Chapter Thirteen


Gary tried not to notice how pale Savannah was as she fixed him a pot of coffee. Her satin skin was almost translucent. He was groggy from the trance-induced sleep and had a hard time waking up, even after a long shower. He had no idea where the change of clothes had come from, but they were lying on the end of the bed when he awakened.

Savannah was beautiful, moving through the house like flowing water, like music in the air. She was dressed in faded blue jeans and a pale turquoise shirt that clung to her curves and emphasized her narrow rib cage and small waist. Her long hair was pulled back in a thick braid that hung below her bottom. Gary tried to keep his eyes to himself. He hadn't seen any evidence of Gregori this evening, but he didn't want to take any chances. He had a feeling the one thing that could change that remote expression fast was to have another man ogling Savannah.

"As soon as Gregori returns, we can go out and get you dinner," Savannah said softly as he accepted the steaming mug of coffee.

It was already dark. Gary had no idea what had happened after he arrived at the house the night before. He cleared his throat nervously. "What exactly happened last night? All I remember is getting to the house with you and then waking up an hour ago. I'm assuming that I slept the day away." There was a wariness in his voice, in his mind, that hadn't been there before. It was a singular experience to realize someone had taken all control away from him.

"I didn't wake you until we were certain it was safe. Last night Gregori had an encounter with two of the undead's servants and a lesser vampire. He defeated them, of course, and destroyed them so they couldn't rise again. It was safer for you to remain here. We weren't holding you prisoner. We simply wanted to keep you safe." Amusement crept into her voice. "I don't think Gregori really knows what to do with you."

Gary's heart jumped. He cleared his throat. "I hope you mean that positively."

Savannah's eyes laughed at him. "Do you really think he'll harm you? He can read your mind. If you were an enemy, he would've killed you back in that warehouse." Wickedly she leaned across the table. "Of course, he really is awfully unpredictable, so you never know what he might do or where he is - " She broke off, laughing, as her arm was flung into the air as if something had shackled her wrist and jerked her backward. Savannah was dragged by something unseen from the kitchen. She was laughing, her blue eyes dancing with mischief.

Gregori tugged at her wrist, taking her out into the sanctuary of the courtyard with its dense, overgrown plants. Flowers tumbled from the overhead arbors and trailed along his shoulders as he emerged fully into the night. "You are deliberately scaring that young man to death," he accused.

She lifted her face to his, stars from the night sky in the centers of her eyes. "Well, really, how could anyone doubt you?" As her palm caressed the hard line of his jaw, one fingertip touched his perfect mouth.

"Stop thinking you have to protect me, Savannah. It is enough that I have you. I do not need anyone else." He bent his head to find her mouth. On rising, he had taken her twice with his insatiable appetite, yet his body was again stirring to life at the thought that she would rally to his defense.

The moment his mouth claimed hers, she felt the earth moving in that peculiar, shifting way, the white streak of fire rushing through her bloodstream to pool low and hot. Her body went liquid, boneless, melting instantly into his. His arms crushed her close. "Feed, ma petite. Feed for me."

Her lips burned over his throat in obedience; her tongue stroked his pulse there. It was sensuous. Erotic. His body tightened with alarming need. His pulse jumped beneath the exploring caress. Gregori caught her slender form and held her even tighter to him, enclosing her in the protection of his arms.

Savannah took her time, enticing, teasing, deliberately arousing him further. She reveled in the feel of his body thrusting hard and aggressively, his hips pressed into her. As her teeth pierced deeply, he made a sound, a hoarse, inarticulate cry, as the white lightning sizzled and danced through his body like a whip of pain and ecstasy, until it was impossible to tell where one sensation left off and the other started.

Then he felt the disturbance in the night air, a whisper of movement, and he knew they were not alone. Holding her protectively, his body sheltering her from prying eyes, Gregori raised slashing silver eyes to the man wandering into the courtyard. Gary hadn't spotted them yet; his gaze was full of wonder at the unexpected beauty of the yard. Gregori sank deeper into the shadows, swirling a cape of invisibility around them. His hand found the nape of her neck, pressing her mouth to his skin.

Her feeding was stirring his body to greater demands. He could not imagine watching her feed from another male when he was burning with fire from the simple act. Slowly, reluctantly, Savannah stroked her tongue across the tiny pinpricks and lifted her head. Her eyes were drowsy, as if they had made love, her lips tempting. A small dot of red clung to the corner of her mouth, and Gregori instantly dipped down to taste it with his tongue.

His mouth shifted so that he could explore hers, at first demanding, then in a slow, careful kiss that seared her with tenderness. Savannah smiled up at him, her heart in her eyes. "We are not alone, mon amour, " he whispered into her ear.

She laughed softly with regret, throwing her head back so her long braid swayed. "Weren't you the one who invited him to stay?"

"I believe that was you," he corrected through clenched teeth. She was a fever in his blood. A madness he had no hope of curing. He wanted no cure. He bent to find her breast through the thin material of her shirt.

The night air was soft and cool against his skin. The bats dipped and wheeled above them. The scent of blossoms was all around them as their bodies tangled together. Savannah laughed at him, the sound joyful, echoing in his heart. "Be careful, Gregori, we wouldn't want you to lose your illusion of the big bad bogey man." Her fingers laced together behind his neck.

"You are being a little instigator," he accused.

She nibbled at the lobe of his ear, teasing it with the tip of her tongue. The aroma of coffee was drifting nearer. The soles of Gary's tennis shoes swished softly along the tiles of the patio. His clothes brushed against the fronds of huge ferns as he neared the shadows where they were secreted.

Gregori found himself suppressing a groan. Savannah brought his head down to circle his neck with her arms, finding his mouth with hers, taking her time, enjoying herself, a teasing taste of satin fire that burned through his body and threatened to consume him, threatened his control.

You are playing with fire, ma ch§ڲie.

Mmm, and it's so delicious, too, she murmured softly, losing herself in the sheer pleasure of his dominating mouth.

Gary was just on the other side of the arbor, the screen of honeysuckle and trumpet vines heavy between them. Gregori took command of the situation, reluctantly lifting his head, a dark promise in his glittering eyes, a soft groan escaping his throat.

Gary had thought himself completely alone. He looked around the courtyard carefully, his fingers tightening around the coffee mug. He could hear Savannah's soft laughter. Sexy. Tempting. He shook his head. The woman was a menace. He would hate it if she were his. Only a man very strong and able to do without any male friends could have a siren like her. She was more than a handful; she was a disaster waiting to happen.

Are you reading the human's thoughts, ma petite femme? Gregori's satisfied voice whispered in her mind.

Even one such as he knows you are wild like the winds.

With great reluctance he loosened his hold on her.

Go inside the house.

Her eyes widened in mock surprise.

You mean he might think we were making love? We would have been if he hadn't wandered out and interrupted us. Push me further, ch§ڲie, and I may do something you will not like.

She laughed out loud, totally unafraid as she sashayed through the courtyard. As she passed Gary, she leaned over and blew warm air into his ear.

Savannah!

Gregori roared her name, a distinct threat.

I'm going, I'm going,

she said, completely unrepentant.

Gregori waited until she was safe within the confines of the walls before he emerged from the shadows. Gary's heart was a loud thunder in Gregori's ears. He smiled, that gleam of a predator's smile. "For all our time together so far, I do not think we have yet been properly introduced. I am Gregori, lifemate to Savannah."

"Gary, Gary Jansen. Your - um, wife, Savannah, said I could wander around."

"Savannah is my wife," Gregori confirmed, sounding stern and menacing in spite of the fact that his voice was velvet-soft.

"So," said Gary, so nervous he was beginning to sweat.

"Come back into the house, and we will decide what to do." Gregori was already gliding past him in that silent way he had.

Gary followed. Savannah was by the fireplace. Once again her skin had a healthy glow. Something burned in the depths of her violet eyes as they rested on Gregori's impassive face. Gary saw those silver eyes flicker over Savannah's face. No longer bleak and cold, they warmed to molten mercury, tender and fiercely protective. When Gregori looked like that, it was impossible to fear him.

"I have considered several alternatives to our problem, Gary," Gregori said softly. "I will lay them out before you, and you will choose which of them you are the most comfortable with."

Gary relaxed visibly. "Yeah, that sounds good."

"You are going to be hunted by vampires and those humans involved in the society alike," Gregori told him. "Any place you usually frequent you must therefore avoid. That includes your family, your home, and your job. Those are the places they will be waiting for you."

"I have to work, Gregori. I don't exactly have a huge savings account."

"You can work for me. I have many businesses and could use someone I trust. Arrangements can be made to move you to any of the cities here in the United States where I have offices, or - and it might be a safer alternative - in Europe. The offer stands whether you decide to keep your memories of us or whether you ask that they be removed."

Savannah leaned against the wall, shocked at Gregori's proposal. Feather-light, she touched his mind. Instantly, Gregori's attention shifted to her.

Be silent, Savannah.

It was a clear command. Although his face was as impassive as ever, she could feel the imperative smoldering in his mind, and for once she fell silent, watching him closely.

"I don't want you to erase my memories," Gary said. "I've told you that. Besides, I think I have the right to help you with this mess instead of being shipped off to some foreign country like a child."

"You do not know the dangers, Gary. But perhaps that is a good thing. If you insist on keeping your memory, I can do no other than protect Savannah and our people. I would have no choice but to take your blood so that I could monitor you at will."

Gary paled visibly. Slowly he put down the coffee mug, his hand trembling. "I don't understand."

"When I am nearby, I can read your thoughts, but I must be close. If I have taken your blood, I will always know where you are, I can track you easily to anywhere on this earth, and I will know your thoughts. If you ever betrayed us, I would know." Gregori leaned forward, his brilliant silver eyes holding Gary's captive. "Understand this, Gary. If I had to, I would hunt you. I would find you. And I would kill you." There was complete conviction in his voice, in the depths of his eyes.

Gary could not look away. He felt as if that penetrating gaze could see right into his soul.

"It is something you should think about," Gregori continued almost gently. "It has to be your decision alone. Whatever you decide, we will respect it, and we will do our best to protect you. You have my word on that."

"You once told me the vampire was the biggest deceiver of all. How do I know you speak the truth?"

"You do not. You can only feel what is right or wrong. That is why it is necessary that you take your time before deciding. Once the decision is made, we will all have to live with it."

"Does it hurt?" Gary asked, curious, his scientist's brain already seeking data.

Savannah detected the slight smile in Gregori's mind, the sudden admiration for the slightly built human who came to his feet and began to pace the length of the room.

"You do not have to feel a thing," Gregori said quietly, his voice strictly neutral. He didn't want to influence the human in any way.

"I guess it would be too much to ask to let Savannah bite my neck." Gary made an attempt at humor. He was rubbing his neck, every Dracula movie he had ever seen going through his mind.

A low growl rumbling in Gregori's throat was his answer. Savannah burst out laughing. She could sense Gary's growing agitation. He pushed a hand through his hair. "Do I have to answer you now?"

"Before we leave this house," Gregori replied softly.

"That really gives me a long time to think it over," he grumbled. "So, if you remove my memories of you, I would go back to my normal life and not have a clue I was in danger. That's kind of a convenient way to get rid of me, don't you think?" Sarcasm dripped in his voice.

The silver eyes slashed. Gregori stirred, a menacing rippling of muscle, the predator unsheathing his claws. Savannah laid a detaining hand on his arm. Her thumb feathered lightly back and forth across his forearm. Almost at once the tension in the room eased. But those predator's eyes remained unblinking on Gary's face. "If I wanted you dead, Jansen, believe me, you would already be gone. Killing is easy for someone who has lived as long as I have."

"It isn't like I meant to offend you, Gregori," Gary said. "This isn't easy. Nothing like this has ever happened to me before. At least I don't think it has. We haven't met before, have we?"

"No," Savannah answered gravely. "We would have told you. We really are trying to be as honest as we can. This is a tremendous offer, Gary, one I didn't think would even be considered. You have no idea what an honor it - "

"Silence, Savannah. He must make up his own mind without persuasion. It is his decision alone to make," Gregori reprimanded.

He doesn't comprehend the honor you have extended him,

she argued.

If he knew, he would be less agitated.

S'il vous plait, Savannah. Let him decide.

Gary held up a hand. "Don't do that. I know you're talking together. I'm nervous enough. Okay. Okay. Do it. Get it over with. Bite me in the neck. But I'm going to warn you, I've never done this before. It won't be too good for you." He attempted a wan grin.

"Be certain. There can be no doubt. You must know that you trust me. There might be times when I will have to take human life. You cannot change sides in the middle of the fight," Gregori warned.

Gary moistened his lips. "Can I ask a few questions here?"

"Naturally." Gregori was noncommittal.

"Are there any humans that have known of your kind and lived?"

"Of course. There is one family that has lived with one of our people for several centuries, mother to daughter, father to son. One of those closest to Savannah's father was a human priest. They were good friends for nearly fifty years. One couple is raising a human boy."

"So I won't be the only one to know. Because it's a big responsibility to have this knowledge. If you're not vampires, what are you?"

"We are Carpathians, a race of people as old as time itself. We have special powers, some of which you have seen, and we require blood to survive, but we do not kill or enslave those we feed on. We walk in the night and must avoid the sun." Again Gregori's voice was expressionless.

"What is the difference between a vampire and a Carpathian?" Gary asked, excited, interested, feeling a strange elation.

"All vampires were Carpathians at one time. The vampire is a male of our race who has chosen the madness of false power over the rules of our people. When a Carpathian exists too long without a lifemate, he loses all emotion. Colors vanish from his vision. His inner darkness prevails, and he preys on humans and Carpathians alike, not only for blood but for the thrill of the kill. He chooses this evil path rather than facing the dawn and self-destruction. That is why we have the hunters. Hunters rid the world of the vampire and make certain that the existence of our race remains a secret from those who would not understand, those who would perceive us all as vampire and seek out destruction."

Savannah's hand slipped from Gregori's wrist. She took the coffee cup from Gary's hand and refilled it. "It's rather like a B movie, isn't it?"

Gary found himself smiling at her. There was something about her mischievous smile that made anyone near her happy. It was contagious. "So what happens if I let you take my blood and you turn vampire?"

"It is impossible for me to turn now," Gregori said softly, his beautiful voice stating the simple truth. "Savannah is my anchor in the light."

Gary stood there for a few moments, took a swallow of the coffee, and turned to Gregori. "Let's do it." He could believe Savannah was light.

Gregori swept through the man's mind, a slow, gentle touch Gary couldn't detect. He was determined. Convinced. And he was going to help them if he could.

You will come to me, unafraid, unhurt, without any ill effects afterward.

He swamped the human with soothing comfort. Gary moved toward him with the slightly glazed eyes of one under a trance. Gregori bent his head to the prominent vein in Gary's neck and drank. He was careful not to take too much, careful to pass on the blood-clotting agent to ensure fast healing. Before Gregori freed Gary from the hypnotic suggestion, he moved well back into the shadows.

Gary shook his head once, twice. He staggered slightly and felt for the table. He never saw Gregori move, but the larger man was beside him, steadying him, lowering him carefully into a chair. "In a few minutes we should get you something substantial to eat. We arrived last night and have not had time to stock the refrigerator." Gregori glanced at Savannah.

Get him a glass of water to replace his fluid loss, ch§ڲie.

Savannah handed the glass to Gregori, her eyes anxious. Gary touched his neck. He felt a little dizzy, and there was a burning sensation on the side of his neck, but when he touched his pulse, his hand came away free of blood. He glanced at Gregori. "You did it already, didn't you?"

"Drink all of it." Gregori held the glass to his lips. "I saw no reason to prolong the suspense. Your mind was quite made up."

"Welcome to my world, Gary." Savannah was flashing her mischievous smile. "He considers you family and under his protection now, so he's bound to be impossibly bossy."

Gary groaned. "I didn't consider that. Damn. You're right. He can't help himself; it's his nature."

"Do not start, you two. I did not think what it would be like to have the two of you driving me insane." Gregori sounded disgusted, but Gary was beginning to understand him a little. He never really changed expression, and his eyes gave nothing away, but Gary could almost feel Gregori's silent laughter.

"You do have a sense of humor," he accused him.

"Well, do not blame me. It is Savannah's fault. She insists on it," Gregori replied in disgust. "Let us go and get you something decent to eat."

"Am I going to crave blood, raw steak, that kind of thing?" Gary asked, straight-faced.

"Well, actually..." Savannah started.

"I do not have rabies." Gregori silenced her with a look. "I am not contagious."

"All the books say if you drink my blood, I get to drink your blood, and then I'm like you." Gary sounded slightly disappointed.

"Some people grow bat wings," Savannah admitted, her teeth tugging at her lower lip. "That's where Batman came from. And capes, all those swirling capes. A regular epidemic. It's from our blood, a kind of allergic reaction. Don't worry, you would be showing signs already if you were one of those with a problem."

"Is she always like this?" Gary asked Gregori.

"She gets worse," Gregori said truthfully.

The popular restaurant was packed, the line outside long, but Gregori got them a table instantly with a soft whisper in the ear of the hostess. Gary sank gratefully into a waiting chair and immediately drank all three glasses of water provided for them. He had never been so thirsty in his life.

"Where do we start with this mess?" he asked.

"The society you belong to - who got you into it?" Gregori asked.

All around them was the swirl of conversations, some soft and intimate, some loud and obnoxious, others laughing, having a good time. Gregori and Savannah heard it all. It would be all too soon before someone noticed the famous magician in their midst, but Gregori had managed a semi-secluded table and maneuvered Savannah into the darkest corner.

"Everyone at work knew about my obsession with vampires. It was a joke around the laboratory. A few years ago, a man by the name of Dennis Crocket approached me. He was a friend of someone who worked at the lab. He invited me to a meeting. I thought it was pretty hokey, but at least there were others interested in the same subject." Gary was looking around for a waiter, needing more liquid. Waiters were bustling in every direction but his. He gave a little sigh. "At the least, I thought I might find some interesting data. I have quite a collection. In any case, I went."

Gregori glanced at a busboy lounging behind a potted plant, and the kid instantly grabbed a pitcher of water and hurried over to refill all three glasses. "Where was the meeting held?"

"Los Angeles. That's where I work."

"What did you think of the others at the meeting? Were they fanatics? Perverts like those in the storehouse?" Gregori inquired softly, his voice so low that Gary had to lean toward him to catch the words.

He shook his head. "No, not at all. Some people were there for the fun of it. Not really believers, you know, but hoping maybe. It gave them something to do with other people interested in vampire lore. At first the talk was always light - wouldn't it be cool? What kind of powers did they have? Would they be friendly? Then, after I'd been a few times, a couple of men from some other chapter showed up."

Savannah's chin rested in the palm of her hand. She stared with unblinking eyes at Gary, keeping well back in the shadows to protect herself from prying eyes. She was using a simple blurring technique to aid in her camouflage. It didn't really make her invisible to the human eye but caused a strange warp in the air around her so that she was hazy to those glancing her way. "Where was this chapter located?"

Gary wrinkled his forehead in thought. "You know, they have several chapters. In Europe, mostly around the Transylvania area. Romania. Places like that. These guys were Southerners - Florida maybe. I think Florida. In any case, they were much more scientific about everything. They wanted each of us there to provide them with any factual information on anyone who might be a vampire. People we knew who were always pale, who only went out at night. Those who were extremely intelligent, who seemed to be mesmerizing, who were always secretive about their lives and activities."

"Did any names come up?" Gregori asked.

"A few, but none of them really seemed like the real thing. None of us knew anyone remotely resembling what they were describing. We were making jokes and naming friends until we realized they were serious."

The waiter arrived, and Gary hastily scanned the menu while Savannah and Gregori ordered. Gary found himself ravenously hungry. When he would have ordered everything in sight, it occurred to him that Savannah and Gregori probably wouldn't mind sharing their food. Looking up, he caught Savannah grinning at him, that impish, starry-eyed smile that was making him feel a part of a family unit. Like he belonged with them. He was no longer an outcast, poked fun at by those around him.

She reached out to him, hesitated, then dropped her hand into her lap. "You catch on fast," she praised him.

He felt the flood of acceptance from both of them. It was interesting that he could tell it was from both. Gregori reached over, took Savannah's palm, and pressed a kiss into the exact center.

Je regrette, mon amour, but it seems I cannot overcome certain failings. There is no need for you to apologize, lifemate. We both are learning to live in the other's world. I don't find it necessary to touch others to be happy.

Gregori brought her hand to the warmth of his mouth a second time, the molten silver of his eyes caressing her intimately.

Gary cleared his throat. "Enough of that stuff."

A brief smiled softened the edges of Gregori's mouth. "What else did these men have to say?"

"I thought you could read my mind," Gary ventured.

Gregori nodded. "That is so, but if I were to examine your memories, I would know them all. Out of courtesy, respect for you, I do not. All of us have things we would prefer to keep to ourselves, painful or embarrassing moments we need not share."

"Even between the two of you?" Gary was beginning to really like the Carpathian. He also realized that whatever it was the couple shared was unique.

"It is different with lifemates," Savannah answered him. "We are two halves of the same whole. What one feels, so does the other. There can be only truth between us."

"The men from Florida." Gregori brought them back to the discussion at hand. Keeping up a wavering haze between Savannah and the rest of the patrons in the restaurant was energy-draining for her, but every time he went to take it over, she resisted. He could see that her pride was at stake. For some silly reason, she wanted to prove to him she was a capable Carpathian. He would only put up with the nonsense so long. Her care came first. Savannah tossed him a murderous look and withdrew her hand just as the waiter arrived with their dinners.

Gary waited for him to leave before he continued in a low voice. "Two of the men told us to look for certain types. Someone whose family traced their eastern European ancestry back hundreds and hundreds of years, often with an estate that has been in the same family just as long. That kind of thing. They threw out a couple of names and occupations. One was some singer with a huge following who only appears in public at night and won't sign a contract with a recording studio. They say her voice is mesmerizing, haunting. They said if you hear her sing, you can never forget the experience. They seemed very interested in her."

"This woman could be in danger. Who is she?"

Gregori shook his head at Savannah's question. No Carpathian woman would ever be allowed to run around unprotected by the males of their race. It had to be a human target whose eccentric ways had caught the eye of the society.

"She uses two different variations of the same name. Desari or Dara. I think the Dara nickname is supposed to mean from the dark or some such nonsense. She probably needed a show-business name, and her real name is Suzy."

"What specifically did they want the members to do about her?" Savannah asked, still afraid for the unknown woman.

At once Gregori sent her a wave of reassurance.

We will put out the word to all of our kind that she is in danger. They will watch over her when she is near. There are so few of us in this country. Most of the time she will be without protection.

Savannah passed a hand across her forehead, suddenly tired. She had been involved in the sordid business of vampires and human "vampire" hunters only a short time, and she was already weary of their seemingly endless perversion.

Perhaps this is the very thing we need to keep Julian with us. I will ask him to travel with this performer until the danger to her has passed. Do not worry for the human female. Julian would never allow her to be harmed if he has taken her under his protection.

Gregori examined the weariness in her mind.

I will take over the shield now, ma petite, and you will not argue with your lifemate.

Gregori took no chances with her stubborn ways. He thrust his will decisively into hers, blocking any attempt to take the control back. She was tired.

She smiled at him, tender, loving, accepting. Gregori slid his arm along the back of her chair protectively.

Oblivious of the interplay between the two Carpathians, Gary continued the conversation. "They wanted us to watch her, to do research on her, find out what we could about her background. And she wasn't the only one. There was a man they seemed very interested in. An Italian, I think. Julian Selvaggio or something close to that."

Selvaggio is Italian for Savage.

Aidan and Julian were born Selvaggio.

It also means unsociable person, Gregori's voice whispered in her mind.

Savannah felt her heart slam painfully against her ribs. Julian. Of course it was Julian Savage. She looked up at Gregori. The society was setting its members against Julian. She didn't know him personally, but suddenly it all seemed very close to home.

We will send word to him, ma petite.

Who better to guard the woman from those who also wish his death? Julian is a very dangerous hunter. One of our best. Second to your father, he is perhaps the most powerful Carpathian alive. I guess we aren't considering you,

Savannah said loyally, truthfully.

Gregori turned his attention to Gary. "So the society members from Florida were different from the rest of you. They were serious, and they gave you specific names to get information on. Were there more?"

Gary nodded. "I have a laptop in my hotel room. It lists those they suspect and activities they considered suspicious."

Gregori permitted himself a small smile. His teeth were gleaming white, those of a predator on the prowl. "I think a trip to your hotel room is on the agenda tonight."

Savannah tossed her braid over her shoulder and allowed herself to look around the room. Laughter was erupting from nearly every table. Most of the occupants were tourists, and she enjoyed listening to the various accents and conversations. A group of older locals was four tables away. She found their mixture of French Cajun fascinating. Three of them had grown up together and were telling a fourth, younger man some of the more fanciful tales of their youth.

She found herself tuning in as the young man laughed softly. "Stories about Old man alligator have been around since before my grandfather's time. It's just a legend, an old tale to scare the children away from the swamp, nothing more. My mother used to tell me that same story."

An argument broke out instantly among the men. The oldest, the one with the heaviest accent, broke into French, not the elegant French Gregori spoke, but the local dialect. All the same, Savannah was certain he was swearing a blue streak. There was such a soothing cadence to the old man's voice, a rhythm unique to New Orleans.

As she listened, the old alligator grew in stature. He was huge, like the grinning crocodile of the Nile. He had eaten hundreds of hunting dogs, lay in wait along a trail and gulped them as they came running by. He snatched small children from the banks in front of their parents' homes. An entire boatload of partying teens had vanished in his domain. The tales grew with each telling.

At first, Savannah was smiling, enjoying the fascinating old legend, but a slow dread was beginning to seize her. She glanced at Gregori. He was talking quietly with Gary, extracting information with skillful questions even as he gave the illusion of having a pleasant conversation. She knew he was automatically scanning the area, monitoring other conversations, yet he seemed relaxed, unaware of the gathering blackness.

She rubbed her pounding temples, massaged her tight neck. Little beads of sweat broke out on her forehead.

Savannah tried to concentrate on the funny tale, the growing exploits of the alligator, but with each passing moment all she could do was feel the black apprehension building like some terrible disease that managed to get inside her mind and cling to her.

Gregori turned his head, the silver eyes slashing her face, at once concerned.

ma petite, what is it?

His mind was already reaching for hers, merging fully so that he could feel the gathering sense of darkness growing so quickly within her.

Is it possible there is an evil one present?

she asked. Her stomach was lurching.

Gregori studied the room. There was always the chance one of the undead had learned to mask himself from other Carpathians. He could do it. It would be egotistical to think another might not learn the trick. The master vampire was very old. He had survived the hunters because he was cunning and perfectly willing to flee the vicinity and leave it to the hunter until such time as it was once again safe to return. Still, Gregori doubted he would deliberately go to the same restaurant as a hunter to secretly gloat, especially if that hunter was Gregori.

Only those weary of their existence challenged him outright.

Gary was looking from one to the other in alarm. "What is it?"

"Remain calm. Savannah is very sensitive to evil. She can feel it, and I can touch it through her, but I cannot detect it within the room myself."

"Are we in danger?" Gary found the idea more exciting than frightening. He was looking forward to action.

Rambo style.

Savannah and Gregori exchanged a sudden smile. "Gary." Savannah couldn't help herself. "You've seen too many movies."

"Yeah, well, you don't know what this is like for me. All my life my classmates and friends made fun of me.

The bullies shoved me into walls and tossed me into trash cans. All because I always did my homework and got A's on every paper. This is exciting stuff for me."

"Me, too," Savannah lied. She didn't want any part of it, for herself, for Gary, or for Gregori. She wanted them all to be safe. Whatever horrible thing was waiting for them, crouched just beyond their reach, carried the foul stench of evil. It permeated her mind and left her feeling sick and dizzy. "I have to get out of here, Gregori."

You will be fine, mon amour.

We will leave this place immediately. It seems your mother did pass on her gift to you.

Once more he allowed himself to survey the room. There was nothing but the laughter of the tourists and the good-natured wrangling of those who lived there. Gregori summoned the waiter, paid the check, and took Savannah by the arm as they wound their way among the tables.

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