Chapter Three


The sun set slowly, slipping lower and lower in the sky before disappearing behind the mountains to be swallowed by the sea. Red and orange burst across the sky, dramatically replacing its blue with the color of blood. Far below the earth, Gregori's heart and lungs began to function. Automatically he scanned his surroundings to ensure that all safeguards were in place and his lair was undisturbed. He sensed the hunger in his wolves, but no alarm.

Beside him, slender Savannah still rested. His arm curved possessively, protectively, around her waist. His leg was across her thigh, cutting off all possibility of escape. Hunger rose, voracious, ravenous, so sharp and engulfing, it was close to lust. Gregori floated to the basement level, needing to distance himself from temptation.

Savannah was finally here with him in his lair. She might be fighting him - and herself - every inch of the way, but he was in her mind, reading her easily. Much of her fear of him stemmed from her attraction to him.

Carpathian desire was all consuming, totally binding, and given solely to one lifemate. One rarely survived the passing of the other. Mind, body, heart, and soul were bound together for all time.

The wolves converged on him eagerly, joyously. He greeted each of them with the same patience and measured enthusiasm. He felt no favoritism. Indeed, he had felt only emptiness until Savannah had come, until he had once more touched her mind with his.

As he fed the wolves, Gregori allowed himself to remember that black moment in the Carpathian Mountains when Savannah had told her wolf that she had to flee from the Dark One, flee to America, her mother's homeland, to escape Gregori and the intensity of her feelings for him. It had taken every ounce of self-control he possessed to allow her to leave him. He had retreated to the highest, most remote mountain he knew. He had traveled the forests of Europe as a lone wolf, had buried himself deep in the bowels of the earth for long periods, coming out only to feed. The darkness within him had grown until Gregori could no longer trust himself. Twice he had nearly killed his prey, and while that should have shaken him, it had caused hardly a ripple of concern. That was when he knew he no longer had a choice. He had to claim her, to possess her. Had to come to America and await her arrival in San Francisco.

Savannah didn't understand that if he did not - if instead he sought the dawn, or his darker nature prevailed and he turned renegade, became the dreaded vampire - he would be condemning her to a bleak, unbearable existence of utter aloneness and emptiness. She would not survive. Savannah's mother did not fully grasp the complex relationship between the male and female of their species. Born a human, neither did she completely comprehend the danger a Carpathian as powerful as Gregori represented. Savannah's mother had wanted her daughter to be independent, not realizing that a Carpathian had no choice but to find his or her other half. Raven Dubrinsky had not done her daughter any favors by giving her the illusion of independence.

But for the first time in his life, Gregori was indecisive. Until he officially claimed her, all Carpathian males, including the vampires, would be unsettled, thinking they might usurp his position and claim her for their own. For her own protection, he needed to complete the ritual binding them for all eternity. For the protection of mortals and immortals alike, he had to claim what was rightfully his. He had waited a dangerously long time. Still, he hated to force Savannah to his will when she was so reluctant. Gregori swept a hand through his thick hair, prowling through his home like a caged panther. Hunger was gnawing at him, rising sharply with every passing moment.

He padded across the floor to the balcony and lifted his head to inhale the night. The wind carried the scent of game. Rabbit, deer, a fox, and, faintly, farther away, humans. He sent his call into the night, drawing his prey to him with the casual ease of a master. It was sometimes difficult to remember that humans were beings with intellect and emotions when it was so simple to control them.

Gregori leapt from the second-story balcony, landing softly on the balls of his feet. He moved easily, unhurriedly, his muscles rippling with a subtle hint of the immense power and strength that was so much a part of him. No stone rolled beneath his feet; not a single twig snapped or leaf crackled. He could feel the sounds of the earth, the insects and night creatures, the water running like blood beneath the soil. The sap in the trees called to him; the bats dipped and squeaked in recognition.

Gregori stopped at the high chain-link fence. Bending his knees slightly, he jumped straight up, neatly clearing the eight-foot coils with ease. He landed on the other side, crouching low. No longer an elegant, well bred man, a dangerous beast lifted his head. Pale eyes began to glow savagely. Hunger gripped and clawed at his insides. Instinct took over, the age-old instinct of a predator needing to survive.

He scented the wind, then turned in the direction of his prey. His call had brought forth a young couple. He could hear their hearts beating, the rush of blood in their veins. His body burned for release. The dangerous, insidious whispers from the emptiness of his soul reached out to him. A woman. So easy. The man in him, nearly pushed aside by the beast, fought the darkness. In his present state, he could so easily kill her.

The girl was young, in her twenties, the male not much older. They waited for him, their faces eager, as if waiting for a lover. As Gregori approached, the girl held her arms out to him, smiling joyously. Hunger burned red and raw, his body screaming with need. With a low growl, Gregori reached for her, unable to fight the power of the beast.

As Gregori dragged the female roughly to him, he heard a whisper of sound. Light. Rhythmic. Fast. With a throaty growl, he thrust the woman safely away. She was with child. Gregori stretched out a hand and splayed his fingers across the slight bulge of her stomach. It was a male child. So small, so in need of protection. Abruptly he spun around and seized the man. He fought to control himself, to keep the young fellow tranquil and willing. He listened for a moment to the ebb and flow of blood, of life, then lowered his head and drank.

In his state of arousal, the rush hit him hard. The taste of power burst into life, filling him. He needed, burned, craved. He fed hungrily, ravenously, desperate to fill the terrible emptiness. The male's knees buckled, forcing Gregori back to awareness. For a moment he had to fight the beast, happy to feast on rich life, nearly corrupt with the power of life and death. He had to struggle to regain some semblance of control before he drained the man. It was so tempting, so promising. Calling, insistent.

In the midst of the red haze building and growing in him, his body burning and raging, a single thought crept in.

Savannah.

All at once he could smell the night air again, smell her clean, fresh scent. He could feel the breeze on his hot skin like the touch of her fingers. He could see the branches of the trees swaying gently, see her beautiful, knowing eyes staring into his blackened soul.

With an oath, Gregori closed the wound in the man's throat and eased him to the ground, propping him up against a broad tree trunk. Crouching, Gregori felt for a pulse. He did not want to go to Savannah with death on his hands. He had thought to give her time to adjust to him, to their relationship, but he was far too dangerous and unpredictable in the state he was in. He needed her inside him, drawing him back from the edge of madness.

The man sat with ashen skin, his breathing labored. With rest and care, however, he would be fine. Planting a believable accident in the couple's heads to explain the male's weakness, he left them as quickly as he had come, running lightly through the thick stand of trees, easily clearing fallen logs and narrow ribbons of water. Once inside his compound, he slowed to a lazy saunter and once more sent a call into the night. The couple would need aid, so he drew a family out strolling to the spot. He heard their gasps of alarm and concern even with the miles separating them, and his mouth curved in satisfaction.

Just as Gregori leapt for the balcony, he felt the first prickle of unease, of warning. His eyes swung back to the night sky as he faded into the shadows. This place, remote, wild, still savage yet a place of power, would draw the attention of any renegade Carpathian. The vampires would be unable to resist the call of the earth, the draw of the wolves. They might even sense his terrible struggle, one of the hunters so close to turning, so close to becoming one of their kind, damned for all eternity. He had been so caught up in the moment of feeding, he had failed to hide his presence from any of his kind who might be near - another sign of how very close he was to losing his soul.

Gregori touched the minds of his wolves to reassure them and prepare them for a probe. Already he could feel the vampires approach in tight formation, as large bats. They were seeking to touch the minds of humans and animals alike.

Inside the house, the wolves circled, paced, endured the mind search, but Gregori was locked on to them, his calm centering them. The vampires would pick up only the instincts of wild animals roaming, hunting food. Gregori's white teeth gleamed. Had he been the one searching, no one would have felt his presence unless he allowed it. And no mind block would have been strong enough to resist his probe.

Savannah.

The renegades were probably searching for her, certain Roberto had found her and secreted her away from them. The rogue had not had the time or strength at the end to send out a warning to his cohorts. They would search all the remote areas as a matter of course.

Gregori shook his head at their stupidity. Savannah was Mikhail's daughter. Mikhail was the Prince of their people, an ancient, his blood powerful. Savannah might have diminished her strength by refusing human blood, but when she chose to feed, she would be dangerous beyond their imaginings.

He turned another humorless smile, cruel and taunting, toward the sky. The searchers were heading away toward the south, toward the teeming city. Gregori spared a thought for the havoc the vampires would create, for the victims they would take before Aidan Savage, the hunter in the area, could track them down. He trusted Aidan with the job and felt justified in leaving the other Carpathian the duty of clearing out the vampires in the Bay area in due time.

Time meant nothing and everything to Gregori. It was limitless, one endless stretch of bleak isolation. For long centuries he had endured the stark, ugly isolation of the solitary male of his species. His emotions had died, leaving him cold-blooded, capable of immeasurable cruelties. But after years of being alone, of being nearly like the undead, he was awakening once again to scents, colors, light, darkness. The way his body burned, so sensitive to the feel of her hair, her body against his, just the sight of her. Was it too much, too late? Would he survive the onslaught, the flood of powerful emotions, or would it all send him careening over the edge into the world of madness?

Gregori had survived for centuries because, like Mikhail, he was meticulous with his plans, never forgetting the minutest detail. His first mistake in hundreds of years had been in failing to keep himself alert to the possible presence of other Carpathians or undead in the stadium parking lot at the magic show. Moments ago he had done the same. All because he was distracted by needing Savannah too much and waiting for her for far too long.

He reentered his house and padded downstairs on bare feet. Once inside the bed chamber, he lit candles and ran a hot bath in the huge sunken marble tub. Then he gave the command for Savannah to wake. His body felt heavy, uncomfortable with his urgent need, but his gluttonous feeding had helped to take the edge from his bloodlust. He watched her face as her heart began to beat and her lungs began to expand with air. He knew the precise moment that she mentally scanned her surroundings and sensed the threat to herself, sensed immediate danger. Sensed his presence.

Savannah surprised him by sitting up slowly, shoving at the silken hair tumbling around her face. Her eyes fastened on his, enormous, beautiful. Her tongue darted out, touching her lips in apprehension.

If it was possible, Gregori's body tightened even more.

He looked powerful, intimidating, his face harshly sensual, Savannah noted in trepidation. His eyes burned with hunger, touched her, devoured her. And in spite of her resolve, in spite of her fears, she could feel her body taking on a life of its own. Heat spread slowly throughout her, bringing a torturous ache and a raging hunger. She could smell his masculine scent. The wild forest clung to him, giving up secrets. Her eyes flashed, sparkling stars in the midst of violet. "How dare you come to me with another woman's perfume clinging to you?"

A faint smile touched his mouth, easing the harshness in his face. "I merely fed, ma petite." Savannah was the most beautiful, sensual woman he had ever met. She might think she was in terror of him, but she certainly had no qualms about reprimanding him.

She glared at him, her long hair wild, her small fists clenched. "You call it whatever you like, Gregori, but you stay away from me smelling like her." She was furious with him. He insisted she was his lifemate, tried to force her into an eternity of hell with him, and he dared to come to her smelling of another woman? "Get out and leave me in peace." For some unexplained reason she felt close to tears at the thought of him betraying her.

His silver eyes warmed to caressing mercury and moved possessively over her slender figure. A frown touched his face. "You are weak, Savannah. I can feel it when our minds merge."

"Stay out of my mind. You certainly weren't invited." Her hands went to her hips. "And just for the record, your mind needs to be washed out with soap! Half the things you think we're going to do are never going to happen. I could never look at you again."

He laughed. Aloud. An actual, real laugh. It welled up unexpectedly and emerged low and husky, with genuine amusement. Gregori nearly leapt the distance between them and dragged her into his arms, grateful beyond imagining.

She flung a pillow at his head. "Go ahead and laugh, you arrogant jerk." She wished she had a two-by-four handy.

His eyebrows shot up. Another new experience. He had been called many things, but jerk was not one of them. His concern for her well-being overrode his intrigue, however. It even overrode the crouching beast within him so ready to possess her. "Why are you so weak, ma petite? This is not acceptable."

She waved his concern aside. "Is it acceptable for you to play around with other women?" She didn't stop to think why it infuriated her, but it did. "I've been taking care of myself for five years, Gregori, without your assistance. I don't need you, and I don't want you. And if I do have to have you around, a few rules are going to be followed."

His mouth twitched, but his gut clenched hotly, his body so hard, it was painful. Hunger rose, swift and sharp, and the beast inside him roared for release. Five years. He had had to give her those five years. God help them both if he had waited too long. "The bath is ready. You can tell me these rules while we relax in its warmth."Her eyes widened. "

We?

I don't think so. You may be in the habit of bathing with women, but I can assure you, I don't bathe with men."

"That eases my mind," he replied dryly, amusement curling in his mind, but the urgency of his need building. "I have never bathed with a woman, Savannah, so the new experience should do us both good."

"In your wildest dreams."

"There is no need to be shy. We are both of the earth."

"Spare me the garbage, Gregori. I'm not going to bathe with you, and that's final."

His eyebrows shot up. All at once he looked the predator he was. No lazy amusement, no indulgence, but a hunter with eyes fixed unblinkingly on his prey.

Her heart stopped in alarm, then began to slam uncomfortably in her chest. The worst thing about it was, he could hear it. He knew he had scared her. That made her even more furious. Did he have to be so intimidating? Carpathian males were all enormously strong; they didn't need to look it. There was no need for his huge chest and bulging arms and thighs like oak trees. She had started out with bravado, determined not to be intimidated, but he was power personified.

"I am reading your mind," he mentioned softly.

She hated her traitorous body, the way it dissolved at the sight of him and the sound of his velvet, caressing voice. "I told you to stay out of my mind."

"It is a habit, ma petite?"

She flung the other pillow at him. "Don't you dare bring up the wolf. I'm sure our laws forbade such a thing. You're a cad, Gregori, and you're not even sorry."

"Remove your clothes, Savannah."

The soft command had her gaze flying to meet and lock with his. She stepped back, staggered, and would have fallen if he had not moved with his preternatural speed to cover the distance between them. His arms swept her up and pinned her to him, his silver eyes slashing at her. "Why are you so weak?"

She pushed at the wall of his chest in a vain attempt to escape a mind search. He would be able to extract any information he desired quite easily. "You know I never touch human blood. While I was a child, it didn't seem to matter all that much, but over the last couple of years, there have been" - she searched for the word - "repercussions."

He remained silent, his unblinking gaze steady, compelling her to explain. And it was compulsion. She could not resist the command in his unwavering eyes.

Savannah sighed. "I'm weak most of the time. I can't shape-shift without it taking a tremendous toll. That's why my shows are becoming so rare. I can hardly manage mist to escape and then materialize again." She didn't add that she could no longer manage adequate safeguards while she slept, but she could tell by the sudden glint of steel in his eyes that he had caught the echo of her hastily banned thought.

His silver gaze became steel, and his arms tightened, threatening to crush her body against the hard strength of his. "Why have you not remedied the situation?" His voice, a soft menace, sent a shiver through her. She was all too aware of his enormous strength.

"I tried with Peter once, when I was really in a bad way. He was compliant, but I just couldn't bring myself to take his blood." She didn't want to admit that the real reason was that she thought her unusual diet enabled her to walk in the sun.

"This will end. I forbid a continuation of this stupidity." He gave her a little shake, his teeth very white as they snapped together in irritation. "Should there be need, Savannah, I will force your compliance." He wasn't bragging; his voice held no challenge or taunt. He simply stated the fact.

She knew he was threatening her not with physical force but with mental compulsion. "Gregori" - she was striving to sound calm and reasonable - "it would be wrong for you to force your will on me."

He set her on her feet, holding her carefully with one hand, the other going to the buttons of her blouse. Savannah's breath caught in her throat. Both her hands whipped up to catch his. "What are you doing?"

"Removing your clothes." He didn't seem to be aware of her hands straining to control his. The edges of her blouse parted, revealing her narrow rib cage, the soft swell of her breasts in nearly transparent lace.

The beast surfaced for a moment, wanting to tear, to feed, to claim. It was nearly impossible to control, and for the first time he was truly afraid he had waited too long to come to her. She could be in real danger if he slipped over the edge into madness. Need slammed into him, hard and painful, but he took a deep breath, fought, and won. His hand was steady as he removed the wisp of lace, spilling her full breasts into his view. His fingers brushed satin skin because he couldn't stop himself, his thumb stroking her nipples into hard peaks. He murmured something - Savannah wasn't certain what it was - before he lowered his mouth to taste the creamy offering.

At the first touch of his tongue, the scrape of his teeth, her legs nearly gave out. Her body went liquid with need. He drew her into the moist heat of his mouth, setting both of them on fire.

Savannah's fingers tangled in his thick, midnight-black hair with every intention of jerking his head back, but flames were licking along her skin, igniting a fire deep within her.

Just once, taste the forbidden. Just once.

It was a measure of her pleasure that she didn't know if it was his thought or hers tempting her.

His hand skimmed down her stomach, found the zipper of her jeans. Around her, colors whirled and danced, the air crackled, the earth shifted beneath her feet. A moan of despair, of desire, escaped her throat. The sound of their hearts, the rush of their blood, was music in her ears. It called to something wild in her. The scent of him, masculine and aroused, the scent of his blood, brought hunger, sharp and compelling.

"No! I won't do this!" Savannah, desperate to escape his black-magic spell, flung herself away. She wanted him more than anything, more than her own soul, and the intensity of her need frightened her to death.

Gregori's arms trapped her so that they fell together, floated to the floor, his large body covering hers. Her head was pinned beneath his chest, the scent of his blood strong, his pulse beating, beating at her resistance. His hands hooked in the waistband of her jeans and peeled them from her body with ease, taking with them the lacy scrap that passed for underwear. His hands stroked the length of her, committing every hollow and curve to memory, leaving fire in their wake.

Savannah found his skin hot, salty beneath her lips. Her tongue found his pulse and stroked a caress. His body shuddered with pleasure; his arms tightened into steel bands around her. His breath was warm against her neck, her ear. "Take from me what you need, Savannah," he whispered softly, a black-velvet seduction. "I offer freely as I did in the past Remember how I tasted?" It was pure temptation, the devil enticing her.

Remember?

He breathed the word into her mind.

Savannah closed her eyes. The scent of blood was overpowering, calling to her, whispering a spell. She was so weak. To feed just once and be strong again... It might last for a long time. It would be so easy to let herself taste him. Her body clenched at the thought of it, every instinct crying out for survival.

His hand slid over her thigh, sending a shiver racing through her bloodstream. Her tongue flicked out again, stroked, lingered. Gregori's fingers found moist heat, caressed, lingered. Her teeth grazed his skin, then nipped. He controlled the urge to pin her hips and possess her. She was only half lost, her mind confused, hunger raging and her body burning with need. He fed that heat, his fingers delving deeper, exploring, feeling her muscles clench, her hips thrusting against him, seeking relief.

Hunger. He thought it, built it, allowed it to consume him. His body was in pain, in need, hot and hard and hurting. Her mind sought his, merging until it was impossible to separate one from the other.

Hunger. Remember. The taste. Just one more time, the taste of him.

She couldn't think clearly. There was so much need, so much hunger. A part of her could feel his bare skin hot against hers, his body aggressively male, but mostly she was drawn to that steady, strong heartbeat Gregori's fingers delved deep into her heat, and flames leapt in response - red fire, white heat, blue lightning. Her will dissolved, and her teeth sank deep. Gregori cried out hoarsely, exploding with pleasure so intense it was ecstasy. It was pure eroticism, her mouth moving, feeding, taking his life-force into her body. He had waited so long. His mind clouded, became a red haze of piercing need, and he pinned her slender hips with bruising force, holding her still for his invasion.

She was a sheath of velvet fire, and he buried himself in her as deeply as he could, ripping past her thin barrier of protection, burning, needing, determined to make her his for all eternity. Her shocked cry of pain was lost against his chest, muffled beneath him. She was so small, so tight and fiery, he was lost in pure sensation. Feeling. Pure feeling. Real feeling. No fantasy he had made up to endure the darkness, the loneliness, but true feeling. The sweet, coppery smell of blood was overwhelming, calling to him with relentless seduction. The smell of her blood, mingled with their combined scents, fed his red haze, sent him careening out of control, and triggered his every predatory, aggressive, bestial instinct.

Savannah automatically closed the wound in his chest with a flick of her tongue, already struggling wildly. He was hurting her with his bruising strength, his body stretching hers, tearing through her innocence so brutally. His hands were everywhere, his teeth following. Low, warning growls rumbled in his throat as she fought him.

Gregori lifted his head, eyes glowing red, dangerous, out of control, no longer human, lost at the edge of madness. The more Savannah fought, the more brutal he became, a wild animal seeking domination, seeking his own pleasure.

White-hot pain sliced through her as his teeth pierced the vulnerable swell of her breast. She cried out a protest, but he held her down easily beneath the weight of his body, kept her pinned and vulnerable while he took his pleasure. As her blood flowed into him, his body buried itself in hers over and over, driving deeper and harder.

Hot blood poured into his mouth. He had never known such a taste, could not possibly get enough. It flowed into his body like nectar, burning yet soothing. He had never felt ecstasy such as her body provided. He wanted it to last forever. Power swept through him, total rapture. His body was wild, seeking more, ever more, to match the frenzied feeding of his mouth.

Gregori no longer existed; the raging animal in his place was draining Savannah of her life's blood, using her body without the care of a tender lifemate. Savannah accepted her oncoming death but worried for her father, who would be pitted against this, the most cunning, the strongest of all Carpathians.

She felt a faint stirring in her mind - not sentences but impressions. Gregori was fighting his way back from madness to help her, his only thought now for her. He felt deep sorrow that he had waited too long and put her in such danger from him.

Kill me, ch§ڲie.

When this thing taking you is done, it will be weak, lazy, sated. Kill it then. I will do my best to aid you in this.

Guilt washed over her. Gregori had sentenced himself to five years of hell to give her the freedom she had so desired. During that time he had walked very close to madness, yet he had held on - for her. Their minds were merged, and she could touch the suffering he had endured on her behalf. Now he was willing to die to save her. Savannah closed her eyes and willed her body to relax, to become soft and accepting.

Gregori.

He thought his soul was lost, that he had become a true vampire with no care for right or wrong. A wild beast with no creed, with enormous power, dangerous beyond belief. He had held out so long against the crushing black emptiness, yet now he was lost, trapped in a vortex of violence and passion, power and pleasure. She had brought him to this evil end. Her fears, her youth, were responsible for reducing his greatness to mindless savagery.

Savannah's fingers found the nape of his neck, and she forced her own pain from her mind, trying not to feel the brutal treatment he was subjecting her to.

Gregori.

The Dark One. Wild. Lawless. Always alone. Never touched, completely isolated. Feared. No Carpathian was comfortable in his presence, yet he had healed many of their race, hunted their assassins, carried out justice when it was the harshest of duties, to keep their people safe.

Who would care now for this wild beast? Who would feel gratitude for what he had sacrificed for them all? Who would ever attempt to get close enough to reach the man within? Compassion welled up in Savannah, and something else she dared not examine too closely. She could not allow such a fate to befall so great a Carpathian. She would not allow it. Her determination was beyond anything she had ever felt.

Her hands stroked his wild mane of hair and cradled his head to her breast, giving herself up to him freely, her thoughts calm in the eye of the storm, offering him her life without reservation.

Take freely, Gregori. My life for your life.

It was the least she could do, no less than he had done for her, for all of their race.

I am here for you, Gregori. I offer what you need freely.

She meant it. She would not allow him to become the undead. She would not give him up to that soulless world.

Savannah!

He seemed a little stronger, or perhaps she simply hoped the man was gaining on the beast.

You must survive. Kill me.

His voice was a fierce, pleading growl in her head.

Her own mind responded.

Feel me, my body joining with yours. I belong to you and you to me. Feel me with you. Reach for me. I will not let you go. Wherever you are, I am with you. Where you go, I follow. I offer my life freely for yours. You cannot take what is given to you. You have committed no wrong in taking.

His hips continued to surge into her, but with more care, as if he was slowly returning to awareness. Encouraged, Savannah moved her body to meet his, matching his furious rhythm, his heart, his lungs, until they were in perfect synchronization. One body, one heart, one mind. She tried to slow them down, to coax his body to the slower, more gentle rhythm of hers.

Savannah.

Her name was a plea this time, still far away but more determined. The mouth working so ferociously at her breast gentled.

Save yourself.

Gregori was fighting for her as she was fighting for him.

There is only us.

She was calm now, her hands moving soothingly over the taut, rigid muscles of his back.

No me, no you.

She was weak, drained, a strange lethargy overtaking her.

Only us.

Had her voice slurred a bit?

I will not leave you, nor will I allow the darkness to take you from me.

Savannah lay beneath him, almost in a dream world. Suddenly, as if sensing she was slipping away from him, the beast raised its head, its eyes red, silver, red, silver, glaring at her, at once feral, then tender. Warm blood trickled down the slope of her breast. She blinked to bring him back into focus. His body was shuddering, spilling his seed deep within her. A long stroke of his tongue closed the wound at her breast and followed the drops of blood to her stomach.

I claim you as my lifemate.

The words were husky in her mind. His voice followed, hoarse, as if the terrible conflict for his soul had taken its toll. "I belong to you. I offer my life for you." The voice became stronger, more Gregori's, a beautiful velvet caress, as he recited the ancient Carpathian vows that would link them for eternity. "I give you my protection, my allegiance, my heart, my soul, and my body. I take into my keeping the same that is yours." He caught the back of her head in his palm, slashed a wound near his throat, and pressed her mouth to the gash. She was weak, almost too weak to drink even under his compulsion.

Drink, mon amour, for both our lives.

He forced her obedience without a qualm. Without his blood, she would not survive the hour. Yet all that she had suffered to save him would be for nothing. Because without her he would have no reason or will to survive.

He stroked her hair tenderly, his body moving gently in hers. The ritual had to be completed to prevent a repeat of this terrible danger to her. He needed her residing in him, anchoring his darkness with her light. It would be a long road back, but she was strong, dragging him from the black emptiness of his bestial nature with her trust. He finished the vows softly. "Your life, happiness, and welfare will be placed above my own. You are my lifemate, bound to me for all eternity and always in my care."

His body could feel the ecstasy of the combination of her feeding and the heated velvet of her feminine sheath. He pushed down the pleasure, knowing she was not feeling what he was. The moment he was certain she had enough blood for survival, he allowed himself a second release.

Her head lolled back on her fragile neck, like a flower on a stem. She was so pale, her skin looked nearly translucent. Gregori took her hand and brought it to his mouth, his silver eyes moving over her face, noting shadows and hollows that had not been there before. As he looked at her, something inside him went soft, tender.

He eased himself from her body, glanced down at her slender form, and went perfectly still, shocked, horrified, nearly disbelieving. Bruises, scratches, and bite marks marred her skin. Blood and seed trickled down her leg, and he sought inside himself to remember his taking of her innocence.

A sound, raw and wounded, tore at his throat. How could he have done such a brutal, unforgivable thing? How could there ever be forgiveness? Savannah had managed to guide him back from the black void of the damned. Everything he knew, everything he believed, told him this was a miracle. But she had paid a terrible price.

Gregori carried her limp body to the steaming bath, thankful for the hot water that would help ease her soreness until he could get her into a deep, rejuvenating sleep. In their homeland, the rich soil would have welcomed her, helped mend her. Here, in this strange land, there was only Gregori and his healing powers. He could force her to sleep until her injuries were completely healed. He could take away every memory of his brutality, implant a beautiful tale of their lovemaking. Yet he had told her he would never have untruth between them, and if he changed her memory, their entire relationship from that day forward would become just that - an untruth.

Savannah was lying so still, pale and helpless. Gregori stroked back her ebony hair, his heart in so much pain that it felt as if a hand was squeezing it, ripping it from his chest. The plain truth was, the lie would be for himself, and he didn't deserve it. Her courage had brought him back. If she could face the demon in him, he could do no less.

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