Chapter Fifteen


The storm moved in from the sea in the gathering darkness, blowing fast and furious over the canal and into New Orleans. It was wild and uninhibited, slamming rain into the streets with such force that it pooled inches deep immediately, the city's massive pumps unable to keep up with the load. Bolts of lightning streaked and sizzled across the sky and danced in the air, displaying the raw magnificence of nature. Thunder cracked loudly, drums filling the sky, breaking free to shake the very foundations of the buildings.

Gregori padded through the house on bare feet, suddenly worried about Savannah. She was out in the courtyard, alone, quiet, not sharing her thoughts with him. He had merged his mind with hers twice since rising, and both times she was confused, sad, chaotic. He had backed off to allow her space. She wanted the one thing he knew he would never be able to give her: the freedom to join him in his battles. The thought of Savannah in any kind of danger robbed him of the very air he breathed. Gregori was at a loss. For all his knowledge, all his power, he was unable to say the right thing to make it better for her.

Savannah had wandered silently out into the courtyard as the wind had risen, watching the clouds darken, swirl, and boil against the night sky, heralding the coming gale. The sky had opened up, dousing the earth. Savannah simply curled up in a chair and watched with shadowed eyes.

Gregori paused in the open doorway, his eyes molten mercury, watchful and careful. She was staring up at the dancing whips of lightning, uncaring that three inches of water had pooled on the patio, that her long hair was drenched and that the thin shirt she wore clung to her like a second skin. She was so beautiful, she took his breath away. All around her nature was erupting, wild and untamed. In the middle of it all, she sat as if she belonged. The white silk of his shirt, soaked in the rain, was transparent, hugging her high, firm breasts so that she looked like a pagan offering.

She was deep in thought, far away. Gregori touched her mind with his because he needed the contact. She seemed so distant, and he no longer could bear the separation from her. Despite her outward appearance of serenity, her mind was as wild as the storm. She was soaring above the earth, no longer anchored by skin and bone. The fury of the impending gale was in her, turbulent, untamed.

He could find no condemnation in her for his failures, no blame for the sorrow in her. There was only a fierce need to find a way to understand and accept those things she could not change. She felt the shortcomings were her own youth and lack of experience. She was particularly distressed that she had inadvertently placed him in danger because she didn't have the knowledge to shield her presence from their enemies. Gregori nearly groaned aloud. He didn't deserve her; he never would.

Savannah turned her head slowly toward him, her blue eyes dark with the wildness of the storm in their depths.

He could feel it then, the heat and hunger. The raging storm. It moved through her blood the way it moved through the night sky. It called to something primitive and savage in him. He felt the beast roar, the hunger swamp him. Silver eyes glowed red in the dark night, ferocious, feral, more animal than man.

Gregori would never forget that moment. Not in a century, not in an eternity. The night was theirs. In spite of everything between them, there was nothing that could keep them apart. They belonged together. They needed each other. Hearts and minds, bodies and souls. Trees swayed in the winds; plants nearly bent double under the onslaught. The humidity was high, the air filled with electricity arcing and snapping. Jagged bolts of white heat slammed into the ground, shaking the earth. Lightning hit the side of a building a few blocks away, charring the walls and sending bricks spilling to the sidewalk and street. It exploded a nearby telephone pole into a shower of fiery sparks.

Savannah stood in the courtyard, the lightning arcing across the sky above her, the wind whipping her hair around her, the rain soaking her body, and she lifted her arms to embrace the raw power of nature. Her skin was creamy, flawless, wet. The silk shirt clung to her rib cage and emphasized the dark rose of her erect, beckoning nipples. Her legs were bare and slender, and the dark triangle of curls at their apex enticed and beckoned, mysteriously summoning him. Her long hair, unbound in the wind, was wet and wild, like the night itself.

Gregori went to her because he had to; he had no other choice. Nothing, no obstacle could have prevented him from getting to her side. His arm snaked out and dragged her to him, his mouth meeting hers with the ferocious intensity of the storm. He couldn't find the words, had no words to give her, only this, his fierce need to show her what she was to him. What she gave to him. Life. Everything.

He wanted her just like that. Wet and wild, with lightning streaking across the sky and scorching their blood. His mouth took hers, feeding voraciously, devouring, claiming her for his own, branding her mouth, her skin with his mark.

Fire raced across her neck as he kissed her, stroked her with his tongue, as his teeth sank deep. The pleasure and pain shook her, reduced her to a wild ecstasy, craving, forever craving more. He took her blood, the sweet, hot fluid filling him as he gorged himself, as he tasted her very essence.

As he fed on her honeyed spice, his hands stripped the edges of the shirt aside so that he could cup the fullness of her breasts, reveling in her body, her softness. So perfect. He could feel what she wanted in her mind - the savage hunger, the need to match the fury of the storm, the need to feel alive in the midst of all the violence surrounding them.

Her need was his. He stroked his tongue across the pinpricks so his mouth could wander down her throat, leaving fire in its wake. He found her breast through the thin, water-soaked transparency of her shirt and suckled wildly, a frantic frenzy of lust and love. His hands found her bare bottom, cupped her buttocks to drag her against his raging body. Need overcame sense; his fangs burst forth, and he pierced the creamy swell of her breast, so that she flowed into him like nectar.

Savannah cradled his head with one arm, her other hand exploring his body, deliberately bringing him to a fever pitch. The storm crashed around them, through them, pooling low in their bodies, demanding relief. He fed as was his right, hands claiming her, sliding down to her wet, hot, pulsing core. His fingers probed, caressed, tempted, teased. The combination of his mouth feeding and fingers stroking drove her wild, so that she moved against his hand, desperate for release.

Savannah's husky cries were lost in the crack of thunder as her body rippled with life and demanded more of him. Gregori lifted his head and watched with hungry eyes the thin trail of red mingling with the rain on her body. He stroked his tongue across her breast, then followed the trickling path of ruby to her belly, then lower, so that he found her hot and ready, crying out as she fragmented under his attack.

Lightning slashed and sizzled, whips of heat that seemed to lash them with their fury, seemed to dance through their bodies, feeding the storm in them, around them. Gregori propelled her backward until she came up against the iron lacework of the arbor. His hands turned her, so that her breasts were between the slats and she caught at the metal for support, her fists clenching as he lifted her lips. His palms caressed and stroked, the softness of her driving him mad with need. He pressed against her bottom with his own raging body, the hard length of him swelling even more. He had never needed anything more.

Savannah made a sound, a little cry torn from her throat. The soft plea shattered his last control, and he surged into her sheath of hot velvet. He heard himself groan with pleasure, the wind taking the sound, wrenched from his deepest being, and sending it off into the turbulent night. His hands held her hips pinned as he buried himself deeper and deeper, hard and fast, as wild as the battering winds.

Her back, so long and flawless, stretched out before him, and he bent his head to lap at the beads of water there. She was small, so delicate, yet strong and as wild as anything nature could conjure up. The insatiable heat of the Carpathian ritual was on them, but his heart was captured for all time, so that as wild as he was, he was equally tender.

He felt her weaken, a momentary dizziness. He knew instantly what was wrong, although she tried to conceal it. He had taken too much blood. Without consent, without comment, he lifted her. Her small cry of bereavement was satisfying to his male ego as he took them across the patio to a lounge chair. Settling himself into the wet cushions, he pulled her onto him, so that she straddled him.

Savannah cried out as she lowered her fiercely aroused body onto his. He filled her completely, white-hot friction, tight and erotic. Gregori caught the nape of her neck, forced her head toward his chest.

You will feed now.

She was like a wild thing, her body moving frantically over his, taking his iron control and reducing it to ashes. His hands spanned her waist, and he allowed himself the luxury of sheer pleasure, the lightning sizzling through his own body, flames consuming him. His hands moved up the perfect line of her back, found her hair, and forced her head to him.

I need this from you. I need you to take me into your body.

He clenched his teeth against the pleasure threatening to drive him mad.

His command was really a plea, and Savannah leaned forward, her body riding his, her tongue lapping at the beads of water on his chest once, twice. His body clenched as fire streaked through him, pain and pleasure melting into one sensation. Her teeth bound them together as his body did. Body and soul. God, he loved her, felt whole, complete with her. The terrible emptiness, the black void, was pushed aside for all time by the beauty of her spirit, her soul.

He whispered ancient words of love through clenched teeth, surging into her, filling her heart as he filled her body. When the explosion came, it was as turbulent as the slashing whips of lightning, as loud as the cracks of thunder, as wild as the winds ripping through the night.

They clung to each other, exhausted, sated, awed at the beauty of their lovemaking, the beauty of the storm. Even as they sat welded together, her head over his pounding heart, his arms tight around her, the winds began to die down, nature easing its frantic force as their hearts slowly returned to a normal rhythm.

Gregori kissed her temples, the line of her cheekbone, brushed his mouth along the corner of hers, nibbled his way down to her chin. "You are my world, Savannah. You must know it."

She held him, shocked at the intensity, the force of their need for each other. "If this thing between us grows stronger over the years, neither of us will live very long."

Gregori laughed softly. "You could be right, ch§ڲie. You are a dangerous woman."

He flowed from the lounge chair, still holding her locked to him, and glided across the courtyard into the house. The shower was hot on their bodies after the cool rain, but they stayed there for some time, too spent to move. Savannah was grateful that he held her in his arms, afraid her legs would never support her again.

Gregori dried her slender body with a towel before waving a hand to clothe himself. Savannah was wandering through the house back to the kitchen, with only another of his shirts to cover her. Her bare skin showed marks that hadn't been there before, and he followed her, cursing his own roughness. He had left his brand on her breast deliberately, the mark of his possession, but the faint smudges elsewhere needed to be healed.

Savannah laughed softly. "I don't hurt anywhere, lifemate. I loved, it, and you know it."

"I can make you love it without marking you," he corrected.

She idly picked up a packet of papers and sifted through them, then dropped them onto the counter. "If you ever hurt me, Gregori, I promise you, I'll tell you immediately."

He sensed the return of her restlessness. "What is it?"

"Let's do something, Gregori. Something that has nothing to do with the hunt. Something different. Something touristy."

"The streets are flooded tonight," he pointed out.

She shrugged. "I know. I was just looking at some pamphlets earlier, on all the tourist attractions here," Savannah said nonchalantly.

Gregori looked up alertly at the carefully calculated disinterest in her voice. "Did any of them seem appealing to you?"

She shrugged again very casually. "Most of the more interesting ones are the day trips. Like the bayous. There's one you can go on with someone who grew up in the bayou." She shrugged again. "I like learning local history. I wouldn't mind a tour of the bayou with someone who grew up there."

"You have the brochure handy?" he asked.

"It isn't important," Savannah said with a little sigh. Tossing the packet of pamphlets onto the table, she picked up her hairbrush.

Gregori took it out of her hand. "If you want a proper tour of the bayou, Savannah, then we will go."

"I like to do the tourist thing," Savannah admitted with a slight smile. "It's kind of fun to ask questions and learn new things."

"I bet you are very good at it," he answered her, slowly running the brush through the blue-black length of her hair. It crackled with a life of its own, refusing to be tamed. He gathered it into his hands just to feel how soft and silky it was. Over her shoulder, his pale gaze rested on the brochure she had put to one side. If Savannah wanted a tour, he would move heaven and earth to get her one. "We do not always go chasing after vampires and the mortal assassins plaguing our people," he began diplomatically.

"I know. They turn up everywhere we go," she agreed.

He tugged at a tangle in her glossy hair. "When you first proposed to come to New Orleans, we had hoped the society members would follow us and leave Aidan and his people in peace. Is that not what you wanted?"

"Not particularly," she admitted with a flash of her blue eyes. "I was only trying to get you to come here. You know, classic honeymoon. Sweet young wife teaches wizened old grouch how to have fun. That sort of thing."

"Wizened old grouch?" he echoed in astonishment. "The old part I can accept, even the grouch. But I am definitely not wizened." In punishment he tugged her hair.

"Ow!" She swung around and glared indignantly at him. "

Wizened sort of seemed to fit. You know, wizard, wizened."

Gregori crushed her hair to his face to hide the sudden emotion overwhelming him. The fragrance of flowers and fresh air surrounded him. So this was what he had sought all those long centuries. Fun. Belonging. Someone with whom to share laughter and teasing and to make even the difficult moments in life beautiful. She was so much a part of him, he couldn't return to a barren existence again. He would never choose to stay in the world without her.

"Do you think I am too old, Savannah?" he asked softly, taking strands of her hair into his mouth. So soft. So much like silk but even better.

"Not old, Gregori," she corrected gently. "Just old-fashioned. You have a tendency to believe women should always do as they're told."

He found himself laughing. "Not that you do."

She tilted her head back, a not-so-subtle hint for him to resume brushing. "I wish you would understand that I can't stand by and watch someone get hurt because of me."

He sighed audibly and allowed several heartbeats to go by before replying. "I should never have taken you with me and placed you in such a position, ma ch§ڲie. For that I apologize."

"I want to discuss this," she insisted, clenching her fist.

He pushed aside the thin shirt, bent his head, and touched his mouth to her bare shoulder. The sensation was as intimate as sin. "There can be no discussion. We put this to rest last night. I will not do this, not even for you. You must understand who I am. You are in me, as I am in you. You know how I feel. I can do no other than to protect you. That is who I am."

"Do you have to be so inflexible about this, Gregori?" Savannah complained. But he was right; she already knew the answer. It was impossible to be in his head and not feel his implacable resolve.

"The storm is passing over us. Do you want to go to the bayou this night?" he asked softly, separating her hair deftly and beginning to weave it into a thick braid.

She loved the feel of his hands in her hair, his fingers massaging her scalp, tugging so gently on the thick length of braid. She reached up to place a palm over her bare shoulder, the exact spot where his lips had touched her. "I would love to go to the bayou with you."

He smiled at her, his silver eyes molten mercury. "We can observe wildlife for a change. No vampires."

"No weird society types," she added.

"No mortals in need of rescuing," Gregori said with intense satisfaction. "Get dressed."

"You're always taking my clothes off, then telling me to get dressed again," Savannah complained with her infuriating smile, that little sexy one that drove him mad.

He turned her around to face him, caught the front of her shirt, and drew the gaping edges together to cover her tempting body. "You cannot expect me to dress you myself, do you?" he asked, leaning down to brush her lips with his. She actually felt her heart jump in response. Or maybe it was his heart. It was nearly impossible to tell the difference anymore.

It took Savannah mere moments to be ready. Hand in hand, they walked into the courtyard. The rain was now no more than mist, but the water was still inches deep on the tiles. Gregori brought her hand to his mouth. "I will never look at this place in quite the same way, ma petite?" he said softly. His voice whispered over her skin, black velvet that slipped over her body and seeped into her mind. His voice was purity itself, so beautiful that no one could resist it, least of all her. Savannah found herself blushing, the wild color creeping up her face.

His laughter was soft and husky. His body was already beginning to shape-shift as he launched himself skyward. Savannah watched with pride as his body compacted and iridescent feathers covered the raptor's shape. He was beautiful, with sharp eyes, razor-like beak, talons, a powerful body. She didn't have the expertise to change in mid-air, but she held the image he gave her in her mind and felt the peculiar wrenching of bones and muscles heralding the change.

Sensations were completely different. Like the night she had run free as the wolf, Savannah now had the senses of a bird of prey. Her vision was sharp and clear, her eyes enormously wide. She spread her wings experimentally, then flapped them in the light drizzle. They were much bigger than she had anticipated. It delighted her, and she flapped them harder so she could create a wind, causing waves in the water standing in the patio.

Are you having fun?

Gregori's voice held a hint of laughter.

This is so cool, lifemate, she answered. Her rapidly beating wings lifted her into the air. The light mist was already passing overhead. The air was warm and heavy with the promise of moisture, but she soared high, reveling in her ability to do so.

Gregori's larger, stronger body dropped over hers, close and protective, guiding her in the direction of the bayou. As high up as they were, the sharp eyes of the raptor could spot the smallest of movements below. Details were vivid and clear. Even colors were different. Infrared vision, heat sensors - Savannah wasn't certain what it was exactly, but the way she perceived the world was a different and unique experience.

She dipped beneath Gregori and soared away from him, turning sideways and circling high above him. In her mind she could hear him swearing. As always he sounded arrogant, elegant, Old World, completely in command. Laughing, she caught a thermal and rode it up over the river. The male dropped down to cover her with his huge wings, fencing her in.

Spoilsport!

she accused him, her touch in his mind a whisper of lightness, of invitation to join in her fun.

You are in a great deal of trouble, ma femme. He knew the threat was empty when he made it; he would give her the world. But why did she have to be such a little daredevil all the time?

Anyone choosing to live with you would have to have a sense of adventure, don't you think?

Her soft laughter played over his skin like music, like the gentle breeze blowing from the mountains in their homeland.

Even within the bird's body, he stirred to life, need and hunger rising to become a part of him. Relentless. Demanding. Savage in its intensity. It was more than simple lust. More than hunger. More than need. It was all of it merged together with a tenderness he had never conceived he could feel. When she was at her most outrageous, her most defiant, that was when his heart melted.

What I think is, you had better do things the way I want you to do them. Shape-shifting is no simple thing. Everybody else does it, she objected, darting out from beneath him.

The male raptor dove at her, coming in fast and as straight as an arrow, plummeting toward her out of the night sky. Savannah, inside the female's body, gave a little shriek of fright, her heart pounding at the unexpectedness of the attack. It came out a strange caw, startling her so that for a moment she forgot what she was doing and nearly shape-shifted back into her own body.

Savannah!

His voice was a soft command, hypnotic, impossible to ignore or defy. He held the vision of the bird in her mind, completely merging his mind with hers so that they were one. The male bird of prey once more flew in to cover the female's smaller body, guiding her over the city and canal to the dark bayou.

It was your fault for scaring me, she proclaimed.

Beneath them moss-covered cypress trees stood in the water. Dense reeds rose out of the marsh. The bayou was teeming with life, with sounds of insects and birds and frogs. Turtles shared the fallen, rotting logs with young alligators, and snakes slithered or wound themselves, sated and drowsy, along branches. The male bird prodded the female, and they soared above the beauty of the night for a time, watching the ever-changing scene below them.

Gregori sent a call into the night, seeking the one who would fulfill Savannah's wish. She wanted a guide, one who had been born and raised in the area and who could answer all her questions. A boat moved up through the waters in answer to his summons. He had been particularly strong in his command, urging the man to answer immediately.

Land on the rock below, Savannah, and shape-shift as you do so. I will hold the image with you.

For a moment she was afraid. The rock was not particularly large, and the marsh was treacherous.

Trust in me, ma petite.

I would never allow anything to happen to you, Gregori reassured her gently. She could feel the comfort of his strong arms surrounding her, even in the form of a bird.

The extent of Gregori's powers always astonished Savannah. He certainly was legendary. All Carpathians spoke of him in whispers. She had believed he was powerful, but she had not conceived of the things of which he was capable. She felt unexpected pride in him and an astonishment that he would want someone so inexperienced in Carpathian ways, in the essentials of their training, as she was.

I will teach you all you need to know, ch§ڲie, and I will enjoy the teaching, he whispered softly in her head. She could feel the fire instantly moving through her blood at the whisper of his voice.

The small bird's talons aimed down and sought purchase on the boulder even while her slender form shimmered in the humid air. As hers solidified, the male bird of prey found a small patch of stable ground nearby to land on. He glided in smoothly on two feet, his muscular frame dwarfing Savannah's. They could hear the steady drone of the boat's engine as it chugged toward them. Laughing, Savannah jumped from her precarious perch on the boulder into the safety of Gregori's arms.

He caught her, crushing her against his chest, sheer elation, exhilaration, rushing through his veins. To feel again was beyond his comprehension, to feel like this, to have such joy in him, was totally unbelievable. He whispered to her in the ancient language, words of love and commitment that he could not find a way to express in any other language. She was more than she could ever know to him; she was his life, the very air he breathed.

You worry about the most ridiculous things, he said gruffly, burying his face for just a moment against her neck, inhaling her scent.

"Do I?" she asked aloud, her eyes dancing at him. "You're the one always concerned I'm going to do something wild."

"You do wild things," he answered complacently. "I never know what you are going to do next. It is a good thing I reside in your mind, ma petite, or I would have to be locked up in the nearest asylum."

Her lips brushed his chin, feathered along his jaw, then nibbled enticingly at the edge of his mouth. "I think you should be locked up. You're positively lethal to women."

"Not to women, only to you." Gregori stopped her teasing mouth with his own, taking possession despite the fact that the boat was almost alongside them. He was helpless in the web of her spell. She was magic, beauty, fascination.

Her laughter was bubbling up again, her fists curling in his shirt. "We have company, lifemate. I presume you sent for him."

"You and your ideas," he growled, gliding across the spongy surface to the boat.

The captain of the vessel didn't appear to notice that Gregori's feet never quite touched the swamp. His eyes were on Savannah in genuine awe. "You're the magician, Savannah Dubrinsky. I've been to three of your shows. I flew all the way to New York City to see you last year, Denver a few months ago, and San Francisco this month. I can't believe it's really you."

"What a compliment." Savannah flashed her famous smile, the one that brought those curious silver stars to the centers of her eyes. "You traveled all that way just to see me? I'm flattered."

"How do you do that? Disappear like you do into mist? I got as close to the stage as I could, and I still couldn't figure it out," he said, leaning forward, extending his hand. "I'm Beau LaRue. I was born and raised right here in the bayou. It's a privilege to meet you, Ms. Dubrinsky."

Savannah slipped her hand into the captain's, a brief touch only as Gregori put her feet firmly on the boat's floor. He was already pulling her back into his arms as he did so, successfully removing her from the captain's grip. "I am Gregori," he said in his soft, gentle way, the voice that enthralled, that captivated. The one that purred with menace. "I am Savannah's husband."

Beau LaRue had met only one other man as dangerous as this in his lifetime. By coincidence it had also been at night in the bayou. Power and danger clung to Gregori like a second skin. His unusual pale eyes were mesmerizing, his voice hypnotic. Beau smiled. He had spent most of his life in these waters, had encountered everything from alligators to smugglers. Life was always good in the bayou, unpredictable and exhilarating.

"You picked an interesting night for your tour," he said happily. The actual storm had passed, but the mood of the water was dangerous tonight. On the banks around them, the alligators, usually so calm and quiet, sunning them selves in the light of day, were bellowing in challenge or sliding silently into the waters to hunt prey.

Gregori's white teeth flashed in answer. He was part of the night, the creatures known to him, the restless, untamed land matching his hungry soul. Beau watched him, observing the utter stillness marking the dangerous predator, the merciless eyes moving constantly, missing nothing. The powerful, well-muscled body was deceptively relaxed but ready for anything. The face, harshly sensual, beautifully cruel, was etched with hardship and knowledge, risk and peril. Gregori stayed in the shadows, but the silver menace of his gaze glowed with a strange iridescent light in the dark of the night Beau took the opportunity to study Savannah. She was everything up close that she had been on the stage, even more. Ethereal, mysterious, sexy. The very stuff of men's fantasies. Her face was flawless, lit up with joy, her eyes clear, like beautiful blue star sapphires. Her laughter was musical and infectious. She was small and innocent beside the predator in his boat. She would touch Gregori's arm, point to something on the embankment, her body brushing his lightly, and each time it happened, those pale eyes would warm to molten mercury and caress her face intimately, hungrily.

Beau began to answer her questions, explaining all about his youth, his father trapping for food and fur, how he and his brother collected moss from the trees for his mother and sisters to dry and stuff in their mattresses. He found himself telling her all kinds of childhood memories, things he didn't know he'd even remembered. She hung on his every word, making him feel as though he was the only man on the planet - until Gregori stirred, a mere suggestion of rippling muscle but enough to remind Beau that she was well protected.

He took them to all his favorite spots, to the most beautiful, exotic places he knew. Gregori asked questions then, about herbs and natural healing arts on the bayou.

Beau found the voice impossible to resist, like velvet, a black-magic power he could listen to forever.

"I heard a few men in a restaurant talking about a bayou legend," Savannah said suddenly. She leaned on the side of the boat, presenting him with an intriguing view of her tight jeans. They clung lovingly to every curve.

Gregori moved, a flowing of his body, gliding silently, and his large frame was blanketing Savannah's, blocking out the captain's enticing view. Gregori leaned into her, his arms coming down on either side of the railing to imprison her against him.

You are doing it again.

His words brushed softly in her mind even as his warm breath teased the tendrils of hair at her neck.

Savannah leaned back into him, fitting her bottom into the cradle of his hips. She was happy, free of the oppressive weight of the hunt, of death and violence. There were only the two of them.

Three, he reminded her, his teeth scraping her sensitive pulse. He could feel the answering surge of her blood, the molten lava spreading in his.

My mother thinks my father is a cave man. I'm beginning to think you could give him a run for his money. Disrespectful little thing.

"Which legend? There are so many," Beau said.

"About an old alligator that lies in wait to eat hunting dogs and little children," Savannah said.

Gregori tugged at her long braid so that she tilted her head back. His mouth brushed the line of her throat.

I could be a hungry alligator, he offered softly.

"The old man," Beau said. "Everybody loves that story. It's been handed down for a hundred years or more, and the critter grows with each telling." He paused for a moment, maneuvering his craft along a snag in the canal. Cypress trees bent low, looking like macabre stick figures dressed in long strands of hanging moss. Occasionally splashes could be heard as a snake plopped into the water.

"It's said that old man alligator has lived forever. He's huge now, growing fat with his kills and more wily and cunning than anything else in the bayou. He claims his territory, and the other gators give him wide berth. They say he kills any alligator stupid enough to wander into his territory, young or old alike, male or female. Trappers have disappeared in that area from time to time and old man alligator gets the blame."

Beau allowed the boat to stop, so that they bobbed gently in the water. "It's funny you should ask about that particular tale. The man who gave me the tickets for your concert was very interested in that alligator. We used to come out here at night together, gathering herbs and bark, and we poked around looking for the monster. We never did find it, though."

"Who gave you tickets to Savannah's show?" Gregori asked softly, already knowing the answer.

"A man named Selvaggio, Julian Selvaggio. His family has been in New Orleans almost from the first founding. I met him years ago. We're good friends" - he grinned engagingly - "despite the fact that he's Italian."

Gregori's eyebrows shot up. Julian was born and raised in the Carpathian Mountains. He was no more Italian than Gregori was French. Julian had spent considerable time in Italy, just as Gregori had in France, but both were Carpathian through and through.

"I know Julian," Gregori volunteered, his white teeth gleaming in the darkness. Water lapped at the boat, making a peculiar slapping sound. The rocking was more soothing and peaceful than disturbing.

Beau looked smug. "I thought you might You both have a connection to Savannah, you both ask the same questions about natural medicine, and you both look as intimidating as hell."

"I am nicer than he is," Gregori said, straight-faced.

Savannah's head brushed his chest Her laughter was sweet music in the stifling heat of the swamp. "So you never found the alligator. Is it true he eats large dogs?"

"Well, the fact is, a great number of hounds have been lost in the bayou along a particular trail. It's in the old man's supposed territory. A couple of hunters say they saw him lying in wait to bushwhack the dogs. They couldn't nail him, though. No one can. He's been around so long, he knows all the ways of the bayou. One small warning and he's gone." The captain rubbed his forehead as if it was pounding.

"You are talking as if you believe he is real," Gregori pointed out gently. "Yet you say you and Julian did not find him. Julian is a hunter without equal. If there was such a creature, he would find it." He was reading the captain's mind, baiting him. Beside him, Savannah stirred as if to contradict his statement, but Gregori silenced her with an upraised palm.

"Julian knew he was there. He felt him."

"But you saw him." Gregori pushed the man a little harder, suddenly interested in this beast that could survive when so many others had not.

Beau glanced around the canal, uncomfortable in the dark of night. He was superstitious, and he had seen things, unexplainable things, and he didn't like to speak of them without light of the sun. "Maybe. Maybe I have seen the old man," he admitted, his voice low. "But out here, if you admit such a thing, the newcomers think you're loco."

"Tell us about it," Gregori urged, his voice velvet, mesmerizing, impossible to resist.

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