Dark Legend (Page 1)

Disoriented, he woke deep within the ground. The first sensation he felt was hunger. It was no ordinary hunger, but one of gut-wrenching, skin-crawling necessity. He was starving. Every cell in his body demanded nourishment. He lay there in silence while the hunger gnawed at him like a rat. It attacked not only his body, but also his mind so that he feared for all others, humans and Carpathians alike. Feared for himself. Feared for his soul. This time the darkness was spreading fast and his soul was in jeopardy.

What dared to disturb his sleep? More importantly, had it disturbed Lucian's sleep? Gabriel had locked Lucian into the earth, centuries ago, longer than he cared to think about. If Lucian had awakened when he had, if he had been disturbed by the same movements above ground, then there was every chance he would rise before Gabriel could find the strength to stop him.

It was intensely difficult to think with this terrible hunger gripping him. How long had he been in the earth? Above him, he sensed the sun setting. After all the long centuries, his internal clock could still feel the setting of the sun and the beginning of their time:Creatures of the night. The ground suddenly shifted. Gabriel felt his heart slam hard in his chest. He had waited too long, spent too much time trying to get his bearings, trying to clear his clouded mind. Lucian was rising. Lucian's need for prey would be as great as his own; his appetite would be voracious. There would be no way to stop him, not while Gabriel was so weak himself.

Because he had no choice, Gabriel burst through the layers of earth where he had lain buried for so long, where he had deliberately slumbered, choosing to bury himself in the ground as he locked Lucian to him. The fight in the Paris cemetery had been a long, horrendous battle. Both Lucian and Gabriel had sustained grave wounds, wounds that should have killed them. Lucian had gone to ground just outside the sanctified burial ground of the ancient cemetery while Gabriel had sought sanctuary within it. Gabriel had been tired of the long centuries of bleak darkness, the black empty void of his existence.

He did not have the luxury of choosing to walk into the dawn as most of his kind did. There was Lucian. His twin. Lucian was strong and brilliant, always the leader. There was no one else skilled enough, powerful enough to hunt and destroy Lucian. There was only Gabriel. He had spent several lifetimes following where Lucian led, hunting the vampire, the undead with him, relying on his battle sense. There had been no other like Lucian, none as brilliant at hunting the vampire, the scourge of their race. Lucian had a gift. Yet Lucian had finally succumbed to the dark whisper of power, the insidious call of blood lust. Lucian had given up his soul, choosing the way of the damned, turning into the very monster he had pursued for centuries. The vampire.

Gabriel had spent two centuries hunting his beloved brother, but he had never fully recovered from the shock of Lucian's turning. Finally after countless battles in which neither was victorious, he made the decision to lock his twin in the earth for all time. Gabriel had chased Lucian throughout Europe; their final confrontation took place in Paris, a city rampant with vampires and debauchery. After the terrible battle in the cemetery, where both of them suffered horrendous wounds and loss of blood, he waited until Lucian was lying unsuspectingly in the earth, and then he bound his twin to him, forcing him to remain there. The struggle was not over, yet it was the only solution Gabriel could devise. He was tired and alone and without comfort of any kind. He wanted rest, yet he could not seek the dawn until Lucian was fully destroyed. It was a terrible fate he had chosen, dead, yet not dead, buried for all eternity, but Gabriel could think of no other way. Nothing should have disturbed them, yet something had. Something had moved the earth above their heads.

Gabriel had no idea how much time had passed while he had rested in the earth, yet his body was starved for blood. He knew his skin was gray and drawn tight over his skeleton like that of an old man. At once, as he burst into the air, he clothed himself, adding a long, hooded cape to hide his appearance while he hunted through the city. Just that small action drained the energy from his wizened body. He needed blood desperately. He was so weak he nearly fell from the sky.

As he settled to the ground, he stared in astonishment at the huge contraptions that had disturbed the sleep of centuries. Those contraptions, so alien to him, had awakened a demon so deadly the world could never comprehend its power. Those contraptions had unleashed that demon upon the modern world. Gabriel took a deep breath, inhaled the night. At once he was assaulted by so many smells, his starving body could barely assimilate them all.

.

Hunger ate at him unmercifully, relentlessly, and he realized with a sinking heart that he was so close to turning, he had precious little control. When he was forced to feed, the demon in him would rise. Nevertheless he had no real choice in the matter. He had to have sustenance to hunt. If he did not hunt Lucian, protect humans and Carpathians alike, who would?

Gabriel drew the thick cloak closer around his body as he staggered through the graveyard. He could see where the machines had disturbed the earth. Apparently the grave sites were being dug up and removed. He found the spot, just outside the sanctified ground, where the soil had boiled up out of the earth as Lucian had risen. For a moment he sank down on his knees to bury both hands in the dirt. Lucian. His brother. His twin. He bowed his head in sorrow. How often had they shared knowledge? Shared battles? Blood? Nearly two thousand years they had been together, fought for their people, hunted the undead and destroyed them. Now he was alone. Lucian was the legendary warrior, the greatest of their people, yet he had fallen as so many had before him. Gabriel would have bet his life that his twin would never have succumbed to the dark whisper of power.

Gabriel stood up slowly and began to walk toward the street. The long years that had gone by had changed the world. Everything was different. He understood none of it. He was so disoriented, even his sight was hazy. He stumbled along, trying to stay away from the people crowding the streets. They were everywhere and they avoided touching him. He touched their minds briefly. They thought him an “old homeless man,” perhaps a drunk or even insane. No one looked his way, no one wanted to see him. He was shriveled, his skin gray. He drew the long cloak even closer, hiding his withered body within its folds.

Hunger assailed his senses so that his fangs exploded in his mouth and dripped with anticipation of a feast. He needed nourishment desperately. Stumbling, almost blind, he continued along the street. The city was so different, no longer the Paris of old, but a huge sprawling complex of buildings and paved streets. Lights were blazing from the interior of the massive structures and from street lamps overhead. It was not the city he remembered or with which he was comfortable.

He should have caught the nearest prey and fed voraciously to bring him instant strength, but the dread of being unable to stop himself was uppermost in his mind. He must not allow the beast to control him. He had a sworn duty to his people, to the human race, but most importantly to his beloved brother. Lucian had been his hero, the one he placed above all others, and deservedly so. They had taken a vow together and he would honor it as Lucian would have done for him. No other hunter would be allowed to destroy his brother; it was his task alone.

The smell of blood was overpowering. It beat at him with the same intensity as his hunger. The sound of it rushing through veins, ebbing and flowing, burgeoning with life, taunted him. In his present state of weakness he would be unable to control his prey, to keep his victim calm. That would only add to the power of the demon rising.

“Sir, may I help you in some way? Are you ill?” It was the most beautiful voice he had ever heard. She spoke in flawless French, her accent perfect, but he was uncertain whether she was actually French. To his amazement, her words brought him comfort, as if her voice alone could soothe him.

Gabriel shuddered. The last thing he wanted was to feast on an innocent woman. Without looking at her, he shook his head and continued walking. He was so weak he stumbled against her. She was tall and slender and surprisingly strong. Immediately she wrapped her arm around him, ignoring his musty, dirty odor. The moment she touched him he felt a sense of peace seeping into his tortured soul. The unrelenting hunger lessened and as long as she was touching him, he felt a semblance of control.

Deliberately he kept his face averted from her, knowing his eyes would show the red haze of the demon rising in him. Her close proximity should have triggered his violent instincts instead she soothed him. She was definitely the last person he wanted to use as prey. He sensed her goodness, her resolve to help him, her complete selflessness. Her compassion and goodness were the only reasons he had not attacked and sunk his fangs deep within her veins when every shrunken cell and fiber of his being demanded he do so for his own self-preservation.

..

She was urging him toward a sleek contraption at the edge of the sidewalk. “Are you injured, or just hungry?” she asked. “There's a homeless shelter right up the street. They can give you a place to stay for the night and a hot meal. Let me take you there. This is my car. Please get in and let me help you.”

Her voice seemed to whisper over him, a seduction of the senses. He truly feared for her life, for his own soul. But he was far too weak to resist. He allowed her to seat him in the car, but he huddled as far from her as he was able. Now that there was no longer any physical contact, he could hear the blood rushing in her veins, calling to him. Whispering like the most tempting seductress. Hunger roared through him so that he was shaking with the need to sink his teeth deep into her vulnerable neck. He could hear her heart, the steady beat that went on and on, threatening to drive him mad. He could almost taste the blood, knowing it would pour into his mouth, down his throat as he gorged himself.

“My name is Francesca Del Ponce,” she told him gently. “Please tell me if you're hurt or in need of medical attention. Don't worry about the cost. I have friends at the hospital and they'll help you.” She didn't add what he gleaned from her thoughts: she often brought in indigents and paid the bill herself.

Gabriel remained silent. It was all he could do to shield his own thoughts, an automatic protection Lucian had drilled into him from the time they were mere fledglings. The lure of blood was overpowering. It was only the goodness radiating from her that prevented him from leaping upon her and feasting as his shriveled cells cried out for him to do.

Francesca glanced at the old man worriedly. She hadn't seen his face clearly, but he was gray with hunger and shaking with fatigue. He looked starved. When she touched him she sensed a terrible conflict within him and his body raged with hunger. It took control not to race through the streets to the shelter. She wanted desperately to get him aid. Her small white teeth worried at her bottom lip. She felt anxiety, an emotion Francesca could not remember feeling in a long while. She needed to give this man aid and comfort. The urge was so strong, it was almost a compulsion.

“Don't worry, I can take care of things for you. Just sit back and relax.” Francesca drove with her usual abandon through the streets. Most of the policemen knew her car and would do no more than grin at her when she broke all the laws. She was a healer. An exceptional healer. It was her gift to the world. It had made friends for her everywhere. Those that didn't care about favors or healing cared about the fact that she had a great deal of money and a great many political connections.

She pulled up to the shelter and stopped the car almost at the door. She didn't want the old man to have to walk too far. He seemed ready to topple over at any moment. The hood of his unusual cape concealed his hair from her, but she had the impression it was long and thick and old-fashioned. Rushing around the front of the car, she reached inside to help him out.

Gabriel didn't want her to touch him again, but he couldn't help himself. There was something very soothing in her touch, almost healing. It helped him to hold the terrible craving at bay for a little while longer. The contraption he was riding in, the speed at which it rushed through the streets, made him sick and dizzy. He needed to orient himself to the world he was in. Find out the year. Study the new technology. Most of all he needed to find the strength to feed without allowing the demon deep within him to reign supreme. He could feel it in him, the red haze, the animal instincts rising to overcome the thin veneer of civility.

“Francesca! Another one? We're so full this evening.” Marvin Challot glanced uneasily at the elderly man she was helping toward the door. Something about the man raised the hair on the back of his neck. He looked old and gnarled, his fingernails too long and too sharp, but he was obviously so weak Marvin felt guilty that he didn't want anything to do with this stranger. He was ashamed of himself for the feeling of revulsion, but he was actually repulsed by the old man. He could hardly refuse Francesca. She contributed more money, more time and more effort than anyone else. If it weren't for her, there would be no shelter.

Reluctantly Marvin reached out to take the old man's arm. Gabriel inhaled sharply. The moment Francesca released his arm, he nearly lost all control. Fangs exploded in his mouth and the sound of rushing blood was so loud he could hear nothing else. Everything disappeared in a red haze. Hunger. Starvation. He had to feed. The demon within him lifted its head with a roar, wrestled him for total control.

Marvin sensed he was in mortal danger. The arm he had tried to seize seemed to contort, the bones popping and crackling, and fur rippled over the withered skin. Marvin smelled a wild, pungent odor like that of a wolf. He found himself dropping the elderly man's arm in terror. The head turned toward him slowly and he caught a glimpse of death. Where there should have been eyes, there were two empty, pitiless holes. Marvin blinked and the eyes were there again, red and flaming, like those of an animal stalking its prey. Marvin didn't know which impression was worse but he didn't want anything to do with the old man, whatever he was. The eyes bored into him like the slash of fangs.

Marvin cried out and jumped back. “No, Francesca, I can't allow it. There's no room here tonight. I don't want him here.” His voice shook with terror.

Francesca almost protested, but something in Marvin's face stopped her. She nodded her acceptance of his decision. “It's okay, Marvin. I can take care of him.” Very gently she slipped her arm around the old man's waist. “Come with me.” Her voice was soft, soothing. She hid her irritation at Marvin's reaction well, but it was there.

Gabriel's first inclination was to put distance between them. He didn't want to kill her and he knew he was dangerously close to turning. Yet it seemed she anchored him. She soothed him so that he could leash the savage beast for the moment. Gabriel leaned heavily against her slender body. Her skin was warm, while his was ice-cold. He breathed in her scent deeply, careful to keep his head turned away from her. He did not want her to see him as he was, a demon, struggling with his own soul, struggling desperately for humanity.

“Francesca,” Marvin protested. “I'll call someone to take him to the hospital. Perhaps a policeman. Don't be alone with him. I think maybe he's insane.”

As Gabriel entered the car he turned his head to look back at the man standing on the sidewalk, watching them with fear in his eyes. He stared at the man's throat, his hand closing into a tight fist. For one terrible moment he almost crushed the man's windpipe just for warning her. With a soft ancient oath he curbed the impulse. Hunching one shoulder, he huddled deeper within the thick cloak. He wanted to stay close to this beautiful woman and let her light and compassion bathe his tortured soul. He also wanted to run as far from her as possible to keep her safe from the monster growing ever stronger within him.

Francesca didn't seem in the least bit nervous of him. If anything, she was trying to reassure him. Despite Marvin's warning, she smiled at Gabriel. “It wouldn't hurt to do a checkup at the hospital. Really, it would only take a minute.”

Gabriel shook his head slowly in protest. She smelled good. Fresh. Clean. He was too weak even to clean himself up. It embarrassed him that she would see him in such a state. She was so beautiful, shining from the inside out.

She parked in an area where it appeared hundreds of contraptions like hers were sitting empty. “I'll be right back. Don't try to get out, it's a waste of your energy. This will just take a minute.” She touched his shoulder, a small gesture meant to reassure. Immediately he felt the strange lightening of his heavy burden.

The moment she was gone he was assailed by hunger that clawed at his insides, demanding he feed. He could barely breathe. His heart was beating very slowly: one beat, a miss and another beat. His body cried out for blood. For nourishment. Screamed for it. He needed. That was all. So simple. He needed. Craved. Needed. It blended together into one desire.

He smelled it. Fresh. Heard it. Yet he smelled her, too, and her nearness helped to overcome the roaring in his head. His gut clenched, knotted. A male walked beside her. This one was different from the last. This man was young and he was looking at Francesca as if she were the sun, the moon and the stars. Every few steps the young man's body would brush Francesca's. Something wicked, something deep within him lifted its head and snarled with unexpected dislike. His prey. No one had the right to stand so close to her. She was his. He had marked her for himself. The thought came unbidden and at once he was ashamed. Still, he didn't like the male standing so close to her and it took every ounce of his discipline to keep from leaping on the man and devouring him there on the spot.

“Brice, I have to get home. This gentleman needs help. I don't have time to talk right now. I just stopped by for a few supplies.”

Brice Renaldo put his hand on her arm to stop her. “I need you to look at a patient for me, Francesca. A little girl. It won't take that long.”

“Not now, I'll come back later tonight.” Francesca's voice was soft but very firm.

Brice tightened his grip, intending to pull her back, but as he did so, he felt something moving along his skin. Looking down he saw several small spiders with vicious-looking fangs crawling along his arm. With an oath he let go of Francesca and shook his arm hard. The spiders were gone as if they'd never been and Francesca was already walking quickly to her side of the car. She was looking at him as if he were a nut. He started to explain but when he couldn't see any evidence of spiders, he decided it wasn't worth the trouble.

Brice hurried to the car, deliberately taking her arm again, bending low to peer in the window at Gabriel. His mouth immediately twisted in a disgusted grimace. “My God, Francesca, where do you find these bums?”

“Brice!” Francesca pulled her arm away from him with a small, very feminine gesture of annoyance. “You can be so callous sometimes.” She lowered her voice, but Gabriel, with his superior hearing, heard the exchange quite clearly. “Just because someone is old or has no money does not make him useless or a murderer. That is the reason we never quite make it, Brice. You have no compassion for people.”

“What do you mean, no compassion?” Brice protested. “There's a little girl who never did anyone any harm suffering and I'm doing everything I can to help her.”

Francesca moved around him when he would have stopped her, and slid behind the wheel of her car. “Later this evening. I promise I'll look at the little girl tonight for you.” She started the car.

“You're not taking that old man home, are you?” Brice demanded in spite of her admonishment. “You'd better be taking him to the shelter. He's dirty and probably covered with fleas. You don't know the first thing about him. I mean it, Francesca, don't you dare take him home with you.”

Francesca gave him one haughty little frown before she drove away without a backward glance. “Pay no attention to Brice. He's a very good doctor, but he likes to think he can tell me what to do.” She glanced at her silent companion. He was hunched very small on his side of the car. She still had not gotten a good look at him. Not even his face. He was hiding in the shadows, keeping his face averted from her. She wasn't even certain he understood that she was trying to help him. She had the impression of a great man, one used to wealth and authority, probably terribly humiliated by his present circumstances. It hadn't helped that Brice had been so rude. “It will be just a few minutes and I'll get you somewhere warm and safe. There will be plenty of food.”

Her voice was so wonderful. It touched him somewhere deep inside, calming him, holding the beast leashed when he could never have done so alone. Perhaps if she was near him when he fed he would be able to control the demon when it rose. Gabriel buried his face in his hands. God help him, he didn't want to kill her. His body shook with the effort to control its need for hot blood pouring into shriveled, starving cells. This was so dangerous. So incredibly dangerous.

The car took him a short distance from the busy city streets along a narrow lane where trees and thick shrubbery grew. The house was large and rambled here and there with no particular style. It was old-fashioned with a wide verandah and long straight columns. Gabriel hesitated when he opened the door of the contraption. Should he go with her or should he stay? He was weak. He couldn't wait much longer. He had to feed. He had no choice.

Francesca took his arm and helped him as he staggered up the long stairway to the house. “I'm sorry, I know there are quite a few stairs. You can lean on me if you need to.” She didn't know why it was so imperative she help this stranger, but everything in her demanded she do so.

With a sinking heart, Gabriel allowed the woman to help him up the numerous stairs to her dwelling. He feared it was inevitable that he would kill her. He would join the ranks of the undead and there would be no one to destroy Lucian. No one to destroy either of them. No one capable of destroying them. The world would have two monsters unequaled in evil. There were too many hours until dawn. The need for blood would overcome his good intentions. And this poor innocent woman with far too much compassion in her would be the one to pay the ultimate price for her kindness and mercy to one such as he.

“No!” The denial was a harsh growl. Gabriel tore his arm from her grasp and jerked away from the door. He staggered, lost his balance and fell.

At once Francesca was beside him. “What are you afraid of? I won't hurt you.” He was trembling beneath her fingers, radiating stark fear. His head was averted, hidden deep within the folds of the hood, one shoulder hunched as if to block her out.

Gabriel got slowly to his feet. He didn't have the strength to get away from this young woman, from the warmth and compassion in her voice, from the life bursting in her veins. He bowed his head as he stepped through the doorway into her home. He prayed for strength. He prayed for forgiveness. He prayed for a miracle.

Francesca guided him through the large rooms to the kitchen, where she seated him at an intricately carved dining table. “There's a small bathroom off to your right. The towels are clean if you want to take a shower. You're welcome to use it while I'm heating food.”

Gabriel sighed and shook his head. He rose slowly and moved across the floor to stand over her. Close. So close he smelled her faint enticing fragrance through the haze of his raw hunger. “I am sorry.” He whispered the words softly, meaning them. “I must feed, but that is not what I need.” Very gently he took the bowl from her hands and set it on the counter.

For the first time Francesca sensed she was in danger. She stood very still, her large black eyes studying his cloaked figure. Then she nodded. “I see.” There was no fear in her voice, only a quiet acceptance. “Come with me. I have something to show you. You'll need it later.” She took his hand, ignoring his long, sharp nails.

Gabriel was not using compulsion on her. He was not using any mind merge at all to calm her. She knew she was in deadly peril; he saw the knowledge reflected in her eyes. Her hand closed over his and she tugged. “Come with me. I can help you.” She was almost tranquil, radiating a peace that enfolded him.

He followed her because every physical contact with her eased his suffering. He couldn't bear to think of what he was going to do to her. Inside he felt like weeping. A heavy stone seemed to be crushing his chest. Francesca opened a door on the left side of the kitchen to reveal a narrow stairway. At her urging he followed her down the stairs.

“This is the basement,” she told him, “but over here, just above this little outcropping, is another door. You can't see it, but if you place your fingertips exactly here…” She demonstrated and the rock swung inward toward a dark cavern. She waved at the interior. “This leads beneath the earth. You'll find it to your liking.”

Gabriel inhaled the sweet welcoming scent of the earth's richness beckoning to him. The coolness, the darkness reached out to him with the promise of peace.

Francesca swept her heavy hair from her neck and looked up at him with wide, gentle eyes. “I feel the fear in you. I know what you need. I am a healer and I can do no other than offer one such as you solace. I offer freely, without reservation, I offer my life for yours as is my right.” The words were soft and gentle, so beautiful like the whisper of velvet over his skin.

The actual words barely registered. Only the sound. The seduction. The enticement. Her neck was warm satin beneath his stroking fingers. Gabriel closed his eyes and savored the exquisite feel of her. Where he had feared he would rend and tear, he found the need to cradle her body close to his gently, almost tenderly. He bent his head to feel her skin beneath his lips. Heat and fire. His tongue stroked across her pulse and his body tightened in anticipation. His arms drew her into the shelter of his body, his heart. He murmured his apology and took her offering, his teeth sinking deep into the vein of her slender neck.

At once the rush hit him like a fireball, spreading through his starving shrunken cells. Power and strength blossomed within him. He felt it then. White heat. Blue lightning. His body tightened. She felt like hot silk in his arms, as if she fit perfectly into his body. He became aware of how soft her skin was. The taste of her was addictive. She had saved him with her generosity. She had successfully prevented the demon from rising. Her blood was freely given.

Freely given. A new realization penetrated his feeding frenzy. He could feel.

Guilt. He recalled the weight in his chest as he'd followed her down the basement stairs. He had been feeling since the moment he'd chanced upon her. His body was a hard, urgent ache as he fed. Sensual. Erotic. Feeding had never been in any way connected to sex. He should have been incapable of sexual feelings, yet now his body was one hard, unrelenting, urgent ache.

Beneath his hand her heart stuttered and Gabriel immediately swept his tongue across the pinpricks at her throat to close the wound with his healing saliva. He had drained most of the blood from her slender body. He had to act fast. He tore a wound in his wrist and pressed it over her mouth. He was strong enough to take control of her mind. She was fading away, her life force simply waning. Francesca was making no attempt to fight; rather she seemed to be quite calm and accepting, almost as if she embraced death. Gabriel forced the blood back into her. She had known the ritual words to keep the demon leashed. She had freely offered her life for his. What had she said?

As is my right.

How could it be?

Gabriel looked down at her face. She was very pale; her long lashes were thick and luxurious, a deep black to match the long silk of her hair. Her slender body was encased in men's pants, a light blue. Colors. He was seeing in color. He had not seen anything other than grays and blacks since he was a mere fledging over two thousand years before. Why hadn't he recognized her as his lifemate? Was he so far gone after all?

He stopped her from taking too much blood from him. He would need to hunt this night; he must be sure he took enough for both of them. He carried her into the cavern, and following her scent, he found the dark chamber that would be safe from humans and the undead alike. He laid her gently in the bed of soil and sent her to sleep, reinforcing the command with a hard “push” to ensure she would not awaken until he could give her more blood. Her heart and lungs were slow and steady, enabling her body to make do with the small amount of blood flowing through her veins and arteries, the chambers of her heart.

Gabriel glided through the house, expending as little energy as possible. He would have been more than happy to take Brice's blood. But Gabriel didn't have the time to indulge his whims; he had to find his prey quickly and get back to his savior. She had saved more than his life with her generosity. She had saved his soul.

Another moment and he was out of the house, into the darkness. His world. He had lived in it for centuries, yet it was all new. All different. Everything would be different now. He found prey immediately. The city was teaming with people. He picked three large men, making certain none of them were using alcohol or drugs and that the blood in their veins was not contaminated with any diseases. Gabriel easily led them into the shelter of a doorway and bent his head to drink his fill. He took enough to bring himself to full strength without endangering any one of them. When the first swayed with dizziness, Gabriel carefully closed the pinpricks and helped him to sit on the ground. He fed from the second and third almost greedily, his body craving the nourishment after so long without. He needed enough blood for Francesca to ensure her continued survival.

The moment he was finished he erased their memories and left the three of them sitting comfortably inside the overhang of the doorway. Gabriel took three running steps and sprang into the air, his body shifting shape so that wings spread wide and lifted him. He flew in a straight line back to her house. From the air he could see the estate for what it was. Obviously old, the house was in beautiful shape, the grounds meticulously cared for. Everywhere he looked were unfamiliar objects, things of which he had no knowledge. Life had continued while he lay sleeping under the earth.

He found Francesca as he had left her, her skin so white it was nearly translucent. She was tall and slender with a wealth of ebony hair that framed her face and tumbled around her body, emphasizing her lush curves. He picked her up with great gentleness, cradled her body close to his. How could it be that this woman was his true lifemate? After the wars, females had been scarce. A Carpathian male could search the world for century after century and never find his true lifemate, the other half of his soul, of his heart. Light to his darkness. Women of his species had become scarce by the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. What were the odds of finding her just walking down the street? Practically the first person he met after being locked in the soil for so long. It didn't make sense to him. Nothing that had happened made sense. But one I fact was clear and simple. A Carpathian male could not I see colors or feel emotions unless he was in close proximity to his true lifemate. Gabriel could see all kinds of color. Brilliant colors. Vivid colors. Colors he had long forgotten had ever existed. Feelings he had never experienced. He inhaled, dragging her scent deep into his lungs. He would be able to find her anywhere now. With his ancient blood running in her veins he could call her to him at will, talk to her, mind to mind, from any distance.

With his fingernail he opened his chest, holding her head in the palm of his hand so that he could press her mouth to his skin. He was powerful, in full strength once more, and in her weakened condition, Francesca was completely in his control. He took his time studying her. She puzzled and intrigued him. She looked like a Carpathian woman. Tall. Slender. Ebony hair. Beautiful eyes as black I as night. She knew the ritual words. She had known he needed blood. She even had the chamber beneath the earth prepared for one of his kind. Who was she? What was she?

Gabriel searched her mind. She seemed human. Her memories were those of a human and contained many things he knew nothing about. The world had gained so much while he slept. She seemed wholly human and yet her blood was not exactly the same as humans. Her internal organs were not exactly the same. Still she had memories of walking under the noon sun, something his people could not do. Her existence was a mystery he intended to solve. This woman was far too important to him; he could take no chances.

Francesca's body once again had the correct volume of blood. Very gently Gabriel stopped her from feeding and placed her in the healing soil without closing it over her head. He wanted her to rest while he took the remainder of the night to study the new world he would be living in. He found a treasury of books in a library on the first floor. It was there that he learned of television and computers and the history of the contraptions – cars – they had been using to get around in. It was all amazing to him and he soaked up the technology like a sponge. Without thought he connected with Lucian. It just happened. For over two thousand years they had shared information. Gabriel was so excited he reached out to his twin and merged.

Lucian accepted the information and passed what he had been observing and studying just as if the last few centuries had never taken place. Lucian was at full strength and, as always, gaining knowledge at a rapid rate. His mind had always required new things to think about, to work on. The moment Gabriel realized what he was doing, he broke the connection, furious with himself. Lucian would be able to “see” where Gabriel was, just as Gabriel could easily find Lucian. Always Gabriel had been the one hunting his twin, tracking him to try to destroy him. He had never worried before when he had mistakenly merged with his vampire brother to share new information: If Lucian had chosen to use his knowledge to find Gabriel, it would only have made the job of destroying him easier. Now everything was different. Gabriel couldn't afford to allow Lucian to know where he was or whom he was with. Now he had to protect Francesca. Lucian could not find out about her. Vampires thrived on other people's pain. Francesca would be made to pay a terrible price for her interference.

Gabriel indulged himself with a human shower. He could simply be clean and fresh with a thought, yet now he could feel. He could savor cleanliness. It was an amazing feeling. Again he had to make a conscious effort to withhold the feeling from his twin. Even after all this time, he was used to slipping in and out of his brother's mind. Over the centuries he had used his ability to track his brother and even anticipate his kills in order to try to reach the victim before Lucian did. So far he had not been able to prevent any of Lucian's kills, but Gabriel continued to try.

After his shower, Gabriel went back to reading. He covered several encyclopedias and almanacs and every other book he could find. With his photographic memory this took very little time. He read at a rapid rate so he could get through the history and into the new technology. He wanted to read manuals and find out exactly how everything worked. And he wanted to learn everything the house could offer up about its owner.

He wandered around the vast rooms. She liked space. Open spaces. She appreciated great art and soft colors. She definitely loved the ocean and its inhabitants. There were books about underwater life and prints and water-colors of crashing waves. She was a meticulous housekeeper unless, of course, someone else came in to do the work. She lived like a human. The cupboards were full. She had beautiful china in the kitchen and rare antiques in the bedrooms. There was a room with a quilt in the making and he studied the work. The pattern was unusual.

Soothing. Beautiful. He was drawn to it, but he couldn't figure out why. In another room she had been working with stained glass. The designs were much like those on the quilt. Soothing and tranquil. Each one was intensely beautiful. He could stare at them for hours. She was a very talented woman.

The draperies throughout the house were unusually heavy, specifically made for the windows so that, if the occupant desired, not one bit of light could enter the room. That would make sense if she was a Carpathian integrating herself into mainstream life. Yet nothing in this house seemed to add up. It was a mixture of wealth and fancy, of Carpathian and human, almost as if two different people occupied the place. He looked for evidence of two residents.

In the study he found her personal papers, records of payments and private little notes she wrote to herself. There seemed to be quite a few notes, some of which were reminders to eat certain soups. A Carpathian would never eat human food unless it was imperative to do so to keep others from finding out the truth. Any Carpathian at full strength could eat and rid his stomach of the contents later, but it was uncomfortable to do so.

Who was Francesca? More important, what was she? Why wasn't her blood fully human? How had she known the ritual words to keep him from turning vampire in his weakest moment? Most important of all, why was he seeing in color? Why did he feel emotion? Why had she used the phrase “as is my right”?

Gabriel sighed and replaced her things, his fingers lingering for a moment to caress her small, neat handwriting. She would have answers for him. And if she didn't want to give them to him, he had ways of extracting information. He was of ancient blood, of a lineage of greatness and power. Few of his people had the knowledge and skills he had obtained in his centuries of existence. She would not be able to hide from him or his questions.

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