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Other titles in the Carpathian Novels series:
Dark #24: Dark Lycanby Christine Feehan
Mist drifted through the trees. The moon, not quite full, was a yellow halo, dull and yet glaring. Around the moon a red ring gave off an ominous glow. A dangerous time, this cycle of the moon, especially when the mist came in thick and heavy, covering the ground a foot or so high, winding in and out of the trees as if alive. The mist muffled sound, dulled the senses, giving advantages to the shadowy figures that preyed upon the unwary.
Tatijana of the Dragonseekers woke beneath the earth with layers of dark, rich healing loam surrounding her. Vital nutrients, rich in minerals cushioned her body. She lay for a long time, panicked, listening to her own heart beating, feeling too light, too trapped, too exposed. And hot. So hot. Above her, she sensed the guardians. Watching over her, they said, and it was probably true, but sheandrsquo;d been a prisoner for so longandmdash;sheandrsquo;d been born into captivityandmdash;and she trusted no one other than her sister, Branislava. Bronnie lay sleeping peacefully, very close to her, her only comfort. Her heartbeat grew louder until it was thunder in her ears. She couldnandrsquo;t stand being trapped beneath the earth. She had to get out, to find freedom.
To feel free. What was that like? She knew nothing of the world. Sheandrsquo;d lived underground her entire life, deep in the ice caves, never seeing or speaking to anyone other than those who tortured and tried to terrorize her. She knew no other life, but that had changedandmdash;or had it?
Had Bronnie and she exchanged one cold, frightening prison for a silken cage? If so, their wardens had made a huge mistake putting them in the ground to recover. She hardly knew what it was like to be in her real form. Sheandrsquo;d spent centuries in dragon form and dragons could move through earth fairly easily.
Bronnie, she whispered into her sisterandrsquo;s mind. I know you need your sleep. I will continue to explore our new world and come back at dawn with new information.
Branislava stirred in her mind as if she might protest as she had each time Tatijana told her she was going.
I need to do this.
I will come with you, Bronnie answered, her voice far away, even though she was in Tatijanaandrsquo;s mind.
Tatijana knew Branislava would force herself to awaken, although she wasnandrsquo;t truly healed inside, where they both needed it. Theyandrsquo;d done everything togetherandmdash;been through the worst together. Theyandrsquo;d never actually been apart, even when encased in ice, when they could only stare at one another. They still had telepathic communication.
Not this time, Bronnie, I need to do this for me. She whispered the words as she did on the occasions she awakened to explore their new world. She always gave Bronnie reassurance that she would be careful.
No one would ever imprison either of them again. Every rising she made that simple vow. She was growing stronger with each passing night. Power ran through her body and with it, confidence. She was determined they would stand on their own and be beholden to no one.
Tatijana didnandrsquo;t know how to tell her sister she didnandrsquo;t want to live under the rules of another. They were Carpathian. Dragonseeker. That meant something to the prince of the Carpathians and to all the others. The males were lining up in the hopes of claiming either Bronnie, or her. She could not live under the rule of another. She just couldnandrsquo;t do it. She didnandrsquo;t want anyone telling her what to do ever again, even if it was for her own good. She rose when she wanted and explored her new world on her own terms.
Tatijana made up her mind that she would find her own way, learn her own way, make her own mistakes. Bronnie was always the voice of reason. She protected Tatijana from her impulsive nature, but no more. As much as she loved Branislava, this was something Tatijana needed.
She sent her sister love and warmth and the promise she would return at dawn. Shapeshifting into the appearance of a blue dragon was easyandmdash;sheandrsquo;d been in the form for centuries and the structure and shape felt more familiar than her own body. She burrowed deeper, going into the earth rather than rising where her guardians would see her. Sheandrsquo;d already dug a tunnel, and she moved quickly through the packed soil. Sheandrsquo;d chosen to exit several kilometers away from her resting place in order to ensure Branislavaandrsquo;s safety and to make certain the guardians would have no idea sheandrsquo;d risen early. The blue dragon moved through the tunnel like a mole, digging when necessary, packing any dirt that had collapsed as she hurried steadily toward her goal.
Tatijana emerged in a deep forest. She was very careful to scan the earth above her before the blue dragon poked her wedge-shaped head out of the hidden entrance. She surfaced in the midst of a thick gray fog. Trees appeared as giant misshapen scarecrows with outstretched arms, swaying slightly, just enough to give them the appearance of monsters.
Tatijana had known real monsters and the dense forest of trees veiled in gray didnandrsquo;t alarm her in the least. Freedom was amazing. Her eyes were terribly sensitive, but other than that, the world felt as if it was hers and with the fog covering the ground, her eyes didnandrsquo;t even burn.
She shifted to her physical form, donning modern clothing, a pair of soft cotton pants that allowed her freedom of movement. Sheandrsquo;d chosen a blouse sheandrsquo;d seen on a woman in the village a couple of nights earlier. Sheandrsquo;d followed the woman, studying her style of clothing so she could reproduce it at will. Everything seemed strange to her, but that was part of the excitement of discovery. She wanted tactile learning, not just pulling information from anotherandrsquo;s mind.
She made her way through the forest, enjoying the way the fog wrapped around her legs and made her feel as if she was walking through clouds. She remembered at the last moment to add shoes, something that was still very uncomfortable for her. She felt as if the shoes weighed her down and felt very foreign on her body.
The wind rushed through the trees, kicking up leaves and swirling mist around tree trunks. The mist began to rise from the floor as she walked toward the only light at the forestandrsquo;s edge that she could see. Music poured from the building, singing to her, beckoning, but this time she knew she wasnandrsquo;t going just to hear those beautiful notes. She normally chose a different location every night to glean more information to share with her sister.
This place called to her every rising now. The feeling was so strong it was nearly a compulsion. She had resisted for a few days, but she couldnandrsquo;t stop herself another night. She drew closer to the building. The windows were lit with that same yellow glow, two eyes staring at her through the thick mist. A chill went down her spine, but she kept walking toward it.
The Wild Boar Tavern sat on the very edge of the forest, surrounded on three sides by heavy brush, trees, and plenty of cover for anyone needing to hide quickly. Providing shelter and camaraderie as well as easy exits should the law happen to venture near, the tavern offered regulars comfort by the fire, warm food and plenty to drink. The crowd was rough, no place for the timid, and even the law generally avoided the place. No one asked questions and everyone was careful not to officially notice anything.
Fenris Dalka came to the tavern nearly every night, so why did he feel such a fool sitting at the bar, slowly nursing a beer, pretending to drink it like he often did? He huffed out his breath and kept his gaze forward, using the mirror to keep an eye on the door. From his vantage point, he could see every corner of the tavern as well as the door. Heandrsquo;d scoped out the perfect place to sit some time ago and now, if he came in and someone was sitting there, he just stood over them, staring, until they got up and vacated his seat.
Fen knew he was intimidating and he used his rough, dangerous looks to his advantage. He was tall enough, but it was his broad shoulders and thick chest, his roped arms and five oandrsquo;clock shadow, the piercing glacier-blue eyes he used to look right through someone into their soul that usually intimidated people. He rarely had to speak and he preferred it that way. The regulars knew him and knew to leave him alone.
Music played in the background and laughter occasionally rang out, but for the most part, the patrons spoke in hushed whispers. Only the bartender ever spoke to Fen when he entered. A few of the regulars lifted a hand, or nodded, but most avoided his eyes. He looked nearly as dangerous as he was. A man with no friends, trusting only his brother and always hunted or hunting. He was even more ruthless and brutal than the whispers said.
His hair was long, very thick and distinctly silver with black strands woven into the waves falling down his back. Most of the time he secured it at his nape with a leather cord to keep it out of his eyes. He had large hands, and his knuckles were scarred. There were scars on his face, one up near his eye and another that ran from his eye halfway down his face. There were far more scars on his body. Centuries of defending himself, every battle and every victory was stamped into his bones.
Whispered conversations were easy enough to listen in on with his acute hearing, allowing him to glean a tremendous amount of information. But tonight was different. He wasnandrsquo;t here for information . . . he was drawn . . . compelled by something altogether different this time.
Uncomfortable, he played with his beer mug, moving his fingers over the handle, gripping with his fist and forcing himself to let go before he shattered the glass. He wasnandrsquo;t a man to do anotherandrsquo;s bidding. He didnandrsquo;t trust anything he couldnandrsquo;t understandandmdash;and he didnandrsquo;t understand the urgent need that kept him coming back night after night, waiting.
This was a tavern for the lawless. For clandestine meetings. He and his brother had discovered the tavern when heandrsquo;d first arrived back in the Carpathian Mountains. It had been necessary to find a safe place, out of the way, where they could spend time and talk unseen by anyone who might know either of them. He wanted to make absolutely certain that his younger brother was safe. No one could know they were brothers. No one could ever associate the two of them, or he would be putting his siblingandrsquo;s life on the lineandmdash;something he wasnandrsquo;t willing to do. So many years had passed that everyone had forgotten himandmdash;or thought him deadandmdash;and for his brotherandrsquo;s protection that falsehood had to remain.
He knew every face in the tavern. Most had been coming even longer than he had. The newest patron was the most suspect. He had arrived in the area only a couple of weeks earlier. He had the stocky build of a hunterandmdash;a woodsmanandmdash;yet he dressed more refined. He was not someone to take lightly. Anyone could see by the way he moved that he would be good in a fight. He was definitely armed. He went by the name of Zev, and clearly he was new to the area. He hadnandrsquo;t disclosed his business, but Fen would bet his last dollar, he was hunting someone. He didnandrsquo;t look like the law, but he was definitely pursuing someone. Fen hoped it wasnandrsquo;t him, but if it was, he took every opportunity to study Zev, the way he moved, which hand he favored, where his weapons were carried.
Zev wore his hair longer than usual, just as Fen did. His hair was a deep chestnut color and very thick, much like a rich pelt. His eyes were gray and watchful, always moving, always restless, while his body remained quite still. Fen found it significant that no one in the bar had yet challenged him.
The wind picked up, rushing through the trees, capricious and playful, pushing branches against the sides of the tavern so that they creaked and scraped, a heralding of danger if one could read the information the wind provided. Fen let out his breath and glanced through the window into the dark forest.
The mist snaked through the trees, stretching out like greedy fingers, winding in and out of the trees, closeting the forest in a thick veil of gray. He needed to goandmdash;nowandmdash;he only had five days before the full moonandmdash;that gave him two days to find a safe place to ride out the threat to him. The three days before the full moon, the full moon and the three days after were the most dangerous for him. Yet he didnandrsquo;t move from the barstool, not even when self-preservation screamed at him. Every hair on his body was raised, both in alarm and extended as antenna to catch the smallest of details.
He smeared cold beads of sweat on the glass, his gaze drawn to the mirror once again. He did not have the full range of the color spectrum, but the dimmer the light, the more shades of gray he could see. He couldnandrsquo;t tell the difference between yellow, green or orange, they all looked the same to himandmdash;a dull yellowish color. Red looked brownish gray or black, but he could detect blue. What he lacked in his abilities to distinguish color, he more than made up with his acute hearing, sense of smell and his long-range eyesight.
Her scent reached him as she opened the door. A woman. The woman. Was she bait to catch him? If so, he was hooked. That scent of hersandmdash;fresh earth, the forest, wild honey, of dark secret places and the night itself, drew him as no expensive perfume ever could. Sheandrsquo;d been coming on and off to the tavern for the last week. Three visits, and yet he was already under her spell.
Sheandrsquo;d captured him effortlessly, without doing anything but walking through the door. Heandrsquo;d never seen a woman so beautiful or alluring. She literally stopped all conversation the moment she entered, but she never seemed to notice. And that was the trouble. She was far too young and naive, far too innocent-looking to come unescorted to a place like this one.
Heandrsquo;d heard the whispers of some of the men and he knew she wasnandrsquo;t safe. The two barmaids glared at her, aware that the moment she came in, they no longer had the attention of the men. Again, the woman seemed completely unaware. She walked with confidence, but she seemed to pay no attention to the predators surrounding herandmdash;and they were predators. The only reason she hadnandrsquo;t been attacked so far was because heandrsquo;d made it very clear she was under his protection. When one of the men had started to make his move on her, Fen had stood up. That was all. He just stood up.
The man subsided instantly and no one had dared make another move, but it was only a matter of time. From what he heard, three conspirators planned to follow her when she left the tavern and Fen wouldnandrsquo;t be around to protect her. Well, that was unfair. Two conspirators and one friend trying to talk sense into them. He could have told them not to put their money on that plan and that listening to their friend was the better idea, but he didnandrsquo;t bother. He rolled his shoulders slowly, open and closed his fists, stretching out his fingers and looking down at the hands that could be such deadly weapons. He needed the exercise.
He watched her in the mirror. Heandrsquo;d seen her try a drink each time she came in, one sheandrsquo;d obviously seen someone else drink, and each time she made a horrible face and spit the liquor back into the glass, shook her headand moved away from the bar to the tiny area where she could dance. Again she seemed completely oblivious to those around her, losing herself in the music. Fen was certain she came to the tavern only because she loved the music.
She never spoke, not even to the bartender, and Fen wondered whether or not she could speak. Her skin was porcelain white, as if she never saw the sun. Her hair was beautiful, falling far past her waist, long enough that she probably could sit on it, as if sheandrsquo;d never cut it in her life. She wore it in a braided rope that was as thick as his wrist. The silky fall was a color he couldnandrsquo;t quite define, but when the light hit it just right, the color seemed to change, although it could just be the way he perceived color.
Her eyes caught at him. He couldnandrsquo;t stop staring at them, and as she danced, she suddenly lifted her lashes, her eyes meeting his in the mirror. His heart nearly stopped and then began pounding. Women didnandrsquo;t have that kind of effect on him. His mouth didnandrsquo;t go dry. His jaw didnandrsquo;t ache and his canines didnandrsquo;t grow sharp. He was alwaysandmdash;alwaysandmdash;in control. And yet . . . He heard thunder roaring in his ears, and breathed deep, calling on centuries of discipline.
Emotions dulled and disappeared in time. What little he felt, he felt as the other, not in this form. Sometimes he forgot what it was like to be in his present form. Yet now, looking into her eyes, he found he couldnandrsquo;t look away. She mesmerized him. Captivated him. He didnandrsquo;t trust her. He didnandrsquo;t trust his unfamiliar, very strange reaction to her.
A gust of wind hit the tavern hard, blew down the chimney and sent sparks rising in the fireplace. A log fell from the iron grate and rolled toward the opening, coming to an abrupt halt, but flames leapt and danced, while cracks inside the log glowed brightly. Fen swung his head toward the window. The thick mist spun out of the forest, threads of gray, wrapping itself around the tavern, enclosing the entire building in a giant glistening spiderweb.
The woman stopped dancing, drawing his attention back to her. She stared at the fire, as if every bit as mesmerized by it as he was by her. She moved closer and he found himself frowning, watching her closely in the mirror. Her eyes reflected the leaping flames, almost as if the lenses were multifaceted, reminiscent of the cut of a diamond. She stepped closer, too close. The fireplace was open. Mountains of ashes glowed, flames leapt hungrily. Fen slipped off the barstool.
She slowly extended her hand toward the flame. The path would take her palm right into the center of the fire. He moved, using blurring speed, coming up behind her, reaching around and catching her wrist, pulling her hand back away from the flames before the flames could blister her soft skin.
For a moment she stiffened as if she might fight him. He felt a brush, the lightest of touches along his mind, which shocked him. Who was she? What was she? He held his barriers effortlessly and kept his touch gentle, taking care not to convey a threat of any kind. She relaxed and he inhaled the scent of her, his head near her shoulder, so that the thick braid of silky hair brushed his skin and her feminine scent enveloped him. He drew her deep into his lungs. She smelled like sin. Like sex. Like paradise and everything he didnandrsquo;tandmdash;and would neverandmdash;have.
andldquo;Itandrsquo;s hot. Fire will burn you,andrdquo; he said softly, making certain no one else in the tavern would hear.
She was intelligent, he could see that, but something had happened to her and clearly, there were things sheandrsquo;d never experienced and had no knowledge of. Amnesia? Trauma? There was no other explanation. Everyone knew about fire, and her lack of knowledge just made her all the more vulnerable.
She turned her head slowly to look up at him over her shoulder, frowning slightly, a puzzled expression on her face. Up so close, she appeared ethereal, mysterious, her skin silky smooth, touchable. Heandrsquo;d never been so drawn to another being in his life.
andldquo;Your skin will burn,andrdquo; he explained patiently. andldquo;It would be extremely painful to you.andrdquo;
She continued to look at him, confused. He tried repeating the warning in several languages. She just looked at him, and they were drawing far too much attention. Every time she moved she had the eye of everyone in the tavern and he didnandrsquo;t want anyone to think she was easy prey because of her lack of knowledge of the most basic necessities such as fire. In the end, there was nothing else to do. He pressed her arm down to her side, stepped around her and extended his hand, palm down, into the flames. She watched, her eyes widening as his skin blistered and the scent of burning flesh rose. She caught his arm and jerked his hand from the fireplace.
andldquo;Do you understand?andrdquo; he asked, showing her the damage.
She turned his hand over, her palm covering his burned one, not quite touching, yet he still felt her energy vibrating through his skin. Soothing coolness slid over the blisters. She lifted his palm toward her mouth. His breath caught in his lungs, the air trapped there. He couldnandrsquo;t move or even speak as she bent her head toward his palm. Her tongue touched the blisters, lightly, barely there, a slow brush that actually made his hand tremble and his knees just a little weak. Worse, his body reacted with a hot surge of blood, rushing and pooling in wicked demand.
She let go of his hand slowly, almost reluctantly. He lifted his palm to inspect it, still feeling that soothing coolness, as if sheandrsquo;d spread a healing gel over the blistered skin. The blisters were gone. His palm was no longer burned, nor was it even red.
Fen drew in his breath sharply. He knew what she was. No other species could heal with just their saliva so easily. She had to be Carpathianandmdash;a race of beings who called the Carpathian Mountains their home. Few knew of their existence. He frowned, trying to wrap his brain around the idea. In truth, it made no sense. He doubted that a Carpathian female would come to a tavern alone, especially a rough place like the Wild Boar. She would not only have knowledge of fire, but she would be well-schooled in all things. No one lived as long as Carpathians without acquiring a great deal of knowledge along the way. What had happened to her? And why was she unescorted?
He felt the weight of a stare and glanced up to meet Zevandrsquo;s gaze. Zev was looking at the woman. Instinctively, Fen shifted his body slightly, blocking Zevandrsquo;s view of her. Her gaze jumped to his face and then she peeked around his broad body to look at Zev and then moved back behind him.
andldquo;You arenandrsquo;t safe here,andrdquo; Fen said, reluctant to admit it. andldquo;This crowd is rough.andrdquo;
She smiled at him. Smiled. His heart shifted. His stomach tightened and blood surged hotly in his veins. Her teeth were very white, her lips full, red and the thing of fantasies. He took a breath, knowing it was a mistake, but drawing her into his lungs anyway. He took her deep and left her there, swirling around, twisting up his insides until he knew he couldandmdash; and wouldandmdash;find her again.
He tipped her chin up so that she could look at his mouth. andldquo;Zev in particular is dangerous.andrdquo; He mouthed the words rather than made sound, fearing Zev had the same extraordinary hearing as he had. andldquo;The others, too, but not like him. Do you understand?andrdquo;
Tatijana nodded. Of course she understood, although she was more concerned with the effect of his touch on her than the warning he gave her. She was definitely drawn to this manandmdash;Fen was his name. He appeared human when she brushed his mind with light contactandmdash;as did everyone else in the tavernandmdash;and yet Fen puzzled her. He had moved with blinding speed. Preternatural speed. How could he be human and yet move with the speed of a Carpathian? Moreandmdash;she hadnandrsquo;t felt any energy preceding him, and she should have.
He was far more muscular than most Carpathian men, but he had the height. His eyes were different and sheandrsquo;d spent an inordinate amount of time secretly studying them as he sat at the bar, nursing his drink. He wasnandrsquo;t really drinking it, yet over time, the liquid disappeared. She hadnandrsquo;t figured out yet how he was accomplishing that particular feat, but she knew she wanted to learn it.
Why had he singled out Zev in particular as dangerous? He felt like every other human in the tavern. andldquo;Why Zev?andrdquo; She was adept at reading lips. Sheandrsquo;d learned long ago, as a child, encased in ice, watching the cruelty of her father as he sacrificed animals and humans alike. No one was safe. Mage, Carpathian, Jaguar, Lycanandmdash;no species was left unharmed. Even the dead were not safe from Xavier.
She mouthed the question to Fen, making certain that no sound accidentally escaped, just in case he was Carpathian. She was so inexplicably drawn to Fen, and he was definitely a question mark in her mind, so she wasnandrsquo;t about to take any chances. She was not ready for any male to claim her. She needed time on her own and sheandrsquo;d been told all about lifemates and how a male could take over her life even without her consent. That couldnandrsquo;t happenandmdash;not to her. Not now. She was actually, for the first time in her existence, enjoying her life. The path of discovery was exhilarating. She felt so alive, and she didnandrsquo;t want anything or anyone to take that away from her.
Truthfully, she wasnandrsquo;t altogether certain she could have a relationship with anyoneandmdash;at least a healthy one. That would require trust, and she simply didnandrsquo;t have that. She only trusted Branislava, her only ally. Theyandrsquo;d been together so much, it was difficult to think of being apart, yet Tatijana knew she needed this time alone desperately. How did one find out who they were and what they liked if they didnandrsquo;t ever have the time to find out?
andldquo;I just know,andrdquo; Fen mouthed back. He reached out and tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear.
Her breath caught in her throat. His touch did something strange to her entire body and it was alarming. She stepped backward, unable to pull her gaze from his.
The sound of a wolf howling outside, a distance away had both of them simultaneously and#160;turning their heads toward the window. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw that Zev had also turned toward the sound and Fen definitely noticed his movement as well. She couldnandrsquo;t see that anyone else had heard that spine-chilling sound.
This was no wolf howling at the moon, it was the sound of one calling others to the hunt. At least three others answered, even more distantly, but they didnandrsquo;t sound like the local wolf pack. They sounded aggressive and eager as if they had prey already in sight. More than thatandmdash;to her earsandmdash;the call sounded just a little off, as if the wolves were off.
Her gaze jumped to Fenandrsquo;s face. He was quite still. Completely motionless. His expression hadnandrsquo;t changed at all, but she felt the difference in him. He appeared relaxed, but she felt him coiled and ready.
andldquo;I have to go,andrdquo; she mouthed to him, and backed up another step.
His attention immediately returned to her. He frowned and glanced out the window again. andldquo;Iandrsquo;ll walk you.andrdquo; He said it aloud this time.
Heads turned in the tavern toward them. Two of the men scowled, the ones, he noted, who had whispered together that they would follow her. Clearly their friend hadnandrsquo;t convinced them, although he still seemed to be arguing.
Tatijana had expected it to happen sooner or later, but all she had to do was dissolve into mist and sheandrsquo;d be gone. The men would never know what had happened to her. She had every confidence that no matter what, sheandrsquo;d be safe.
Tatijana knew Fen had announced his intention to walk with her because he was attempting to ensure she was safe from the men in the tavernandmdash;and maybe whatever was outside of it as well. Her first inclination, one of self preservation, demanded she decline his offer. But there was that compulsion pushing at her, wanting just to be in his company for no apparent reason.
She took a chance and scanned his mind a second time. He seemed an ordinary man . . . Maybe it was the intriguing contradiction he represented, or maybe it was the way he drew her like a magnet, but she gave a slight nod of her head to let him know sheandrsquo;d walk a bit with him. In any case, she knewand#160; he could protect him if there was trouble.
Zev pushed away from the bar, buttoned up his coat and stepped outside without so much as looking their way. As if Fenandrsquo;s word had been a signal, the three men huddled together, whispering their conspiracies, stood up and pulled on their coats and hats, to shuffle out of the tavern as well. One of the men glanced a little nervously at Fen while the other two leered at Tatijana.
Her heart sank. Clearly she was putting Fen in danger by agreeing to walk with him. She opened her mouth to tell him sheandrsquo;d go by herself but he took her hand and tugged her toward the door. The moment the warmth of his hand closed around hers, her heart shifted and a million butterflies winged across her stomach. His hands were much larger than hers and he completely engulfed her smaller hand, making her feel feminine and very much a womanandmdash;a brand-new concept for her.
She didnandrsquo;t want that incredible feeling to go away. In any case, she was certain she could protect Fen without him knowing what she was. If necessary she would remove any bad memories. She also needed to feed. It wasn't that hard to convince herself that she had very good reasons for allowing Fen to walk her through the forest.
andldquo;Whereandrsquo;s your coat?andrdquo; Fen asked.
Coat. Everyone was wearing a coat. Carpathians regulated their temperatures. She didnandrsquo;t feel hot or cold, which was why she didnandrsquo;t feel flames, but they went out of their way to fit in with humans. That was one of the biggest rules that governed their society. No one could know of their existence. Before she and Bronnie had been placed in the earth to heal, that tenet had been drilled into her. Sheandrsquo;d forgotten a coat. She glanced toward the rough pegs at the door where many of the patrons hung their jackets and hats. At once a long, hooded coat appeared there.
She sneaked a quick look in the mirror, grateful no one had seemed to notice. She indicated the coat with a small jerk of her chin. If Fen was startled, he gave no indication. He simply removed the long coat from the peg and held it up.
She hesitated, unsure what she was supposed to do. Fen stepped closer and slid her arm into one sleeve, wrapping the coat around her back. He waited patiently for her to put her other arm into the remaining sleeve. He turned her around and buttoned the coat for her. The entire time, while he slipped each button into the loops, she held her breath and stared up into his face.
He was beautiful. Scarred, rough, totally masculine but beautiful all the same. She memorized his bone structure, the shape of his nose, the cut of his mouth and his strong jaw. She wanted to remember him for her entire lifeandmdash;to remember this moment. She might never have such a moment or feeling again, and this was one that needed savoring.
Fen reached around her and opened the door. A blast of cold air rushed in. She raised her chin, inhaling the night, allowing the wind to bring her information. Fen took a deep breath and stepped outside just ahead of her, retaining possession of her hand. His body partially blocked hers from the elements while he took a careful look around.
Gray mist churned and spun, blocking the tavernandrsquo;s view of the forest.
The trees rose eerily above the worst of it, still obscured and slightly misshapen, the tops looking as if they floated without trunks above them.
andldquo;Which way?andrdquo; Fen asked.
Tatijana indicated to the left, into the forest. The wolves had gone quiet and she hoped that they were still a great distance away. Fen tugged just a bit on her hand to bring her closer to him, and they set off. She smelled Zevandrsquo;s scent, a rugged, ancient forest smell, which clung to Fen as well. She quite liked it. The scent was all about running free, something she wanted more than anything.
There was the night in that enticing fragranceandmdash;a cool dark midnight-blue night, with stars overhead and a round full moon as well. That elusive aroma conjured up everything that she had come to love in the short time sheandrsquo;s been freed from her prison. More, she wanted to stay close to Fen and just inhale him into her lungs, to take him deep so she would never forget him.
andldquo;Tell me your name. Iandrsquo;m Fen. Fenris Dalka.andrdquo; He didnandrsquo;t break stride, walking with absolute confidence into the forest. He seemed a man without much fear.
She looked up at him. Studied him carefully and did one more scan just to be certain she was safe. She opened her mouth to tell him, but she just couldnandrsquo;t. Something stopped her. There was far too strong of a compulsion to be with him. Maybe it was all new to her, this attraction between a man and a woman, but it had never happened before. She hadnandrsquo;t been the least attracted to anyone else in the tavern, not even a single spark. She shook her head and smiled at him.
He flashed a grin at her. andldquo;You do know that mystery is very intriguing in a woman, right? Iandrsquo;ll be more enamored than ever. I can read lips,andrdquo; he added.
She wanted him to know her name. She mouthed andldquo;Tatijana,andrdquo; exaggerating every syllable so it would be easier for him. He got it on the first try.
andldquo;Tatijana is a beautiful name. Do you live close?andrdquo;
She shrugged, happy to just be walking with him. His body gave off unexpected heat and she allowed herself to feel it. She needed to feel every moment with him. She knew she should pull her hand away from his. She didnandrsquo;t know him. She didnandrsquo;t know proper etiquette between a man and a woman, but for just this moment, for the first time in her life, she felt normal. Real. She wasnandrsquo;t Carpathian. She wasnandrsquo;t Dragonseeker. She wasnandrsquo;t a mageandrsquo;s daughter. She was a woman enjoying the company of a man.
andldquo;I lived here long ago,andrdquo; Fen volunteered. andldquo;Iandrsquo;ve only returned for a short visit and must leave again.andrdquo; He looked around at the dark shapes of the treesand#160; rising from the mist. andldquo;Iandrsquo;d forgotten how beautiful it is.andrdquo;
Tatijana agreed with him silently. She wanted to dance there in the deep forest just because she was so happy. Just something so simple as walking in the woods at night flooded her with joy, and Fen was an added bonus. She nodded her head, feeling a little foolish that she wasnandrsquo;t speaking aloud, but maybe he thought she couldnandrsquo;t. She didnandrsquo;t even care if that meant he pitied her, although when she scanned his thoughts, she didnandrsquo;t find pity. She found . . . attraction.
andldquo;Have you lived here long?andrdquo; he asked.
She glanced at his face. He wasnandrsquo;t looking down at her, although his tone made her feel as if she was the most important person in the world and he wanted an answer. His gaze was restless, moving constantly, up in the branches of the trees, down along the ground, his vision trying to pierce the heavy veil of mist.
Had she missed something? Some warning? She took a careful look around, sending out her senses, scanning carefully to try to detect a threat. Just up ahead and slightly to her left, concealed in the trees were the three men who had left the bar after Zev. She sighed. Of course. Sheandrsquo;d known they were going to make their try for her. Sheandrsquo;d allowed herself to be swept away into a magical world that had no threats in it. Everything and everyone who could possibly threaten her just seemed trivial in comparison to Xavier.
She touched Fenandrsquo;s arm. andldquo;I have to go,andrdquo; she mouthed. andldquo;You can turn back now.andrdquo;
She wasnandrsquo;t going to involve him. She wasnandrsquo;t certain he was human, but if he was, three against one, even when he looked big and lethal, wasnandrsquo;t fair. She could dissolve into mist and theyandrsquo;d never find her, but Fen had to be protected, even if it was from his own gallantry.
Fen stopped abruptly. andldquo;You know theyandrsquo;re there, donandrsquo;t you?andrdquo;
Tatijana nodded reluctantly. She was giving herself away, but then so had he. The three men were in the distance, impossible to see with the heavy mist and the cover of the dense trees and brush.
andldquo;Iandrsquo;ll take care of them. You get out of here.andrdquo;
She shook her head. Sheandrsquo;d been afraid that he would be the protective male. She sent him a small andldquo;pushandrdquo; to leave. He scowled at her, shaking his head. Tatijana knew sheandrsquo;d made a terrible mistake. Fen was much more than he seemed, and that push sheandrsquo;d just tried had given him far too much information about her.
What was he? Mage? She didnandrsquo;t think so. Sheandrsquo;d been held prisoner for centuries by the most powerful mage the world had ever known and Fen was in no way similar physically nor did his brain scan that way. Jaguar? She didnandrsquo;t think so. That left Carpathian or Lycan. If he was Carpathian, she would have known by his energy field. Lycans were the only species who didnandrsquo;t produce that energy field readable to others.
She took a chance. andldquo;I am quite capable of defending myself. You need to leave. Those men are after me, not you.andrdquo;
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