Dark Legend (Dark #8)

Chapter 13


Francesca was screaming, although no sound emerged from her throat. Gabriel was engaged in a terrible battle with three ferocious enemies, his very life at stake. She closed herself off from him immediately, not willing to take the chance of distracting him from his duty. He could not help her.

"What the hell is going on?" Brice muttered, his voice strangled in his throat. He was terrified, certain someone had slipped him a hallucinogenic. This could not be reality, not with monsters fighting, demons turning into wolves, and winged gargoyles coming to life.

Automatically Francesca reached out to soothe him, her fingers settling lightly around his wrist so she could manipulate his mind. Her voice was low and compelling, the compulsion embedding itself deep within his brain. She might not be able to save Brice's life, but she could make the dying easier. He would never feel the teeth in his throat, ripping and tearing while the monster gulped fresh blood.

With her head held high, she faced the creature, her eyes blazing defiance, her soft mouth set with distaste. "How dare you come to me in such a way?" she said softly. "You are well aware such things are against the laws of our people."

The vampire's smile was a macabre parody. "Stand aside, healer, allow me to dine this night."

Francesca retained her light hold on Brice, kept her body positioned slightly in front of his. The enemy was calling to him, the command floating in the air, but she had successfully cut Brice off from the rest of the world. His head was down like a small child's, innocent of the things happening around him. "I will not. Go away from this place. You do not belong here."

The vampire hissed horribly, spittle spraying into the air between them. "Take care, woman, the hunter is otherwise occupied. He will not rescue you this night. I would not want to see harm come to you, but if you do not place yourself in my care, it will be necessary to force your compliance."

"You take care, evil one. I am no rank fledging to be forced into anything. I have no intention of going anywhere with you," Francesca said quietly. She pressed a hand to her stomach protectively. He would force her to accept his tainted blood. It would run in her veins, it would contaminate her child. She screamed again silently, using every ounce of self-control she possessed not to call out to Gabriel. Her only chance was for Gabriel to defeat his enemies and rescue her. But her baby, it would be far too late for her child. Vampires deceived themselves into believing that if they found a woman of the light, their souls might be restored. They sought Carpathian women and human women with psychic abilities in the hope of regaining what they had chosen to lose.

She would have to make the decision to sacrifice Brice to this thing; eventually she would have no other choice. It would be Brice or her daughter. Inadvertently her hand tightened around Brice's wrist as if she could anchor him to her. She kept her mind firmly away from thoughts of Skyler and disciplined herself to keep from calling out frantically to Gabriel. He would come to her as soon as he was able. It was up to her to stall the vampire.

"Do not anger me, woman. I am far more powerful than that one who claims you. An unknown upstart who believes he is a hunter. I know every hunter and this one has no reputation. I am an ancient. Do not think he can save you."

He didn't know who Gabriel was.

She held that realization to her. It was ammunition, might have shock value when she needed it most. His head was beginning to move from side to side, a slow reptilian motion that was curiously hypnotic. Francesca knew better than to focus her attention too closely on the movement. Something about it fascinated her, yet at the same time repelled her. That was warning enough. He blinked his hooded, blood-red eyes just once.

She blurred her image and that of Brice, jerking the human with her as she sped with preternatural speed just as the vampire struck, grabbing for her with his clawed hands. She felt the wind of his strike as he missed her by scant centimeters. The creature shrieked his anger, whirling in a cloud of dirt and twigs, a powerful dust devil towering high, blackening the air around them.

Francesca's heart was pounding in alarm. She had succeeded in angering him. There was no telling what he might do to her now. Overhead the storm clouds were gathering, a dark ominous portent of things to come. Lightning arced from cloud to cloud while all around her the skies darkened until every star was blotted out, until the moon was nothing but a memory.

The vampire hissed again, a deadly sound while the wind whipped at his tattered clothing and raked the lank hair hanging around his skull-like face. "You will be punished for that. I will have this human, and his dying will be long and painful. I will destroy everyone who has ever meant anything to you."

Francesca's heart was pounding frantically and she took a deep breath to calm herself. Inside she felt her daughter leap in fear. Immediately she covered her womb with her two hands as she faced the beast. He was undulating his head again, a rhythmic motion designed to be hypnotic. He attacked again in a blur of motion and Francesca waited until the last possible second to escape, towing Brice with her. Before the vampire could reach her, something inserted itself between them so that the undead was forced to halt his attack. With a howl of rage, he jumped backward.

Between her and the vampire a form shimmered, solidified. For one heart-stopping moment she thought it was Gabriel. The figure was tall, broad-shouldered, with the same long black hair and hauntingly perfect features as her lifemate. His eyes were black and empty, although Francesca could occasionally see the beginnings of small red flames smoldering deep within the empty depths. Power clung to him as if he were power come to life, power personified. He moved with a flowing grace, yet when he stopped, he was as still as the very mountains, a part of the earth itself. He was like Gabriel, yet unlike him. He bowed to her, a courtly, prince-like gesture, before turning his attention to the vampire.

Francesca's breath stilled in her body. This was Lucian. It could be no other. Gabriel's twin and a vampire without equal. Her heart began to thud painfully in despair. Where she had feared the other vampire, she was now terrified. It was something about Lucian, something she couldn't name, but he seemed invincible, seemed so powerful that a force of hunters could not defeat him. This was Gabriel's mortal enemy and the one he loved above all others. She bit her lip hard to keep from crying out to her lifemate.

And then Lucian spoke. It was as if music were playing, music not of this world, but so pure and beautiful it was impossible to forget. His voice was the most beautiful thing she had ever heard in her life. "You have come here to this place and you have annoyed me, undead. I have chosen this city as my own personal playground and yet you think you can simply ignore my claim. You sent your minions to challenge my brother while you attack this one that he has laid claim to. She is under his protection and I can allow no other to interfere in our game. You understand that." The voice was so perfect, so reasonable, anyone

could understand him. "You lost your soul many centuries ago, dead one, and you yearn for the freedom of the final death. Go now. Your breath is no longer able to sustain you; your heart shall cease beating." He raised his hand into the air and slowly began to close his fingers into a fist.

Francesca watched in horrified fascination as the undead obeyed the compulsion in that sweetly lethal voice. The vampire gasped for air, and as the fist closed tighter, his face began to turn color as he choked and strangled before her eyes. The vampire clutched at his chest as his heart stuttered, but he made no attempt to fight the order, so powerful was that voice. Francesca could scarcely take her eyes from her lifemate's twin; she, too, was caught in the spell of his power, mesmerized by the true beauty of his voice. It was only when he plunged his fist deep within the cavity of the vampire's chest and extracted the heart, when lightning slammed to earth in a jagged bolt of blue white and incinerated the already dead organ and its host, that she managed to jerk herself awake, once again aware of her own very precarious situation.

Francesca waited in silence, one hand over her stomach to protect her unborn daughter, the other holding on to Brice, who was still under her mind control, unable to comprehend anything going on around him.

Lucian was a thousand times more powerful, more deadly, than the vampire she had just faced. She stood watching him with her dark eyes, her small teeth biting down on her lower lip, betraying her nervousness. He moved then, a flowing of grace and timeless beauty, a two-edged sword more destructive than anything she had ever known. Gabriel was right to hunt this monster. Nothing could stop him, nothing the humans had would slow him down if he should decide to give up the murderous game he played with his brother and turn to something even more vicious.

Francesca swallowed the tight knot of fear blocking her throat and lifted her chin defiantly. "I must thank you for coming to my aid, dark one."

"To my brother's aid," he corrected softly, moving around her with a flowing grace. He seemed not to touch the ground, but to glide through the air itself. He moved so softly there was no sound, no disturbance in the air. Lucian's black eyes moved over her face, and he seemed to see right into her soul. "My brother is the only one able to provide me with diversion. Life is tedious when one is so much more intelligent than all others."

"Why have you come to his aid?" Francesca asked softly, puzzled that he did not appear as foul to her as the other vampires she had encountered over the centuries. Was he so good at illusion that even an ancient such as she could not recognize what was foul and wholly evil? His power was very disturbing to her.

The broad shoulders shrugged in a lazy ripple. "I do not allow others to interfere in our game. You are an anchor he weighs himself down with. A pawn I can use against him when I so desire. What is between my brother and me shall remain so always. Any who dares to interfere, hunter or vampire or woman, will die at my choosing."

She tilted her chin. "What are you going to do with me?"

The perfect mouth slanted into a brief, humorless smile. "Call him to your aid. You would not want me to make you my slave. Call him." His voice was pleasing and subtle, an insidious whisper of purity. He seemed not to move, yet he was so close she could smell his scent, clean, not foul. She could feel his power.

Francesca swallowed hard and took a step backward, shaking her head to be sure she wasn't under compulsion. "Never. There is nothing you can do to make me betray him, not of my own free will. Gabriel is a great man and my lifemate. I willingly exchange my life for his." She waited to be struck down. There was a silence, long and empty. She couldn't hear him breathing, couldn't hear his heart beating, if he had a heart.

Her long lashes fluttered as she regarded the master vampire standing so motionless, looking like the statue of an ancient god. It took a moment to realize there was no entrapment in his voice, just plain black magic. His voice simply made one want to comply with his every wish. "Why aren't you forcing me to do your bidding?" she asked curiously, sweeping one hand nervously through her long blue-black hair.

"I do not need the aid of women in my battle." She felt a whip of contempt in his words. "I find it rather astonishing that my brother has grown so weak he has allowed this mortal you guard to remain alive. What do you see in this mortal that you would prefer his company to that of one of your own people? He is self-seeking; his mind is filled with plans of revenge. His main purpose in life seems to be to get at my brother." His black eyes were steady on her face. "But you know that, Francesca."

She shivered, running her hands up and down her arms. She was suddenly cold. It was his voice again. The tone was exactly the same. Soft. Pure. Beautiful. Yet somehow she felt threatened now. And worse than being threatened, she felt the heavy weight of his rebuke. It shouldn't have meant anything to her. He was the undead. Yet she felt as if she were a young girl censured by the Prince of their people. It hurt and it was humiliating. Francesca could not meet those empty black eyes. Instead she found herself looking down at the toes of her shoes. She wanted to make him understand, yet she didn't understand her own feelings. How could she possibly explain them to someone who had no emotions at all?

"I would stay and play longer, but the foolish one is forgetting all that was taught him." Lucian said the words softly as he shimmered for a moment, his once-solid form transparent so that she could see the trees right through him. There was a peculiar prism effect she had never seen before right before he dissolved into droplets of mist and streamed through the fog-filled terrain away from her.

Francesca let out her breath slowly and relaxed muscles she hadn't realized were cramped and taut. At once she reached for Gabriel to warn him. He was in a desperate battle, whirling among the three lesser vampires, all minions of the one Lucian had destroyed. They were darting in, seeking to wear him down with long, razor-sharp talons, attempting to slice small, deep cuts in his flesh to weaken him.

"Lucian is here."

Soft laughter echoed through her mind. At first she thought Lucian had somehow managed to get into her head, but then she realized he was in Gabriel's mind. Because she shared Gabriel's thoughts and memories, she could "hear" their strange conversation.

"You have forgotten all that I taught you, brother. Why would you allow these lesser vampires to surround you this way?"

Lucian shimmered into solid form between Gabriel and the largest and most aggressive of the three undead.

Gabriel launched himself at the smallest vampire, the one directly behind him, moving so quickly he had plunged his fist into the chest and extracted the pulsing heart while the vampire was still staring in shock at Lucian. Gabriel was on the second vampire before he had dropped the heart of the first one. The creature screamed his defiance, lashing out, but was far too late. Gabriel had taken his heart and whirled away, even as bolt after bolt of jagged lightning beat at the earth, incinerating the two bodies and their tainted hearts.

It happened so quickly, Francesca was unable to comprehend how Gabriel had done it. There was no thought, no plan in his mind that she could read, not even a communication between the twin brothers, yet even as Gabriel had used Lucian as a distraction, so had Lucian used Gabriel. He had attacked the largest of the undead while it was gaping in horror at Gabriel. The third body was lying shriveled and lifeless on the ground while Lucian tossed the tainted heart into the fiery ball of energy Gabriel was using to destroy the other two.

It was then Gabriel suddenly comprehended that his brother, the mortal enemy of their people, had once again aided him in his battle. Francesca read his guilt, his annoyance with himself that he had not taken the opportunity to destroy Lucian. He was so accustomed to working with his twin, he had simply acted on instinct. Before he could launch himself in his brother's direction, Lucian had disappeared, leaving no trace behind. There was no trail of droplets, no minute particles, no suggestion of power or empty spaces that Gabriel might use as a path to follow the undead to his lair.

As he finished incinerating the three vampires and all evidence of their battle, he went over every detail of Lucian's appearance, the tone of his voice, the things he had said. Lucian had flooded him with more information about the city, hideaways commonly used by the underground people, those who were often used as minions by the undead.

Gabriel swore softly, eloquently in the ancient language. "

I am useless." "Do not say that, Gabriel." "You see why I have not destroyed him. I have always followed where he has led. He knows it and taunts me with my failure. If I had not done so tonight, I could have had a great advantage against him." "You would have been fighting four vampires, Gabriel He would have defeated you. You would be dead and I would be forced to flee to the Carpathian Mountains to have this child. You cannot take such risks."

The very idea of his death frightened her. He was already a part of her, buried deep within her soul. She would live a half life without him. And she would not even have the option of following him to the afterlife. She carried their daughter and she must bring her into the world safely. She would have to seek shelter and protection from the Prince of their people. "Gabriel." She whispered his name in sudden terror. He could not leave her alone like that, not after he had dragged her back into a world she had given up.

"He would not have allowed the others to destroy me."

Gabriel sounded as calm as ever, his voice soft and comforting.

"It is a game to him. No other can play it. Only I have the potential to defeat him. He would have liked me to attack him. He is probably disappointed that I did not."

The pure, beautiful voice filled their heads.

"You have grown soft, Gabriel. I was prepared for such an action, yet you passed up the perfect opportunity." "You looked tired, Lucian. I did not want an unfair advantage."

Gabriel'sreply was gentle.

"You need a rest, you seek ever to find a resting place, a way to leave this world behind. Tell me where you are that I may come to you and aid you in your long-awaited journey."

Francesca's heart jumped at the idea, fear racing through her bloodstream so that she actually felt physically ill. She waited for the answer, terrified that Lucian would call Gabriel to his side. They would fight to the death. She knew it as surely as she knew her own name. Gabriel would never go unscathed by so powerful a being.

The laughter that followed Gabriel's words should have been ugly and horrible to hear, yet Lucian's voice was a beautiful instrument filling them with a soothing, tranquil feeling. Their tranquility was quickly dispersed when he spoke.

"You seek to entrap me with your voice, brother. I do not think entrapment is possible between us." "I did once." "Locking me to you beneath the earth was an interesting move and one I did not expect."

Therewas a certain note of admiration in the beautiful voice.

"You were weak from loss of blood." "Now you seek to anger me, hoping I will continue our conversation so you may follow my trail. I am incapable of emotion, brother, not even anger. The precious gift was not bestowed on me as one of the legions of undead. But I am glad to tell you where I am at this moment. I am bending over the child you claim as yours. She is unusual, a rarity in a world filled with carbon copies."

There was a subtle threat, a subtle challenge.

Francesca cried out and without thinking dropped Brice's wrist. She had all but forgotten him. Now she could think only of Skyler lying helpless in bed with the vampire bending ever closer to her neck. She pushed Brice into a sitting position, issuing a command to awaken from his dream even as she dissolved into a million droplets of water and streamed back toward the hospital.

"I forbid this, Francesca."

Gabriel's voice was quiet, authoritative.

"It is a trap." "I will not give her to him. "

There was a sob in her voice, in her mind. She knew Gabriel was already winging his way toward their shared destination.

"I am sorry, my love. I cannot allow such a threat to you. "

Gabriel's voice whispered against the walls of her mind like butterfly wings.

Without warning Francesca abruptly changed direction. Alarmed, she cried out to Gabriel. She was no longer in control of her motion, someone else was controlling her flight. Instinctively she attempted to fall to the ground, to shape-shift, but it was impossible.

"Gabriel!" "Do not fear so, Francesca, I am merely doing my duty. You will wait for me in the protection of our home."

The soft, taunting laughter came again, moving through their minds and bodies like a warm, molten spread of sunshine. The power of Lucian's voice was incredible.

"What safeguards do you think to use to keep me at bay? Have you learned much that you have not shared with your own twin?" "Do not think yourself invincible, Lucian. I have bested you once, I may do so again,"

Gabriel replied calmly.

His very calmness strengthened her, allowed Francesca to push aside her horror. She was shocked at Gabriel's strength, that he could command an ancient such as herself in flight, hold her course steady, safeguard her, yet continue his journey toward the hospital even as he conversed so calmly with his mortal enemy. His calm was not a facade. He was completely confident, an ancient warrior who had battled continually, fought his way through the long centuries. The forthcoming battle would be the culmination of those centuries of experience. At once she stopped fighting him, not wanting to make his tasks more difficult.

Francesca had to force herself not to plead with the vampire to spare Skyler further pain. Vampires thrived on the pain of others. It was one of the dark gifts of the un- dead. Through their victims, they could feel momentarily, a fleeting glimpse of what they had lost. Each emotion was dark and ugly, but it was emotion all the same.

She quieted her thoughts, centered herself.

"Skyler? Can you hear me?"

The teenager was asleep.

"Do not open your eyes. You are in danger."

There was a slight stirring and the young girl was aware. Francesca was so familiar with her mind, she could actually feel the child scanning her surroundings much as the Carpathian people did. Her pulse rate stayed the same; her heart didn't jump in the least.

"I cannot be. He is here with me and I am perfectly safe." "Has he taken your blood?"

There was a long silence while Skyler puzzled over the question.

"He isn't a lab tech. I know he isn't. Why would you be afraid he would want my blood?"

Francesca thought for a moment. Skyler had obeyed her: she remained still, breathing easily, feigning sleep. Yet for some reason she felt safe despite the threat of terrible evil. Skyler was gifted with a sense of danger. Lucian must not mean her any real harm. That was the only answer. He was baiting a trap to draw Gabriel to him.

She knew Gabriel could read her thoughts, was sharing her mind. She should have realized Lucian was sharing Gabriel's mind as well. His laughter came again, that soft musical symphony of beauty.

"Now you see the futility of struggling against one such as I. This human child, though she is rare in this world, cannot fool one such as I by pretending to sleep. You cannot protect her from me, not with your safeguards, and not by trying to hide her from me. What Gabriel knows, then so do I. When I wish to make her my slave, I will do so. Right now it is tedious to think of such a burden." "Lucian."

Gabriel said the name softly, gently.

"You grow tired of your existence. There is nothing to hold you to this world. You chose to lose your soul and follow the path of darkness, yet you gained no emotions, no power you had not already wielded. Allow me to aid you in leaving this madness behind. You want me to aid you. You have always wished such a thing." "That was your vow to me, brother, and you can do no other than honor it. Yet I find this world different, much changed since last I arose. It is true it is tedious to continue when I have no one to match wits with, yet you remain. Do you then also seek the dawn?"

He laughed softly, as if to himself.

"I think we should continue our game for a time in this strange world."

Hewas fading; Francesca felt it through her link with Gabriel. He had lured Gabriel to the hospital with the intention of battle, yet he seemed to have lost interest quickly, fading from Skyler's room, from the very air itself, leaving no trace of power behind.

Gabriel sighed with frustration. Lucian knew about both women. How could he not? The power, unmistakably female, was there for any to read. Already the undead were being drawn to the city, looking for the one thing that might save them. Lucian could not have failed to read the signs, would know that Skyler as well as Francesca existed. And he would know Gabriel had claimed Francesca, that she was an ancient Carpathian. He probably knew she was with child. What Gabriel knew, so did Lucian. Skyler was no longer safe in the hospital, away from his protection.

Gabriel shape-shifted as he landed, already striding across the hospital parking lot to the entrance. He blurred his image, not wanting to deal with humans while he checked to see for himself that Lucian had not touched Skyler. They had to move her as soon as possible. Lucian could use human minions to harm her during the day when Gabriel was unable to protect her. Skyler needed to be in their home where he could use safeguards. Where he could supply human bodyguards that could be trusted to watch over her when he was deep within the ground. In all the centuries they had battled, Gabriel had never known Lucian to use a servant in an attempt to destroy him during the day, but with Skyler to protect, he could take no chances. And there were others in the city, vampires of lesser power, but still evil and vicious. Any might attempt to acquire Skyler. He could not allow such a thing. Her mind could not take one more battering.

Skyler was lying quietly, staring up at the ceiling, when he entered her room. His shadow reached her first. Someone with fewer powers of observation would never have noticed the tiny shiver that ran through her small body. "Do you fear me?" Gabriel asked softly, giving her the courtesy of staying out of her mind. He knew he would have to "read" her to be sure Lucian had not taken her blood, but he was determined to respect her privacy whenever possible.

Skyler's fingers curled nervously in the sheet. "Not really." Beneath the thin covering, the outline of the stuffed wolf was visible close to her side.

There was honesty in her voice but her tone was a mere thread of sound. "Do you know why I am here?"

She looked at him then, her large gray eyes soft and wide, long lashes throwing thick crescent shadows across her cheek. She looked beautiful to him. Skyler swallowed hard and brought up her hand to cover the scar running along the curve of her face. Very gently Gabriel caught her wrist, preventing her from covering the thin, jagged white line. Tenderly he turned her hand over, ran his thumb over the myriad of scars crisscrossing her forearm, wrist, and hand. "We are family, child, real

family. There is no place for embarrassment. I am proud of you, proud of the way you defended yourself and kept yourself true to your own soul. Do not hide your badges of courage, Skyler, not from me and not from Francesca."

Her large eyes moved over his face a little moodily. "I have always been alone, as far back as I can remember. Ever since my mother died, I have been alone. I'm not certain I know how to be with others."

Gabriel had a breathtaking smile and he used it shamelessly. "Welcome to the family then, Skyler. I have been alone far too long and so has Francesca. We will learn together." He stroked back her hair with gentle fingers. "We may be amateurs at it, but in the end we will be successful."

The smallest ghost of a smile flickered across her face. "You think so?"

"I know it absolutely. I do not fail in my tasks, not even those abhorrent to me. This is the first time I am undertaking something for myself. Believe me, child, I will not fail."

She studied him, more adult than child. "What tasks are abhorrent to you?"

His white teeth flashed at her, a small tribute to her insight, to her special gifts. "There are times I have no choice but to order the women in my family to do as I bid them," he answered mischievously.

Her soft gray eyes lit up briefly, a small victory for him. "And that is abhorrent to you? I doubt it, Gabriel." She felt very brave teasing him back.

He sat down so he wouldn't tower over her. It was important to him that he didn't intimidate her. Francesca's influence had helped Skyler to accept him, to see him as someone good, not an enemy, but his position with her was tenuous. He made certain his movements were flowing and graceful so he would not startle her.

"If I take your hand as Francesca does, I can read your thoughts," he explained softly, "much in the way you receive information about those around you. I do not want to frighten you with my touch, but it is necessary that I 'read' your memories of the other one who visits you so often."

Her long lashes fluttered, veiled her large eyes. "Will I be able to read yours?" There was a hesitation in her voice, as if she feared angering him.

"Would you like to?"

"I usually can." When he continued to look at her, Skyler twisted the sheet between her fingers. "I've always been able to read people if I touch them." She glanced at him, a quick surreptitious look. "I don't think it's the same way you and Francesca read minds though. I just seem to know things. I can hear and feel her talking to me. I know she's there with me." Her fingers continued to pluck nervously at the sheet. "Just like the other one is there when I'm afraid."

"Skyler," Gabriel said very gently, "if you do not wish to read my emotions or my thoughts, then you will be shielded from them. If it would reassure you to do so, then, by all means, let us begin."

Her large dove-gray eyes were very expressive as they moved over his face. He waited quietly, allowing her to make up her own mind. Eventually she nodded. Gabriel took her hand with extraordinary gentleness, leaned close so that his black eyes could trap Skyler's gaze in the dark depths of his. She didn't even blink. When the young woman made up her mind to do something, she threw her heart and soul into it and did it 100 percent. He would have to keep that in mind when he was trying out his nonexistent parenting skills.

She startled him with her laughter, not aloud, but in her mind.

"I'm reading your mind, too,"

she reminded him.

"Great, you are going to be a pain in the neck, just like Francesca,"

he groused, teasing her gently while flooding his mind with the extent of his love for Francesca, with his warmth and feelings of protectiveness toward Skyler. She felt his presence in her mind occasionally, but she didn't realize he had already shared her memories of her childhood. That would have humiliated her. He knew it instinctively and had no intention of allowing her to be embarrassed. She read what he wanted her to read. His desire to welcome Skyler into his family, his hope he would be a good parent, someone who would protect her and guide her and always make her feel safe. He shared his feelings of inadequacy as a husband, his fears he would somehow let Francesca down. He loved Francesca more than life itself and he allowed Skyler to know he would grow to love her the same way.

All the time, he was delving deeper into her mind in an attempt to find a trace of power, a hint that his twin intended to use her to strike against Francesca. He saw Francesca's work and it was flawless. He saw their combined safeguards, the strong protection they had wrought together, yet he could find no trace of Lucian, no hint of tainted power, no dark hidden agenda. Gabriel was careful, searching everywhere for the slightest anomaly, finding many, examining them all meticulously. She seemed to be free of all outside forces.

He sighed softly, releasing her before his sudden, unexpected surge of anger transmitted itself to Skyler. She had been hideously abused and the raw wounds in her mind would forever leave scars. She was an extraordinary young woman with rare insight and gifts beyond measure. But the man who should have loved and protected her had been the very one to initiate and perpetuate the abuse.

Gabriel was careful to breathe deeply, wanting to appear completely calm and in control. He knew that Skyler would be terrified by any masculine displays of temper. Lucian had already destroyed Skyler's abusers one by one. He had taken the girl's enemies as part of his little chess game with Gabriel, to show he knew what Gabriel knew.

"Did you see anything in there that changes your mind about wanting to take me home with you and Francesca?" There was a challenge in Skyler's soft voice but her gaze had slid away from his the instant he released her.

Gabriel caught her chin in two fingers and tipped it up so she had to look at him. "You have an astonishing mind. I stand in awe of you and the things you have accomplished and the things you are capable of doing. I am honored you would want me to serve as your guardian along with Francesca. Did you not see yourself through my eyes?" He asked it very gently.

A faint flush of color crept up her face. "I'm not like that. Not like you think of me – courageous and brave and beautiful. No one else thinks that." When he continued to look at her the color deepened. "Well, only Francesca, but she doesn't have a mean bone in her body. She would find something nice to say about a monster."

A small smile tugged at Gabriel's mouth. "You are very likely correct, Skyler, in your assessment of Francesca. She would think the best of a monster, but she also is very astute. In you she sees what I see. You need to begin to see yourself as we do. We are your guardians, and you must learn to trust and rely on us. If ever you wish, you may examine my mind and I will share my thoughts with you openly."

"I wish to get out of this horrible place and go home with you and Francesca."

"She was securing the doctor's permission when we were interrupted."

Skyler bit her lip, started to speak, and then dragged the stuffed animal to her face.

"Tell me, little one," he encouraged softly. "In our home I will expect truth and respect to be given on both sides. If you wish to say something, I will listen and value what you have to say."

"You won't believe me, but I know I'm right." She dug her fingers into the plush wolf in her nervousness.

Gabriel gently placed his hand over hers and sent her a small wave of warmth and reassurance. "If you know you are right, Skyler, I will believe you."

She loved the sound of his voice, the accent she couldn't place, the funny way he twisted his words. Mostly she loved the conviction in him, the way he made her believe him. "I don't think the doctor is really good. Something's wrong with him."

Gabriel nodded. "He was very much in love with Francesca and he was not happy when I returned. You see, Francesca thought I was dead. I think the doctor is having difficulty overcoming his jealousy."

Skyler stared at him a long while, then shook her head. "It is more than that. I feel it when he touches me."

For a moment, the red flame of the monster danced in Gabriel's eyes and inside him, claws unsheathed.

He took a moment to breathe before he responded. "What do you mean, little one?" His voice was quieter and more beautiful than ever.

Skyler felt the air in the room grow still, as if the earth itself were waiting for her answer. Her long lashes swept down, concealing her expressive eyes. "When he comes in to examine me, he tries to hide it, but I know something's wrong with him. He's twisted. It's more than jealousy, Gabriel."

"I am going to secure your release for tomorrow evening. Francesca and I will need to set things up at home so we can give you adequate care while you recover. In the meantime, Francesca has hired a bodyguard for you. He is your guard, not a hospital employee, and he will ensure you are safe in our absence. If you feel threatened, you tell him to get you out of this place and take you to our home." He pulled the key to the front door of Francesca's house from his pocket. Taking a thin chain of gold from around his neck, he secured it. "This is the house key, little one." He placed the chain around her neck. "If you need to come home, you have the key."

He felt her relief. She was lifting the key, turning it over, and holding it to her as if he had given her something precious. Gabriel stood up, towering over her. "Your room is ready and Francesca has outdone herself." He wrote the address on a slip of paper and tucked that into her hand also.

A small smile shaped Skyler's soft mouth. "I knew she would go crazy." The smile faded from her face, leaving her wan and pale. "Do you believe me about the doctor?"

There was an anxious note in her voice she couldn't conceal.

Gabriel regarded her gravely, his black eyes serious. "I believe you, Skyler. I have felt the same uneasiness around him. Do not fear for Francesca. I will do all within my very considerable power to keep her safe."

Skyler searched his face for a long while before her lashes drifted down and she subsided quietly in her bed, obviously satisfied with his reassurance.

Gabriel automatically scanned during his waking hours, and now he felt Brice entering the hospital. He glided away from the bed toward the door. A small gasp of alarm spun him around. "What is it?" he asked softly.

Skyler was staring at him as if he were a ghost. Self consciously she forced a laugh. "Just now you reminded me of…" She trailed off.

He deliberately grinned, a boyish, mischievous grin. "A rock star?" he asked hopefully. Skyler's astuteness was far more than he had given her credit for.

She managed a nervous laugh. "Not hardly, Gabriel. A wolf. A big bad wolf." She held up the stuffed animal, "just like him."

He laughed with her but took great care to appear more human as he left the room with a reassuring wave.

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