Sars glittered across the night sky and the moon spilled light, illuminating the trees below—turning leaves a glistening silver. A female owl skimmed the canopy, dipped lower to speed through the labyrinth of trees before rising again just in time to avoid a thick branch. A second, larger owl chased her in a wide circle above the forest surrounding a clearing where a large two story stone house sat. The female plummeted toward the steep roof, talons extended toward the chimney, pulled up at the last heart-stopping second to race away from the male, wings flapping noiselessly, the wind riffling iridescent feathers.
Raven! Mikhail Dubrinsky warned his lifemate sharply. That was far too close.
It was exhilarating.
Raven, you are going to get tired. There was a soft warning growl in Mikhail’s voice, as if a wolf lurked inside the body of the owl.
Her laughter bubbled up, soft and warm in his mind as they telepathically communicated. I’m not a newbie anymore, Mikhail, and after all these years, I think I can handle flying. I love it. It’s my favorite thing to do. Are you ever going to get over being overprotective?
I do not think it is overprotective to watch over the woman of my heart and soul. You always over do it when you fly. And you risk much more than you should.
That may have been true, but Raven wasn’t going to admit it. Once in the body of a bird, she wanted to stay that way for long periods of time. I feel so free.
From the moment of her conversion—human to Carpathian—the one thing that had intrigued and filled her with joy above all else in her new life, was the ability to fly. She could soar high above earth and see miles of beautiful forest, cool lakes and a riot of wildflowers. Beauty always surrounded her when she took the form of an owl, making her forget—at least for a few moments, the absolute wonder—and responsibility—of being lifemate to the prince of the Carpathian people.
There was a small silence. Raven, do you not feel freedom when you are with me? I have never caged you, although at times I felt it would be the safest thing to do.
The female owl circled back toward the male to position herself just under his left wing. Of course not, silly. Don’t you love flying? The wind lifting your body while terrain below appears so magical?
There was that whisper of love in her voice—in her mind. Mikhail had come to depend on the steadiness—the absolute steadfastness of her love. It is so. If you ever are despairing of my nature, I would want you to let me know. I feel your sadness sometimes, my love, the ache in your heart.
“Don’t, Mikhail. Not because of you. Or because of us. Like any woman who has found her true lifemate, I want children. I can’t complain. We have our daughter, Savannah, so precious to both of us and much more than many other of our women are gifted with. If we have never have another, I have been lucky enough to have one child as well as the only man who could ever make me happy. You and Savannah are enough for me.”
Mikhail wished they were home where he could pull her into his arms and kiss her soundly. He ached with love for her more than he cared to admit and he could hear—and feel—the desire in her to hold a child in her arms. It was his greatest failure—not only to his lifemate, but his people. After hundreds of years, he still couldn’t protect his people from their greatest threat—not vampires or mage—not modern society—not even their own lack of emotion after two hundred years and the ever present darkness creeping into their souls. He couldn’t protect them from what he was beginning to believe might be the very extinction of their species.
Mikhail. Raven whispered his name in his mind. A soft sound of utter love and compassion. You will find the answers for our people. You’ve accomplished so much already by bringing such great minds together in an effort to solve this problem. And three babies have survived in the last few years. We kept Savannah. Francesca and Gabriel have Tamara and now there is Corrine and Dayan’s child, Jennifer. Three girls, my love. There is yet hope.
Mikhail was silent, wanting to roar his despair to the heavens. Three female children when so many of the men of his species were without hope. To survive, to maintain honor, they had no choice but to find the one woman who would complete their soul—light to their darkness. Without a woman they had nothing but an endless, barren existence.
That’s not so. Raven denied. Many have found their lifemates among my people.
A handful, Raven. Why can’t I find the answer when I have such great minds working on the problem? We need women and children or our kind will cease to exist.
After the assassination attempt on his life, more than anything else, Mikhail feared their enemies would realize just how fragile the Carpathian race had become. With so many against them, it would only take one to realize where the true vulnerability of the Carpathian race lay—the absence of women and children. So far all the strikes had been directed against the men, but sooner or later their enemies would realize that to kill the species, they had only to kill the women and children.
The thought of Raven, his beloved lifemate, or his precious daughter, Savannah, as a target, was almost more than he could bear—but it was inevitable. The enemy had joined together with the dark mage and had found a way to hide his presence, making him doubly dangerous. No longer could the Carpathians rely on their ability to read minds and sense a threat. They must be more vigilant than ever. Even now he scanned the forest below them warily, unable to relax completely.
Mikhail. You have closed your mind to mine.
He forced his thoughts back to their conversation. It was bad enough that he could not console his lifemate over losing a child, let alone stay on track with such an important topic.You have lived with us only fifty years and already you have suffered the loss of a child. Can you imagine the great sorrow in a hundred years—two hundred? Our women cannot suffer these losses without severe repercussions.
Shea believes she and Gary are much closer to finding the answers. Gabrielle is now helping as well, Raven reminded. Gary was human and Gabrielle had been. Recently, to save her life, Gabrielle had undergone the conversion, but she had worked tirelessly even before the change, to aid Shea in finding out why Carpathian women suffered so many miscarriages. With all the training Shea has as a human doctor and her natural abilities as a Carpathian healer, she is an amazing resource to our people. She has worked with Gabrielle, Gary and of course Gregori to find the answer as to why our women can no longer successfully carry children. The few babies born rarely survived the first year. Raven was grateful she had had a miscarriage and was spared the terrible grief of giving birth, holding her child for a year and then losing it. Shea has already discovered so much. She will unlock this mystery.
Mikhail believed Shea might be the one to perform such a miracle, she had already proved her tenacity and courage in bringing his brother Jacques back from the brink of insanity, but Mikhail also feared the answers would come too late for his people. Their enemies were banding together, closing in and striking often. Worse, it seemed their oldest and cruelest enemy might still be alive. Xavier, the dark mage and his grandson, Razvan, were aiding the undead with ancient knowledge.
Raven broke away from him to fly with her usual abandon far too close to the canopy of trees. His heart nearly stopped and it took tremendous discipline to keep from ordering her back to his side where she would be safe. He couldn’t imprison her any more than any of the other Carpathian males could their lifemates, but the need and desire were there, beating at him with ruthless temptation.
Mikhail put on a burst of speed, catching up to the woman who completed his soul, his sharp eyes scanning the terrain below as they flew together. He could feel happiness radiating from her and it helped to ease the burdens in his heart.
You do know, my love, Raven called teasingly,that you have to play Santa Claus at the Christmas party for all the children.
Mikhail lost the image—that of an owl—in his mind, for first time in hundreds of years. His body plummeted thirty feet, nearly hitting the top of a tree before he recovered from his shock. Even within the owl’s body he shuddered. You may rid yourself of that notion at once.
Raven spiraled down toward their home, her body graceful in flight, landing on two feet on the walkway leading to their porch as she shifted into her natural form. Mikhail followed her, shifting as he landed directly in front of her, halting her escape. . The lines and planes of his face hardened into a fierce look meant to intimidate. This conversation is not over. He couldn’t prevent the small shudder running through his body. “There are things you should never ask a man to do.”
Raven merely rolled her eyes. “The children will be expecting St. Nick to make an appearance. This is our first big Christmas party, the first real one, and the women have agreed to cook so the men have to do their part. You have to do it, Mikhail.”
“I do not think so,” he replied. His expression could daunt the most dangerous of vampires or vampire hunters, but certainly did not seem to have the desired effect on his lifemate.
Raven merely huffed out her breath at him, exasperated. “Don’t be such a baby. Human men do it all the time with absolutely no fear.”
“I am not afraid.”
Her eyebrow shot up, the one that always intrigued him, but this time she looked suspiciously as if she might be laughing at him. “Oh yes you are. You look terrified—and pale.”
“I’m pale because I’ve expended energy flying without first taking sustenance. I am the prince of the Carpathian people, not Santa Claus.”
“That’s not an excuse. As the leader of our people it is your duty to play the part of St. Nick. It’s tradition.”
“Not Carpathian tradition. It is not dignified, Raven.” Mikhail swept his black hair to the nape of his neck and secured it with a thin strip of leather. His black eyes glittered at her, making every attempt to intimidate her into submission.
She burst out laughing, completely unsympathetic and certainly not scared. “Tough luck, hotshot. It’s your job. Carpathian tradition or not, you promised me we’d have a big Christmas party for everyone. Our people have come from the United States, South America and several other countries to participate in our celebration. We cannot possibly disappoint them.”
“It will not be disappointing to anyone if I do not do this ridiculous thing.”
Her laughter deepened into a rich, appealing sound that played down his spine and made his stomach do a funny little flip. Only Raven could do that to him. Only Raven could make him want to do anything on Earth to please her.
“Trust me, Mikhail, the entire Carpathian race will be disappointed if they do not see you playing the role of Santa Claus.” She stroked his face with her fingertips. “A nice white beard.” Her hand ran down his chest to his hard, flat stomach. “A nice round belly…”
“You aren’t at all amusing.” But she was and it was taking everything he had not to smile at her.
“You promised me you would do everything to make our first Christmas gathering a success.”
“I was not thinking at the time. You were distracting me,” he grumbled.
“Was I?” Raven asked, blinking innocently. “I can’t remember.”
Mikhail wrapped his arms around Raven and pulled her into his body. Nibbling on her neck, he tasted her pulse, felt her answering excitement and knew it would always be this way between them. Raven. He thought he couldn’t love her more, yet each day the emotion grew stronger until he felt he was bursting with it. Sometimes, when she wasn’t looking, he could feel blood red tears welling up in his eyes. Who would believe the powerful prince of the Carpathian people would be so enamored of a woman.
He had been born with the ritual words of binding imprinted on his brain as had every other male of his kind. It had been a shock to discover not only that a human woman could become his lifemate, but that she could be successfully turned to his species. More than the complete amazement of all of that, was the overwhelming love and hunger and he felt for her, that it grew stronger with every moment they shared together. Looking at her could steal the breath from his body.
“You always smell so good.”
Raven reached back to circle his neck with her arm, dragging his head closer so she could kiss him. The moment his lips touched hers, fire exploded in his gut and spread low, racing through his system until his blood thickened and his pulse pounded. He pressed his body closer so she could feel the evidence of his desire.
She laughed softly. “You always make me forget what I’m doing. I’m supposed to be cooking the turkey. It’s been a very long time and I have to make certain I don’t make any mistakes. We’ve invited the Ostojics and the guests staying at the inn. We need human food and since it was my idea, I couldn’t very well pass on the most important item on our dinner menu.”
“Yes you could.” Mikhail’s voice suddenly turned sly.
Raven whirled around to study her lifemate’s all too innocent expression. “What are you up to, Mikhail?”
“I’m passing on the duty of being jolly Old St. Nick.”
Raven put both hands on her hips and tilted her head, narrowing her eyes. “You’re up to something very, very bad. I can feel your laughter. What is so amusing?”
“It has just occurred to me that I have a son-in-law.”
A slow, answering grin spread over Raven’s face even as she gasped in shock, one hand flying to her throat. “You wouldn’t. Not Gregori. He’ll scare all the children. He couldn’t look jolly if he tried.”
“We let him take our daughter from us,” Mikhail said. “I think as his father-in-law he will have a hard time turning me down.”
“And you say I have a wicked sense of humor,” Raven accused.
“Where do you think I got it?” Mikhail nuzzled her neck, his voice a husky whisper.
The familiar answering tingle of excitement shot down her spine. Raven loved the way Mikhail’s every touch seemed so intimate. “He’ll never do it. Not in a million years and you’ll still have to, but I’d love to see his face when you ask.”
“I have no intention of asking,” Mikhail denied, straightening to his full height. “I’m his prince as well as his father-in-law and he is my second in command and son-in-law. It is his duty to do these things.”
“You can’t order him to play Santa Claus.” Raven tried desperately to keep her laughter from spilling over. Gregori was one of the most intimidating men she’d ever met. The idea of even considering him in the part of Santa Claus was both hilarious and ludicrous to her.
“I believe that I can, Raven,” Mikhail said solemnly. “You ordered me, and I’m the prince.”
Raven made a snickering sound. “I suppose you’d prefer I groveled at your feet.”
His hands framed her face and he bent to take possession of her mouth. He loved her mouth—her taste—her instant response. I could kiss you for all time.
Good thing since you dragged me kicking and screaming into your world. Raven closed her eyes and gave herself up to the sheer magic of his kiss. Her arms stole around his neck and she leaned into him, wanting to feel the imprint of his body so real and alive against hers. There had been too many assassination attempts on Mikhail. Just recently they had lost one of their homes in a fierce battle fighting the combined forces of Razvan, a mage, and vampires. It had been unheard of for vampires to ban together, let alone with any other species.
It frightened her to think there was a conspiracy to murder Mikhail. Her terror of losing him had partly been the reason she’d suggested a huge celebration of Christmas. She needed something to take her mind off of her growing fears for his safety.
Mikhail lifted his head, retaining possession of her chin. “There is no need for you to fear for my safety, Raven.”
The smile faded from Raven’s face and she took a step away from her lifemate. “There is every need.” She glanced toward the forest, a hitch in her breath. “Someone is coming.”
“A youngster, Raven, no one to be afraid of.” Mikhail brought her palm to his mouth to press a kiss in the center. “I’ve never seen you so nervous.”
“I try to accept what we cannot change, Mikhail, but as the years have gone by, the danger to you has increased. I try to live as normal a life as possible, but I cannot even now, when it is imperative to protect you, overcome my revulsion of sleeping in the ground. My terror of being buried alive makes us more vulnerable than ever.” Ashamed, she ducked her head, avoiding his eyes.
Raven. My love. He bent his head once more to hers, his lips brushing hers with a tenderness that brought tears to her eyes. “I made you a promise and I mean to keep it. You do not ever have to sleep beneath the ground. The earth rejuvenates us in our chamber and there is no need to feel you have in any way placed my life in danger. You are my life. I cannot allow you ever to be in danger. If I thought sleeping in our chamber was dangerous, I would find another way.”
Her eyes searched his, her mind sweeping through his at the same time, searching for the truth. She knew he wove strong safeguards to protect them, but she still feared she placed them in danger with her strong aversion to going to ground.
The rustle of leaves on the path to their home broke them apart, Mikhail shifting his body slightly to place his taller frame between the forest and his lifemate. A young woman emerged from behind several leafy plants, looking frightened, but determined. She was average height with tousled, dark hair shimmering with red streaks. She had the skin of a young girl and the eyes of someone far, far older.
Skyler. Mikhail identified for Raven. Gabriel and Francesca adopted her. Both Gabriel and Francesca have given her their blood. She is still human, yet carries a powerful bloodline. She is a very strong psychic.
Raven smiled at the teenager. She worries about the Carpathian males wanting to claim her now that she is sixteen. She’s much too young to worry about such things. “You must be Skyler. How nice of you to come visiting. Perhaps you’d care to come in and talk to me while I check on the turkey.”
“I do not see Gabriel with you,” Mikhail greeted pointedly. This young child represented hope to his race, yet she walked through the forest unescorted.
Mikhail! Don’t frighten her.
There are wolves in the forest as well as the possibility of enemies.
Skyler stopped abruptly, her gaze shifting to Mikhail. For a moment her dark eyes clashed with Mikhail’s black ones defiantly. “Gabriel trusts me to make me way to your house. I’m not a child anymore.”
“I can see that. I’m Mikhail and this is my lifemate, Raven. Gabriel and Francesca speak of you so often, I feel as if I know you. Forgive me if I showed my concern for a young woman I look upon as family.”
A brief smile flitted with Skyler’s mouth. “I have to hand it to you, Mr. Dubrinsky, that should make me feel like a worm, but it doesn’t. I’m here because I absolutely want to make it clear that I am not a lifemate to anyone.”
A shadow passed across the moon, briefly blotting out the light spilling down on the forest. Bats wheeled and dipped in a mad frenzied performance in the night sky.
Mikhail stood still, searching the surrounding forest with his preternatural senses. He gestured imperiously toward the door Raven held open. They followed Skyler inside. “You are so certain of this?”
The aroma of turkey filled the house and Mikhail hid his natural revulsion against the scent of meat cooking. Smells from her past often comforted Raven. She was unaware of it, but he sensed her happiness, as if the turkey in the oven had been an important part of her life—a good memory of childhood—so he was careful not to ruin it for her. Raven sent him a small smile as if she might be reading his thoughts in spite of his thin shield. He’d have to watch that. Her skills and powers grew daily.
Skyler looked at the high beamed ceilings and wide open space before her gaze settled on the three enormous stained glass windows. Her face lit up and she walked straight over to them. “This is Francesca’s work. Isn’t she awesome? I helped her with this one.” She tilted her head to study the vibrant colors. “I haven’t learned how to weave the safeguards into the glass yet. I can do it in quilts, but glass is much more complicated.” She glanced at Raven. “Do you ever stand under the setting sun and feel comfort?” Skyler moved an inch to her left. “Right here. If you stand right in this spot as the last rays of light hit, you’ll feel it. I did that.”
“It’s a work of art,” Raven said. “If I could, I’d have every window done in Francesca’s work. I had no idea you were helping her.”
“I have some talent, not nearly as strong as hers, but she’s helping me develop mine. I hope to be partners with her one day.” The smile faded, leaving her eyes bleak. She reached up to brush strands of dark hair from her face, revealing a small crescent-shaped scar on her temple and drawing attention to the white scars on her hands and forearms. Skyler seemed to be aware of her nervous gesture and folded her hands, her chin raising a fraction. “I’ve heard rumors of a coming out party—where the men gather to see if they could possibly be compatible with one of the women…”
“We have no women,” Mikhail pointed out. “There are no parties and no coming out as we have no women.”
Skyler’s mouth firmed into a stubborn line as she followed the couple into the kitchen. “Gabriel and Francesca treat me like family.”
Mikhail nodded. “They love you as if you were their daughter.” He inhaled deeply, drawing her scent into his lungs. “You carry their blood so through love, blood and in every other way, you are their daughter.”
“They’ve offered to convert me when I’m twenty-one and I’m considering it, but I want assurances that you won’t try to force me to be with a man—any man.”
“No one would force you to do anything,” Raven said. “Gabriel is a powerful man. Don’t you think he would protect you?”
“Absolutely he would protect me. I don’t want Gabriel or Francesca to have to protect me. If I go through the conversion I do not want someone trying to claim me.”
“Are you not aware of the plight of our people? Of our males?” Mikhail demanded.
Raven put a restraining hand on his arm. “Have a seat, Skyler. Can I get you something to eat or drink? We have juice in the fridge.”
Without breaking eye contact with Mikhail, the teenager sank into a chair with an almost regal nod. “Yes, thank you, juice would be nice.”
She is terrific, isn’t she Mikhail? She’s terrified but determined that she be heard. There was admiration—and warning in Raven’s soft message to her lifemate. Raven poured a glass of orange juice and set it in front of Skyler.
Mikhail’s head went up alertly and he stepped toward the window, his gaze restless as he searched the darkness. He felt the presence of wolves and owls as they hunted for prey, but nothing that would cause the uneasy feeling twisting at his gut. He glanced down at the defiant young teenager, gently probing her mind—and memories. He found Francesca and Gabriel’s shields to help distance the girl from the brutality of her life before they had made her their ward, but even with that protection in place, the memories of the malicious cruelty and violence against Skyler sickened him.
Mikhail glanced at Raven and saw the tears shimmering in her eyes as she shared Skyler’s past—felt her pain and despair—the utter hopelessness of a child who could not escape from a depraved adult world. Raven hastily crossed to the oven to check on the turkey.
“It smells good,” Skyler said.
“I used a wild rice stuffing,” Raven said. “I remember it from my childhood. It took a bit of time tracking down the recipe, but it should be good, although it’s been a long time since I cooked anything.”
“Francesca lets me cook whenever I want. She trusts me to make my own decisions.” Skyler glanced at Mikhail.
“Are you aware of what happens to a Carpathian male without his lifemate?” Mikhail asked, his voice and compelling.
Skyler nodded. “Gabriel and Francesca both explained it to me. They lose colors and emotions first. Over hundreds of years honor can fade and they become dangerous, especially the hunters, any who take lives. And eventually they can become the vampire, the most evil of all creatures.”
“And you would leave your lifemate to this fate? You would be that cruel and inhumane? Should he suffer even more than he already is because you did?”
“Mikhail!” Raven whirled around, shock on her face. She’s a child. How could you? Giving our daughter to Gregori before she was beyond a fledging was bad enough but this child has suffered. And we have no way of knowing whether or not she is lifemate to one of our males.
She is mature far beyond her human years, Raven. Allow her to answer.
Skyler carefully placed the glass on the table and stood up, folding her arms as she faced Mikhail squarely. “No, of course not. I wouldn’t want anyone to suffer, but I can’t seem to overcome the things in my past.” She held her trembling hands in front of her. “I don’t feel comfortable in the presence of men. I’m not capable of being anyone’s lifemate and I don’t want to be forced into a position where I have no choice, no say in my life. I didn’t come to the conclusion lightly. I love Gabriel and I certainly wouldn’t want to think of him dead or suffering or a vampire, but I know I can’t ever be powerless again. Male Carpathians are far too dominating and I would find myself slipping back into that dark place where Francesca first found me.”
Mikhail frowned. “Do you believe our women are without power? Is that how you see Francesca?”
Skyler shook her head. “Francesca is loved and returns love. She can do what I can’t—and never will be able to do. Gabriel promised me—as did Lucian—that they will never let another force my compliance, but I know a Carpathian male has the ability to bind a Carpathian woman to him. I want to be fully Gabriel and Francesca’s daughter, but I don’t want to be subject to the laws of your world.”
She doesn’t know her lifemate could bind her to him in her human state. Mikhail reached out to Raven, suddenly at a loss as to what to do or say to this woman-child. Why would Francesca and Gabriel and even Lucian keep this information from her?
“Skyler,” he said aloud. “A Carpathian male must put his lifemate above all else. He would see to your needs, have patience with you. You are young yet. You have no idea how you’ll feel in a few years.”
“I do know.”
“And you would sentence a Carpathian male, one who has given many lifetimes of service to death—or worse—to the undead out of fear?”
“His decisions have nothing to do with me.”
“And what of the Carpathian race? Our species is nearly extinct. We cannot continue to exist without women and children. One woman makes a difference. One woman can save a male and give birth to a child.”
“I see Francesca struggling sometimes to be true to her nature, and she’s a strong woman. Gabriel is very protective and dislikes her going anywhere without him.”
Mikhail slammed a barrier in his mind immediately to prevent Raven from reading his mind. Gabriel had to be concerned with their enemies striking at the women, yet he had allowed Skyler to go into the woods. Or had he? “Did you mention to Gabriel that you were coming to see us?”
Skyler scuffed the toe of her hiking boot on the kitchen floor. “I may have forgotten. He was busy helping Francesca bake gingerbread for the house we’re making for the children.”
Raven basted the turkey in silence, turning over Skyler’s fears in her mind. “What is it Francesca struggles against, Skyler?” She asked.
Skyler shrugged. “What do you struggle against?”
Mikhail was slightly shocked at the human teenager’s reply. She sounded far too mature for her age and that in itself was a danger he hadn’t considered. If Gabriel and Francesca had thought about the potential risks before bringing Skyler to their homeland, they would have mentioned her maturity to him. She was only sixteen—a virtual baby by their standards, yet her experiences had aged her far beyond her physical years. She looked—and spoke—as an adult. Would her voice trigger the terrible needs of the Carpathian male? If so and she restored color and emotion to her lifemate before she could meet his needs, that might be as dangerous to the male when she wasn’t ready to be with him as not finding her at all. Often, being a lifemate—and intense sexual awareness and need—came before love or even affection.
Raven touched his hand—a small gesture, but it was enough to lighten his spirits. She smiled at the teenager. “I struggle with the terrible burden of so many lives depending on my lifemate and with the knowledge that so many want him dead. And I struggle with my own inadequacies. There are still aspects of Carpathian life I can’t come to terms with and it could present an added danger to my lifemate.”
She smiled up at Mikhail. The stark love shining in her eyes put an unexpected lump in his throat. “I have never, not once, not at any time, regretted that I am lifemate to this man. I think you underestimate your own abilities, Skyler. You’re a very courageous young woman. You are far too young to contemplate taking on a Carpathian male, but eventually you will come into your full power and potential. Most of the men have no idea what they’ve gotten themselves into.” She winked at the girl. “It takes time to develop skills and power and most of us were too young, but we learn quickly by utilizing the mind bond.”
Skyler nodded. “Gabriel and Francesca teach me by sharing information telepathically and I’ve found it’s so much more detailed than conversation. I can see how you’d learn so much more quickly.”
“How’s the baby doing?” There was a hitch in Raven’s voice and she didn’t dare glance at Mikhail. Of course he would notice—he always noticed.
His gaze found hers—sharp—aware, sliding over her body with too much knowledge. She hadn’t told him she could get pregnant—that is was the optimum time and if they let this chance slip by it could be years before it happened again. Ashamed of being afraid, of the sorrow and grief that accompanied taking such a chance, Raven looked away from him. “And sometimes, Skyler, I struggle against my own weaknesses and fears, but never—never—against being lifemate to Mikhail.”
Skyler, obviously an empath, moved closer to Raven, as if by her close presence she could reduce the sadness. “I guess we all do that, don’t we?” She looked to Mikhail for confirmation.
Mikhail touched Raven’s hair, his fingers gentle. Raven, my love. His voice in her mind was infinitely tender.Every Carpathian male knows when his mate can conceive. You are everything I have ever wanted. When you are ready—only when you are ready—do we try again. He smiled at Skyler even as his gaze caressed his lifemate. “You are a very wise young lady.”
Dark clouds crossed the moon, momentarily darkening the skies and casting macabre shadows into the large kitchen. The silhouette of a large wolf passed in front of the window, as if a large creature had crept onto the wraparound deck and paced just outside. Instinctively they turned toward the second window just over the sink. Skyler gave a muffled cry as a great shaggy head, fur black and eyes glowing nearly red, stared at them through the glass.
“Stay inside,” Mikhail commanded as he shimmered--first into transparency—and then dissolved into vapor, streaming across the kitchen to slide under the door out into the night.
The wolf abruptly disappeared leaving the two women staring into the darkness.
“It could have been Gabriel or Lucian checking up on me,” Skyler ventured. “They often take the form of a wolf.”
Raven shook her head. “They would have come to the house, talked with Mikhail, let you know they were worried.”
Skyler put a comforting hand on her arm, a difficult thing for her to do when she disliked being touched or touching. “There are a dozen Carpathian males within hearing distance. If the prince needs help, he has only to call out.”
Raven smiled at her, one hand to her throat. “Of course he can. Whatever is out there doesn’t really feel like a threat to me.” In the form of an animal, it would be easy enough for a skilled Carpathian—or vampire—to hide his intentions, but Raven wasn’t going to acknowledge that to Skyler. “Mikhail will let us know if something is wrong. In the meantime, I have this turkey in the oven. Have you ever cooked before? It’s been such a long time for me and I could use a hand.”
Skyler laughed. “We have a housekeeper. She does the cooking and lets me into the kitchen once in a while, but doesn’t really like anyone under foot. She pretends it doesn’t bother her, but I know it does.”
“Of course you’d know. You’re an empath, you can feel what she’s feeling. That must be uncomfortable for you.”
Skyler shrugged. “Gabriel and Francesca are helping me to learn how to shut myself off. So far I haven’t mastered it yet, but I think eventually I’ll be fairly good at it. Francesca helps to guard me during the time she’s awake.”
“Why do you want them to convert you?”
“They’re my family. I want to be with them.”
“And they’ve both exchanged blood with you?”
Skyler nodded. “It will only take one blood exchange for the conversion. Gabriel explained it to me, but he wants me to wait until I’m older. He thinks I need more time to think about it, but I know what I want. As long as the prince doesn’t insist on me taking a Carpathian male as a lifemate, then I’m going to try to get Gabriel to do it as soon as possible.”
“It’s difficult on your body, Skyler,” Raven warned. “There’s a great deal of pain they can’t protect you from.”
“I can feel that you’re uneasy, Raven. There’s something you aren’t telling me.”
Raven had been completely human, just as Skyler had been and she was a strong psychic talent. She could feel that Carpathian blood had already heightened Skyler’s awareness and senses. The girl was sharp and had powerful with well-developed psychic talents. Raven still remembered those days, the sensation of someone else’s emotions creeping over her, sharp and terrible. There was a scent to evil and depravity and an empath as sensitive as Skyler needed to be sheltered from the continual assault on her. It was no wonder Gabriel and Francesca had both given her blood to help shield her.
“I think you already know what I’m not telling you, Skyler. You came here not to ask Mikhail for assurances, but to make him aware of your strong objections. Francesca and Gabriel would never try to hide the truth from you—that your true lifemate can bind you to him whether you are human or Carpathian. If you are the other half of his soul, he can seal you together. You know that, don’t you?”
Skyler blushed as she nodded her head. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have lied. Sometimes I learn more by pretending ignorance. Most people don’t give a teenager credit for intelligence or maturity. I can ask for protection against him, can’t I?”
Raven studied the too-old eyes. “Have you met your lifemate?”
Skyler shook her head, her gaze shifting away. “I have nightmares. I hear a voice sometimes and I’m afraid.” She hesitated. “When I was a little girl and men did things to me, I would scream and scream in my mind. I would hear a voice calling to me. At the time I just thought I was going crazy. But, I know he’s out there somewhere and he’s looking for me.” She rubbed the spot between her eyes. “I didn’t want to come to the Carpathian Mountains because I was afraid he might be here, but Gabriel and Francesca wouldn’t leave me behind. Gabriel said I needed protection at all times.”
Raven’s heart jumped. “He said that?”
Skyler nodded. “He’s been strange lately, not wanting Francesca or me to go anywhere without him. I can see she gets upset, but she doesn’t say anything. She works at the hospital and some of the shelters and I often go with her, but he doesn’t like her going anymore.”
Raven busied herself with the turkey, basting it again, even though there was no need. “When did Gabriel start becoming upset about the two of you going off alone?” She kept her voice casual, but out of the corner of her eye, caught the girl’s sharp glance.
“Since the attack on the prince.”
There is nothing to fear out here, Raven. One of the males taking a run in the forest and decided to drop by, but saw we had company. I am going to see my brother. Do not allow Skyler back into the forest without an escort.
Should I be worried about something, Mikhail?
Raven felt the brief hesitation. I do not know. I am uneasy but have no real reason to be.
Be careful, Mikhail. Be safe. Tell Shea I’ll see her soon. What are you discussing with Jacques?
Raven felt his sudden amusement. The image of Gregori dressed up as Santa Claus surrounded by children.