Safia Meziane has trained since birth to protect her tribe, the family she holds so dear. All along she told herself the legends she was raised with were simply that. But now, she must call upon all of her skills to fight what lies ahead. Evil has come to their small town on the coast of Algeria, evil that Safia can feel but cannot see.
She is terrified she will not be able to protect the ones she loves. As her family’s “chosen one,” she has always believed she would face this task alone—until her family reveals she has been promised to a warrior who will join her. An outsider. A Carpathian. . . .
Petru Cioban is one of the oldest Carpathians in existence, and he has spent all that time without the soothing presence of his lifemate. For two thousand years he has waited for this woman to be reborn, only to find her in the sights of a monster he has fought before, a vampire risen again to finish a battle started centuries ago.
Now, Petru must face his greatest enemy and his greatest shame. He has no hope that Safia will forgive his betrayal once the memories of her past life return to her. But he will not make the same mistake again, even if he has to sacrifice everything for the woman who has claimed his immortal soul.
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The breeze blowing in from the Mediterranean Sea brought a hint of the coming storm with it. Safia Meziane stood at the very top of the hillside overlooking the turquoise water, which was now beginning to grow choppy as little fingers of wind touched the glassy surface. The knots in her stomach tightened as she watched the water begin to churn. Ordinarily, she loved storms, but she was uneasy, certain the weather heralded something much more sinister than lightning and thunder.
"I will never tire of this view," Amastan Meziane said, his gaze on the sea. "As a young man, I would stand in this exact spot with my father and feel fortunate to live in this place."
"Just as I do," Safia admitted, looking up at her grandfather.
Safia's family was Imazighen. Outsiders sometimes referred to them as Berbers. Her family owned a very prosperous farm located up in the hills outside the town of Dellys. They had extraordinary views of the sea and the harbor. The farm kept a variety of animals, mainly sheep and goats, and harvested the wool, spinning and dying it for clothes and rugs they sold at the local market or sent with Safia's oldest sister's family across the Sahara to markets. Some of the family members made jewelry and others pottery. All contributed to the success of the household, farm and tribe.
Her grandfather Amastan was the acknowledged head of her tribe. Like her grandfather, Safia had always felt very lucky to have been born into her family. To live where she lived. To be raised on her family farm. She had two older sisters who doted on her and three older brothers who always treated her as if she were a treasure, just as her parents and grandparents did. They all worked hard on the farm. When her oldest sister, Illi, married and left with her husband, Kab, no one resented the extra work. They were happy for her, although Safia missed her terribly and looked forward to the times when she returned from her travels.
Beside her, Amastan sighed. "Our family has had centuries of good years, Safia, and we can't complain. We've always known this time would come."
He felt it, too. It wasn't her imagination. Evil rode in the wind of that storm. It had quietly invaded their farm. She had known all along but had done her best to tell herself it was her wild imagination. The number of invasive insects had suddenly increased. Three weeks earlier, she had begun to note the tracks of an unfamiliar predator. One week ago, several predators had eviscerated a goat near the cliffs. Whatever it was seemed to disappear into the ground when she'd tried to follow it. There had been more than one, but she couldn't determine the number or exactly what it was.
"I love the way Dellys looks, Jeddi, day or night. The blend of beautiful modern structures built so close to the ancient ruins and the way the ruins are on the hillside facing the sea. I love the sunrises and sunsets, and the sea with its colors and ever-changing mood, the markets and the people. Dellys is so modern, and yet our history, our culture, is right there for everyone to see. And on the hillside, evidence of our history remains. We're like that. Our family. Like Dellys. So modern on the outside. Anyone looking at us would believe we're so progressive." She loved her life. Mostly, she loved the huge tribe she called family.
Safia didn't look at her grandfather; she kept her gaze fixed on the beauty of the sea. The women in her family were well educated, unlike many females in other tribes. They spoke Tamazight and Arabic, but along with that, they had learned French and English. Safia had been required to learn an ancient language that none of the others had to master. Her grandmother and mother were able to speak it, and she had one friend, Aura, who was an expert in the language, so she was fortunate to be able to practice with her. Safia never questioned why she had to learn such an ancient language that no one spoke in modern times. When her grandfather or grandmother decreed anything, it was done, usually without question.
Her grandfather not only believed they should expand their thinking, he insisted his daughters and granddaughters learn how to use weapons and to fight in hand-to-hand combat just as well as the males in the family. The women took care of the house, but they also worked on the farm. They learned to do everything needed and were always treated as valued members of the tribe. Their voices were heard when it came to solving problems. It was all very progressive and different from tradition in many other tribes.
Her grandfather arranged marriages in the traditional way. His word was law. He held the men they married to a very high standard. She couldn't imagine what would happen should he ever find out his daughters or granddaughters were mistreated. Amastan appeared stern to outsiders, but he was always soft-spoken and fair. No one ever wanted to upset him. It was a rare event, but when it happened, he had the backing of the entire tribe, not that he needed it. He was a force to be reckoned with.
"We must go inside, Safia. I told your father to call a family meeting. We can't continue to put this off. You will read the cards, and I'll consult with the ancestors tonight. We need to know exactly what we're facing and how much time we will have to prepare." He placed his hand on her shoulder as if he knew she needed encouragement.
Her heart sank. All along, she had told herself the tales she'd been raised with were simply fictional stories handed down for hundreds of years. They weren't real. Demons and vampires didn't belong in a modern world any more than the myths and legends that had sprung from the area where they lived.
"I tried not to believe it, Jeddi," she confessed. "I've trained from the time I was a baby to fight these things, and I read the cards daily, but I still didn't believe."
"You believed, Safia, or you wouldn't have trained so hard. You're very disciplined, even more so than your mother and grandmother ever were. You worked on the farm and at home with your mother, but you never once shirked your training. You believed. You just hoped, as we all did, that evil wouldn't rise in our lifetime."
She turned her head to look at her beloved grandfather. For the first time, she truly saw the worry lines carved in his face. There was unease in the faded blue of his eyes. That alone was enough to make all the times her radar had gone off and the knots in her belly very real.
"When you were born," he continued, "we knew. Your grandmother, your mother and father. I knew. I consulted the ancestors just to be certain. None of us wanted it to be true, but the moment you came into this world, all of us could see you were different. You were born with gifts." There was sorrow in his voice. "You were born with green eyes."
It was true, she was the only one in her family with green eyes, but why would that make a difference? Still, she didn't question him. "I did prepare," she whispered. "But it feels as if it can't be real, even now, when I feel evil on the wind. When I know the accidents on the farm were actual attacks on our family. I know these things, yet my mind doesn't want to process the reality."
She turned back to look at the town of Dellys, spread out in the distance. "All those unknowing, innocent people living there. The restaurants. The shops. The market. I love the market. Everyone is so unaware of the danger coming. It isn't as if soldiers are attacking them and they can see the enemy coming. No one would believe us if we warned them. I wouldn't even know what to tell them."
"You don't know what you're facing yet," Amastan pointed out, his voice gentle. "I've told you many times, Safia, prepare, but do not worry about something you have no control over-something that may or may not happen. That does you no good. If you have no idea who or what your enemy is and you dwell on it, you will make him much more powerful than he is."
She knew her grandfather was right. She trusted him. Throughout her years growing up, she hadn't known him to be wrong when he gave his advice. He was always thoughtful before he spoke, and she'd learned to take what he said to heart.
Once more she looked at the harbor. The port of Dellys was small, located near the mouth of the Sebaou River and east of Algiers. Many of the men permanently living in Dellys were fishermen, sailors or navigators. The fishermen provided their fresh catch daily to the local restaurants. The harbor was beautiful with the boats and lights, so modern-looking. Everything looked contemporary-so this century. Just by gazing at the beauty of the harbor and the town, one wouldn't imagine it had been around since prehistoric times.
"We must go in," Amastan reiterated. "The others will be waiting. Hopefully, Amara will have fixed dinner for us, and it will be edible."
Amara was married to Safia's oldest brother, Izem. She really liked Amara. Who could not? She didn't understand how the match worked, yet it did, perfectly. Amara was a tornado moving through the house and farm, one disaster after another. Through it all, her laughter was contagious. She was bright and cheerful, always willing to pitch in and help, eager to learn every aspect of farming. Clearly, she wanted to be a good wife to Izem, but her youth and exuberance coupled with her total inexperience and clumsy energy were sometimes recipes for disaster.
At the same time, she was an amazing jeweler. One would think when she was so clumsy around the farm, tripping over her own small feet, she wouldn't be able to make the fine necklaces and earrings she did. Her artwork was exquisite and much sought-after. She was an asset to their family for that but also, most importantly, because she made Izem happy.
Despite the two appearing to be total opposites, Izem was extremely satisfied with Amara. He was a very serious man. He took after Amastan in both appearance and personality. His name, meaning "lion," epitomized who he was and what he stood for. He was always going to be the head of his family. He was a man to be counted on, and maybe that was exactly why the match worked so well. Amara needed the security of Izem, and he needed the fun and brightness she brought him.
Safia loved watching her oldest brother and his wife together, because she was a little terrified of her grandfather choosing a husband for her. She knew several offers had been made for her, and he'd turned them down, stating she was already promised to another. He'd never explained to her what he meant. She'd never met a man she'd been promised to in marriage. Her father seemed to accept her grandfather's decree, as did her brothers. No one ever questioned her grandfather, and for some reason, even on such an important subject, she couldn't bring herself to, either. Seeing Izem and Amara so happy made her feel as if there were a chance she could find happiness with a man, a stranger, her grandfather believed would be the right choice for her.
They walked together side by side through the field and toward the house. "Your leg is hurting," Amastan observed. "You were injured today."
She wasn't limping. She'd been careful not to show any signs of pain. Instantly she felt shame. How could she possibly be ready to protect her family if Amastan could so easily read her discomfort? Her enemies would be able to do so just as easily and take advantage during a battle. All those years of training, and she couldn't cover a simple injury?
"I'm not ready, Jeddi," she whispered. "If I can't hide a simple injury from you, how can I defend the farm? Our family? How can I defend the people in the town?"
He spoke in his gentlest voice. "Yelli, I observed the tear in your trousers along with the dirt and bloodstains. You have not given anything away by your actions or expression. It is the condition of your clothes that tells me something happened."
"I did have a little accident today when I was herding the sheep in from the back pasture. They were far too close to the cliff and very uneasy." It had been in the same area where those strange tracks had been. She had been searching for them.
She didn't look up at him, but she felt her grandfather's piercing eyes on her, drilling into her, seeing right past her casual tone to the truth.
"Safia?" He stopped abruptly in front of the house.
More than a question, it was an order. Reluctantly, she halted as well and forced herself to look up at him, holding her gloves in front of her as if the thin leather could protect her from his close scrutiny. His gaze moved over her, examining her inch by inch.
"It was no accident, any more than what happened to me or any of the others, Safia. We can't pretend this away any longer. How badly were you injured?"
She pressed her lips together, reliving the terrifying moment when the dirt gave way on the cliff and she went over. She had clawed at the dirt, rock and scraggly tree roots as she slid over the side. It seemed to take forever before her fingers dug into the mud and roots, and she gingerly found a grip with her fingertips. She clung there, legs dangling, heart pounding, head resting against a tough rope of knotted wood.
Insects began to emerge from the mud, crawling toward her from every direction. Stinging bugs flew around her hands and face. A hawk screamed and rushed out of the sky straight at her. In that moment, she knew exactly what she faced, and calm descended. She forced air through her lungs, calling on her training to keep from panicking.
Evil had come to her family's farm. She couldn't deny it any longer, as much as she wanted to. She had known for the last three weeks the small "accidents" happening on their farm were attacks against their family. She felt guilty that she hadn't been able to protect the animals or her family members from the escalating violence. It was just that she had no idea how to stop it, because she wasn't certain how to fight what she couldn't see. Right at that moment, evil was striking at her as if it knew she was the primary defender.