The smell of fresh coffee and the sound of birds chirping seeped through the darkness, pulling Annabelle from the longest sleep of her life. Her eyes fluttered open, and she immediately squinted against the bright, invasive sunlight that streamed through the bank of windows to the right of the bed. She was completely disoriented, and for just a moment, Annabelle thought she was back in California at the Caedo house. She tried to push herself to a sitting position, but pain seared across her chest, and the incident with Silvio came roaring back into focus.
“Good to see you back in the land of the living.” A lovely woman with a wide smile and dark hair swept back into a ponytail stepped in front of the window and pulled the sheer curtains closed. Dressed in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, she came over and helped Annabelle to a sitting position. “Sorry about the sun glare.”
“Zachary?” His name escaped her lips on a hoarse whisper. Her throat felt like sandpaper, and her entire body ached. Annabelle leaned into the mountain of pillows the woman fluffed for her. Her hand went to the bandage on her chest, and tears stung her eyes. “Is he—?”
“He’s fine, if a little ornery. I’m Tatiana, by the way.” She poured a glass of water from the white pitcher on the nightstand and handed the glass to Annabelle. “He’s downstairs and has just about worn a hole in the floor from pacing around, waiting for you to wake up. I finally kicked him out a little while ago. How are you feeling?”
“Like I got shot.” Annabelle let out a small laugh and winced when a sharp pain shimmied down her left side. She sipped the cool water and closed her eyes as the refreshing liquid coated her parched mouth. “I thought I was a dead woman.”
“You would have been, if Zach hadn’t gotten you here when he did.” Tatiana pointed at the bandage that peeked out beneath the edge of the white nightgown Annabelle was wearing. “May I?”
Annabelle sat back and allowed Tatiana to inspect the wound. Grasping the glass tightly, she closed her eyes. Tuning in to her gift, Annabelle pushed through the veil and sought out memories of Tatiana’s past.
Tatiana shifting into a wolf and running alongside a tiger. Gunshots. A fire. Flashes of Tatiana in a pool. Naked. With a man who had a scar running down the side of his face. Joy. Peace. Home.
Annabelle shuddered and pulled her mind from the vision. When she opened her eyes, she found Tatiana staring at her with a knowing grin. Annabelle’s cheeks heated, and she looked down at the glass in her hands, feeling awkward for having glimpsed such a personal moment. She pushed that aside, because the overall feeling she garnered from the vision was comforting. Tatiana was a good woman with a kind heart, and Annabelle knew she was safe with her.
“To answer the question that is likely lingering in that pretty little head…yes.” Tatiana patted Annabelle’s leg and smiled. “I’m Amoveo. Well, I’m a hybrid—half Wolf Clan and half human. You might be one hundred percent human, but based on how you just spaced out, I’m betting you had one of those visions Zachary told us about.”
“Are you a doctor?” She looked past Tatiana and avoided her implied question, feeling embarrassed for peeking into her life like that. Annabelle glanced out the window at the gorgeous scenery. Based on the rolling green fields with horses grazing in the distance, and the mountains looming behind them, they must be at the ranch in Montana. “Is this the prince’s ranch?”
“Yup. You, my little Caedo friend, are at the Muldavi ranch. The Muldavis are the royal family, but several of us live here now.” She leaned closer and dropped her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “It’s kind of like a compound, but don’t tell Dominic I said that.”
“Is he the one with the scar?” Annabelle looked at Tatiana above the rim of her glass while taking another sip of water. “From my vision. He’s Tiger Clan?”
“I knew it.” Tatiana pointed at her and laughed. “Yes. That’s Dominic, my mate.”
“Why are you being so nice to me?” she asked with more than a little trepidation. “I’m a Caedo. Why would you help me?”
“You’re hurt, and I’m a healer. It’s what I do. But even if I weren’t…you’re Zachary’s mate, which means you’re family. Caedo or not.” Tatiana’s expression shifted to one of pure sympathy, and she gave Annabelle’s leg a reassuring pat through the blankets. “You are more than your name.”
Annabelle sniffled. “He hates me.”
“Oh please.” Tatiana rolled her eyes. “He’ll get over it. Dominic and I did nothing but fight when we first met. I’ll let you in on a little secret. Amoveo men are bossy, domineering, and they hate being wrong.”
“Yeah.” Annabelle laughed. “I kind of figured that part out.”
“Well, they are also fiercely loyal and devoted to the people they care about.” She blushed and looked out the window for a second. “I didn’t want a mate, you know. I was dead set against it and fought the issue tooth and nail.”
“What happened?” Annabelle shifted her position and hung on Tatiana’s every word. She needed all the help she could get. “How did you get past it?”
“I fell in love with him.” She rolled her eyes again and chuckled. “It sounds so corny, but it’s true. I don’t know…maybe you can’t fight fate? All I know is that the mate bond is intense, hot, sexy, and can be all-consuming at times. We may not have a choice in our destiny to be brought together, that part I understood right off the bat. The part that took me a while to understand is that we do have a choice after that. Fate brought you together, Annabelle, but you and Zachary will choose whether or not to stay together.”
“I’m such an idiot,” she murmured. “I feel like such a fool for not taking control of the situation sooner. I should have told him the truth.”
“Yeah, well, the hot sex has a way of fogging our brains and making all of us act like idiots.”
The two women giggled, and the silly exchange made Annabelle feel normal for the first time in years…normal and safe. She’d never felt this comfortable with another person so quickly—other than Zachary.
“Anyway, I’m a veterinarian by trade, but after I hooked up with Dominic, my powers got stronger. I’ve learned how to speed along the healing process in both people and animals.” Tatiana folded her hands in her lap and a look of empathy covered her face. “You were in pretty bad shape when Zach brought you here, and you’d lost a lot of blood…”
Annabelle’s sixth sense went into overdrive. Tatiana oozed with hesitation. There was more she wanted to say, and yet she seemed unwilling to spit it out.
“Tell her the truth, Tatiana,” Zachary’s voice cut in from the left, and Annabelle’s heart nearly stopped from the deep, sexy sound of it. She’d never been happier to see anyone in her life, and at the same time so totally and completely terrified. He must hate her. “I want Annabelle to know everything. No secrets.” His dark eyes flicked to hers, and his stubble-covered jaw clenched. “We’ve had enough of those, haven’t we?”
Standing in the open doorway, Zachary looked more predatory than ever. Gone were the shorts and T-shirt and the beach bum look. Dressed in black fatigues, a black T-shirt that molded perfectly to his well-sculpted torso, combat boots, and a belt with a gun and at least one dagger that she could see, he looked every bit the soldier and Guardian he’d told her about. He was dangerous, sexy, feral, and still really pissed.
“What’s he talking about?” Annabelle gripped the glass tighter and turned to Tatiana. “Is there something you’re not telling me?”
“Zach, I don’t know if now is the time.” Tatiana rose to her feet and walked around to the end of the bed where Zach now stood. Hands at his sides, he stared Annabelle down with an unreadable expression. “She almost died. Don’t be a dick.”
“No. It’s okay, Tatiana.” Annabelle placed the glass on the nightstand and pulled the covers over her breasts. Zach’s lips tilted at the modest gesture. “Please, just tell me.”
“Shit.” Tatiana let out a sound of frustration. “Listen, if we didn’t do what we did, you wouldn’t be alive, let alone practically healed by now. That wound will be pain-free and no more than a scar by tonight.” Tatiana folded her arms over her breasts and let out a long breath before turning to face Annabelle. “The only way to save you was to use vampire blood.”
“What are you talking about?” Annabelle’s body shivered with cold, and she gaped at the two of them. “Vampire blood?”
“You’re not gonna turn into a vamp or anything,” Tatiana added quickly. “Marianna’s mate, Pete Castro, is a vampire, and their blood has intense healing properties.”
“There really are vampires?” Annabelle’s stomach churned, and for a second, she thought she was going to throw up. “I—I drank blood?”
“No.” Zachary’s mouth was set in a tight line. “We keep a few pints of Pete’s blood on hand for emergencies such as this. You got it through an IV. Basically, it was a blood transfusion. Pete said there may be some side effects, from either his demon heritage or vamp blood, but he doesn’t know what they’ll be.”
“Demon?” Annabelle swallowed hard and tried to stay focused. “I really might puke.”
“You big jerk!” Tatiana punched Zachary on the arm and shot him a furious look. “You just had to throw that last part in there, didn’t you?” She turned to Annabelle, and her tone immediately shifted to one of concern. “Look, you have a lot of catching up to do, and to be honest, so do we. You’re Caedo, and by some bizarre twist of fate, you are mated to a pure-blood Amoveo. Having you here on the ranch with us is going to take some getting used to for everyone.”
“She’s not staying here,” Zachary said definitively.
“She’s not staying.” Zach kept his intense stare on Annabelle, and her heart squeezed in her chest. “End of discussion.”
“This is crazy.” Tatiana put her hands on her hips and got in Zach’s face. “This girl isn’t going anywhere right now. So you put your macho Amoveo bullshit on hold for a little while. She’s my patient, Zachary.”
“She’s my mate.” Zach flicked his burning gaze to Tatiana briefly and then back to Annabelle, whose entire body hummed with awareness. The tone of his voice and the look in his eyes were clear. He was claiming her, marking her as his so there was no doubt that Annabelle belonged to him. “She can’t stay here, Tati. No one will trust her. As it is, Dominic and William haven’t moved from standing guard outside the cabin since we got here. Annabelle is a member of the Caedo family, and even if the others do learn to trust her, we can’t be sure her people won’t come looking for her eventually.”
“Have you spoken to Richard about this? I’m sure the prince will have a thing or two to say.”
“Yes.” He leveled a serious look in Annabelle’s direction. “Your father is supposed to tell the other Caedo that I killed you and Silvio before he killed me, but as we all know, the Caedo can’t be trusted.” He straightened his back, and the look on his face broke Annabelle’s heart because her worst fear was coming true. Mate or not—he didn’t want anything to do with her. “She’ll be well enough to travel by tomorrow.”
“What a shit storm,” Tatiana muttered under her breath.
Silence hung in the air between the three of them for several minutes. Annabelle had so many emotions firing through her, she didn’t know where to start to identify what they were. Why had he even bothered saving her life?
“Alright, you two obviously need to talk, and I need some coffee.” Tati gave Annabelle a warm smile and leaned on the foot of the bed with both hands. “If you need me, I’ll be downstairs. I know you can’t telepath with me, but my hearing is awesome, so just give a shout and I’ll be here. Don’t be a dick, Zachary.” Tati shot him a withering look and pointed at him from the open doorway. “I mean it. If you upset my patient, your ass is grass.”
The door closed behind her with a click that resonated loudly through the silence of the room, and Annabelle quietly waited for Zachary to say something. He didn’t. He simply stood at the end of the bed with his arms folded over his chest, staring at Annabelle through glowing amber eyes.
“I thought your eyes only shifted when you got turned on.”
“Or when I’m pissed.” His jaw clenched, and his voice was more like a growl. “Like right now, for example. I’m so fucking angry with you, Annabelle. Why didn’t you tell me who you really were? If you had been honest with me, then those assholes wouldn’t have had a chance to get to you. I could at least have been prepared instead of fucking ambushed.”
Annabelle met his challenging stare. “When you found me out there on the street, I figured out who and what you were right away. I was afraid to tell you that I was Caedo. Can you blame me? I know how much the Amoveo hate my family.”
“They’re killers,” he spat. “That sack of shit, Silvio, was behind the last attack on our people.”
“You took care of that, though, didn’t you?” she said quietly. “Looks like the Caedo aren’t the only ones capable of killing.”
“I was defending you.” His eyes glowed brightly, and he dropped his hands to his sides. “He was going to kill me, and who knows what the son of a bitch would have done to you when he got you back home. And I didn’t eliminate your father, even though I wanted nothing more than to eviscerate him for what he put you through.” His tone grew gentler, and his stance relaxed ever so slightly. “I knew killing him would only hurt you.”
“I know. You’ve been nothing but kind to me from the moment we met.” Her voice quavered, and tears stung her eyes as she let loose all of her pent-up fears. “Everything happened so fast. At first I was afraid of what you’d do to me when you found out I was Caedo. And then…after everything that happened between us. How could I possibly tell you? I was worried you’d hate me, and terrified of seeing that look in your eye—the one you have right now. You hate me, and I don’t suppose I can blame you, because you think I betrayed you.”
“Let me finish, and then you can say whatever you want.”
“Fine.” He raised his hands in defeat and waited for her to continue.
“I was going to leave when the money came through. I knew that if I stayed with you, Silvio would come looking for me and find you. I didn’t want to risk your life or your safety by staying with you. Don’t you understand?” she pleaded.
“You were going to leave?” His tone was barely audible; the sound of it tugged at her heart. He snapped his fingers. “Just like that?”
“It would have been for the best.” Annabelle looked away from him and the hurt look on his face. Her hand went to her wrist in search of the comforting links of silver, but her fingers searched in vain. It was gone. “My bracelet…”
Panic welled as she lifted the blankets and frantically searched the bedclothes for any sign of her beloved bracelet. Tears fell freely, and as she turned to look on the nightstand, Annabelle came face-to-face with the dangling bit of silver. Zachary stood by the bedside, with the precious piece of jewelry hanging from his hand. She laughed through her tears and captured it between her fingers.
“I took it off when they started working on you in the surgical suite.” His expression and voice had softened. “I know how much it means to you, and I didn’t want it to get lost in the shuffle.”
“Thank you.” Annabelle swiped at her teary eyes and let out a sigh of relief when the cool silver hit her skin. She settled the bracelet against her wrist, and her shoulders shuddered when she let out a long, slow breath. She turned her attention back to Zachary and found his gaze had shifted back to the warm hazel eyes she so adored. The look of anger was gone and had been replaced by something that looked a lot like love. “I was wrong and didn’t handle the situation very well. I should have told you who I was. I should have trusted you, and I understand that you have to send me away. But I want you to know that I do love you, Zachary. No matter where I go, or what happens, I will always love you.”
He said nothing but towered over her with an unreadable expression. His face was all sharp angles, and his body was wound tight with restraint. He reminded her of a lion ready to pounce on its prey. Zachary swore under his breath before turning around and stalking to the bank of windows. Hands on his hips, back straight, he stared out over the lush Montana landscape, and all Annabelle wanted to do was go to him, wrap her arms around his waist, and bury her face against him so she could breathe him in.
“I know you must hate me.” She pushed the covers back, and careful of her injury, she swung her legs over the side of the bed. To her surprise, the pain was already less than it had been just a few minutes ago. She braced both hands on the edge of the mattress in an attempt to anchor herself there so she didn’t embarrass herself and run to him like the pathetic fool she was. “I don’t know why you even bothered to save me.”
“Damn it, Annabelle.” Zachary leaned both hands on the windowsill, and the muscles of his back stretched the fabric of the T-shirt to its limit. “I don’t know whether I’m coming or going with you. You infuriate me one minute and make me love you the next.”
“You love me?” Annabelle stilled, not quite certain she’d heard him correctly and at the same time praying she had. She tried to keep her breathing steady, despite the sudden rush of adrenaline mixed with confusion battering her. Rising to her feet, she inched tentatively closer to him. “I—I thought you wanted me to leave?”
“You are leaving.” Zach pushed himself away from the window and turned slowly to face her. “And I’m going with you.”
“I don’t understand.” Annabelle was looking at him with absolute confusion, and her big green eyes, wide with wonder, searched his for answers. “This is your home.”
He closed the space between them, giving in to the pull of desire and the need to be near her that had haunted him from their first encounter in the dream realm. The heat of her body wafted over him, calling him closer, and when his fingertips trailed along her arms, the whisper of flesh against flesh ripped through him like a lightning bolt. His lips tilted at the dichotomy of it all. It would never cease to amaze him how such a tiny gesture could have such a significant impact, and that pretty much summed up his relationship with Annabelle.
Push and pull. Ebb and flow. Give and take.
“Not anymore. It’s not my home anymore.” Zachary curled his hands around her biceps and gathered her soft womanly body against his. His thumbs rasped over her velvet-smooth skin, and he fought to keep the beast at bay. The animal inside him roared and writhed to break free and claim her in every possible way, to love her without measure or restraint.
A low growl rumbled in his throat, and his eyes shifted. “You can’t stay here—we can’t stay here. My home is with you, Annabelle, and I meant what I said. I was furious with you for lying to me, but when I saw you covered in blood—” He clenched his teeth and wrestled with the beast, the one fueled by fury and revenge, awake and riled up from seeing her in harm’s way. Sucking in a deep breath, he closed his eyes and rested his forehead against hers, allowing their energy signatures to mix and mingle in the air around them. Her touch, her scent, the feel of her curvy form against his, all of it calmed the savage beast. “I thought I’d lost you.”
“So you don’t hate me?” Annabelle’s fingers curled against his chest and grabbed his T-shirt, pulling him closer still. Her flowery feminine scent filled his head and stirred his never-ending desire for her. A smile curved her lips as she peered up at him beneath a fan of dark lashes. “When did you figure this out?”
“When I spent an hour worried you were going to die.” He cradled her face in one hand and rasped his thumb over her cheek, while the other hand slid around her waist. “Funny how death has a way of putting life in perspective—and love. I don’t care who your family is, because I know who you are. Make no mistake about it. I have fallen in love with you, Annabelle Marie Caedo, and I want to spend the rest of my life trying to figure you out.”
“I love you too,” she whispered. Annabelle linked her arms around his neck and pulled him to her, kissing him deeply. She nibbled his lower lip before breaking the kiss. “I swear to God I’ll never keep anything from you again.”
“Good.” He dipped low to kiss her again but lifted his head abruptly, which elicited a frustrated growl from his mate. “However, I do have one request.”
“Anything.” She hugged him tighter and let her head fall back, making her hair spill down in tempting tendrils. “Then you better start kissing me again, because Tatiana was right about the healing thing. It hardly even hurts anymore, and I know exactly what will make me feel better.”
“Marry me and take my name. You may not be Amoveo, but you’ll be mated and married to one.” He palmed her ass and pressed her hips against the hard evidence of his desire. “It’s you and me, baby. Caedo and Amoveo. Lovers and fighters. Anywhere and everywhere. Forever.”
“Sounds good to me.” She tried to kiss him again, and once more he stopped her, keeping his lips from hers. “Are you trying to torture me?”
“No.” He laughed and narrowed his eyes. “Well, maybe a little.” Annabelle shot him a look that only made him laugh harder. Zachary took her hands in his and held them between their bodies as he whispered words in the ancient language. A flurry of static surrounded them before he released her hands. “I’m yours, Annabelle, and I plan on torturing you for the rest of your life.”
A quizzical look drifted over her face as she uncurled her fingers. Lying in the palm of her hand was the heart-shaped shell he’d given her that first morning at the house. A smile bloomed, and she wrapped her fingers around it once again before peering up at him with those gorgeous green eyes.
“It doesn’t seem fair.” She arched one eyebrow at him. “You gave me a gift, but I don’t have anything for you.”
“Sure you do.” Zachary waggled his eyebrows. His lips slanted over hers and swallowed her laughter. “Like I said,” he murmured against her mouth. “It’s you and me, baby.”
“Forever,” he growled. He swept her into his arms. “Push and pull, baby. Push and pull.”
Tomorrow they would leave the ranch and everything he’d ever known. Zachary loved his people, but he knew they must leave. It was the safest, best option for all of them. He and Annabelle would embark on their life together, toward adventure, into the unknown. Zachary didn’t know what the future held for either of them. He had no idea how long he’d have his powers or what kind of effect Pete’s blood was going to have on Annabelle.
However, as he carried Annabelle to the bed and tasted her sweet lips, there were three things he was sure of.
One: he was undeniably and irrevocably in love with Annabelle Caedo.
Two: there would never be any other woman for him for the rest of his existence.
Three: he wouldn’t have it any other way.