Angel held baby Marco close. The weight of his sleeping, warm little body was a comfort to her. The cool breeze sweeping in from the ocean and the soft crashing of the waves upon the shore were a lullaby to his ears. She learned soon after their arrival that nothing soothed and lulled him into a deep slumber like the sound of the ocean.
From her place by the shore, she could see the old-world palace perched on the headland, high above the surf. The narrow trail leading up to it was white under the light of a brilliant crescent moon. The windows and doors of the cliff house were wide open, and the soft glow of firelight was warm and inviting.
They had arrived, she, Max, and the children, four nights earlier. Angel expected dark dungeons, clanking chains, and dour old housekeepers. She’d been thrilled to find the place beautiful and the welcome warm and gracious. Her young daughter, Nina, was immediately drawn to the ocean.
At Angel’s side, she skipped in joyous wonder, picking up seashells and running after a receding wave only to be chased back giggling and screeching by the next one.
“Nina, be careful. The next wave may be bigger and faster. You’ll go tumbling head over heels, and I won’t be able to catch you.”
“I won’t,” answered the little imp. “I’m too fast.” To prove her point, she did a cartwheel away from the lapping water and then hopped to the dry edge, cackling with laughter. “I’m practicing to do three cartwheels, and no one will catch me then.”
She smiled at her precocious daughter’s antics. The child’s new confidence could be laid at one vampire’s door, and she was going to have a talk with him about it. Maxim needed to understand that Nina was human, and certain physical limitations went along with that state.
Beyond the shadows ahead, something moved. Angel went still, her senses warning her. “Nina, come. Be quiet.” The girl, too smart, her survival instincts sharpened by experiences no six-year-old child should have, immediately went silent and reached for her mother.
“What is it?” she whispered. “Are bad guys here?” She clung to her mother’s skirt.
The young mother felt a sudden pang of guilt. Her beautiful daughter was afraid, and Angel was at fault. She needed to be a stronger mother. She needed to stop jumping at every little noise, every snap of a branch, every scutter of a mouse. She needed to keep her children from the fears that would shackle them with invisible chains for the rest of their lives.
Just as she was about to reassure Nina, the hairs at the back of her neck prickled. She turned quickly around to face the danger, almost tumbling to the sand.
“Careful there,” the startlingly handsome stranger warned, reaching out to steady her. “You do not want to drop the babe.” He spoke in the refined, old-fashioned, accented English that she’d first heard from Maxim. All the vamps seemed to speak that way. She’d not heard a contraction in days.
Angel held the baby tighter to her breast and instinctively pulled Nina closer to her. She looked up into the man’s smiling face and felt a frisson of unease travel over her body. Her senses screamed, “Danger, danger, danger!” Will Robinson would have been running for his life.
His smile widened. He knew she was afraid. Her fear pleased him. Having had enough of men who wanted to instill fear in her, she pulled herself up tall and proud, assuming her most haughty demeanor, her “bitch” look.
“Are you in the habit of waylaying lone women and children in the dark? Surely, a real male doesn’t need such antics to feel like a man.”
“Forgive me,” he answered, as his gaze roamed over her body. “It is not my intent to cause you fear. I am strolling along the shore, admiring the beauty of the night, same as you. Coincidence brought our paths to cross. I assure you; you have no reason to fear me. At least, not tonight.” The word tonight seemed to be an afterthought. “Besides, we both know I am not a man.”
Angel saw it immediately: the family resemblance. It was in the cut of the jaw, the thin, long nose, the set of the mouth, the arrogant tilt of the head. Here was a Denisov for sure. True to the blood, he was another gorgeous man but not in the same way as Maxim.
Where Maxim was tall and muscular, this one was tall and lithe. Where Max was terse and thundering, this one was smooth and elegant. Under starlight and moonlight, she could not tell the color of his eyes. His shoulder-length hair was very dark, straight, swept back to give him an aristocratic, polished look. He wore a perfectly fitted, dark, tailored suit.
“Aren’t you a tad over dressed for a night’s stroll on the beach? You look more like a man on a mission, Mr. Denisov.” She was taking a chance on the name. In truth, she had only an idea of who he was.
Without missing a beat, the handsome man threw his head back and laughed. “Oh, my, so refreshingly perceptive and forward you are! My earlier endeavor was far less casual than a stroll along the moonlit shore, which explains my formal attire.” His gaze swept over the woman again, appraisingly, finding its way to the little girl behind her.
“And who might you be, little beauty?” he asked the child, bending down to draw the girl’s attention.
“My name is Nina. Are you a bad guy?”
“A bad guy?” he repeated, a slight touch of surprise showing in his twinkling eyes. He laughed again. “Some people might call me a bad guy, but I would have to strongly disagree. I think I am a very nice guy, smart, generous, and definitely handsome. Do you not agree, little one?” He winked at Nina and smiled openly, his fangs showing bright and sharp in the moonlight.
Nina smiled back innocently, but her hand went to the chord tied around her neck. She fingered the pendant hanging from it, a golden little tube the size of her pinky. She began fiddling with it playfully as she gazed at the handsome man.
“What is it you are holding, love?” he asked, eyeing her trinket with interest.
“My good-luck charm. Maxim gave it to me. He’s my daddy.”
“Ah, Maxim,” the stranger repeated, standing up. “Maxim’s human family strolls along the shore on a cool, desolate night, alone, unprotected. He should be more careful with you,” he murmured in a low, conspiratorial tone. “There are predators about, you know.”
He gazed at Angel now, his face no longer friendly but sharp and cunning. In the dark beyond, other shadows moved, and she knew his men were around him. There would be no running or escaping from them.
Unexpectedly, the man made a cringing gesture and brought his hands to his ears as if to block some annoying, painful sound. “What on earth is that?” he asked, shaking his head to throw off the offending sound.
“It’s my good-luck charm,” answered Nina. “It’s a whistle. Dogs can hear it and so can Max.” The child looked at him with clear, intelligent, unafraid eyes.
He looked doubtful for an instant, then surprised, as the child’s duplicity and resourcefulness dawned on him. With blinding speed, the handsome stranger took off, his shadows following him. Seconds later, Maxim stood in front of Angel, his loyal cousins behind him.