Dark Legend (Dark #8)

Chapter 3

chapter
Chapter

Gabriel awoke to fire, hunger, need. Obsession. Every particle of his skin was alive with fiery tongues of heat. His body was hard and aching, urgently demanding he claim what was rightfully his. Beside him she lay pale and still, her skin cool against his. Ignoring the consequences, he disposed of the thin barrier of clothing between them with a single thought. She took his breath away. Her body was slender, perfectly molded for his.

He lay holding her, carefully calculating his options. He was not willing to allow her to choose death. He wanted a chance at life together. He could not exist without her. But even binding her to him with the ritual words would not be enough to keep her from facing the dawn. He had read her mind, her will. He could think of only one way to deter her. There was only one way to force her compliance.

Unforgivable.

He would have to accept that. She would not forgive him, but she would choose life for both of them. It would give him the time to tie her to him emotionally.

Gabriel thought about his lack of options for some time. While he lay holding her his determination only increased. He would have her. It was selfish and wrong and beneath him, but he would not allow her to choose death over life. He could pretend it was for the saving of their race, that both of them owed it to their species to do all they could to continue, but he knew there was nothing noble about his decision. He wanted her. She belonged with him and he was going to make sure not only that he possessed her, but that she no longer had a choice in the matter.

He closed his eyes and sent himself seeking outside his body and into hers. He moved slowly and surely, determined there would be no mistakes. He was an ancient with incredible power and knowledge. He made certain to arouse her body even as he found what he sought. There was only one thing left to do. As he emerged once more into his own body, he recognized that she was a healer, a woman long on the earth. He would have to be certain she had no time to think or feel anything but the hunger raging between them. He was completely confident he could manage that easily enough. Carpathian mating rituals could be fiery and intense.

Gabriel positioned his body over hers so that he could feel the cool satin of her skin against the unbearable heat of his. He bent his dark head and fastened his mouth to hers to take her first breath as he issued the command to wake, to come to him needing him. His mind fully merged with hers, he was unstoppable, a fully aroused male in the heat of the Carpathian mating ritual. His lifemate's heartbeat found the beat of his, her lungs followed the direction of his and her mind was instantly captured by the hunger radiating from Gabriel. He built the fire into a fierce conflagration. He needed her desperately just to survive. He had to have her. His body raged for her, demanded her. No one else could quench the flames threatening to devour him completely.

His hunger was her hunger, his need became hers. Her body burned and ached, her breasts swelling in invitation against his chest, her hips moving restlessly. Gabriel found some solace in the silken heat of her mouth. His hands explored every inch of her skin, every shadow and hollow. He wanted to take his time, savor each discovery, but he couldn't give her time to emerge from their mind merge. He stroked his tongue down the column of her throat, lingered over her rapid pulse. His hand moved to the junction of her legs, his knee pushing her legs open to give him better access.

Francesca could only feel fierce longing and terrible, empty hunger. There was a red haze of madness, a fire sweeping through her. Everywhere he touched her, flames danced. She heard a moan come from her throat as his fingers found her hot, moist center. It only made her longing more intense. His teeth scraped gently over her breast, teased her nipple into a hard peak, moved back to the satin-soft swell. She felt him, thick and hard, pressing into her. His mind was feeding her erotic images, projecting his fierce urgency to possess her. She couldn't think, she could only feel endlessly. Feel and hunger and burn.

Her hair was everywhere, brushing over both of them, the silken strands unbearably erotic on their sensitized skin. There was a strange roaring in her ears. She reached for him a little desperately, her arms circling his head, cradling him to her while his mouth drove every sane thought from her mind, until there was only him. There was no earth or sky, no time or place, only Gabriel with his wide shoulders and hot skin and demanding body needing her as no one ever had. Her body didn't feel as if it belonged to her; it was soft and pliant, aching every bit as much as Gabriel's.

He whispered something to her. She recognized the ancient language, but his words were muffled against her breast. He lifted her hips, and paused while one small heartbeat of time passed. She stared up at him, bemused by his sheer sensual beauty. His black gaze held hers. "I claim you as my lifemate." His body surged forward and took possession of hers.

Francesca cried out, her hands tangling in his dark flowing hair in protest of what he was doing. "Relax, Francesca." Gabriel breathed the words, his voice beautiful, mesmerizing, enthralling. His hips moved with a slow, sexy surge forward, giving her body time to adjust to the invasion of his. He bent his dark head to kiss her satin skin, his mouth moving over her pulse. He focused on breathing in and out to stop himself from plunging into her. She was tight and hot, surrounding him with velvet fire. She was so utterly perfect. He closed his eyes for a moment, savoring the feel of her all around him.

Francesca knew she should protest, but his mouth was making her crazy with need. Then white lightning flashed through her as he sank his teeth deep, joining them together in the most erotic way of all. Heart, mind, soul and body. Her life force flowed into him even as his body took hers, his hips moving in a deep, hard rhythm, taking them both toward a shattering release. Gabriel was shaking with the effort to hold on to his control. She tasted like nothing he had ever had. Heady, sexy, everything he could possibly want. Hot. Sweet. Addictive. His body was going up in flames, burying deeper and harder, making them one.

Gabriel swept his tongue over her breast. "Please, Francesca." The words were husky with need. At once she responded to the urgent plea. Her mouth moved over the heavy muscles of his chest. His body clenched as her teeth teased his pulse, scraped back and forth, nipped. "Francesca." He spoke her name with desperate urgency. Francesca found she had to comply. It was more than a black magic spell; the age-old lure was on her. His body was so strong, so hard, so perfect. She smelled his blood, his life force calling to her, beckoning. Her mouth moved sensuously over his muscled flesh, her teeth teasing him until he groaned with need. She sank her teeth deep. Lightning splintered through him and he buried himself in her hot, tight sheath, losing himself in the sheer ecstasy of her body. "I claim you as my lifemate. I belong to you. I offer my life for you. I give you my protection, my allegiance, my heart, my soul and my body. I take into my keeping the same that is yours." He could barely manage to get the ritual binding words out. Her body was rippling around his, shattering, fragmenting, milking his with hot fiery velvet so tight he thought he would go up in flames. "You are my lifemate, bound to me for all eternity and always in my care."

Francesca swept her tongue across the tiny pinpricks she had made in the heavy muscles of his chest and clung to him. He was the only safe anchor as her body was swept away on wave after wave of sheer molten pleasure. She was drowning in it; her body was not her own anymore. It never would be again. She lay beneath him, her heart hammering loudly in her ears, her blood racing, the taste of him in her mouth, his body buried deep inside of her, and for the first time in her endless existence she was truly content.

Gabriel lay over her, pinning her beneath him, and felt he never wanted to move away from the beauty of her body. He lifted his head to look down into her eyes, fully expecting censure. Francesca stroked back his damp hair. "So, that's what we've been missing all these years." She said it softly, in wonder.

He bent his head to place a kiss against the soft, vulnerable line of her throat. His hands bunched in her hair possessively. "You are so incredibly beautiful, Francesca." His voice whispered seductively over her skin.

She closed her eyes and allowed him to seep into her body and mind. He had bound them together. She had hoped he wouldn't, but it made no difference. None of this made a difference. Francesca was glad she had experienced what should have been hers, but it wasn't enough to hold her to earth. Hundreds of years had passed; her life had gone on endlessly. She could not start over as a Carpathian woman bound to a domineering male. She relaxed her body, soaking up the feel of his. He was so different from her, so much more muscle and sinew, all masculine and hard, angles and planes.

He was moving again, slow and gentle, building the heat between them once more. Francesca had studiously avoided all thoughts of sex and the sexual act once she realized it would never happen to her. Now she wished she had included it in her extensive education.

"I did,"

Gabriel assured her and once more took complete control of their bodies. He directed her with his mind; his hands, cupping her rounded bottom, moved her body to meet the rhythm of his.

There was no denying him; Francesca didn't even want to. In all the long centuries of her solitary existence, she had never betrayed her lifemate. As long as she knew he lived, she had waited, hoped in the way women often do. But as the empty years passed by, she'd realized he wouldn't come for her. Then she had turned her attentions to finding her way into the sun. Her life with Brice would have come next. But now it was so different. No other could ever make her feel as Gabriel did. He was flame and ecstasy, his hands moving over her as if committing every line and curve to memory. As if he were worshipping her. As if he had to have her.

He wanted her. He needed her. Only she could assuage the fiery burning in his body. And she knew absolutely that only Gabriel could make her come alive like this. Completely alive. Only Gabriel could make her body burn with such intensity that ripple after ripple of pure sensual pleasure shattered her into fragments and made her lose control. It was like nothing she had ever experienced or imagined, his body moving in hers with a commanding rhythm, leading hers ever closer to the edge of the highest cliffs.

Gabriel's mouth moved over her full breast, hot and hungry, so that her body did a meltdown, her insides turning to molten lava. She wanted him to touch her, to explore every inch of her skin with his mouth. His tongue was swirling around her hard nipples and her velvet sheath tightened and tightened so that she was drowning in pleasure. He moved with sure, hard strokes, their bodies coming together, his hands biting into her hips while he held her still for his invasion. She wanted him like this over and over. She could read the erotic pictures in his mind, the things he intended to do to her, the things he wanted her to do to him, and she wanted every one of them. Her body was spinning out of control and she clung to him, a soft sound of sheer pleasure escaping before she could stop it. She didn't want to stop it, she wanted this moment to last for all eternity. She wanted to take her time and explore every inch of his hard, perfect body. She wanted to drive him out of his mind with pleasure as she knew she could.

Her arms slipped around his neck and she held him close as he thrust into her, surging in and out, reaching ever higher while she careened over the cliffs into a free fall that went on and on until he exploded into her, falling with her, their bodies entangled so that neither could tell where one started and the other left off. Gabriel held her to him, slowing their heartbeats, more than satisfied with her reaction. Rather than being angry with him at his deliberate seduction, she was pressing her beautiful mouth into the hollow of his shoulder, her body soft and pliant. In her mind he read her satisfaction, her growing desire for more. She wanted this heat and fire. She wanted his hands on her. It was unlike anything either of them had ever experienced.

Suddenly she stiffened and pushed at the wall of his chest. Gabriel allowed her a few inches of freedom. A bead of sweat was trickling down the valley between her inviting breasts and lazily he leaned his head down, tracking the bead with his tongue. He felt her body shudder and tighten around his. She pushed at him again and at once he sought her mind. Guilt was invading her, guilt and confusion that she should feel such a strong sexual attraction when she had never before experienced such a thing.

"It is natural, Francesca," he whispered soothingly, his teeth scraping back and forth over her sensitive breast, then moving to the corner of her mouth.

"Maybe for you it is, but not for me. I need time, Gabriel, to sort all of this out. I need to be alone. I need to think this through. Please let me up."

Were there tears in her voice? He studied her averted face for a long moment, willing her to meet his dark gaze, but she steadfastly refused. Reluctantly he eased his body from hers and at once felt bereft. She did too, but she was refusing to admit it to herself. She wanted to be alone. Gabriel moved his large frame off her body, his hand trailing over her soft skin once more because he couldn't help himself. He lay staring up at the ceiling of the chamber, a small smile of satisfaction curving his mouth.

She wanted him every bit as much as he wanted her. There was a sensual, very passionate woman hidden in Francesca. Gabriel closed his eyes and thought of what it would be like to hold her every dawn, to wake each night with her beside him, to bury his body deep into the welcoming heat of her at will. He had never imagined such a paradise in all his centuries of existence, and now more than ever he was determined he would not lose her.

Francesca had retreated to the bathroom. She stood in the shower with tears running down her face. How could this have happened now, so late in her existence? How could Gabriel still be alive when the entire Carpathian world believed him dead? He was a legend, a myth, not someone living and breathing and demanding his rights.

"It will not do you any good to hide in there."

She sensed that Gabriel was close. Hastily she fought back the tears and turned off the water. Stepping from the shower stall, she wrapped her slender body in a large towel. Her skin was so sensitive she found herself blushing for no reason at all. He had done this. Changed her for all time. He had given her blood and brought her back fully into the Carpathian world. He had bound her to him, completing the ritual so that the two halves of their soul were melded together, their heart was one. She would need him now, need to touch his mind and need the heat of his body for the remainder of her time on earth. Francesca, who had never needed anyone. Francesca, who never answered to anyone.

Gabriel was lounging lazily against the door frame, his black eyes watching her warily. She was so beautiful she took his breath away, but the tears clinging to her long lashes tore at his heart.

"I am not hiding," she replied as she stepped resolutely in front of the full-length mirror. Did she look any different? Did it show that she had been loved so thoroughly by a man? "I was merely collecting my thoughts."

"You believe nothing has changed." He made it a statement.

"I cannot give you what you want from me. Do not push the issue, Gabriel, or you will force me to bring this matter before our Prince."

Gabriel smiled, a predator's baring of teeth. There was no humor, only a wolfish menace. For the first time she was afraid. "No one will take you from me, Francesca, certainly not Mikhail. In any case, you would not bring another into our personal battle. This is between the two of us. You believe that as deeply as I do. Make no mistake, my first allegiance is to my lifemate, to safeguarding her health."

"What of her happiness?"

"Give me time and I will ensure that also. Do not think to cross swords with me. You will not win."

"I admire your arrogance," Francesca said smoothly and allowed the towel to drop to the floor, simultaneously clothing herself in the manner of her kind as she did so. "I have to go out this night." She was not going to be drawn into an argument with him.

"If you seek nourishment, I will provide for you," Gabriel said smoothly.

She fought to keep color from sweeping up her neck and into her face. She didn't want to think about the way he would provide for her. He turned the simple act of feeding into a sexual intimacy. "Thank you very much for the offer, but I am going to the hospital. There was a message from Brice about another patient."

Gabriel reached out and wrapped his fingers around her slender wrist, a shackle she couldn't possibly break. He wasn't hurting her; in fact his touch was gentle, but even if she had struggled desperately, she would never have broken his grip. "I will keep what is mine, Francesca. Do not put this doctor in the middle of our battle."

"There is no battle, Gabriel," she replied softly. "Brice is my friend. I go to the hospital often to give aid where it is needed. It is a large part of my life, of who I am. It has nothing to do with Brice, other than that he happens to be a doctor and we're friends."

"You are reaching for him in your mind because he is simple. He is someone you are familiar and comfortable with. I frighten you."

Her dark eyes rested on his face. "I don't know exactly what you're planning to do, Gabriel, but I can read your intent. You think to stop me from doing the things I have planned for so long."

Gabriel shrugged casually, not bothering to deny the obvious. "Perhaps it would help if you considered other possibilities, another way of life."

"Because you think you've changed your lifestyle. You haven't, you know. In a day or two there will be a killing in this city and you will be on the hunt without a backward glance, without a single thought for me, just as you did before."

Gabriel smiled at her, his teeth very white. "I will have no choice but to hunt the vampire, but I will not only look back, I will come back."

Francesca twisted her wrist experimentally, reminding him to release her. "There's no real need to hurry," she said coolly. Even as she said it, even as she tried to dismiss him, she was reaching up to smooth his collar.

At once Gabriel felt the same soothing calm he had experienced from the moment she had first touched him. He had not realized just how tight he was inside. Francesca recognized it and knew what to do to relax him. "You are a great man, Gabriel, a legend among our people, and your reputation is well deserved. I wish that I could give you all that you should have." Francesca's long lashes swept down to conceal the deep sorrow and guilt in her eyes. "But I had a life before you came here. I don't know you. My body reacts as a Carpathian lifemate's should, but my heart is not yours."

Gabriel brought her hand up to her chest and held it over his heart. "You feel admiration for this human doctor, Francesca, I can read it easily in your mind, but do not mistake it for love."

"Why do you believe I could not love a human man?"

"Because you are my lifemate and there is only one man for you. I am here now, Francesca. I should have been here sooner, but I am here now. Do not allow fear to send you running to this man."

"I have felt affection for Brice for a long time, Gabriel. It is true I was entertaining the idea of sharing my last years with him. I deserve some semblance of happiness in so long a lifetime." Francesca could not understand why she was feeling guilty. She owed Gabriel nothing. She had asked him not to bind them together, yet he had done so. She felt cornered and confused.

"You enjoy this doctor's company because you share his interests. You are a born healer. He, too, heals people. But that commonality is not love, Francesca. Affection, admiration and friendship do not add up to love."

"If he had asked me to marry him, Gabriel, you would have found him living with me."

Gabriel's black eyes moved over her face. Very gently he reached out to tug her chin up. "I do not have to read your mind to know just how often he has asked this question of you. No man, human or otherwise, would take long to try to make you his. You do not love him, Francesca."

"I don't love you, Gabriel. And that matters to me. I have lived far too long to enter into a relationship at this late date because I wish to experience sex."

His eyes laughed at her. "Great sex," he corrected.

A small answering smile flirted with her mouth. "All right then, great sex," she conceded. "Don't get any ideas, I'm just giving the devil his due. All this time our people called you the angel of light and Lucian the dark angel. I think they might have it backward." She withdrew her hand and turned away from him. "I do not mind if you find another sleeping chamber, Gabriel. Do not count too heavily on winning this battle between us. Even after what has occurred between us, I am still determined to carry on with my plans to grow old. I have lived long and I tire of watching others die."

"There is no battle, honey," he murmured softly and watched her walk out into the dark night. She had no chance of escaping him. He had made sure of that. No one, human or otherwise, could take her from him now. And his insurance policy would prevent her from seeking the solace of the dawn as nothing else could. He glided through the room to the door and stood staring out at the lights of the city. So many. It was lit up as brightly as the heavens above.

Gabriel had been locked beneath the earth a long time; there was much to catch up on. He had to relearn the layout of Paris, find every alley and every bolt-hole in it. This was a perfect hunting ground for a demon such as Lucian had become. Soon it would start. The killings, the deaths, the endless hunt and the many battles. Somewhere out there in the slumbering city stalked a merciless, relentless killer. No one was safe, no one would be safe again until Gabriel destroyed him. Now with Francesca to protect, Gabriel knew it was imperative he win this time. He had to find a way to destroy his brother. If he had hesitated out of misguided loyalty in the past, he no longer had the luxury of being able to do so now. Francesca must be protected at all times. With a heavy heart, he took three running steps and launched himself into the air.

Francesca took her time walking to the hospital. She loved the night. As much as she had longed for the sun, had worked to be able to walk in it, she loved the night. There was peace and tranquility after sunset, whereas chaos often reigned during the day. She loved the sounds of the night creatures, the rush of wings overhead that only a select few ever heard. There was a secret world she had always been part of, and now Gabriel was demanding she return to it.

How long had it been since she had seen her homeland, the Carpathian Mountains? What would it be like to walk among her own kind? To dig her fingers deep in the rich, healing soil? She had long ago given up that dream. Why had he come back after all this time? Why now? What was it she felt for Brice? Could she give her body so willingly, so completely to Gabriel and really have affection for Brice? Gabriel hadn't taken what she wasn't willing to give. He might have awakened her to his need, might even have planted the seeds of desire in her body before waking her, but she was no fledgling. She could not place the blame on Gabriel's shoulders. She could have stopped him, or at least made things extremely difficult. No, she couldn't place the blame on Gabriel. She had wanted him almost from the first moment she had awakened with his blood coursing through her veins.

What did that mean? Was she a woman who could be with more than one man at the same time? Could she love Brice? If she really loved him, why hadn't she said she would marry him long before now? Was Gabriel right? Was she rushing to Brice because he was safe and someone she knew? Someone who could never dominate her? Was she still harboring a young girl's hurt and humiliation? She had thought herself long over those silly feelings.

She was bound to Gabriel. Her mind tuned itself to his. Her body cried out for his. They were tied, yet her wayward heart seemed to have a mind of its own. How could that be? Had she made herself so human, she could no longer be tied by the ritual words? No, she had felt the burning need, the terrible hunger only Gabriel could assuage.

Sighing, Francesca rubbed her pounding temples. She had betrayed her own beliefs. She had never committed herself to Brice, but she had secretly entertained the idea that there was a chance for them. Brice cared a great deal for her; she felt his genuine affection every time they were together. It would be impossible for him to lie to her, she could read his mind so easily. He would be so upset if she suddenly withdrew from their relationship. She had allowed him to feel for her. Didn't that make her responsible? She felt confused and lonely. And she was so very tired of living so completely alone.

"Not alone, Francesca. I am here to talk with you. There is no need to feel betrayal. I came into your life unexpectedly. I cannot say I am happy you think constantly of another man and worry more about hishappiness than mine, but I do understand. I complicated things for you."

Francesca blinked back tears. There was something comforting and very intimate about another speaking so softly in her head, whispering soothing words of understanding and camaraderie in the face of her personal crisis. It had been so long since she had used such a means of communication. Gabriel's voice was a powerful tool, stroking like a caress through her mind. For the first time in many centuries she felt she was not alone. The women of her species needed their other half.

Gabriel.

She closed her eyes briefly. Why had he come back now?

"Francesca! Thank God." Brice came hurrying out of an alcove just around the corner from the entrance to the emergency room. "I've lost half my life worrying about you. Who was that man?"

Brice's arm curved around her shoulders and at once she felt the heavy weight of Gabriel's disapproval. Carpathian males did not share their women well. Gabriel was Old World. He had spent centuries of his life chasing demons, protecting others. He had the instincts of a predator, yet he was also courageous, a courtly, elegant lord. She could feel his struggle to remain balanced and understanding when his very nature demanded he eliminate his competition efficiently and very swiftly. It had been a long time since Francesca had lived in his world. She had almost forgotten the way the men of her race were with their women. Protective. Possessive.

"His name is Gabriel, Brice. I'm sorry, I had no idea he was going to be there. If I'd known, I would have told you about him before you met him."

"He looks at you as if he owns you." Brice hugged her to him, suddenly feeling as if he had already lost her. There was a wariness in her eyes that had never been there before. Francesca was different, but he couldn't exactly say how. "He thinks he does, doesn't he? What is he to you?"

"He was my husband. I thought he was dead," Francesca said softly, truthfully. "I was more shocked to see him alive than you must be. I'm sorry, Brice, he's been gone forever. I had no idea he would come back. I truly thought him dead all these years."

"You never mentioned a husband." Brice was clearly in shock.

She nodded. "I know I didn't. It was a long time ago and I had accepted that he was gone. His return is a shock and I have to deal with it. All of us do."

Brice swallowed hard, visibly upset, so much so that she automatically soothed him with her touch. He immediately laced his fingers through hers. "What does it mean? He can't think after all this time he can just walk back into your life, can he? You know how I feel about you. Was he legally declared dead? What does this mean for us?"

"I don't honestly know what to think right now, Brice. I told you, I'm in a state of complete shock." Because Francesca could not bear to be dishonest with him, she forced herself to go further. "But it does change things. How could it not? Gabriel is a very overpowering man and he certainly was never declared dead."

Brice stepped away from her, his eyes moving over her face in censure. "You're still attracted to him, aren't you?" It was an accusation.

Francesca looked away from him, guilt washing over her in a rush. "He was my husband, Brice. What do you think?"

"Damn it, Francesca! You should have married me a long time ago. You certainly thought about it, you can't deny that you did. So what if he's come back? He doesn't belong in your life anymore." Suddenly he went very still. "He isn't staying at your house, is he?"

Francesca remained silent, her gaze studiously avoiding his.

Brice slapped his forehead. "Francesca! Are you out of your mind? You don't even know anything about this man anymore. Where has he been all this time? Do you even know what he's been doing lately? I'll bet you don't yet you just take him in as if no time has passed. For all you know, he could have been in jail. He probably was in jail." His hand on her arm detained her progress into the hospital. "Is that it, Francesca? Was he in jail somewhere and you just don't want to tell me? I think you owe it to me."

"If I wanted to tell you, I wouldn't be able to. You won't let me get a word in edgewise," Francesca protested. "Where Gabriel was and what he was doing is his business, only his, and I don't owe you that information."

"You slept with him." Brice made it a statement.

"That isn't your business either." Her chin was up, her eyes flashing a warning signal. Francesca might feel guilty but she couldn't find it in her to allow Brice or any other man to chastise her. She had always been honest with him, always. More than once she had encouraged him to find another woman, one who would adore him as he deserved. Francesca was just not that kind. It made her feel sad that she wasn't. It made her feel inadequate that she couldn't give her heart completely and totally. There was something wrong with her, something missing. It was just as well Gabriel had chosen to follow another path; he would have found her less than perfect, his life with her less than satisfying.

"Has it occurred to you he may have been living with another woman all these years? He could have another wife and even children somewhere and you wouldn't know it." The words slipped out maliciously, before he could stop them.

Her large black eyes flashed with sudden anger at the suggestion. "That's beneath you, Brice," she pointed out softly.

"Francesca, please. Don't do this." Brice circled her waist with his arm, but as he drew her close to his body he was very much aware he had crossed some line.

At once she was uncomfortable, stiff. She could smell his cologne and though it was expensive, it made her feel slightly nauseated. It was strange, she had always rather liked his cologne, yet now she thought only of the way Gabriel smelled, his musky, male scent. Was that part of the ritual, the binding? Did it make it impossible for her to touch another man? Was that the secret the men of their race held over the women? She shoved an impatient hand through her hair, found her fingers were trembling. Maybe there was a way to undo what the ritual words had wrought. After all, she had done the impossible: she had found a way to walk among humans in the noonday sun. Gabriel might have reversed her accomplishment, but that didn't negate the fact that she had done what no other Carpathian ever had.

"I'm not doing anything, Brice. I don't know what to do, so I'm not doing a single thing. I'm not asking you to put your life on hold or asking you to wait. I've always told you to find a sweet girl and settle down." Francesca brushed her hair away, a nervous gesture she rarely made.

"I love you, Francesca," Brice said unhappily. "I'm not about to run out and find another woman. You're the one I want. I can't say I like the idea of a former husband staying at your house, but I don't want you shutting me out because you think I can't handle it."

Francesca shook her head. "I can't handle it, Brice. You have no idea how confused I feel. I'd rather not talk about it any more right now. What if I just look at this patient for you?"

Brice caught at her arm and slowed his pace to prevent her from entering the hospital. "Do you love him?"

Francesca let out her breath slowly, wanting to be entirely truthful. "How could I when I haven't seen him for so long? I don't know him. I haven't let myself know him; I don't want to know him right now. I can tell you I think he's courageous and I admire him as I've never admired anyone else in my life. And he deserves to have a good life. I just don't necessarily want to be part of it."

Brice swore silently to himself. "You don't owe him anything. I don't care if he was your husband. You sound as though you think you owe him, but you owe him absolutely nothing. I don't care if he was a secret agent and saved the world. He can't just come back here and decide he wants you again." Gabriel had saved the world, probably more than once. And with a powerful vampire loose in the city, he would once again protect humans at great risk to his own life. He had given up his chance at happiness, had given up family, emotions and colors. He had done more than risk his life, he had risked his very soul to keep mortals and immortals alike safe. He had no real existence; even his own kind feared his power. He was completely alone.

Gabriel.

Her heart ached for him as much as her mind rebelled against his hold over her.

"Gabriel is different, Brice. I can't explain him to you. I've had a difficult evening and I'm asking you to drop the subject for a while. I can't give you the answer you want to hear and if you push me, I would have to say no, there's no hope for us and just forget it." She rubbed at her throbbing temples. "What about this patient of yours? Do you want help or not?"

Brice shook his head, trying to hide his frustration. "All right, Francesca, have it your way. We'll shelve it for now, but I wish you'd throw him out or take him to one of those shelters you're always funding. One of them ought to have a bed for him."

Francesca knew very well Gabriel was probably quite wealthy. No matter how long he had been sleeping beneath the earth, he would have a stash of gold or something of equal value to sustain him. Those in his line would keep his properties intact for him. If he had none, all Carpathians would contribute significant amounts to ease his way back into society. It was their way to aid one another at all times when there was need. In Carpathian society, wealth meant nothing. It was to be shared as a means of continuing their kind, of keeping them a secret. Gabriel had not yet had time to collect what was rightfully his, but he would. In any case, Francesca could do no other than live by the code of her people and share what was hers with him.

"I have asked him to find his own place as soon as he gets his bearings, but I will not force him to leave my home. Now tell me about your patient or I'm leaving." She meant it too. If Brice pushed her any harder she was just going to walk away and not come back for a very long time.

He recognized the finality in her voice. "She's fourteen years old, and looks as if she's been in a train wreck. X rays show a multitude of broken bones, some set by physicians and some knitted crookedly on their own. She's practically comatose. She looks at me, but won't say a word. I can't even tell whether she actually hears me. She's in bad shape. She has some wicked-looking scars on her back and some particularly bad ones on her hands and arms as if she fought back many times. She looks as if she's been battered repeatedly. Her father brought her in, a brute of a man, nasty, doesn't say much. No other relatives. Cops say he's a career criminal but no history of child abuse. We can't prove the father's a sadistic abuser without the child's account, and she can't talk to us. He wants to take her home, says she's retarded, but I don't think so."

Francesca felt her heart turn over. She hated this kind of thing, had fought for centuries to establish safe havens for women and children, yet there were never enough. Fourteen years old. Why would a father torture and abuse his own child while her species fought so hard to preserve their children? Carpathian males always protected women and children above their own lives. It just didn't make any sense and her heart bled for the poor teenager with no one to protect her from the very person who should have loved her the most. "Was there sexual abuse?"

Brice nodded. "Absolutely there was. This child has been so abused it's sickening."

"You have need of my aid, honey?"

Gabriel's beautiful voice brushed gently at the walls of her mind.

"Show her to me, Brice," she instructed softly.

"A child has been abused. I am going to see her now. Brice said they suspect the father."

Withoutreally thinking about it, she sent him all of the information Brice had given to her.

"I will be fine."

"I expect you to call should there be need."

Alongwith the soft command she was immediately flooded with warmth and comfort, strong arms to anchor her as she faced another emotional battering.


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