Dark Gold Chapter Three

Aidan Savage heaved an inward sigh as his gaze settled on the crazed vampiress clutching the small boy to her breast. The demon in him was strong today, struggling for freedom, the red haze in his mind clamoring for control. And the vampire was correct. Suppressing the killer within was becoming more and more difficult. He did feel the power and joy in battle, and the fighting was addicting because it was the only time he felt anything. He had endured centuries of a cold, barren, black-and-gray existence, enjoying no real color or emotion except the lust for battle.

He allowed his gaze to sweep the beach, then turned his attention back to the hag threatening the child. Suddenly he stilled. After more than six hundred years of seeing no color, he now saw the trail of tainted blood from Paul's head not as a black streak but a bright scarlet ribbon, leading his gaze straight to the vampiress.

Impossible. Color and emotion would return to him now only if he found a lifemate. And there was no one here but the pitiful human Paul had attempted to turn. He looked at her, his heart heavy. He almost felt sorry for the poor woman. Again he was puzzled by this unexpected burst of sympathy, of emotion, after so many centuries, but he continued his inspection of the female. It was impossible to tell her age. She was small, almost childlike, but the suit she wore, as torn, wet, and dirty as it was, clung to full curves. Her legs were a mass of bloody welts, her mouth swollen and black with oozing blisters. Her hair, tangled with kelp, hung in a rank clump down her back to her waist. Her blue eyes held terror but also defiance.

She was going to kill the child. The rare woman could become Carpathian. Contrary to the popular myth, most human women could not be turned by a vampire without dire consequences. They immediately went insane and preyed on innocent children. This woman had suffered horribly. The ragged wounds on her neck gave evidence of the vampire's hard usage of her, and the cuts on her wrists were cruelly deep.

Aidan reached mentally for her mind, wanting to make her death as painless for her as possible. Shocked by her resistance, he took a warning step toward her. She was incredibly strong. Her mind had some kind of natural barrier, resisting his will. Instead of placing the child on the sand in front of her as he had directed, she pushed the boy to one side, picked up a large piece of driftwood, and launched herself at Aidan.

He sprang forward, swiping the staff from her hand. The impact cracked a bone - he could hear it, see the pain in her eyes - but she didn't scream. Evidently she was beyond screaming. He reached for her, intending to end her life before she suffered further. She struggled, still resisting his mental compulsion. He bent his head to her throat.

She was so small and cold, shivering uncontrollably, and his every protective instinct leapt into being, feelings he had never before experienced. He wanted to cradle her close, shelter her in the warmth of his arms. His teeth pierced her soft throat, and instantly everything changed for him for all eternity. His entire world. Colors whirled and danced, nearly overwhelming him with their beauty and vividness. His body reacted with a wild urgency he had not known he was capable of feeling, not even in the old days, when he still had emotions.

Her blood was hot and spicy, a sweet, addicting feast giving nourishment to his depleted body. The hunt and fight had cost him strength, and he had not fed this night. Her body shared its life-giving fluid with his. He was aware on some level when her struggles ceased and she rested passively against him. He lifted her easily into his arms, cradling her against his chest as he fed. Then something hit him hard across his legs. Startled, he closed the wound with a caress of his tongue and turned to stare down at the child. It was a measure of his current bemusement that he had all but forgotten the boy, had not even heard his approach.

Joshua was furious. He struck the hunter across the legs a second time, swinging the piece of driftwood as hard as could. "Stop hurting my sister! You were supposed to come and save us! She said you would come if we held on long enough. You were supposed to help us, but you're just like him!"

Tears streamed down the child's face. Aidan could clearly see that the youth had blond hair and blue eyes. The colors nearly blinded him. He looked down into the ravaged face of the woman in his arms. Her heart was laboring, slow, her lungs fighting for air. She was dying.

"I am here to help you," he murmured softly, almost absently, to the boy. He reached inside himself, found a calm, tranquil pool to rest in, and sent himself seeking outside his own body and into the woman's. He could not believe he had found her after all these long centuries. But it must be. Only finding his lifemate could bring about these astonishing changes in him.

She was fading away, not fighting anymore. His will surrounded hers.

You will not leave me. Take my blood, which is freely offered to you. You must drink in order to live.

Her mind moved away from his. Her spirit was still strong enough to evade his compulsion. Aidan changed tactics.

Your brother needs you. Fight for him. He cannot be without you. He will die.

With one fingernail he slashed the heavy muscles of his chest and pressed her to him. She resisted at first, but he was relentless, surrounding her, herding her will, battering at the barrier until, in her weakened state, she gave in to his enthrallment and fed.

"What are you doing?" Joshua demanded.

"She has lost much blood. I must transfuse her." Aidan planned to erase the child's memories of this nightmare. A satisfactory explanation would not harm him at this point. The boy was very brave and deserved to hear anything that would ease his terrible fear.

It had taken careful tracking of the vampire to find him. He always left a bloody mess behind yet remained one step ahead of his hunter. The night before, Aidan had arrived too late. He had gone to the restaurant on the cliffs, tracking the disturbances in the air, but Paul Yohenstria had already killed an elderly man, ripping his heart out and leaving behind a corpse too hot to allow the police to discover. Aidan had disposed of the body and made certain the vampire's three female victims would never be found. But he had lost the undead's trail just before dawn. Still, he had been certain he was nearing his lair, and finally he had found and destroyed him.

Now he had no choice but to burn the vampire and take these two lost ones back to his home. For this pitiful, disfigured woman was clearly the mate he had been seeking these eight hundred years. His astonishing responses to her proved it. He had no idea what she was like, or even what she looked like, but she had brought his body and heart back to life. This was the one.

"What is your name?" Aidan asked the child. It seemed kinder than merely reading his mind. Not that he had given great thought to kindness before.

"Joshua Houton. Is Alexandria going to be all right? She looks so white and horrible. I think that bad man really hurt her."

"I am a healer for my people, Joshua Houton. I know how to help your sister. Do not worry. I will ensure that this bad one can never hurt another living soul. Then we will go to my home. You will be safe there."

"Alex is going to be upset. Her suit is ruined, and she needs that suit to get us a great job and lots of money." Joshua sounded forlorn, as if he might cry at any moment. He was looking up at the hunter for solace.

"We will get her another suit," Aidan assured the child. He gently stopped the woman from feeding. He needed strength to transport all of them back to his home, and it also took tremendous energy to heal another. He would have to find time to hunt this night for sustenance.

Aidan placed Alexandria on the sand and pulled Joshua gently to her side. "She is very ill, Joshua. I want you to sit right beside her so she can feel your presence and know you have not been harmed. She will need us to take care of her for a while. You are a big boy. You can handle that, even if she says things that are scary, can you not?"

"Why would she say something scary?" Joshua asked suspiciously.

"When people are very sick, fever can make them delirious. That means they do not know what they say. They can be afraid of people or things for no real reason. We have to stay close to her and make certain she does not harm herself."

Joshua nodded solemnly and sat down in the wet sand beside Alexandria. Her eyes were closed, and she didn't respond even when he bent down and kissed her on her forehead as she sometimes did to him. Sand and salt caked her skin. Joshua stroked back the wet strands of hair gently, singing softly as she often did to him when he was sick. She seemed very, very cold to him.

Watching them together brought a lump to Aidan's throat. They looked the way a family was supposed to look. The way Marie, his housekeeper, had looked at her sons as they grew, the way she looked at him and he could never reciprocate. Sighing, he went about the grim business of disposing of the vampire's remains. Vampires were always dangerous, even after they were dead. He had extracted the heart, but even now it was pulsating, broadcasting to the undead its location, that the vampire might reunite its form. Aidan concentrated on the sky, built a storm in his mind, and created a whip of lightning that sizzled and danced as it struck the ground. Flames rushed along the path of crimson, leaving behind black ashes. The vampire's body shriveled. Blue and orange flames whirled together, and a low shriek seemed to rise above the wind.

The smell was putrid, rank. Joshua held his nose and watched wide-eyed as the vampire simply vanished in the black, noxious smoke. He was shocked when the hunter held his hands in the orange flames. The flames didn't burn him. Aidan tiredly wiped his palms along his trousers before turning back to the little boy trying so hard to guard his sister on the beach. A faint smile softened the hard line of his mouth. "You are not afraid of me, are you, Joshua?"

Joshua shrugged and looked away. "No." There was a small, almost defiant silence. "Well, maybe a little."

Aidan hunkered down beside the boy and looked directly into the blue eyes. His voice dropped an octave, became a pure tone, silver notes that entered Joshua's mind and took possession. "I am an old family friend you have known all your life. We care a great deal for one another and have shared all kinds of adventures." He sent himself outside his body and into the boy, studying the memories the child had of his young life. It was easy to implant a few memories of himself.

Aidan maintained eye contact with the child. "Your friend Henry had a heart attack and died. It was very sad. You called me to come and get you because your sister was so ill. You and Alexandria have been planning to move in with me. The two of you have already brought some of your things into my house, and you have met my housekeeper, Marie. You like her very much. Stefan, her husband, is a good friend to you. We have been arranging the move for weeks. Do you remember?" He implanted memories and images of his housekeeper and caretaker so the two would be familiar and comfortable to the child.

The little boy nodded solemnly.

Aidan ruffled Joshua's hair. "You had a bad dream, something about vampires, but you do not really remember it. It is all very hazy. You talked to me about it, and if it ever returns to haunt you, you will come to me, and we will discuss it. You always feel free to talk with me about things that sometimes do not make sense. You want me to be with your sister always. We talk about it together and plot together to make her want to stay with me as my wife, as family. You and I are the best of friends. We always look out for Alexandria. You know she belongs with me, that no one can care for her and protect the two of you as I can. This is very important to you, to both of us."

Joshua smiled his assent. Aidan held the child's mind a few minutes longer, letting the boy recognize his touch and feel soothed by it. The child had suffered a terrible trauma. Aidan made certain that the method by which he took them home would be instantly forgotten, and the child would remember a large black car, one he would like.

The trip back was made on the heels of a storm. Swirling black clouds protected the large golden bird and his burdens from any prying eyes as they swept through the sky. Aidan entered the three-story house through the upstairs balcony so no neighbors would see him carry the boy and his sister in.

"Aidan!" Marie, his housekeeper, rushed to help him as he came down the winding staircase. "Who are these youngsters?" She caught sight of Alexandria's swollen face, the blisters and sores, "Oh, my God. You caught up with the vampire, didn't you? Are you all right? Did he hurt you? Let me call Stefan."

"I am fine, Marie. Do not worry about me." Even as he said it, he knew it wouldn't change the way she was. She and her husband had been seeing to his needs, to his household, for nearly forty years. Before her, her mother and father had served him. For all his life, members of her family had served him willingly, without the aid of mind control. He had bestowed money enough that none of them ever had to work, but they were loyal to him and his absentee twin brother, Julian. They knew what he was - they were the only humans he had entrusted with the knowledge of his kind - yet it didn't matter to them.

"The vampire has harmed her?"

"Yes. I need you to care for the boy. His name is Joshua. I have implanted memories of our friendship so he will not fear being here. Stefan must go to their rooming house and collect their belongings and bring them here. Her car remains in a restaurant parking lot." He told her where. "That must be collected. The boy has the car keys in his pocket. Healing his sister will take some time. The child must not interfere in any way. I will have to go out and feed. She needs much care, and I must keep up my strength."

"Are you certain she is not unclean?" Marie asked with great trepidation. She reached for Joshua's hand.

The little boy smiled up at her in recognition and willingly took her hand. He even stepped close and tugged on her apron conspiratorially. "He is going to make Alexandria well. She is very sick."

Marie shoved aside her own anxiety and nodded at Joshua. "Of course. Aidan is a miracle worker. He will make your sister well in no time." After settling the child down at the kitchen table with cookies and milk, she followed Aidan across the room, raising an eyebrow at the hunter, silently demanding an answer to her question.

"He did not turn her, but I am afraid I inadvertently may have. She was protecting the child, but I misunderstood. I thought she was going to kill him." He took two steps away from the housekeeper, then turned back to face her. "Marie? I see colors. You are wearing a blue-and-green dress. You look beautiful. And I feel again." He smiled at the woman. "I know I have never told you in all our years together, but I have great affection for you. I was so lost, I was unable to feel it before."

Marie's mouth formed a perfect O, and tears shimmered in her eyes. "Thank God, Aidan. At last it has happened. We hoped and prayed, and at last our prayers have been answered. This is tremendous news. Go now. Care for your woman, and we will see to all that is necessary here. I am certain this young man is very hungry and thirsty."

There was such joy on her face that Aidan felt it reflected in his heart. It was amazing to feel. To be able to feel. Without his mate, a Carpathian male lost all wants, needs, emotions after two hundred years. He lived in an abyss, void, and from that moment on he was at risk of turning vampire. The longer he survived, as the centuries passed, the Carpathian distanced himself more and more from his community and all it stood for. Only two things could save him from his empty, desperate fate. He could choose to meet the dawn and end his life, or a miracle might happen and he would find his lifemate.

A handful of very lucky Carpathian males had found the one they searched for. The Carpathian male was by nature a dark, dangerous predator, and he needed the balance of his other half. Needed to find the woman whose soul perfectly complemented his own. Two halves of the same whole, her light to his darkness. There was only one true lifemate for each male. The chemistry had to be just right. And Aidan had finally found his.

Now he moved through the house with his silent, fluid stride. Alexandria's weight was nothing to him. His lair was located far below the first story, a long underground chamber fully furnished with every luxury. He laid her carefully on the bed and stripped away the remnants of her suit. His breath caught in his throat. Her body was so youthful, her breasts full and firm, her skin beautiful. She had a narrow rib cage and a ridiculously small waist. Her hips were slim, almost like a boy's. Despite the fact that her face and limbs were covered in sores from long exposure to the pounding of salt water, Alexandria Houton might, after all, be a pretty woman.

He took great care to wash the salt from her skin and hair, then disposed of the damp quilt beneath her. She lay on the sheets, her long hair wrapped in a towel, her breathing labored but steady. She was severely dehydrated, and she needed more blood. While she was in an unconscious state, Aidan supplied her with more. Aside from her fragile state of health, he was certain her body still had to go through the rigors of the change. And it was very necessary to dilute the vampire's blood. It was easier to access her mind and make the repairs to her damaged body while she was unconscious. She stirred uncomfortably, moaning softly. Aidan began the soft, healing chant, centuries old, in the ancient tongue of his people, while he crushed herbs around the room.

Alexandria's long lashes fluttered, lifted. For a moment she thought she was in the middle of a bad dream. She hurt everywhere, her body bruised and battered. She looked around the unfamiliar room.

It was beautiful. Whoever owned this place had an eye for elegance and the money to indulge his tastes. Her fingers twisted in the sheet. She found she was too weak to move. "Joshua?" She called his name softly, her heart beginning to pound in alarm when she realized she was awake and not dreaming.

"He is safe." That voice again. She would recognize it anywhere. It was so beautiful, unearthly, like the voice of an angel speaking to her. Yet she knew the truth. This man was a vampire with supernatural powers. He was able to shapeshift, to kill without hesitation. He fed on the blood of humans. He could read minds and force others to do his bidding.

"Where is he?" She didn't bother to move. What would be the point? He clearly had the upper hand. She could only wait and see what he wanted.

"At this very moment he is eating a nutritious dinner prepared by my housekeeper. He is safe, Alexandria. No one in this house will ever harm that boy. On the contrary, every one of us would give our lives to protect him." His voice was so soft and gentle, she could feel the notes soothing her mind.

She closed her eyes, too tired to keep them open. "Who are you?"

"Aidan Savage. This is my home. I am a healer as well as a hunter."

"What are you planning to do with me?"

"I need to know how much blood the vampire forced you to accept. I imagine Yohenstria was quite stingy, wanting to keep you in a weakened state. You are very dehydrated, your eyes black and sunken, your lips cracked, your cells crying out for nourishment. Still, whatever blood he gave you is tainted, and your body is about to go through the conversion." Very gently he applied a soothing salve to her tortured lips.

His words penetrated her foggy brain. Blinking, Alexandria stared up at him, horrified. "What do you mean, conversion? I am going to be like you? Like him? I am to become one of you? Kill me, then. I don't want to be like you." Her throat was so raw, she couldn't speak above a hoarse whisper.

He shook his head. "You do not understand, and there is little time to teach you. Your mind is very strong, completely different from that of most humans. You are resistant to mind control. I want to help you through this. You will go through it, with or without my help, but it will better for you if you allow me to aid you."

She closed her eyes against his words. "My arm hurts."

"I expect it does. I expect most of your body hurts," he answered, his voice somehow penetrating her skin and reaching into her aching arm to touch the bone. A warm tingle started and begin to spread, easing the throbbing. "Your arm is broken, but I have begun repairs. The bone is in line, and the mending has started without trouble."

"I want Joshua."

"Joshua is just a little boy. He thinks you are ill with a virus. He does not need to be frightened and traumatized further. Do you not agree?"

"How do I know you're telling me the truth?" Alexandria asked tiredly. "Don't all vampires lie and deceive?"

"I am Carpathian. I am not yet vampire. I must know how much blood Yohenstria has given you." He spoke patiently, gently, his voice never changing inflection. "How many times did he exchange his blood with you?"

"You're very dangerous, aren't you?" She bit at her lower lip, then winced when she painfully scraped blisters and sores. "You have this way about you, making everyone want to do everything you say. You made the vampire believe you could defeat him, didn't you?" It hurt her to talk, but it was comforting that she could.

"I use the power of my voice," he acknowledged gravely. "Less wear and tear on the body when hunting vampires, although I have had my share of wounds." He touched her then, the lightest of caresses across her forehead. "Do you not remember your own story to young Joshua? I am the hunter, come to rescue my fair lady and her brother. Joshua recognized me as such. He told me so. Do you not find it a strange coincidence that you described me so accurately?"

Her mind refused to think about that, so she changed the subject. "Joshua saw the vampire kill Henry. He must be so frightened."

"He remembers Henry's death as a heart attack. To him, I am an old friend of the family. He thinks he called me to come and help you because of your illness. He believes you fell ill at the restaurant."

She studied his appearance. He was physically beautiful. His hair was rich and thick, waves of gold reaching past his wide shoulders. His eyes, a peculiar molten gold, intense and frightening, gazed back at her with the unblinking stare of a jungle cat. His lips were impossibly sensual. It was impossible to judge his age. She would have guessed he was somewhere in his thirties. "Why don't you erase my memories?"

A small, humorless smile curved his mouth, revealing strong, even, white teeth. "You are not so easy to handle, piccola. You are resistant to my direction. But we need to address what is happening to you."

Her heart began to pound. "What is happening to me?"

"We need to further dilute the tainted blood in your system."

Alexandria wanted to trust him. The smell of the herbs, the sound of his voice, his seeming honesty all made her want to believe he was trying to help her. And he didn't force her decision, or even attempt to rush her, though she sensed he was concerned that whatever was going to happen would happen before he was adequately prepared to deal with it. She took a deep breath. "How do we do that?"

"I must give you a large amount of my blood."

He said it quietly, matter-of-factly. Alexandria looked away. Those golden eyes of his never blinked. She was afraid if she stared into them too long, she would fall forever into their depths. "You will give me a transfusion?"

"I am sorry, piccola, that will not work." There was real regret in his voice. He touched her again, turning her chin so she would face him again. The feather-light stroke sent her heart pounding.

"I can't... I can't drink blood."

"I can put you under compulsion if you are willing for me to do so. It will aid you. It is our only chance, Alexandria."

The way he said her name sent butterflies winging through her stomach. But was it possible that drinking more blood was the only way to make her well?

"If it is impossible for you to drink of your own free will, you must consent to my aiding you," he said.

"I'm not sure I can do it." The very thought repulsed her. Her stomach was churning, already rebelling at the idea. "There must be another way to make me well. I don't think I can do it," she repeated.

"His blood is tainted, Alexandria. Even though he is dead, he can cause you much pain and suffering. We have to dilute it before you go through the transformation."

There was that word again transformation.

She shivered.

He reached behind him for an immaculately white silk shirt, clearly one of his own, and, his eyes holding hers, he gently put it on her, handling her as if she were a fragile porcelain doll. They both pretended the act was impersonal, but there was something in his touch, some quality in his gaze that could only be described as possessive.

Exhausted, Alexandria tried to think. The vampire had been grotesque, and the thought of any part of him living in her bloodstream was terrifying. "All right. Do it." Her blue eyes met his golden gaze. "Put me under compulsion to get rid of the vampire in me. But nothing else. Don't take away or put anything else into my head. Nothing else. You have to give me your word on that." For whatever that would be worth.

He nodded. She was far too weak to sit up, so Aidan cradled her on his lap. She began to tremble, her heart pounding so hard, he was afraid it would shatter before he could heal her. Deliberately he reached behind her to braid her long hair, to soothe and distract her. Then he silently began a low chant in her mind, murmuring in the ancient tongue, bringing a measure of relief to her. She visibly relaxed.

"I want to command you to sleep through your conversion. It is quite brutal, piccola. I will wake you when it is over." His velvet voice made the suggestion, and she felt the notes wrapping around her like safe, warm arms, compelling her to do as he wished.

Instantly she pulled back, her mind slamming shut, turning away from him. She simply was not willing to be that vulnerable, to give up all control, even consciousness, to a stranger. Especially one capable of the things this man could do. What was he, after all? Possibly another vampire, despite the distinction he drew about being "Carpathian, not yet vampire," whatever that meant.

"I will assist you in diluting the vampire's tainted blood, Alexandria, nothing more, if that is your wish." He chose his words carefully. He had been in her mind several times already, and the bond was strengthening with each mental sharing. She was unaware of it as of yet, and for now it was better to keep it that way. He knew she was confused and mistakenly hoping that the conversion about to take place would restore her to human life. For now he would have to mildly deceive her in that regard to spare her the agony of the inevitable transformation, already begun, to Carpathian life.

Alexandria sighed. The feel of his hands in her hair, the soft whisper of his husky voice, the total confidence he exuded was mesmerizing. "Let's get it over with before I lose my nerve."

As soon as the words slipped out of her mouth, he shifted her slight weight, cradling her on his lap, and bent his blond head slowly to her throat. The touch of his mouth was like hot silk on her skin. She felt that wildly erotic touch right down to her toes.

Alexandria stiffened, suddenly afraid of losing far more than her life. His lips were on her throat, right over her pulse.

You have to trust me, piccola. Let yourself feel me in you. I am part of you. Reach for me now, as I reach for you

. The words seemed to be in her mind rather than spoken aloud. He was strength and heat, fire and ice. He was power and protection from the insanity engulfing her.

A white-hot heat pierced her throat, and then she felt an erotic intimacy so beautiful, it brought tears to her eyes. She had never felt so cherished, so beautiful, so perfect as she did at that moment. She felt him in her mind, exploring her secret thoughts and desires. He was soothing and healing her, tasting her, sharing her mind. He examined every memory, the strength of her block against him.

When he was certain he had taken enough of her blood to ensure a proper exchange, his tongue reluctantly stroked over the wound and closed it.

With a fingernail he opened a line over his heart.

Drink, Alexandria. Take what is freely offered. His mind was ready, reaching to take control of hers, to compel what she did not wish to do. His body clenched as her mouth moved over his skin, found what it was seeking, and his life's blood flowed into her. His heart slammed hard against his chest. He knew she was the one. She was his. His entire being responded to her. The chemistry between them was electric, exact. He had waited so long, seemingly forever, for her. And now he was taking no chances on losing her. He began the chant that would bind them together for all time.

I claim you as my lifemate. I belong to you. I offer my life for you. I give you my protection, my allegiance, my heart, my soul, and my body. I take into my keeping the same that is yours. Your life, happiness, and welfare will be placed above my own. You are my lifemate, bound to me for all eternity and always in my care.

He spoke the ritual words in her mind, both in her language and in his native tongue. The ritual would not be complete until her body was bound to his, but, this done, no one would be able to take her from him, nor could she escape him.

Aidan gave her as much blood as he could. He wanted the vampire's blood thoroughly diluted when the conversion began, during which she would expel whatever might remain. They had little time before the transformation would begin, and he was weak and pale. He desperately needed to hunt before she needed him again, which would be very soon.

Alexandria lay back, her long lashes thick crescents resting on her cheeks. Even in her hypnotic state, he could see the pain twisting her body. It was difficult to keep his promise and not command her to sleep the deep, healing sleep of immortals. But if Alexandria was ever to trust him, he had to keep every promise he made. She had exceptional cause to despise his kind. Her trauma and terror would never be fully erased, even as she came to understand their race.

His call to Marie brought the older woman to the chamber immediately. "You will stay with Alexandria while I hunt this night."

Marie watched him, appalled as he staggered with weakness. She had seen him weary and wounded from battle, but she had never seen him so starved before. He was nearly gray. "You must take my blood before you go out, Aidan," she said. "You are too weak to hunt. If a vampire caught you is such a state, he would destroy you."

He shook his head, touching her arm gently. "You know I would never do such a thing. I do not use those I care for, those I protect."

"Go then, and hurry." Marie watched with anxious eyes as he bent to brush his mouth across the girl's forehead. He was suddenly so tender, this man she had come to know so well. He had always been aloof, remote, even to those he called family. This rare gesture of tenderness made her want to cry.

Aidan whispered the command to awaken Alexandria from her trance. "I must go now," he told her. "Marie will stay with you until my return. Call to me if you have need of me."

For some strange reason, Alexandria didn't want him to leave her side. She curled her fingers in the sheet to keep from calling out to him. But he moved quickly with his peculiar grace, like a great jungle cat, and soon was gone.

Marie held a glass of water to her lips. "I know you're sore, Alexandria - may I call you that? - but some water might help. I feel I know you, what with young Joshua telling me such tales of his wonderful sister. He loves you very much."

The rim of the glass hurt her mouth, and Alexandria pushed it away. "Just Alex, that's what Josh likes to call me. Is he okay?"

"Stefan - that's my husband - looked him over very carefully. He was hungry and tired, a bit hypothermic and dehydrated, but we attended to that. He's eaten and is in good spirits. He fell asleep by the downstairs fire. Under the circumstances, with him so worried about you, we felt he should sleep close to us and not alone in his room."

"Thank you for looking after him." She tried to sit up. With the infusion of the hunter's blood, she felt stronger. "Where is he now? I'd like to go see him."

Marie shook her head. "You must not even attempt to leave this bed. Aidan would have our heads. You're very weak, Alex. I guess you haven't seen yourself yet either. In your condition, you'd scare Joshua to death."

Alexandria sighed. "But I need to see him, to touch him, just so I know he's all right. Everyone tells me he is, but how do I know for sure?"

Marie stroked back stray strands of gold hair from Alexandria's forehead. "Because Aidan does not lie. He would never harm a child. He is one who, at great risk to himself, hunts the vampires preying on the human race."

"Are there really such things? Maybe I'm just having a terrible nightmare I can't wake up from. Maybe I'm just sick with a high fever." She said it hopefully. "How could there really be such things as vampires in our society without everyone knowing it?"

"Because of those like Aidan who stop them."

"What is Aidan? Isn't he a vampire, too? I saw him turn from a bird to a man to a wolf. He grew fangs and claws. He drank my blood. I know he intended to kill me. I still don't know why he changed his mind." Suddenly she felt her body beginning to burn. Her muscles began to tighten into hard knots. Even the thin sheet covering her felt too heavy and warm against her skin. Her muscles seemed to be contorting, the heat migrating throughout her body.

"Aidan will explain everything to you. But rest assured that he is no vampire. I have known him since I was a young girl. He watched me grow up, have children of my own, and now I have become an old woman. He is a powerful, dangerous man, but not to those of us he calls his own. He will never harm you. He will protect you with his life."

Alexandria was panicking. She did not want to belong to Aidan Savage. Yet she realized he would never let her go. How could he? She knew far too much. "I don't want to be here. Call 911. Get me a doctor."

Marie sighed. "No doctor can help you now, Alex. Only Aidan can. He is a great healer. They say there is only one other greater than he." She smiled. "Aidan will return, and he'll take away your pain."

Her insides twisted so hard and abruptly, Alexandria was nearly thrown from the bed. She cried out, screamed. "You have to call me a doctor, Marie. Please! You're human, like me, aren't you? You have to help me. I want to go home! I just want to go home!"

Marie tried to hold her down on the bed, but the pain was so intense, Alexandria's body convulsed, and she hit the floor hard.
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