Emeline Sanchez watched the children playing in the large play yard directly across from her little Victorian home. She liked sitting outside on the wide, wrap around porch where the wind could touch her face. Sometimes, that small touch was the only relief she got from the relentless pain winding through her body every minute of the night and day.
Rain had given the air a clean, fresh scent. The world looked shiny and new, every leaf on the trees a vivid green or silver. Small birds sang to one another, hopping from tree branch to gnarled limbs. They were bright red spots of color, adding to the beauty of the compound. The property was owned by Tariq Asenguard, co-owner of a string of high end nightclubs. He had a unique piece of property and she would have loved to live there if things had been different.
"Emeline." A tall woman with long dark hair and forest green eyes waved at her from the play yard. "It's a beautiful day."
Genevieve Marten was gorgeous. Model thin. Tall with long legs that went on forever. Dressed in slim jeans and leather boots, she looked far too elegant even in that attire, to be playing nanny to five children. Emeline knew Genevieve was independently wealthy and had traveled the world, yet she was as sweet as anyone could be, and she'd taken on the job of looking after the children when Tariq and Charlotte couldn't. Emeline was certain Genevieve didn't have a mean bone in her body.
"It is, isn't it?" She called back. For that one moment, she felt normal, like she had a friend and they shared a joyous moment just because it was such a beautiful day.
As she waved, a long tangle of blue-black hair fell around her face and she pushed it back, vaguely thinking she was going to have to cut it soon. She'd always loved her hair, the one feature she thought was attractive about her. But it fell below her waist, and she was just too exhausted to take proper care of it. Lifting her arms over her head to brush it or wash it, was becoming a terrible chore. She sighed and rested her chin on the heel of her hand, her eyes on the five children running around the play yard.
She loved watching the children. She didn't really know true happiness anymore, but the closest she came was at times like this, observing them playing and laughing, seemingly carefree and happy. They were alive because of her deliberate sacrifice. The sound of their laughter, seeing them on swings and slides, doing normal things, was worth every horrific moment she'd suffered. They were alive. Traumatized, yes, but still alive and hopefully recovering very quickly.
"Come join us," Genevieve called.
Emeline wanted to join them. She even needed to, but she couldn't take the chance. She didn't think Genevieve would turn on her, but there were others...
"Drinking tea," she said. "You should join me. I baked cookies."
The children had become aware she was out on her porch, something she often did during the daylight hours, even in the middle of a violent storm, but never at night. At night, she stayed in the house, heart beating too hard, terrified he would come for her. She knew he was coming, it was only a matter of time. He whispered to her sometimes, when she wasn't strong enough to keep him out of her head. Those times were becoming more and more frequent.
"Emeline!" The chorus of voices called to her. Happy. Affectionate. Although she rarely left her porch, they knew she had their backs. She saved them more than once at a great cost to herself. They weren't fully aware of that expense and she hoped they never would be. They were too young to bear any more burdens then they already did.
"Swing with us, Em," Danny called. At fifteen, he was tall and gangly, his form just beginning to show the promise of who he would become. Emeline knew he had great courage as well as love for his siblings. He'd kept them together after their parents had died and when the girls were taken by the monstrous men down in the labyrinth beneath the city, he had gone after them. She couldn't help but admire Danny.
"Not right now, but I have a plate full of warm chocolate chip cookies. And Genevieve, I also have fresh cranberry and pistachio biscotti dipped in white chocolate."
Tariq Asenguard had taken the children in, become a foster parent of sorts, until the adoptions came through, protecting them with his friends and unique security system—just as he protected her. Emeline was grateful to him, but she knew she couldn't stay much longer.
Danny raced to the porch, leaned down and brushed the top of her head with a kiss, scooped up a handful of cookies and was back at the swings before either three-year-old Lourdes, or Bella, could protest. Bella was his youngest sister. Lourdes was the orphaned niece of Tariq's wife, Charlotte.
"Thanks, Em," Danny yelled, stuffing one into his mouth whole. "So good." Both little girls immediately held out their hand for one and Danny obliged them.
Despite his youth, Danny watched over his family with a fierce protectiveness. He was equally as protective of little Lourdes, Emeline, and Emeline's best friend, Blaze. They'd helped him when he thought everything was lost. He was a smart boy, indescribably brave, and he'd begun to emulate the Carpathian males who'd taken them all in. His hair was a little too long, because he was growing it to pull back in a long ponytail like the Carpathian males often wore. He admired Tariq and even walked like him.
They had been orphans living on the streets, trying to stay together when the girls had been taken. Danny refused to give up on his sisters and he'd gone after them, down into the underbelly of the city—a huge labyrinth of tunnels and rooms—a city below the city. Emeline shivered at the memory. She tried very hard not to think about it, to close the door on the horrors of what had been down there. She'd gone with Danny to help, to get the children back, knowing what would happen to her. She'd seen her fate enough times in dreams, but someone had to get the children out or they would have died in that murky, stench-filled place of nightmares.
She understood street children, she'd been one and she knew how much they craved the stability of a close family. She looked around the huge complex with the buildings, gardens and the lake bordering one side, the high fence surrounding the property on three sides and all the amenities the acreage offered. It was still a prison. No matter how beautiful, none of them could safely leave. Not even the children. Maybe, especially the children.
"Cranberry and pistachio biscotti?" Genevieve put her book down. She'd gone to the bench under the tall oak where she could keep an eye on the children. "You made them?"
"This morning," Emeline enticed. She wanted Genevieve's company. She needed to feel normal even if it was just for a few minutes. Sometimes, if her focus changed, she could resist the pain longer, not be afraid for just a few minutes and pretend that she would have a life like everyone else. She needed that today—one of the reasons she'd spent all morning baking.
"You can ride my dragon," Amelia offered. She was fourteen, her body already developing into that of a woman's. Her hair was thick and often tousled from her continual rough-housing with her brother. She had beautiful eyes and a killer smile. Emeline adored her and the way she loved her sisters and brother.
Emeline knew it was huge to get an offer to ride one of the dragons. Made of stone, the five dragons—each with a unique color—sat off to one side of the play yard. They looked as if they were statues, just that. Nothing else. Emeline knew that each dragon had been made specifically for one of the children. For their amusement, yes, but mostly for protection. The dragons, crouched so lifelike in the massive yard, could suddenly come to life, spread wings and fly as well as breath fire. Amelia's dragon was a striking orange and she loved it dearly. Emeline often saw her whispering to it, or circling the long neck with her arm and nuzzling it with affection.
Emeline sighed. She detested disappointing the children, especially Amelia or Liv, the ten-year-old, but she didn't dare chance leaving the porch.
"I'd love to ride your dragon, Amelia. He's beautiful, but I'm enjoying just sitting here, drinking tea and watching all of you." That was strictly the truth. "Come get some cookies. I don't know if dragons like them, but you can feed him one and tell him it's from me."
Amelia giggled and crossed the yard to her house at a much demurer pace than her brother. The Victorian was a smaller replica of the much larger Victorian that was Tariq and Charlotte's main home. That house loomed in the background, just beyond the play yard. Emeline always enjoyed looking at it as well. Tariq's main home was a sprawling mansion with the classic semi-circular arches, corbel tables, rock-faced, square towers, archivolt and transom windows in a ribbon pattern, all classic Richardsonian Romanesque.
Water from the lake lapped lazily at the shore. The sun poured down into it, so that droplets disturbed by fish and birds appeared as dazzling diamonds dripping into the water, causing beautiful rings that spread across the surface. Emeline always found peace in the sound of the water moving. Sometimes she wished she was like Blaze or Charlotte, no longer human, but Carpathian, an ancient race of people capable of amazing things. With a wave of their hands they could move water, make it dance, keep that soothing sound up so she could concentrate on it, rather than the pain wracking her body.
Amelia threw herself into the chair across from Emeline's. She caught up a cookie and leaned forward. "Em, you do know if there's anything at all I could do for you, I'd do it."
God. She loved the children. They were all so amazing. Every last one of them. She was grateful she'd made the decision to go into that labyrinth, the chambers of utter horror, to get them out. She refused to regret that decision, no matter the price she had to pay—and she was paying it every single minute of the day. She forced a reassuring smile. "I know I look awful, Amelia, but I'm getting better." That was a lie. The pain was getting worse. Pain and fear. She kept a close eye on the sky. Sunset was fast approaching and she'd go immediately into the house once the sun dropped out of the sky.
"No you're not," Amelia whispered. "You're not, Emeline. Please let Tariq or one of the others help you. A couple of the scariest ones are good healers."
Emeline couldn't help the automatic withdrawal, the way her body went smaller. She wrapped her arms around herself, as if she could cloak her body, make herself invisible. The ancient race could heal. She'd seen it. She wanted to be able to go to them and ask for help. Anything at all to stop the pain. She shook her head. "I'm fine. I don't need them."
"Are you afraid of them? I'd go with you."
Amelia reached out and touched Emeline's wrist and followed the line of bruising up to her elbow. Her touch was light, but it still hurt. Emeline forced herself to remain still. Amelia had been traumatized by the events in the underground city. She didn't need to worry about Emeline when there was nothing she could do. Emeline wanted her to be a child, although, realistically, she knew there was no going back for Amelia.
"It's such a beautiful day, isn't it? I love the rain, but this is gorgeous, everything fresh and shimmering new." She kept her voice light as she casually reached for her teacup, the action giving her a legitimate reason for moving her arm out of reach. When she settled the teacup back into its saucer, she put her hand in her lap, surreptitiously tugging on the sleeve to cover the bruising.
Amelia opened her mouth as if she might say something, but in the end, she just took a bite of the cookie. "These are still warm."
"Right? They're so good. I love them with ice cream."
Amelia scooped up three more. "My dragon's going to love these just like they are. Thanks. Anytime you want a ride, let me know and if you need me, Em, I'll come stay with you." Her gaze dropped to Emeline's bruised arm, not that she could see the discoloration, but she knew it was there.
"Thanks, honey," Emeline said, fighting the burn of tears. "Go have fun with your dragon."
Amelia hesitated, standing awkwardly in front of Emeline, then she leaned down and brushed a kiss across her forehead. "You're important too, Em. To all of us. You know that, don't you?"
Emeline tightened her arms around her middle, holding it together by a mere thread. She was going to have to risk leaving the compound to ensure Amelia's—and the other children's safety. She knew, when she made the decision to leave, that she probably wouldn't survive. "Thank you, Amelia. Sometimes, I guess, we all need a reminder."
She wasn't as important as the children. They deserved a life and they'd never had it. They were street children, living from one garbage can to another, the older ones stealing to provide for the younger ones. Huddling together to keep warm in the worst of winter. Here, in Tariaq Asenguard's compound with the wealthy Carpathian as their guardian, she knew they finally had a home. She couldn't endanger them by drawing the worst evil imaginable to them.
Amelia jumped off her porch and walked nonchalantly back to her dragon. Emeline caught the impression that she wanted to run to the creature, but was trying to act dignified. That made Emeline want to smile when few things could anymore. Amelia went back and forth between being that young teen and a very old soul.
"Emeline." Genevieve's voice floated to her and she realized she was drifting. She did that sometimes, trying to find a place in her head to go where nothing, not even the terrible pain eating away at her insides could get to her. "Are you certain you don't mind me joining you?"
Emeline lifted her head and it was an effort. She had thought she was holding her own outside, but suddenly she was desperately tired. Everything seemed to be an effort these days, but watching the children play, seeing little three-year-old Bella laughing as her brother pushed her on the swing was a balm to her. "Of course I want your company, Genevieve." She smiled up at the other woman.
"It's nice to talk to an adult. Charlotte and Blaze sleep all day and, although I love the children, I sometimes think I might pull out all my hair if I don't hear an adult's voice." Genevieve sank gracefully into the chair Amelia had just vacated. "By the time the two of them get up, I'm ready to call it a night."
She yawned and poured herself a cup of tea. "It seems I'm turning into an old lady. I want to go to bed earlier and earlier."
Her laughter was soft, inviting Emeline to join in at the absurdity of a woman her age going to bed just after sunset. Emeline shifted back in her chair so the shadows could soften her appearance. An observant person would notice she continued to lose weight and Genevieve was observant.
"I don't sleep very well," Emeline admitted. "I play music, but that doesn't always help."
"You need to talk to someone," Genevieve suggested gently.
Emeline nodded, agreeing because it was the truth. She wouldn't. Couldn't. But she agreed because she knew Genevieve was right. "Blaze and Charlotte tell me that as well. I don't want to relive one moment of it, not ever again, not even to talk about it."
The incident. That's how she thought of it, trying to minimize those hours in her mind. Make the entire thing just another moment in her history. She pushed at her tangled hair with trembling fingers. For a moment, she couldn't breathe. The pain in her body increased until she writhed on the chair, a low moan escaping. At once Genevieve leapt to her feet and came around the small table toward her.
Emeline held up her hand, palm out, desperate to stop the other woman. "Please. I can do this. I have to do it my way."
"Charlotte told me a healer was coming, would be here any day. He's powerful. Also, Dragomir Kozel is reputed to be a tremendous healer..."
Genevieve broke off. "Okay, I can't recommend him. Everyone seems nervous around him, including Tariq and he's the most confident man I've ever known." She subsided, with some reluctance, back into her chair.
At the name of the ancient Carpathian, Emeline pressed her lips together tightly, her heart pounding wildly. She had seen the man striding through the property, his salt and pepper hair down to his waist, looking like a warrior out of a movie. His body was roped with obvious muscle, much different than Tariq's sleek look in his suit. She couldn't imagine Dragomir in a suit. Of course, she'd secretly watched him, what woman wouldn't? He was rugged, all male, his features grim and scarred, tough, very intriguing.
She'd actually dreamt about him and that scared her. She didn't dare dream of anyone. She had an enemy that could look inside of her mind when she wasn't being vigilant. Just the thought of that made her want to laugh hysterically. If she went to a counselor and tried to tell them he could read her thoughts, she'd be locked up in a padded cell. No one would believe her. She didn't even have the basic luxury of fantasizing about a man like Dragomir sweeping her off her feet. She knew she would never be able to live with the reality of him, but she wanted to have the fantasy.
Worse, her dreams sometimes came true, the ones that repeated themselves night after night, adding new details with each new dream. She continued to have those, even before she'd laid eyes on Dragomir. Always, he died at the end. He saved her, saved the children and died. Because of her. She hid in her house when he was on the grounds because she wasn't ever going to meet him. Not ever. If she could avoid that introduction, maybe her nightmares wouldn't become reality.
"I am?" She touched her throat and ran her fingers down her chest, shocked that she could feel warmth creeping under her skin. Along with nightmares, she had fantasies about the man—fantasies she tried hard to reject, but they crept into her mind anyway.
"Everyone gets out of his way," Genevieve reiterated. "Dragomir is dangerous."
"I can see that," Emeline admitted. "Anyone can see it. Believe me, when he's outside, I go in the house." That much was true. She wouldn't take a chance with his life. And now... She didn't take a chance with any of the Carpathian males being around her. Charlotte and Blaze were both Carpathian. She wouldn't be able to be around them either. But Dragomir... Any of the ancients really, but Dragomir caught her attention. She couldn't get near him, not without endangering him, her, or everyone.
The wind shifted just a little, kicking up leaves and swirling them in small eddies across the grounds. Shadows lengthened, throwing replicas of the sprawling mansion across the ground. In her imagination, those turrets on the ground grew in darkness, reaching out toward her much smaller Victorian. She shivered and shrank back into the shadows, hiding from those reaching hands.
"Em! Em!" Bella's voice drew her attention. Danny had pushed her high on the swing and she was waving with one hand while clutching the chain with the other.
Emeline waved back at the child, her heart in her throat. "Hold on with both hands, Bella," she called.
"They really respond to you and each other," Genevieve observed. "I'm just beginning to break into their circle."
"I was homeless too," Emeline admitted. She rarely talked about her childhood, but Genevieve was becoming a friend. She had precious few of them. It didn't hurt to explain, especially since Genevieve was so good to the children and sounded just a little hurt. "When the weather was bad, I'd climb up onto the roof of the building where Blaze and her father owned a bar. Their apartment was over it. Blaze would leave her window unlocked and I'd climb in and sleep there. For a long time, her father pretended he didn't know." She smiled at the memory. "He was a good man."
"So if I didn't have money...
"Or an accent," Emeline cut in.
Genevieve laughed softly and then sobered. "I grew up in a very wealthy family. That comes with its own set of prejudices."
Emeline studied her face. Genevieve was truly a beautiful woman. She was always sweet and caring, but at that moment, it was easy to read the sadness in her. She blinked and Genevieve was smiling again. Hiding. Maybe everyone hid. Emeline didn't know anymore. The thought made her sad.
"Lourdes is a beautiful little girl," she said. Lourdes was also three, and Charlotte's niece.
"She's very sweet," Genevieve said. "I suppose I should get back over there. Danny looks like he's had enough of pushing the girls on the swing and they can keep asking for hours."
"He's a good boy." He was. Emeline was very impressed with Danny.
"Thanks for the tea. I've only got a little while before Charlotte is up and she takes over the children. I'll have my time off."
Emeline nodded and watched her go back to the play yard. She spoke with Danny briefly who squinted up at the sun for a couple of seconds and then shook his head. Something about the way he looked up caught Emeline's attention. She frowned trying to think what was eluding her. The tilt of his head reminded her of something she'd seen several times. It was important...
"Em!" Liv materialized right in front of her, a mischievous smile on her face. She flung her arms around Emeline. "I missed you."
Emeline's breath exploded from her lungs at the sudden sight of the little girl. Liv had endured terrible things in the underground city and that had bonded the two of them. At ten, she was years older than she should have been, her childhood ripped away from her. Emeline closed her eyes for a moment, savoring the feeling of love she had for the little girl. To save her life, the Carpathians had converted her, bringing her wholly into their world, so technically, Emeline shouldn't spend time with Liv—it was too dangerous.
"I missed you too," she murmured. It was true. The child had been healing, put in the ground to allow the rich soil to do its work. Liv looked good, her skin no longer sallow, her eyes no longer haunted. "I thought you were supposed to stay in the ground a few more weeks. And it isn't sunset yet."
Liv shrugged and pulled back. "I feel good. I missed my brother and sisters, and you." She glanced across the yard to where Genevieve was once more settling herself on the bench, book in hand. "They need to see me as much as I need to be with them."
Emeline nodded. "They were very upset, so yes, I think they need to see you, Liv, but not at a cost to you. If Charlotte or Tariq says you need more healing, you do what they tell you."
"Like you do?" Liv said slyly.
Emeline sighed. "I forgot what a little smarty you are."
Liv regarded her with too-old eyes. Emeline blinked back tears. Liv would never have a normal childhood. She'd never be that little girl playing without a care again.
"I'm sorry I couldn't get to you faster," she whispered.
Liv caught her hand and held it tight. "You came. I thought those horrible puppets were going to eat me alive, but you came. You and Blaze saved me."
Emeline wasn't certain it was just the two of them. It had been a concentrated effort. They'd had help. She forced a smile. "Can you tell if Vadim is still able to whisper to you?"
Liv shook her head. "He's gone completely." She tugged on Emeline's hand as if she could pull her up and lead her along the same path she'd taken. "Have them convert you, Em. He won't be able to get to you."
Emeline knew better. She shook her head and looked around, making certain no one else was near. Genevieve was engrossed in her book, looking up only to keep an eye on the two three-year-olds. Danny was pushing the girls so high they were squealing and laughing, calling for more. Amelia watched the little ones with a smile on her face while she petted the stone dragon, occasionally leaning down to whisper in its ear.
"What is it, Em?" Liv lowered her voice, in tune with Emeline, as she always had been.
"I can't become Carpathian."
"Of course you can. They can convert you. They made it so it didn't hurt for me. They can do it for you."
"I wish it was that simple, but Vadim..."
"He can't get you here, you're protected."
"He still whispers to me. I can't make it stop," Emeline admitted. "He's driving me insane. And the pain..." She broke off. Liv might be her only confidant, but she was just ten years old, far too young to have to deal with Emeline's problems.
"If you allow them to convert you, they'll take his blood out of you," Liv insisted. "I know it's scary, but I did it. So can you."
Emeline shook her head and pressed both hands to her churning stomach. "It's not the same. It wouldn't work on me."
"Have they explained lifemates to you? Why Charlotte is with Tariq and Blaze with Maksim?"
Liv nodded. "A little."
Emeline took a breath and then said the unthinkable in a little rush, desperate to tell someone, yet afraid to say it aloud. "I think Vadim is my lifemate." She knew he was. He'd told her, laughed horrifically, when he'd taken her blood and forced her to take his. Just the thought of it made her want to vomit. Her throat burned even now, weeks later and deep inside, the burning continued.
Liv went pale and she let go of Emeline's hand, stepping back, just as Emeline knew she would. They all would. She was unclean. There was no monster on Earth worse than Vadim and she was his other half. Maybe they would even destroy her if the Carpathians knew the truth. Her friends would turn on her and she'd be completely alone and unable to defend herself against Vadim's constant attacks.
"That can't be," Liv whispered.
"It is," Emeline said and pressed trembling fingers to her mouth. Covering it. Holding back a scream of utter terror. Sharing the truth hadn't made it easier. She'd admitted it aloud and now the reality couldn't be denied.
Liv regarded her with compassion. "I don't care. It doesn't change who you are, Emeline. He can't have you. We won't let him." She spoke fiercely, making it a vow.
"He's eating me alive," Emeline whispered, knowing Liv, of all people would understand. It wasn't the scars left on her body from his attack, but the ones in her mind he continued to leave with his whispers. The threats. The taunts. The knowledge that he was there in her head and she couldn't get him out.
"We'll find a way to keep him out," Liv said. "I hear things. I can learn fast. There's a healer coming, he's supposed to be really good at what he does. And if he doesn't get here fast enough, I can see if Dragomir can help."
Emeline shook her head. "No Carpathians. They would know."
"Then I'll learn," Liv said staunchly. "I know I can learn healing."
Emeline found herself smiling. "You can learn anything," she agreed. "Thank you, my sweet girl. I appreciate that you want to help me."
"I watch them. I always have. I remember everything, so it's easy to follow the patterns they make or say the words they do."
A frisson of alarm crept down Emeline's spine. "Baby, you know you can't just go around repeating what they say. Some of their commands are in the Carpathian language and you don't understand that yet. You can't know what they're saying."
Liv shrugged. "I know the results."
"Honey, really, you can't just say things without knowing what they mean. It can be dangerous."
"Everything is dangerous," Liv said. "Knowledge is everything, isn't that what you told me? The more we know, the more we can figure things out."
Emeline sighed. "Now you're turning my own words back on me. At least you listened."
"I always listen to you." Liv hugged her again. "Why don't you go lie down for a while, Emeline? I'm going to play with my brother and sisters before the adults wake up and make us do our studies."
"I will in a few minutes," Emeline agreed. "I like to stay in the sun as long as possible." Once the sun set she had to stay in her house, lock the door and pray she didn't fall asleep. Outside, in the night, were her friends, Carpathians, and they would turn on her the moment they knew the truth about her. In her house, in the darkness, Vadim whispered to her, promising her all sorts of tortures if she didn't leave the sanctuary of Tariq Asenguard's property and come to him. "I know you miss your family."
"You're my family, too, Emeline," Liv said solemnly. "But you're right. I did miss them. Look at them," she waved her arm toward the play yard. "They're so cool."
She laughed and Emeline was happy to hear the sound was genuine. She hadn't believed she'd hear Liv's laughter ever again. Being wholly Carpathian had helped her immensely.
"I missed my dragon too," Liv admitted. "I thought about all the things I'd like to learn to do and flying my dragon is top of the list."
Emeline glanced up at the sky. The sun was fading fast. "You need to wait for Charlotte and Tariq before you try anything like that. You know the safeguards are in place to keep Vadim and his monstrous friends out." She couldn't help the shudder that ran through her body just saying the name. Vadim Malinov stalked her day and night. The thought of him getting his hands on her again, or on one of the children—she couldn't face that. "Wait, Liv."
Liv laughed again, the sound soft and delicate, like musical bells tinkling in the breeze. "Adults always want to make us wait for anything fun."
Emeline shook her head. "That's not true, silly. We love you and don't want anything to happen to you. I know it's hard to live behind a high fence, not to be able to go places and do things other children get to do, but you have other things they don't." That was very true and she needed Liv to see that—to acknowledge it so there was no chance of the children risking their lives.
"I know," Liv agreed with a small sigh. "We'll fly low, below the safeguards. I doubt if we could get through them anyway."
Emeline didn't like the speculation in her voice. "I know you want to be able to use all the gifts that come with being Carpathian, Liv, but you have to be patient and allow the adults to teach you. The gifts are powerful and can hurt others if they're misused."
Again, Liv laughed softly, that sweet melody that seemed to vibrate in harmony with Emeline's insides, playing along nerve endings until she found herself listening for more.
"I can't misuse them, Em, if I don't know what they are," Liv pointed out.
"Livvie!" Bella shouted. "Hurry up."
"Take her another cookie. Don't forget one for Lourdes," Emeline said. She yawned, exhaustion catching up with her. She really should go inside, but it seemed a great effort to gather the tea cups back onto the tray and carry it when her arms felt so leaden.
Liv scooped up a couple of cookies for the little girls, glanced at her brother and added several more. "He's always hungry," she explained.
Emeline smiled. "He certainly is," she agreed and waved at the little girl. "Go have fun."
Liv leapt off the porch and ran to join her brother and sisters. They gathered together, Danny pulling the swings to a halt while stuffing cookies into his mouth. Several times he glanced up at the night sky as if judging how long they had to sunset—and the adult Carpathians making their appearances. Again, just that simple motion of his head tilting upward reminded Emeline of something important she needed to remember, but her mind felt fogged.
The children ran to the stone dragons, all laughing softly. It was Liv's laughter that she focused on, the sound beautiful to her after all the horrors the child had suffered. She propped her chin in her hand, elbow on the little table, aware her head felt too large, her brain fuzzy. She didn't mind the feeling, at least it was pleasant and as long as she stayed fixated on the children, she didn't feel the pain clawing at her stomach and the cries of terror reverberating through her mind.
Danny helped Lourdes onto the blue dragon. It was large and scaly, it's tail long and spiked. Lourdes sat on its back, her knees gripping hard as she leaned forward to whisper into its ear while she patted the long neck.
Danny picked up Bella next and placed her on the red dragon. Like Lourdes, she stroked and caressed the stone scales and spikes. Danny wrapped his arm around her waist and whispered in her ear. She nodded several times.
Emeline frowned. Something about Danny's posture, the way his dark jeans looked leaning against the crimson red of the dragon moved through her mind slowly. Something was just there out of reach, something she needed to catch hold of, but her mind refused to cooperate. The more she tried to grasp the memory, the more it eluded her.
The wind rushed through the compound stirring the leaves on the ground so once again they rose, this time swirling around the dragons and children. Danny leapt on the back of the brown dragon and Amelia the orange one. The mounted them as if they'd been riding dragons for a hundred years. Emeline couldn't help but admire the way they moved so easily and smoothly, but now that memory was right there, right on the outer peripheral of her mind. So close. A nightmare...
Liv approached the green dragon, talking softly. Emeline couldn't hear what she said, but the green dragon's spiked tail twitched. The big creature lowered its neck toward the little girl and she petted the wedged head before moving around to climb up the tail. Once seated she turned her face toward the sky. Clouds drifted overhead. They were gray and massive, stretching out above the compound like a blanket.
Emeline studied those clouds with a little frown. She didn't like the way they blocked out what was left of the sun and she'd seen them before. The children laughed and called to one another in excitement, the sound of their mischievous voices coming at her as if in a dream, far away, but she was so tired she couldn't rouse herself, even to see what the children were up to.
Her eyelids were so heavy she couldn't lift them beyond mere slits. The sun hadn't set, but she knew it was close. She always went back inside her house at sunset. If she didn't... Well, that didn't bear thinking about. Still, there was something elusive in her mind, drifting through like a jangling note in a symphony, something she couldn't quite grasp, but knew was important.
Gripping the green dragon with her knees, Liv lifted her hands into the air and began weaving a complicated pattern in the air. Dreamily Emeline watched the patterns, Liv's hands swaying gracefully in the air. Her murmurs were soft but they carried, as if she uttered commands. Thunder rolled. Dry lightning cracked. The leaves rose like geysers, forming towers high into the air all around the stone dragons. Nightmare. Her nightmares.
Alarm rang like a bell through Emeline's mind. Harsh. Jangling. A shadow moved in her mind. Dark. Twisted. Gleeful. A whisper. Deep inside her, she heard screaming. Something hard kicked her stomach, raked at her insides. "No." She whispered it, watching in horror as across the play yard, Genevieve's book fell to the ground as she slumped over asleep.
"No," she whispered again, forcing her mind to work through the terror of that dark force creeping in through the slit that lightning had made between two clouds. The mass above the compound churned and roiled, looking suspiciously like a witches' brew.
The sun sank as the dragons spread their wings and leapt, taking to the air, circling higher and higher until they were reaching for those dark, ugly clouds. "No," Emeline said again and stood. On shaky legs, she ran off her porch. "Liv. Come back. You don't know what you're doing. He's waiting. He's out there waiting."
The clouds glowed orange and red all through the seams of rolling black. Fireballs erupted, spewing like well thrown grenades at the dragons in the air while others rained down on the compound. Liv had effectively destroyed the safeguards so carefully woven each dawn by the Carpathians. She'd watched and remembered the pattern and had removed them allowing the monsters access to their home.
The children screamed as the dragons took them higher to get away from the attack, but the fireballs followed, shooting at them, striking the large bodies and knocking the orange and brown dragons out of the sky. They fell, rolling, badly wounded, Amelia and Danny clinging to their respective dragon's neck as they tumbled toward the ground.
Emeline rushed toward Genevieve. She was still out, clearly Liv had cast a sleeping spell, and she was totally vulnerable. She hadn't taken more than three steps and the ground opened up in front of her. On either side of her. Behind her. She halted, terrified. Before her stood Vadim Malinov.
He looked beautiful. Handsome. Young. He was the epitome of handsome by modern standards, a man who could grace the cover of any magazine. He smiled at her and bowed a low courtly bow. When he smiled, his teeth were perfect, straight and white so that he probably dazzled the one he bestowed his smiles on—but not her. She knew better. Her heart pounded and she stood frozen, unable to scream or run. Unable to get away.
"At last, my dear. You should have come to me when I called you. Now you've left me no choice but to punish you."
The smile was gone and he took one step and caught her by the hair, bunching the long tangles in his fist and jerking her head close to his. "You will be pay for your disobedience. Every one of those children will die."