Authors: Christine Feehan
“Conversion and the way it works is a well-kept secret,” Isai conceded.
“Is the secret part that it can hurt?”
“You seem a little fixated on pain.”
“Why didn’t you mention that I would be able to keep from hurting when you spanked me? That would have been helpful.” Her voice was drowsy. Sexy drowsy.
He rubbed her bottom, smoothing over the firm flesh and then kneading and massaging. “I think you are fixated on spankings. Perhaps you enjoyed it much more than you let on.”
He felt the fan of her lashes against his thigh and then she turned her head again to look up at him.
“What part of ‘I am a badass mage’ did you not get when I stole magic from Vasile? Because I could turn you into a toad. Or worse. Something with a tail and ears. A donkey. You might be hot as hell right now, but not so much as a donkey.”
“Many people find donkeys quite cute.”
“Who? Who finds donkeys cute?” she demanded.
He kept a straight face. “Little girls all over the world.”
She rolled her eyes and settled back down. He dropped his hand into her hair and began running his fingers through the silky strands. There was no change in her breathing. Her eyes were clear. Sleepy perhaps, but not a single hint of pain. How long did it take before the conversion started? It didn’t make sense that she wasn’t already going through it.
“I would like to check your body.”
“I’m certain you would.” Her tone was very droll.
He laughed softly because he couldn’t help himself. She was too funny, his woman. She was going to teach him fun whether he liked it or not. “I do not understand why the conversion is not taking place.”
“I’m too tired to move, so as long as it doesn’t require me to do anything
differently, go for it.” She wrapped her arms around his thighs and closed her eyes.
Isai didn’t wait. He separated his spirit from his body and immediately entered hers as white-hot energy. He moved through her, examining every organ. There was no warring of bloods. No fight to reshape organs. Her structure was no different than any Carpathian born.
Puzzled, he returned to his body. He caught her arm, studying the mage mark. It was definitely a birthmark. She’d been born of Xavier’s lineage. “Julija, did you ever sleep in the ground?”
She frowned. “No, of course not. How would I breathe?”
“You told me you preferred the night and that you sometimes found you liked lying in the soil. Did the soil ever feel as if it rejuvenated you? Has it ever healed a wound?”
Julija didn’t answer him immediately. As usual, she gave thought to his questions. “It was a very long time ago, but I remember when I was a child and my father would slap or punch me, or Crina. She was the worst when I was little. She would beat me very badly. At the time we lived close to the forest in mountains. We’d already moved to the United States. I used to have this little fort I would hide in. I remember making a shallow depression and lying in it. I always felt soothed and at peace there. I thought it was because they never found me there. But when I went back, I wasn’t as stiff or as sore as I should have been.”
Was it possible for her mage blood and her Carpathian blood to give her both worlds? It seemed as though she was both. She clearly wasn’t undergoing a conversion. She could do anything a Carpathian could do. He had called her that, but only because he knew she was born with the Dragonseeker mark.
“When Sergey’s servants captured you and forced you into those underground tunnels where all the vampires were, did the Dragonseeker mark come to life?” The birthmark of the Dragonseeker—that small dragon—always warned when vampires were close.
She nodded and reached down with two fingers to rub at the little dragon positioned over her left ovary as if guarding the eggs of their
future children. “It glowed red and became so warm it was almost hot. But my mage mark came to life as well.”
That brought him up short. He went very still inside. He had lived centuries. He had seen that mark before, of course. Of course he’d noticed it on her. She had both. The high mage’s birthmark was very distinctive and not all children born of Xavier’s line bore it. Most didn’t. Only the very, very talented ones.
“Your mage mark alerted you to the presence of vampires as well as your Dragonseeker mark?”
“Yes, it always has. The tail of the snake rattles and the scorpion’s tail always pulls up in preparation to sting.”
“You essentially have two warning systems?”
She rubbed at his thigh with her cheek and then tightened her arm around his thighs. “That’s exactly right.”
“Then how in the world did Sergey’s army manage to get their hands on you?”
She was quiet for so long he didn’t think she’d answer him. Finally, she shrugged. “Elisabeta. You may as well know. We have an extremely strong connection. I could feel her pain. This endless, hopeless despair that cut through me like a knife. I couldn’t ignore it. I knew I should have continued after Iulian and the book, but the grief in her was so strong I could barely breathe. I had to do something.”
“You allowed yourself to be captured.”
“Something like that.”
“Exactly like that.”
She didn’t dispute it.
His woman. She sounded ashamed because she had stopped to help another woman, a perfect stranger, in need. Fully mage. Fully Carpathian. Two warning systems when it came to vampires.
“You are worth every single second of those centuries I searched to find you and didn’t,” he had to tell her, because it was the
Isai woke to the familiar sounds of the night. He lay beneath the thin layer of dirt he’d managed to find in the chamber of almost pure granite. The rock surrounding them was solid in spite of the maze of chambers inside the mountain. Often, in caves such as these, there was plenty of fresh soil, usually filled with rich minerals unused for centuries. Not in this case. Dirt was at a premium.
Julija had protested moving from the comfort of the bed to the ground, so he waited until she fell asleep. Her body was exhausted from the hard-fought battle with Vasile. He opened the soil and stared up at the crystal-covered roof above their heads. In the shallow bed of dirt, his lifemate slept beside him. Curled around both of them were the six cats. While the cats and Isai had been totally covered, he hadn’t covered Julija’s face, not wanting to take chances.
He had insisted the shadow cats sleep in the soil as well. They had never done so and all were nervous, so once they complied and came to the bed he’d opened in the ground, he had sent them to sleep much in the way he had his woman. The cats wouldn’t mind. Looking them over, he could see the minerals in the soil had done their job, already working to
repair the damage done to the abused animals. His woman, on the other hand . . .
Isai smiled to himself and rose, calling to Blue to wake. The cat responded immediately, lifting his head, immediately nuzzling Belle and then touching each of the other cats with his nose before touching Julija, as if assuring himself they were all alive. Isai dropped a hand on his neck, fingers moving in the thick fur.
“I need you to watch over them all while I feed. When I return I’ll take care of Julija, you and the cats. I believe there are campers around the lake I can visit.”
Blue’s intelligent gaze remained on his face, those amber eyes meeting his without flinching. They thought alike, two generals ready to go into battle when needed.
“Have you been around Barnabas?” He couldn’t help but be curious about the man Julija was so frightened of. She was afraid of her father and stepmother, but she was terrified of Barnabas. Isai couldn’t blame her, not after the stories she’d told about the man and what he’d done to her. Not after he’d been in her head and actually seen what he’d done.
Blue shuddered, his back arching, his claws suddenly digging into the ground.
He is very bad. Worse than the others.
It took a moment for Isai to convert the images Blue sent to him into words. The cats could only use actual images to convey what they meant, but Blue was adept at it and his opinion only confirmed what Isai had already thought possible. This was a man who could deceive mages. Deceive a woman as powerful as Julija. If he could deceive her with his intent, was it possible he was also misleading Anatolie about his loyalty?
“Did you see him with Julija?”
He is very cruel. He liked hurting her and will not give her up. He is waiting. Biding his time. Waiting.
Blue’s impressions were very clear. He emphasized that Barnabas was the type of man who had the patience to carry out a long-term plan. It could take weeks. Months. Years. Centuries.
I watched him, and he watched her. When she didn’t know, he watched her.
Isai glanced down at Julija’s sleeping figure. She was curled up in a
little ball. He realized she tended to sleep that way. Each time he’d seen her on the bed, she’d pulled her knees into her chest and made herself very small. Hiding. From Barnabas? Had she learned to hide from his cruelty? He taught how to use pain and sexual pleasure combined to get a victim to do anything for their master. He’d tried to conquer Julija and hadn’t succeeded. Had that been a blow to his pride?
Isai wanted to hunt him, but there was no clear direction. He had no idea if Barnabas was even in the Sierras. If Barnabas was aware that Xavier’s book was there, Isai was certain he would come.
“Keep her safe, Blue.”
The big cat met his eyes with calm determination. Complete loyalty. That humbled Isai. He hadn’t done much to give the shadow cat reason to give him allegiance.
Isai left them, exiting the cave quickly, taking the form of an owl. Wings spread wide, he flew across the valleys toward the lake. The night had turned cold, but the owl didn’t feel it as it silently made its way to the wide expanse of deep blue. From deep within the owl’s body, he scanned everything below him, looking specifically for any sign or feel of his brother.
Sadly, though he had met Iulian, he had no real memory of him. They shared the same parents, but were so many years apart, Isai had already been gone, out hunting vampires by the time Iulian was born. He had traveled extensively and never returned to his home village, although they’d encountered each other a couple of times. He should have gone back. He had no idea what had happened to those he’d grown up with, or even if any of them remained. In his later years, he’d had his brethren in the monastery, but prior to that he’d been alone.
Now he had his lifemate as well as six shadow cats to look after. The weight of that settled on his shoulders and fit perfectly. He liked the idea of the responsibility. Of the cats being part of their family. They were independent thinkers. He could see that in Blue, but they were also intensely loyal creatures. Anatolie had never learned that fear didn’t give one loyalty and more than anything, fidelity was priceless.
The world around him seemed to glitter and shimmer in the crisp
night air. The water seemed bluer than ever. Deep, a true medium blue, the color dazzling even in the growing darkness of the night. He saw several tents in the distance, none close to another. Just single camps, most likely weekend hikers. He took his time dropping from the sky to inspect the nearest site from a tall pine tree.
The owl folded its wings and sat silently, listening to the night. Mice scurried in fallen leaves. A snake made its way to a rock and slithered beneath it for warmth in the cold air. Sierra garter snakes were often found around the lakes or rivers, even in the higher altitudes. He watched it carefully until it fully disappeared beneath the rock.
The two men camping talked quietly, occasionally bursting into laughter. They appeared genuine campers. Friends. Two men hiking the trail together, their intention to end their journey at Half Dome. Both appeared to be healthy. He touched their minds cautiously. If the two men were mage illusions and his touch was detected, it would remove his advantage. Both seemed to be what they appeared.
He flew over them once more, paying attention to the camp itself and then the closer surroundings, working his way outward in an ever-widening circle. This time he looked for evidence of vampires. His little mage thought mostly in terms of fighting off her family, keeping them away from finding the book. He thought in terms of Sergey Malinov.
The Malinov family had consisted of five very lethal boys and one girl. The entire family was of above average intelligence and highly skilled as warriors. The girl, Ivory, had been left for dead by vampires, betrayed by Draven, the prince’s son, centuries earlier. The five brothers, all seekers of power, had used her disappearance as an excuse to give up their souls and become vampire.
Sergey had worked closely with Xavier, the high mage. Although the high mage had been slain, he had left behind pieces of himself. Those pieces resided in Sergey, which meant the vampire had access to all knowledge Xavier had—a very dangerous combination—especially now that the dark spell book was no longer in Mikhail’s possession.
Sergey would be after the book the moment he knew it was close. Would it call to him? Isai had no idea whether it would or not, and there
was no one to ask. He could reach other Carpathians, particularly the brotherhood of the monastery, over long distances, but not like the connection Julija and Elisabeta seemed to share.
Certain that the two campers were exactly what they appeared, he spiraled down until he was among boulders. He shifted and strode out, backpack on his back, looking the epitome of the lone hiker.
One of the men looked up and gave a friendly wave. “Come on into the camp. We have fresh coffee.”
Isai tried a smile. His was fairly rusty, but since he’d been around Julija, he’d found he could not only smile, but wanted to laugh. “Thanks. That sounds good.” He walked right into their camp, shrugging out of his backpack. “I have been on the trail since early morning.” At the last minute he remembered he should be using contractions instead of the more formal-sounding way he normally talked. Neither seemed to notice. “You’re the first I’ve run into in a day or so.”
“Really? What trail are you hiking?” The one pouring the coffee looked up. “We were just saying the place seems overrun this year. We went to school together and meet up every year to hike the trails.”
“I live on the east coast,” the blond said. “Josh lives on the west coast. We keep in touch, but this is what we do to catch up with each other’s life. We were just saying we’re getting too old for this.”
Both were telling the truth. Isai didn’t wait any longer. Waving his hand, he stopped both men from moving or speaking. He didn’t want either to be afraid or able to remember him. The less contact they had with him the easier it would be to erase every vestige of the memory from them. If Sergey detected even a small imprint of him, he would torture the two men trying to extract what they would never be able to give him. For all he knew, Anatolie or Barnabas would do the same. He took their blood, removed every memory of himself and left them both lying on their sleeping bags inside their tents recovering.
Coming back to the cave, he again took his time, studying the surrounding area carefully, looking for signs of intruders. He examined the battlefield. Other than a little scarring from the lightning, there was no real evidence of a life-and-death clash between mage and Carpathian.
Julija. Why hadn’t she undergone the conversion? She should have. Did that mean she was already fully Carpathian and could sleep beneath the ground? He needed to find out. Could she escape the paralysis of his kind with her mage blood? Could she walk in the sunlight without fear? If he lay out in the sun, it would kill him.
He knew he would take her blood whenever he could. The taste of her was addictive to him. Would her mage blood, over time, allow him the freedoms it allowed her? All good questions with no answer. He would have to be patient and allow those answers to come to him as time unfolded.
The surrounding landscape appeared untouched, and he slipped through the narrow crack. Blue was waiting at the entrance to the chamber where his lifemate slept. The cat greeted him, amber eyes fixed on his face. The steady, focused stare could have been disconcerting, but Isai liked the cat more for his ability to concentrate his attention where it was needed.
“Everything all right?”
The cat nodded and watched him as he carefully woke the other cats one by one and fed them. Six cats were quite a lot. He would welcome Julija’s help in caring for the animals, but not this night. When he had fed them all and reinforced the growing bond between them with pets, scratches and murmurs of assurance, he sent them all to the chamber closest to the exit. He wanted to be alone with his woman.
Isai carried Julija to the bed, removing soil and freshening her skin and hair in the way he knew she preferred before whispering the command to wake. Already, heat moved through his body. Just looking down into her face sent fire rushing through him like a freight train. He hadn’t known such an intensity of emotions existed.
“Good evening, my little mage,” he greeted when her lashes lifted, and he found himself looking into the dark chocolate of her eyes.
Her smile took his breath. It lit her entire face and brought something even more beautiful to her eyes. The beginnings of affection? Was that what he was seeing there? He bent his head and took her mouth because there was no waiting.
He thought that he might devour her. The intent was there in his mind, but when his lips touched hers, it was to gently coax her. A soft brush to tempt her. Back and forth. He savored the way she felt, so soft, so completely his. All for him. His tongue made a little foray along the seam of her lips, enticing her to part them for him.
There was no demand. He didn’t want to take from her. He wanted her to give to him. To share the need that burned through him hot and wild. Her taste was there already, teasing every one of his senses. Binding him closer to her. The tip of her tongue touched his tentatively and then she parted her lips.
Isai dragged her closer and settled his mouth over hers, his tongue sweeping inside. At once her taste burst through him like he imagined champagne bubbles would. He felt as if he’d touched a match to a stick of dynamite, and they simply exploded together. Rockets went off. It was silly, but true. He would never get enough of kissing her.
The earth trembled and then seemed to stand still as he explored her mouth, claiming every inch for himself. His veins turned to slow-moving magma, a potent combination of fire and passion. Tiny flames seemed to lick over his skin. Her mouth was scorching hot.
Julija’s arms crept around his neck as he pressed her back onto the mattress, letting her take most of his weight. Her body was soft, pliant, giving, her breasts pressing into his chest.
She entered his mind slowly, a soft, sweet, very feminine heat, moving slowly down the walls of his mind, filling every dark or lonely place with . . . her.
Good morning, my amazing lifemate.
Her voice, a whisper of sound, stroked caresses intimately into his mind. His entire body reacted to that sound. To the feel of her. To the intimacy of sharing his mind with her while her mouth moved under his.
Her mouth was hot. Searing him from the inside out. Her hand wandered down his back, the pads of her fingers stroking fire over the vows he had etched into his body—vows to her.
For her. She traced the ancient promise over and over. Each stroke of her finger across those raised lines added to the molten fire burning through his veins.
Isai found himself acutely aware of her. Every nerve ending in his body had sprung to life. He kissed her over and over and then kissed his way down her throat to the swell of her breasts. Her skin was incredibly soft. There was a melting sensation to it, as if, when he put his mouth to that wide expanse of skin, the heat became so intense, he sank into her beauty.