Dark Gold Chapter Eleven

There was something unnerving about the house. Thomas couldn't put his finger on it, couldn't find the exact word to describe it, but he wished he could. It wasn't just the owner. The house itself seemed alive, a silent sentinel watching him. If he could put this feeling onto computer screen, capture the images to depict the way the house lived and breathed, stared malevolently at him, he would be one of the wealthiest men in the world. There was something very wrong with the entire setup at Aidan Savage's, and he meant to get to the bottom of it.

The setting was dramatically beautiful, the house itself was architecturally perfect, yet he sensed some deeper, underlying monstrous being lurking there. He found himself thankful the usual early-morning fog wasn't present as he climbed the steps to the huge, ornate front door. Even the police car parked in the circular drive was oddly comforting. He knew the detectives didn't like him, but their presence gave him the sense of security he needed to face Aidan Savage.

Frankly, the man scared the hell out of him. It was his eyes. Savage had the disquieting, eerie, unblinking stare of a predator. There was power and intelligence there in that molten gold gaze, yet at times Thomas was certain the eyes had flashed with red sparks and glowed with a weird intensity. A few years back, for one of his games, Ivan had researched jungle cats - tigers, leopards, and the like - and he remembered how well cats could see in the night, a perfect adaptation for predators. Their large round eyes had huge pupils that closed down to slits in the light of day but widened dramatically in the darkness. And he vividly recalled their deadly stare preceding an attack.

Thomas shuddered and tried to shake off his feeling of dread as he stood before the door. His imagination was clearly working overtime. Savage was dangerous not because he was a night predator but because he was staking out Alexandria Houton as his territory, and Thomas Ivan intended to do the same. That was all. They were rivals for the same woman. Nothing sinister, nothing more. He had always had trouble keeping his imagination under control.

He stared at the intricate stained-glass panels in the door. They were beautiful, patterned with strange symbols and shapes. The more he studied the glass, the more he felt as if he were falling into it. Caught in it, like a fly in amber. That nameless dread began to build again, and for a moment he could barely catch his breath. To enter this house was to be trapped forever in an eternity of hell. The pattern began to move and change before his horrified stare. It wanted to draw him into its spiral, carry him into hell. His heart was pounding so loudly, his ears hurt.

Thomas nearly screamed when the door swung open, breaking the spell. Aidan Savage stared down at him from his superior height. The man was dressed casually in a faded jeans and a vee-necked shirt, but he looked at once strangely elegant yet wild and untamed, out of time and place, like some all-powerful tribal chieftain from times gone by. The shoulder-length hair, as golden as his eyes, added to the impression.

"Mr. Ivan." The voice was so perfectly pitched, it seeped into Thomas's heart and soul, coiling itself inside him like a living, breathing thing. "I am so pleased you could take the time to stop in and reassure Alexandria. I am certain your visit will ease her mind. She has been quite anxious that you might not hold the job for her."

Savage's solid weight blocked the entrance to the interior. His voice was pleasant, soothing, but the words stung slightly. It made Thomas a mere employer, nothing special to Alexandria Houton and certainly no threat to Savage's designs on her.

Thomas reached for his own voice. A smoldering anger began to burn in him, giving him the impetus he needed to deal with this man. He was Thomas Ivan. He owned his own company, was wealthy, famous, a force to be reckoned with. He was no coward to snivel on a doorstep. "I'm glad we could meet again under more auspicious circumstances." Smugly superior, he offered his hand.

The moment Savage gripped his fingers, Thomas winced at the man's enormous strength. Savage wasn't even trying, didn't even seem to notice his own casual power. Cursing silently, Thomas shook hands. And then Savage smiled. A gleam of white teeth. Strong. Sharp. No humor, no welcome. A predator's smile that never once warmed those strange, unblinking eyes.

"Do enter my home, Mr. Ivan," Aidan invited, stepping back to give him room.

And all at once entering that house was the last thing Thomas wanted to do. He actually stepped backward, a cold shiver of fear racing down his spine. Savage's mouth curved into a cruel yet almost sensual smile.

"What is it?" The voice, so calm, so smooth, like velvet, was taunting all the same.

The two detectives had been there for well over an hour, and in that time the demon in Aidan had been growing stronger and stronger. He had all but sprouted fangs as one of them did everything but beg for a date with Alexandria. Did she really need yet another suitor? He was going to have to post a sign on the lawn stating that all males courting Alexandria Houton did so at their own peril.

Alexandria walked the two detectives to the door, and at once Thomas Ivan forgot his fear. He couldn't take his eyes off her. She was hauntingly beautiful, more so than he remembered. Even the police officers were staring at her, mesmerized. Thomas choked back the jealous rage welling up out of nowhere, surprised by the intensity of his emotions. Under Savage's steady stare, he forced himself back under control.

Alexandria's face lit up when she saw him, and Thomas sent a triumphant grin Savage's way. He entered the house quickly, pushed past the detectives, and clasped both of Alexandria's hands in his.

Something deep within Aidan coiled dangerously at the sight of her hands in Thomas Ivan's. His breath stopped. His heart ceased to beat. The demon within stirred and roared for release, fangs exploded into his mouth, and the red haze of the beast flamed in his eyes. As Thomas leaned in close, intending to kiss her cheek, Aidan fought for control so that he could casually wave a hand, directing a flurry of dust spores to whirl and dance beneath Ivan's nose. As Ivan inhaled, he began to sneeze violently, the spasms wracking his entire body.

Alexandria stepped away from him and raised an inquiring eyebrow at Aidan. When he looked far too innocent for her liking, she glared at him. It was hard enough for her to deal with the two bewitched policemen. They seemed oddly mesmerized by her voice, her eyes, her every movement. They had been so solicitous of her, so careful of what they said, so worried about her health, that she was beginning to suspect that, along with the exchange of blood, Aidan had somehow shared his sex appeal with her. And she definitely didn't want it.

Aidan showed the detectives out the door, exercising great restraint not to throw them out bodily. He had not anticipated their human reaction to Alexandria's haunting beauty. He certainly had not anticipated his own reaction to their wanting her. He could smell their arousal, read their thoughts, and he wanted them out of his sight before he did something unforgivable.

Something stirred in his mind like the brush of butterfly wings.

Aidan? Startled, he glanced at Alexandria. She was frowning at him.

Stop being so mean to Thomas.

Joy surged through him. She had voluntarily merged her mind with his and was communicating in the way of a lifemate. He smiled, completely unrepentant.

Stopholding his hands. You're being childish. I am not holding his hands. And stop letting him kiss you. He didn't get to kiss me. Aidan, stop. I mean it.

He raised a hand, and the dust dispersed. Embarrassed, Thomas turned away from Alexandria, wondering what had happened. He never had sneezing fits. Never. Why would he suddenly have one now? Was it somehow this house and those damned unblinking amber eyes?

Alexandria was smiling at him with her lush mouth and inviting dimples. "Please come and sit down, Thomas. I'm sorry you were inconvenienced by my illness." Her voice whispered over his skin, and he felt a shaft of desire pierce him. She was dressed simply in torn, faded jeans and a pearl-buttoned cardigan. She was barefoot. Yet she looked incredibly sexy. Thomas had always preferred sophisticated, high-fashion women, yet he couldn't tear his gaze from Alexandria's unpolished beauty.

The housekeeper entered carrying a tray with warm croissants and cream puffs and a silver coffeepot. Unexpectedly, she smiled a welcome to Thomas. "Mr. Ivan, your flowers have certainly brightened up our home."

He settled on the couch complacently. He was winning over the housekeeper. Feeling particularly charming, he bestowed a slight nod and a brief smile in her general direction.

Aidan caught Alexandria by one slender arm and guided her firmly to a high-backed chair facing Thomas. After seating her, he remained behind the chair, his hands resting lightly on her shoulders. "Alexandria must rest soon, Mr. Ivan. She is still quite weak. The interview with the detectives was longer than we expected, and quite hard on her stamina." It was a reprimand, a reminder that it was Thomas Ivan who had forced Alexandria, as fragile as she was, into talking with the police.

"Yes, of course. I'll be brief. I merely wanted to see that she was all right and to discuss our working arrangements." Thomas accepted the cup of coffee Marie handed him, then gazed up at the man standing so protectively behind Alexandria's chair. "Once I lay out my expectations for this project, it's really Alexandria's genius that has to take over. The story line is unique and very frightening, we have top actors willing to read the roles for us, and we intend to create a product unrivaled in today's market. Everything is in place, but I need the perfect artwork."

"That's so exciting, Thomas," Alexandria said, acutely aware of Aidan's hands on her shoulders. His thumb was stroking slowly, sensually over her clavicle.

You are using that syrupy voice, Aidan pointed out wickedly, his voice brushing her mind like the stroke of his thumb. The teasing note in it set her heart to melting. "You mean you need Alexandria's artwork."

Mind your own business. I'm deliberately flirting a little. You have heard of the concept, haven't you? In fact, I think you wrote the book on it. We will have none of that nonsense,

his voice whispered in her mind, his laughter soft and inviting.

Alexandria glanced up at his face. It was a mask, his golden eyes still on Thomas. Yet she had the sensation of such intense intimacy, it was almost as if they had made love. Her feelings for Aidan were strong and growing more so with every conversational exchange, with every blood exchange, with every merging of their minds. At the realization, fear welled up in her, sharp and ugly.

Breathe, piccola.

You always forget to breathe. Aidan sounded amused, mockingly male.

Alexandria chose to ignore the taunt, instead sending Thomas a high-powered smile that jerked his head up and set his body tightening with urges and demands.

Thomas was intensely aware of Savage standing like some Greek god behind Alexandria's chair, with that damned unblinking stare and his hands on her shoulders as if he owned her. That deadly stare, never once moving from Ivan's face, was completely unnerving. Thomas had the feeling Aidan could read his lustful thoughts, his every intention. He took a sip of coffee to calm himself.

"Perhaps we could go out for breakfast, Alexandria," he suggested silkily, deliberately challenging Aidan's hold on her, "and discuss the details."

That stare never wavered. "Alexandria is unable to leave at this time. The doctors were very specific as to her resting hours, were they not, Alexandria? Perhaps that should be taken into consideration when you are deciding if Alexandria can do the work you need." Aidan sounded the same - quiet, mild, almost expressionless, as if none of this meant a thing to him and Thomas was no threat of any consequence.

Yet Alexandria stiffened at his words and would have interrupted had Savage's hands not tightened, holding her still.

Thomas noticed with satisfaction the rise in tension between them. The chemistry, the intensity between the two, was unmistakable, and he detested it, knowing that it threatened his relationship with her. But Alexandria wasn't happy with it, and that was good. Ivan smiled his easy, charming smile and leaned forward.

"Alexandria has the job no matter what the restrictions on her hours. I have the contract with me and am prepared to meet any price." Take that, Savage, he thought. Don't think you can push me aside so easily.

Shark attack! Look out, cara, he is swimming toward you . Aidan deliberately lightened the mood between Alexandria and himself.

Alexandria glanced back at Aidan and saw his calm mask. The golden eyes never wavered from Thomas's face, but in her mind she could hear the echo of his soft laughter. In spite of her annoyance, she wanted to laugh with him.

"I'm pleased to hear you say that, Thomas," she answered in her most syrupy voice, deliberately trying to annoy Aidan to pay him back. "The doctors are being extremely careful, and as I have the responsibility of my younger brother, I need to be cautious with my health."

"Follow their instructions to the letter," Thomas replied, leaning even closer. "I wouldn't want a repeat of this episode. It scared me to death." He made it personal, his hand reaching out to rest on her knee.

For some reason, his touch repelled her. The coffee cup balanced in his other hand suddenly shifted, and the hot liquid spilled over his hand and wrist. With a cry he clattered the cup onto the tray, in the process managing to drag his arm across the cream puffs. The sleeve of his immaculate suit came away covered in goo.

"Oh, Thomas." Alexandria tried to jump to her feet to help him, but Aidan's hands kept her in place.

I know you did that, you Neanderthal! Don't for one minute try your innocent act, because it won't work. You're deliberately embarrassing the man. She accused Aidan of it hotly, working hard to avoid any humor welling to the surface.

He can keep his damned hands to himself.

Aidan was calmly unrepentant in the face of her wrath.

You keep touching me whenever the mood strikes you. That's rather like the pot calling the kettle black. Stop provoking him. I want this job. The idiot is so besotted with you, he would stand on his head if you demanded it. The job is not going anywhere. No one says besotted anymore.

She couldn't think of a scathing enough retort. Aidan acted so completely without remorse. To add to her seething anger, she could hear that unmistakable note of amusement in his black velvet voice.

"I'm sorry, Alexandria." Thomas was mortified. It was those damn amber eyes watching his every move, waiting, just waiting. It was eerie and disturbing, that predator's stare. He felt like a rabbit, prey for a wolf. Then he again cursed his own imagination. He gave Alexandria his most winning smile, trying to ignore the man standing behind her chair. Savage gave an impression of indolence, but Thomas wasn't deceived. Whoever this man was, he was a force to be reckoned with. He had staked a claim on Alexandria and was clearly warning Thomas off.

"Don't worry about it, Thomas. The tray was too close. In any case, the damage is to your suit, not me."

Alexandria's voice was so soothing and peaceful, seeming to surround him, relaxing him.

"Alexandria is tired, Mr. Ivan. I must insist she rest now." Aidan's golden stare was unwavering. "I trust you are now satisfied I am not holding her prisoner in my dungeon." He paused. "And in the future, Mr. Ivan, if you wish to know something about me or my staff, I assure you, a private investigator is a waste of your money. I will be happy to answer any questions you have." His smile was amicable, but his powerful white teeth gave Thomas the illusion of being stalked by a wolf. There was absolutely no warmth in those golden, unnerving eyes.

Thomas rose to his feet, hating the fear swirling deep within his gut and the humiliation of being summarily dismissed by the man under the guise of concern for Alexandria's health. But he could be patient. She would be working with him. They would be alone, and there wasn't a thing Aidan Savage could do about it.

"I regret any inconvenience my concern for Alexandria caused you. I was very worried about her well-being."

Ignoring Aidan's hands on her shoulders, Alexandria rose with him. "We understand. Although, I assure you, Aidan is a good man and would never harm Joshua or me. You had absolutely nothing to worry about."

Thomas looked over her head to directly challenge Aidan. "Oh, I'm sure you're right about that." He understood the bastard, but Alexandria was far too innocent to realize just what kind of a man Savage really was. There had to be skeletons in his closet, a body or two in his past. Thomas intended to find every one of them. Deliberately he smiled at the man, a cool, intentional threat. "Mr. Savage and I understand one another quite well, Alex. I will call you later."

She was following him to the door. As he paused on the front porch, he turned and raised a hand to touch her cheek, certain her skin would be as soft as it looked. For a moment his heart seemed to stop, and his breath caught in his throat. No woman had ever affected him as she did. But even as he reached out to cup her face, he heard an angry buzzing, and a huge black bee dive-bombed him from out of nowhere.

With an oath, Thomas jumped back, swatting ineffectually at the persistent insect. As his left foot came down he turned his ankle and nearly fell.

Alexandria's hand covered her mouth in horror.

Aidan, stop it right now! I cannot imagine what you are accusing me of,

Aidan returned innocently from the living room. His voice was unconcerned, virtuous, and placid.

Thomas fled down the driveway to the safety of his car. Damn the man, damn the house, and damn every awkward thing that had happened! Savage was not going to drive him away forever! From the sanctuary of his vehicle, he waved to Alexandria, happy to see that she looked somewhat distressed for him. He almost wished he had allowed the bee to sting him; she might have insisted on nursing him back to health.

Alexandria shut the door with more force than was necessary. "You are the most infuriating man in the world," she accused him.

Aidan raised an eyebrow. "One of my more annoying yet endearing qualities." His slow, sexy smile was teasing.

Alexandria nearly lost her train of thought, distracted by the melting warmth that smile caused. Abruptly she caught herself, straightening her shoulders and summoning as much anger as she could manage under the circumstances. "Nothing about you is endearing. That was so... so - " She broke off, searching for the right word, but her vocabulary failed her. Nobody should have his smile.

"Brilliant?" he prompted, helping her out."
Insensitive comesto mind. Childish. Are you going to behave this way every time he comes here?"

Her hands were on her slender hips, her sapphire eyes flashing sparks. He wanted to kiss her. His golden eyes warmed, and his gaze dropped to her mouth. Instantly her body responded to that dark, sensual look. She backed away from him hastily, her hands up for protection. "Don't you dare, you escapee from an insane asylum."

"Do not dare what?" His voice was soft, mesmerizing, seductive.

She could feel the touch of it like fingers stroking her skin. She ached with it, went liquid with it. "Just stay across the room from me. I mean it, Aidan. You're lethal. You ought to be locked up."

"But I have not done anything." He smiled and moved slowly toward her. "Yet."

"Marie!" In a panic, Alexandria called out as loudly as she could.

Aidan laughed as the housekeeper hurried in.

Little coward, run while you can. Although they were half a room apart and Marie was squarely between them, Alexandria felt the brush of his fingers on her skin, her face, her throat. They trailed lower, feather-light, to touch the aching swell of her breast before the sensation was gone.

"What is it, Alexandria?" Marie asked, her hands on her hips, glaring at Aidan.

He held up a placating hand, laughing. "I am innocent. I was a perfect gentleman to her visitor."

"He spilled Thomas's coffee, made him sneeze, smeared whipped cream over him, and chased him with a bee," Alexandria accused. While Marie struggled to keep a straight face, Alexandria delivered the final outrage. "And he was going to wither my flowers."

"Aidan!" Marie reprimanded sharply, but there was laughter in her eyes.

Aidan was really laughing now, his head thrown back, his golden eyes glowing, his face transformed, almost boyish with mischief. Neither woman could resist the pure joy, the fun he was experiencing for the first time in centuries. It made Marie want to cry with happiness, and it was an aphrodisiac to Alexandria, knowing she wielded so much power over such a creature.

"She is not telling the truth. Ivan spilled his own coffee and dipped his arm in the cream puffs. I was nowhere near him. And the bee probably just happened by. How can I be responsible for an insect's attraction to that man?" He looked wide-eyed and blameless. "As to the flowers, I was only glowering at them because she was acting so silly over the damned things."

"Silly?" Alexandria echoed. "I'll show you silly, you savage beast." She started toward him purposefully, but Marie held up a hand.

"Now, now, children. Joshua is up, and we wouldn't want him to find the two of you fighting."

"We wouldn't want him to find out his hero has feet of clay," Alexandria corrected, glaring at Aidan.

He moved toward her then, a deliberate stalking, gliding around Marie in his silent, fluid way, making Alexandria's heart pound frantically in anticipation. His perfect mouth was curved in a taunting smile. Hastily she stepped backward, tripped, and would have fallen if he hadn't reached out a hand and caught her.

"Running away, little coward?" he whispered softly, teasingly, dragging her close into the shelter of his arms.

Marie discreetly left the room, deserting the younger woman to her fate, hiding a grin behind her hand as she went.

"Aidan." There was an ache in Alexandria's voice. She didn't mean for it to be there. It was just that he was so close, the heat of his body enveloping her. His mouth was inches from hers, their hearts matching the same desperate rhythm.

His thumb brushed her lower lip in a light caress, sending a flame shooting through her soul. His golden eyes held hers as he lowered his head, his mouth finding hers with unhurried hunger, slowly savoring every inch of the silken interior, exploring, coaxing. His hands slid to her hips, his fingers tightening, pulling her against him, pinning her softness against his hard, demanding body.

There was a trace of resistance in her, as if she were still fighting for survival, her sense of self-preservation warning her she was in danger. But the bond between them was growing with their proximity, with each blood exchange, with the explosive chemistry between them. Already her mind sought his; her soul reached for him. Even her heart was softening, becoming willing. Her body cried out to his. Only her head, so stubborn, prevented him from claiming his rights as her lifemate.

His mouth moved over hers, deepening the kiss, sweeping aside her objections on a wave of fire, dragging her deeper and deeper into a world of sensuality, of the night, of all that went with the demands of their blood.

"Holy macaroni!" Joshua's voice was awed and disgusted at the same time. "Do you like that gross stuff, Aidan?"

Alexandria jerked herself out of Aidan's arms and rubbed at her mouth, trying desperately to regain her breath.

Aidan ruffled the boy's blond curls. "Yes, Joshua, I like that stuff, but only with your sister. She is special, you understand. Someone like Alexandria only comes along once in a few hundred centuries."

Joshua was regarding his sister with a speculative grin. There was a devilish light in his eyes. "She seemed to like it, too."

"Well, I didn't," Alexandria denied adamantly. "Aidan Savage is a jerk, Joshua. A big jerk."

The grin spread. "She did like it," Joshua stated. "You must kiss pretty good, Aidan. She never lets anyone kiss her 'cept me." He turned his face up for Alexandria's kiss, his little arms circling her neck as she bent to do so. "Nobody else better kiss you either, 'cept Aidan and me."

"That is the way it should be," Aidan said complacently. "We will have to be especially vigilant now that Mr. Ivan has hired her to do his drawings. He has that look about him. I would be willing to bet he wants to kiss Alexandria."

"Don't worry, Aidan. I won't let him," Joshua said staunchly. "If she does go to work for that guy, I'll follow them everywhere and make him stay away from her."

"That would be just the thing, Josh." The approval in Aidan's voice had the little boy beaming proudly.

"I can't believe," Alexandria interrupted, "that you are having this conversation with a six-year-old." She hugged her little brother tightly to her and returned the warmth she had been missing. He had been too long away from her. But not so long that he couldn't still argue with her.

"I'm almost seven."

"It's still inappropriate."

Joshua smirked at Aidan. "Don't worry. She always says that when she doesn't know what else to say and wants me to shut up."

Aidan reached down and one-handedly lifted the boy up to his shoulder. "That is because she liked my kisses and is a bit flustered. We will have to forgive her this time."

"Oh, I see how it's going to be." Alexandria glared at the two of them, but her dimple appeared despite her best effort at ferocity. "You guys are planning to gang up on me."

They looked at each other, exchanging a smile. "Yes," they said at the same time.

Alexandria felt her heart turn over. Joshua had never had anyone but her to watch over him. He had never trusted anyone else, never looked up to anyone else. She couldn't help but be happy that Aidan was taking such an interest in him. Aidan was stealing her heart with his gentleness. Joshua was her world. She could see Aidan's genuine affection for the boy, could see that they were developing a real rapport. And she felt tears welling up in her eyes at the sight of the two of them together.

"Come on, big fellow, we need to get you some breakfast. Mr. Ivan left wearing his food on his clothes, the man's so clumsy. You should have seen him," Aidan informed the boy.

Joshua giggled. "He spilled his food?"

Aidan glided easily toward the kitchen, as if Joshua's added weight was incidental. "He was a complete fool. Even Alexandria had a difficult time trying not to laugh, not that she would admit it. She pretends she likes him," he whispered, knowing perfectly well she could hear his every word.

Alexandria trailed along after them, uncertain whether Aidan needed another kick in the shins or whether she should just act dignified and ignore him. It was a difficult choice.

I can read your mind.

His voice in her mind was like a physical caress.

Her eyes flashed fire at him. She would kick him, the first chance she got. He knew exactly how he affected her, the cad.

Thousand-year-old playboy. Hound dog. Swine. He deserved to be kicked. Hard.

"I never spill my food, Aidan," Joshua confided solemnly. "At least not anymore. When I was baby I did."

"Sisters do not have the same effect on their brothers as they do on grown men. Believe me, Alexandria could make me spill my food."

Joshua shook his blond curls. "No way, Aidan."

"It is true, Joshua. I do not want to admit it, but she definitely could. Scary, is it not, the effect women have on men?"

"Why? She's just a girl." He rubbed his nose and grinned at his sister. "And she's always telling us what to do."

"Right now, I'm going to tell you to eat your breakfast and get ready for school." Alexandria aimed to sound tough, though she was trying not to laugh. Joshua was far too precocious for his own good. "I'll walk you."

Aidan turned slowly and regarded her with his steady golden gaze. Alexandria ignored him, all too aware that he objected to her going out. But she was determined to be assertive. She was not going to change her entire life because of him. The more she allowed Aidan to convince her of things she could and couldn't do, the more she was drawn into his world.

"I'm going," she reiterated firmly.

"You think," he said softly, lowering Joshua to his feet. He ruffled the boy's silky curls. "Someone has to take care of you. Joshua and I are determined to look after you whether you like it or not."

Joshua grinned up at her, innocent, boyish, unaware of any undercurrents. "Because you're sick, Alex. You know, like you always take care of me when I'm sick." He slid into a high-backed oak chair. "Once I was really, really sick, and she never left me, even to go to sleep. I remember that, Alex."

"You had pneumonia," she affirmed softly, reaching down to touch his shoulder affectionately.

There was such tenderness in her expression, Aidan turned away to prevent himself from pulling her into his arms. She was struggling to stay human, and he really couldn't blame her for it. Her entire world had been turned upside down. For someone who viewed him as a fictional creature, the legendary, horrifying vampire, she was doing quite well.

"Marie cooked pancakes this morning," Joshua said. "I told her I wanted them because they're your favorite. She made funny faces out of them."

The blow was almost physical, a punch in the gut. Alexandria's paled, and she suddenly found herself examining the immaculate kitchen floor. Everything reminded her of the terrible price she paid for remaining alive. There had to be a way to change back. If a vampire or a... a Carpathian could bring her across, then modern medicine must have an antidote. She would secretly do research, find a way to take care of Joshua by herself, without the help of Marie or Stefan, and certainly without Aidan. He was becoming far too indispensable for her liking.

She sensed his golden eyes on her, knew he was watching her closely, could feel the exact moment when his mind reached out to hers. She deliberately resisted, wanting to exert her independence.

His laughter was soft and taunting. "Are you going to wear shoes when we take Joshua to school, or do you plan to escort him barefoot?" he asked softly, unconcerned with her defiance.

"I don't think you need to come, Aidan. I'm quite capable of taking Josh to school all by myself. You have to remember, I've been doing it for some time now."

He reached out and tugged a lock of her hair. "True, piccola, but that is not the point. I had to research the school very quickly, and while Stefan checked it out for me, I really have not had a chance to evaluate it for myself. This will be a good opportunity to do so."

"You're guarding me." She made it an accusation.

He shrugged lazily. He saw no reason to deny it. "That, too."

She flashed him a resentful look. All at once tears were burning behind her eyes, and that only made her more angry. "I don't need a guard."

"I know better."

She caught him by the arm. "Joshua, hurry and finish your breakfast, then brush your teeth. Aidan and I are going to talk. Come into the living room when you're ready to leave."

"Okay, Alex," Joshua replied.

Though her small fingers wrapped barely halfway around his powerful wrist, she dragged Aidan out of the kitchen. "You can't keep me prisoner, Aidan. And I know you aren't guarding me to keep me safe. What's out there that would hurt me? You said yourself vampires can't be out past the dawn. I can go with Joshua alone."

"You have no idea what you are facing. The light, even the early-morning light, will hurt your eyes, and the sun will burn your skin. You will have to wear especially dark glasses and get used to the sun gradually. As your lifemate, I am responsible for your health and safety, and I must protect you at all times, even from yourself. If you wish to accompany Joshua to his school, than I will go also."

"You're making certain I return. Your coming with us has nothing to do with Joshua's school or my safety. You think I'm going to take Josh and run for the nearest airport. If I had any brains at all, I would. You can just stay here, Aidan, and let me take care of my brother. I've been doing it for years." Her blue eyes were flashing at him, fiery with determination and defiance.

Aidan allowed a slow, masculine smile of amusement to soften his mouth. "And a very good job you have done, Alexandria. Joshua is a fine boy. He has stolen the hearts of all of us who reside here. But I would be remiss in not escorting the boy at least once to his new school. Apparently he has had problems in the past with a bully or two, and he made it clear that a show of force could be very helpful in establishing better relationships. I will have Stefan bring the limo around."

"You aren't listening to me, Aidan." But he had successfully defused her anger. She wanted Joshua to be happy. She had been only too aware of his troubles at the old school. If he wanted the big car and a few big adults around to back him up and make a strong first impression, then who was she to deny him?

"I don't think I like you very much, Aidan. You always seem to get your way," she capitulated reluctantly.

He ruffled her hair as if she were Joshua. "Get used to it, piccola. Everyone obeys me."

"I'm not afraid of you the way they are."

"Perhaps not in the same way, Alexandria, but you are most definitely afraid. Otherwise you would not try to run away from me, from us, the way you do." The teasing note in his voice was doing things to her insides she didn't want to acknowledge. She had to escape. It was the only way. The only way.

Marie stuck her head in the doorway. "The phone, Alexandria. Your young man again." She winked. "He is eager, this one."

"He is not Alexandria's young man, Marie," Aidan said, annoyed. "He's old enough to be her father."

Marie only laughed as she sailed back toward the kitchen, ignoring his bad mood.

"Hello?" With deliberate malice, Alexandria sounded as sweet as she could as she took Thomas Ivan's call. "Oh, Thomas!" Her eyes were on Aidan as she gushed the other man's name. "The theater? Tonight? It's short notice, and I don't know if I'm quite ready for a night out."

Aidan could easily hear the suave, persuasive voice on the other end of the line. "We would just sit quietly, Alex, and I'd bring you straight home. An early night."

She closed her eyes. A night away from all the tension. A night in the real world. Her world. It was appealing. And by accepting she would also learn whether she was a prisoner or not. "That sounds wonderful, Thomas. But straight home afterward - I don't want the doctor yelling at me." She looked at Aidan when she said it.

Aidan raised an eyebrow, but his features otherwise remained expressionless granite. For some reason, that made her heart beat faster than if he had looked annoyed. Aidan Savage was planning something. She didn't know what, but she was certain of it.

She hung up the phone. "I'm going to the theater," she said defiantly.

Aidan nodded. "So I heard. Do you think it wise?"

She shrugged. "I'm well enough. My health appears to be back to normal."

"I am not concerned with your health at this moment, Alexandria," he said softly, "only his."
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