Skyler Daratrazanoff pulled the long black shawl closer, making certain her hair was covered and there was little to see of her face. Her heart beat so hard she was afraid anyone close would hear. Everything hinged on making the official believe her. Josef had forged the papers, and he was the best. He could hack any computer, provide information or get it. She didn’t doubt for a minute that the papers he created would be in order and pass close scrutiny, but she still had to make the official believe her.
The tin building was rusted and looked as if it might fall apart at any moment. A man came forward to meet her, looking solemn as the casket was wheeled ahead of her into the shade of the building. Fortunately the sun was setting and shadows fell around her, helping to make it more difficult to see her clearly.
“Your papers?” he said. His voice was kind. The name on his badge identified him as Erno Varga.
She glanced back toward the small plane she’d flown to the airport and then handed her papers to the official, making certain her eyes were downcast and she looked weepy. She had taken care to use drops to make her eyes red and watery, just in case she couldn’t pull off acting on her own.
Varga looked over her papers and then up at her several times with sharp, disbelieving eyes. “You’re young to be bringing home your brother’s body alone. No one else is traveling with you?”
She shook her head, trying to look more tragic than ever. “My father is dead, and now my brother.” She choked back a sob worthy, she was certain, of an Oscar performance. “There is no one else to bring him home to our mother.”
The official looked at her again and studied her papers closer. “He died of a broken heart?” There was skepticism in his voice.
Skyler nearly choked. When I get my hands on you, Josef, you’re going to die of more than a broken heart. She used her telepathic connection with Josef to let him know he was in huge trouble.
A terrible tragedy. Josef was unrepentant as always. There was amusement in his tone. No matter how serious a situation, he didn’t mind in the least being mischievous.
She managed to keep a straight face and gave Varga a solemn nod. “He just wasted away when his girl left him. He refused to eat.” She had no choice but to go with it, even if it meant twisting her fingers together hard in order to prevent the official from seeing she was shaking. “It’s a terrible tragedy. Nothing could save him.”
Okay, even to her ears, that sounded totally lame. But a broken heart? Only Josef would come up with something so dramatic and unbelievable. How else could she explain he’d died of a broken heart? There was definitely going to be another cause of death after they opened the casket.
She could feel Josef’s laughter. Of course you’re laughing. You’re safe in the coffin, the tragically dead brother, while I’m lying my ass off to this man who could put me in prison for the rest of my life.
She knew Josef would never let that happen. If necessary he’d give the official a “push” to believe her. Right now, he was having too much fun listening to her squirm—and she supposed she deserved it. She was making him do something highly dangerous, and he would be blamed more than she would be if anything went wrong. Her father would probably just kill him on sight.
He will, too, Josef said. He’ll rip me from limb to limb.
You should be worrying about me ripping you from limb to limb, she threatened.
“How old are you?” The official stared at her passport and papers and then back up to her face. “Did you pilot that plane?”
She lifted her chin, trying for older and much sterner. She knew she looked young, but not her eyes. If he looked her directly in the eye, he would believe what those forged papers said. And they were great forgeries. Josef had many talents, although making up stories was clearly not one of them.
“I’m much older than I look,” Skyler replied. It was partially the truth. She felt older, and that should count for something. She’d been through more than most women—okay, teens.
“Twenty-five?” he said skeptically.
Josef had insisted she be twenty-five if she was going to pilot the plane. Piloting planes had come easy to her and it was something she especially loved, so her adopted father, Gabriel, had allowed her to learn.
“I have to open the coffin,” the official added, watching her closely.
Skyler managed a little sob and covered her mouth, nodding slightly. “I’m sorry. Yes, of course. They said you would. I was expecting you to.” She straightened her shoulders and spine courageously.
He looked at her much more kindly. “You don’t need to watch. Stand over there.” He nodded to a corner of the building just a few feet away.
She felt a little sorry for him. If she knew anything at all about Josef, she knew he would put on some kind of show.
Don’t you dare blow this by scaring him, she warned. I mean it, Josef.
You’re no fun. I can always remove his memories. Wouldn’t it be so delicious to do an impression of Count Dracula? I’ve watched the movie a million times. I’ve got the look and accent down perfectly.
He sounded far too eager. It took a lot of discipline to keep amusement from her mind where he could read it. She didn’t doubt for a moment that Josef could do a perfect Dracula impression.
Resist the urge. We aren’t out of the woods and we can’t afford to take any chances. We’re in Carpathian territory. Or at least close enough that someone might be near us to sense the use of energy. Restrain yourself, Josef.
He heaved a sigh. No matter what the outcome, your father is going to kill me, a slow and painful death, too. I should be able to have a little fun.
That was hitting very close to the truth. Gabriel was going to murder all of them, but if their plan worked, it would be well worth it.
She gave Varga a small, grateful smile and moved away from the coffin. Standing in the open door, her arms wrapped around her middle for comfort, she stared outside into the gathering darkness, holding herself very still. Their plan had to work.
Behave Josef, or else. Gabriel’s in London and I’m here. She had never been on the receiving end of Gabriel’s wrath, but he and her uncle Lucian were legendary vampire hunters. The Carpathian people, most extremely powerful, whispered their names in awe.
You’ve got a point. Laughter bubbled over in Josef’s voice. What a sorry waste of a good coffin. Now there was disgust in his tone.
Skyler couldn’t tell if he was going to behave or not. It was impossible with Josef. He marched to his own drum. She sent up a silent prayer, hoping for the best.
Right now, Francesca and Gabriel were probably awake and would soon be preparing to fly to the Carpathian Mountains. They thought she was a continent away, safe with her human college friend Maria, using her vacation to help build homes and run irrigation to farmers in South America. She had never lied to them before. Not once. And it hurt her to do it now, but there was no other way.
She knew her parents had been summoned to the huge meeting between Lycan and Carpathian to discuss an alliance between the two species. Most of the Carpathians had been called home. Gabriel and Francesca had been more than happy to receive a call from her from school asking to go with Maria. They didn’t want her anywhere near the Carpathian Mountains.
She would never think of repaying their extraordinary kindness, the love they had given her from the moment she’d been taken into their home, with lies and betrayal—not for anything or anyone except Dimitri. Dimitri Tirunul was her unexpected miracle. A man beyond any she’d ever dreamt of. She was human. He was Carpathian—nearly immortal. She was nineteen years old. He was an ancient, centuries old. She held the other half of his soul, the light to his darkness. Without her, he would not survive. She was his lifemate—his savior. Yet she knew just the opposite was true—Dimitri was the one saving her.
He knew she was his lifemate when she was just a child, and he had given her time. Space. Unconditional love. He never demanded anything of her. He never told her how difficult it was for him—that she was his salvation—just out of his reach. He had always been there for her, in the middle of the night, when her violent past was too close and she couldn’t sleep, when nightmares haunted her to the point she couldn’t breathe. He was there, in her mind, holding all those terrifying memories at bay. Dimitri. Her Dimitri.
Dimitri was caught in the middle between the two species. The Lycans had taken him and planned to kill him. No one had gone after him to save him. He had spent centuries hunting the undead to keep his people as well as humans safe. He had survived honorably when others had chosen to give up their souls. Yet there was no rescue party. No hunters were rushing to save him. He was badly injured. She felt that much before he cut himself off from her to protect her from his pain—or his death.
Dimitri was stoic about life or death. He was a Carpathian hunter and he’d been around for centuries, protecting innocents from vampires. Her lineage was complicated, but for all intents and purposes, she was human. The Lycans would never expect a teenage, human girl to mount a rescue operation for a Carpathian. She had the element of surprise on her side. That, as well as good, trustworthy friends and her very powerful but untested abilities.