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Rafael. Come out and play with me. Harsh laughter echoed across the valley and rang in the mountains. Clouds spun dark webs in the sky overhead as the harpy eagle winged away from the ranch toward the higher reaches.

Always a pleasure, Kirja, Rafael answered. He pitched his voice low, a soft melody of purity he knew would grate on the ears of a vampire. I miss the old days when I had a challenge occasionally. Most vampires are so easy to defeat for one with my skills. Deliberately he taunted Kirja, playing on their old friendship, the days of boyhood dares and one-upmanship.

You will not find me so easy. There was arrogance in the tone.

Rafael caught a faint scent and switched directions, using a slow, steady circle. I would hope not. You were a great fighter, Kirja, always one of the best. There would be no joy in an effortless victory. Rafael flattered him, knowing vampires were very vain. Kirja had always been especially competitive.

Join us. Your brother Zacarias was wrong to say we should live with so-called honor. He was brainwashed by a ridiculous code. The prince sent us away because he feared our power. Why do you think he kept Lucian and Gabriel? He knew he would never defeat our combined strength. He cowered behind their protection, knowing already, even then, we were stronger.

Join us, Rafael. You can have any woman you choose. You do not have to hide from our prey, but you can use them the way they should be used, as servants to do our bidding.

And you would welcome me after all this time? After I have hunted and destroyed so many of your pawns? Kirja was much closer now, somewhere just ahead, in the thick grove of trees. His presence was a foul stench in the crisp air. Rafael could see where the grass had shriveled, retreating from the presence of evil. Kirja had always favored surprise simultaneous attacks from both above and below. He couldn't stage his preferred ambush in the thicker groves-the trees would hinder his efforts-yet perversely, the groves were exactly the place Kirja's presence seemed the strongest. Rafael didn't trust the evidence Kirja left for him to find.

From his position in the sky, Rafael studied the ground below him with a keen eye. The groves of pine trees formed a large, loose ring around a small cleared area. Kirja's scent was strong in the trees. Rafael knew he would expect the hunter to approach through the clearing in the form of an animal or reptile. It was unlike Kirja to give away his presence as he was apparently doing in the trees and Rafael mentally shook his head at his old friend. He must have fought unwary hunters, those without much skills in such things, to believe Rafael would fall for such a trick. Rafael would not go out in the open in any form where he would be vulnerable to the style of attack Kirja favored.

Still in the form of the harpy eagle, Rafael made a wide circle around the area and in midflight shifted into a much smaller bird, one native to the mountains. He landed in the tree with the thickest foliage and the most interwoven branches. Hidden among the branches and other resting birds, he listened to the whisper of the leaves and the quake of fear running through the tree trunks. Insects, frogs, and other small creatures rustled in the twigs on the ground as they tried to creep away from the clearing. He watched several lizards transverse the wide open space, skittering in stops and starts through the grass, freezing often and testing the air and feel of the earth before they rushed forward, only to stop again.

Rafael took in the signs of distress. The lizards felt the threat, but couldn't identify it. Safe within the flock of birds, he waited.

I await you, Rafael. Have you decided you cannot dispose of me without your big brother to protect you? There was a sneer, a challenge in Kirja's tone.

Rafael sent his voice to the south, careful not to give away his presence in the grove. There is no honor in defeating the vampire. It is merely a job, Kirja. Well you know the truth of that. Whether it takes one hunter or ten makes no difference. We mete out justice according to the law.

Above the clearing, where the clouds spun dark threads, the sharp eyes of the bird picked up a glinting flame at the edge of the turbulent mass. Kirja was up to his old tricks and the battlefield was already prepared.

I tire of waiting for you, Rafael.

Rafael duplicated the grove of trees, a difficult and extreme feat that only the oldest and most powerful Carpathians could execute. Trees sprang up in the clearing, long spearlike roots stabbing deep into the ground, winding to form a barricade beneath the earth, while the branches spread out, lifting arms to the sky, forming a nearly impenetrable barrier.

Shrieks of pain and anger rose from the ground as Kirja's serpents burst through the surface, an ugly mass of scales and teeth, writhing and coiling as they tried to escape the relentless roots. They thumped against the ground, striking repeatedly at empty air, sinking their razor-sharp teeth into each other in a mindless need to kill anything close.

Insects swarmed up from the ground, millions of them, large scorpions and a river of ants, a poisonous army determined to kill everything in its path. Rafael countered the move with nature, setting the sap running from the trees and spreading into a lake of liquid amber, trapping the lethal little bugs and containing them within the battle zone before they could spread out and cause harm.

That was not nice, Rafael. How unkind to all those living creatures.

Have your memories of me faded so much that you make them up? I was never nice, Kirja, nor have I ever learned how to be.

Join us. The voice whispered the temptation. Fulfill your destiny. You were always greater than Prince Vlad, and now his sniveling son, Mikhail, has taken his place. He has no one who can adequately protect him. Gregori is too young and not experienced with ancients. He hones his skills on the young, never realizing we exist. He is complacent in his battle skills, thinking he knows all, yet he has only managed to defeat lesser vampires. Those he thought were true masters are our puppets to be used for fodder to gain our goal. You and I both know Gregori is nowhere near our skill and could never defeat us. Join us, Rafael. Accept your true destiny.

The vampire attacked from the sky, raining fire on the clone trees, slamming bolt after bolt of lightning into the large tree trunks so that they burst into flames and blackened under the heavy assault. The trunks split apart, some falling under the blasts from the sky. Rafael nodded the bird's head toward the spinning clouds, releasing the rain to put out the fire.

The droplets fell, dark and ugly with acid, hissing as they burned through the trees and foliage on the ground, withering every plant in their path and burrowing deep into the earth, infecting the very soil with poison.

Very nice. Rafael kept his admiring tone coming from the south, wanting Kirja to believe he was orchestrating the battle from a distance.

I thought you would like that. Kirja gave the impression of taking of bow.

Rafael stared up at the sky from the refuge of the bird's body within the grove of real trees. The rain ceased abruptly as a wind came from the south, ferocious as it hurtled with hurricane force through the acid clouds, scattering them across the sky, bringing with it a churning storm. Lightning forked in the clouds and crystal-clear rain fell once again, pouring down onto the fires and leaving a crisp, fresh scent behind.

Lucian and Gabriel have risen. They will battle for their prince. Falcon is alive, as is Traian. They will fight.

They have gone soft. They have women to protect. Hunters lose their edge when they worry over the loss of a lifemate. We hunt and worry about no one so we have the advantage. Join us, Rafael. Our ranks grow strong while the hunters allow their numbers to dwindle and their skills to weaken. Most are artisans, forced into service by the prince, not true hunters. I have destroyed thousands of them. Call to your brother and join us. We will not be defeated.

The rain turned from water to ice, a storm of spearing icicles dropping from the sky, piercing the trees from every direction, driving through bark to the very heart of the trees with the intention of killing them. Slivers drove through the bushes and foliage, seeking targets, hoping to find Rafael should he be hidden there.

Inside the body of the bird, a safe distance away from the icestorm, Rafael smiled. Kirja was in rare form, on the run, but fighting back, turning each weapon to his advantage as he tried to score against Rafael.

Seems like old times.

I live to hear the shriek of the trees when the ice pierces their hearts.

You always enjoyed feeling the power of holding life or death over living things, Kirja.

As did you, Rafael. Do not fool yourself. Your nature demands domination over others. You know you are a powerful being and forcing yourself to submit to lesser beings chafes at you every moment of your existence. Join us. They cannot hold against our growing ranks.

Rafael knew there was an underground labyrinth here. He had spent time in the caverns and beneath the surface in the rich soil. He had listened to the whispered songs of the earth so he knew there was an abundance of water flowing from various sources. He called them together, a whisper of command, certain Kirja directed the battle from beneath the surface where most of his traps might protect him.

First the trickle began. As tuned as he was to the earth, he could feel the slightest vibration as the underground river began to form, water pouring in from all directions until it was a powerful, moving force. He directed the current so water pounded through the ground to the area he was certain Kirja occupied. In the churning waves he sent jagged roots pistoning, deadly spears hidden in the depths of the frothy waves. The water would saturate the soil, diluting the poisons Kirja had injected, allowing plant life to grow once again after the vampire was gone.

The underground river swelled to a monstrous rapid, roaring through the ground, sweeping aside everything in its path. A scream of rage and pain shook the ground and several trees exploded, raining sharpened stakes throughout the cloned grove of trees. Blood bubbled up through the dirt, pooling into a smoking, noxious puddle, a sure sign the vampire was injured.

From his vantage point in the tree just to the east of the cloned trees, Rafael waited for Kirja to surface. There was no way he could withstand the power of the water rushing underground or the sharp roots shooting through the river with deadly intent. He would have to emerge.

Water burst through the earth, geysers spewing high into the air, boiling hot as if fed by a simmering volcano. Great globs of mud spat from the holes, still bubbling with heat as they flew through the air in all directions. In the midst of the steam, a darker column rose, shooting toward the clouds. The edges of the shadowed vapor trail gleamed a deep red.

At once Rafael attacked, slamming a barrier across the sky so that the vapor hit it hard and clung to the transparent surface much like droplets of condensation. He sent heat pulsing through the barrier, drying the condensation, forcing the vampire into another form.

Immediately the sky blackened, with a huge swarm of killer bees that began attacking every living creature, whether insect or mammal, massing over the bodies in clumps and flying at the trees and shrubbery in a frenzy of hate and rage.

Rafael sent a voracious backlash, sucking all the oxygen from the air over the grove of cloned trees. The bees fell to the ground, inches deep, covering the soil, a carpet of bodies, dead and dying. From the ground rose a transparent dark shadow. It streaked to the nearest tree, sliding inside the blackened trunk. At once the remaining leaves withered and shriveled into brownish black curls. The branches gnarled and knotted, great tumors bursting through bark, the wood splitting in places as the evil swelled.

Rafael slammed a lightning bolt from sky to tree, going for a direct hit and quick incineration, but even as the tree split in two, the shadow within leapt to a neighboring tree.

Kirja. This is so unlike you. I am on your heels. Do you feel my breath on your neck? Does it itch between your shoulder blades? As he spoke, Rafael slammed another bolt, a jagged whip that blew the tree into pieces. Once again the shadow slipped into the next tree. Why do you run? I thought you wanted to play, old friend.

Hot lava poured through the vents the geysers had opened, spewing up from beneath the earth, ejecting ash and fire high into the air. Molten rock exploded and slammed to earth as fiery meteors. Trees burst into flames and beneath the earth the river turned to a stream of lava.

I can play. Gnashing teeth accompanied the words. You will not like how I play this game, Rafael. You should have taken the chance I gave you to join our ranks. You will die a horrible death, but before you do, I will destroy everything and everyone you care about. That is my promise to you.

Rafael kept his sharp gaze fixed on the trees as the vampire's shadow raced from one trunk to another in an attempt to make it out of the cloned forest to safe ground. Wounded, he fled, staying to cover so Rafael had no chance of getting a clear space to deliver a mortal blow. Kirja couldn't hide in the trees; the twisted, gnarled branches gave him away each time, bursting open to reveal the venom so that it oozed like sap through the splits.

To combat the fires and hot destructive lava streams, Rafael called on the clouds to darken and at once snow poured from the sky, great volumes, a swirling blizzard that only added to the steam obscuring his vision. He cooled the lava rapidly, taking to the air, wary of traps, but knowing Kirja had no choice but to run. He shape-shifted, using the sharper eyes of the harpy eagle as he circled above the cloned forest, now horned and damaged. The snow and rising steam made a nearly impenetrable veil, but he caught sight of a dark shadow at the very edge of the grove emerging from a twisted tree. Droplets of blood stained the snow as the vampire disappeared into what could only be a lava tube, a tunnel formed by the stream, leading deep into the caverns. Gases normally flowed through such tubes once the lava began to cool, but obviously Kirja still had enough power and energy left to blow a forceful wind in front of him and clear his path.

Cursing softly, Rafael followed. It was dangerous to follow a wounded vampire, especially such a master at battle as Kirja. Rafael pressed him hard, unwilling to give him the time to throw up a defense. He was not going to risk losing Colby and he knew Kirja, knew he would never forget that bitter promise of retaliation. Kirja would one day, even if it took a thousand years, find a way to revenge this battle. Even as a boy he had always evened the score against perceived slights. Rafael had wounded him and that would never be forgiven.

You betrayed our friendship. Kirja spat the words, a venomous poison in his voice. He was moving fast. Rafael caught the impression of the sloping tube, the blackened ropy surface as the vampire rushed toward the safety of the mountain interior. Just as you betrayed it so many years ago by allowing that fool Vlad to send you to your doom. He isolated us on purpose. You know he did. He literally sent us into exile while his chosen ones took the women and lived the life meant for us.

Rafael remained silent as he flew into the tunnel, shifting into the smaller form of a bat. Whatever trap Kirja managed on the run would be flimsy and in the smaller body Rafael would have a greater chance to avoid an ambush. The lava flow had twisted and turned as it formed the tube, making it difficult to see ahead. Rafael relied on all of his acute senses to warn him of impending danger.

Rounding a turn, the surface of the tube abruptly went from the non threatening roped pahoehoe surface to the a'a shell, a loose rubble with knifelike protrusions and sharpened spikes. Kirja had ensured that the surface was honed to a razor edge to cut anything moving through it. The tube narrowed as it descended beneath the earth and forged deeper into the caverns beneath the mountain. Rafael, even in the form of the small bat, was forced to slow down.

He tried something he had not done in centuries. As small boys, Kirja and he had tried to "see" through each other's eyes. They had essentially done so without using a blood exchange. Instead, they had followed the mental path and tried touching other senses. It had been successful with practice. Although rusty, Rafael was far more powerful than he had been as a child. He reached out to touch the vampire's brain. The connection was almost instantaneous and Rafael wasn't prepared for the mass of churning hatred and cunning. Kirja was stumbling over the uneven surface, attempting to close the tube behind him. He was far weaker from his wounds than Rafael would have guessed, or he would have been using more power. The undead was conserving for a fight if needed.

Taking a breath, careful to keep his touch light, Rafael shed through the icy rage and rotten core to try to find sight needed to be able to see ahead of Kirja, to set up an ambush of his own. It took only seconds to see the long expanse blackened lava he needed. At once he weakened the surface several yards ahead, keeping the outer layer looking smooth even, but paper thin. Beneath the surface, he pooled the a'a makeshift dam that wouldn't hold long, but might give an edge.

Rafael pulled out of Kirja's mind as gently as possible, not wanting to give away the fact that he'd made the contact. He saw the exact moment the vampire stepped on the thin surface, cracking it and falling through. A hideous scream shook walls of the precarious tunnel and the noxious smell of burning flesh permeated the air. Rafael rounded two corners and found himself staring at the vampire only a scant few yards away.

Kirja was pulling himself from the hole. Most of his legs burned to bloody stumps, the skin falling off in ashes, raised his hate-filled gaze to Rafael. Your woman will suffer as no other woman has ever suffered. He made the promise in harsh, hissing voice, all pretense at friendship long gone. Rafael rushed him, going for a kill, determined to separate heart from body. Halfway to the vampire, the entire tube caved in and above it, the underground cavern itself. Tons of earth and rock rained down between them, driving Rafael back. He was forced to use his power to keep from being buried under the debris, forming a protective cave around him and waiting for the earth to settle.

Kirja was in no shape to attack Colby or the children. They were safe while the vampire healed, but he had to get to her. He had run out of time. Colby had to be brought fully into his world, where Rafael could protect her from revenge. Even digging through the debris would not get him a vampire. He knew Kirja, knew he would find a hole and crawl into it, maybe waiting years to rise before attempting to exact his vengeance, but he would eventually make his move. Now or later, it would happen.

Rafael reached to touch Colby, to assure himself she was waiting at the Everett ranch where he had sent her. To his shock, she was in the bar. For a moment he simply stood there in outrage, buried under the mountain, the earth above him ravaged by the battle between two ancients. Colby hadn't listened to him, hadn't paid any attention when he tried to warn her. She hadn't wanted to hear him.

He made his way through the dirt and rock until he found where he had last seen Kirja. There was no blind spot. No trail of blood. Not even a scent. In the closed-in cave he should have smelled the taint of vampire, but Kirja was an ancient master and he could conceal what he was when he desired. There would be no following him and taking advantage of his wounds.

Back aboveground, Rafael cleared the evidence of the storms. He incinerated the damaged trees and sent the underground streams back where they belonged. The lava was gone as quickly as it had been wrought, back in the small pool beneath the sleeping mountain. When it was done and he had cleaned himself up, he turned his attention to his most important task. Seducing Colby and taking what was rightfully his.

Natalya sat in the darkest corner of the bar, with her back to the wall, her gaze moving constantly over the crowd. She nodded when Colby sat down. "You know everyone, don't you?" There was a wistful note in her voice.

"Pretty much, yes."

"Must be nice. I can never stay anywhere for very long." Natalya leaned close. "I can't take a chance on one of the hunters finding me."

"Why? What do they want with you?" Colby asked, rubbing at her suddenly throbbing temples. "I have to have some answers or I'm going to go out of my mind. I'm honestly at the point where I can't tell reality from illusion. Are there really vampires? I encountered a horrible creature, but I swear I might just be going insane and I'm being fed illusions. Mass hysteria." Briefly she covered her face with her hands before looking again at the other woman. "I wanted to talk to Ben about this-he's the sheriff, a friend I've relied on all my life but do you know how insane this all sounds? He'd lock me up and throw the key away."

Natalya regarded her with compassion. "I'm sorry, I know how difficult this must be for you. I wish I could help you."

"You said if I wanted to come with you… " Colby trailed call as Natalya shook her head.

"He can follow you. You said he talks to you." She indicated Colby's neck. "He took your blood. You're having problems because he must have given you his. He won't let you go. I know little about the hunters, other than that they have tremendous powers and can become the very thing they hunt."

She tapped her fingernail on the tabletop. "I don't honestly know how to help you. I thought about it a lot after we spoke, but I can't come up with any answers."

Colby pressed her hand to her neck, holding the bite to her and hating the gesture. "I don't honestly know if I could leave him. I'm so worried about Paul and Ginny. Paul was bitten by the vampire and the vampire tries to use him to hurt me." She couldn't touch Rafael with her mind. She tried over and over, but he was closed off to her. She didn't know if he was injured, or dead, or simply protecting her. Her skin crawled. "It's like some terrible addiction. I think about him all the time. I'm a strong person, but I can't get over him." She looked up at Natalya pleadingly. "I've got to either trust him or find a way so I know the children are safe. I think it's too late for me."

"Where is he?" Natalya looked around again. "I can't imagine him giving you too much room when you aren't giving him what he wants."

"Right now he's gone off to battle the vampire. He says if he doesn't destroy it, the creature will always have a hold over Paul "

Natalya nodded. "I'm afraid he's right."

The music in the bar blared, reverberating through her head. Colby pressed her glass of ice water to her forehead. "I hate being so indecisive. I've lived my entire life knowing what I was supposed to do and doing it. All of a sudden I don't have any idea which direction to turn. Suddenly the ranch doesn't seem very important next to Paul's life. I just want Paul and Ginny to be happy and to live normal lives."

Natalya studied Colby's face. "What is it? Why did you come here?"

Colby sighed. "I wanted to run away with you. Take the kids and go. And I want answers. I need them and I think you can give them to me." She tapped the tabletop with her fingernail, beating out a rhythm of nervous energy. "You know that mark on you? The dragon? You said it was a birthmark? I have a mark like that. It's very faint and unless you're looking for it, you'd never know it was there. It doesn't get hot like you said yours does, but I have one."

There was a long pregnant silence. Natalya shifted closer, staring at her incredulously. "Are you certain? You should have told me when we last spoke."

"It means something, doesn't it?" Colby asked.

"Has the hunter seen it?" Natalya's voice was nearly inaudible, in spite of Colby's enhanced hearing.

"His name is Rafael."

"I don't want to say his name. I don't want him to turn his attention to me. Has he seen the mark on you?"

"It's very faint and it fades at times, so even I have a difficult time finding it. Why would saying his name turn his attention to you?" Colby asked.

"Where is the mark located?" Natalya asked, ignoring Colby's question.

"The same place you said yours was, over my left ovary. Is that how the vampires identify us? Does that mark call them to us? I know you know things. I need to know them. I'm not asking for myself, Natalya, but for my brother."

"Have you allowed the hunter to make love to you?"

"You know I have."

"Then you have a fading mark of protection or he would have spotted it. It hides itself from him."

Colby had the desire to stand up in the middle of the bar and scream. "You aren't making this any easier for me. Just tell me what's going on."

"If you have the birthmark on you, you're related to me in some way. We have an old, ancient lineage. There are very few of us." Natalya obviously was choosing her words carefully. "The hunter cannot see that mark, so it must be hiding from him."

"Why can't he see it?" Colby nearly hissed the words from between clenched teeth. "Why won't you tell me? Can't you see I'm desperate? I can't be away from him: I don't know how to reverse whatever he did to me, and to be honest, I've gone past the point of wanting him out of my life. I have a terrible feeling I'm halfway in love with him. He does things so wonderful, so heroic, it's heartbreaking. Please tell me what you know."

"Unfortunately I know only what my father told me and it isn't much. I've lived a long time, Colby, and I don't age much. You think I'm about your age, but I'm much older. I have rare talents. I can touch something after you, or anyone else, and I can 'see' where you've been. I can read the history of objects and I'm telepathic."

"Can you shape-shift?" Colby asked bluntly. "You're describing this same species. Why would you have to hide from them?"

"The birthmark. Anyone born with the birthmark must stay far from the hunters and vampires or they will kill us. It is some ancient rule."

Colby dropped her head into her hands, remembering the feel of Rafael's tongue tracing her birthmark, a seductive, erotic exploration that made her shiver with need. "I don't think so, Natalya. I think you're wrong." Rafael had to have felt the faint outlines of the mark. It was raised slightly. Even it the birthmark could try to hide itself, he had lapped at it several times, his lips moving over it until she wanted to scream for him to give her release. But later, he had tried to kill her. She rubbed her throbbing temples. "I don't know anything anymore. Has a hunter ever attacked you?"

"No, I avoid them, just as I avoid the vampires. There was some kind of feud between my family and the hunters in ancient times and it has carried over into this time." Natalya leaned back in her seat. "My understanding is, one of the hunters' women, Rhiannon, left her husband to be with a very powerful man. There was a rift between the two factions and war broke out. Rhiannon had triplets, two girls and a boy. She died when the children were young, but their father taught them to avoid the hunters and vampires. Her son is my grandfather."

"And the two girls?"

"They disappeared. No one knows where they are. My father thought it possible the hunters found them and killed them."

"Where do I fit in to all of this?" Colby asked.

"My guess is, you're my niece. My brother took up with a woman briefly but then left her. You have his look and maybe that's why I was drawn to this part of the country. The woman owned a ranch around here."

"Your brother is my father?" Colby felt more agitated than ever. She couldn't imagine Rafael killing her because a woman left her husband however many years earlier. "Where is he now?"

"He's dead." Natalya's tone made it clear she wouldn't give out any more information.

Colby couldn't feel anything for a man she'd never met. Armando was her father and she would always love him. "Just how old are you, Natalya?"

"Does it matter? You aren't going to leave him. You already know that. You just aren't willing to trust him with your brother and sister. I can't take them with me, not without you. They wouldn't be happy and we'd all be in danger. I can shield myself and get in and out of places without the hunters or vampires detecting me, but unless the vampire that bit Paul is killed, they will always be tied together." Natalya's head suddenly went up alertly. "He's close. Either him or the other one. I have to go, Colby. I'm leaving town immediately. Good luck to you."

"Thanks for giving me someone to talk to." Colby knew Rafael was near. Every cell in her body had gone on alert. The nape of her neck prickled as if, already, she felt the warmth of his breath. "Be safe."

"Good luck, Colby. I'll be thinking of you." Natalya reached out and touched her, just the lightest brush of her fingers, but warmth sprang from Natalya to Colby. There was recognition in the touch. Natalya drew back and nodded. "We're definitely related. Please be very, very careful."

Colby nodded. "You too." She watched Natalya make her way quickly through the tables toward an exit, her heart beating with anticipation. She knew the exact moment Rafael entered the bar. He was alive and that was all, in that moment, that mattered to her. He didn't look around-his gaze found her immediately. He stood across the room from her, exuding sheer sexy male confidence.

Her stomach muscles tightened. Her breath stopped. Tiny flames of arousal licked through her as she felt the weight of his eyes from across the bar. He was alive. He seemed unhurt. And when he looked at her, there was stark hunger, a potent desire that rocked her to her core. He began to walk toward her, never taking his gaze from her. He moved with a sensuous grace that started her heart pounding in time to the music. He walked right through the crowd as if no one existed but her, watching her the entire time. No one bumped him and no one got in his way. He simply held out his hand for hers. "Dance with me."

She watched fleeting emotions flicker across his face and dark shadows shift in his eyes. Before she could stop herself she reached slowly out to him, mesmerized as always by him. He pulled her up and drew her against his body hard, fitting her close so that she could feel the hard bulge of his arousal pressed tightly against her. His body was hard, his arms strong, and his heart beat out a rhythm beneath her ear. She felt safe and protected. She felt threatened and frightened. It was insanity at its worst to dance with him. She was giving herself to him.

Heat spread from his heavy erection outward, catching them both on fire. She felt weak with wanting him. His hands, at her waist, slipped lower to her hips, to press her body more lightly, increasing the friction between them as they swayed slowly around the dance floor.

I don't see any blood on you. Did you find the vampire?

She wanted to just drift away with him on a rising tide of lust and need.

We met. He managed to get away, but I marked him. Why did you come here to meet this woman?

She started to lift her head from his chest, but his hand caught the back of her head and held her to him. It wasn't his words or even his tone that alarmed her; it was a glimpse of his thoughts, quickly hidden from her. For just a fraction of a second, she caught temper swirling in him and something dangerous.

Let me hold you, Colby. It has been a long evening and I just want to feel you in my arms. He bent his head to her, his mouth nudging aside her shirt to burrow against the warmth of her neck. She shivered in his arms in reaction. His tongue swirled over her pulse and his teeth scraped roughly, seductively back and forth.

Colby was afraid she was melting in his arms. She had pressed a kiss against his chest, turned her face up to his throat so she could feel his skin beneath her lips. She was shaking with need for him. Her womb clenched and she was slick and damp with invitation. She wanted his clothes gone so she could examine every inch of him, see for herself that he wasn't hurt.

Come away with me. I want to take you to the hot springs up in the mountains. Just the two of us. I need you tonight, meu amor. This once, do not argue or protest. Do not say no, just come with me and let me have you.

The music faded away. Some of the bar patrons left the dance floor while others stayed as the next song picked up the tempo. Rafael's body urged her from the floor toward the exit. She could feel the heat of his palm burning like a brand through her thin blouse. "Paul and Ginny…"

"Are safe," he finished, his voice rough with raw passion. "Come with me, Colby. Of your own free will. Give yourself to me." He bent his head and deliberately teased the nape of her neck with his teeth, scraping gently, a small nip and swirl of his tongue heating her blood.

Beneath the thin layer of her shirt, her breasts ached, felt uncomfortable in her bra, the nipples tight hard peaks painfully rubbing against the lace. She felt her body go weak and damp with invitation. She wanted him right there. That moment. Hunger raw and sharp and terrible. "Yes." She said it softly, but he heard. She knew he heard because his hand bit possessively into her hip. He urged her toward the door. Her heart pounded in anticipation.

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