Dark Legend (Dark #8)

Chapter 15


The doorbell let out a soft, melodious peal, announcing a visitor. Santino glanced at his wife and wished he didn't feel so apprehensive. Everything in Francesca and Gabriel's house was harmonious, even the doorbell, yet he had an ominous premonition of disaster. Skyler paled visibly and shrank into a little ball in the armchair. Her eyes seemed enormous in her small face as she hugged her stuffed animal to her. Santino wanted to put his arms around her and hold her, but she was careful to avoid any physical contact with him.

Drusilla glanced at him, then moved over to stand beside Skyler's chair, partially blocking the visitor's view of the teenager. They had both noticed that Skyler seemed to know when trouble was coming, and right now she seemed very apprehensive.

Brice stabbed at the doorbell again with his finger, determined to see Francesca. He had developed an obsession. He couldn't sleep at night anymore, certain she was in danger. He thought of her every waking moment, planning and scheming ways to get her out from under Gabriel's black spell. Now he knew just the right thing to say to make her listen, but it was a total stranger who answered the door. Brice heard a buzzing in his head. It was happening more and more frequently, a prelude to the terrible merciless headaches.

"Who the devil are you?" he demanded rudely. How many men did Francesca have in her life anyway? Was he going to have to resort to violence? Gabriel probably had a gang of some kind; maybe he really did belong to organized crime.

Santino raised his eyebrow. "I beg your pardon," he answered softly, his face an expressionless mask.

Brice clenched his teeth, his fingers actually curling into fists. "This house belongs to Francesca Del Ponce, a very close friend of mine. Where is she?"

"She is out at the moment. May I tell her who inquired after her?" Santino asked politely. He watched the other man closely, wondering about him. No one had warned him to expect trouble dressed in an expensive suit.

Brice swallowed his anger and pressed his fingertips to his throbbing temple. "I'm Skyler's doctor. I'm here to check on her."

Drusilla felt the young woman instantly grow still and she looked down at her. Skyler was so white she looked like a ghost. The child had buried her face against the wolf; only her eyes peered out in alarm. Drusilla reached down and put her hand very lightly on Skyler's shoulder. The girl's slight body was trembling.

"I wasn't aware Skyler had a doctor's appointment. Francesca is usually very good about informing me of the day's schedule," Santino improvised smoothly.

"Francesca promised me she would bring Skyler to the hospital for a checkup."

Skyler made a small sound of distress, so low only Drusilla heard her. Santino glanced back at them, and his wife shook her head quickly. "I'm sorry, Doctor, but until Francesca returns, I'm afraid there's little I can do. I'll tell her you called," he said softly, easily.

"I'll take Skyler to the hospital myself," Brice volunteered immediately.

Skyler pressed back among the pillows, determined not to move one inch. She stared up at Santino helplessly.

Santino smiled his reassurance at the teenager. "I'm very sorry, sir, but as I haven't received any orders from Francesca, I cannot allow Skyler to leave the premises. I'm certain Francesca will make arrangements as soon as possible to bring Skyler in." He stood solidly in the doorway so that Brice had no chance to push his way in.

Color swept instantly up Brice's neck into his face, giving his cheeks a ruddy glow. His temples were throbbing so hard he dug his thumb into the pulse point to try to ease the pain. "She is my patient whether Gabriel likes it or not. I won't allow that man to dictate to me whether or not I examine my patients."

Santino continued to smile pleasantly. "I'm very sorry, sir. My French must not be very easily understood. Gabriel did not give me any orders concerning you at all. I was speaking of Francesca. She is the one who insisted Skyler remain indoors and without the stress of company. I'm certain she did not mean you, sir, as you are Skyler's doctor, but I cannot go against her direct orders. I'm sure she'll clear up this misunderstanding as soon as she returns."

Brice swore angrily, glaring daggers at Santino. "I don't even know you. Why would Francesca leave you in charge of my patient? I insist on coming in and speaking with Skyler. I want to make certain she is all right."

Santino continued to smile, but his eyes were flat and cold. "Are you suggesting I might be holding the young lady in captivity in her own house?"

"I don't know what you're doing. Francesca is a close friend of mine." Brice's tone implied all sorts of things. "She would have told me if she'd made arrangements for Skyler's care."

"Perhaps you are not quite as good a friend as you thought you were, sir," Santino replied very softly.

Brice stepped forward to crowd the man, fury ripping through him, nearly overwhelming his good sense. "How dare you?"

Santino didn't budge. He didn't flinch. He simply stood in the doorway, a solid, muscular frame impossible to move. Behind Brice a man moved out of the shadows. Skyler's bodyguard stood at the bottom of the stairs with his arms folded. Brice swallowed his rage and stepped away from Santino. "Skyler, get out here. You're coming with me. I mean it. If you don't come now, I'm going straight to the judge and insist you be placed in my custody immediately."

Skyler buried her face in her hands with a small moan of fear.

Beneath the earth in the secret chamber lay two bodies, as still as death. A single heart began to beat where before there had been only silence. Gabriel felt the strength of the girl's fear and it had awakened him. Instantly he felt his twin's presence. At that moment they were one being with one thought.

Someone had threatened a child under their protection, and this wasn't to be tolerated.

Gabriel could not explain such a phenomenon to Francesca. This was what made Lucian unique. It was what made it so difficult to condemn and hunt him. Lucian merged with him and at once they were bonded, strong and lethal, of one mind on the hunt. Whatever his motive, Lucian was as determined as Gabriel that Skyler not be further intimidated. Gabriel could no more close himself off to his brother than give up protecting the women. At that moment, they were truly one being.

Gabriel disconnected with his body, his spirit rising above his body and moving swiftly through the earth upward toward the main house. It was a peculiar wrenching feeling to be out of one's body, disorienting and yet strangely exhilarating. Gabriel was at his lowest point of power in the afternoon, but he could travel without his body and he did so now, moving swiftly through the house until he was in the room where the disturbance was occurring.

Light was streaming into the room despite Santino's large frame blocking the door way. Gabriel flinched from the sunlight although he was without his body and the light could not blind him. He went to Skyler's trembling figure huddled so small on the couch, forlorn and lost without Francesca and Gabriel to protect her from the world. He flooded her with warmth and a feeling of safety, while Lucian lent his own strength and power so that she was instantly soothed.

Skyler lifted her head and looked around her, puzzled that she should sense Gabriel's presence even though he wasn't in the room with her. She glanced at Drusilla to see whether she felt anything. She wasn't going to go with Brice no matter what any of them said.

"Of course you won't, honey."

Itwas a distinctly masculine voice, soothing, comforting, filling her with confidence.

"Neither Santino nor I will allow anyone to take you against your will from this house. Brice is ill."

Skyler felt the presence of Gabriel, strong and powerful, in her mind. She recognized the touch of the other one, the one they all seemed to worry about, just as strong and powerful as Gabriel, his strength pouring into her along with Gabriel's. Skyler knew she would be protected. She had never felt part of a family before. It was a strange and even unnatural feeling to her, yet she wanted it desperately. She wanted to believe that Santino, Drusilla, and the bodyguard, Jarrod Silva, would protect her and be loyal to her in the same way she knew Gabriel and Francesca would. She had reservations about the other, only because she knew Gabriel and Francesca both were wary of him. She couldn't fathom why, although she had given it much thought and had even tried to "read" the couple when they touched her.

Skyler attempted to reach out to Gabriel, felt frustrated for a moment, then laughed softly at herself. All she had to do was think a reply in her head. "

I told Francesca something was wrong with the doctor. He doesn't feel the same as he used to feel. I am more afraid for Francesca than for myself. I think Dr. Brice is nuts." "You must have faith in me. I would not allow Brice to harm Francesca."

Gabriel knew what her fear was, knew Skyler was afraid that Brice would hurt Francesca, would somehow separate them.

"It will not happen, no one will take you from us. "

His voice was reassuring, so perfectly tranquil and soothing that Skyler regained her confidence immediately and was able to peer around Drusilla to smile a little impertinently at the doctor.

"I think you are frightening Skyler, sir," Santino said more softly than ever. There was the merest hint of a threat in his voice this time.

Beside him, Gabriel stirred, a cold breeze washing over Brice, swamping him with fear such as he had never known before. He was choking on it, his skin crawling with the feel of tiny insects, thousands of them attacking his body so that he began raking at his own flesh in an attempt to rid himself of the things.

Santino exchanged a worried glance with Jarrod over the doctor's head. The man was acting as if he had the DTs. More than ever they were determined to protect Skyler from the doctor. The man needed a padded cell in a psych ward. Maybe a good detox center. Without warning, the doctor slammed his body into Santino's in an effort to get to Skyler.

Afterward, Brice could never remember why he'd done such a rash thing. His head was pounding abominably and his skin was crawling; he thought; he would go mad. His only coherent thought was Francesca. She echoed in his mind with each throb of his pulse. He literally bounced off Santino's chest and landed on his backside.

At once Jarrod was looming over him, his face an expressionless mask. "I think it best you leave, sir," he said firmly. "I do not want to embarrass you by calling the authorities to escort you off the property. I know you are a good friend of Francesca's and she would be appalled at this display. If you don't mind my saying so, sir, I believe you need to check yourself into a clinic." He bent down and with ease lifted Brice to his feet.

Brice was a wreck, physically and mentally. He could hardly think with the terrible buzzing in his head. His body was jerking and twitching almost as if he were suffering seizures. Pills, he needed more pills, then his body and mind would calm down. He tried to be reasonable. Some shred of dignity and pride prompted him to walk away, yet he couldn't force his trembling body to do it. The bodyguard had to drag him off the property.

Skyler held her hands over her eyes, shutting out the sight of her doctor, almost foaming at the mouth. She had seen drool and spittle spraying as he talked. "What's wrong with him?" she whispered aloud, whispered it to Gabriel. Beneath Brasilia's palm, the teen was trembling, retreating. At once Francesca and Gabriel moved quickly to surround her, their warmth and love sending her waves of reassurance. She felt the other one, too, his presence strong and powerful.

Santino closed the door firmly on the distasteful scene. "I'm sorry, Skyler. I'm afraid that poor doctor has been sampling his own medicine. He's way gone on drugs."

"Why was he trying to get to me?" Skyler asked in a low voice. She was beginning to believe she might actually be safe here in this house.

Gabriel decided the truth would be best. "

I believe he thought to use you in some way to get to Francesca."

"I don't know," Santino answered gently. "Perhaps he thinks in his twisted mind that you are in some kind of danger and he is rescuing you. He doesn't know me, I'm a stranger in this land. Whatever his reason, he can't take you from this house. You are perfectly safe here, Skyler. I gave my word to Francesca and I did not give it lightly."

Skyler was very confused. Why were all these people suddenly protecting her? They were all virtual strangers, yet they were willing to risk violence to protect her. Why?

She clutched tightly at her stuffed animal, the first gift she'd ever received.

"You are now a part of our family."

It was said quietly and with great authority. There was no way to dispute Gabriel's beautiful voice. He spoke with such purity, Skyler could only believe him. At once she relaxed, allowing herself to breathe normally.

Gabriel's heart twisted at the sight of her. She looked very small, far younger than her age. Except for her eyes. There was something about her large gray eyes that held far too much knowledge, none of it good. Gabriel wished he could stamp out that look for all time, but it was impossible.

"You have grown so soft, Gabriel. This child you profess to feel such affection for should have been avenged."

Francesca, listening through Gabriel, went very still, touching Skyler's mind to learn whether Lucian was broadcasting to the teen as well. She could hear the vampire through his connection to her lifemate. But Skyler was unaware of the conversation, paying attention instead to Santino.

"I grow weary of your constant taunts, Lucian. Perhaps it is the only way you have left to torment me, but it is growing tedious and no longer bothers me. Revenge has never been our way. We do what we must to maintain the secrets of our race. We destroy the undead, but it is out of duty, not out of revenge. In any case, the man claiming to be her father had to be removed from this earth and you destroyed the others that were in her memories, saving me the trouble. You have forgotten the difference between justice and revenge. Meet with me, Lucian, that we may come to terms." "I know what is in your mind, brother. You seek to hunt me. You believe still that you can destroy me. If I wish it, I can kill the girl, your silly woman, and those humans you have installed in her house. You cannot prevent it with your safeguards. I taught you those safeguards."

Gabriel gave the mental equivalent of a shrug. He was floating back toward the chamber, away from the light of day into the earth that held his body for him. He saw Francesca lying there, although he knew her essence was not asleep. At once a sense of peace and warmth seeped into his soul. Without thought he projected it to his twin, a sharing of intense love. Even before he could register that he had done such a thing, before he could judge Lucian's reaction, his brother was gone.

Gabriel's cry of anguish at his brother's rejection echoed to Francesca. Gabriel settled into his own body beside Francesca, wide-awake but unable to move. His heart was pounding loudly in the underground chamber and his chest was tight and burning with pain for his lost brother.

Beside him Francesca's heart began to beat a slow, strong rhythm. She turned her head slowly and looked up at him. The movement must have taken tremendous effort, yet her expression was one of such love it robbed him of breath. She moved her hand, a slow process of pushing her fingers toward his so that they finally met.

"You are never alone, my love."

Herwords were clear and strong.

"It does not matter that he cannot feel what you share. He is undead, no longer your beloved twin brother. Mourn the one long gone from this earth. His empty shell remains behind, but the one you love so much, the one you honor is beyond pain and heartache now. I am here with you, our child grows in me, and our house is filled with warmth and promise." "Why would he merge with me and give me added power to help Santino and Jarrod keep Skyler safe? What plan could he have but to use that child as a weapon?" "His plans do not matter, Gabriel. Together we are strong enough to face him. We are a mirror he cannot look in."

Her voice filled him with love and warmth. He felt so peaceful Gabriel wanted to stay there for eternity.

"I want you to see him as I once, did. "

Gabriel wanted her to understand his great sorrow in the face of their love. He wanted her to know he valued her all the more because of Lucian, never less. He opened his mind fully to her, sharing his past, the terrible battles, the endless loneliness that only his link to his twin had made bearable. He showed Lucian's endless strength and power, his great genius, his search for knowledge to understand the mysteries of their race. Time and again Lucian had risked his body and soul for Gabriel's safety, for the safety of their people and that of the human race.

Francesca watched the scenes playing out from Gabriel's memories. She could see Lucian as he had once been. Without the taint of a vampire. Intelligent. Always placing himself in danger to shield his twin, always taking the lead in every dangerous situation. Countless times he gave his blood when he was mortally wounded himself, countless times he dragged himself to his twin and healed him when he was close to death. Gabriel saw his twin as the most selfless Carpathian ever born and he shared that memory with Francesca. She understood and her heart ached all the more for her lifemate.

He had exchanged vows with Lucian, promising to destroy him should he lose his soul and become the very thing they hunted. Gabriel knew Lucian would never have rested until he had completed the task, and he could do no less. Francesca understood the enormity of that vow, knew it was a part of Gabriel as much as the lungs he used to breathe. She loved him all the more for his devotion, was determined to find a way to aid him.

Lucian was alive to her now. She had shared their lives and those centuries of loneliness they both had endured. Gabriel now had her, but Lucian was lost to them, lost to their people along with his great genius and his iron will and tremendous power. His loss was a senseless, terrible tragedy.

With effort, Francesca inched her body closer to Gabriel's so that their skin touched. Their limbs felt like lead, lethargic and heavy. Normally they shut down their hearts and lungs during daylight hours, sparing themselves the terrible knowledge of their helplessness and vulnerability to enemies. Francesca lay close to Gabriel for a long time before she spoke.

"When you felt the disturbance, Gabriel, and Skyler's fear,did you reach for Lucian?"

Gabriel thought it over.

"I cannot honestly say, I felt him with me as I always do in moments when I need strength and power. It is an ingrained habit neither of us seems to be able to break."

Hewas silent a moment. "If you think to find a way to exploit this strange phenomenon between us to defeat him, I have already tried. It is as natural as breathing. I do not know when I do it and neither does he." "Yes, but he is a vampire. An undead creature. He should not be able to travel while the sun is at its highest peak. You are the most powerful of our males and it was a great effort for you to release your spirit from your body. How could he do such a thing, being a vampire?"

Gabriel gave the mental equivalent of a shrug.

"His mind shared mine and he threw his power behind me. He could have just as easily attempted to stop me or kept me from reentering my body. It is just as well that whatever game he thinks to play requires our Skyler. His power is great, Francesca. I would have been happy throwing up a wall in front of the doctor, but Lucian was not. He twisted my power so that Brice felt thousands of insects crawling on his skin." "Don't remind me. "

Francesca was not happy with that at all. She felt guilty about Brice. Something was happening that she didn't understand. "

I tried to tone down his memories of me so that he would think of me only as a friend, but it didn't work. I've never had that happen before. "

Gabriel's fingers tightened around hers. He knew the reason she could not control the doctor's mind and Francesca must know it also. She simply wasn't ready to face the truth. Gabriel wanted to hold her close in his arms to protect her. In his mind he surrounded her with love and support.

"A vampire has somehow managed to ensnare him. There is no other explanation."

Francesca wanted to shake her head in denial.

"There are other explanations. I saw him popping pills." "And why did he lead you to the cemetery where the vampires were waiting for you? He is in league with them and does not know it. They are using him to get you. That is why you cannot control him. He is controlled by the undead. When you attempt to reach his mind, there is nothing there but the orders they have given him." "Is it Lucian? Has Lucian done this to punish me for my feelings for Brice?" "You cannot imagine what it is like to be unable to feel emotion. Lucian has no need to punish. He feels nothing at all. He uses others as puppets in the hope of feeling amusement, but he cannot. I did not detect the taint of his power, yet I cannot say for certain. Lucian prefers to work alone at all times. To my knowledge he has never brought another into what he refers to as 'the game'." "Can you undo what they did to Brice? Is there a way to make him whole again? This is my fault, Gabriel, entirely my fault because I became friends with a human. Now they think to use him against us. He is totally helpless. "

Gabriel could not bear her unhappiness. He would do anything to take the sorrow from her mind. He tightened his fingers around hers even as he flooded her mind with love and warmth and comfort.

"You are so right, my love. We are not alone in our struggles and our tasks. We have each other to draw strength from. As long as we believe in each other, it will all come right. I will do what I can for Brice. If you wish me to try to save him, you know I will have to take his blood. Without a blood bond, I doubt if I can break what others have wrought."

Francesca turned that idea over in her mind. The blood bond was a powerful weapon. Would it somehow put Gabriel in danger? Would the vampire, perhaps Lucian, expect such a move and somehow be able to use Brice as a weapon against Gabriel?

Gabriel, locked as he was to her mind, was enormously pleased that her first thought would be for him, for his safety. She loved him in the way of a true lifemate. For who he was and what he was. Unconditionally. She saw good in him where he was never certain it really existed, but he lived up to her expectations all the same.

"Do it then, Gabriel. Take his blood and I will see to his healing with you. I owe him that much. He is a great doctor and the world would lose much if his healing abilities were destroyed."

She smiled up at him even as her lashes drifted down.

Gabriel felt her smile in his heart. It was like that with her. She turned him inside out with one look. Just by closing her eyes. He lay for a long while beneath the earth, feeling its vibrations, allowing it to murmur to him, soothe and comfort him, rejuvenate his body with its nourishment. He left the chamber at the first setting of the sun and fed well before returning to awaken his lifemate. He lifted her body in his arms, floated to the bedchamber hidden in the rocks of the earth yet fitted with human comforts – the four-poster bed, the long, heavy drapes, and hundreds of candles.

The candles sprang to life with a simple wave of his hand, immediately enveloping the chamber in a soft, fresh scent. He inhaled sharply, then took in the sight of her body. She was so beautiful, so feminine. Gabriel bent over her and whispered softly, "Wake, my love, I want you so badly I do not think I can wait until you are breathing properly." His mouth moved over her neck, her small shell-like ear. He found her pulse and lingered as it began, as her body heated beneath his hands. His teeth scraped her exquisite skin. So soft, so perfect.

Gabriel liked the way the dancing flames played over her body. Her high, firm breasts were full and inviting, her rib cage narrow, her waist small. He bent his head to follow the clean line of her form, followed the dancing shadows with his mouth even while he created his own flames licking along her skin. His lips explored the small mound of her belly, the intriguing ridges of her hipbones.

Francesca smiled, her eyes still closed while her heart raced and her blood heated and her world contracted to include only sensuous, erotic feeling. His thick hair brushed over her body while his teeth nipped and his tongue stroked and her blood heated to molten lava in her veins. She felt him worship her with the gentle touch of his exploring hands, which lingered in every sensitive spot on her body. She lay quiet, simply enjoying the sensations he was creating with each stroke of his tongue, each time his silky hair moved over her bare skin.

How had she ever faced a rising without him? How had she ever wanted to open her eyes without the promise of seeing his beloved face? She knew every line, the strength in his jaw, the arch of his brow, the perfect shape of his mouth. She sighed softly in contentment and moved to give him better access to her breast. Her slender arms curved around his head, cradling him to her while he leisurely enjoyed her.

His scent enveloped her and her temperature soared. With it rose her hunger. She stirred beneath his strong hands, her body alive with needs, with a thousand secrets. She was a temptation, an invitation, an enticement. She buried her face in his neck, felt his body burn hotter against hers. Francesca's smile was frankly sexy with a woman's knowledge of her own power. Her teeth scraped his neck, her tongue swirling around in a small, lapping caress. She opened her mind more fully to him so that he could see her desire, share her feelings, the pleasure he was bringing to her body.

At once he responded to the erotic images in her head, his hand moving lower to find her hot pulsating entrance. She was creamy with need and excitement, wanting to share her body and heart with him. Gabriel couldn't help the shudder of pleasure moving through him when her hands shaped his body, her fingers tightening like a sheath, her mouth on his neck. She whispered something softly in his mind, a plea, a need, a hunger she couldn't ignore.

Gabriel caught her small hips in his hands to slide her beneath him more fully, to lift her body to his. His breath caught in his throat as he held her still for one heartbeat, one moment while he looked into her beautiful eyes. He saw her stark hunger, so sexual, so erotic, all for him. He wanted to capture the moment, keep it, prolong it, but then she slowly lowered her head to his chest and deliberately caressed his pulse with her tongue. It was slow and sexy and beyond anything his imagination could have conjured up.

He saw the beauty of her mouth as it slid over his chest, felt the heat of her call, wild and untamed, and then white-hot lightning sizzled and danced through his body, through his mind and heart, and he surged forward with one deep hard stroke, taking possession of her body while her teeth sank deeply into his skin. He heard his own husky cry, drawn from somewhere deep within his soul, and he felt tears burning in his throat and behind his eyes at the sheer beauty of it all.

She was fire and velvet, lightning and thunder, molten lava taking him to a place he hadn't known existed. His fingers dug into her hips, clamping her to him while he performed the most erotic tango of his life. She knew every way to move to please him, her body adjusting to his rhythm almost before he knew. Her mind was filled only with thoughts of him, of his body, of giving him pleasure, of the pure enjoyment he gave her. She lapped at the tiny pinpricks on his chest when she was finished feeding.

Francesca caught his thick hair in her hand and brought his head down to hers, finding his mouth and kissing him, sharing his exotic taste while she moved her hips ever faster, rising to meet each thrust with one of her own. Her muscles clenched tightly around him, a fiery friction, holding him, milking and teasing and luring him on so that he was as wild as she was.

He stretched her arms over her head while he took her again and again, while the earth shook and her body and mind went up in flames. Still he gave her no rest, lapping at the small beads of sweat, tasting their pleasure from the pores of her skin, wanting all of her in case this memory would have to carry over into the next world. This union with her, this was true mating. He wanted to give her as much pleasure as a man could possibly give the one woman he loves. He wanted the memory of himself in her skin, in her body, in her deepest soul.

When she was tired and lay passive in his arms he found her breasts, so full and seductive, filling his mouth with creamy softness until her nipples were hard and begging for more. He cupped her bottom, pressing her close to him, his hands everywhere, arousing, memorizing, simply worshiping. He would never get enough of her, no matter how long he lived, and if he had only a short while, he wanted to bring her every pleasure he could, give her every good thing she deserved.

Francesca lay quietly, knowing what he was doing, knowing he needed to be with her this rising before he went off to face the worst of his enemies. She wanted him to make love to her, to never stop. She wanted her body to hold him to her. She wanted him safe in their chamber, in their own world of pleasure and beauty and love, not out there in the night where something malevolent crouched and waited.

Once she found herself laughing on the floor, and neither of them had any idea how they'd got there. But as she went to climb into the bed, he trapped her against the mattress, leaning over her, his body possessive, his hands strong as he took her again, riding her until they both went up in flames. It was paradise, yet at the same time it was a kind of hell. Between them always lay the fact that he was going out; he must hunt the undead. Long after the candles burned low and the lights were barely tiny flickers on the walls, they curled up in each other's arms, holding each other close.

Francesca wanted them to be wearing the same skin, she wanted to be that close. She wished somehow she could prevent the future from happening. She wouldn't ask him not to go, he had to go. She knew it in heart and mind and soul. It was who Gabriel was. For the first time she truly understood why he had chosen to fight, to hunt. Gabriel was the only one capable of defeating Lucian. The entire world, human and Carpathian alike, depended upon him.

His hands were tangled in her thick hair, his mouth against her breast. "Listen to me, my love. Hear me. If I do not succeed this night, it will be all right. You will take Skyler and our child and go home to the Carpathian Mountains. Mikhail will guard you for me.

You and only you will raise our child. I want our child to know you and to know me through your eyes. I know it will be difficult for you, but you are strong and I will dwell in your heart. Wherever I am, I will wait patiently for you, knowing you are carrying out the task that is so important to me. To both of us."

Francesca closed her eyes against the hot tears threatening to fall. She felt his breath so warm against her skin, his arms tight around her, locking her body to his. Their legs were tangled together and yet it wasn't enough. It would never be enough. She couldn't go with him, and if he was defeated, she couldn't follow him until their child no longer needed her.

Gabriel raised himself above her, looking down onto her beautiful face. "Francesca, you can do this thing for both of us. Give me your word."

"Do you have any idea what you are asking of me?" The words were a strangled whisper and with the stirring of her breath the last of the flames spluttered and went out. The chamber was once more inky black.

Gabriel could easily see her beloved face, the shimmering tears she was so valiantly trying not to shed. He bent his head to taste a teardrop. "You have given me more happiness than I could ever have dared to hope for. I want our daughter to know you, Francesca, your courage, your compassion, the essence of you. You are the best part of me. I love you more than life on this earth, more than my own life or that of my brother. I thank God every day for you." His mouth drifted lazily over her face, her long, wet spiky lashes, along her high cheekbones, the corners of her mouth, and down to her throat. "Please do not feel sorrow. What I have done, I have done to the best of my ability. I cannot regret my choices, nor would I change anything but the briefness of the time I have had with you. Eternity looks good when I know I'll eventually share it with you, honey."

Francesca clasped her arms around him, holding him tightly to her. Love was an overwhelming, all-encompassing emotion.

He was her life; he had somehow become her life. "Come home to me, Gabriel. Do not make me face a life of emptiness without you again. I was strong the first time because somehow I convinced myself that we were working together, you hunting and me healing. We were apart, but for many centuries, you were still with me."

His tongue swirled over the creamy swell of her breast, then traced a line along her rib. "And I will still be with you. No matter where my body may be, I will be in your heart, in your soul." His mouth moved over her heart, a warm dance of flames.

"You have to believe you can defeat him, Gabriel. You have to know you can. I am willing to aid you. We can work together. I can at least share my strength and power with you."

Gabriel smiled against her satin skin, nuzzled her breast again, unable to ignore such an erotic temptation. "You will not aid me in any way. You cannot connect with my mind while I am hunting. It is dangerous, my love. Lucian will know the moment you are with me and he will use me to harm you in some way. That would be much more likely than your giving me strength. You have to trust me to know what to do."

Her body was a miracle to him. Everywhere he touched her, each time he touched her, it was an incredible experience. He shifted his body to blanket her once more, his thigh edging hers so that he could lie over her, his body easily, naturally pinning hers.

Francesca could feel him, thick and heavy, so hot with need there was an answering fire immediately in her body. She smiled up at him, raising her hips as he surged into her, leaving her breathless and beautiful and hungry for him all over again. "Just come back to me, Gabriel," she whispered softly against his throat. "I love you so much and I am no longer so very strong without you beside me."

He was tender and gentle, his body moving in hers with long, sure strokes to heighten her pleasure. "I will always be with you, Francesca. In this life or the next, there is only you. That is a promise I know I can keep."

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