,” he countered, uncertain why they were even discussing the subject. He thought that was already closed.
“Perhaps you’re right. My dignity was very offended. You didn’t really hurt me.”
The way she said it alerted him. He felt like he was feeling around in the dark for her and only getting the lightest of responses in return. “Has someone hurt you, Julija?” The thought tore at him. He gestured toward the two chairs.
She sank into one of them and he produced a fleece blanket, so she could wrap herself in it. Her smile made him warm inside.
She shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. I think we’ve all been hurt. I see scars all over you, and yet I was told Carpathians didn’t scar.”
“Not usually. A mortal wound can cause scarring if we are spared. As the centuries go by and we are wounded over and over in the same places, scarring can occur.”
He turned his chair around to face her rather than sit beside her where he would be tempted to touch her soft skin. Light was beginning to seep in through the slight crack in the granite. Soon, he would have to go to ground and leave her. In spite of the fact that he hadn’t bound them together, he hated leaving her. They’d only done one blood exchange, but he was totally addicted to her taste—to all of her. He wanted her with every breath he drew.
Julija looked down at her hands. “I am afraid,” she admitted. “I can feel your power. You hold so much.” She twisted her fingers together. “I’m used to my father and brothers. Even my stepmother. They all have power, but yours . . .” She trailed off.
“Would you hesitate to kill them if you had to?” He kept his tone mild, but he needed to know.
She thought it over rather than answering him very quickly. “It’s possible. I would hope not. I’ve never killed anyone, but I believe I would to save myself or someone else.”
“You hold the light in your soul for both of us,
kislány hän ku meke sarnaakmet minan
. It is no wonder that you would feel some hesitation. I do not like that you will be unprotected once I leave.”
She swallowed hard and looked down at her fingers twisting together in the nervous habit she couldn’t quite stop. Her head shook, her glossy hair swinging a little. The candlelight put little gleaming lights in her dark hair. He had to resist reaching out to feel the silk of those strands.
“Tell me about yourself, Isai. What you like and don’t like, that sort of thing.”
He had been leaning toward her, but he sank back in the seat, steepling his fingers and regarding her over them. It was the first real interest in him as a person she had displayed, and he had no idea what to tell her.
“I like ancient weapons. The feel of a sword in my hand. The way the vibration runs up my arm when the blades crash together. I find battle, hand-to-hand combat, fascinating. For me it is like a dance, the combatants each moving with grace as they watch their opponent for an opening.”