Authors: Christine Feehan
She hugged his reassurance to her. “Tell me about Ferro. What’s he like?”
For the first time, Isai hesitated and at the same time, pulled out of her mind. It was abrupt, so she felt his exit. It was impossible to reach him
when he didn’t want her inside. For a moment she was hurt, which she knew was silly. She really did have insecurities if she couldn’t stand not being alone even for a few minutes.
“Ferro was the oldest among us,” Isai said with obvious reluctance. “He is tall, taller even than I am. His shoulders—” He broke off, shaking his head. “Very wide. His eyes are very unusual, the color of iron and yet there are rusty spots within the iron so that his eyes pierce right through you. He always has an aura of danger clinging to him. He is not a man to cross. He was the most respected among us, and yet also the one we all were careful to watch. It is good that he has a lifemate. She will ensure that he cannot turn.”
Julija was silent, trying to process how she felt about what Isai had told her. Her friend was very vulnerable. On the other hand, she would need a very tough and dangerous man in order to keep Sergey away from her. Everyone knew the vampire would do anything to get his prisoner back. Elisabeta’s lifemate would have to be extremely powerful to match a vampire with splinters of the high mage embedded in him.
“I’m afraid for her.”
“That is natural, Julija,” Isai surprised her by saying. “You are her friend. You want what is best for her. Ferro will be best for her.”
She had closed her eyes and pressed back against him. “You are always so certain.”
“They are lifemates,” he said complacently.
“Yes,” she admitted, “but the course of both their lives changed, which means they have been altered. If the soul was split in half at birth and she has been born more than once, or at least one other time so lived other life cycles, and this time Sergey managed to kidnap and keep her, holding her prisoner for centuries, her life has to be shaped by that. She’s different. He’s different as well. Whatever they were supposed to be, they no longer are.”
He pressed kisses along her bare shoulder, sending shivers through her body. “That is one way to look at it and I can see how it would cause you to worry, but it is truly for nothing, Julija. Her soul calls to his. His soul calls to hers. Each will be what the other needs.”
Julija rubbed her fingers along his thigh, feeling the casual strength running beneath the surface—strength he took for granted. He believed deeply in the connection between lifemates. She wanted to believe. Certainly, Isai was an unexpected gift.
“I like that,” he teased.
“You would get back into my mind just at the perfect time.” She turned her head to give him a mock glare. It was strange. She was so used to him that she hadn’t felt his presence. “I want to have that light of a touch.”
“You will. It just takes a little practice,” he explained. “Just like flying or shifting.”
“I love flying,” she said. “I used to think, at night, I would fly away in my dreams. If I left my bedroom window open, I could feel the night air surrounding me and ruffling my hair. Whenever I woke, I was always in my bed.”
His arms tightened around her. “That kind of thing is very dangerous, Julija. When you fly, you need to know what you are doing at all times. It is called sleep flying. We are never allowed to do such a thing.”
“I had no idea it was real, not until I started coming home with bumps, bruises and scrapes.” She forced herself to sit up. Staring across at the pool of water, she decided hot would be good. She tried waving her hand toward the pool and thinking of the perfect temperature, but no steam arose. Exasperated, she sketched a quick pattern in the air and chanted.
Energy to molecules,
Liquid to steam,
Bring forth your heat,
To meet my need.
“If you persist in cheating, you will never learn.” Isai waved his hand toward the water, and at once it cooled.
She leapt up, hands on hips. “You do not want to start a war with me.”
Energy to molecules,
Liquid to steam,
Bring forth your heat,
To meet my need.
She waved toward the small basin of water and started across the room toward it.
“I would very much like to see what would happen if I did start a war,” he said and waved his hand toward the pool. Even the room’s temperature lowered.
“Isai,” she warned. “I need to soak in hot water. You do not want me sore.”
“If you get sore, I will heal you.”
He had that same complacent tone in his voice. Mild. Nothing annoyed him. She put her hands on her hips and tossed her head back, hoping she could carry off the look even though she wasn’t wearing a single stitch.
“I won’t have a need to be healed if I can soak in hot water. Do not touch my bathwater.” She pointed toward the basin and sent her spell straight to it.
She’d taken three steps and the water cooled, cooling the air around the pool as well. She swung around and pointed over his head.
Warm air rise, bringing forth your clouds,
Combine your cold with air’s curling shroud.
Pollen, atmosphere now collide,
Dump your droplets down his spine.
The water poured over his head and shoulders. She spun around and ran to the pool, murmuring her spell for hot water. At once steam rose off the surface. She dove over the thick rock that made up the wall around it.
An arm curved around her waist before she hit the water, and she was pulled up against a hard male body. They both hit the surface and went
under, the hot water closing over their heads. She was trying not to laugh and lost half of her air, but it didn’t matter because they both surfaced immediately.
“Rain?” he asked, laughing.
She loved his laughter. The sound. That expression on his face. The way his eyes lit up. His mouth curved. She could get caught there, mesmerized just by that look on his face. Without thinking, Julija flung her arms around his neck and, lifting her face to his, kissed him. Hard. Meaning it. Pouring herself and her feelings for him into that kiss.
The moment her arms went around his neck and her fingers locked behind the nape of his neck, Isai wrapped his arms around her and pulled her body tight into his. She was lost all over again, kissing him over and over until she couldn’t think. Some time passed before she ever got the soaking in the hot water she craved, but she didn’t mind in the least.
The night was breathtaking, or maybe it was the fact that he had his woman with him to share it. Isai had never seen the stars so bright, or the moon so beckoning. The small lake was directly below the half ring of mountains. A large meadow crept up to the water’s edge on one side.
This was the back country and fewer campers and hikers made their way there, although day ramblers on horseback often used the trails around the lake and up into the mountains. To the east of them was a small camper’s resort where a few trekkers stayed, happy to be away from the more popular tourist sites.
Julija walked along the edge of the ledge, making him a little nervous. She could fly and had done so from the sanctuary of their cave, to this spot, but she still thought in terms of building an illusion. She was incredibly fast at it, but a second or two was all it took to be badly injured or killed. He found he watched her more than he should as she moved along the edge.
She looked beautiful with the stars as her backdrop. She walked with fluid grace, occasionally crouching low to pet Belle or Phaedra as both
females pressed close to her. Blue and Comet were definitely on guard. The males stayed watchful, pacing along the top of the cliff, eyes and senses tuned for any danger.
Phantom and Sable, the two smaller cats, stood very still, as if expecting a reprimand, or an angry recrimination. They pressed together but watched everyone. Isai wasn’t certain what to think of them. These were two cats Julija had risked her brothers’ wrath for when she sneaked into the shed they used as a makeshift lab to house the shadow cats. She’d taken care of their wounds and given them blood. Still, of all of the cats, they appeared the most nervous and the most suspicious.
Isai sighed. He couldn’t afford any traitors in their midst. Phantom had attacked Vasile, and clearly detested him, but Isai still had a very bad feeling in the pit of his belly. Julija turned her head and smiled at him as she slowly stood, keeping one hand on Phaedra’s head, her fingers deep in the dark fur.
“They’ll come around, Isai. They were horribly tortured. They haven’t been shown kindness unless it was to trick them. Remember, my brothers practically worship Barnabas and employed his methods of torture and fear on the cats, at first being nice and then hurting them. It is very hard to accept kindness for what it is when you are certain you’ll be betrayed in the end.”
He knew she was speaking from experience. She was reading his thoughts anyway, he might as well have the discussion. “Your brothers, particularly Vasile, were very clever. They separated the cats and used each as a threat against the other, but what if they expected you to rescue them? It would be something you would do, Julija, and they knew that.”
She nodded and lifted her face to the wind. It tugged at her clothing, the jeans and T-shirt she wore beneath her puffy vest. He told her he wanted her practicing regulating her body temperature, but she had donned the vest saying she was going without a jacket just for him and it was very cold.
“Yes, they would know,” she agreed. “Blue doesn’t believe they’re a threat or he wouldn’t let them near either of us.”
He looked at the two smaller cats. They were younger than Belle and
Blue. “Aren’t Phaedra and Comet the oldest and parents of Sable and Phantom?” When she nodded her head, he continued. “They didn’t seem to acknowledge the relationship at all.”
“They weren’t born like other cats, Isai,” she reminded. “They were made in a little dish. It wasn’t like Phaedra fed them. They were given mixtures of blood and milk. They were to be shadows more than alive.”
“Some things are much easier without emotion.”
She came to him, her eyes on his face, and he read the compassion for him. The understanding. Julija was in his mind and she knew the intelligent thing to do was destroy the two small cats. The animals were in bad shape and needed care. Isai had spent time working on healing them, but they were a question mark and because both were extremely dangerous, not only to Julija and Isai, but any human, it would be smarter to destroy them.
She put her hand on his arm, and leaned into him, letting him take her weight for a few moments. “I know this is a difficult decision. We need to give them a chance. Blue and Comet will watch them. Both are extremely fast. If either of the little ones tries to attack us, they’ll stop them. If we win them over completely, the pair will be as loyal as Blue, Belle, Phaedra and Comet, or even more so. Please, let’s give them a chance.”
She wasn’t dictating to him, putting him in a position of making her angry. She was indicating her preference, but still giving support to his decision. He weighed the dangers. If it was only him, he wouldn’t have hesitated, but he had Julija to protect.
He reached out to the two big male cats.
Watch the young ones at all times. Talk with them. Both are still nervous around us. If they are shadowed by one of the mages, or programmed to harm us, I need to know.
He was met with intelligence. Both males turned their heads slowly to look at the smaller cats, taking them in as they huddled together just a little apart from the group. They would definitely be watchful now.
“The lake is beautiful, isn’t it?” Julija said. “So peaceful. One would never know that somewhere close is a book of such vile darkness that the spells inside could wipe out entire species, including humans.”
“Do you feel it close?” He looked down at her. She was facing the lake again, as if drawn to it. He wasn’t certain if she was drawn by its beauty or something far more sinister.
“I feel that Iulian was here. He sat at the water’s edge for a long time. Several nights. In the same place.” Her voice softened, and her hand rubbed up and down his arm. Her eyes held compassion. “He’s no longer alive, Isai.”
He had known that. He should have felt sorrow for his lost brother. He’d never known him, but he’d always hoped he was still somewhere in the world. Isai was now the last of his line. Perhaps there was sorrow, but no grieving. There wouldn’t be that. His brother had gone honorably from the world when he missed his chance with his lifemate. He hadn’t succumbed to darkness or temptation as so many others had.
Something came close to him and he glanced down to see Phantom taking tentative steps toward him. The moment he looked down, the cat whirled around and raced back to the female.
“He was trying to comfort you. He was drawn to you because you felt overwhelming sadness.”
“I didn’t,” he denied.
Julija frowned. “You really don’t acknowledge your emotions, Isai. I felt sadness pouring off of you. It is strange that you can’t.”
“I acknowledged that he met an honorable death,” he admitted, “but I didn’t feel as if I was grief-stricken. I acknowledge that I love you. I think you should be able to feel that pouring off me rather than sadness.”
She smiled, and that soft, sweet smile contained love—enveloped him in the emotion. He slid his palm around the nape of her neck. “I would much rather feel what I’m feeling at this moment, my little mage.”
“You often call me that. Sometimes in your language and sometimes in mine.”
“I never want either of us to forget that part of you. Being mage is extraordinary, something to be proud of. Just as Carpathians have those who turn vampire, mages have to worry that power corrupts, but for the most part, they are good people with astonishing gifts.”
Her lashes fluttered, and she went up on her toes to press kisses along
his jaw. “Thank you. I don’t come from the best family. It seems my relatives are very interested in power.”
“That makes you all the more special.” He turned back to survey the campsites near the lake. There was the one with the two friends he’d already taken blood from. Just beyond the lake in a secluded area of trees and rock was one lone tent. No campfire. He hadn’t seen anyone come or go from that site. He nodded toward it now. “I do not feel any danger from the camper, but there hasn’t been any activity. I haven’t seen the occupant.”
She turned toward the direction he indicated and stayed silent for a moment. “I feel both men, Isai, but there is no information whatsoever coming from that other area. None. That bothers me.”
He was immeasurably pleased with her. She hadn’t given it a cursory glance and dismissed it. She’d actually allowed her senses to flair out and she’d studied it. There should have been something there. Humans didn’t cover their tracks, not the way Carpathians, vampires or mages often did. Of course, it might mean the tent was set up and whoever occupied it wasn’t there at the moment.
Julija caught his thought. “No, it’s more than that. Someone’s there. Waiting.”
“We shouldn’t keep them waiting long.”
Her eyelashes fluttered again, drawing his attention. He realized she did that when something made her nervous. “It’s a trap of some kind, Isai, and whoever it is, is targeting you. They know you’re Carpathian and they are hoping to lure you in. It isn’t bad odds that you would choose the lone camper versus the site with two men in it. They couldn’t know you would be trying to feed six cats as well as your . . . er . . . person.”
He burst out laughing. “Person? You are my
? Lifemate. Woman. Lover. I can think of several things to call you, but
would not have been among them.”
“You’re not all that funny,” Julija declared in a snippy tone, but she started laughing as well. “Okay, you might be. It was rather silly. I started to say ‘lifemate,’ but the word is so foreign to me. I never thought I’d really be someone’s lifemate.”
“Why? You knew you were. You hid your voice.”
She ducked her head to inspect the toe of her hiking shoes. “When I read about it, the concept seemed so beautiful. I made the mistake of telling Barnabas. I told him a lot of things I shouldn’t have. I’m still angry with myself for being so naïve. He taught classes on torture. He couched it in medieval terms, but I should have seen right through that. Sex and pain to bind someone to you? He was a brilliant instructor, mesmerizing. His voice could charm the birds out of the trees. He slept with several of his female students in other classes.”
“But not you. You he singled out as special. He became your friend.”
She nodded and stepped away from him, twisting her fingers together. “Yes. For weeks. I was comfortable with him, and I let my guard down. It wasn’t very smart of me. I’d already learned from being in my family not to trust anyone, but I still did.”
Isai didn’t like her retreating from him. He noticed both Belle and Phaedra pushed close to her. He’d been keeping an eye on the little cats and Sable lifted her head and took three small steps toward Julija as well. She stopped, her gaze darting around and her body almost folding in on itself as if expecting any moment to be struck.
Julija had noticed as well. She dropped to a crouch and held out her hand for the smaller cat to join the circle of females. Isai stilled. Waited. He noticed both Blue and Comet had gone on high alert and he was grateful to the shadow cats.
Sable edged forward and then stopped just out of reach, stretching her neck as far as she could in order to sniff suspiciously at Julija’s hand. Once the cat had scented her, Julija dropped her hand into Phaedra’s fur, stroking little caresses there and ignoring the smaller cat.
“It’s difficult to think about Barnabas. It was a terrible period in my life. Painful both emotionally and physically.”
“Why did he stop?”
She sank back on her heels. “I’m ashamed to tell you, I did actually try to commit suicide. I couldn’t see a way out. My world felt hopeless.”
Isai froze. It was the last thing he expected her to say. “Julija,” he
whispered. “You would have left this world and I would never have known you.”
“I know. I’m sorry. Despair. Hopelessness. It can creep up on you. Devour you. I felt I was utterly worthless. I hated myself and what was happening to me. I couldn’t sleep. It just all became a vicious circle. I couldn’t eat, or feed. I just didn’t see a way out. I felt so alone.”
She ducked her head, so he couldn’t see her face. “When I realized the endless centuries you’d endured, Isai, I was ashamed that I hadn’t handled my trial with more grace.”
“Do not ever say that, Julija,” he decreed. “Not ever again. Depression is very real. I could not feel, so in many ways, I had a huge advantage. I joined the brethren, so I was surrounded by others who believed as I did. I had knowledge of a lifemate and I held on to that belief, that someday I would find you.”
“I came so close to missing out on you,” she whispered and looked up at him.
Sorrow. It was there, and it struck at him. He felt that heavy emotion through her. It seemed to swamp him. Before he could decide whether to hold her or allow the cats to comfort her while they continued the conversation, Sable made up her mind and moved in to press against her. Julija was careful to caress her fur gently, murmuring her gratitude for the caring. She glanced at him triumphantly.
Isai smiled back. “You were afraid Barnabas would trick you and provide a false lifemate for you.”
“He was furious to lose me. My father insisted he leave me alone after the . . . um . . . second time it happened. He didn’t want to lose out on his blood supply.” She tried not to sound bitter.
Isai studied her face. “But Barnabas did not obey that dictate, did he?”
She sighed and sank her fingers into the fur of the littlest cat. It was still fairly sparse. She gently rubbed over the old scars that could still be seen on Sable’s back. “No. He whispered to me at night or when no one was around. Telling me I missed him. I couldn’t live without him and that I would come to him and beg him for more. Only he could give me what I needed.”
He didn’t like the shame or guilt in her voice. “You realize he was weaving a spell.”
“I was too messed up in the beginning. I was terrified he might be right. You have to remember, that spell to make me want sex raged through me.”
“Did you try to counter it?”
“Yes. I honestly don’t know which one of them cast that spell. Anatolie, Crina or Barnabas. One of them did. That was truly the beginning of my downfall.”