Dark Celebration (Dark #17)

by Christine Feehan

Chapter 1

Stars glittered across the night sky and the moon spilled light, illuminating the trees below and turning leaves a glistening silver. A female owl skimmed the canopy, dipped lower to speed through the labyrinth of trees before rising again just in time to avoid a thick branch. A second, larger owl chased her in a wide circle above the forest surrounding a clearing where a large two-story stone house sat. The female plummeted toward the steep roof, talons extended toward the chimney, pulled up at the last heart-stopping second to race away from the male, wings flapping noiselessly, the wind riffling iridescent feathers.

Raven! Mikhail Dubrinsky warned his lifemate sharply. That was far too close.

It was exhilarating.

Raven, you are going to get tired. There was a soft warning growl in Mikhail's voice, as if a wolf lurked inside the body of the owl.

Her laughter bubbled up, soft and warm in his mind as they telepathically communicated. I'm not a newbie anymore, Mikhail, and after all these years, I think I can handle flying. I love it. It's my favorite thing to do. Are you ever going to get over being overprotective?

I do not think it is overprotective to watch over the woman of my heart and soul. You always overdo it when you fly. And you risk much more than you should.

That may have been true, but Raven wasn't going to admit it. Once in the body of a bird, she wanted to stay that way for long periods of time. I feel so free.

From the moment of her conversion-human to Carpathian-the one thing that had intrigued and filled her with joy above all else in her new life was the ability to fly. She could soar high above earth and see miles of beautiful forest, cool lakes and a riot of wildflowers. Beauty always surrounded her when she took the form of an owl, making her forget, at least for a few moments, the absolute wonder-and responsibility-of being lifemate to the prince of the Carpathian people.

There was a small silence. Raven, do you not feel freedom when you are with me? I have never caged you, although at times I felt it would be the safest thing to do.

The female owl circled back toward the male to position herself just under his left wing. Of course not, silly. Don't you love flying? The wind lifting your body while the terrain below appears so magical?

There was that whisper of love in her voice-in her mind. Mikhail had come to depend on the steadiness-the absolute steadfastness of her love. It is so. If you ever are despairing of my nature, I would want you to let me know. I feel your sadness sometimes, my love, the ache in your heart.

Don't, Mikhail. It's not because of you. Or because of us. Like any woman who has found her true lifemate, I want children. I cant complain. We have our daughter, Savannah, so precious to both of us and much more than many other of our women are gifted with. If we never have another, I have been lucky enough to have one child as well as the only man who could ever make me happy. You and Savannah are enough for me.

Mikhail wished they were home, where he could pull her into his arms and kiss her soundly. He ached with love for her more than he cared to admit, and he could hear-and feel-the desire in her to hold a child in her arms. It was his greatest failure-not only in his duty to his lifemate, but also in his duty to his people. After hundreds of years, he still couldn't protect his people from their greatest threat-not vampires or the mage, not modern society, not even the lack of emotion in the males after two hundred years and the ever-present darkness creeping into their souls. He couldn't protect them from what he was beginning to believe might be the very extinction of their species.

Mikhail. Raven whispered his name in his mind. A soft sound of utter love and compassion. You will find the answers for our people. You've accomplished so much already by bringing such great minds together in an effort to solve this problem. And three babies have survived in the last few years. We kept Savannah. Francesca and Gabriel have Tamara, and now there is Corrine and Dayan's child, Jennifer. Three girls, my love. There is yet hope.

Mikhail was silent, wanting to roar his despair to the heavens. Three female children when so many of the men of his species were without hope. To survive, to maintain honor, they had no choice but to find the one woman who would complete their soul-bring light to their darkness. Without a woman, they had nothing but an endless, barren existence.

That's not so, Raven objected. Many have found their lifemates among my people.

A handful, Raven. Why cant I find the answer when I have such great minds working on the problem? We need women and children or our kind will cease to exist.

After the assassination attempt on his life, more than anything else, Mikhail feared their enemies would realize just how fragile the Carpathian race had become. With so many against them, it would only take one to realize where the true vulnerability of the Carpathian race lay-the absence of women and children. So far all the strikes had been directed against the men, but sooner or later their enemies would realize that to kill the species, they had only to kill the women and children.

The thought of Raven, his beloved lifemate, or his precious daughter, Savannah, as a target was almost more than he could bear-but it was inevitable. The enemy had joined together with the dark mage and had found a way to hide their presence, making them doubly dangerous. No longer could the Carpathians rely on their ability to read minds and sense a threat. They must be more vigilant than ever. Even now Mikhail scanned the forest below them warily, unable to relax completely.

Mikhail. You have closed your mind to mine.

He forced his thoughts back to their conversation. It was bad enough that he could not console his lifemate over losing a child, let alone stay on track with such an important topic. You have lived with us only fifty years and already you have suffered the loss of a child. Can you imagine the great sorrow in a hundred years-two hundred? Our women cannot suffer these losses without severe repercussions.

Shea believes she and Gary are much closer to finding the answers. Gabrielle is now helping as well, Raven reminded him. Gary was human and Gabrielle had been. Recently, to save her life, Gabrielle had undergone the conversion, but she had worked tirelessly even before the change to aid Shea in finding out why Carpathian women suffered so many miscarriages. With all the training Shea had as a human doctor and her natural abilities as a Carpathian healer, she is an amazing resource to our people. She has worked with Gabrielle, Gary and, of course, Gregori to find the answer as to why our women can no longer successfully carry children. The few babies born rarely survived the first year. Raven was grateful she had had a miscarriage and been spared the terrible grief of giving birth, holding her child for a year and then losing it. Shea has already discovered so much. She will unlock this mystery.

Mikhail believed Shea might be the one to perform such a miracle. She had already proved her tenacity and courage in bringing his brother Jacques back from the brink of insanity, but Mikhail also feared the answers would come too late for his people. Their enemies were banding together, closing in and striking often. Worse, it seemed their oldest and crudest enemy might still be alive. Xavier, the powerful dark mage, and his grandson, Razvan, were aiding the undead with ancient knowledge.

Raven broke away from him to fly with her usual abandon far too close to the canopy of trees. His heart nearly stopped, and it took tremendous discipline to keep from ordering her back to his side where she would be safe. He couldn't imprison her any more than any of the other Carpathian males could their lifemates, but the need and desire were there, beating at him with ruthless temptation.

Mikhail put on a burst of speed, catching up to the woman who completed his soul, his sharp eyes scanning the terrain below as they flew together. He could feel happiness radiating from her and it helped to ease the burdens in his heart.

You do know, my love, Raven called teasingly, that you have to play Santa Claus at the Christmas party for all the children.

Mikhail lost the image-that of an owl-in his mind for the first time in hundreds of years. His body plummeted thirty feet, nearly hitting the top of a tree before he recovered from his shock. Even within the owl's body, he shuddered. You may rid yourself of that notion at once.

Raven spiraled down toward their home, her body graceful in flight, landing on two feet on the walkway leading to their porch as she shifted into her natural form. Mikhail followed her, shifting as he landed directly in front of her, halting her escape. The lines and planes of his face hardened into a fierce look meant to intimidate. This conversation is not over. He couldn't prevent the horrified reaction running through his body. "There are things you should never ask a man to do."

Raven rolled her eyes. "The children will be expecting St. Nick to make an appearance. This is our first big Christmas party, the first real one, and the women have agreed to cook, so the men have to do their part. You have to do it, Mikhail."

"I do not think so," he replied. His expression could daunt the most dangerous of vampires or vampire hunters, but certainly did not seem to have the desired effect on his lifemate.

Raven merely huffed out her breath at him, exasperated. "Don't be such a baby. Human men do it all the time with absolutely no fear."

"I am not afraid."

Her eyebrow shot up, the one that always intrigued him, but this time she looked suspiciously as if she might be laughing at him. "Oh, yes, you are. You look terrified-and pale."

"I'm pale because I've expended energy flying without first taking sustenance. I am the prince of the Carpathian people, not Santa Claus."

"That's not an excuse. As the leader of our people, it is your duty to play the part of St. Nick. It's tradition."

"Not Carpathian tradition. It is not dignified, Raven." Mikhail swept his black hair to the nape of his neck and secured it with a thin strip of leather. His black eyes glittered at her, making every attempt to intimidate her into submission.

She burst out laughing, completely unsympathetic and certainly not scared. "Tough luck, hotshot. It's your job. Carpathian tradition or not, you promised me we'd have a big Christmas party for everyone. Our people have come from the United States, South America and several other countries to participate in our celebration. We cannot possibly disappoint them."

"It will not be disappointing to do this ridiculous thing?"

Her laughter deepened into a rich, appealing sound that played down his spine and made his stomach do a funny little flip. Only Raven could do that to him. Only Raven could make him want to do anything on Earth to please her.

"Trust me, Mikhail, the entire Carpathian race will be disappointed if they do not see you playing the role of Santa Claus." She stroked his face with her fingertips. "A nice white beard." Her hand ran down his chest to his hard, flat stomach. "A nice round belly..."

"You aren't at all amusing." But she was, and it was taking everything he had not to smile at her.

"You promised me you would do everything to make our first Christmas gathering a success."

"I was not thinking at the time. You were distracting me," he grumbled.

"Was I?" Raven asked, blinking innocently. "I can't remember."

Mikhail wrapped his arms around Raven and pulled her into his body. Nibbling on her neck, he tasted her pulse, felt her answering excitement and knew it would always be this way between them. Raven. He thought he couldn't love her more, yet each day the emotion grew stronger until he felt he was bursting with it. Sometimes, when she wasn't looking, he could feel blood red tears welling up in his eyes. Who would believe the powerful prince of the Carpathian people would be so enamored of a woman.

He had been born with the ritual words of binding imprinted on his brain as had every other male of his kind. It had been a shock to discover not only that a human woman could become his lifemate, but that she could be successfully turned to his species. More than the complete amazement of all of that was the overwhelming love and hunger he felt for her, that it grew stronger with every moment they shared together. Looking at her could steal the breath from his body.