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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.
Skyler had faith in herself. She knew her every strength and every weakness. Like Josef, she was extremely intelligent and most of the time underestimated. She believed the Lycans would underestimate her—she was counting on it.
No one would start a war over a Carpathian hunter it seemed, but she knew her father would come after her, and if anyone harmed one hair on her head, the Lycan world would be in for a nightmare it couldn't possibly conceive. Not only would Gabriel come after her, but so would her uncle Lucian. She was fairly certain her biological father, Razvan, and his lifemate, Ivory, would join the hunt for her. They were extremely lethal as well. There was satisfaction in knowing if she was injured or killed, she would be avenged. No one, not even Mikhail Dubrinsky, the prince of the Carpathian people, would be able to stop a war if the Lycans harmed her.
She lifted her chin. Dimitri would never leave her in danger. He would rush to her side the moment he knew there was trouble; he had—more than once—just to soothe bad dreams when she had too many in a row. She couldn't do less for him.
Holding her breath, she turned back to watch the official gingerly open the coffin. It creaked ominously. Hideously. Just like in the movies. The sound sent a chill down her spine. The lid rose slowly and darn Josef anyway, it looked as if it was lifting all by itself. Varga stepped back, one hand going up defensively.
There was silence as the lid came to a stop. Nothing moved. She could hear the sound of a clock ticking loudly. Varga coughed nervously. He glanced at her. Skyler put her hand over her mouth and lowered her eyes.
Josef! Behave yourself. Skyler was somewhere between laughing and crying with nervous tension.
Varga stepped back to the coffin and peered in, beads of sweat visible on his forehead. He cleared his throat. "He certainly looks robust for a man who starved himself to death."
The least you could have done was make yourself look emaciated if you wanted him to believe your preposterous story, she scolded.
Skyler pressed a handkerchief to her mouth. "They did such a good job at the funeral home. I particularly asked them to make certain he looked good for our mother."
Varga pressed his lips together and studied the body. He was suspicious, but she wasn't certain of what. Clearly there was a dead body in the coffin. Did he suspect her of running drugs? Guns? If so, that didn't bode well for what she had planned. She needed to look like a naïve, young teenager who might be slightly ditzy.
She held her breath as he reached for the lid of the coffin and slowly closed it.
"Is someone coming for you?" Varga asked as he locked the coffin lid and glanced at his watch. "I can't stay. You were the last plane coming in."
"My brother's friend arranged for a truck to pick us up. He'll be here any minute," Skyler assured him solemnly. "Thank you so much for all your help."
"You can wait in here," Varga said in a kind voice. "I'll come back in a couple of hours and lock up." He looked around the dilapidated building. It was nothing more than four metal walls, mostly rusted, some so badly there were holes. "Not that there's much to lock up." He glanced again at his watch. "I would wait with you, but I have another job to go to."
She sent him a wan smile. "It's all right. Really. He'll be here any minute."
Varga gave her one last look and exited the rickety building, leaving her there alone with the locked coffin. Skyler waited until she saw his car drive off and the lights disappear completely down the road. She took a careful look around. She appeared to be alone.
"Josef, you can quit playing dead," Skyler said, her voice dripping with sarcasm. She banged on the coffin lid with her fist. "Died of a broken heart? Really? You couldn't think of anything else, anything, say, more realistic?"
The lid of the coffin opened with the same series of ominous, horror film creaks he'd used when Varga had opened the lid. There was silence. Skyler's heart beat steadily. She leaned over the coffin and glared at the young man who lay as if dead, his arms crossed over his chest and his eyes closed. His skin was pale porcelain and his black spiky hair with the dyed blue tips stood out starkly against the white backdrop.
"You look amazingly robust for a man who starved himself to death," she said sarcastically, mimicking the official. "You could have blown everything with your absurd story."
Josef's eyes snapped open dramatically. He faked an accent as he slowly sat up. "I could use a drop of blood or two, my dear."
She smacked him over the head with her papers. "The customs official didn't believe I was twenty-five."
Josef flashed a cocky grin. "You're not. You're barely nineteen, and when Gabriel and Lucian find out what we've done, we're both going to be in more trouble than either of us has ever known." He paused, the smile fading from his mouth. "And I've been in a lot of trouble."
"We have no choice," Skyler said.
"Don't kid yourself, Sky, there's always a choice. And you aren't the one they're going to kill. I'm going to be their prime target. When Gabriel and Lucian come looking for you—and they will," Josef said, "they'll find you. They have a reputation for a reason. If we really do this, every Carpathian hunter will be out looking."
Her father, Gabriel, was extremely powerful, a legendary Carpathian hunter. Her uncle Lucian, Gabriel's twin, had helped to create that legend among the Carpathian people, and when they discovered her gone, of course they would come after her.
"Isn't that the point?" Skyler replied with a small shrug. "By the time they wake and realize we're gone, we'll have a good head start. We should be able to find Dimitri."
"You do realize," Josef said, floating out of the coffin, "this could very well cause an international incident. Or worse, war. All-out war."
"You agreed to help me," Skyler said. "Have you changed your mind?"
"No. You're my best friend, Sky. Dimitri probably despises me and wishes I was dead, but he's your lifemate and he's been literally thrown to the wolves." Josef sent her a little grin, pleased with his pun. "Of course I'm going to help you. I helped you come up with this plan, didn't I? And it will work."
"Dimitri doesn't despise you; in fact, he's glad you're my friend. We've talked about it. He isn't like that." Skyler made a face at him. "You know very well he knows I think of you like a brother. He'd defend you with his life."
Josef grinned at her. "Forgive me for despising him just a little bit. He's good-looking, intelligent, an ancient hunter, and your lifemate. He destroyed all my dreams and fantasies about you. I don't dare even think along those lines or he'd know."
Skyler rolled her eyes. "As if. Even I know you don't think of me that way, Josef. You can hide a lot of things, but not that. There's no fantasy and no destroyed dreams. Your lifemate is either not born or"—she smirked at him mischievously—"she's probably one of Gregori's daughters."
He groaned and slapped his forehead with his palm. "A curse on you forever for uttering those words, for putting that thought out into the universe. Don't even think that, let alone say it aloud. Can you imagine Gregori Daratrazanoff as a father-in-law? Sheesh, Skyler, you really do want me dead."
She laughed. "It would serve you right, Josef. Especially after putting you died of a broken heart on those papers!"
"It could happen. I'm a romantic, you know. Dimitri thinks I'm a little kid, just like they all do, which is probably just as well, because otherwise he'd see me as a rival."
"You take great pains to keep them all thinking you're a kid," Skyler pointed out with a small smile. "You like them to underestimate you. You're a genius, Josef, and you don't let any of them see the real you. You deliberately provoke them."
His grin widened until he looked positively mischievous. He blew on his fingertips. "That is very true. I don't deny it." His smile faded. "But this is very different than the pranks I pull on them. This is big, Skyler. I just want you to understand what's at stake."
"Of course I know what's at stake."