Chapter One


The night was alive with the heartbeats of countless people. He walked among them, unseen, undetected, moving with the fluid grace of a jungle predator. Their scents were strong in his nostrils. Cloying perfume. Sweat. Shampoos. Soaps. Alcohol. Drugs. AIDS. The sweet, insidious smell of blood. There were so many in this city. Cattle. Sheep. Prey. The city was the perfect hunting ground.

But he had fed well that day, so even though the blood whispered to him, tempting him with the promise of strength, power, the seductive rush of excitement, he refrained from indulging his cravings. After all his centuries of walking the earth, he knew the whispered promises were empty. He already had enormous power and strength, and he knew that the rush, addicting though it might be, was the same illusory high the humans' drugs provided.

The stadium in this modern city was huge, with thousands of people packed inside. He walked past the guards without hesitation, secure in the knowledge that they could not detect his presence.

The magic show - combining feats of escape, disappearance, and mystery - was almost finished, and a hush of breathless anticipation had fallen over the crowd. On stage a column of mist rose eerily from the spot where, a moment before, the magician herself had stood.

He blended into the shadows, his pale silver gaze riveted to the stage. Then she emerged from the mist, every man's fantasy, every man's dream of hot, steamy nights. Of satin and silk. Mystical, mysterious, a mix of innocence and seduction, she moved with the grace of an enchantress. Thick blue-black hair cascaded in waves to her slim hips. A white Victorian lace gown covered her body, cupping high, full breasts and molding her narrow rib cage and tiny, tucked-in waist. Small pearl buttons down the front were open from hem to thigh, revealing enticing glimpses of shapely legs. Her trademark dark glasses concealed her eyes but drew attention to her lush mouth, perfect teeth, and classic cheekbones.

Savannah Dubrinsky, one of the world's greatest magicians.

He had endured nearly a thousand years of black emptiness. No joy, no rage, no desire. No emotion. Nothing but the crouching beast, hungry, insatiable. Nothing but the growing darkness, the stain spreading across his soul. His pale eyes slid over her small, perfect figure, and need slammed into him. Hard. Ugly. Painful. His body swelled, hardened, every muscle taut, hot, aching. His fingers curled slowly around the back of a stadium seat, digging deeply, leaving visible impressions of a man's fingers in the metal. Perspiration beaded on his forehead. He let the pain wash over him, through him. Savored it.

He felt.

His body didn't just want her. It demanded her, burned for her. The beast raised its head and eyed her, marked her, claimed her. Hunger rose sharply, dangerously, ferociously. On stage, two assistants began chaining her, their hands touching her soft skin, their bodies brushing hers. A low growl rumbled in his throat; his pale eyes glowed a feral red. In that moment one thousand years of self-control went up in flames, setting a dangerous predator free. No one was safe, mortal or immortal, and he knew it.

On stage, Savannah's head came up and swung around as if she were scenting danger, a small fawn caught in a trap, run to ground.

His gut clenched hotly.

Feelings.

Dark desire. Raw lust. A stark, primitive need to possess. He closed his eyes and inhaled sharply. He smelled her fear and was pleased by it. Having thought himself lost for all eternity, he didn't care that his feelings were so intense that they bordered on violence. They were genuine. And there was joy in the ability to feel, no matter how dangerous. It didn't matter to him that he had marked her unfairly, that she did not rightfully belong to him, that he had manipulated the outcome of their union even before her birth, that he had broken the laws of their people in order to have her. None of it mattered. Only that she was his at last.

He felt her mind search; it brushed at him like the wings of a beautiful butterfly. But he was an ancient, powerful and knowledgeable beyond the boundaries of Earth. He was the one his own kind spoke of in whispers, with awe, with fear, with dread.

The Dark One.

Despite her premonition of danger, she had no hope of finding him until he allowed it.

His lips drew back in a silent snarl as the blond assistant bent to trail a hand across Savannah's face and brush her forehead with a kiss before locking her, manacled and chained, inside a steel vault. Fangs exploded into his mouth, and the beast eyed the man with the cold, unblinking stare of a killer. Deliberately he focused on the blond's throat - let him feel, just for one moment, the agony of strangulation. The man grabbed at his throat and stumbled, then recovered, dragging air into his lungs. He took a quick, nervous look around, trying in vain to see into the audience. Still breathing hard in alarm, he turned back to help lower the vault into a chamber flooded with water.

The unseen predator growled his warning softly, a deadly, menacing sound only the blond could hear. The man on stage whitened visibly and muttered something to the other assistant, who shook his head quickly with a slight frown.

While the return of his feelings brought indescribable joy to the ancient, his loss of control was dangerous, even to him. He turned his back on the performance and left the stadium, his every step away from Savannah painful. Still, he accepted the pain, rejoiced in his ability to feel it.

His first hundred years had been a wild orgy of feeling, senses, power, desires - even goodness. But slowly, relentlessly, the darkness that imperiled the soul of a Carpathian male without a lifemate had claimed him. Emotions faded, colors disappeared, until he simply existed. He experimented, found knowledge and power, and paid the price for it. He fed, he hunted, he killed when he deemed it appropriate. And always the darkness thickened, threatening to taint his soul forever, to turn him into one of the damned, the undead.

She was innocent. There was laughter in her, compassion, goodness. She was light to his darkness. A bitter smile curved his sensual mouth, touching it with cruelty. His bulging, sinewy muscles rippled. He tossed back his thick, jet-black, shoulder-length hair. His face became as harsh and merciless as he was. His pale eyes, which easily drew mortals, held them, entranced them, became the eyes of death, the silver slash of cold steel.

Even from a distance he felt thunderous applause shake the ground, the roaring approval that signaled Savannah's escape from the flooded vault. He blended into the night, a sinister shadow impossible for either humans or his kind to detect. His patience was that of the earth itself, his stillness that of the mountains. He stood without moving amid the insanity of the crowds rowdily pouring out of the stadium and into their cars in the parking lot, creating the inevitable traffic jam. He knew where she was at every moment; he had made certain of their link when she was but a child. And not even death could break the bond he had forged between them. She had put an ocean between them, running away to her mother's native country, America, and in her innocence had thought herself safe.

The passage of time meant little to him. Eventually the sounds of cars and people faded away, and the lights blinked out around him, leaving the night to him. He inhaled deeply, drank in her scent. He stretched, a panther stalking prey. He could hear her soft laughter, low, musical, unforgettable. She was talking with the blond assistant, overseeing her props being packed up for loading onto the trucks. Although the two were still in the building and a great distance from him, he could hear their conversation without effort.

"I am so happy this tour is finally over." Savannah meandered wearily after the last of the crew to the loading dock, lowered herself onto the stairs, and watched as the men lifted the steel vault into the huge truck. "Did we make all the money you thought we would?" she teased her assistant gently. Both knew she didn't care about the money and never paid the slightest bit of attention to the financial side of things. Without Peter Sanders to see to all the details, she'd probably be flat broke.

"More than I thought. We can call this one a success." Peter grinned down at her. "San Francisco is supposed to be a fabulous city. Why don't we vacation here? We can do the whole tourist thing - cable cars, the Golden Gate, Alcatraz. We can't pass up this opportunity - we may never come here again."

"Not me," Savannah declined, rousing a little as Peter threw himself onto the step beside her. "I'm catching up on z's. You can tell me all about it."

"Savannah..." Peter sighed heavily. "I'm asking you out."

She sat up straight, removed the dark glasses, and looked directly at him. Heavily fringed with long dark lashes, her eyes were deep blue, almost violet, with strange slivers of silver radiating through them like stars. As always, when she looked straight at him, Peter felt a strange disorientation, as if he were falling, drowning, lost in the gleaming stars in her eyes.

"Oh, Peter." Her voice was soft, musical, mesmerizing. It was one of the things that had brought her stardom so quickly. She could hold an audience effortlessly with her voice alone. "All our sexiness and flirting in the show is just an act. We're friends, and we work together, and that means everything to me. When I was growing up, the closest thing I ever had to a best friend was a wolf." She didn't add that she still thought of that wolf every day. "I'm not willing to risk a relationship I value by trying to make something else out of it."

Peter blinked and shook his head to clear it. She always sounded so incredibly logical, so convincing. Whenever she looked at him, it was impossible to disagree with anything she said. She could steal his will as easily as she stole his breath. "A wolf? A real one?"

She nodded. "When I was younger, we lived in a very remote part of the Carpathian Mountains. There were no children to play with. One day a little wolf cub wandered out of the woods near our house. He would play with me whenever I was alone." There was a faint ache in her voice at the thought of her lost animal friend. "He just seemed to know when I needed him, when I was sad or lonely. He was always gentle. Even when he was teething, he only bit me a few times." She rubbed her arm in memory, her fingertips marking the spots in an unconscious caress. "As he grew, he became my constant companion; we were inseparable. I was never afraid in the woods at night because he was always there to protect me. He was enormous, with glossy black fur and intelligent gray eyes that looked at me with such understanding. Sometimes he looked so solemn that he seemed to be carrying the weight of the world on his back. When I made the decision to come to America, it was hard to leave my parents, but heartbreaking to leave my wolf. Before I left, I cried for three nights straight, my arms around his neck. He never moved, not once, as if he understood and was mourning, too. If there had been a way, I would have brought him with me. But he needed to be free."

"You're telling me the truth? A real wolf?" Peter asked incredulously. While he could believe that Savannah could easily tame man or beast, he was puzzled by the animal's behavior. "I thought wolves were shy of people. Not that I've met very many of them - at least not the four-legged variety."

She flashed him a grin. "He was huge and could be ferocious, but my wolf was anything but shy with me. Of course, he was never really around anyone else, not even my parents. He would lope off into the woods if someone came near. Still, he would watch from afar to make certain I was safe. I'd see his eyes shining in the forest, watching, and it made me feel safe."

Realizing he had allowed her to distract him, Peter deliberately looked away from her, knotting his fists in determination. "It isn't natural, the way you live, Savannah. You isolate yourself from any close relationships."

"We're close," she pointed out gently. "I'm very fond of you, Peter, like a brother. I've always wanted a brother."

"Don't, Savannah. You haven't even given us a chance. And who else do you have in your life? I escort you to parties and interviews. I oversee the accountant and arrange the bookings and make certain the bills are paid. The only thing I don't do is sleep with you."

A low growl rumbled warningly through the night, sending a chill spiraling down Peter's spine. Savannah's head went up, and she looked cautiously around. Peter stood, peering toward the trucks pulling away from the loading dock.

"Did you hear that?" He reached a hand down to draw Savannah to her feet, his eyes frantically searching every shadow. "I didn't tell you, but the oddest thing happened during the show." He was whispering as if the very night had ears. "After I put you in the vault, my throat closed off. It was as if someone had his hands around my throat, someone very powerful. I felt a murderous anger directed at me." He pushed a hand through his hair and laughed nervously. "Silly imagination, I know. But I heard that exact same growl in my head. It's insane, Savannah, but it felt as if I was being warned off you."

"Why didn't you say anything to me?" she demanded, fear in her eyes. Without warning the lights in the docking area blinked out, leaving them in total darkness. Savannah's fingers tightened on Peter's, and he had the distinct feeling they were being watched, even hunted. His car was a distance away, the parking lot shrouded in blackness. Where were the security guards?

"Peter, we have to get out of here. If I tell you to run, do it, and don't look back, no matter what." Her voice was low and compelling, enough so that for a moment he thought he would do anything to please her. But her small body, so close to his, was shaking, and chivalry won.

"Stay behind me, honey. I've got a bad feeling about this," Peter cautioned. Like all celebrities, Savannah suffered her share of threats and stalkers. She was worth a few million, not to mention the steamy, sexy image she exuded. Savannah had a strange, mesmerizing effect on men, as if the memory of her haunted them for eternity.

Savannah cried out in warning a heartbeat before something hit Peter hard in the chest, driving the air from his lungs, tearing her hand from his. He grunted, his chest on fire, feeling as if a ton of bricks had crushed him. His eyes locked with Savannah's and he could see terror there. Something enormously strong caught at him, jerked him thirty feet backward, wrenching his arm from its socket, snapping bones like twigs. He screamed, feeling hot breath on his neck.

Savannah whispered his name, covered the distance between them in a single leap, and flung herself at his attacker. She was struck a blow across her face so hard that she was flung like a rag doll from the loading dock to the asphalt parking lot. Although she twisted agilely in midair and landed on her feet like a cat, her head was ringing, and white dots danced in front of her eyes. Before she could recover, the beast attacking Peter sank its fangs into his throat, ripped and tore, then gulped at the rich blood spurting from the terrible wound. Peter managed to turn his head, expecting a wolf or at least a huge dog. Red eyes glowed at him evilly from a white, skeletal face. Peter died in agony and terror, in fear and guilt for failing to protect Savannah.

With a low, venomous hiss, the creature carelessly tossed away Peter's body, which landed a few feet from Savannah, blood forming a thick pool, spreading slowly across the asphalt. The beast lifted its head and turned toward her, grinning horribly, triumphantly revealing its jagged teeth.

She stepped back, her heart pounding in fear. Grief welled up so sharply for a moment that she couldn't breathe.

Peter. Her first human friend in her entire twenty-three years. Dead because of her.

She regarded the gaunt stranger who had killed him.

Peter's blood smeared his face and teeth. Obscenely, his tongue came out and licked at the red stains on his lips. His eyes burned at her, taunted her. "I found you first. I knew I would."

"Why did you kill him?" There was horror in her voice.

He laughed, launched himself into the air, and landed a few feet from her. "You should try it sometime; all that fear floods the bloodstream with adrenaline. There's nothing like it. I like them looking at me, knowing it's coming."

"What do you want?" She never took her eyes or her mind from him, her body remaining still and ready, perfectly balanced.

"I will be your husband. Your lifemate." There was a threat in his voice. "Your father, the great Mikhail Dubrinsky, will just have to take back the death sentence he pronounced on me. The long arm of his justice doesn't quite reach San Francisco, does it?"

She tilted her chin. "And if I say no?"

"Then I take you the hard way. It might be fun - a change from all those simpering human women, puppets begging to please me."

His depravity sickened her. "They don't beg you. You take their free will. It's the only way you could have a woman." She put all the loathing and contempt she was capable of into her voice.

The ugly smile faded from his hollow features, leaving him an ugly caricature of a man, a creature from the very bowels of hell. His breath escaped in a long hiss. "You will pay for that disrespect." He lunged toward her.

A dark shadow moved out of the night, muscles rippling like steel beneath an elegant silk shirt. The shadow glided in front of Savannah like a shield, forcing her behind him. One large hand brushed her face where her assailant had struck her. The touch was brief yet incredibly tender, and the momentary contact seemed to take the pain with it as the newcomer's fingers slipped away from her skin. His pale, silvery eyes then slashed at the skeletal creature.

"Good evening, Roberto. I see you have dined well." The voice was pleasant, cultured, soothing, even hypnotic.

Savannah choked back a sob. Instantly she felt a stirring in her mind, a flood of warmth, the feeling of arms drawing her into their strong shelter.

"Gregori,"

Roberto growled, his eyes glowing with bloodlust. "I have heard whispers of the dangerous Gregori - the Dark One, the bogey man of the Carpathians. But I do not fear you." It was bravado, and they all knew it; his mind was racing frantically for an escape.

Gregori smiled, a small, humorless quirk of his lips that brought a distinctively cruel gleam to his eyes. "You obviously have never learned table manners. In all your long years, Roberto, what else have you failed to learn?"

Roberto's breath escaped in a long, slow hiss. His head began to undulate slowly from side to side. His fingernails lengthened, becoming razor-sharp claws.

When he attacks, Savannah, you will leave this place.

It was an imperious command in her head.

It was my friend he killed me that he threatened.

It was against her principles to allow anyone else to fight her battles and perhaps be injured or killed in her place. She did not stop to think why it was so easy and natural to speak with Gregori, the most feared of the Carpathian ancients, on a mental path that was not the standard path of communication for their kind.

You will do as I tell you, ma petite. The order was spoken in her mind in the same calm tone that carried undeniable authority. Savannah caught her breath, afraid of defying him. Roberto might think he was up to taking on a Carpathian as powerful as Gregori, but she knew she wasn't. She was young, a novice at her people's arts.

"You have no right to interfere, Gregori," Roberto snapped, sounding like a spoiled, petulant boy. "She is unclaimed."

Gregori's pale eyes narrowed to a slash of cold silver. "She is mine, Roberto. I claimed her many years ago. She is my lifemate."

Roberto took a cautious step to the left. "There has been no official acceptance of your union. I will kill you, and she will belong to me."

"What you have done here is a crime against humanity. What you would do to my woman is crime against our people, our treasured women, and against me personally. Justice has followed you to San Francisco, and the sentence our Prince Mikhail pronounced over you will be carried out. The blow you struck to my lifemate alone would earn you your fate." Gregori never raised his voice, never lost his faint, taunting smile.

Go, Savannah. I won't allow him to harm you when it is me he seeks.

Gregori's soft laughter echoed in her head.

There is no chance of that, ma petite.

Now do as I say, and go.

He wanted her gone before she witnessed his casual destruction of the abomination who dared to strike a woman. His woman. Savannah already feared him enough.

"I am going to kill you," Roberto said loudly, blustering to pump up his courage.

"Then I can do no other than oblige you by letting you try," Gregori replied pleasantly. His voice dropped an octave lower, became hypnotic. "You are slow, Roberto, slow and clumsy and far too incompetent to take on someone of my skill." His smile was cruel and slightly mocking.

It was impossible to avoid listening to the cadence of Gregori's voice. It worked its way into the brain and clouded the mind. Still, high and powerful from a fresh kill, filled with lust and the need to conquer, Roberto launched himself at Gregori.

Gregori simply was no longer there. He had thrust Savannah as far from them as possible, and with blurring speed he contemptuously marked Roberto's face with four deep furrows, marked it in exactly the spot that was bruised on Savannah's face.

Gregori's soft, taunting laughter sent chills down Savannah's spine. She could hear the sounds of the battle, the whimpers of pain as Gregori coolly, relentlessly, and mercilessly slashed Roberto to pieces. Loss of blood weakened the lesser creature. Compared to Gregori, he was clumsy and slow.

Savannah jammed her knuckles against her mouth and backed up several paces, but she couldn't tear her eyes away from Gregori's harsh face. It was an implacable mask, with its faint, taunting smile and the pale eyes of death. He never changed expression. His assault was the coldest, most merciless thing she had ever witnessed. Every deliberate slash contributed to Roberto's weakness until he was literally covered in a thousand cuts. Never once was Roberto able to lay a hand or a claw on Gregori. It was apparent that Roberto had no chance, that Gregori could deliver the killing blow at any time.

She looked at Peter, lifeless on the asphalt. He had been a great friend to her. She had loved him like a brother, and now he lay senselessly dead. Savannah finally fled in horror across the parking lot, taking refuge in the trees alongside it. She sank down to the ground. Oh, Peter. This was her fault. She had thought she had left the world of vampires and Carpathians behind. She bent her head, her stomach heaving in protest at the cold brutality of that world. She was not like these creatures. Tears tangled in her lashes and ran down her face.

Suddenly lightning sizzled and danced, a blue-white whip across the sky. An orange glow soon accompanied a crackle of flames. Savannah covered her face with her hands, knowing that Gregori was destroying Roberto's body completely. His heart and tainted blood had to be reduced to ashes to ensure that the vampire could not rise again. And no Carpathian, not even one turned vampire, should be exposed to autopsy by a human medical examiner. Physical proof of their existence in human hands would be dangerous to their entire race. She squeezed her eyes shut and tried to shut out the smell of burning flesh. Peter, too, would have to be cremated to hide the terrible gaping wound to his throat, evidence of the vampire's presence.

There was a gentle stirring of air beside her. Then Gregori's fingers curled around her arm and drew her to her feet. Up close he looked even more powerful, completely invincible. His arm curved around her shoulders and dragged her against the solid wall of his chest. His thumb touched the tears on her face; his chin brushed the top of her head.

"I am sorry I was too late to save your friend. By the time I was aware of the vampire's presence, he had already struck." He didn't add that he had been too busy rediscovering emotions and getting them under control to sense Roberto immediately. It was his first slip in a thousand years, and he wasn't ready to examine the reason too closely. Guilt, perhaps, for the manipulated chemistry he had with Savannah?

Savannah's mind brushed his and found genuine regret for her sorrow. "How did you find me?"

"I always know where you are, every moment. Five years ago you said you needed time, and I gave it to you. But I've never left you. I never will." There was a gentle finality to his words, an echo of the resolve in his mind.

Savannah's heart lurched. "Don't do this, Gregori. You know how I feel. I've created a new life for myself."

His hand, gentle in her hair, sent butterflies rising in her stomach. "You cannot change what you are. You are my lifemate, and it is time for you to come to me." His voice held velvet-soft compulsion when he whispered lifemate, reinforcing his tampering with nature. The more he said it, the more Savannah would believe it. True, he suddenly saw in color and felt emotion because he had found his lifemate. But Gregori also knew he had programmed their chemistry to be compatible before she was born; she had never had a chance.

Her teeth bit at her full lower lip in agitation. "You can't take me against my will, Gregori. It's against our laws."

He bent his dark head, his warm breath sending a shiver of heat coiling in the pit of her stomach. "Savannah, you will accompany me now."

She flung her head up, her blue-black hair cascading in all directions. "No. I'm the closest thing to family Peter had. I will see to the arrangements for him first Then we will discuss us." She was wringing her hands, betraying her nervousness of him, unaware that she did so.

Gregori's larger hand covered hers and stilled the desperate twisting of her fingers. "You are not thinking straight, ma petite.

You cannot be found on the scene. You would have no rational way to explain what happened here. I have set things up so that when his body is found and identified, no suspicion can fall upon you or any of our people."

She took a deep breath, hating that he was right. No attention could be drawn to her species. She didn't have to like it. "I won't go with you."

White teeth gleamed at her, a predator's smile. "You may attempt to defy me in this, Savannah, if you feel you must."

She touched her mind to his. Male amusement implacable resolve, utter calm. Nothing ruffled Gregori. Not death and certainly not her defiance. "I'll call for security," she threatened desperately.

The immaculate white teeth flashed again. The silver eyes glittered. "Do you wish me to release them from the orders I gave them before you do so?"

She closed her eyes, still trembling in shock and fear. "No, no, don't do that" she whispered in defeat Gregori studied the misery so transparent on her face.

Something tugged at his heart, something unrecognizable to him but nevertheless strong. "The dawn will be upon us in a couple of hours. We need to leave this place."

"I won't go with you," she insisted stubbornly.

"If your pride dictates that you must fight me, you may try to do so." His voice, with its Old World War cadence and formality, was almost tender.

Her eyes deepened to purple. "Stop giving me your permission! I am Mikhail and Raven's daughter, a Carpathian like yourself and not without my own powers. I have the right to my own choices!"

"If it pleases you to think so." His fingers curled easily around her slender wrist. His grip was gentle, but she could feel his enormous strength. Savannah pulled hard, testing his resolve. Gregori appeared not to notice her struggles.

"Do you wish me to make this easier on you? You fear needlessly." His mesmerizing voice was incredibly tender.

"No!" Her heart slammed painfully in her chest. "Don't control my mind. Don't make me a puppet." She knew he was powerful enough to do so, and it terrified her.

Two fingers caught her chin firmly and tipped it up so her gaze was captured by his silver one. "There is no danger of such an atrocity. I am no vampire. I am Carpathian, and you are my lifemate. I will protect you with my life. I will always see to your happiness."

She took a deep breath for control, then let it escape slowly. "We are not lifemates. I did not choose." She held on to that fact, her only hope.

"We can discuss this at a more opportune time." She nodded warily. "I'll meet you tomorrow then."

His silent laughter filled her mind. Low. Amused. Frustratingly male. "You will come with me now." His voice lowered an octave, became warm honey, compelling, hypnotic, so mesmerizing it was impossible to fight.

Savannah dropped her forehead against the muscles of his chest. Tears were burning in her eyes and throat. "I'm afraid of you, Gregori," she admitted painfully. "I can't live the life of a Carpathian. I'm like my mother. I'm too independent, and I need my own life."

"I know of your fears, ma petite.

I know your every thought. The bond between us is strong enough to cross oceans. We can deal with your fears together."

"I can't do this. I won't!" Savannah ducked under his arm, blurred her image, and put on a burst of blinding speed.

But no matter which way she twisted or turned, no matter how fast she ran or dodged, Gregori was with her every step of the way. When she finally wore herself out and stopped, she was at the far end of the stadium, tears streaming unchecked down her face. Gregori was beside her, solid, warm, invincible, as if he truly knew her every thought, her every move before she made it.

His arm curved around her waist, lifting her completely from her feet and locking her to him. "By allowing you your freedom, I expose you to the danger of renegades like Roberto." For a moment he dropped his head to bury his face in the thick mass of her silky hair. Then, with no warning, he launched himself into the air, a huge bird of prey with enormous strength, Savannah's small body pressed tightly to him.

She closed her eyes and allowed grief for Peter to consume her, to drive out all awareness of the creature streaking across the sky with her, taking her to his lair. Her fists curled around the thick, steel-like muscles. The wind carried the sound of her sobs up to the stars. Her tears glittered like jewels in the night.

Gregori could feel her pain as if it was his own. Her tears moved him when nothing else could. His mind reached out to the chaos of hers, finding overwhelming grief and a terrible fear of him. Deliberately he surrounded her with warmth and comfort. It brushed her mind, soothing her nerves.

Savannah opened her eyes to find herself out of the city, up in the mountains. Gregori set her gently on the steps of a huge, rambling house. He reached past her to open the door, then stepped back courteously to allow her entry.

Savannah felt small and lost, knowing that if she set one foot in his lair, she would be placing her life in his hands. Her eyes flashed blue-white fire, as if they had caught a star and trapped it forever in their depths. Tilting her chin defiantly, she stepped backward until the porch railing brought her up short. "I refuse to enter your home."

His laugh came then, low, amused, and maddenly male. "Your body and mine chose for us. There is no other man for you, Savannah. Not now, not ever. I can feel your emotions when men, human or Carpathian, touch you. You are repulsed; you cannot bear their touch." His voice dropped lower still, a black-magic caress that seemed to send heat spreading through her like molten lava. "It is not so with my touch, ma petite.

We both know that. Do not deny it, or I will be forced to prove my words."

"I am a mere twenty-three," she pointed out desperately. "You are centuries old. I have not lived at all."

He shrugged with casual strength, muscles rippling, his silver eyes on her beautiful, anxious face. "Then you will enjoy the benefits of my experience."

"Gregori, please try to understand. You don't love me. You don't know me. I am not like other Carpathian women. I don't want to be a brood mare for my race. I can't be your prisoner, no matter how petted and indulged I am."

He laughed softly and waved a hand dismissively in the space between them. "You are young, child, if you believe what you are saying." There was a gentleness in his voice that turned her heart over in spite of all her fears. "Is your mother a prisoner?"

"My parents are different. My father loves my mother.

Even so, he would sometimes walk on her rights if he could. A gilded cage is still a cage, Gregori."

There was that amusement again, warming the cold steel of his eyes. Savannah felt her temper rise. She had an almost uncontrollable urge to slap his face. His grin widened, a subtle challenge. He indicated the open door.

She forced a laugh. "We can stand out here until dawn, Gregori. I'm willing - are you'?" He leaned one hip lazily against the wall. "You think to dare me'?"

"You can't force me against my will without violating our laws."

"In all the centuries I have existed, do you believe I have never broken our laws'?" His soft laughter was without humor. "The things I have done render abducting you as petty as the human crime of jaywalking."

"Yet you brought Roberto to justice, even though San Francisco is Aidan Savage's territory to hunt," she pointed out, naming another powerful Carpathian who tracked down and destroyed those among them turned vampire. "Did you do that because of me'?"

"You are my lifemate, the only thing that stands between me and the destruction of mortals and immortals alike." He stated it calmly, as an absolute truth. "No one will touch you or try to come between us and live. He struck you, Savannah."

"My father would - "

He was shaking his head. "Do not try to bring your father into this, ch§ڲie, even if Mikhail is the Prince of our people. This is between you and me. You do not want a war. Roberto struck you; that was reason enough for him to die."

She touched his mind again. No anger. Just resolve. He meant what he said. He wasn't bluffing or trying to frighten her. He wanted truth between them. Savannah pressed the back of her hand against her mouth. She had always known this moment would come. "I'm sorry, Gregori," she whispered hopelessly. "I can't be what you want. I will choose to face the dawn."

His fingers brushed her face with incredible gentleness. "You have no idea what I want from you." His hands cupped her face, thumbs stroking the satin skin over the pulse beating so frantically in her throat. "You know I cannot allow you such a choice, ma petite.

We can talk through your fears. Come inside with me." His mind was invading hers, a warm, sweet seduction. His eyes, so pale and cold, heated to a flowing mercury that seemed to burn into her mind, threatening her very will.

Savannah's fingers dug into the railing as she felt herself drowning in hot liquid. "Stop it, Gregori!" she cried sharply, determined to break his mental hold. It was sweet torment, rushing heat, seduction so dangerous that she flung herself toward the entrance of the house to flee his dark power over her.

Gregori's arm stopped her headlong flight. His mouth moved against her ear. His body, aggressively male, hard, and ferociously aroused, brushed hers.

Say it, Savannah. Say the words.

Even the whisper in her mind was black velvet. His mouth, perfect and sensuous, so hot and moist, wandered down to her throat. The reality of his flesh was even more erotic than his mental seduction. His teeth grazed her skin lightly. His body clenched, and she could feel the monster in him awaken, hungry, burning with need - no gentle, thinking lover but a fully aroused Carpathian male.

The words he commanded her to say nearly strangled in her throat and came out so low, it was impossible to tell whether they were spoken aloud or were merely an echo in her mind. "I come to you of my own free will."

He released her instantly, allowing her to stumble across the threshold by herself. Behind her, his large frame filled the doorway. He stood towering over her, silver eyes radiating heat, power, intense satisfaction. Gregori closed the door with his foot and reached for her.

Savannah cried out and tried to evade his touch, but he caught her up with casual strength, cradling her struggling body against his chest. His chin brushed her silky hair. "Be still, enfante, or you will end up bruising yourself. There is no way to fight me, and I cannot permit you to harm yourself."

"I hate you."

"You do not hate me, Savannah. You fear me, but most of all, you fear what you are," he replied calmly. He was moving through the house with long strides, carrying her to the basement, then lower still to the chamber hidden so carefully in deep earth.

Her body burned for his, and, so close to his heat, there was no relief. Hunger rose sharply, and something wild in her lifted its head.

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