Chapter Eighteen

The boat chugged so slowly through the channel, Gary wanted to scream. For the hundredth time he glanced at his watch. The sun was climbing steadily into the sky. He had never been so aware of the heat and light radiating from the sun. It had taken precious time to locate Beau La Rue and convince him Savannah and Gregori were in terrible trouble. With each passing second, he was certain the sun would incinerate them.

"Can't this thing go any faster?" he demanded for the tenth time.

Beau shook his head. "We're close to the old man's pool. It is treacherous in these waters. Snags are everywhere, jagged rocks. It is dangerous. And if we meet the old man, we will not survive."

"Gregori killed him," Gary said coolly, with complete faith in the Carpathian. He was certain the man could not be defeated. Whatever wounds he had sustained would not prevent him from killing his opponent.

"Pray that you are right," the captain said softly, meaning it.

The boat rounded the corner into the thick sludge of the channel leading to the pool. Gary gasped when he saw the blackened ashes and smoldering remains a distance away on the embankment. He couldn't be too late. He couldn't have failed them. "Move this thing," he snapped, rushing to the railing of the boat, prepared to leap over into the murky water.

"Even if the old man is dead," LaRue cautioned, "there are other alligators in this area."

"I thought you said nothing was here but the big one," Gary protested.

"I think you are right. The old one is dead." LaRue's faded eyes searched the landscape. He inhaled sharply. "The stench is fading, and the regular rhythm of the bayou is already restoring itself. See the way that log lies half-buried in the mud? That is no log. Stay in the boat."

Gary paced impatiently until Beau managed to maneuver the craft to the edge of the swamp. Gary, thick blankets in his arms, jumped to ground and sank two inches into the bog. LaRue shook his head. "The land is unstable here. If you sink into the marsh, you're dead." More carefully he tested the land and led the way from spot to spot of firmer ground.

Gary spied the two bodies lying on a mound of rotting vegetation. Swearing, heedless of his own safety, he crossed the distance at a run. A jacket covered their faces. Both appeared dead. He checked their pulses. Neither had one. Gregori's clothes were torn and dirty. The amount of dried blood staining the material in so many places was appalling. Before LaRue could see them clearly, Gary covered them from head to toe with a thick blanket.

"We have to get them into your boat quickly. Is there a dark room, a cave, anywhere dark we can take them?" Gary asked. He was already lifting Savannah into his arms.

LaRue watched him carry her to his boat. "A hospital would be good." He made the suggestion in a soft, reasonable tone, as if he feared Gary had lost his mind.

Gary made certain that every inch of Savannah's skin was hidden beneath the blanket before hurrying back to Gregori. "I'll need help with him. Don't let the blanket slip. He's very allergic to the sun."

"Is he alive?" LaRue bent to remove the wrapping so that he could check. The wounds were deep and nasty.

Gary caught his wrist. "Gregori said you were someone he trusted. Help me get him into the boat, and find us a place in the dark where they can rest. I'll take care of them. I'm a doctor, and I brought what they need." He picked up Gregori's shoulders and stood waiting for the other man to make up his mind.

Beau hesitated, puzzlement on his face, but then he lifted Gregori's legs and they struggled in silence with the dead weight, inching their way across the unstable, sponge-like ground. Once inside the boat, Gary wrapped Gregori like a mummy in a blanket, pulling both bodies beneath the craft's awning. "Get us out of here and to a dark place fast," he commanded.

Beau shook his head, but he started the boat. He would have liked to examine the pile of smoldering ashes, the scorch marks on the reeds and rocks. Something terrible had taken place there. He knew Gary was right. Old man alligator was dead. The terror of the bayou had finally been reduced to the legend everyone thought he was.

Gary knelt between the bodies, his heart pounding in dread. He hadn't taken the time to examine them closely; he didn't dare in the sun or with the captain watching. Please God he hadn't failed them, he hadn't been too late. Gregori had lost so much blood. What would happen to him? Why hadn't he asked the couple more questions while he had the opportunity? He dropped his face into his hands and prayed.

"They are good friends of yours?" Beau ventured compassionately.

"Very good friends. Like family. Gregori saved my life on more than one occasion," Gary answered carefully, not wanting to reveal too much.

"I have such a friend. He is like this one. He had a place not too far from here that he often stayed in when we'd spent too much time in the swamp. He didn't like the sun either. I'll take you there. Gregori and Savannah know him. I don't think Julian would mind."

The boat began to pick up speed now that they were out of the root-choked channel and into the clear water. "Thank you," Gary said gratefully.

Beau LaRue knew the bayou like his own backyard. He took the boat to the top safe speed and found every shortcut he could think of. When they approached land, it was a small island with a single hunting cabin on it. The cypress trees were thick, nearly impenetrable. "The ground is very firm here in the center of the island. It doesn't look so, but there is a trail of stepping stones leading through the mire. We can take them to Julian's secret place. He owns this piece of land, and it's always undisturbed. He isn't a man one wants to trifle with."

They took Gregori first because Beau had to lead the way. He picked his way carefully, every step placed on a round stone in the muck. It was difficult going with Gregori so big, his body a dead weight. Beau could not discern the rise and fall of the man's chest, but he refrained from saying so. It seemed insane to him to take someone so mortally wounded to a dark, damp cavern, but he had seen Julian go to this place on more than one occasion when the sun was rising to its peak.

The cave they approached was man-made and very small. There was almost no room to stand. They laid Gregori's body full length on the dirt floor in the darkness and retreated quickly, Gary anxious to get Savannah out of the light. He lifted Savannah into his arms and faced the captain. "Thanks for your help. I'll attend to these two. Leave my bags right here on the stones. I'll see to Savannah and come back for them."

"You want me to stay?" Beau asked, torn between curiosity and his ingrained belief in privacy. Gary shook his head, already moving across the stones.

Beau cast off, started the engine. "I'll check to see if you need me later tonight."

"Thanks," Gary called over his shoulder, hurrying to get Savannah's body out of the sun.

He sank down beside the two still bodies, breathing hard, worried that they might truly be dead. He was even afraid to bathe Gregori's fearsome wounds, not certain what harm it might do. He passed the time playing solitaire, drinking from his canteen, and going back and forth between being certain they were dead and sure they would rise with the setting of the sun.

Out across the bayou the sky finally became a smoky gray. Gary crawled to the entrance to the cave and stared out at the gathering night. It couldn't happen too fast to suit him. When he turned his head, he saw the rise and fall of Gregori's chest beneath the blanket.

Gregori felt hunger first, then pain. He blocked them both and assessed the damage done to his body. He had lost a good amount of blood, but Savannah had replenished him. It took a short time to focus, to go inside himself and heal the gaping wounds. Even with what Savannah had given him, he was in desperate need of blood. Only after he had closed the lacerations so that there was no further blood loss, he stirred, then sat up. He could hear a heart beating close by, the ebb and flow of life rushing hotly, calling to him so that his fangs began to lengthen in his need.

His mind automatically reached for Savannah. She had saved him. He was getting used to her pulling him back from tight spots. There was no lack of courage in Savannah. He found her life-light huddled in a small corner of his mind. She had brought herself to the brink of death in order to give him life. Swearing, he pushed the blanket from his body and shoved hers aside. He gathered her close and examined every inch of her.

The loud, insistent beat of the heart so close to them, so filled with the rush of life, drew his attention. Slowly Gregori turned his head to see Gary watching him from the entrance to the cave. He had known he was there, knew it was Gary who had taken them from the swamp and found them a dark, safe place to sleep.

"I owe you much," Gregori greeted the human softly. Hunger gnawed again, and he could feel his incisors sharpen in response. His lifemate needed sustenance immediately. "Stay with her while I hunt."

Gary took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. "You can use my blood. I knew you would wake hungry."

The hard edge to Gregori's mouth softened momentarily. "I do not merely hunger, my friend. I need. Savannah needs. I can be dangerous in this state. I would never risk your life."

"I trust you, Gregori," Gary said truthfully, surprised that it was so.

Gregori moved around him. "You are a rare man, Gary Jansen. I feel privileged to know you, to count you as a friend. Please take care of my lifemate while I hunt."

Gregori was already pushing past Gary, a mere brush as he went by, but the contact sent a shiver down Gary's spine. Gregori smelled wild and dangerous, a merciless, predatory animal. Gary didn't know how he knew the difference, but at that moment Gregori was more beast than man. It was only after Gregori was gone, shape-shifting before his eyes into a bird of prey, that Gary realized that the terrible wounds in the Carpathian's body were healed. He watched the raptor rise on the wind until it became a mere speck in the sky.

Gary scrambled across the dirt floor, hunching over to avoid scraping his head on the roof. He sat beside Savannah and waited. It didn't take very long before the bird returned. Gary couldn't take his eyes off the shimmering, iridescent feathers shifting into a solid rock of a man.

Gregori glided through the cypress trees, tall, fit, healthy. Even his clothes were immaculate. His hair was shining clean, tied at his nape with a leather thong. His silver eyes were clear, and once more his face was a mask of sensual beauty. "Gary" - the voice, as always, was purity and strength - "please leave us for a few moments."

"Will she be all right?" Gary asked fearfully. In spite of himself, he had checked her pulse several times. "She must be all right," Gregori said very softly.

The voice was like velvet, but there was something in it that sent a shiver of apprehension through Gary. If anything happened to Savannah, Gary realized that no one, nothing in the world, would ever be safe again from the Carpathian. He hadn't considered that before, and he had no idea where the knowledge came from, but he knew it absolutely. He crawled from the cramped space and picked his way a small distance from the cave. The night noises bothered him, were strange and a bit daunting.

Gregori gathered Savannah tenderly into his arms.

Come to me, my life and breath. Wake and be with me.

He gave the command, and even as he felt her heart flutter, he pressed her mouth to his throat.

Feed, ma petite.

Feed and replenish what you selflessly gave to me.

Savannah turned her head, her first breath a sigh of warmth against his throat. She nuzzled closer, drowsy and weak from lack of blood. Her tongue tasted his skin, caressed his pulse. Gregori's body tightened alarmingly as her teeth sent white-hot pleasure slicing through him. Slowly her skin warmed, went from ashen to a healthy glow. Her arms slipped around his neck, and she held him close, her body fitting into his, a restless ache of need and hunger.

Savannah closed the pinpricks on her lifemate's neck, feathered kisses up his throat to his jaw, then found the corner of his mouth. Gregori caught her head and held her still, his mouth dominating, taking hers with a need as elemental as the wind.

"I thought I lost you," she whispered into his heart, his soul. "I thought I lost you."

"Are you always going to be pulling me out of trouble?" he asked, some strong, unnamed emotion choking him, blocking his throat.

A small smile tugged at her soft mouth. "Back you up, you mean."

He groaned at her terminology. "

Je t'aime, Savannah. More than I can ever express in words of any language." His arms held her tight, sheltering her against his heart. She was his world, would always be his world. She was his laughter, his light. She showed him how to slip easily between both worlds. She gave him faith in humans that had never been there before.

As if reading his mind, she smiled happily up at him. "Gary really came through for us, didn't he?"

"Absolutely, ma petite.

And Beau LaRue was not so bad either. Come, we cannot leave the poor man pacing the swamp. He will think we are engaging in something other than conversation."

Wickedly Savannah moved her body against his, her hands sliding provocatively, enticingly, over the rigid thickness straining his trousers. "Aren't we?" she asked with that infuriating sexy smile he could never resist.

"We have a lot of clean-up to do here, Savannah," he said severely. "And we need to get word to our people, spread the society's list through our ranks, warn those in danger."

Her fingers were working at the buttons of his shirt so that she could push the material aside to examine his chest and shoulder, where two of the worst wounds had been. She had to see his body for herself, touch him to assure herself he was completely healed. "I suggest, for now, that your biggest job is to create something for Gary to do so we can have a little privacy." With a smooth movement, she pulled the shirt from over her head so that her full breasts gleamed temptingly at him.

Gregori made a sound somewhere between a sigh and a moan. His hands came up to cup the weight of her in his palms, the feel of her soft, satin skin soothing after the burning torture of the tainted blood. His thumbs caressed the rosy tips into hard peaks. He bent his head slowly to the erotic temptation because he was helpless to do anything else. He needed the merging of their bodies after such a close call as much as she did. He could feel the surge of excitement, the rush of liquid heat through her body at the feel of his mouth pulling strongly at her breast.

Gregori dragged her even closer, his hands wandering over her with a sense of urgency. Her need was feeding his.

"Gary," she whispered. "Don't forget about Gary."

Gregori cursed softly, his hand pinning her hips so that he could strip away the offending clothes on her body. He spared the human a few seconds of his attention, directing him away from the cave. Savannah's soft laughter was taunting, teasing. "I told you, lifemate, you're always taking off my clothes."

"Then stop wearing the damn things," he responded gruffly, his hands at her tiny waist, his mouth finding her flat stomach. "Someday my child will be growing right here," he said softly, kissing her belly. His hands pinned her thighs so that he could explore easily without interruption. "A beautiful little girl with your looks and my disposition."

Savannah laughed softly, her arms cradling his head lovingly. "That should be quite a combination. What's wrong with my disposition?" She was writhing under the onslaught of his hands and mouth, arcing her body more fully into his ministrations.

"You are a wicked woman," he whispered. "I would have to kill any man who treated my daughter the way I am treating you."

She cried out, her body rippling with pleasure. "I happen to love the way you treat me, lifemate," she answered softly and cried out again when he merged their bodies, their minds, their hearts and souls.

The future might be uncertain, with the society dogging the footsteps of their people, but their combined strength was more than enough to see them through. And together they could face any enemy to ensure the continuation of their race.


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