Chapter Sixteen


For a moment the wind ceased to blow, and the insects in the bayou were silent. A dark shadow seemed to pass overhead. Gregori looked at Savannah. Beau pulled a can of beer out of a cooler, offering drinks to the couple. When they declined, he downed a third of the contents in a single gulp.

"My father was a trapper," Beau told them. "I spent a lot of time in the bayou with him, trapping. When I was about sixteen, we were camped out at the old cabin, the one I pointed out to you earlier. There were some kids partying on a boat, kids from the city. They had a real nice boat, not like the old thing we took to school. I was jealous, you know. The girls were beautiful, and the boys dressed just right. When they saw me and my father, they laughed and pointed at us in our old skiff. I felt ashamed."

Savannah made a soft sound of sympathy, her natural inclination to comfort him. Gregori laced his fingers through hers, clamping her to his side. She was such a compassionate little thing, and she wove such a spell of enchantment around men without even realizing it. He turned her knuckles up to the warmth of his mouth in appreciation of her character.

Beau took another swig of the beer, then wiped at his mouth with the back of his hand. "We watched them go down the fork leading deep into the swamp. Their boat was large and shouldn't have made it that far into the reeds. Roots are thick there, sticking up out of the water every which way. The insects swarm around you, biting until you're covered in blood. It was impossible for that boat, yet somehow they did it, as if the way had been cleared for them. An invitation to death."

Savannah felt a cold chill, a dark, brooding dread that brought a shadow across her heart. "Why would anyone want to go to such a place?" she asked with a shiver.

Gregori's arm circled her shoulders and pulled her into the protection of his body. "There is nothing to fear, ma petite.

I am with you. Nothing can harm you when you are with me."

Beau believed Gregori's whispered promise to Savannah. Believed it absolutely. He had already noticed the lack of mosquitoes and gnats. It had been so with Julian Selvaggio, too. A strange phenomenon, but then, Beau had witnessed many strange things in the bayou.

The captain's voice dropped even lower, as if the very water beneath the boat could carry his tale to the outside world. "Many go to see if the legend is true. Trappers, poachers hunting a trophy, those hungry, in need of food and money. Those from the outside think it's all voodoo nonsense. They don't understand the power of magic or of the bayou itself. So they hunt what they don't understand. Julian respected nature, respected our ways and the magic here. That is why I told him, why I went on the hunts with him."

"Why would everyone want to kill it?" Savannah's sympathies swung to the alligator. "It just wants to survive."

Beau shook his head soberly and reached down to start the engine. The boat began to chug slowly through the water. "No, Savannah, don't waste your compassion. This is no ordinary gator. The old man is evil. He lies in wait and, hungry or not, kills anything that comes near. Man or beast, it is all the same to him. He pulls them into the water and devours them."

"I thought you liked alligators," Savannah protested. "They're part of nature, part of the bayou. They belong here. We're the ones encroaching on their territory. This poor alligator doesn't ask for anyone to come hunting him. He probably wants to be left alone. But they come anyway."

"Tell us what happened to the kids," Gregori prompted gently.

"They didn't come back. My father was very restless, very worried. He knew of the reputation of the gator, and he didn't like those outsiders going back that far into the swamp. Old man alligator killed for the joy of it. We knew he was evil. Eventually my father insisted we go looking for them. He told me to be very quiet. He took oil lamps and matches, the guns, and a hook - everything we had in camp to protect us."

The stifling air seemed to hang stiffly, waiting in suspense for the rest of the tale. Savannah pressed herself against Gregori's solid form. Suddenly she wasn't certain she wanted to hear the rest. She could feel and hear and smell the picture Beau was describing.

It will be all right, ch§ڲie. Gregori's voice brought soothing comfort to her mind and a measure of protection, an insulation between Savannah's sensitivity and whatever she might hear next.

"There was a terrible stench. The air was thick, so much so that we could barely breathe. I remember the sweat pouring off us in rivers, and both of us knew if we continued into the old man's territory, he would have us for dinner. We wanted to turn back. We slowed the boat. My heart was beating so loud, I could hear it. And the insects descended on us. My father was black with them, moving all over him. They stung and bit at us, got in our eyes and nose, even filling our mouths."

Beau was becoming so agitated, Gregori instinctively reached to calm his mind. He matched the man's breathing, brought it under control, then matched the rhythm of his heart and slowed it to normal. He whispered the soothing healing chant of his people and waved his hand gently to create a breeze to blow away the stifling heat and cool the perspiration on Beau's body. At once the terrible pressure building in the captain's chest eased.

Beau smiled thinly. "I've only told this story to one other person. I promised myself I never would, but somehow I felt compelled to share it with Julian, and now you. I'm sorry. It's still like it happened yesterday."

"Sometimes it helps to talk about a bad experience," Savannah said gently, her dark eyes luminous in the night. They glowed like a cat's, strange and beautiful.

The captain shook his head. "As long as I never talked about it, I could pretend it didn't really happen. My father never spoke of it, even to me. I think we both wanted it to be nothing more than a nightmare."

"The city kids were drinking." Gregori picked the information out of his head.

Beau nodded. "We found empty bottles floating in the water, on the bank. Then we heard them screaming. Not just any kind of screaming, but the kind that stays with you forever. It wakes you up at night in a cold sweat. My father stayed drunk for a month afterward trying to forget those screams. I know it didn't work." He wiped his mouth again. "It's never worked for me."

I don't want to hear this, Gregori. It hurts him too much to remember, Savannah protested, her fingers curling in Gregori's shirt.

Gregori stroked a caressing hand down her hair.

I will ease his pain later. It is interesting; in his mind I sense Julian's presence, as if he, also, soothed this man. Why would the alligator killing humans so upset his father? Why would the terror of it linger in him for so many years? In this place there have been many deaths, few of them pleasant. Perhaps it is necessary that we hear this tale.

"We were covered in insects, like a blanket, crawling on us. And it was almost impossible to breathe." Beau touched his throat, remembering the feeling of suffocating. "Still, we couldn't leave them. We kept pushing through the reeds and roots. For us, the going was very difficult even though we had a much smaller boat. The water was black and murky near the bank. It formed a pool there, and the water was stagnant. The stench was unbelievable, like a slaughterhouse of dead carcasses left to decay in the sun. My father wanted to leave me in the boat at the mouth of the pool, said he would go on foot, but I knew if I let him, he would die."

"Oh, Beau," Savannah breathed sympathetically. She was almost as distressed as the captain. Automatically Gregori soothed and comforted her, providing a stronger, insulating cushion for her. She was like a sponge, soaking up the terrible trauma.

"I guess we both accepted that we probably wouldn't make it out of there," Beau continued. He skillfully guided the boat around a snag. "But we went in. It was black. Not just like night, but black. My father lit the lamp, and then we could see them. The boat was splintered, huge chunks out of it, as if something enormous had attacked it. It was sinking, nearly under water. One boy was clinging to it, but blood was spraying into the sky. We couldn't get to him. Something came up out of the water, something prehistoric. Its eyes were evil, and its mouth was gaping open. It was no ordinary alligator, and it was enjoying itself, playing with those dying kids."

Beau shoved a hand through his hair in agitation, looking out across the familiar water. Gregori stirred, drawing the captain's attention. Those peculiar silver eyes caught his gaze and held it. Instantly Beau felt calm, centered, protected, disconnected. The tale he was relating became just that, a story that had happened to someone else.

Gregori felt the strange shifting in the captain's mind, like a hazy veil that produced a programmed reaction. He focused and followed the trail, the pattern of evil he was so familiar with. He recognized Julian's healing touch, the safeguards he had set for the mortal to prevent the tainted shadow from spreading. Beau La Rue had been touched by a vampire. He had escaped, but not unscathed.

Savannah's soft little gasp in his mind betrayed her presence. He found himself smiling that she could slip in and out of him, so much a part of him that he could no longer tell where he started and she left off. She had access to his memories and his knowledge. The more time she spent in his mind, the better she was at acquiring the lessons centuries had taught him.

More than you know.

Savannah sounded smug.

Beau was much more relaxed, not the happy captain of earlier, but his tension had definitely eased. "There was nothing we could do for any of them. We had entered the monster's playground, and he was in the mood to play. He didn't try to drown any of them right away, or kill them outright. He tossed them into the air and ripped parts of them away. Pieces of bodies were floating in the water. A girl's head bobbed up and down near the bank. I remember the way her hair was spread out like a fan on the surface of the water."

Gregori touched the man's shoulder.

Enough. There is no need for you to remember the details of this atrocity.

Beau shook his head, the vivid picture in his mind suddenly dimming to a hazy recollection. "We almost didn't make it out ourselves. It came at us, as big as any of those crocodiles on the Nile. He didn't want food, he wasn't protecting his territory, he just liked to kill. We had penetrated into his lair, his domain, while he was amusing himself, and he was angry. My father threw the oil lamp on the water and set the whole thing on fire. We didn't look back."

"You were very lucky," Gregori said softly, his voice like a fresh, cool breeze. It seeped into La Rue's mind, his pores, and dissipated the sickness gripping him.

You can heal him, Savannah said.

He is mortal. You can do it, she insisted.

Julian protected him, ensured the poison wouldn't spread, kept the nightmare away, but you can remove it.

The hard edge to Gregori's mouth softened, almost a smile. She was doing it again. There was no way to convince her he couldn't do what she wanted. She believed it implicitly. He brought her hand to the warmth of his mouth, pressed a kiss into her palm. Je t'aime,

Savannah, he whispered into her mind like a caress.

Savannah leaned into him.

I love you, too, lifemate.

Gregori turned his attention to cleansing the mortal's mind, washing away the memory of the encounter with the loathsome creature, the undead. He didn't remove it completely because it was firmly entrenched in the captain's soul; the man had lived with the experience for too many years. But Gregori whitewashed it, toning it down, extracting the remnants of the vampire's tainted touch, the evil punishment for the intrusion, for the ability to escape the snare. The nightmares would be gone, the vivid horror would fade, and the terrible dread and fear Beau had lived with would be gone from his life for all time.

Gregori sighed softly and rubbed the nape of his neck where it tightened after such a mental excursion. Removing the taint of vampire from a mortal, from anyone, was difficult; it took tremendous energy. But looking down into Savannah's shining eyes made it all worthwhile. She was looking at him as if he were the only man on earth.

You are the only man as far as I'm concerned, she whispered softly, the words brushing away the weariness in his mind. The sound of the ancient healing chant was soothing, as her voice, beautiful and pure, rinsed away the ugly touch of the vampire's depravity from his own mind. To walk in Beau's mind and heal it, he had had to see every memory in vivid detail. Gregori had to enter the ugliness of the vampire's sick spells to unravel them and heal from the inside out. He found his hand gripping Savannah's, a kind of humbleness sweeping through him. No one had ever done that before - looked after him, worried about his well-being, helped heal him. It was a unique experience for the master healer of their race.

"You took Julian to this place?" Gregori asked the captain.

Beau nodded. "We have gone several times over the years. We never encountered the old man again."

"Did it feel the same to you? His territory? Was it still evil?"

Beau nodded slowly, a faint frown on his face. "But I knew he wasn't there. It was evil, but not quite the same. Of course, with Julian, I always felt different. Everything was different."

"Different?" Savannah echoed. "How?"

Beau shrugged. "He's hard to explain, but you should know. He is like this one." He indicated Gregori. "He's invincible. Man or beast, natural or supernatural, nothing could harm Julian. That's how he makes you feel."

Savannah exchanged a small smile of complete understanding with Beau. She knew exactly what he meant. "Do you think the alligator is still after all these years? Surely they die natural deaths."

"He's alive all right," Beau said. "But I don't think he stays in his pool all the time. I think he has a new hideout. Julian really hunted for him. We spent a lot of time on it, but we never uncovered his other lair."

"Have there been any recent sightings of him?" Gregori asked. "Even a rumor, a drunk talking big? Or strange disappearances?"

Beau shrugged, the easy bayou casualness of accepting everyday life. "There are always disappearances in the swamps, unexplained odors, and weird occurrences. No one thinks it unusual. No one believes in the old man anymore. He has become a legend, a scary tale to frighten the tourists. That's all."

"But you know better," Gregori said softly.

Beau sighed. "Yes, I know better. He's out there somewhere in these miles of swamp, and he's hungry. All the time hungry. Not for food, but to kill. That's his hunger, that's what he lives for, just to kill."

The boat was carefully maneuvered into its berth. Gregori thanked La Rue and tried to pay him. When the guide refused, Gregori momentarily blurred his memory of time and placed a quantity of money in the captain's wallet. He had been in the man's mind, knew his financial problems, knew he was worried for his wife's health.

Savannah curled her fingers into Gregori's back pocket as they wandered up the road and back toward civilization. La Rue called to them. "Where's your car? These roads aren't always safe after dark."

Gregori glanced over his shoulder, his pale eyes glittering ominously, picking up a hint of a blood-red moon. His eyes resembled those of a wolf hunting prey. "Do not worry. We will be safe."

Beau La Rue laughed happily. "I wasn't worried about you. I was worried that any who attempted to mug you might be friends of mine. Don't hurt them too badly, eh? Perhaps just give them a little lesson in manners."

"I promise," Gregori assured him. He slipped an arm around Savannah. "Interesting tale about that alligator."

"The vampire is using it to guard him when he's in the swamp?" Savannah ventured.

"Perhaps," Gregori mused. He inhaled sharply, a predator scenting prey. Hunger was gnawing, a sharp edge that persisted, always present, particularly predominant when he had used so much energy. The men grouped together near a large tree up the road were drinking beer and watching their approach. He could feel their eyes on Savannah, could smell their sudden interest.

Savannah dropped a step behind him so that his much larger frame hid her from prying eyes. "So why else would the vampire use the alligator? Why would he safeguard his lair that way?"

"Think what you just said. His lair. The vampire uses the swamp as his lair. If that alligator has been around so long, there is only one explanation. The vampire must shape-shift, must become the alligator. He simply disappears into the swamp and grows fat terrorizing the population while he waits for the hunter to go away."

"But if Julian has lived here for many years - " she started to protest.

He shook his head. "Time means nothing to the undead. And there are swamps beyond this place, other cities to terrorize. He simply goes from one area to another, amusing himself until it is safe for him to return."

Gregori's senses were on the small group of men. He could see them clearly. He could hear their whispers, the swish of beer in the cans, the ebb and flow of blood in their veins. Fangs lengthened ominously. He ran his tongue along the sharp incisors, the ancient call to feed upon him.

Savannah tugged at his pocket, brought him to a halt. "I don't like this, Gregori. Let's get out of here."

"Stay here." He gave the order abruptly, his gaze drifting over her head to his prey. "They want to fight with you," she protested. "Just leave them."

His hands caught her upper arms, and he bent his dark head to her, his pale eyes capturing her blue gaze. "Know me for what I am, Savannah. They think to threaten us. Perhaps if we leave, another couple will come along, and we will not be here to protect them. They want to test their strength, to intimidate, to rob. They have not worked themselves up to it yet, but the intent is there in their minds. I wish to feed, and your hunger beats at me. This I will do."

"Fine, do it then," she snapped, jerking away from him. "But they give me the creeps. And I want none of their blood."

He pulled her back into his arms and found her throat with his mouth, his teeth scraping, teasing along her creamy skin. "You are so soft inside, ma petite, your heart is so gentle. It is good you have me."

"You think," she snapped, but her body was melting of its own accord into his. He was fire and ice, white-hot heat and electric excitement.

Gregori put her from him and turned back toward the cluster of men. They were whispering now, formulating their plan of attack. He moved toward them with his easy stride. They fanned out, thinking to overpower him in a rush.

"Do any of you know Beau La Rue?" he asked softly, startling them.

One man, on his left, cleared his throat. "Yeah, I know him. What of it?" He tried to sound belligerent. To Gregori he sounded young and scared.

"Are you a friend of his?" This time Gregori's voice was pitched low, captivating them, ensnaring them, weaving a black-magic spell.

The man felt compelled to answer, to move forward, away from the safety of his friends. "Yeah, you have a problem with that?" he snarled, pushing out his chest.

Gregori smiled, a show of gleaming teeth. His eyes glowed hot and strange in the night.

Come to me and allow me to feed.

He sent the call, wrapped them in it, and drew them to him. He drank his fill from four of them, sating his bloodlust and the aching, gnawing hunger. He was not particularly gentle about it, and he allowed them to fall to the ground unaided and dizzy. He planted memories of a fight, one man against so many. They were all in pain, all knocked down and out. The friend of La Rue's he saved for last, for Savannah. When he fed, he was far more careful, making certain the man would feel the need to thank Beau La Rue. He would thank him for saving him from the severe beating the others had received.

He gave Savannah no chance to protest his feeding her. He commanded her obedience, and she was blinking up at him with drowsy eyes before she was aware of what he had done. He saw awareness come, the smoldering heat heralding her temper. She shoved him away. "Imbecile." One word. It should have crushed him, but he wanted to laugh.

Gregori caught her head in his hands and hugged her hard, joy exploding through him. Life was all around him. The night was theirs. He caught her up, and, cradling her in his arms, he launched himself skyward.

Gary nearly fainted when the couple materialized on the balcony outside his room. He slid open the door and gaped at them. "Are you nuts? Anyone can see you out there. Everyone's room looks into the courtyard."

Gregori swept past him and tossed Savannah unceremoniously onto the bed. She took a half-hearted swipe at him, then rolled over to glare at him as he paced across the carpet to Gary's side. "No one can see us when we do not wish it," he explained patiently, averting his gaze from Savannah's perfect bottom. "Did you retrieve the list of names we need? Those under suspicion by the society?"

"The manager here allowed me to use his printer," Gary acknowledged, handing Gregori the list. "Hey, Gary," Savannah said, "do you want to go on a vampire hunt?"

Gregori swung around to pin her with his brilliant silver gaze.

Do not even start.

He used the beauty of his voice like the weapon it was, compelling and mesmerizing.

Savannah blinked, then smiled sweetly up at him. "Really, Gary. I saw it in one of those tour brochures.

Isn't that the perfect place to look for those society types? They must hang out around those kinds of things."

"A vampire hunt?" Gary echoed incredulously. "For real?"

"I have the brochure at home." She studiously avoided Gregori's furious gaze.

She wore the little secret smile again, the one that always drove Gregori crazy, turned him inside out, and melted his heart. She was up to no good. He had no doubt of it.

It has occurred to me that you need a good spanking.

Her smile grew smug.

I said I was willing to try anything once, lifemate, but I think it best if we wait until we are alone, don't you?

"Is she putting me on?" Gary demanded of Gregori. "Is there really a vampire hunt for tourists?"

"Believe me, mortal, if there is such a thing, she would know about it," Gregori admitted. "I fear we are going to be talked into something we will regret."

"You won't regret it," Savannah said quickly, sitting up. Her blue eyes had gone vivid violet, those mysterious silver stars shining in their centers. "We could go tomorrow night. I'll bet it would be fun. It starts out at Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop at eight. They even provide the stakes and garlic. Let's do it, Gregori." Her long eyelashes swept down to cover her expression, and that little infuriating smile brought his attention to her soft mouth. "You might pick up some pointers. After all, these guys are probably professionals."

Gregori felt the laughter welling up from somewhere in his soul. The silver eyes warmed to molten mercury, quicksilver. "You think they might be able help me out?"

Savannah nodded solemnly. "It says right on the brochure, no drunks. That has to mean they know what they're doing, don't you think?"

"What else does it say?" Gary asked, curious.

Savannah grinned at him mischievously. "Actually, it says it's pure fun. You walk around, and they tell you stories. History mixed with myths and legends."

We might actually learn something, Gregori. You never know.

There was a faintly hopeful note in her voice she tried desperately to keep from him.

Gregori instantly crossed the distance between them and cupped the side of her face with his palm, his thumb sliding in a little caress along her jaw.

Why would you ever be insecure, Savannah? I can feel it in you, that you imagine I will consider you silly for wanting to do these tourist things.

Savannah's laughter-was soft and somehow sexy. She put her hand over Gregori's. "I am in you, lifemate," she said gently. "I read you as easily as you read me. You think ninety percent of the things I want to do are silly."

"I think my allowing you to do all these things is silly."

She winced visibly. "We need less of this allow stuff. Besides, you owe me a night out without any trouble."

"You had trouble tonight?" Gary asked.

"There was no trouble." Gregori was clearly puzzled.

"You're always getting in fights. Everywhere we go, you just can't help yourself," Savannah accused indignantly. "You picked the one tonight."

"You picked a fight?" Gary was astounded.

"I did not pick a fight," Gregori denied. "A few men were determined to mug us, so I provided them with an interesting experience. There was no fight. Had I actually struck them physical blows, they would be in the hospital." His white teeth gleamed, the silver eyes glittering with more than danger, with a hint of amusement. "As it is, they just think they should be hospitalized. There is nothing wrong with any of them. I was quite gentle for Savannah's sake. Which, I see, she does not appreciate."

"I would appreciate going out and behaving normally."

"I was behaving in my normal fashion, ch§ڲie," he reminded her gently.

"I take it we're going on a vampire hunt tomorrow night," Gary said, laughter in his voice.

Gregori took the list of names from Gary and glanced at it, committing the contents to memory before handing it back. For a moment his silver gaze rested on Gary's face, a cold, bleak reflection of emptiness. When Gary shivered, Gregori blinked, and the illusion was gone. Gary wondered just which was the illusion - the warmth Gregori showed on occasion, or the harsh, soulless void in his eyes.

Savannah flounced off the bed, sent Gary a flash of deep blue eyes, then tucked her hand into the crook of Gregori's arm. "We'll meet you at the blacksmith shop - well, bar, tomorrow at eight."

"I've got to get back to work," Gary objected. "I'll lose my job."

"You can't go back," Gregori said softly. "The minute you told Morrison you were going to call the police, the minute you objected to his changing your formula, you sealed your own fate. He will send his people after you, and all of them will be controlled with a compulsion to kill. Morrison is the master vampire - we know that now - and you have crossed him."

"I'm not worth his attention."

"Power is everything to the vampire," Savannah said softly. "He'll come after you with everything he has. It will fester, drive him crazy that you got away. And he knows I was with you in the swamp. By now he knows Gregori was there also. He can't touch us, but he will feel that if he gets to you, he has somehow bested Gregori."

Gregori nodded, astonished that she was so adept at reading the situation. Gary was in far more danger than he could ever conceive. "Have you made any calls from this room? Given your address to anyone, even within your family?"

Gary shook his head. "No, I was going to call the airlines and see if I could use the same ticket on a later flight. And I'll have to call my boss tomorrow. I'll be fired, Gregori, and I don't want that to happen. Even if I did end up working for you, I do have a reputation to look after." The toe of his shoe scuffed at a worn spot in the carpet. "I like research. I don't want to get stuck in a job I hate because of all of this."

Gregori took the laptop from Gary and brought up the word processor with skill. Savannah watched in astonishment as his fingers flew over the keyboard. He typed out a long list of places and businesses. "Take your pick, Gary. I count myself lucky to have you. In the meantime, I will leave you cash. I do not want them tracing you."

"You haven't seen my resume," Gary objected. "I'm not looking for charity."

The silver eyes glinted, a brief, hard humor. "I had your formula inside my body, Gary. That was all the proof of your genius I needed. The society had access to that blood for some time before you did, but none of them were able to come up with anything that worked on us."

"Great, I get that dubious pleasure. Someday you're going to introduce me to one of your friends and you can say, 'By the way, this is the one who invented the poison that is killing our people.'"

Gregori did laugh then, a low, husky sound so pure, it was beautiful to hear. It brought a lightness into Gary's heart, dispelling the gloom that had been gathering. "I never thought of that. We might get a few interesting reactions."

Gary found himself grinning sheepishly. "Yeah, like a lynching party with me as the guest of honor."

"We will have an antidote for all our people soon," Gregori reminded him softly. "There is no need to worry."

"If I had my equipment, I could have one immediately," Gary said. "I always make certain I can reverse whatever reaction I create. It wouldn't be all that hard to find where they perverted the formula. In fact, maybe you still have some lingering aftereffects in your bloodstream."

He looked so hopeful, Savannah burst out laughing. "The mad scientist is going to chase you around with a hypodermic needle, Gregori," she teased.

Gregori lifted an eyebrow, his face an unreadable mask, the pale eyes glittering with more than menace. White teeth flashed, a baring Of fangs.

"Maybe not," Gary conceded. "Not the best idea after all."

Savannah was up and moving with her sensuous grace to fit herself beneath Gregori's shoulder. She looked impossibly small next to the big Carpathian, delicate, fragile even. It wasn't so much Gregori's height but the rippling muscles, the thickness of his arms and chest, and the power emanating from him. Her face was turned up toward his, her soft mouth curved with laughter, in no way intimidated by him.

Gregori's arm swept around her and crushed her to him, nearly enveloping her completely. "She thinks I am going to take her on this ridiculous vampire hunt."

"She's right, too, isn't she?" Gary grinned at him.

"Unfortunately," Gregori admitted. "Do you have enough food until tomorrow night? We will have a plan of action by then." He dropped several large bills on the nightstand, hiding his actions from Gary as he did so.

"What plan of action? What can be done? We can't fight the whole society."

"I was thinking we could use you as bait and draw them into a trap," Gregori said, straight-faced.

Gary's eyes widened in alarm. "I'm not sure I like that plan. Sounds a little risky to me." He looked at Savannah for support.

Gregori shrugged his broad shoulders in a casual shrug. "I do not see a risk."

Savannah's small clenched fist thumped his stomach in retaliation. Gregori glanced down at her with surprise. "Is this when I am supposed to say ouch?"

Savannah and Gary exchanged a long, mournful groan. "Why did I want him to have a sense of humor?" she wondered.

Gary shook his head. "Don't be asking me. You created the monster."

"I know I would be unable to stand the press of human bodies in Preservation Hall," Gregori said suddenly, "but perhaps we could listen to the music from the street. It would get you out of here for a few hours and, with the severity of the storm, hopefully the tourists will have stayed inside."

Gary leapt at the chance to get out of his room. "Let's do it."

Savannah held back, her hand tightening on Gregori's arm. "Is it safe for him?"

Enfante, I cannot believe you would doubt my ability to protect you and the mortal. The mortal? He has a name. He is easily killed, where we are not.

The silver eyes roamed over her face. His hand came up to caress her cheek, his thumb feathering gently back and forth. "I would not allow Gary to be in any real danger. He cannot live his life in hiding."

I should have protected Peter. He would be alive right now if it wasn't for me.

Savannah's voice was husky with grief, the unshed tears clinging to his mind.

I alone am to blame for Peter's death, ma petite.

It was my responsibility to detect the vampire's presence. I had not felt any emotion in so long, so many centuries, and when I went into your show and saw you, colors nearly blinded me. Feelings overwhelmed me. I was sorting them out and trying to get my self under control. In all the centuries of my existence, it was the only time I have failed to detect the presence of the undead. Peter's death is something I must live with.

He felt her instant denial of his assessment of the situation, the quick spring to his defense. And it warmed him as nothing else ever could.

As they moved out of the rooming house and through the rain-wet streets, mingling with the unexpected crowds, he thought about the way she made him feel. He was always in control - it was necessary for one of his power and predatory nature - yet she could make him feel as if he was spinning into orbit.

Gregori glanced down at the top of her silky head and allowed the emotion to wash over him, through him. Just watching her brought him a measure of peace and a flood of warmth. He found he could enjoy the upbeat music, even the craziness of the tourists laughing and crushing close in the streets and on the sidewalks. Merged with her, he could feel what she was feeling - carefree, her sense of humor, the quick interest she had in everything and everyone around her. She spoke to people easily, held them in the palm of her hand with the same ease she held him so captivated.

When he took her home after settling Gary back at his room, Gregori turned Savannah into his arms. "You are my world," he whispered softly, meaning it.

She leaned her head into his shoulder, inhaling his masculine scent. "Thank you for going out tonight. I know it's hard for you to be among humans, but I've spent the last five years living among them. It's been so long since I've had contact with any of our people."

"I have a hard time," he admitted. "I want to supply what you need, Savannah. It is difficult to understand the need in you for their company."

"You've always been so solitary, Gregori," she said softly, "where I've had humans around me since I left home."

His mouth found her temples, then drifted across her eyelids and down to her mouth. He lifted her as his lips teased hers, cradling her in his arms. He took her up the stairs to one of the bedrooms. Gregori made gentle, tender love to her, incredibly reverent, showing her with his body what he never seemed to be able to express adequately in words.

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