Authors: Christine Feehan
Belle pushed against her with her full weight, going from insubstantial to all sleek black fur and roped muscle. Julija ended up on her butt with the cat in her lap. She couldn’t help but laugh, ruffling the fur. It was rare for a shadow cat to feel safe enough to become wholly substantial. She’d always felt so sad for them in that horrid room where her brothers experimented on them. The tongue was rough as it lapped at her face repeatedly.
“Okay, okay.” She was laughing so hard she couldn’t push the cat away from her. “I’m happy to see you, too. You have to stop.”
She sensed movement and caught Belle around the neck to try to push her head down, so she could see around her. Blue was giving Isai a wide berth, keeping a wary eye on him, but he wanted to get in as close to her as possible. Over the weeks she’d treated his injuries, he’d finally allowed her to get close without using a holding spell. Once he’d accepted her, he had given her his absolute loyalty. Her brothers never once suspected she was visiting the shed where they kept the animals that lived through their experiments.
“Come sit beside me,” Julija invited Isai and patted the spot next to her.
“When I was very young, I came across a mother leopard with three kits. She was dying of injuries inflicted by another leopard. It was too late to save her, but I kept the little ones alive. They followed me everywhere and when I slept, they slept above my resting place. As you can well imagine, for a hunter of vampires, it wasn’t an ideal situation.”
She reached up her hand to clasp his again. “I’ll bet they were a handful.”
“They played all the time. I found I spent a good deal of my time rounding them up. I didn’t make the best mother to them.”
She had to look up at his face and catch his expression. There was
warmth there, and a hint of amusement at the memory. It was a good memory. She was happy he had it. She tugged on his hand, reminding him to sit beside her. She knew that would put him in a vulnerable position, and he’d already experienced an attack by another shadow cat. He knew the kind of terrible venom they carried in their claws.
“I’ll bet that isn’t true. You probably were an awesome mother. These came to me full-grown.”
“I think they’re coming to you again, Julija. They don’t want to go back. Is there a way your brothers call them back?”
“Yes, they use a high-frequency whistle and the cats are taught to respond to that sound. If the cats don’t, they use pain to make them return.”
“The same kind of pain your father used against you?”
She retreated the way she always did, trying to pull her hand away, but he closed his fingers firmly around hers and sank down beside her, every bit as graceful as she was although he was a big man.
Isai ignored the warning Blue gave him. The male cat snarled and showed his teeth, drawing back from them once again. Instead, he brought Julija’s hand to his mouth and pressed a kiss into the center of her palm. “I felt the pain, little mage. It is impossible to go back. We can only go forward. Your family is not just your problem.”
“I know.” She did know. She’d been conditioned to keep all things mage private, not to mention, it was embarrassing to have a family like hers. They conducted brutal experiments on animals. They casually murdered when someone got in their way. They plotted to kill off entire species for their own gain. Hers wasn’t exactly the kind of family you invited your friends to come and meet.
“You cannot possibly survive if you attempt to fight them alone. They will eventually find you, although I do not believe they will kill you. I think they need you alive for your blood.”
“That reminds me, you need to feed.”
His blue eyes met hers and she felt a jolt of awareness go through her body. His intense gaze drifted over her and she felt as if he left blue flames licking at her skin everywhere his attention touched.
He reached out and gently caught the nape of her neck, pulling her
close to him. She turned her head to give him better access, lowering her lashes to savor his touch. She all but forgot the two shadow cats until both pressed closer, watching intently with their wide, amber eyes.
Isai stroked her neck right over her pounding pulse with his tongue. The lightest of touches, but it felt like the burn of a brand. The flash of pain, although expected, did the unexpected. The sensation felt like an erotic arrow straight to her sex. Her feminine sheath clenched, and her nipples peaked. His arms drew her closer to him as he drank. The sensation was intimate, sensual and possessive. She wanted to drown in the feeling, just stay there forever with him.
The cats moved closer, Blue pressing into her so that his nose could nearly touch Isai. Julija knew the ancient Carpathian was aware of the cats, especially the big male. She
his heightened alert, but he finished feeding before running his tongue over the twin piercings in her neck to stop the bleeding.
“I think your pets are looking for a meal.”
She stroked a caress over the male’s head. The cat didn’t take his eyes off Isai.
He leaned toward the animal. “Are you hungry, friend? Didn’t they feed you?”
His tone was smooth, soft, even gentle. Very friendly. A shiver of awareness crept down her spine. She found, in spite of their very rocky beginning, there were quite a few things she liked about Isai. He treated animals with respect and compassion.
“My brothers liked to keep the cats hungry. They sometimes fed them human flesh.”
Isai frowned. “The cats are natural predators and they clearly tried to make them even more vicious, yet they aren’t nearly as ferocious as one would think. Why aren’t they attacking me? If they are hungry, by rights, they should be looking at me as if I am their next meal.”
“I think, because I gave them my blood on a regular basis—”
“Wait,” he interrupted. “Did you take their blood at any time?”
“I had to. I wanted to be able to control them if needed or know if they were hurt. I didn’t want my brothers to kill them.”
He regarded her for a long moment and then casually bit into his wrist and offered the blood to the male cat. Blue nearly leapt forward and hungrily lapped at the drops of blood.
“What are you doing?” Julija’s breath caught in her throat. “You could make it worse. Your blood is far more powerful than mine. My brothers still control the cats with pain. If they command them to kill us, if they find out the cats are with us, they’ll hurt them until the animals comply with their commands.”
Fear for Isai nearly swamped her. Normally she would have been afraid for the shadow cats, but now, all she could think about was Blue tearing into Isai.
Isai calmly swept his free arm around her. “We are going to prevent that from happening. You are from a lineage known as Dragonseeker. That particular line is legendary.”
“Elisabeta was telling me something about it.”
“Although you have the mark of the high mage, straight from Xavier’s line, you have more Carpathian blood in you than mage. You have converted these shadow cats to Carpathian and they need blood to survive, but they also have taken on the traits of a Carpathian. Your brothers bred them for intelligence, and they have that. It is very evident, even the way they work in pairs. He sent her forward to check me out, but he was waiting to kill me if need be.”
“You can’t know all that.”
“I feel their blood calling to mine. If you are still and you know what to look for in your mind, you will feel it as well. When they are both fed, we will first work on the shield in your mind to prevent your father or brothers from harming you and then together, we will do the same in theirs.”
Julija wasn’t certain what to think. Could it be true that she was far more Carpathian than mage? She was extremely good at casting illusions. “Isai,” she said in protest.
“Think about what you do and how fast you became good at it. Your father is not going to let on to you that you hold the power of both the high mage and Dragonseeker. He keeps you in line with pain because he
has no other way. You have dared to break away from him and he
to get you back. You are too valuable to them.”
Calmly he instructed the male cat to stop drinking from his wrist. The cat snarled at him but backed up to allow the female to take his place.
“Let me, Isai. You’ll be too weak for us to build shields or fight enemies. We still have to find the book and get it somewhere safe.”
“They both need to recognize that I am head of the family. I will give the orders to them the same as you do. If we keep these animals alive, they have to recognize the authority and obey all laws of the Carpathian people. Turning animals is strictly forbidden, although I have heard that was done with wolves, and now, clearly with these cats as well.”
She wasn’t certain how to feel when he made himself head of the family, but the fact that turning an animal was against the laws of the Carpathian people and he hadn’t killed the two cats outright made her like him even more. On some level, she knew that if he took these cats under his protection, he would fight to the death for them.
“What happened to the leopards, Isai? The ones that slept above you and most likely hindered your ability to hide from your enemies.”
He gave her another one of those priceless grins. It was faint, but amusement climbed into his eyes, lighting them, turning them into those gleaming jewels that managed to send a wealth of butterflies winging their way through her stomach. He reached out almost lazily and scratched the top of Belle’s head.
“They lived out their lives and I buried the last one right before I lost my emotions. They stayed with me for years and yes, they did give away my resting places and mostly hindered my ability to use flight, but it was worth it.” Again, he was gentle in pulling his wrist from the cat.
Julija liked watching his fingers stroke the cat’s fur. She found herself mesmerized by the way he murmured softly and reassuringly to the animals.
“You do have a few good traits, lifemate,” she said, trying to sound casual. She was opening a can of worms and she knew it. She wasn’t certain she could ever accept him and his authority. She had been on her own and there was no way she would ever be able to make herself into a “yes”
woman. She liked who she was, other than coming from her murderous family. She laughed at that thought.
He quirked an eyebrow, and she decided to be honest.
“I was just thinking that I like who I am right now. It took me a long time to come to terms with who I am, but then I realized I liked myself in spite of coming from a murderous family. They are not nice people and introducing them to you won’t go very smoothly.”
His lips did that fascinating quirk that gave away that he was feeling amused. She couldn’t help but stare in fascination at the way just that curve to his mouth softened the harsh lines in his face.
“You are just buttering me up so I will tell you what my tattoo says.” He held out his hand and pulled her to her feet, once more waving his hand toward the center of the chamber so the two chairs were back. “It will not happen . . .”
Her heart dropped.
“Yet. Go sit in one of the chairs and call the cats to you. I will connect with you first and help you build an impenetrable shield so Anatolie cannot get in your head. You will have to give your consent, little mage, to allow me into your mind. I will not force you.”
“This is going to weaken you.” She turned away from him quickly, hurrying across the chamber to the comfortable chairs. She didn’t want to look at him because she wasn’t certain how she felt about letting him into her mind. She was very, very confused when it came to the entire lifemate custom.
his lifemate. She was certain she was. The pull between them was too strong. It was just that she had lost her ability to trust and he would see . . . She closed her eyes as she sank into the luxury of the chair. He would see into her past. She didn’t want to go there. Not ever. She couldn’t face that particular betrayal, nor did she want Isai to see how naïve and silly she’d been. How deeply her humiliation had gone.
Could his voice be any more patient? Any gentler? Why couldn’t he sound like the dictator from hell? She tried to conjure up the feel of his
hand hitting her bottom, but even that eluded her when his voice stroked over her skin like a velvet rasp.
She touched her tongue to her lips. “There are things in my past I’m ashamed of. If I open my mind to yours and give my permission, you can see the things I don’t want to remember or think about ever again.”
“I can erase these memories from your mind.”
Her gaze jumped to his. She only saw his compassion. There wasn’t morbid curiosity. She couldn’t imagine him taunting her with her stupidity. She couldn’t stop the little shake of her head. “You would still remember.”
“I would not care.”
“How could you not?”
“You still do not entirely understand the concept of lifemates, Julija. I would protect you from anything, including these memories that make you sad. Right now, the most important thing to do is protect you from your father. He is bound to strike again soon.”
“When my brothers get close to this place, he’ll do so then to distract me.”
“Then let me help you,
, before he strikes at you.”
Julija had to make up her mind immediately. Either she trusted him, or she didn’t. Isai was pale after giving both cats blood. He’d been careful not to take too much of hers because he didn’t want her weak. He needed to feed. It would be easy enough to find a camper and then return to her, but she knew he wouldn’t until all of them were protected.
“Will I be able to see into your mind?” Her heart beat far too fast and for the first time since she was a young child, she couldn’t seem to command it to a steady rhythm.
He heard, of course. He stepped close to the chair, in between the two cats, and very gently used his hands on the inside of her thighs to open them to him. He knelt down between her legs and suddenly, fear and apprehension mixed with erotic hunger and a sense of urgency.
He took her hand and pressed it to his chest over his heart. “Feel that. Let your heart follow the beat of mine. Breathe with me.”