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Dark Challenge : Dark Series : Book 5 - Christine Feehan

Dark Challenge

Dark Series : Book 5

Paperback

Published: 3rd May 2007
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RRP $19.99
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Was She More Than His Mate?

Julian Savage was golden. Powerful. But tormented. For the brooding hunter walked alone. Always alone, far from his Carpathian kind, alien to even his twin. Like his name, his existence was savage. Until he met the woman he was sworn to protect…. When Julian heard Desari sing, rainbows swamped his starving senses. Emotions bombarded his hardened heart. And a dark hunger to possess her flooded his loins, blinding him to the danger stalking him. And even as Desari enflamed him, she dared to defy him - with mysterious, unparalleled feminine powers. Was Desari more than his perfect mate? Julian had met his match in this woman, but would she drive him to madness…or save his soul?

About the Author

Christine Feehan is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of many romance novels and novellas. She lives in California.

'Feehan has a knack for bringing vampiric Carpathians to vivid, virile life in her Dark Carpathian novels..." (Publishers Weekly) 'satisfying action adventure romance ... Love and danger are a winning combination in Feehan's latest' (Booklist) 'The exciting and multifaceted world that impressive author Christine Feehan has created continues to improve with age' (Romantic Times)

Julian Savage hesitated outside the door to the crowded bar. He had come to this city for one last errand before he would choose eternal rest. He was weary of the centuries of living in a stark, ugly, gray world. He had one last goal to accomplish, one more thing asked of him by his Prince and he could choose to meet the dawn with an easy mind. It wasn't that he was on the verge of turning, he could hold out longer should he choose. It was the bleakness of his life.

He could not refuse this errand. In the long centuries of his existence, he felt he had given only a small amount of aid to his dwindling race. It was true that he was a vampire hunter, one of the more powerful. It was considered a great thing among his people, but he knew, as did most of those that were successful hunters, it was the killer instinct that made him so brilliant at what he did. Gregori, healer and second to the Prince, had sent word to him to warn this woman, this singer, that she was on the hit list of a fanatical society of human vampire hunters. It was often mortals that suffered the zeal of sick fanatics like those involved in this society.

Julian knew why the task had been given to him. Gregori was determined not to lose him. The healer could read what was in Julian's mind, realized that he had chosen to end his barren existence. He also knew once Julian gave his word to protect the human woman from the society of killers, he would never stop until she was safe. Gregori was buying time for him. It would do no good. He had spent many lifetimes, century after century, separated from his people, even his own twin brother.

Julian was a loner even in a race made up of untrusting males. His species, the Carpathian race, was dying out, their Prince desperately attempting to give his people hope. Julian had no choice but to remain solitary, choosing to run with the wolves, to soar with the birds of prey, to hunt with the panther. The few times he walked among the humans, it was to fight a war in which he believed strongly. He had spent most of his time walking alone, always solitary, passing through lands unseen, undetected even by his own kind. He stood very still, reliving the memory of his childhood folly, that terrible moment he had stepped upon a path that had, for eternity, changed his life.

He had been but twelve summers. Even then the terrible unquenchable thirst for knowledge had been on him. He had always been inseparable from his twin brother, Aidan, yet that day he heard a far off call. A drawing he couldn't resist. He had been filled with the joy of discovery back then and he had slipped away, following the lure of an unspoken promise. The network of caves he discovered were honeycombed and deep within the mountain. He met the most amazing wizard. Personable, handsome, so willing to impart his knowledge to a young eager apprentice. All he asked in return was secrecy. At the age of twelve, it had been an exciting game to Julian.

Looking back, Julian always questioned if he had really known the truth, if he had wanted knowledge and secrets so much he had deliberately ignored warning signs. There had come the day when the truth hit him in the face with all its stark ugliness. He had arrived early and hearing screams, rushed into the lower caves to discover his young, handsome friend was the most loathsome of all creatures, a true monster, a cold-blooded killing machine. He was a vampire. At twelve Julian did not have powers and skills, he was no fighter to save the hapless victims as the vampire drained their blood and maliciously turned on the boy who had so admired him.

That memory was etched in Julian's mind for all time. The blood. The screams. The horror. The moment when the hand gripped him, dragged him close to smell the fetid breath, the taunts and laughter. The teeth tearing into his body, painful and vulgar, but worse, he wasn't given death as the vampire had given his other victims. He remembered the way the vampire had slashed his own wrist and forced it to Julian's mouth, had brutally forced him to accept that tainted blood, to exchange blood with the most unholy of creatures.

The shame had not ended there. The vampire had used the small boy as his eyes and ears. He had eavesdropped on the Prince or the healer when Julian was near to them. He had taunted Julian endlessly that he would destroy Aidan using Julian to do so. Julian had known it was true, he had felt the darkness spreading within him, at times had felt the vampire's eyes looking through his own. Several times Aidan had escaped death by a marginal breadth from a trap Julian later recognized he had set himself, the vampire using him, overcoming his resistance.

Even then, so many centuries ago, Julian had made a vow to lead a solitary life and keep his people and his beloved twin safe. He had lived on the fringe of their society gaining strength and knowledge until he was old enough to strike out on his own. He did his best to live his life honorably, did his best to fight the gathering darkness and the continual assaults the vampire made on him. He had hunted and killed countless vampires, but the one who had fashioned his life so brutally always eluded him.

Julian was taller and stockier than most of his race. Where most had dark hair and eyes, he was like a Viking of old with long thick blond hair tied at the nape of his neck with a leather thong. His eyes were a strange amber, a molten gold, mesmerizing and haunting. His eyes held a smoldering fire, a hidden danger and a piercing intelligence. He could hypnotize his prey easily with the direct stare of his eyes. He moved like the predatory animal he was, fluid, muscles rippling beneath sleek skin. He could be as still as the mountains and as patient and unyielding. Relentless. Merciless. He was the rush of the wind, could move like water flowing through a channel. He had tremendous gifts. But he was always alone.

In his younger years he spent much time in Italy and still lapsed into the language when he spoke. For awhile, when he felt the need for company, he chose to live in New Orleans in the French Quarter. Recently he had given up his home there, knowing he would never return. At long last, after this one last task, his duty and honor would be satisfied. He saw no reason to continue his existence.

Julian heard the conversations, so many of them, from the interior of the bar. Excitement. Most of the patrons seemed to be beguiled by the troupe of performers they were waiting to hear. The band was intensely popular, so much so that recording companies were screaming for deals. But the band refused to sign with anyone. They traveled the old-fashioned way, town to town, city to city, with their own people and performing their own songs. The lead female singer's voice, described as hauntingly beautiful, along with the oddity of the troupe had drawn unwanted attention.

He inhaled deeply, caught the scent of blood. Instantly hunger beat at him reminding him he had not fed this night. He stood outside, unseen by the humans clamoring to get in, by the security guards at the entrance. He would go in, deliver his message and get out. Hopefully the woman would listen and his duty would be done. If not, he would have no choice but to endure the terrible solitary existence until she was safe. And he was tired. He no longer wanted to endure.

He moved then, weaving silently through the crowd. At the door were two men, both tall and dark. One had long hair and looked liked someone to contend with, looked vaguely familiar. Julian was a wind, a rush of cool air as he glided past, hidden from all sight, yet walking confidently among the crush of humans. The guard with the long hair turned his head alertly, black eyes searching restlessly, even resting on Julian briefly, although Julian was invisible. The guard was clearly uneasy. Out of the corner of his eye, Julian saw him turn his head, this way and that before his icy gaze swung back to follow Julian's progress through the crowded bar.

Julian's white teeth flashed, a predator's gleam. He knew he was unseen. The guard had radar senses well tuned, unusual for a mortal. The band had an interesting security guard, one worth his weight in gold. That might come in handy should there be an actual attack on the woman. The cold air he pushed before him moved the pressing bodies in the crowds, parting it easily so that he didn't even have to slow down. He walked toward the back rooms. As he did so the humorless smile faded from his face, leaving the familiar hard edge to his mouth. There was a hint of cruelty there, the cold mask of the hunter. He smelled them. The enemy. They had reached her before he had.

Swearing silently, eloquently, Julian moved with his preternatural speed to the dressing room. He was too late. She was gone, already making her way to the stage with the band. Two beautiful leopards with spotted fur were curled up in the corner. Simultaneously their heads swung towards him all, senses alert. The animals were much larger and heavier than most in the wild. The yellow-green eyes fixed on him betrayed the superior intelligence of the cats. It was unusual to see two leopards together as they were generally solitary creatures. Like Julian.

"Where is she, my friends?" he asked softly. "I have come to save her life for you. Tell me where she is before her enemies kill her."

The male cat crouched, snarled silently, exposing long, sharp canines that could grab, hold, and puncture its prey. The female crouched even lower, well within her ability to spring. Julian felt the familiar camaraderie, the sense of brotherhood he always did when he encountered a member of the Panthera pardus family. He had no time to wonder why, when he reached for the leopard's mind, he couldn't control either easily. He succeeded in confusing them, slowing their reaction time. The male cat began its move, a slow stalking, head down, eyes fixed on him. It moved in the intense freeze-frame, slow motion manner preliminary to the explosion of speed preceding the kill. Julian didn't have the time to try to control the animal, nor did he want to chance having to kill such a beautiful, rare specimen. He slipped out of the room, closing the door firmly and headed toward the sound of thunderous applause.

The band began to play, the opening to the first song. He heard the woman's voice then. Haunting, mystical notes that shone like silver and gold in the air, that hung there shimmering with fire. He actually saw the notes in the air, saw silver and gold dancing in front of his eyes. Julian stopped dead in his tracks, shock ripping through him. He stared at the hallway. The tattered wallpaper was edged with small red lines and was a faded cream-colored. It had been well over eight hundred years since Julian had seen anything in color. His heart jumped in his chest.

Excitement. Hope. He felt emotion. Real emotion, not remembered. Colors were so vivid they nearly blinded him at first. The sounds of her voice played through his body, touched him in places he had long forgotten. His body tightened, need slammed into him hard. Julian stood frozen to the spot. The colors, the emotions, the physical lust rising so sharply could only mean one thing. The singer possessing that voice had to be his lifemate.

It was impossible. Totally impossible to believe. The men of his race could spend an eternity hunting for the one woman that was their other half. Male Carpathians were predatory, with the instincts of dark, hungry killers, cunning, quick and dangerously lethal. After a short time of growing, of laughter and adventure, it was all gone as they lost the ability to feel, to see in colors. There was nothing left but a solitary barren existence. Julian's existence had been unbearable, even in his childhood, with Aidan, his twin running beside him, a twin who would have made the long centuries possible with the inevitable closeness. He knew he was locked to Aidan through their blood tie and every moment he spent in his company increased the danger to Aidan. Their very closeness endangered his brother. Julian had fled his people, never telling any of them, not even his beloved brother the terrible truth. He had done the honorable thing, as he had only his honor left to him. The Carpathian stood numbly in the narrow hall, unable to believe that his lifemate was close. Unable, in that dazzling moment of emotion and color to believe that he could possibly deserve such a thing.

Many Carpathian males turned vampire after centuries of a life filled with no hope. Without the emotions, power seemed the only thing left to them. Rather than becoming a danger to mortals and immortals alike, others chose to end their barren existence by walking into the sun. Only a handful actually found their other half, the light to their darkness, the one that could make them complete. After nearly a thousand years of a bleak existence, after making the decision to meet the dawn before the demon within struggling for control conquered him, Julian could scarcely believe he had found his true lifemate.

The voice, throaty, husky, erotic, held the promise of satin sheets and candlelight. It played over his skin like fingers, tantalizing, enticing, sinfully sexy. It mesmerized the audience, anyone within hearing distance, it haunted and captivated. The notes danced, pure and beautiful, weaving a spell of enchantment around Julian, around every listener.

Julian knew nothing of this girl, this woman. Gregori had sent Julian to warn the singer that she was in danger, on the hit list of the society. The Prince wished her and those traveling with her protected if necessary. The society was a group of mortals who believed in vampires. They often targeted those they suspected of being vampires. This singer, Desari, with her haunting voice and unusual, eccentric ways had come under suspicion. Most of the society's victims were humans who had done nothing wrong, were no more different from anyone else. Once the hit squad had been sent out, the victim was killed and a stake driven through their heart. Or worse, some victims were kept alive to torture and dissect. Julian listened to the beautiful voice. She sounded like an angel singing, her voice not of the earth. A voice meant for him.

One scream, high and piercing, interrupted the beauty of the song. It was followed by a second scream, then a third. A single shot rang out, then a volley of bullets thudded into flesh and musical instruments. The building shook with the force of feet pounding across the floor as the patrons raced to get out of the line of fire.

Julian moved so quickly he blurred as he shimmered into a solid mass. The place was in complete disarray. Mortals were fleeing the bar as fast as they were able, running over each other in the process. People were yelling in terror. Tables and chairs were smashed and broken. The three members of the band lay in a blood-splattered heap. Band instruments were turned over, shattered. Security personnel were exchanging shots with the six men who were firing weapons into the crowd as they tried to escape.

Ignoring it all, Julian went straight for the stage. He pushed aside a male body and found the still form of the only woman in the group. She was sprawled on the stage, her long slender legs bent at awkard angles. Her hair was blue-black, masses of it, waves of silk spreading out like a veil. Blood pooled under her, thick and sticky, staining her royal blue dress. He had no time to examine her features further, the worst wound was mortal and would kill her unless he did something. Instinctively he fashioned a quick barrier, blurring the stage from watching eyes. In the pandemonium, he doubted if any could see.

Julian lifted her easily into his arms, found a weak pulse and placed his hand over the wound. Blocking out the chaos around him, he sent himself seeking outside his body and into hers. The entrance wound was small, the exit wound quite large. The bullet had torn through her body, ripping internal organs and tissue. He sealed the wounds to prevent further blood loss before taking her deeper into the shadows. With one lengthening fingernail, he opened a wound in his chest.

'You are mine, cara mia, and you cannot die. I would not go quietly to my death without avenging you. The world could not conceive of such a monster as I would be. You must drink, piccola, for yourself, your life, for me, for our life together. Drink now.' He gave the command with a firm compulsion, not allowing her to squirm away from his iron will. He had chosen to destroy himself rather than wait until it was too late and he had become one of the very monsters he had spent centuries of his life hunting and destroying. For tying her to him, Julian might deserve death a hundred times over, but he would take what destiny offered to him.

In a single moment of time, everything had changed. He could feel. He could see the brilliance of the colors in the world. His body was alive with needs and desire, not simply the always present gnawing physical hunger. Power and strength ran through him, sang in his veins, flowed through his muscles and he felt it. Felt it. She would not die. He would never allow such a thing. Never . Not after centuries of complete loneliness. Where there had been a yawning black chasm, an abyss of darkness, there was a connection. Real. Felt.

His blood was ancient blood, filled with healing strength, filled with power. His life flowed into her, forging a bond that could not be broken. He whispered to her in the ancient language. Ritual words. Words that would make their hearts one, words that wove the tattered remnants of their souls back together, and sealed them irrevocably for all time. For one moment time shimmered into a standstill as he struggled to do the honorable thing, but. He struggled to give her up, to allow her to live without the terrible burden he carried. He wasn't strong enough. The words were wrenched out of his soul, somewhere deep where they had been buried. 'I claim you as my lifemate. I belong to you. I offer my life for you. I give to 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 cherished and placed above my own for all time. You are my lifemate, bound to me for eternity, and always in my care.' Julian felt tears burning in his eyes. Here was another dark sin for his soul. This time against the woman he should protect above all else. His mouth brushed the top of her silky head once. Very softly he issued the command that she cease to drink. He was already weak from lack of feeding. Healing her wounds and giving her a large volume of his blood only weakened him further. He inhaled her scent, took it into his lungs, his body, imprinting her on his mind for all time.

The warning was nothing more than a brush of fur against a chair, but it was enough. Julian sprang away from the unconscious woman, whirling to meet the new threat, his snarl exposing gleaming white teeth. This was a huge leopard, a good two hundred pounds of lethal killing machine. It sprang at him, the strange inky eyes fixed on him with malevolence. The beast was in the air coming right at him. Julian leapt into the air to meet the heavy male, shape-shifting as he did so, his body stretching, contorting, golden fur rippling over heavy muscle as he took another form to meet the threat.

They met in the air, two large male cats in their prime, at full strength, rending and tearing, claws and teeth, experienced fighters that drove in mean and low, reaching up for the throat. The heavy black male was determined to fight to the death. Julian wanted to put it in a submissive position, hoping to save its life. The black male arched its back in a half circle, moved its legs laterally, sideswiping at Julian, displaying the flexible spine of the leopard. Julian felt the rake of razor-sharp claws ripping into his sides, and he lunged for the exposed throat of his opponent. The black panther, obviously an experienced fighter, twisted away at the last possible moment to avoid the dangerous canines. Even as it sprang away, Julian's switchblade-like claws managed to score four long furrows on its belly. The panther hissed softly, hate and defiance, with renewed determination, a superior intelligence that promised retaliation, vengeance even.

Julian reached for the beast's mind. The red haze was a killing frenzy, a need, a determination to rend and tear, to destroy. Agilely he sprung away. He did not want to kill the beautiful animal, and the truth was, for all his fighting experience, this creature was enormously strong and skilled. It did not respond to his many attempts to seize control of its mind.

He swore as the panther crouched protectively over the woman's body, then began once more moving toward him in the slow motion, freeze-frame manner of the stalking leopard. The strange inky eyes never left his face in the unnerving, unblinking stare only the leopard with its superior intelligence could produce. The cat meant to kill him and Julian had no choice but to fight to the death or flee. He had given the woman precious blood he didn't have to spare and now the four long furrows torn deep into his side were dripping the liquid of life onto the floor in a steady stream.

The cat was too strong, too experienced, a killing machine. He was not going to risk it. His lifemate couldn't die and her fate was tied to Julian's. He sensed no animosity toward her from the large panther, rather the need to protect her. From Desari's mind he picked up memories of love for the animal. Julian forced himself to back away, his golden muzzle snarling, his eyes blazing defiance, not submission.

The black panther was clearly torn between following him and finishing the job, or staying with the woman. Picking up that information from the panther reassured Julian even more. He backed away another two steps, not wanting to blunder by harming something that his lifemate loved. The attack came from behind him. Something tipped Julian, some whisper of movement that had him springing aside so that the second leopard landed where he had been.

It screamed in rage. Julian bolted, leaping for the bar, then a table, his powerful back legs digging into the smooth surface to get a good take-off. The third cat blocked the entrance. Julian hit it squarely, knocked it off its feet with his superior weight. Instantly he was gone, dissolving into thin air.

As mist he streamed out into the night. He didn't fool himself, part of the droplets streaking toward the ocean fog was his blood. The cats could track him if he didn't put enough distance between them immediately. It took tremendous energy to hold his image, energy that was fast leaking out into the night air. Julian summoned his energy to close the wounds in his body to prevent further blood loss.

Totally bewildered, he went over every move inside the bar. Why hadn't the cat responded to his control? He had never failed to control an animal. The mind was not like any other he had ever encountered. In any case, he should have easily defeated a panther, but he was not certain he could have. The black male was far bigger than any leopard he had ever encountered in the wild. And the other cats had been working in unison, something not natural. Julian was positive the large panther was somehow directing the actions of the other two.

Julian turned his attention back to the most immediate threat to his lifemate. Somewhere, six mortals were out there, six humans who had dared to attempt to kill an innocent woman. Her only crime was possessing a voice from the heavens. He could not rest this night until he had tracked them down and insured they would never get close to her again. He had the stench of them in his nostrils. Humans would take care of his lifemate until he returned to her. Her blood would be suspicious but he could rectify the damage at the hospital when he went back for her. His job was to defeat the assassins, bring Carpathian justice to them, removing the danger to her as fast as possible.

He gave a fleeting thought to his need for blood, the wounds he had sustained and to the danger of the mysterious panther perhaps tracking him, but it didn't matter. He could not possibly allow the assassins to go free. He turned back inland, streamed toward the bar, rising high to mingle with fog. He hoped to avoid detection from the superior sense of smell the leopard had, but if it found him again, so be it. He would not be so worried about preserving its life the next time it dared to challenge and threaten him. As he moved through time and space he touched the mind of his lifemate to insure she was coming out of her unconscious state. She would need to heal, but she was alive and being cared for. Pandemonium reigned at the bar, with police and medical vehicles everywhere. He was certain the cats would be locked up securely.

He found the first body not ten yards from the back of the bar. It was in the thick brush. Julian shimmered into solid form, pressing his hand to the dripping claw marks marring his side, not wanting any evidence of his presence. The assassin's neck was broken. There was no sign of a struggle. Julian found the second body a few yards ahead, tucked back in an alley. It was sprawled against the wall, half in and half out of a puddle of oil. There was a hole in the man's chest the size of a fist where the heart should have been.

He stiffened and glanced carefully around him. The assassin had been killed in a manner consistent with a ritual slaying of the undead. Not the human version of stakes and garlic, but the true manner of a Carpathian. He studied the body. It had the look of Gregori's work, yet it wasn't. Gregori would not have wasted his time on the vengeful death. He would have stood at a distance and simply killed them all in one stroke. This was retribution, pure and simple. A personal hand in each death.

His own brother, Aidan was a hunter and often followed the undead from State to State as there were few Carpathians capable of successfully destroying the vampire in the United States. Julian would have felt his twin's presence, would have known his work the instant he saw it. This was different from the impersonal work of Carpathian hunters, yet somehow very close to it.

Curious now, he sought out the others. Bodies three and four were side by side. One had buried his own knife deep within his throat. The other had his throat completely ripped out. It looked as if an animal had done the damage, but Julian knew better. He found the fifth body only a yard from the two. This one had seen death coming. The horror was on his face. His eyes stared obscenely skyward, even as his own hand gripped the gun that he had used to shoot himself, the same weapon used on the singer. Julian found the sixth assassin lying face down in the gutter. There was a pool of blood surrounding him, thick around his neck and throat. He had died hard and painfully  Julian stood for a long moment, thinking. This was a message, a clear and concise message to the assassins sent after the singer. Come and get us if you dare. A challenge from one who was a dangerous adversary. Julian sighed. He was tired and his hunger was becoming a gnawing, biting demand. He could not allow this challenge to stand, to place his lifemate squarely in danger. If the society knew exactly what had happened to their assassins, it would bring the entire organization down on her immediately.

It took a few moments to gather the bodies together into the secrecy of the alley. With a little sigh he gathered the energy from the sky and directed it toward the bodies lying in the puddle of oil. Instantly there was a flash of fire and the stench of burned flesh. He waited impatiently, masking the scene from all eyes, even the police searching just down the road. When the bodies were little more than ashes and small, smoldering remains, he directed the fire out.

Julian launched himself skyward and streaked away from the scene, the grotesque, grisly ashes clouding the air with their obscene presence. Well out over the ocean, he scattered the ashes over a long area, watching the choppy waves, made hungry by a flick of his hand, devour them for all time. This would be a huge blow to the society of killers. Losing six assassins, not having a clue as to their whereabouts or what happened to them, would have the society crawling into a hole to recoup. Julian knew it would likely take the group months to recover.

He turned inland toward the small cabin he had tucked away in the mountains, his thoughts once more turning toward the strange behavior of the leopards. If he didn't know better, he would swear the large black panther was not really a cat, but a Carpathian. It was an impossibility. Every Carpathian was known to one another. They could detect one another easily and all had a standard path of mental communication they used. While it was a true a few of the ancients could mask their presence from others, it was a rare gift and Julian was more knowledgeable than most. A part of his mind was continually locked to his lifemate monitoring her to insure she was well cared for. A part of him detested the weak moment that had thrust her directly into a new path of danger. Mortal danger. By claiming her, Julian had turned the eyes of the undead, his mortal enemy directly on her, marking her as surely as he had been marked.

Swearing softly in his mind, Julian turned his attention to the problem of the strange animal guarding her. Admittedly, Julian was a loner, but he knew every Carpathian alive. The black panther reminded him of someone, its method of fighting, its fierce intensity and complete confidence in itself. Gregori. The dark one. He shook his head. No, Gregori was in New Orleans with his lifemate, Savannah. Julian had personally watched over Savannah, seen to her protection until Gregori had fulfilled his vow allowing her five years of freedom before claiming her as his lifemate. Gregori was not the undead. His lifemate assured that. No Carpathian would hunt another that had not turned vampire. It could not possibly be Gregori.

Julian solidified at the entrance to the cabin and pushed open the door. Before he went in, he turned and inhaled the night, seeking the scent of any prey that might be nearby. He needed blood, fresh, hot blood to heal his wounds. When he looked down and saw the tears in his side and chest, he cursed, feeling a certain savage satisfaction in knowing he had scored against the huge cat. Carpathian or not, the thing had not gotten away scot-free.

Julian had traveled the world. He had centuries to indulge his curiosity, his thirst and need for knowledge. He had spent considerable time in Africa and India studying the leopard, inexplicably drawn there time after time. He believed they were of superior intelligence, cunning and deadly. Leopards were wildly unpredictable and had mood swings that made them all the more dangerous.

It had to be an unusual group of humans who had befriended the cats, who could get the required permits to travel with them in the United States. Even among hand-raised leopards, Julian questioned such unusual behavior, the coordinating of their movements to bring down a strange animal in their midst, especially when chaos was all around them, chaos and the smell of blood.

The huge black panther had not even licked at the woman's wounds once or attempted to sample the blood of the other two fallen band members. The scent of fresh blood should have triggered the instinct to hunt, to eat. Leopards were notorious scavengers as well as hunters. Something was off kilter. The leopards were definitely protecting the singer.

Julian sent himself into his own body, seeking the lacerations, sealing them off this time from the inside. The healing took more energy than he could afford. He mixed an herbal drink, one that promoted healing. Drifting out onto the porch, he drained the liquid quickly, forcing his body to hold onto the unfamiliar nourishment.

It took a few minutes to gather the necessary strength before making his way into the forest. He was seeking the rich soil that would aid in the healing of a Carpathian's wounds. He wanted a perfect blend of vegetation and dirt. He found it beneath the thick layer of pine needles on the far side of a knoll. Moss and soil mixed with the healing agent in his saliva, packed in his wounds. At once the pack soothed the terrible burning of his wounds.

It was interesting to him, analyzing the different feelings and emotions pushing in. With the passing of time, those Carpathians capable of emotions found that everything they experienced was much deeper and far more intense than at a young age. Everything. That included pain. All Carpathians learned at a young age to block things out if it was necessary, but like everything, it took energy. Julian was tired and hungry. His body cried out for nourishment. His mind was tuned to hers. His lifemate. Her mind was in chaos, turmoil now, but she was alive. He wanted to reach out and reassure her, but he knew it would only make her more upset.

He closed his eyes and leaned one hip against the solid tree trunk. A leopard. Who would ever have thought a leopard would score such a blow? Had he been so distracted by the presence of his lifemate that he had been careless? How could an animal have out-maneuvered him? It couldn't have been an animal. And what of the assassins and the way they were killed? Julian had supreme confidence in his own abilities. Few of the ancients could defeat him in battle. There was only one. Gregori.

He shook his head to try to clear his thoughts. The way the cat battled, so relentless and the way it thought were all too reminiscent of the dark one. Why couldn't he shake that thought when he knew it was totally impossible? Could an ancient have hidden? Gone to ground for a few hundred years and emerged undetected? In any case, Gregori had no relatives living.

He tried to recall what he knew of Gregori's family. His parents had died during the time of the Turk invasion of the Carpathian Mountains. Mikhail, the prince and leader of the Carpathian people had also lost his parents the same way. Entire villages had been destroyed. Beheadings were common, and bodies writhing on stakes, left to rot in the sun, were a normal occurrence. Small children were often herded together into a pit, or a building and burned alive. Scenes of torture and mutilation were a way of life, a harsh, merciless existence for Carpathians and humans alike.

The Carpathian race was nearly decimated. In the horror of those murderous days they lost most of their women, a good number of their males and most importantly, they lost nearly all of their children. On the day Gregori and Mikhail lost their parents, the Carpathian race had suffered the most violent and shocking blow of all. The children had been rounded up along with mortal children, village after village, driven into a straw shack and set on fire. All had been lost that day. Mikhail had lost his parents but his brother and sister had been left behind with him, far from the danger. Gregori had not fared as well, he had lost a brother around six years of age, and a new baby sister, not yet six months. Julian took a deep breath and let it out, going over each and every male Carpathian he had encountered over the centuries.

There had been two ancient hunters, twins, legendary, the thing of myths, and they had disappeared without a trace some five hundred, maybe six hundred years earlier. He inhaled sharply at the thought of that. It was believed one had turned vampire. Could he still be alive? Could Julian have escaped relatively unscathed from one so powerful? He doubted it.

Julian searched every corner of his mind for information. Had there been a child he didn't remember? Any Carpathian, male or female coming from Gregori's bloodline would be far too powerful to miss. If there had been a chance that a relative of Gregori's existed somewhere, anywhere in the world, Gregori would have moved heaven and earth to find them. Julian had taken on the responsibility of searching for any surviving Carpathians unknown to his people in his travels. He had searched out new lands, rid those places of the undead when he came across them. There were rumors of Carpathians unknown to their people, yet he had never found them.

Julian dismissed the matter and sent forth his call, luring his prey in close to him. He had no intention of wasting valuable energy hunting when he could so easily draw quarry to him. He waited beneath the tree, the light breeze carrying the sounds of four people. He inhaled their scent. Teenagers. Males. They had all been drinking. He sighed again. It seemed that was the favorite pastime of young mortals. Drinking or drugs. It didn't matter, in the end the blood was the same.

He could hear the conversation as they stumbled almost blindly toward him. None of them seemed to realize they were even moving through the forest as they conversed. They had come camping, to enjoy swimming and fishing in the lake. None of the boys had permission from their parents.

Julian's white teeth gleamed in the night. A slightly mocking smile. So the boys thought it was funny to make fools out of two people who loved and trusted them. Their species were so different. Julian had accepted long ago that his race was more predatory beast than man. Yet a Carpathian male would never harm a woman or child, never be disrespectful to those that loved and protected them or taught them. They cherished one another. Was it because they were so few? Because their very existence was so precarious? He hoped it was more, that they were different in their nature.

He waited, his intense eyes molten gold, easily piercing the veil of darkness. His mind continually strayed to his lifemate. Every Carpathian male knew the chance of finding a lifemate within their dwindling race was nearly impossible. The odds were completely stacked against them. Their numbers being repeatedly decimated by the vampire and witch hunts in the Middle Ages and during the bloody Turk and Holy Wars. To complicate matters, the small number of remaining women had not given birth to a female child in years. The few children that were born in the last few centuries nearly all died within the first year. No one, not even Gregori, their acknowledged greatest healer, or Mikhail, the prince and leader of their people, could find the answer to either of these questions.

Mikhail and Gregori had developed a theory that it might be possible, under perfect circumstances, to turn a mortal woman. Many had tried in the past, but the female had become a deranged vampiress, feeding on the lifeblood of human children, preying on unsuspecting males and always killing their victims. The women had to be destroyed to protect the human race.

Mikhail and Gregori had discovered a rare group of mortal women who possessed true psychic ability that could survive conversion. Those women could be turned with three blood exchanges. They were capable of producing female children. Mikhail had made such a match and his daughter, Savannah, had been born as Gregori's lifemate. A new surge of hope had spread through the Carpathian males. Julian had traveled throughout the world, granted, he did not spend long period of times among the human population, preferring the wilds of the mountains and the freedom of the open spaces, but he had never come across any women possessing such rare abilities in his extensive travels.

Julian had not believed the way the others had, not even when his own twin brother had found such a woman. Julian knew he was a cynic, that the darkness in him had been there since birth, already calling out to the undead. As his ability to feel had diminished, the stain spread across his soul. He had accepted it, as he accepted the ever changing universe. As he accepted the sin of his youth and his own self banishment from his people. He was of the earth, the sky and mountains. He was a part of it all. As he neared the time where he was dangerously close to the change, he accepted that too. He knew he was strong, he was willing to walk out into the sun before he transformed into a demon with no soul. For so long he had no hope, he had nothing to hold out for.

Now everything had changed. One heartbeat, one instant. She was out there, wounded, hunted. At least she had a decent bodyguard. And her cats. They were obviously protecting her. His grim smile faded, leaving his golden eyes cold and hard. He could not get it out of his head that the huge male leopard had not been what it seemed. If there was another male, a powerful Carpathian, that Julian wasn't aware of, he did not want the man anywhere near his lifemate. And what of the way the assassins had been dealt with? That was not the human way, more that of a Carpathian hunter. But one he had never seen in all of his travels, and he knew every hunter's sign.

The teenagers were traipsing closer, their voices overly loud in the stillness of the night. One stumbled repeatedly, having consumed far too much alcohol. They laughed raucously and from the deep woods, the golden eyes watched them, the white teeth gleamed. Julian stepped out slowly from behind the trees. His face was hidden in the deep shadows. He smiled at the boys. "You seem to be having a good time tonight," he greeted softly.

All of the boys stopped abruptly. They could not make him out in the dark. They were suddenly aware they were somewhere deep in the forest, far from their campsite without a clue how they got there or how to get back. They exchanged puzzled, alarmed looks. Julian could hear their hearts beating overloud in their chest. Julian prolonged the suspense of the moment, his teeth gleaming, allowing the faint red haze of the beast to be reflected in his eyes.

One of the boys managed to turn before his legs stopped working and they were all frozen to the spot. Julian emerged from the shadows. "Has anyone ever told you it can be dangerous to be in the forest at night?" He deliberately deepened his foreign accent. His beautiful voice purred with menace, with a danger the boys could feel moving through their bodies.

"Who are you?" One of them managed to croak. They were sobering up fast.

Julian's eyes were glowing a feral red, the beast, always crouching so close to the surface, fought for release. He allowed hunger to sweep through him, the terrible emptiness, the biting, gnawing craving that was never fully sated, could never be sated until he was with his lifemate in every way. He needed her dwelling in him to anchor the raging beast. He needed her blood flowing in his veins to stop the horrendous craving, to bring him back for all eternity into the light.

One of the boys screamed and another moaned. Julian waved his hand to silence them. He didn't want them terrified, only scared enough to remember fear. It was easy enough to take possession of their minds. He erected a veil to cloud the memory and stepped forward to drink his fill. He needed a large volume of blood and was grateful there were several so he insured none of them would be too weak. In each boy he planted a slightly different memory, wanting confusion to reign. At the last moment, smiling sardonically, Julian planted a firm command in each boy to blurt out the truth to their parents every time they intentionally sought to deceive them.

Julian melted into the shadows and released the teenagers from the thrall paralyzing their mind and body. He watched them as they stirred to life, all sitting or lying on the ground. They were dizzy and scared, each remembering a close call, an attack that came out of the deep forest, but all remembered it differently. They argued briefly, but without much spirit. They just wanted to go home.

Julian made certain they made it back to their camp without incident, then, as they huddled together around the campfire, he began mimicking the long, hunting cries of the wolves. He answered as each member of the pack would do before gathering for the search. Laughing, he left them throwing things helter skelter in their car and racing away from the terror of camping.

Feeling much better with the soil pressed into his wounds, and the biting hunger appeased for the time being, Julian slowly returned to the cabin. Beneath the wooden planking of the floor was a small crawl space. The dirt there was soft and rich. With a slight wave of his hand he opened a plot deep within the earth. It beckoned to him, the soothing peace of the ground, calling to its own.

Julian floated to his resting place and lay still, his arms crossed lightly over his wounds. He pictured her as he settled into the soil. She was tall and slender, her skin creamy white. Her hair was luxurious, shining like a raven's wing. It was masses of curls and waves, falling in a shimmering cascade below her waist. She had small, delicate bones, classically beautiful. Her mouth was luscious, perfect, sexy. He loved the way her mouth had been, even in her unconscious state. She had a perfect mouth.

Julian found a smile softening the hard edge of his chiseled lips. A lifemate. After all these centuries, after never believing. Why in the world would he be chosen for such a thing? Out of all the Carpathian males he knew, men who religiously followed the rules, why would he find a lifemate? He was dangerous and practically an outlaw. Even Gregori named him as such. He spared a thought for the mortal woman stuck with him.

It took three blood exchanges to convert a human. It would be necessary to insure she was a psychic. Excitement beat at him. A lifemate. The world was beautiful and mysterious, a wonderful intriguing place when it had only been barren and dark.

It seemed that this woman preferred to sing in front of a crowd. Things would have to change. Crowds would be impossible. What was her name again? Desari. She often used the nickname Dara. Something, some recognition shimmered for a moment in his mind. Ancient. Persian. Dara. From the dark one.

Julian felt his heart jump at the connection. Could such a coincidence be just that? Gregori was always referred to as the dark one. Always. By everyone. As had his father before him. The bloodline was pure, ancient and very powerful. Why was her nickname Dara? Was there a connection? There had to be. But how?

Julian shook his head slowly discarding the idea. No Carpathian lived unknown to the others of his kind. And certainly no Carpathian female could do so. Since the decimation of their ranks the females were guarded, given from father to lifemate at an early age to insure the continuance of their race. Every unattached male around the world would be following her, pressing his suit. And Mikhail would have her under the mantle of his protection.

Julian put the puzzle aside for the time being to take out and study at another time. He closed his eyes and concentrated. Ordinarily, it was required to take blood from one he wanted to keep track of, but Julian had studied and experimented for many years. He could do incredible things, even for one of his kind. He built the image of her in his mind, focused on every detail imprinted in his mind.

Julian aimed and thrust his will into the night. Seeking. Seeking. Drawing. Commanding. Come to me, cara mia, come to me. You are mine. No one else can ever do for you. You want me with you. You need me. Feel the emptiness without me.

Julian was implacable in his pursuit. He ruthlessly applied more pressure. Find me. Know that you are mine. You cannot bear another's touch, cara mia. You need me with you to fill the terrible emptiness. You are no longer happy and content without me. You must find me.

He sent the imperious command, his entire focus bent on finding her on a mental channel. He did not stop until he was absolutely certain he had connected with her, that his words had penetrated any barriers separating them and found their way to her soul.

ISBN: 9780749937850
ISBN-10: 0749937858
Series: 'Dark' Carpathian Series
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 384
Published: 3rd May 2007
Dimensions (cm): 17.8 x 11.2  x 2.9
Weight (kg): 0.21