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20

Colby awoke the moment the sun went down, turning to Rafael even as she opened the earth above her. She had repaired the worst of the injuries to his heart with her careful, meticulous work, but there was a long way to go to keep him from dying. She started working at once, sitting beside him in the depths of the pit with the walls of soil high around them, letting go of her body to enter his. His heart was attempting to heal itself, but Nicolas and the others had warned her that Rafael's wounds were so severe that not even a Carpathian as ancient and powerful as he was could recover without continual aid.

As she worked, she became aware of the voices joining with hers, both male and female, chanting the healing ritual. She gratefully recognized the touch of Gregori, and the much more feminine touch of Shea, both Carpathian healers. Colby followed their precise instructions for continuing the repairs to Rafael's lacerated heart. He had to be awakened and given blood, but his heart would continue to hemorrhage until the muscle had sufficient time to heal, which meant he could not stay awake for longer than it took to feed.

"I will give him my blood:' Vikirnoff volunteered. He sat watching her, noting the absolute determination on her face.

"You already gave him too much this morning. Go find whatever you need; you're whiter than a sheet." Colby swayed with weariness. "I'll give him my blood and put him back beneath the ground where he'll be safe."

"I will return as quickly as possible to provide for you," Vikirnoff promised.

Colby nodded and sat with Rafael's head pillowed in her lap. She called softly to him, hating that he would be in pain when he woke, but knowing that he must feed in order to heal and regain his strength. She felt his brothers then, called by the need to respond even across half the world. She felt them attempt to shoulder Rafael's pain as he woke.

Colby bent to press a kiss on his forehead. "Don't move, just lie still. You need blood." She tore at her own wrist, uncaring of the pain, pushing the wound against his lips. He was so weak, she didn't even feel him taking the nourishment and it frightened her.

Do not give up hope. It was Nicolas who reassured her and each of his brothers murmured their names in her mind and added their reassurances to his. Somehow it gave her a sense of family to have all the Carpathians whispering encouragement in her mind.

What about Paul and Ginny, Nicolas? Are they all right without me? She worked to keep the wistful note out of her voice so it wouldn't upset Rafael. That world seemed so far away from her now. She hadn't been happy when told the news that the children had been spirited away to Brazil for protection-but she understood.

They are being spoiled by aunts, uncles, and a hundred cousins. They miss you.

She was grateful Nicolas thought to add the last.

Stop him now and put him back in the soil. That was Gregori, the healer. Colby could feel Rafael's spirit edging away from her as the pain grew intolerable. She halted his feeding, hesitating only for a moment before swiping her tongue across the ugly wound on her wrist. With Nicolas's help she sent Rafael to sleep and closed her eyes wearily, slumping against the soil, uncaring that she lay in what looked like a grave. All that mattered was that she keep Rafael alive.

"You need to feed." Vikirnoff's voice jerked her out of her reverie.

She felt her mouth go dry. Rafael put her under enthrallment, but she wasn't ready to relinquish that kind of control to someone else. "I don't know if I can," she answered honestly.

"If you do not feed, you will grow weak and you will not be able to hold him to you," Vikirnoff pointed out. "I will keep you from knowing."

Her heart slammed in her chest at the idea of giving Vikirnoff, a virtual stranger, that sort of control over her. With Rafael unconscious, she turned instinctively to his brother. Nicolas! What should I do? Nicolas was close to Rafael, her link to him. She had no one else to turn to in the unfamiliar situation. I can't think about his giving me blood.

Vikirnoff is an honorable Carpathian. Allow him to compel you. You must maintain your strength in order to sustain Rafael's life.

She felt another of Rafael's brothers move through Nicolas to reach her. Zacarias, the oldest, the strongest, the one the brothers all deferred to. She picked that out of Rafael's memories. I will make certain no harm comes to you. Colby was amazed at the incredible sense of family, of the love they shared for her through Rafael.

Over the next several risings she repeated the same ritual each evening. She sometimes woke in the night to lie with the soil open, Rafael's head pillowed in her lap, to stare at the sky and twinkling stars, her hands stroking caresses in his hair, willing him to survive, to come back to her. She devoted herself and her will completely to healing him. Vikirnoff supplied nourishment and she became comfortable with his presence, but never enough to submit her will on her own. Nicolas or one of Rafael's other brothers always had to be with her before she would allow Vikirnoff to place her under his enthrallment.

On the seventh evening Vikirnoff rose well before Colby and was already out of the earth when she awakened. She was competent at opening the earth now and she floated to the surface, clothing herself the way Nicolas had taught her. She would awaken Rafael as soon as she had gathered fresh herbs and healing plants. "Vikirnoff?" She looked around. He was always waiting to supply Rafael with blood. She found a single rose lying across the boulder near the hot springs.

He was gone. That could only mean one thing. Colby spun around, holding the long-stemmed rose, her heart pounding in anticipation.

Rafael stood there looking fit, much more fit than he had a right to, but he bore the signs of his brush with death. His beautiful dark hair, falling halfway down his back, was streaked gray on his left side. His face was etched with new lines and there was a weariness in his eyes that had never been there before. He touched the scar on his chest from Kirja's attack. "Carpathians are not supposed to scar."

She drank him in. Tears burned behind her eyelids and she had to swallow several times to get rid of the lump in her throat. "Maybe I didn't heal you in the right way." She couldn't stop looking at him. He was so solid. So alive. "You look perfect to me." She didn't mean to blurt it out. He already wore confidence like a second skin.

"You saved my life."

Colby nodded. "Someone had to do it. You were a mess."

His black eyes regarded her without blinking. She'd forgotten how completely he could focus on her. Her legs turned rubbery, but she stood her ground, trying to look nonchalant. "Are you sure you should be up?" Her gaze drifted down his body and the air seemed to leave her lungs in a long rush. He was definitely up and seemingly fit.

A slow, sensual grin curved his mouth. His eyes darkened with a blatant sexuality. "Oh, I am very sure."

A blush stole up her neck to her face. "You know what I mean. You nearly died." There was a hint of accusation in her voice.

"I promise to be far more careful in the future, querida." He couldn't get enough of looking at her. He took a step toward her and watched with narrowed gaze as she took a small step back.

"I don't think you can ever do something like that again. You scared me."

"I am sorry." His gaze met hers steadily. "For a lot of things. It was wrong of me to convert you without your permission. You were working your way to me and I grew impatient. I should have had more faith."

"Yes, you should have. I will never be happy without a full partnership, Rafael. I'm not the sort of woman to tolerate you arbitrarily making decisions for me." She wanted to be stern. It was necessary to get her point across, but he looked so alive, when he'd been so close to death for so many days. She had seen the battle in his mind and it had been horrendous.

"I am very aware of what kind of woman you are, Colby," he agreed quietly. "I will do my best to try to work on learning to be a partner."

"Well, work on it fast." She had so much more to say on the subject, but she couldn't think of what it was at that precise moment. All she could think about was touching the new lines in his face. His scar. She wanted to smooth the frown from his mouth and erase the worry from his eyes.

"I have to explain about Paul," he said, determined to make certain she understood why he'd taken the boy from her. "I had no choice but to send him away. Kirja was unlike any vampire we have ever encountered. He was a childhood friend. A close friend who knew the way I hunt. He was a powerful Carpathian and as a vampire he had become tremendously powerful. If we did not succeed in destroying him, sooner or later he would have succeeded in killing Paul, or using him to harm you or Ginny. I knew I was risking you not understanding, but I honestly felt it was the right thing to do, the only thing to do."

"I know." She had seen the struggle in his mind. In all the time she had spent healing him, she had merged often with him to keep him alive and she'd seen his strengths and weaknesses. She had seen his memories and regrets, the way he wanted to do what was right and best for her even if it meant risking their relationship. His actions were motivated by love, not by a sense of power. He seemed to have trouble expressing his love in ways other than sexual. Colby was certain she could spend the next few centuries helping him learn to communicate better.

"Colby, about the ranch. I want you to come to Brazil. We can hold the ranch in trust for Paul and Ginny, until they are old enough to decide where they wish to live. I would like them to know Armando's family. My family. And I would like for my family to know all of you. But if you cannot be happy there, we will come back and live together here."

It was a tremendous concession. A gift he was handing her. He wanted to go home. He needed to go home. His heart and soul yearned for the rain forest, for his ranch, for the things familiar to him. For his family, both human and Carpathian. But she was in his mind and she felt his sincerity. He would make every effort to do what made her happy. And Colby found it wasn't the ranch that mattered. It belonged to Paul and Ginny. She was more than happy to relinquish her share. If her brother and sister loved Brazil, she would love it. And if they needed to return to the ranch, she would return with them until they were of an age when they could cope on their own. But always, her choice was Rafael. She smiled at him. "I hope you have horses. I need to be around horses."

We have many horses, meu amor."

She tilted her head. "Are you absolutely certain you're feeling healthy and your heart is strong?" Her voice dropped to a sultry invitation.

"I am healed."

Colby looked up at the cascading waterfall pouring over the cliff above them. It provided a shimmering backdrop to the secluded grotto where the hot springs bubbled up, separated from the stream by well-worn rocks. Fern and moss covered the ground like an emerald carpet. She took a breath, allowing herself the luxury of taking in the beauty of the place, appreciating the richness of the soil that had helped to heal Rafael.

He came up behind her, his hands sliding down her back to her hip, pressing her against his larger frame. Colby reached up to encircle his neck, pulling his dark head down to hers. She had to lean back, to seek the excitement of his mouth. "Make love to me, Rafael," she whispered against his lips. "I nearly lost you and I need to feel you loving me." She turned in his arms, needing the comfort of his embrace. Needing to feel the corded steel running through his body.

"I always make love to you, meu amor." He stepped back, the intensity and hunger in his gaze mesmerizing her. "With every breath I take, I make love to you." With gentle, sure fingers, he unbuttoned her blouse, his knuckles brushing her full breasts. "You always have far too many clothes on. I thought we agreed you would just run around naked for me." He pushed the blouse from her shoulders, hands lingering on soft swelling flesh, enjoying the pleasure of simply looking at her breasts before reaching up to remove the clips from her hair. He released the silky mass, his fingers running through it until the last braid was free to tumble unrestrained about her body.

He crushed the strands of hair in his fist, brought them to his mouth, his eyes never leaving hers. Watching her. Hungry for her. She had never once given herself fully to him, but he could see love in her gaze, in the flush of heat spreading under her skin. As always, wildness rose in him, but he fought desperately to tamp it down, sensing her mood, her need for not only a physical demonstration of love, but comfort as well. She had been so courageous. And she had chosen him. He kissed her again, peace settling into his bones, contentment in his soul. For the first time he lost the driven feeling, the need to conquer and take.

Rafael eased her jeans from her hips, his hands moving, over her thighs until Colby felt weak with longing. She watched him, the raw desire in his eyes as he traced the contours of her body with evident enjoyment. His body crowded hers until she stepped back into the hot spring.

Colby slid into the water. Warm bubbles like champagne surrounded her, enveloped her body like a living blanket. The water supported her, moving up her flesh as she sank deeper, into the mineral pool. The sense of weightlessness in the water, her hair floating like seaweed, and the backdrop of the waterfall made her feel sensual, a water siren luring her mate.

She watched Rafael as he waded to her, slowly reaching out to pull her wet body against his. His fingers curled around the nape of her neck, dragging her head to his so he could take possession of her mouth. Colby brought up one leg and curved it around his waist, sliding her body up and down his thigh to relieve the building pressure. The bubbles felt like tongues licking at her sensitized flesh. No matter how much she wanted to go slow, to feel his hands moving over her with tenderness, something in her responded to him with a wild, frantic desire that built fast and hot.

"Meu amor, you have no idea what you do for me. I am a strong man, pequena, a powerful man, but one look at you and I melt inside. My body not only craves the haven of yours, but my heart is full and there is light pouring into me. I had no Idea what that meant even when it was discussed in my youth. All male Carpathians dream of having a lifemate-it is our motivation and drive to continue in the endless, barren years-but until I actually met you, I could not conceive of how I would feel. I cannot find the words to tell you what you mean to me."

Colby wrapped her arms around his neck, her fingers caressing the white streak in his silken hair. "You do just fine, Rafael."

"You deserve better. A poet. A man of beautiful words that could express what is in my heart."

"I no longer need the words, Rafael. I opened my mind to yours and I feel the love you have for me. I know the words in your heart because I can see them there." She kissed him, a long, slow kiss of seduction. "I want you. I want to touch you, hold you, to feel you inside of me. I need to feel you alive and wrapped around me"

His mouth left hers to find her neck. "You are so hot, Colby. You always are wet and hot and needing me. I get so damned hard just feeling you want me."

She closed her eyes when his teeth scraped over her skin.

He ground her body harder against his, riding his thigh. "We happen to be in a hot spring. I'm hot and wet for a good reason."

His teeth bit harder in a small, mock punishment. "I am the reason you are hot and wet and you know it."

Her hands moved possessively over his chest, fingertips lingering along the scar. "You're healed all right-you're back to your arrogance."

His lips teased her shoulder, sent a shiver down her spine as he lifted her and carried her from the water to a flat boulder. "I am most certain I am not unduly arrogant. I love the way you want me, Colby. Do you have any idea what that does to a man, knowing a woman looks at him and burns for him the way you do for me?" His teeth teased her pulse, tongue flicking over the sensitive spot.

"We've never had the problem of me not wanting you," she confessed, leaning in to kiss his throat, to trail kisses to the scar over his heart. Her hands moved over him, her fingertips tracing patterns over his chest and down his belly.

He lifted his head, closing his eyes, savoring her in his arms, her body entwined around his and her mouth soothing over the wound on his chest. His heart beat there because of Colby. The rhythm was strong and steady and if there was still pain with each beat it was mild, easily masked, and worth every moment with her.

"No, just with you loving me." Just saying the words woke a fierce violence in him. It roared through his veins until his arms tightened, forming a steel cage around her. With an effort, he fought back the need for domination. His mouth whispered over her skin, feather light; he teased at her bottom lip, dipped lower to find her breasts. He felt greedy lust rising sharp and terrible, but he refused to give in to it.

She moved with restless abandon, her skin rubbing against his, her hands claiming him, roving over his body possessively. It only added to the hot need building in him. Colby bit lightly at his shoulder, ran her tongue to his nipple, flicking it gently. She could read his fight to give her tenderness and it meant everything to her that he would try to hold on to his self-control.

His black eyes drifted over her face. Moody. Brooding., Starkly sensual. Her heart pounded in anticipation. Watching her closely, he leaned into her, his tongue flicking her breast, sliding to her navel as he dropped down in front of her, his hands tightening on her thighs. Already she was drowning in heat, in pleasure. His tongue lapped slowly over her pulsing sheath. She jerked, a gasp escaping as her womb contracted and every nerve ending went into hypersensitivity.

Colby had been so focused on his injuries, on saving his life and holding him to her, she still hadn't quite relinquished her link to his mind. She felt the fire pouring through his veins and the roar of need in his head. Lust mixed with love until the two emotions were intertwined. It fed her own desires, a well of pleasure bursting through her as his tongue stabbed deep and teased, flicking and sucking until she was writhing with her need, nearly delirious and pleading with him. He brought her to the brink of release over and over and pulled back until her hands fisted in his hair and she cried out his name.

"Rafael. I can't stand it. It's too much." She couldn't catch her breath, couldn't find the release she so desperately needed. "I can't take any more."

"You can take it. I am going out of my mind with wanting you. You have to feel the same way."

"I do. I am. Hurry!" she pleaded urgently.

Rafael kissed his way up her stomach, nipped at the under-side of her breast while she frantically tried to wrap her legs around his waist and draw him close to her. He buried his face against her throat. "I love you, Colby. I will love you forever with everything that I am."

His voice was pure honesty, the sound curling around her heart until she felt herself melt. Deeply embedded in his mind, she also sensed his uncertainty. He didn't know for certain that she loved him completely, with every fiber of her being. She had held herself apart from him for so long, he didn't trust his reading of her thoughts. He believed he was seeing and feeling what he wanted so desperately to see.

"Rafael." She whispered his name softly, forced him to look up into her eyes. She held his gaze, wanting him to see her expression, the terrible emotion that she had held back for so long. "I've been afraid all this time of what I felt for you. It terrified me because I thought if I gave you my heart, there would be nothing left of me, that I would lose myself entirely. I thought that you wanted to own me, to control me, and I could never live like that. But when you nearly died, I realized it was too late. I love you, Rafael. I love you so much I think I might die without you."

Tears glittered in Rafael's eyes, but he didn't look away from her, didn't care that she saw how she had humbled him with her admission. He framed her face. "I want you to hear the words that bind us together. They are what make us truly one. You are my life, Colby, for all eternity." He brushed a gentle kiss over her lips. "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." He trailed kisses to her throat, whispering the words against her pulse. "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 all eternity and always in my care." He lifted his head, looking into her eyes, seeing the same tears swimming in her eyes.

Colby smiled at him. "Those are the most beautiful words you could ever have said to me."

"I mean every one of them."

"I know you do."

Rafael's eyes darkened even more, his desire intensifying. He took her hard, plunging into her hot, welcoming channel deep and strong, a fierce thrust that had her screaming, her orgasm ripping through her body even as he began to surge into her with long, sure strokes. She gripped him with her slick hot muscles, so tight a single sound of sheer pleasure escaped his throat. The orgasm burst through her, over her, endless, until she could only sink her fingernails into his shoulders and hang on as he rode her with his fiery passion.

Rafael stared down into her face. Her head was thrown back, her long hair whipping around them from the breeze. Her legs were wrapped around his waist, her breasts swaying with every hard thrust.

She was a beautiful sight, giving herself up to him, making her own demands with her strong muscles. He could only stare down into her face, watching as his body took possession of hers, conquering even as she conquered him. Surrendering, even as he surrendered to her. He knew he would never forget that moment, her offering herself wholly to him and his heart twisted in his chest. She trusted him with her body, her sexuality, and now, at last, with her heart.

He wanted to give her everything, to pour into her body all the emotions he felt and could never express adequately with words. With every hot stroke, with each burning thrust, his body declared his love. He was utterly hers and always would be. The fire raged in him like an inferno, building and building until it was impossible, until he swelled inside of her, stretching her delicate muscles, and she was crying his name.

He erupted, pouring his essence into her, deep hard thrusts he couldn't control, every muscle contracting. Even his heart hurt, pounding with need and love for her.

Rafael turned, still buried deep inside her, to rest against the boulder. Colby immediately burrowed close, her mouth seeking the scar over his heart, lapping at it with her tongue.

"Stay still," she said. "I need to make certain you are all right. "

Rafael threw his head back, staring up at the moon, Colby's legs wrapped tightly around his waist, his body buried deep in the haven of hers while she gave him imperious commands. He found himself smiling. Happy. At peace. He could feel her moving inside of him, working on his heart. He could feel the thrust of her breasts against his chest, the silk of her hair in a tangle over his skin. It didn't matter where they lived. Here, on this ranch, or in Brazil, his home, his sanctuary was this woman in his arms.

The moment she lifted her head he took possession of her mouth, a long kiss of tenderness, a whisper of love as he waded with her back into the hot spring.


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