Dark Legend (Dark #8)

Chapter 4


Brice pushed open the door to the young woman's room and stepped back to allow Francesca entry. Fortunately the girl's father was not present. The man was a bully and Brice was afraid of him. He crossed the room, smiling gently at the young woman huddled on the bed. She hadn't looked up or indicated in any way that she noticed their entry.

"Skyler, I'd like you to meet a friend of mine. I know you can hear me, Skyler. This is Francesca. She's an extraordinary woman. You don't have to be afraid of her."

Francesca watched Brice, noticed how gentle his movements has become around the teenager. That was one of the things that drew her to Brice. The way he was with children, with those who were hurt and wounded. He cared. It couldn't have anything to do with money, she was certain of that. Brice really wanted to make things right, wanted to help these little lost souls. Her heart warmed and she smiled at him as she glided forward to seat herself in the chair Brice had placed right beside the bed.

"Hello, Skyler. Your doctor has asked me to come and visit you. I thought we'd ask him to leave so we can be alone together. Just the two of us." She nodded at Brice.

He bent close, his mouth so close to her ear she could feel the warmth of his breath. "I'm going to keep an eye out for her father. If he catches you in here, there's no telling what he might do."

"You think he'll become violent?" Francesca whispered the question, not wanting the child to hear her. The last thing the girl needed was an ugly scene involving her father. "Are you expecting him?"

"Not anytime soon. He usually spends this time of night drinking," Brice assured her. With a reassuring wink at the unresponsive teenager he left the room.

Francesca observed the child closely. The girl was lying in the fetal position, her hair hanging in ragged lengths as though someone had chopped it off indiscriminately. There was a crescent-shaped scar on her temple, white and thin. There were bruises all over her face. Her eyes were swollen and her jaw was several shades of green and blue. "So your name is Skyler." She lowered her voice so that it was soft and beautiful, hiding the underlying compulsion with a silvery sound.

Francesca took the girl's limp, scarred hand into hers, reaching at the same time for her mind. She wanted to examine the child's memories, to see what had happened to her to make her lie without moving, so lifeless and without hope. At once a flood of violence and depravity stormed into her. Tears burned, clung to Francesca's lashes. Such a terrible existence. She felt every blow the child had received, every burn, every rape, every act forced upon her, every single torture, mental and physical, as if it had been done to her. The scars were on the inside as well as the outside, scars that might fade with time but would never really go away. Her own father had sold her to other men, beaten her repeatedly if she fought them and punished her each time she had attempted to run away. He beat her if she cried, beat her when the men returned her, complaining that she was a wooden doll, uncooperative and frigid.

The images were terrible, of fingers forcing their way into the little body, hands squeezing and groping, men fumbling at her with alcohol on their breath. There was breathtaking pain as they rammed into a body far too small to accommodate them. Large, hamlike fists coming at the little face, her small body being flung against the wall. The nightmare went on and on, illustrating the hideous fate of a child impossibly young, without help, without hope. Locked in a stifling hot closet, locked in a freezing cold bathroom. Hungry, thirsty, knowing each time she heard footsteps it would start again.

Francesca pressed one hand to her stomach as it knotted and twisted in sympathy. For a moment, she was afraid she might actually be sick. This child had not only suffered physical hell, but had completely lost the will to fight. Francesca pushed past the total despair and reached for more. She wanted to find the real Skyler, the one that had existed before her spirit had been beaten out of her. Skyler had been a fighter once. A lover of life, of poetry, finding joy in the things around her, simple things, just as her mother had. Skyler Rose, her mother had named her. A beautiful rose without the thorns. She had a voice that could sing to the heavens, yet her brutal parent had managed to silence it. The man was every bit as evil as a vampire. Cunning and cruel and totally depraved. His very existence sickened Francesca. He lived for alcohol and crack. That was his life, his only life.

"Listen to the sound of my voice, Skyler, more than my words." Francesca projected her voice into the girl's mind, reached to touch the huddled, cringing spirit. "I cannot lie to you. I know you don't want to come back to this world and I don't blame you. You've gone far away from this body so you don't have to see or hear him. You don't have to feel what he does to you anymore. I can heal you. I can take away the things he has done to you, the scars on your body. I can lessen the impact of what has been done to you so you can live again whole. I can even make it possible for you to conceive a child later if that is your will. You can have a family of your own. You will believe me in this one thing, above all others: you are in no way responsible for the things that have happened to you. I know he made you believe you are worthless, but the truth is, Skyler, he couldn't stand your natural goodness, your very beauty shining at him, reminding him every day of his own sick depravity."

Stroking back strands of dull hair with gentle fingertips, Francesca leaned close to the girl's head. She wanted to hold her forever, keep her safe and love her as she should have been loved. Why hadn't she found this child earlier, before her cruel parent had done such extensive harm? She could feel the tears trickling down her face, the heavy sorrow pressing in on her chest. Ancients felt pain, emotions, much more intensely than fledglings. Francesca wanted to lie beside the girl and weep, but instead she forced herself to look beyond the pain both of them now shared.

She closed her eyes, focusing entirely on the young teenager, her own body dropping away from her until she became energy and light. At once she moved to merge with Skyler. Her young body was a mess of torn muscle, broken bones, bruised tissue. There were internal scars everywhere. Most of all the body felt dead, as if Skyler's spirit had long ago departed. Francesca knew it wasn't so; she had connected with the girl, knew the child was listening to her, somewhere deep inside her mind. A small huddled spirit drawn only by the compulsion in Francesca's voice. Francesca knew the girl was waiting very still in the shadows, just waiting to see whether Francesca was telling the truth. How could she believe? It was only the strangeness, the pure silvery sound of Francesca's voice and the fact that she was "different" that had captured her attention at all.

"Baby," Francesca whispered softly, her heart aching. "Baby, I'm so sorry I wasn't here for you before, but I won't abandon you. I will watch over you always, throughout your young life. I will make sure no one can ever hurt you again like this." She moved closer to the life force huddled so small. "Come back and live, Skyler. I can give you back your life. I'm not your mother, I know that, but I will never allow any harm to come to you again. I give you my word, and it is not given lightly or often." She moved closer, bathing the huddled, miserable child in her light, her compassion, the full force of her goodness. "Believe in me, trust in me. I know I can keep you safe as no one has ever done. Hear my voice, Skyler. I'm incapable of lying to one such as you. I know you feel my words are true."

Her voice was compelling, drawing the child's shattered spirit to her like a magnet. She swamped the teenager with warmth and reassurance, a promise that she would never again have to face the brute that was her father. She would be protected from him at all times. All she had to do was come back. Just allow herself to trust someone.

Softly, Francesca chanted a healing ritual in the ancient language, the words as old as time itself, as she began to work from the inside out to repair Skyler's damaged body. She worked swiftly and meticulously, paying close attention to details, not wanting any foul evidence of the beatings or rapes in her body. After a time she became aware of a discordant note. Merged as she was with the child, she became aware of the girl cringing, suddenly radiating fear. She was not frightened of Francesca, never of her. If anything, the huddled spirit was moving reluctantly toward her for protection. The child seemed to sense her father's presence. He was somewhere close inside the hospital, coming toward the room.

Francesca caught some of the young woman's fear. It would have been impossible not to feel it when the girl was so terrified and they were connected. Francesca had tremendous control, born of centuries of patience. She knew that she was powerful and could handle dangerous situations, yet at the same time she was also aware that she must appear to be human. She had trained herself to appear human, to make her responses totally normal. Even her thoughts had to appear human. Such precautions had protected her from the undead. They had also kept the Carpathian males from finding her. Even a mind scan would identify her as human, not Carpathian. She had never been able to risk a surge of power that might draw her own kind or the undead to her.

"It's all right, sweetheart. I won't let him touch you. I know everything, all of it, every terrible thing he's done to you. The police will take him away and lock him up so tight he'll never get out again." Once more she used her voice, the pure tones of truth and honesty, so that the girl would not retreat too far when her father entered the room.

Francesca slowly returned to her own body. As always when she healed out of her body, she was drained to the point of exhaustion. She rose with calm, unhurried movements, pushed open the door and beckoned Brice inside. "It's her father. He's committed terrible crimes against this child. Call the police and make certain they come down here at once to arrest him. Ask for Argassy, use my name. Tell him I said it was an emergency."

Brice glanced at Skyler, still in the fetal position, her eyes blank and dull. "If she can't tell them, Francesca…" He trailed off as Francesca's black gaze began to smolder. At times the compassionate healer could look quite intimidating.

"She will not have to testify." It was a decree. Francesca turned away from him.

Brice had one hand on the door when it suddenly crashed open, flinging him backward to fall against the bed. A huge burly bear of a man staggered in, blinking at them with hate-filled eyes. His hands were huge, opening and closing into fists. He barely looked at Brice, clearly dismissing him as an obstacle. His gaze settled on Francesca, whose hand was linked to Skyler's.

"What is this?" he bellowed. "How dare you come into my daughter's room when I said no one was allowed in here. Who are you?"

Francesca lowered her voice until it was as soft and clean as a gentle breeze. "I am this child's advocate. She is very ill, Mr. Thompson, and I want you to leave this room before you distress her further."

Her voice was so compelling, the man actually turned to leave, one hand up to push at the door. Then he spun around shaking his head, a cunning feral hatred gathering in his eyes. "You little bitch, you can't tell me what to do with my own daughter." Deliberately he stalked across the room toward her. Skyler was essential to him, his only way to get his drugs now.

He was good at intimidating others, Francesca admitted. He had perfected his technique with years of practicing on Skyler and her mother. He was an ugly brute of a man with a special need to inflict pain and fear on others. She read him easily, recognized his enjoyment of hurting others – men, children, women, it didn't matter. He needed to do so. Francesca could see Brice making himself very small, cowering in the corner, trying to edge toward the door. If he made it, he could call security and bring help immediately.

Francesca controlled the beating of her heart, knowing Skyler was still clinging to her, still waiting to see if she was true to her word. Francesca sent waves of reassurance, a calm tranquility she didn't actually feel. This man should have walked out the door at her command. He was human and the hidden compulsion in her voice should have been enough to control him, but it hadn't worked. She could handle the situation using other powers and skills, but it was a chancy thing to do with Brice in the room and a legendary vampire somewhere in the city. Lucian would feel the surge of power, know the touch was feminine. It could very well bring instant trouble to the hospital, to her friends as well as to her.

The man stood so close she could see the hair on his chest through his dirty shirt. He smelled of cheap whiskey and rye. The taint of drugs seeped from his pores. She met his gaze with a calm acceptance of his rage. If he struck her, her friends would see to it that he would be locked up for a very long time. And he was going to strike her. The air was thick with tension.

"You bitch. You need a real man to show you how to behave. Your simpering little doctor probably runs to you every time you crook your little finger." Deliberately he cupped his crotch lewdly. "You smell good, lady, and I'll bet your skin is as soft as it looks." He was breathing too fast, already stiff and licking his lips with anticipation. His hand moved to touch her face, to feel if her skin could possibly be as soft as it looked. "Don't!" It was a sharp command. Francesca didn't move. Her eyes blazed at him, glaring with contempt. He was incapable of performing sexually. She knew that much about him.

Vulgarly he spat out a string of swear words even as he swung his fist at her. Francesca stood very still waiting calmly for the blow. Brice yelled at the top of his lungs for security. Only a heartbeat went by, a tiny space of time, but in that space the air in the room thickened to a black malevolence. The door burst inward at the same moment that Thompson's fist connected with flesh.

Gabriel was smiling even as he crushed Thompson's fist in his hand. He had caught it before the brute could strike Francesca. Moving with preternatural speed, he had inserted his body between Francesca's and Thompson's, catching the punch before it could connect with his lifemate's face. Only Gabriel's black eyes seemed alive in his still face. Deep within their depths burned the bright red flame of the demon. It revealed his true nature, that of a predator.

To Brice's astonishment Skyler's father seemed to crumple before Gabriel. Brice read the terror in the man's face and forgot to continue calling for security. He felt fear himself, a mounting surge of adrenaline that refused to abate. Gabriel looked like an avenging angel, a warrior of old, invincible, merciless. He was staring directly into Thompson's eyes. "You do not want to strike Francesca, do you?" The voice was very soft, almost gentle. Although pleasing to the ear, it was all the more frightening because there was no emotion.

Thompson was shaking his head like a child. There was pain etched on his face and Brice could see that Gabriel retained possession of his fist. Gabriel's knuckles weren't white, he didn't look as if he was exerting any pressure at all, yet Thompson's face grew gray and he began a low-pitched moaning that fast rose to a cry. Gabriel bent his dark head to the man and whispered something Brice couldn't hear, but Thompson ceased to weep, managing only a moaning whimper. His eyes remained fixed on Gabriel's face, eyes filled with horror, with sheer terror.

Security burst into the room and immediately Gabriel stepped away from the man, his larger body protectively shielding Francesca's. They took Thompson out into the hall, astonished that he went with them so docilely. There was the sound of something heavy hitting the floor and a terrible coughing, then a rattling. Almost at once, a nurse called for Brice, her voice tense. He hurried out to find Thompson lying on the floor, both hands clutching his throat, his face gray as he fought desperately for air, his eyes rolling back in his head.

"What's going on? What happened?" Brice was on his knees beside the man.

"He just started gasping and grabbed his throat. He went a little crazy, acting as if he were wrestling with someone for a minute, almost as if he were being strangled, and then he fell," the security guard blurted out.

Francesca heard the explanation and sat down once again in the chair beside Skyler's bed. "Thank you, Gabriel," she said sincerely. He had no idea how relieved and happy she was at his unexpected arrival.

His hand moved over her silken hair in a slow caress. "You should have known I would never allow anyone to lay a hand on you." His voice was very gentle, almost tender. It gave her an unfamiliar feeling. This was what it felt like to be protected by a male Carpathian. Cherished. She knew Thompson was dead. Gabriel knew everything, all of it, every terrible thing that the beast had done to his daughter. Gabriel had been there, a shadow in her mind all along, monitoring her surroundings as the male of their species often did to insure his lifemate's safety.

He had felt the child's terror, had suffered right along with Francesca every single torment the teen had experienced. He had shared every tear Francesca had shed and the fear she'd felt when Thompson burst into the room. She was oddly grateful not to be alone. At the same time she resented the idea that she liked being protected.

Francesca watched the way Gabriel touched Skyler, his hand so gentle, his voice like a musical instrument. The tenderness of this enormously powerful man put a lump in her throat. "He cannot harm you, little one. Francesca will watch over you and so will I. You are under our joint protection and I give you my word of honor it is for all time. Come back to us, join us."

There was no way to ignore the compulsion in Gabriel's voice. The child stirred, blinked rapidly, made a soft sound of distress. At once Gabriel moved back so that the child would focus on Francesca. Skyler needed a woman. Francesca was all compassion and honesty, goodness and purity. Skyler would see it. Francesca's soul was so beautiful that anyone meeting her could see it shining in her eyes.

Skyler looked up at the ceiling first, shocked that her body didn't feel pain. She remembered the voice of an angel reassuring her, making her promises. A voice she had to listen to, but she was very afraid she had made it up. She turned her head and found her angel. She was beautiful. Every bit as beautiful as any angel Skyler had ever imagined. Her hair was long and flowing, as black as a raven's wing. Her face was that of a Madonna. She had classical bone structure, delicate, almost fragile, so beautiful she took Skyler's breath away. Skyler had not spoken a word in months. It was difficult to find her voice. "Are you real?" Her voice trembled, wobbled, a mere thread of sound.

Francesca felt Gabriel's surge of pride in her and it humbled her that she could receive such high praise from him.

Gabriel. The hunter.

No one had accomplished the things he had in the centuries of his existence. She didn't want to feel warmth at the knowledge that he was so proud of her, but he made her feel as if no one else had her talents, her capabilities. No other woman had survived as she had on her own for so many centuries. And no other woman was so beautiful or so courageous. He made her feel like that in spite of her determination not to let him get to her. He didn't say it, he just resided in her, a merging of minds and souls. She felt it.

We belong together.

Unsaid, but there all the same.

Francesca ignored him, a small smile curving her mouth. "I am very real, sweetheart. I meant every word I said. You have nothing to fear anymore."

Skyler shook her head, her eyes suddenly wild with terror. "They'll give me back to him, they always do, or he just takes me back. I can never get away from him. He finds me. He always finds me."

Gabriel's voice came from behind Francesca. It was tranquil, calm, soothing. "He is gone from this world, little one. Gone for all time. He can never find you or come near you again. He went into cardiac arrest when he was confronted with his sins."

The girl gripped Francesca's hand in hers. "He's really gone? Is this man telling the truth? Where will I go? How will I live?" She was panic-stricken. She knew how to retreat from life and pain and a brutal tyrant. She had no idea how to live in the world. She didn't even know if it was possible.

Francesca stroked back Skyler's hair gently. "There's no need to worry about anything. I have friends who will help us. You will be well taken care of, I promise you. For now, all you have to do is lie here in this room and get well. I'll bring you some clothes and books, maybe a stuffed animal or two. We'll get you some things to make your stay a little less boring. I will come back tomorrow evening and visit with you. We can talk more about what you would like to do with your life and where we'll go from here."

Skyler tightened her grip on Francesca. "Is he really dead?"

"Gabriel would not tell an untruth." Francesca said it very softly but with great conviction. "You need sleep now, child. I will be here tomorrow as promised."

Skyler couldn't quite make herself let go of Francesca's hand. As long as they were physically connected, she believed she was safe. She believed she had a chance at living a normal life. It terrified her to let go of that lifeline. Something about Francesca soothed her, made her believe she actually had a chance. "Don't leave me alone," she whispered, her eyes frankly begging. "I won't be able to make it without you."

Francesca was sagging with weariness. Gabriel circled her shoulders with a strong arm, pulled her beneath his broad shoulder so that she could lean on him. He bent close to Skyler, capturing her gaze with the black intensity of his eyes. "You will sleep, little one, a long, peaceful, healing sleep. When they bring you food, you will be hungry. You will eat what they bring. We will return tomorrow evening and you will have no worries until we are here to help you sort out your life. Go to sleep, Skyler, beautiful, peaceful dreams without fear."

At once the girl's lashes fell and she retreated from the world, this time into a healing sleep, where she'd been sent by the magic in Gabriel's voice. She would dream of angels and beautiful things and a world completely new and exciting to her.

The moment the child was asleep, Gabriel turned his full attention to Francesca. "You must feed, sweetheart." His voice was mesmerizing, filled with concern, infinitely tender. His hands moved up her arms to frame her face. "What you have wrought here is nothing short of a miracle. You know that. A miracle." As he spoke, he was drawing her into the circle of his arms, pressing her face into the warmth of his neck where his pulse beat so strongly.

The lure of it was sharp and tempting. She was exhausted from her energy-draining work. More than that, more than the call of her depleted cells crying out for nourishment, was a new addiction to his taste. He held her so gently, so possessively, so protectively. He was heat and light, safety and companionship. He made her feel complete. She closed her eyes and inhaled his scent, taking just a moment to rest her head against his shoulder. Her mouth was against his bare skin, the material of his shirt brushing against her cheek. He was so close. His skin. Her skin. His blood surged and flowed, beckoned to her.

"You are so tired, Francesco. Please give me the honor of doing this small thing for you. I will not take it as a surrender. I know your mind. You have not attempted to deceive me in any way. I fed well this night."

Hiswhispered words were a seduction, a temptation; he was a dark sorcerer brushing at her mind like the touch of butterfly wings.

Francesca merged with his warmth, both physically and mentally. The feel of his body so close, so protective, next to hers was a gift. When had a man held her in arms of steel? When had a body, so hard, so defined with masculine muscle and sinew, sheltered her close?

"Why didn't he respond when I commanded him to leave?"

That had surprised her, even alarmed her. She had promised the child. It had never happened before. Humans had always listened and obeyed the "push" in her voice.

Gabriel recognized her distress, understood that she judged herself less than him, a failure.

"You are of the light, my love. I am the darkness itself. Thompson was wholly evil. You can restrain and delay evil, but you cannot completely touch its core because you cannot connect with it. Most humans are both good and evil. Not pure evil. You can connect with them because you can touch that which is good. I have the demon in me; it is my nature. He resides there, crouched low, waiting to leap out when I forget to leash him. I know evil every day of my existence. When you control it every day, it is not such a great feat to destroy it. "

Gabriel dismissed his actions easily. "You are not less than I, Francesca. You have never been less. You saved lives and I took them. Who is the greater?"

Her slender arms crept up around his neck seemingly of their own accord. "You saved our people. You saved the human race. Not once, but decade after decade. It was your nature that allowed you to do so." Her voice whispered over him, a soft sound of admiration, a seduction in itself.

The faint stubble on his jaw caught the silken strands of her hair as he rubbed his chin on the top of her head in a little caress. "You must feed, honey. You are drooping with weariness." His coaxed her gently.

"Brice is right outside the door. They've given up on saving Thompson. He'll be in any moment." Her soft voice brushed his body like her fingers, producing a savage, unrelenting ache, but Gabriel kept himself strictly under control. She needed to be held, to be comforted, to be taken care of, not assaulted.

"Take what you need, I am quite capable of sustaining an illusion for humans." There was a faint husky note in his voice, one that was aching and lonely, turning her heart over. He needed the intimacy of providing for her as much as she needed the nourishment.

Almost blindly Francesca turned her face into his throat, inhaled the spicy masculine scent of him. His heart beat strongly, in rhythm with hers. The blood ebbed and flowed in his veins calling to her, an enticement. The warmth of her breath against his skin heightened his pulse, tightened his body to such a painful ache, he clenched his teeth in response, his hand bunching in the thickness of her hair.

Her mouth moved over his skin, soft, sensuous, seductive. At once need slammed into Gabriel so hard it shook his entire frame so that he trembled with urgent desire. Her teeth scraped once over his pulse, her tongue swirled in a velvet soft caress. Gabriel's fist tensed in her hair, pressing her closer to his suddenly heated skin. In response to his urging, her teeth sank deep, lancing him with white-hot lightning and a blue flaming fire that would never be quenched again. It was in his body for all time, in his mind, in the taste of his mouth, a fiery ache in his heart that danced in his very blood.

Warmth spread like thick molten lava. His heart was aching for her. It was not simply the physical demands of his body beating at him like a jackhammer, but something that went far deeper. The closeness of her mind, the right-ness of the way she fit against him, crawled inside his skin. He recalled the tears she had wept for a stranger, her courage in facing the monster that posed as a man, and realized she was far more than a body to sate his wild appetites and an anchor to keep him safe from the growing darkness.

He was aware of Brice in the hallway turning slowly to stare at the door with a frown on his face and suspicion in his mind. Brice would have to be handled carefully. But not too carefully. A slow smile curved Gabriel's mouth, and there was little humor in it. He waved his hand and cloaked his body and Francesca's so that they were invisible to the human eye. He built the illusion of Francesca leaning close to Skyler, whispering softly to her with encouragement. His clone was in the corner, giving the two women a semblance of privacy.

Brice pushed into the room, revealing something very close to fear in his eyes when he looked over at Gabriel's clone. He glanced at Francesca talking so intimately with the teenager, and stopped himself from speaking. He glared at Gabriel, who smiled rather sardonically at him, arrogance etched into his classical Greek features. It annoyed Brice that the man was so good-looking, so tough. Gabriel's rescue of Francesca made him look bad. He couldn't afford to take a chance on breaking his hands. He was a doctor, for heaven's sake.

Gabriel half closed his eyes as Francesca swirled her tongue over the tiny pinpricks in his neck to close them, savoring the moment, the feeling. She lifted her head, her gaze drowsy, sexy, satiated, almost as if they had made love. He bent his head and kissed her forehead gently, holding her close for one more heartbeat before reluctantly allowing her to slip away, to take the place of the clone in the chair by the bed.

"Thank you, Gabriel, I feel much better."

From the corner he bowed, an elegant, courtly gesture as Francesca turned with a small, secret smile. Brice's hands clenched into two tight fists. There was something different about Francesca, something he couldn't quite put his finger on. She was more beautiful than ever, but it was something elusive. Something she shared with Gabriel.

"I must speak with Francesca about my patient," Brice announced and then was annoyed with himself for sounding like a loud, defiant child. Abrasive. Harsh even. He made an effort to lower his voice. "Privately if you don't mind, Gabriel."

"Of course not."

Brice winced at the purity and goodness in that voice, at such odds with his own. It was as gentle as a summer's breeze, as soft as velvet.

Brice took possession of Francesca's elbow and all but pulled her out of the room. Francesca tried not to notice the difference in the way the two men touched her, but it was impossible. "What is it, Brice? You're upset." She spoke calmly even as she removed herself from his grip.

"Of course I'm upset. I just lost a man who had absolutely nothing wrong with him. Except a crushed hand. It was pulverized. The bones were crushed like matchsticks." It was an accusation and once more Brice realized he had raised his voice.

She lifted one perfect eyebrow. "I don't understand what you're saying. Skyler's father died of a crushed hand? How strange. I didn't know that was possible."

"You know damned well it's not," he snapped. "He strangled. His throat swelled, was completely closed, just like that, for no apparent reason."

"Are they going to do an autopsy?"

He raked a hand through his hair. She drove him crazy. She just didn't get it. "Of course they're going to do an autopsy. That isn't the point." He clenched his jaw. In his head he swore he heard Gabriel's taunting laughter, low and amused. "It's that man."

"What man?" Francesca's black eyes were wide and beautiful, entirely too innocent. Of course she wouldn't know, she would never suspect anyone of wrongdoing.

Exasperated, Brice took a step toward her, wanting very much to shake her. At once he felt an oppressive malevolence gathering in the hall, thickening the air, the exact same feeling that had been in the room before Gabriel entered. Nervously Brice glanced at the door. He cleared his throat, jerked his head toward Skyler's room. "Him."

"Gabriel? Are you implying Gabriel had something to do with Thompson's death?" Francesca sounded somewhere between outraged and amused. "You can't be serious, Brice."

"He crushed his hand, Francesca. Your Gabriel did that. Crushed his fist with one hand. I watched him do it and he wasn't even straining. I never even saw him come into the room. He was just there. There's something not quite right about him. His eyes. They aren't human. He's not human."

Francesca stared at him wide-eyed. "Not human? As in what? A phantom? A ghost that flies through the air? A gorilla? What? Maybe he lifts weights. Maybe he's strong because he lifts weights and his adrenaline was pumping. What are you saying?"

"I don't know, Francesca." Brice raked a hand through his hair again. "I don't know what I'm thinking, but his eyes were not human. Not when he was confronting Thompson. He's different."

"I know Gabriel. I do. He's perfectly normal," Francesca insisted softly.

"Maybe you knew him. People change, Francesca. Something happened to him. Of course he's no phantom, and he can't fly, but he's dangerous."

"Gabriel is one of the most gentle men I know." She started past him back to the room.

Brice caught her arm in a bruising grip, a surge of anger making his grip much harder than necessary. Instantly something pinched a nerve in his own arm, causing it to go completely numb. He cried out, was given no choice but to release her as his arm dropped uselessly to his side. "What the hell? Francesca, my arm! Where are you going?"

"I'm too tired to deal with this right now. You're jealous, Brice. I don't blame you for what you're feeling, but I'm exhausted and I don't want to discuss Gabriel any more, especially if you're going to say such awful things about him. You don't know the first thing about him." She jerked open the door and nearly ran into Gabriel's arms.

He bent over her, his body posture protective. "What is it, sweetheart, what has upset you?" His arms circled her slender body and pulled her into the shelter of his large frame. He had heard every word Brice had said to her, every accusation and each innuendo that remained unsaid. Over her head his eyes met the doctor's. In the depths burned a fiery flame of sheer menace.

Brice stopped dead, terror seizing him. More than ever he was convinced Gabriel was a dangerous man. His arm had suddenly returned to normal and he made a mental note to have it checked out. He held on to the door for support, determined to see this through. "Francesca, we have to decide what we're going to do about Skyler. I doubt very much if her father left her a thing, and from what he said he's her only relative."

Francesca turned immediately to face him. "She'll be well taken care of. I intend to become her legal guardian. I've promised her I'd be there for her."

Brice threw his hands up in the air in total exasperation. "You can't do that, Francesca. There you go again, trying to save every wounded soul in the world. You aren't responsible for this girl. You don't even know her. She could turn out just like her father. She'll need therapy for the next twenty years."

"Brice – " Francesca sounded as if she was on the verge of tears. Taking a deep breath, she calmly tried to reason with him. "What's the matter with you?"

He made an attempt to get himself back together. "I know you want to help this girl; God knows I want to help her too, but we can only go so far. She needs professional help, not the two of us."

"So what do you suggest, Dr. Renaldo?" Gabriel asked softly, his voice gentle.

There was nothing gentle in his still, watchful eyes. They reminded Brice of a predator's. A wolf with deadly intent. The look gave Brice an eerie feeling. He struggled to maintain his composure. "I suggest she be left to the professionals. There are people who deal with this sort of thing. If Francesca wants, she can donate money."

Francesca looked at Brice. "I gave her my word, Brice. She came back because she believed in me."

"Then visit her every now and then. You don't owe her your life. We have plans together, Francesca. You can't make these kinds of decisions without me."

Gabriel stirred, a ripple of muscle, no more, but it was intimidating.

"I can see to the child, Francesca. I will remove the memory of your promise and replace it with my own. I will see to her care and happiness while you take your time deciding what you are going to do about this human. I do not wish to complicate your life any further than I have already, but like you, I cannot abandon the child." "I keep my promises, Gabriel."

Francesca shook her head. "I'm not going to argue, Brice. I'm too tired. I'm going to go out into the night and stare at the stars or something. I need fresh air. I gave Skyler my word. There is nothing else to say."

"I think there is," Brice snapped, angry that Gabriel was witnessing this argument between them. They rarely argued, but he couldn't keep quiet now. This teenager would affect their lives together. He was not taking a chance that a nutcase would be living in their home with them. No way. And Gabriel had to go.

Gabriel simply took the matter out of Francesca's hands. He could feel her exhaustion beating at him, the sadness in her, the overwhelming need to leave this confined space and be out in the open. Brice couldn't comprehend what she went through to heal his patients, what it took for Francesca to merge with them and know every detail of their lives, every moment of their suffering. It was beyond Brice's comprehension, but not Gabriel's.

With his arm around her shoulder he walked quietly out of the room, taking her with him, his hold gentle but implacable. Francesca hardly seemed to notice. She went with him willingly. Gabriel turned his head slowly, looking back over his shoulder as he glided silently from the room, his black eyes moving over Brice's face. His stare was merciless, relentless. For one moment his white teeth flashed in a humorless smile, exposing a glimpse of razor-sharp fangs.

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