Bronwyn walked the same dirt path she had many months ago, but on this day, this beautiful September day in the Scottish Highlands no cold winds kissed her cheeks, no patches of snow lay bride white on the ground. The hills bracketing her were coated in a brilliant purple heather blanket and the sun was warm and welcoming to an old friend.
She followed the fence line until it gave way to the gate. Biting into her wrist, she let the blood flow, then swiped it across the lock. Her skin vibrated with equal parts pleasure and fear. There was nothing in the world she had wanted more than to see this day come to pass. She had nearly collapsed with joy when Alexander and Nicholas revealed his whereabouts to her-only when it had been finally revealed to them. Saving her tears, she had flashed from SoHo to Banchory within minutes.
The property looked so beautiful, so lush and green and well tended, and beyond the cottage, the loch sat blue and steady. As she drew closer, she noticed that the plot of dirt she’d raked and readied and planted had also been tended in her stead. The beans and berries were tall and heavy, water and sun and the breath of life obvious within their solid green limbs.
“Everything has grown and flourished here, lass.”
Bronwyn glanced up, gasped, and ran at the veana, falling into her open arms.
Mai held her tight to her bosom and rocked her. “It is good to see ye too, Bonnie Bron.”
For one moment, Bron let her head rest on the veana’s shoulder and breathed her in. When Alex had revealed to her that Lucian had gone home again, home to Scotland, allowed his mother to finally care for him, love him as she’d only wanted him to do, Bron had been so relieved. But the Romans had also warned her that Lucian wasn’t there to reconcile or reminisce. He was there to die.
She lifted her head. “Where is he?”
“Follow me.” She led Bronwyn inside the cottage, everything the same as when she’d left it. “He won’t know ye, Bron. Ye must prepare yourself. He is much changed.”
“Doesn’t matter, Mai.” She held tight to the bag over her shoulder, all that she needed. Her balas-their balas was at home with her aunts and uncles, being cared for and cooed over.
Mai led her into the room he and Bronwyn had shared, had made love in, where they had held each other and listened to the birds on the loch. She stepped aside, let Bron go forward to the bed; then she put her hand over her mouth as Bronwyn gasped. The sight of her beloved Lucian made her want to both vomit and cry. Every inch of his pale, painfully thin body was chained so completely he could no doubt only move his fingers and toes were he conscious. His eyes looked fused shut, his lips were cracked and blue, and the only thing that looked the same on him were the two empty circle brands on his gaunt cheeks.
“He has refused all blood now,” Mai said, tears in her voice. “He made me promise to keep him this way, keep him alive until he knew if ye and the balas were well and safe. Now he just wants to die.”
Bronwyn opened her bag, done with pity and pain. She was here to fight for Luca, her Luca, the only paven she ever loved, would ever love. She wasn’t allowing him this way out, not until she saw with her own two eyes that there was no other choice but death.
“Don’t,” Mai cried, reaching for Bron as she moved toward the bed. “Don’t go near him.”
Determination steeled her spine and her words. “It will be all right,” Bronwyn told her, taking the vials from her bag.
“No, it won’t. He could kill ye, Bron. He doesna know who ye are. Who I am. Hasn’t for some time.”
“This paven sacrificed all for me and my babe,” Bronwyn told her, as she sat on the bed, looking at her beloved. “I would do the same for him, for the chance to free him from this fate-to give us a chance to be what we were meant to be.”
“Oh God…” It was all Bronwyn heard from behind her, her mind and her love completely focused on the nearly dead paven before her. “Lucian,” she whispered.
“Lucian, it’s me.” She opened the vial, her movements precise while her heart reached out to the paven of her dreams, of the future she wanted so much to see with him. “Lucian, hear my voice. Know it in your heart.”
Her hand holding the vial trembled. He was so still. He lay so still. Perhaps he was dead already. God, perhaps there was nothing…
Gripping the vial, she brought it to his lips. With her other hand, she forced his mouth open and poured the entire tube of blood down his throat.
Unconsciously, she swallowed as she saw the slight movement of his throat. Staring at him, she waited, waited for some sign of life, of movement.
“Bron, lass, please,” Mai whispered behind her. “No more now.”
Bronwyn refused to listen. Her eyes were on her beloved, his face, his eyes, willing him to move-any small movement.
“He’s not coming back, Bron,” Mai said through her tears. “He can’t. You, me, the balas-we must let him go-“
A hand shot up out and grabbed Bronwyn’s wrist. She jumped, gasped, but didn’t move. Lucian. Lucian. She heard Mai behind her. She was saying something about getting up, moving on, but Bron pushed her away. “No. Go away. Get out.” She dug in her bag with her free hand and grabbed another vial, ripped off the stopper with her fangs and held it to his lips again.
“Open your mouth, Lucian,” she ordered fiercely. “Open your goddamn mouth!”
A growl started low in his throat, and though his eyes wouldn’t open, his upper lip lifted, curled, and he bared his fangs.
“Bronwyn!” Mai screamed. “Get back!”
It was good, just enough to get the blood into his mouth and down his throat.
“He’ll kill ye, Bron, please! Think of the babe!”
“Get out! Now!” She couldn’t spare sympathy for Mai, not when she was fighting for the soul of her Luca, for the father of her balas.
She snatched up another vial, ripped off the top, and poured the red blood into his mouth. Fear ripped through her, but she pushed it away. It had to work. Had to. It was all she could do-all that was left.
She did it again and again, over and over, ripping the tops off the vials and pouring blood into his mouth, watching it go down his throat, watching as his nostrils flared and his back arched, staring, praying as he fought the chains, as he howled, as he snarled, spit, and writhed, and cursed his way back to life.
“That’s it, Luca,” Bron cried out. “That’s it. Come back to me, goddamn you!” She watched him struggle with the animal in him, praying the real paven, the true paven-her paven would win.
And then suddenly he stilled. The world too, so quiet inside the cabin, the room, she could hear only her breath.
Several moments passed where Bronwyn wasn’t sure what was happening, if she’d failed, if her theory had been no more than the foolish wishes of a veana in love. Had she truly lost him? Would her balas have no father? Her throat tightened, and her chest filled with dark, shattering pain.
Then, out of that debilitating darkness came light. It was as if the sun suddenly shifted from behind the clouds and the world brightened. Lucian’s eyes squeezed and fought, and finally, opened. He blinked, stared at the ceiling, as every second that ticked off his skin began to change from gray to sickly pale, to vampire white.
And then he turned his head, his eyes struggling to focus. “No! No!” he wailed, thrashing against his chains, but not as the Breeding Male. He was a paven now, angry, desperate. “No, damn it! I was nearly dead, gone, free, and now…the balas blood has brought me back to this miserable life-“
Bronwyn’s tears streaked down her face as she stared at him, at the miracle of him. It wasn’t possible and yet it was. “Lucy,” she whispered.
He blinked up at her. “What?”
“Our daughter. Her name is Lucy.”
“Oh God, Bronwyn,” he cried out, hoarse, yet so moved. “My beautiful princess. Why did you bring me back to life? To torture me with all I can never have?”
She was crying hard now, tears she’d held on to for months, when she didn’t have time to give them flight-when she had time only to believe and fight for her love. That single hope had kept her sane through her swell and through the most abject loneliness.
She crawled onto the bed, curled up beside him in the chains, her arms going around him.
“Oh God, my love,” he uttered. “It won’t last long, I know. I know, and yet I’m so thankful. I’m glad to know about her. My Lucy….Tell me about her. Talk to me of her for as long as I have left.” His voice broke. “Is her face like yours? Is her hair dark and lovely like yours?”
“She has my hair, Luca, but your eyes-your beautiful, soul-gripping eyes.”
Tears spilled from those eyes onto her shoulder. “I love you. I would have loved her too.”
“You will love her,” Bronwyn said with deep determination and feeling. “Forever, and ever.”
“The babe is gone from your belly.” He turned to her startled. “The blood-“
She lifted her head, gazed down at him with the love of centuries, an impossible, improbable love that would help them both through times of pain and suffering and questions ahead. “It is my blood, Luca.”
His brow creased.
“It was my blood. All along. This, what you have just consumed, was my blood. It wasn’t Lucy’s blood that sustained you before. I tested it-tested it with the blood of your father. Her blood changed nothing in his cells. Then I tried my blood-still nothing, but I couldn’t walk away from what happened here in this cottage. You were changed by my blood. It caused me to hope that perhaps you and I were different, that just as your blood sustained me mine might sustain you. And it did. Look at you. I don’t know how or why, but my blood was always meant for you.”
“No,” he whispered, his gaze moving over her face. “Only a true mate…I don’t understand. I cannot have a true mate.”
“And perhaps that’s not what we are,” she told him. “Perhaps we are something more, something unholy, something genetically wrong-and yet perfection.” She brought her wrist to her fangs and bit down. The sting from heaven. Felt so good, so right. “Take my vein, my love. Drink from my wrist, then from my neck, and soon-maybe in a few weeks’ time, when you are happy and whole again, you will take me.”
“My love,” he whispered almost desperately, almost hopefully. “My princess. My savior.”
Lucian’s fangs elongated as she brought her wrist up to meet him, to let her love, her life, her one and only captive feed. And when his fangs pierced her flesh and suckled, Bronwyn knew the sweetest and truest pain.