Torn: Beneath the Shadows of Evil ~ Book Two 1 comment


© Jolynn Raymond 2013

My work is not to be copied, or republished in any form or format.

Torn: Beneath the Shadows of Evil

This is book two in the trilogy. It is not a stand alone book.
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Amid the grandeurs of her husband’s castle, the once wild gypsy Alliana struggles against those who would trap her in the gilded cage. Tormented, abused, and toyed with, Alliana has no intention of ever trusting the vampire who took her from the life she loved. Though she knows she is bound to her new husband for life, the now pregnant Alliana refuses to see anything but evil inside him.

Through a twist of fate, the consequences of his cruel and evil ways are forced upon the Master Vampire, Mikhal the Merciless. Like it or not, he can experience the terror and hate he inspires in his bride, and finds he has no taste for the agony he causes her. Sickened by Alliana’s pain and hatred, he vows to inspire trust in the beautiful Gypsy who has warmed his cold heart. Though true love has yet to bloom, Mikhal is determined to make his unwilling bride happy in her new life, but even as he does everything in his power to bring Alliana joy, there are others all around them who are plotting to destroy the fragile hope of love and happiness between Mikhal and Alliana.

 

*** Spoiler Alert: By reading these chapters from Torn, if you haven’t read Taken, it will let you know an important plot point.  ***

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Hungary, 1500’s

 

 

Chapter One

 

Mikhal walked down the corridor with his usual stealth, not seeking to intrude or listen upon the conversation between his wife and her friend, but at the same time, unable to keep from eavesdropping because of his enhanced hearing. As he got ever closer, he heard them clearly; they were whispering, but he could still make out the words. He paused outside the door, unable to help himself as his curiosity got the better of him. What would this woman, this stubborn, fiery thing with the blazing red locks say to his wife? How would she describe the night she had been taken, and their journey to the castle? Would she tell Alliana that he had confessed to having feelings in his heart?

All during their ride home Natalya had bombarded him with endless questions, trolling for answers he wasn’t prepared to give. Did he truly love Alliana? If so, how? Wasn’t his kind supposed to have a heart as dead as the rest of their bodies and be twice as evil? Had something happened to him to make him care? On and on, she went, digging into the place where his soul had resided, searching for answers, trying to get at the truth of the matter, even as low growls rumbled in her ears. She truly had no fear of him, and that was something he couldn’t fathom. Where did this little bit of a thing, this woman, get the audacity to toss her terror to the wind and be so comfortable around him?

He didn’t know, but he didn’t care for it one bit. He had held his tongue for the most part, growling his displeasure softly, but one time she had pushed him too far. He had changed into his beast, turning her to face him and snarled at her to be silent, but it hadn’t truly helped. The sight of him had sparked a brief moment of startled fear, but it had come from shock at seeing him transform, not from any true terror for her well-being.

Was she a witch? Did she have some gypsy magicks to read his mind? If that were true, she wouldn’t need all the questions. No, it was something else. He’d questioned her about her talents, her magick skills and knowledge of potions and herbs, and she’d told him that she was no healer but had been taught to tend the sick. She’d also made it clear that she was quite capable of seeing to Alliana throughout her pregnancy, but he had rebuffed that notion at once. Now, he wasn’t so sure.

He would have to watch and see what skills she had. Perhaps take her to the village when some serf’s wife was about to deliver and watch her to see if she was fit to tend to Alliana, and then perhaps he could pass judgment accordingly. The health and safety of his wife and son were of utmost importance to him, and he wouldn’t dream of letting them be tended by someone not fit. At the time, he had thought that though Alliana despised Enid, the midwife was the best one to see to her care, now that notion had been turned upside down, and he knew he may very well have to depend on the skills of the woman who was sharing secrets with his wife.

Natalya had also continuously regaled him with unsolicited advice on how to convince Alliana that he did truly care for her. She’d told him he would have to woo her. Stop being so harsh and domineering and show her his tender side. How Natalya knew he had one was beyond him. He certainly hadn’t made it apparent during their ride. Natalya had told him to be patient, to court her like a lover and give her time to see that he had no intentions of hurting her. Let her know in subtle ways that he did indeed want Alliana and their child to be happy in their new home.

He’d openly scoffed at her and told her to be silent. His demon raging that this woman should have the nerve to tell him what to do in regards to his wife, but he listened all the same. The man in him knew he would do anything, give anything, to have Alliana feel the lack of fear Natalya did, let alone express an ounce of love. So many things the new human in their midst had given him to think about, and now, with the nasty business of punishments having been taken care of, he was ready to see how well Alliana would accept him.

As he was about to enter, he heard Natalya say something that shocked him. She’d just told Alliana that perhaps he, Mikhal the Merciless, wasn’t as evil as Alliana thought he was, and that perhaps Alliana should try and give him a chance.

Alliana’s shout of outrage was immediate, and Mikhal cringed. “Have you gone mad? Haven’t you heard anything I’ve told you? And what about what he did to you? You said he hurt Danior; he threatened the children, he….”

“Alliana, please, I know he is an evil being and you have every right to feel as you do. The things you have gone through here are horrifying. All I’m saying is that I sense something else in him and he… Alliana he told me he cares for you.”

“He is a demon, Natalya. Demons are evil and vile and have no hearts. They cannot love or have compassion. What he said, he said to fool you. His heart is cold, and his tongue knows nothing but lies.” Alliana’s hands shook as she said these things to her friend. She curled them into fists at her sides, furious over her own reaction but angrier still that Natalya may have believed her husband. It was unthinkable that she might think of him as anything but the despicable thing he was.

“It’s all right Sweetie, I’m sorry I upset you. I just, well you know I can read people and I feel something in him. Something good.”

“You are wrong. You are wrong, and you should be terrified of him.”

“But I’m not, Alliana. I know he won’t hurt me, and he would never hurt you. Not anymore.”

“No, Natalya. He chose to put on a show, chose to be a gentleman when he took you, because he needed you, but don’t be fooled. If you displease him or he feels you have outlived your usefulness, then he will cut you down in an instant. You haven’t seen him change. Not like I have. The handsome man can turn into a vicious beast in a mere second. He has done it to me over and over, and I won’t ever let my guard down again. I have to protect myself and my child from him. I’ll never trust him, never!”

The vehemence in her voice cut Mikhal to the core. How could she believe for one second that she had to protect their son from his wrath? If he ever hoped to win Alliana’s heart, it was going to be a long, arduous task; one that would require patience and gentleness to make her see that he truly had changed. No more would he batter her emotionally or take her against her will. He would have to fight his demon tooth and nail to keep it at bay no matter what his wife did to infuriate him if he wanted to win her heart.

Knocking softly, not wanting to intrude or to have the women know he’d overheard them, Mikhal waited a moment then went in, and the sight before him went straight to his heart, causing the long dead vessel to swell with love. His wife was standing before the blazing hearth, having risen from the bed in her anger. Her feet were bare, her hair flowing down her back in a cascade of gold, her cheeks glowing from the heat of the flames and her anger. The light cast from the blaze made her nightgown somewhat transparent, and he could see the swell of her belly, their son, and the roundness of her breast. She was stunning, a picture of celestial beauty, a goddess, and the sight made him draw in an unneeded breath.

He stared, mesmerized for a moment, and then came back to his senses, protection for her flaring up inside him. Yes, the stones before the hearth were warm from the fire but still, she shouldn’t be bare foot in this cold, shouldn’t even be out of bed for that matter. He had yet to find out how well she truly was. Looks could be very deceiving. Just because she’d regained some of her spirit, didn’t mean her body was strong.

He moved to her side quickly, scooping her up into his arms despite the anger that flashed in her eyes and radiated from her soul. “You should be in bed, wife. It is where I put you, and where I expected you to remain.” The old domination had come rushing to the surface, and Mikhal was unable and unwilling to tame it. Not where her health was concerned. She stiffened in his arms, bristling at his reprimand, at his tone. She was not a child.

“Am I not allowed to walk about my own quarters? Not allowed to get just a bit of exercise for my stiff limbs? Enid never said I must remain bedridden day and night.”

Mikhal growled as he looked down at her, the mention of the old midwife causing his demon to scream in fury. “Enid is not to be fully trusted. I shall wait until she examines you to hear for myself if you are fit to move about.”

“So she lives?” The venom in Alliana’s voice dripped from each word as she questioned him and stared at him in disbelief. He had said those who harmed her would be punished, but still his old friend, the hag who had allowed her beating, would tend to her.

“Yes, for the time being. But only as a means to protect you and our son.”

Alliana pushed at his chest, furious, struggling to free herself from his arms, then pounding her fists upon him when he refused to let her go.” Protect me! You can’t be serious. Why? How could you? Did you not question Lucian? Did you not make Enid tell you the truth? She allowed your insane sister to beat me! Where is my justice, Mikhal?”

He held his tongue as he placed her squirming body back upon the bed and covered her with the furs, the pain she felt at what she considered his betrayal hurt him deeply. He hadn’t betrayed her at all. What he’d done, he’d done for her. Mikhal would have liked nothing better than to have choked the life out of Enid ever so slowly as she thrashed and struggled, her eyes pleading for mercy that would never come, but he needed her still.

Once Alliana was properly tucked in, safe and warm, he looked at her, pleading for understanding, but she turned away, not willing to even consider his request. There was nothing good in the man before her, and he had just shown that fact once again by choosing his dear old friend over his wife. Defeated, knowing it was useless to argue the point, Mikhal turned to Natalya who had stood silently, witnessing their battle.

“Leave us.” Natalya’s eyebrows rose at his curt order, but then nodded slightly; it was best to leave them alone. It was going to take many battles of wills for them to find the road to love.

“NO! You shan’t order her about. I won’t allow it. Natalya is my friend, not a servant, and if you insist upon forcing her to live within these walls, then she shall be shown the respect that is her due.”

“Silence woman!” The words came out in a thunderous roar, and Mikhal immediately regretted them as a wave of terror washed over his wife. She paled as she stared at him, her fear clearly evident. After all she had suffered; all it took were a few harsh words or a small sign that he was going to turn from man to beast to send her into a flurry of terror. Mikhal groaned and clenched his teeth in frustration. This is not what he had wanted to happen at all. Why must she be so impertinent? Why must she push his demon over the edge? Women weren’t supposed to behave in this manner. They simply were not.

Everything in the room turned silent as Mikhal struggled for control. He closed his eyes and ran his hand back through his long curls, damning the beast inside him that would not let him be. He took deep unneeded breaths to calm himself, and then finally looked at his wife with eyes full of regret.

“Alliana, I’m sorry I raised my voice. I didn’t mean to frighten you. It wasn’t my intent. I wish Natalya to leave us so we may have this discussion in private. I assure you; I do not think of her as a servant. She will be given all that you are gowns, fine food; opulent quarters, a servant of her own, anything she wishes, and I promise that she will be treated with respect, as well. She is marked as mine and word will be given that she is special, a Lady, and as such she will be given the honor that is due that position.”

Alliana said nothing, just crossed her arms across her chest and glared at her husband, her eyes shooting arrows as the flame of unwanted jealousy again flared inside her at his use of the word mine in conjuncture with her friend. Mikhal felt it and couldn’t help but feel just a bit pleased, but he carefully hid his reaction to his mate’s possessiveness of him. Now was not the time for selfish feelings.

During their emotional struggle, Natalya looked from Mikhal to Alliana, then back to Mikhal and gave him a meaningful gaze. It was one that said; don’t hurt her, one that said to be gentle, and above all, one that begged him to give her a chance. Keep your demon in check and give her a chance to see the man you are. It also said she, Natalya, had faith in him, and for that Mikhal was grateful. Woman or not, human or not, he had some respect for the red headed Gypsy. Her belief in his inner man pleased him.

Mikhal stared back somewhat coolly regardless of his feelings, not ready to admit that he would indeed do as her wisdom prescribed, but Natalya knew he would. He knew what she was feeling, how she thought he should deal with his wife, and he agreed, but time would come to an end before he would admit to taking advice from a woman.

“Alliana, I am weary from our journey. I would like to go to my chambers and rest. I’ll return later to check on you.” Natalya went to the bed and leaned down to place a quick kiss on Alliana’s cheek, and gave her a pleading look, as well. Then whispered, “Just try.”

Alliana turned away. How could Natalya ask that of her? She simply did not understand what life was like here, not yet anyway, but, unfortunately, Alliana believed in her heart, that Natalya would learn. Nothing had shown Alliana that her husband had changed. His words might be sweet, but he flew into a rage as easily as ever if she dared to voice her opinions. He may not have touched her, may not have struck her, but the fury still raged within, the demon still lived. Yes, Natalya would see, and it would be a harsh awakening. In the meantime, Alliana was determined that she would protect both of them and her son as well, here in the castle of evil.

Both of them were silent after Natalya’s departure; Alliana sitting in bed staring at Mikhal with eyes cold as steel, him feeling the full onslaught of her wrath but showing no expression. His beast was reacting though. It wanted to subdue its mate. Wanted to drive away her anger and replace it with the little mewls of pleasure that should be issuing from her lips at his return home. He knew he could make her mewl, make her react as he wished. His hands, his lips, his body could master her and make her the warm creature he desired, but they couldn’t give him her heart and that was what he wanted above all else.

Had Alliana been aware of his thoughts, of his demon’s desires, she would have shrank back under the furs, seeking solace from his gaze, words of protest spilling from her lips at the thought of his intimate caresses. Though she had indeed missed him, though a spark of jealously had burned in her breast at the thought of some other woman, even her own dear Natalya, being ‘his’, she would never, ever, admit to herself or to him that she wanted him here in her bedchamber.

The woman in her, the expectant mother, the frightened girl, wanted to share what she’d been through and what she would go through in the future, wanted him to know how their son had been growing and changing and moving within her, but the part of her that had suffered so dearly at his hands and the hands of those who resided in his castle under his rule, rebelled.

Mikhal felt her turmoil; her pain, her anger and the man in him, the Mikhal, who had a heart that still felt pain couldn’t keep from trying to bridge the chasm that loomed between them. “Must you be so very angry, Alliana? I had hoped you would be somewhat happy to see me.”

“I would never be happy to see you.” Her eyes were frigid but inside he felt the tremors of tension that told her words as a lie. This pleased him to no end, but it was a small pleasure for it was still mixed with her hatred. Again, he forced himself to hide his reaction; she couldn’t know he was aware of all she felt.

“Regardless of your feelings, my dear, I am home and by your side I shall stay. I will be here for you Alliana. You have nothing to fear; we will experience your pregnancy and the birth of our child together.”

“I was under the impression that you kidnapped Natalya so she could be the one to provide companionship. I certainly do not need you when I have her.”

A low growl escaped him at her words. Her defiance, her blatant refusal of him grated on his heart and his pride, and it drove his demon mad with fury. How dare she? How dare she? She was but a mere slip of a woman yet her tongue had the ability to flay him. He forced back his irritation and focused on the fact that this was what he had wanted. The woman before him was far preferable to the one he had left lying at death’s door.

This Alliana was vibrant and full of fire, just as she had been when he’d first brought her here. This Alliana was alive and spiteful or not; she was amusing and full of wit. No more were her cheek’s pallid, no more were there dark circles under her eyes. Her skin was flushed, and her eyes sparkled, yes it was with rage, but fury was certainly preferable to the horrid apathy and lack of life, which had filled them before and driven him to fetch Natalya in the first place.

The fact that Lucian seemed to be the one who had drawn her out of her shell did disturb him a bit, but he truly did believe that there was nothing between them. His first in command had managed to make her feel safe and somewhat happy here, and that was what mattered. How or why Lucian had managed to befriend her and win her trust was something he could question the vampire about at a later date after Lucian had received his just due for his part in Alliana’s beating. He would ask him carefully, not letting on that he himself wished to gain his Lady’s affection, making it seem as if he were once again questioning their relationship. Mikhal was not ready to openly take advice from anyone, be it Natalya or Lucian; he was Master, and therefore should have the answers to all things. Asking for advice was unseemly.

“If you are simply going to stand here staring at me, then I would prefer the company of Lucian! At least he seems to have a bit of goodness inside him, and he is an interesting chess opponent as well.”

Alliana’s words sent Mikhal into a rage, snapping him from his musings. How dare she! “Woman you would do well to hold your tongue in regards to my first in command. He is at this moment in the bowels of this castle awaiting my arrival. Your earlier denials of guilt don’t sound nearly as true when you ask for him to be by your side. I am your husband, Alliana. Me and I am the one who will watch over you and care for you. You are carrying our child, and I fully intend to ensure the health and safety of both of you whether you care for my presence or not.”

Alliana knew as soon as the words had escaped her lips that it was the wrong thing to say, both because she didn’t want to give her husband more reason to punish Lucian, and because she had no wish to feel his wrath herself. Oddly enough though, part of her wanted to make him a bit jealous, just like she had been feeling. Let him believe she may have developed feelings for another of his kind. If it were possible to inflict any kind of emotional pain in his cold dead heart then fine, it was what he deserved.

“Then do so from across the room, please. Your presence turns my stomach!”

Alliana waited for his demon to emerge with his snarl of angry words, waited for the beast to come out to chastise her and frighten her into submission, but he didn’t come; instead, the man before her, Mikhal the Merciless, her dear husband, came to the bed, his eyes softening as he looked at her, his chest rising and falling with breaths taken only to hold the churning fury at his core at bay, and sat beside her, much to her dismay.

“Leave me be. I said you are not wanted here.”

“Be that as it may, this is where I intend to stay. It is where I belong. You are my wife. This…” He placed his hand on the small mound that was her belly nestled beneath the furs. “This child is our son. I care for him, and I care for you.”

“Do you think me a fool? You are evil, pure and simple. You care for naught or nobody but yourself. Your only interest in me is the child inside my womb, and once I am done being your broodmare I shall be expendable.”

“Alliana, please, that is not true. Perhaps once that was how I felt. I know it ‘twas what I told you, and for that I am truly sorry. I admit it was what I thought. I was an evil creature controlled by the demon within, but no more. You were almost lost to me, and it frightened me. It made me know that I care, made me realize what my life would be like without you.”

“You are a soulless beast who has a dead heart incapable of caring. If it weren’t for the child, I would have perished under your loving ‘care’ long ago. I have been emotionally abused, tormented, and raped. I have been imprisoned and beaten; I have been so very distraught that I wanted to die. Is that your idea of caring for me, My Lord? If so, I would prefer the care of someone else, or better yet, I would prefer to go home.”

His demon raged at her words. Yes, all of those things had befallen her, but he did care, he loved her, and he was doing everything in his power to prove that to her now. Why couldn’t she see that? Things were different. He was being gentle. He hadn’t touched her; he had brought her a friend to help lift her spirits, and he would do anything to make her happy. Didn’t she see how hard it was to keep his demon at bay? Didn’t she know how his beast wanted nothing more than to subdue its wayward, infuriating, obstinate mate? It was incredibly hard to control the demon within, to deny his inner beast, but he did it for her, had been doing it for her, and she simply refused to see.

At that point, Mikhal wanted nothing more than to throw the jealousy she’d felt over Natalya’s claim mark in his wife’s face, but he knew he couldn’t do it. For one, she knew nothing of his curse, and for two, it would only confuse her further and make her angry. She felt it, and she knew she felt it. Let the stubborn wench mull over that when the night became long and dark, and she was left alone to think of him and her life here.

It was the man in him that thought that last spiteful thought, but still he tempered even that with a new softness. He didn’t need to alienate her. Not now, not when they’d shared a moment of bonding between them because of the babe. She may deny it all, even to herself, but it was a start, one he wasn’t about to throw away because of his pride. The Lord Arcos of the past would have flung it all in her face to prove how very right he was, but now, he tempered his reaction to try and show her the truth of his words.

“Alliana, the abuse you have suffered is all in the past. I cannot begin to tell you how sorry, I am for all you have suffered. All I can do is show you. I have changed. I care for you, and no one and nothing unpleasant shall ever touch you again.”

“Does that include you, My Lord?” Alliana knew she was pushing her bounds and fully expected his demon to come rushing out, but she didn’t hold her tongue. Let it rise up, let it punish her, it would prove that his words were lies. She glared at him, waiting, ready, but to her surprise he didn’t strike her with hand or sharp tongue. Instead, he again took calming breaths. Closing his eyes for a moment to hide the amber he knew was flashing there, and clenching his fists for but a moment before opening them and quietly taking her hand.

“I cannot promise the complete absence of small touches such as this.” He rubbed the back of her hand softly then brought it up and laid a chaste gentle kiss upon it. “And I shall carry you if need be to your bed and to other places in the castle, my arms wrapped securely around you, but no, I shall not bed you, wife, until you ask it of me.”

Revulsion and anger had flowed from Alliana as Mikhal had made the tender gesture of kissing her hand, and it had cut him deeply, but he showed no reaction, even though her disgust was clearly evident on her face, as well.

“Then I shall always be free from your vile touch if you hold true to your promise, for I shall never welcome you into my bed.”

Mikhal gazed at her, eyes bluer that blue and said nothing. He reached out and ran his thumb across the mark of claim on her neck, stimulating their mating bond deep in the core of her womb, sending tingles of intense pleasure through her body. She shivered and looked away, refusing to acknowledge that his touch gave her anything but revulsion.

“We shall see my dear. In time, you will see that I am a man worthy of your affection.” Once again his demon rebelled at what his man was saying and doing. Worthy? Worthy! What was the pitiful man, this soft hearted Mikhal who resided inside thinking? He was Lord Arcos, Master Vampire, and he was certainly worthy of anything he wanted, and most definitely good enough for the human wench lying in the bed before him.

Mikhal ignored the beast clawing at his insides and instead focused on his beautiful wife. She was worth every ounce of pain he would suffer during the time it took to win her. Natalya had said to woo her, and woo her he would.

“The only thing that will make you worthy in my eyes at the moment is if you will agree to leave me be. I do not wish for your presence in my chambers.”

“Very well, Alliana. I shall not force you to accept me. I shall leave you to your own devices and send for Thalia. Spend the day with Natalya; enjoy your time alone with her, tis why I brought her here. I want you to be happy, Alliana, but know that I shall return to dine with you at seven o’clock.”

She looked up, words of refusal upon her tongue, eyes flaring, but he held a finger to her lips, and then replaced it with his own, gently kissing her with a feather light brush of his mouth upon hers. Then before she had a chance to push him away, he pulled back the furs and placed a kiss just as gentle upon their child.

“Seven tonight, Alliana. I look forward to seeing you then. Have a pleasant day, my love.”

Alliana glowered at his retreating back, and then spied the earthen jug on her bedside table. She picked it up and heaved it at him, missing him by mere inches. Mikhal turned; a stunned look upon his face that quickly turned to one of mirth. She was certainly a little spitfire. “I’ll send for a servant to clean up that mess. Goodbye sweet.”

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Chapter Two

 

 

Alliana sat staring at the closed door of her chambers in stunned disbelief, filled with both confusion and anger. What had come over her husband? He certainly hadn’t acted like he’d done in the past, even when she’d deliberately provoked him, and this new unpredictability left her as shaken as his old behavior. At least before she knew that given enough time and provocation, the demon within would come out, now, he seemed calm and in control, and worst of all, set in his quest to prove to her that he was a man and not just a monster. Was his plot to subdue her, lull her into complacency, and then smash her heart into bits once more by turning cruel just when she’d begun to believe she was truly safe in his presence? She supposed it could be some sick, twisted, new game of amusement since he dared not truly beat her. Whatever it was, she was determined to never let her guard down regardless of his sweet words and vows of devotion.

Her heart was pounding, and her head was whirling by his change of personality, for she found it nerve wracking and very perplexing. Yes, he had spoken tender words of assurance before he’d left her, but she hadn’t believed him for one second, and now he was proving her wrong. The evil beast that was her husband had just kept great restraint when dealing with her rejection of him, and to add to his misdeeds, he’d actually smirked at her when she’d thrown the jug, looking amused instead of flying into a rage. He was like a chameleon, always changing; his true self-hidden from view, disguised by his elegant surroundings and courtly manners.

Oh, she didn’t care for this new turn of events at all. Here she had settled into her life, as horrid as it was, thinking she’d known what to expect to some degree, and then the mighty Lord Arcos came back and threw something new at her. He’d been gentle with her and shown reverence for their child. He’d also shown fierce jealousy and protection for the both of them, all things a loving husband and father would do. The problem was he wasn’t a loving husband; he was a monster.

Despite that fact, Alliana had to accept that for whatever reason, he hadn’t raised his hand in anger, though initially he’d been beside himself with rage when he’d suspected her deceit. No, instead he had allowed the beast to emerge but it had been tempered, then to her shock, he had fallen to his knees when faced with the proof of the babe within her, all traces of his demon wiped away by his awe. Those were not the actions of a soulless vampire. He’d shown restraint, and tenderness, and … love. In front of others no less!

And to make it all worse, far worse, she had felt a twinge of something stir in her heart as she gazed at him paying homage to his son. She’d looked down upon the crown of his head and felt a stirring of tenderness in her own breast for the man who was whispering tender words to the babe within and caressing her so gently. She could not deny having been moved by his actions.

As for the jealousy though, well that didn’t even bear thinking about because she had to be mistaken in what she felt in that moment. Alliana refused to even acknowledge that there had been a brief flare of possessive rage inside her at seeing the mark of claim upon Natalya’s neck. It had to have been sheer anger over what he’d done to Natalya, because he had dared to drink from her friend, not because when they shared the same act it was an intimate affair that her husband should not engage in with any other woman. The idea that jealousy was involved was ludicrous. It simply was.

Alliana made a loud cry of annoyance at her husband’s latest round of unpredictable behavior and swept the mug that matched the shattered jug to the floor, as well. It was all too much. She simply wouldn’t think about him, and she damn well wouldn’t sit and make polite conversation with him over dinner. Oh, she would dine with him; she had no choice but to do as he said, but nothing and no one could force her to speak.

A soft knock on the door brought her out of her reverie, and Alliana called out for the person to come in. Thalia opened the door with a smile, and rushed forward, excited by the addition of Natalya and Hannah in the chambers next door.

“Good morning, Mistress. I helped Hannah get Mistress Natalya settled. She has been fed and is resting now. I imagine she shall sleep for a good part of the day. Is there anything you wish of me?”

“We can spend most of the day doing as we please Thalia, but my husband has ordered me to have dinner with him later.” Alliana’s servant did not miss the look of irritation that passed over her Mistress’s face at her announcement. To be truthful, Thalia had hoped that Alliana would be just a bit happy with the Master’s return. She seemed to have bouts where she became frightened by the rapid rate of her pregnancy, and Thalia thought that it would perhaps be a good thing for Lord Arcos to be in residence while his wife was with child.

“Then I shall be sure to have a bath prepared for you, My Lady. Which gown would you like to wear?”

“Oh, I haven’t given it a thought. I certainly don’t care what he thinks of me. The only reason I care to dress in one of my finer gowns is because I am so very tired of these nightshifts and dressing robes.” Thalia wasn’t sure if the flush that came over Alliana’s cheeks at her words were caused by anger or because she was flustered by her little fib, but she suspected it was the latter.

Thalia went to the wardrobe and pulled an emerald green brocade gown from within. The waistline had been moved up to fit just under Alliana’s breasts to accommodate her ever increasing stomach, and frilly white satin had been added at the neckline to conceal the growing swell of her breasts. White lace dripped from each long tapered sleeve, and the wide skirt belled out in a shimmering swirl. Thalia thought it was one of Alliana’s most beautiful gowns and knew it would bring out the deep green of her Mistress’s eyes.

“I think this one is lovely, My Lady, and Hannah has already altered it.”

“It matters naught to me.” Alliana’s tone was sharper than she had intended. To be honest, the thought of dinner with Mikhal the Merciless made butterflies flutter around in her stomach. How could she be expected to spend time with that despicable beast? Her eyes softened at Thalia’s hurt look, and she smiled. “I’m sorry Thalia, the green gown will be just fine. I don’t know what has gotten into me. I seem to fly into a rage at the slightest provocation. Perhaps my husband’s foul attitude is wearing off on me.”

To that Thalia had no comment. She simply let Alliana’s remark go and hung the gown on the outside of the wardrobe, then went and sat on the bed. “What shall it be today, Mistress? Embroidery or poetry?”

“Actually Thalia, I would like you to send for a servant to bring me a bite to eat. It seems I am always hungry these days. The nausea has passed and now I find myself ravenous every hour of the day.”

Thalia smiled. This was a good sign. The babe was growing at a fast pace, and Alliana needed to eat just to keep up with the child within her womb. “I shall send word to the kitchen at once, Mistress.”

The babe chose that moment to kick her in the ribs, and Alliana’s hand flew to her stomach. “I believe my son is saying ‘thank you’.” Both women smiled, and Thalia moved to do as Alliana had requested, very pleased with the turn of events that day. She had a new friend in Hannah. The master was back to watch over the Mistress, and Alliana was hungry. All seemed to bode well for those around her.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

As Thalia was getting Alliana settled, Hannah was slipping out of the castle to run to her true Mistress. The new Gypsy witch, Natalya, was now fast asleep after her tiresome journey, and Hannah knew she had to run and tell Marishka that the Master of the castle was home.

She darted through the forest, paying close attention to her surroundings, knowing she couldn’t be seen. It wasn’t her usual time to visit her Mistress; she’d never before come during daylight, and the risk of being seen was tenfold to that of at night, but it couldn’t be helped. The Master could be sending search parties out as soon as darkness fell, and she knew that Marishka had to be prepared.

She arrived at the cottage, out of breath, and timidly knocked on the door. She feared Andor, hated the way his eyes traveled over her as if she were as lowly as horse dung on his boot, looking as if he’d like to tear her to shreds in the most painful manner. He made her blood run cold every time he looked at her, but it was worth it. The love of her Mistress was worth it. When there was no answer, Hannah knocked again, this time harder, knowing she literally needed to wake the dead.

Finally, the door swung inward, as if on its own, the person doing the opening staying well back in its shadow. Hannah hurried in and shut the door behind her, only to come face to face with Andor. She cried out, startled by the look of pure hate he gave her and shrank back, turning her head, searching for any sign of Marishka.

Andor growled, not pleased at all at being woken by Marishka’s little whore. How dare this lowly bit of cattle disturb his rest? He reached for her, grabbing her arms in a vice like grip and pulled her to him, wrapping one arm around her body to still her struggling limbs and yanking her head back with his free hand to expose her neck. Hannah made little sounds of terror and opened her mouth to cry out for her mistress but Andor hissed in her ear to be silent, or he would tear her throat out. He was enjoying her fear, could smell her desperation, and was soaking it all up. It had been far too long since he’d had a young thing in his arms, and he intended to take full advantage of Marishka’s deep sleep.

He licked her neck, his tongue stopping over her throbbing pulse point, making Hannah’s heart race even more. Groping, Andor, brought his hand down and forced her forward, up against his hard loins, thrusting, rubbing, making her squeal in terror.

“Still pure except for My Lady’s fingers aren’t you, my little bitch? Well I could tear you open in seconds. How would that be? Rip you up and drain you dry. You have become a thorn in my side wench, and I would like nothing more than to make you suffer as I have suffered.”

Hannah was panicking. The thought of being raped by Andor had her numb with fear. His touch repulsed her; the feel of his tongue on her neck terrified her. She knew she had to do something to make him stop, or he would violate her and then her Mistress wouldn’t want her anymore. No, she would be dirty and used, and Marishka wouldn’t want her.

She shook her head and opened her mouth in a silent plea, willing her brain to form words. Finally her instinct for survival kicked in and she was able to beg for her life. “I… I have news. You must let me tell the Mistress.”

Andor growled and shook her violently. He didn’t have to allow her to do anything, stupid insolent bitch. He brought forth his demon and grazed her neck with his fangs, making blood rise to the surface. Lapping at the precious crimson liquid, he held her tighter, snarling. Yes, a brutal rape and then death would do for this one. He would do as he pleased and slip out to toss away her body before his Mistress rose, and Marishka would never know what had happened to her little whore.

“Andor! What are you doing to my toy?” Marishka’s words cut through his haze of pleasure like a whip through delicate skin. He dropped the quivering girl in his arms and whirled around to face his Mistress, blood smeared on his chin.

“Mistress. I… forgive me. I got carried away. She came here and surprised me. I was but trying to…”

“I shall deal with you later naughty boy, shame, shame, shame. Come here sweet, mummy will hold you. Oh, you are all shook up. Bad Andor, bad, bad boy.”

Hannah pulled herself up from the floor and ran to Marishka’s open arms, flashing a cold look of triumph at Andor as she went. Marishka rocked her as she cried; making a show of the terror she’d gone through as her Mistress lovingly licked the wound on her neck closed.

“It’s all right my Pet. Mummy has you; you’re safe now. The naughty boy won’t touch my sweet one.” Hannah nuzzled up into Marishka’s arms, clutching her, allowing her Mistress to chase away her fears, blissfully happy once again. After a few moments, Marishka held Hannah from her and looked down into the young girl’s eyes with a pout.

“Now tell me Sweet, why have you disturbed mummy’s sleep? I get so cross when I get woken up.”

“He’s home, Mistress. The Master has returned, and he didn’t come alone.”

Marishka’s eye grew big as saucers, and she began to pace the room, the skirt of her nightgown flaring about her. Finally, she whirled back around, eyes now flaring with a cold evil light. “When? Who is with him?”

“He arrived just today, not long ago, and he brought another Gypsy with him. She… I think she has the talents of magicks, My Lady.”

“What?!” Marishka’s shriek echoed throughout the small cottage and caused the birds outside to take flight, making Andor cringe, hoping no one had heard her outburst.

“I have been chosen as the new woman’s maid, My Lady. I hope that pleases you. While I was getting her settled, she asked me to fetch her certain herbs and tonics. I believe she knows how to make potions. She even has flaming red hair.”

“And she has been set up like a Lady? With a servant, to tend her? Is she yet another for my brother to bed?”

“I don’t think so, Mistress. I believe she is a friend of the other Gypsy. Thalia, Alliana’s servant told me she had overheard them arguing about His Lordship taking this new woman, Natalya is her name, from the Gypsy camp. Lord Arcos said he did so because he wanted his wife to be happy.”

Marishka’s insides churned with envy at Hannah’s words. Her brother, her own flesh and blood had fetched yet another Gypsy bitch so his precious little whore would be happy. Happy! What right did she or any other human have to be happy in the castle? They were there to toy with and to feed upon, and now there were two women in her castle, posing as Ladies and being given all the wonderful things she herself was now being denied. It wasn’t fair; it simply wasn’t fair.

Marishka stomped her feet in outrage, her demon coming forth as she screamed out her fury. Andor went to her and tried to hold her, tried to quiet her down so they wouldn’t be detected, but it was no use. Marishka beat upon him, howling, and raging, sputtering over the injustice, tears running down her cheeks for the wrong inflicted upon her. It was her castle; he was her brother, her lover, they were her humans, her toys, and yet here she was. Living in this pit with Andor, who had become such a boring bothersome fixture. If it weren’t for the fact that her brought her tasty morsels to dine upon she would toss him out into the sun. At least he would be good for venting her rage.

That thought in mind, knowing she would soon have the joy of dancing with the lash until her little whipping boy was all painful and bloody, Marishka got hold of herself. She had to give Hannah instructions now that Mikhal was home. If he detected any sign of treason from the girl, they would all be caught.

She sat down and patted the spot on the settee beside her, suddenly smiling at Hannah, the storm of rage that had been there a moment ago now past. “Come sweet. We must talk. There are things you need to do now, the most crucial one of all being to never, ever, be in the same room as Lord Arcos. You can claim fear to this new woman Natalya, and if you ever run across him, make yourself truly feel it. That shouldn’t be hard. Simply remember the torture he will inflict upon you if he discovers your ruse. Beg your Mistress to be excused if he is to be about. My Mikhal will know my scent my little love, and if he catches it, you will be trapped. Do you understand?”

Hannah nodded. She would do as her Mistress, her true Mistress, told her.

“Good girl, now then, I need to tell you something, something very important. A curse has been cast over the Lord of the castle…” Marishka began to fill Hannah in on the details of the Empathy curse and what it could mean to the girl, as Hannah listened, eyes wide with astonishment, knowing she would have to be extremely careful in the future if she wished to continue her service to her Lady.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

While Alliana was busy eating every morsel on her tray, and Hannah was listening wide-eyed to Marishka, Mikhal was descending the steps to the bowels of the castle to tend to Lucian. Part of him wanted to temper the punishment that he’d deemed just, part of him, the demon part, wanted to flay his first in command until the was, but a bit of skin left on his body.

His mate had suffered under Lucian’s watch, and the sin of his carelessness was unforgivable. Lucian had to pay penance in order for things to be right again. Once he had suffered the pain that Alliana had more than she had, then he would be forgiven and return to his post.

The fact that Mikhal could go from caring husband to chilling monster capable of inflicting the most horrific brutality upon another being would have made his wife point her finger at him, saying ‘See, he is a beast. Nothing but an evil soulless thing who spouts sweet words.’ but Mikhal cared not for what his wife would think of how he handled those who had failed him. This was his decision. The demon in him needed to extract a pound of flesh for the agony his mate had endured. Nothing could take away that need, and there was no way for him to force back his beast even if he wanted to. No man allowed harm to come to his woman, and no vampire ever allowed brutality to be inflicted upon his mate. Never.

His steps quickened as he made his way down the last steps and towards the torchlight that marked the place where Lucian waited. He stopped in front of the stone alcove and stood silently, taking in the scene before him, looking to see if his orders had been followed.

Lucian stood, waiting for his Master, he had stripped bare, knowing every inch of his skin needed to feel the burning pain of the lash. He pulled himself up when Mikhal arrived, not out of pride, but out of respect, the muscles in his chest and arms flexing as he pulled his shoulders back and gazed into the eyes of Mikhal the Merciless.

“I am ready, Sire.”

Mikhal looked at him, a sneer on his face, eyes turning amber, his demon emerging in preparation for the job ahead, nodding in approval at Lucian’s nakedness and the bucket that stood ready, overflowing with holy water, the leather flogger already soaking in it, making the lashes heavy with the burning liquid.

He went forward, lifting the dripping punishment device from the bucket, and closed the distance between himself and his first in command. “Fasten the manacles above your head.”

“They are not necessary, My Lord. I shall hold them and keep myself erect. I deserve every lash and will not move from my position until you are finished.”

“Oh but I think they are necessary. I said fasten the shackles so we may begin.”

“As you wish, Sire.” Lucian did as Mikhal asked and threw back his head, the muscles in his back rippling as his Master walked around him and prepared to lay the first lash upon him.

“This, dear Lucian, is for my wife. I hope you suffer tenfold what was done to her because of your negligence.” With those words, the dripping flogger came down for the first time, leaving a blazing trail of torn skin and burning flesh in the wake of the holy water.

“As do I, My Lord.”

Mikhal began his gruesome work, his demon howling out its pleasure and outrage. It had been far too long since he’d had the pleasure if torturing another being, and part of him relished in the act, even as his heart bled because the reason why it was necessary to whip Lucian in the first place. Alliana had been hurt, and her pain had to be avenged. The lash cracked across Lucian’s skin once again; his demon roared, and his man retreated, knowing what must be done… for Alliana.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Hours later, freshly bathed, well rested, all thoughts of Lucian gone from his mind, Mikhal walked down the corridor to keep his dinner date with is lovely wife. He’d been up since five, not feeling well rested, but eager to spend more time with Alliana. He knew she was going to be quarrelsome, but he was looking forward to time spent alone when he could follow Natalya’s advice and carry on with the wooing that would win Alliana’s heart.

Oh, he fully expected a sharp tongue to be part of the courses served to him at dinner. Mikhal had no doubt that Alliana would chide him once again for bringing Natalya to the castle, and the matter of Enid and Marishka was sure to come up as was what he had deemed proper punishment for Lucian. All of those things of course he would refuse to discuss. A man simply didn’t justify his actions to his wife or any female regardless of his feelings for her.

The matter of Marishka was troubling though.  What he truly wished to do was wrap his hands around her lovely throat and squeeze until she was but a heap at his feet then apply the lash with as much gusto as she had seen fit to wield it against Alliana. He felt no loyalty to Marishka any longer. True she was of his flesh, a sister who had been so very dear to him, but she had overstepped the bounds of that bind. She had disregarded the affection he felt for her, the trust he’d placed in her, and hurt his mate and that could not be allowed. No, everyone who had taken part in Alliana’s beating was being punished, and Marishka wouldn’t escape his wrath. The problem was, where was she?

Mikhal knew he would have to go and make attempts to find her himself, but for now, tonight, he fully intended to spend time with his wife and their child. To see her again, so beautiful and full of fire, and to have felt his child move within her had made his dead heart beat once more. He had surely felt the swelling in his chest as a tide of love washed over him for the both of them. What he felt for his family filled him completely, and Mikhal knew he would spend every possible minute by Alliana’s side until she saw him for who he truly was. He had wronged her, done terrible things to hurt, hurt her body and soul, and Mikhal knew that it was going to take every bit of gentleness, patience, and love his inner man had ever possessed.

As he neared Alliana’s door, he heard the sound of giggling and couldn’t suppress the smile that came over him. Natalya. Natalya was with Alliana once again, and though he knew Alliana would rail at him and fight him about her friend’s presence at the castle, the sound of their laughter made him more certain than ever that he’d done the right thing.

He entered quietly and saw them in the chairs near the hearth; hands clasped, smiling, talking animatedly about some misdeed they’d done during their childhood. Mikhal sensed the happiness that radiated from both of them and nodded in approval. Yes, taking Natalya had been the right thing no matter what Alliana said, and he knew that inside she was pleased Natalya was beside her again.

He cleared his throat, and they stopped talking at once, the mood changing audibly as both women turned their heads to see him staring at them. Natalya’s feelings towards him were simply those of disappointment at being interrupted, but Alliana, as usual, sent anger and loathing towards him. It didn’t surprise him in the least, but still it hurt, and he had to take a breath to calm his demon that raged at its mate’s rejection.

“Ladies.” Mikhal bowed slightly, playing the part of the gentleman to the hilt. “I hope you had a pleasant day. Natalya is your quarters satisfactory? Is your servant suitable? Were you able to rest?”

“Yes, My Lord. Thank you. Everything is fine. I’ve managed to settle in quite nicely. Hannah is a bit skittish, but I think the poor girl is simply frightened here.”

Natalya’s bold assessment and caring of her servant’s feelings once again raised the ire in Mikhal’s demon. His eyes blazed for just an instant before regaining control. The Mikhal of the past would surely have slapped her for such a comment. How dare she tell him the girl was frightened? As if he should care. But the new Mikhal, the Mikhal, who needed to respect other’s feelings to prove to his bride that he was capable of emotions as well, forced back the beast and simply let it go.

“I’m sure the girl will adjust.”

Alliana watched the scenario in shocked wonder. She was surprised by both Natalya’s audacity and by Mikhal’s lack of retribution towards her friend. It seemed as if Natalya truly wasn’t afraid of Mikhal the Merciless, and for good reason. Here he had been told that his mere presence, in his home, frightened a servant and that that was a bad thing, and he’d done nothing. Not a sharp word, not a slap, no threat to send Hannah to the kitchen to await being summoned as dinner for some minion, not even a tiny reprimand about who was Lord and Master of the castle and respect to be shown him.

Mikhal sensed Alliana’s confusion as she looked from Natalya to him and back again and was pleased. Good, let the chit wonder what’s come over him. It was just what he wanted. She needed to see he had changed and small instance just such as this would help him in his mission to win her over.

“Alliana, I should be going. I believe you have dinner plans tonight.” Natalya glanced at Mikhal, smiling gently, noting his sleek black breeches, high polished black knee boots, and well-tailored coat. She leaned in to give Alliana a kiss on the cheek and whispered. “Try to have fun. He won’t hurt you. It’s simply dinner, sweetie.”

Alliana’s eyes turned stormy, and she pulled back, angry, but Natalya put a finger to her lips hushing her. “Just eat and relax Alliana. You look beautiful; you might as well have a nice time.”

Turning back to Mikhal, Natalya moved towards the door, intending to leave, but he stopped her, laying a hand on her arm. “There is something you will do tonight Natalya.” Alliana made a sound of outrage at his words. Was he going to order her friend about like a servant? Before she could speak her mind, Mikhal rushed on.

“You claim to be a midwife and capable of seeing after Alliana’s needs. I must know of your skills first hand or it will not be permitted. In an hour’s time, Lucian will arrive at your quarters to take you to the village. You will go from house to house with him and search for any women with child. From now on you will tend to all of the serf’s during their pregnancies and Lucian will accompany you to observe your skills. If he feels you are capable of caring for Alliana, then you will be allowed to replace Enid.”

“You cannot be serious Mikhal! Those women will be frightened.” Part of her was outraged at his plan, and part of her was relieved to learn that Lucian had survived her husband’s wrath.

“Alliana I do not intend for them to be brought here, and Natalya is a human just like they are. If you wish for Natalya to become your midwife then she shall have to prove herself. I shall not risk the health of you and our child. This matter has been decided. I wish to hear no more about it.”

“You are arrogant and…”

“Enough!” Though his tone was loud, it lacked the sinister snarl that often accompanied his harsh words when he was angry with her. “This is for the best and Natalya will be perfectly safe with Lucian by her side.”

“Alliana, it’s fine, truly it is. It will give me a chance to keep my talents sharp, and I can look for the other things I need when I am in the village.” Mikhal looked at Natalya sharply, sensing a hint of deceit in her words, but he couldn’t begin to imagine just what it could be about. It didn’t matter anyway; Lucian would be with her at all times and would be watching. He supposed she simply wanted to purchase the herbs needed for her potions like Enid did. Alliana, on the other hand, knew just what Natalya was speaking of. The medallion, Natalya, was hoping to find the medallion.

Hope sprang into her heart when she realized the opportunity that had been given them and once again Mikhal felt confusion at the emotions he was feelings from the two women. He knew that they would indeed bear watching in the future and would have to make sure that Lucian knew Natalya wasn’t to be completely trusted. He should treat her with respect, do as she asked in relation to her needs regarding her work, but watch her closely nonetheless.

Decision made; Mikhal turned his back on Natalya, effectively dismissing her, and focused his attentions on his wife. Alliana had risen during their talk and the vision of her in the gown that matched her fiery eyes, so perfectly was quite a fetching sight. He planned on having a long relaxing dinner with her, one full of charming conversation, smiles, and soft touches, even if they were only on his part.

Natalya watched him walk towards her friend as then quietly slipped out the door. Mikhal the Merciless’ dismissal of her didn’t bother her in the least. He was simply a typical Lord and she but a woman; besides, she needed to get ready for her trip to the village. The wind was blowing fiercely, and the night was frigid, so a fur cloak and boots would be in order. As she went her mind brought back the image of the man who would be escorting her to the small village below. Would those dark hooded eyes show any more expression once they spent time together? Could the handsome and brooding man who was now to be her keeper be incited to show a bit of emotion if baited? Natalya didn’t know, but she thought it might be fun to find out.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Chapter Three

 

 

Mikhal let his gaze rake over Alliana as the door closed quietly behind Natalya, leaving them alone. She glared at him, but he found her nothing but radiant, angry look, and all. Her hair had been swept to one side, and fastened with a green velvet ribbon that matched her dress, the golden curls cascading down over her shoulder and one breast. The other side was left bare, revealing his mark of claim upon the ivory column, and it called to him, urging a nibble, a small lap, a taste that would send both of them spiraling into blissful heights of passion, but Mikhal knew that was not to be. Not now, not until she asked him to make love to her.

The gown was low cut but soft white lace had been added to the neckline in a futile attempt to conceal her rounded breasts. Mikhal took note of the fact that they were much more rounded and full then before he had left to fetch Natalya and both the man and beast inside him appreciated that fact.

The high waist fit snugly under her breast and then fell in folds down over her rounded belly, but couldn’t conceal the child that lay within altogether, and Mikhal would have had it no other way. The sight of her, of them, stirred him like nothing ever had in his life, and he knew he could spend hours just looking at his wife and child.

“You look breathtaking, my sweet.”

“Dead things don’t breathe.” Her sarcastic, bitter comment stung him, but he didn’t flinch at her anger. No, he took it as a challenge, a fierce battle to be won, a battle for her heart.

“Then I will say you are ravishing, you glow, you look beautiful Alliana. I was expecting you to be in bed and am not completely sure I approve of you being about and dressed, but the man in me can’t complain with how lovely you look in that gown.”

Alliana’s eyes shot more daggers at him. “I am quite well enough to stand and to dress, though if you would care to leave me to my solitude and rest I surely won’t stop you.”

A slight growl rose from deep within Mikhal. Damn but she was stubborn. “You shall have a restful evening Alliana, but it will be spent with me. Now come to the table and sit down, I shall send for the servants to bring our meal.”

He moved to her side and took her arm before she could protest, sliding his hand under her elbow with the gentlest of touches. She pulled just a bit, and his fingers tightened almost imperceptibly, but she knew to allow him to hold her all the same.

“I am not trying to manhandle you Alliana, I simply wish to make sure you are steady on your feet.”

“Your touch means nothing to me, My Lord.” She turned her nose up and her head away, staring off into the distance as he led her to the table. Mikhal released her then pulled out her chair, taking her hand and seating her. He walked before her and briefly knelt down, leaning in to kiss his son, then stood, before more angry words could fly from her lips.

“I shall bring you a lap robe.”

“I am fine. The only chill in the air is caused by your nearness.”

“Alliana, please, I mean for this to be a pleasant dinner. Nothing you can say will incite me to leave your side. Perhaps you could make an attempt to enjoy yourself.”

Alliana refused to respond to his request, turning away as he went and sent for their meal. He came back and sat across form her, then took one of her hands in his across the table, holding her stiff fingers for a moment before bring her hand to his lips and brushing the softest of kisses upon it.

“I’ve missed you, sweet.”

“Then perhaps you shouldn’t have run off and kidnapped my dearest friend!” Alliana yanked her hand away and rubbed the back of it as if it had been scalded.

“I refuse to speak of that issue with you wife. I did what was best for you. Natalya will be happy here. Do you not wish her to be your midwife? Do you not wish to be rid of Enid? Lucian will take Natalya to the village and then tell me as soon as he knows she is fit to tend you. I should think the news would please you instead of making that tongue of yours so very sharp.”

“I do wish to be rid of that old witch. She should die for what she did to me and Marishka as well, but I can’t condone my friend being imprisoned here.”

“Well I can and did!” Mikhal’s demon was roaring inside, churning, eating at him, clawing at his guts. The audacity of his mate was driving him insane. Alliana saw the amber flash in his eyes and made to push back from the table, but Mikhal grabbed her wrist.

“Alliana, please. I do what I do so you will have the best care. So our son will be well. Please understand, Natalya is not here to suffer, she is here to bring you joy. As for Enid and Marishka, Enid has felt my wrath and will feel it each day for the rest of her existence. Marishka will be dealt with when she is found. I promise you Sweet; you will get your revenge.”

“And what of Lucian? Did you hurt him, as well? He wasn’t at fault. He…”

Mikhal slammed both hands down on the table in a rage, making the silver bounce and jingle and the candles flicker, sending distorted shadows upon the walls. Alliana jumped in response, giving a small squeak as fear rose up inside her, expecting the wrath she knew lay waiting under his calm facade. Mikhal felt it, hated that he was the cause of it, and knew he had to regain control of himself, but at the moment his demon was winning. Jealousy was rising up inside him once more.

He rose, the chair falling back to clatter onto the floor, the impact barely muffled by the thick rug. He strode across the room, distancing himself from Alliana, fighting for control cursing his mate and the demon that would have her throat. “I did not come here to discuss another man with you, Alliana. I came here to have dinner with my wife. I did what I saw fit, leave it at that. He will survive. Now hold your tongue!”

Mikhal shook his head in frustration. This was not going well at all. He groaned and ran his hand back through his curls, then fisted his hands and looked down at the floor. What was he doing? He’d sworn to himself that he wasn’t going to let her incite him. He’d sworn that he would maintain his composure no matter what she did. He turned back around to find her staring at him, eyes huge as dinner plates, mouth pressed into a thin line, watching, waiting no doubt for his demon to come forth and retaliate against her for her impertinence. It was what she had been taught was the norm for her life here during her first months of captivity. Why should tonight be any different?

Mikhal shook his head again; then tilted it to the side slightly, giving her a look that said volumes. It spoke of his exasperation with her stubbornness, and his doubts about himself, but it also spoke of his caring and determination. His blue eyes shone deeply as his gaze pleaded with her for understanding. ‘Just try, Alliana, his eyes asked of her, just please try to see me for who I am and stop all this arguing’, but Alliana saw only the demon within struggling to win against the man.

She saw his handsome face, saw the pleading in his eyes, but took if for only more lies. Yes, he was controlling himself to some degree, but, on the other hand, the chair laying tipped over on the floor was evidence enough. She’d seen the telling amber flash in those gorgeous blue eyes, telling of the monster that would gladly come out and hurt her, and she knew all too well how painful that hurt could be. No, Alliana wouldn’t give him a chance, she wouldn’t trust him and allow him to get close, because she knew, oh yes she knew, that he was evil and evil things never changed. This was simply a new ploy of some sort, why she didn’t know, but it was a ploy to lull her all the same.

Perhaps he wanted to know about her magick. Perhaps he was doing it so she’d be calmer during her pregnancy, perhaps he knew if he bedded her it would have to be in a gentle manner, so he thought this was the way to seduce her. She didn’t know and didn’t care. Evil was evil was evil. A handsome facade meant nothing. She would never let her guard down around him and risk herself and her child. Never.

The knock on the chamber door cut the tension in the room and Mikhal hurried forward to pick up the toppled chair before bidding the servants to enter. There was no need for anyone to know they’d been fighting. What went on between the Lord and the Lady of the castle were nobody’s business but his and Alliana’s. Besides, he knew the servants had no real respect for his wife, and he didn’t need to add this to their list of things to gossip about.

He went and sat in his chair, saying nothing as the dishes were placed before them, looking again at his wife whom he could feel fuming with anger, and again wondered why she had to be so stubborn. Weren’t women supposed to be docile creatures? A bit of fire was desired, but this. Well, he had fought in many battles, and this was simply one more. He would batter down the fortress that she had built around her heart, and like it or not, she would come to love him as he loved her.

That determined, knowing that once he set his mind on something or made a decision it was practically written in stone, Mikhal waited until the servants left then smiled at his dear wife who had taken a decided interest in the knife beside her platter.

“I fear that will do you no good, my Sweet. True you could wound me, but I would continue to exist. Tell me; is your appetite better these days? I don’t wish for you to feel ill because of the food. Your tongue seems to have healed, has your stomach as well?”

Alliana wanted to tell him that his mere presence made her stomach churn but in actuality she was famished. The mornings were still hard for her at times. A bit of bread was all she could manage, and that was only after she’d been awake an hour or two, but come evening; she was famished. She’d begun devouring everything in sight these past few days, and tonight would be no exception.

Instead of answering Mikhal, or even acknowledging that she had heard him, Alliana ignored him. It was clear he wasn’t going away anytime soon, and she was hungry; therefore, it would be best to simply eat and then claim fatigue. Hopefully he would keep his ungodly night hours, and she could continue to live mostly in the daytime. That way they could avoid each other. He had allowed it before, but the question was would he still. Her husband seemed different now, calmer, more in control of his bestial nature, and very intent on becoming part of her life.

She set to work eating her supper seemingly oblivious to the fact that her husband sat across from her, as Mikhal began to tell her of his life years ago, when he had been growing up, before the tragedy that had beset their family. He talked and ate little, amused to see her devour every morsel on her plate, content to just watch her and soak in the beauty and aura that was his mate.

 

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Natalya fastened the ties on her fur cloak then adjusted the dilko on her head, readying herself for her trip to the village. She would concede with the requirements of her new station and wear the garb befitting that of a Lady, but she refused to throw her beliefs away altogether. She had been born and raised as a Gypsy, and though she now resided within the walls of a grand castle that same Gypsy blood still ran through her veins, and a Gypsy woman, especially a married one, husband present or not, did not reveal her head in public. If she were going to the village, then she would abide by the traditions of her clan.                  A sharp knock upon her door pulled her from her thoughts. It was immediately followed by the entry of Lucian, Mikhal the Merciless’s first in command, much to her dismay. He hadn’t even bothered to wait for her to ask him in. She stared at him, eyes hostile, not saying a word, wondering if the vampire was an uncouth lout. She had thought him to be different, yet he had barged into her quarters without a thought. Did he have no manners? It made her wonder if this was how it would be then. No real respect shown to her, no care given to her privacy. Lord Arcos had said things would be different, but perhaps Alliana’s assessment of their situation was correct. Well she’d have a thing or two to say about that. Natalya decided then and there that she hadn’t left one life of oppression simply to be trapped in another.

“Is it not proper to wait to be bid entry before opening the door?” Her tone left no doubt about her displeasure, her razor sharp tongue said it all, but Lucian wasn’t fazed in the least. Marishka had acted the spoiled brat, and this one could be handled, as well.

“I accorded you the courtesy of a knock. That is sufficient.” His unspoken tone said ‘You are but a woman, a human. I did what was required, be satisfied.’ but Natalya would not so easily be cowed.

“No, it is not sufficient and you will afford me the civility of waiting next time you call upon me. In the future, I expect you to respect my privacy. I was told that my position here was that of a Lady. If it is your custom to barge in upon the women of this castle with no care for their dignity, then you need to be taught some manners. I could have been unclothed or engaged in a private matter. If that is your idea of acting like a gentleman, then I shall request you leave me be.”

Lucian’s hooded eyes remained unreadable, but they shone black as polished onyx in the light of the lamps. His thoughts on the tirade just unleashed upon him were a complete mystery to the woman standing before him with her hands on her hips and fire in her eyes, and he intended to keep them as such. A small smirk did, however, touch the corners of his mouth at Natalya’s bold words. She was new here, a human in the devil’s lair, yet she dared to talk to him as if he were hired help. Interesting. He didn’t find her behavior as objectionable as Marishka’s, no; this one hadn’t stamped her feet, pouted, or whined, she’d simply made her demands in no uncertain terms, ready to do battle for what she thought was right. It showed she had strength and character.

Lucian decided in that moment that the one before him was feisty, just like her friend and that perhaps his latest round of playing nursemaid might just be a pleasant experience. He wasn’t sure if he liked her fire or merely found it annoying, but the anger she was feeling certainly did add a lovely blush to her cheeks, and the way her breasts heaved with each enraged breath was quite delectable. The image of discovering her unclothed was an appealing as well, as he looked at her further, sizing her up from head to toe. She was perhaps thinner than some of the women he bedded, but she certainly was rounded in all the right places. Even with her cloak in place he could make out a lushness of curves, and that hair, oh that hair was as fiery as her temper.

Natalya saw the path his eyes were traveling and clasped the cloak tighter around her body, raising her eyebrows at his audacity. “If you are quiet finished ogling me perhaps we should be off. I believe you have your orders.”

“As do you, My Lady.” The words were said with just a hint of sarcasm but no real malice; still, Natalya glared at him all the same. Her angry scowl only produced another smirk, however, so she turned away, determined not to be baited by him. He seemed to be finding their argument much too fun.

“Lead the way. I know not where we are going.”

“Tis not far. The horses are ready and waiting in the stable. We shall go as soon as you remove that scrap of rag from your head.”

Natalya wheeled around to look at him, this time her eyes not merely glaring but shooting daggers. “The scrap upon my head is not a rag. It is called a dilko and is a symbol of my status as a woman in my clan. I will not remove it. Not before you or anyone else.”

“I should have thought it was apparent that you no longer live with your clan. You are now a Lady of Arcos Castle, and as such must dress accordingly.” Still his eyes betrayed no hint of his ire, but Lucian’s fingers twitched nonetheless, with the need to curl into fists at the stubbornness of the woman before him.

“You say I am a Lady, and you request I dress as you think a Lady should, yet you see fit to invade my privacy by entering before being bid. Which is it Sir? Am I to be accorded the rights of one of my station or not?”

He stared at her silently then made a move towards her. Natalya skittered back, eyes flashing outrage, “Do not touch me!”

“Be still woman.” He stepped before her and quickly raised the hood of her cloak over the dilko scarf on her head, then gently but swiftly tucked the material back out of sight, one thumb trailing down her cheek in the process. She jumped as if burned by his touch, but he didn’t remove his hand, simply looked at her with those eyes so dark and mysterious.

“Keep your hood in place. It will be hard enough to get the village women to trust you because you reside in the castle. If they know you are of Gypsy descent, they will be even more reluctant for you to tend them.”

“Do they have a choice? Their Lord has issued his command.”

“They can hide; they can lie, and their families can help them run away if they think we are after their babes. Your willfulness in this matter will make things even more difficult. Try and do what you are told, however, hard that may be for you.”

Natalya made a sound of outrage at his statement but left the hood of her cloak where it was, and didn’t pull her headscarf back into view. His words did sound true, and she was doing this for the good of Alliana. From what she had heard, Enid was a horrid witch who would be best put to death, and Natalya wanted to be the one tending her friend as soon as possible.

She crossed her arms over her breasts and tapped her foot impatiently, signaling she wished to be off, but refusing to speak to the handsome but irritating man before her. Lucian went to the door and opened it, gesturing with a wide exaggerated bow that she should precede him through it, smirk firmly affixed upon his face, feeling as if he had won the first battle between them.

When he had been told of his new assignment he had loathed the idea, but now he thought it just might not be so very bad. The woman before him was stubborn that was very true. Stubborn and insolent, but she was also beautiful and full of fire, and those were qualities one couldn’t dismiss so easily. She certainly did bear watching.

He would do as his Master requested, of that there was no question, but what remained to be seen was what would come of it The new human in the castle had sparked his interest in a way that no woman had done for a very long time. Unbelievably, she viewed herself as his equal, and though he felt he had won this particular sparring of words, she certainly had held her own throughout the battle, never bowing before him or admitting defeat. The hood was in place as directed, but the scrap of fabric on her head still remained. Check and checkmate.

 

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Mikhal watched with satisfaction as Alliana popped the last morsel of food from her platter into her mouth, thrilled that she was eating again. Even without Enid’s expert opinion, he could tell she was bursting with health. She simply glowed with motherhood. Her cheeks were rosy; her hair was even more lustrous than usual, her eyes bright, and she just had a glow about her. Her face held radiance as never before. Though she may be troubled in her heart, her body was finally responding well to carrying their child, and it pleased him to no end.

Alliana looked up, feeling his eyes upon her and blushed at his frank appraisal. She felt embarrassed that she had eaten every scrap of food on her plate. It certainly wasn’t very ladylike. Then again, why should she care? She didn’t give a fig about impressing her husband. Let him think she was sloth and unmannered, perhaps then he would stop enjoying her company, and she would be rid of him. She met his gaze with a cool one of her own, daring him to make a comment about her appetite.

Mikhal sensed her embarrassment then surge of pride, and wanted to soothe her ruffled feathers. He was thrilled she was hungry once again, not put off by her gusto for eating. “You must be feeling well once more, sweet. It does my heart good to see you eat your dinner. You and our child need the sustenance to keep you both strong.”

“Your heart is cold and dead.”

“Alliana, must we go down that road again? I was hoping for a pleasant evening.” He tilted his head ever so slightly and gave her a look that held tenderness and passion. It spoke of a sincere desire for a truce between them.

“No, we most certainly do not. You asked me to dine with you and I have. The meal is over now, and I wish to retire. I would like you to leave me in peace so I may rest. Unlike you, I live my life during the day.”

Mikhal’s first thought was that that aspect of her life was certainly going to change. He was not about to go back to the way things were where he only saw her for an hour or two a day, but he stayed silent on the subject, now was not the time. It would be enough to keep her in his company for just a little longer tonight.

“Tis a shame you are so weary, sweet. I thought perhaps you would enjoy a walk. How long has it been since you were able to move about? I would think you were weary of staying in your bed.”

Alliana’s eyes brightened at his suggestion. A walk? Oh, she hadn’t moved beyond her chambers or the tower room in all the time he’d been gone. A stroll about the castle would be lovely. The problem was it would involve his company.                                                                             “What will it be, love? Do you wish to sulk in your solitude or withstand my company in favor of a stroll in the courtyard? The night is clear, and the stars are out. Tis cold but not so bitter that your cloak won’t keep you warm.”                                                                                            Oh, he was a devil! He knew she couldn’t resist such an offer as that. “Very well, My Lord. I shall walk with you. That is all though.”

“I wouldn’t think of compromising you, my sweet, unless you asked me to.” The glint in his eyes told her that he thought she might just do that one day soon. She huffed at him in exasperation, and made a move to rise from her chair. Mikhal was quicker though and was at her side in an instant. Taking her arm and pulling her up, his hand lingering at her elbow, one hand coming up to stroke her hair ever so briefly.

“I am quite capable, Mikhal.”

He could hear her heart pounding; see the fluttering of her pulse as it beat in her neck, beckoning to him. His eyes shone briefly with his burning desire yet he pressed a chaste kiss to the top of her head instead before releasing her. Now wasn’t the time to satisfy his needs. Mikhal knew it would be best not to incite her anger. That wasn’t his intention at all. His beast wanted her afraid and in a rage, but his man was pleased with the way things were proceeding. True Alliana wasn’t falling into his arms or professing her undying love, but she also wasn’t flaying him alive with her tongue while shooting daggers of hate into his heart.

“I know you are Alliana, but I wish to see you safe. Please don’t blame a man for wanting to care for his wife and child. I simply wanted to help you rise, to make sure you are steady.”

“What you wanted was to fondle me.”

A small growl rumbled deep in Mikhal’s chest at her continued obstinate ways, and Alliana felt it reverberate through her soul. Her dominant male had spoken to her, his mate, in no uncertain terms, and though she wasn’t pleased, part of her yearned to do as he wished. Their bond triggered the response deep inside her like it or not.

“If I had wanted to fondle you wife, my hands would be doing just that. I told you I shall respect your wishes regarding when I bed you next, and I am a man of my word. Now stop this arguing and put on your cloak. Tis cold outside, but I wish for you to see the stars and have some fresh air.”

Alliana had her own idea on whether or not Mikhal the Merciless was a man of his word, evil creatures simply couldn’t be trusted, and it was ludicrous to even suggest it, but she did long to go out, so she held her tongue and brushed past him. She went to the wardrobe and selected her heaviest cloak, then began to pull it onto her shoulders. Strong hands gripped her fingers, taking the cape from her hands and began to work the clasps at her neck and breasts. He had come up behind her so silently that she hadn’t heard him, and Alliana trembled at his nearness. The act was far from intimate, but disturbing all the same. The best place for Mikhal the Merciless as far as she was concerned was across the room.

“I can do it.” Alliana tried in vain to push his hands away, but he persisted, and then laid his fingers briefly on her shoulders before leaning in to kiss her there and sliding one hand down to her rounded stomach. She could feel the weight of him pressed against her, smell the scent of scotch and soap, and the way his hand laid on their child set her nerves on edge.

“You’re beautiful. Thank you for giving me our child.” The words were whispered, hoarse with emotion and Alliana was left speechless by his actions and tender declaration. Again that unwanted bond tugged at her heart before she grit her teeth and slammed shut the gate in the wall she had built around it. He was a demon; he was an evil thing, he couldn’t care, couldn’t love. Sensing the change in her emotions immediately, Mikhal backed up; giving her the emotional room she longed for, and gently put her hood up over her head.

“Come, the stars await my Lady. I ordered them to be shining especially bright just for you.” He held out his arm in a gallant fashion, and Alliana glared at him briefly, making it all too clear that she wanted nothing to do with him and that the only reason she was going along with his scheme was because she longed for a walk. She then went to him without a word or another glance, determined to remain mute the rest of the evening. His face was undeniably handsome, his words sweet, his actions oh so gentle, but none of it mattered to Alliana. She’d seen it all before, and knew he could turn on her with unbridled fury in the blink of an eye.

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