Vasilisa Sidkorolyavolkva is a Lycan of royal blood. She knows what is expected of her, but all she wants is to be out from under her family’s watchful eyes. There is a fire inside her that is building. A restlessness coupled with a sense of growing dread. Every day she feels the weight of the legacy passed down through generations. The prophecy that says a man will come to claim her as his mate, and that she will guard his soul. She knows nothing about him except that he is hers. But nothing seems real until the night she meets him in the flesh....
Afanasiv Belan is a Carpathian, an ancient one. In all the centuries of his existence, no one has ever affected him like Vasilisa. He can see into her mind and feel what is in her heart. They are so alike, warriors bound by honor and plagued by secrets. They both know they must reveal the darkest parts of their souls if they hope to survive and protect the ones they love.
But if they claim each other as lifemates, it will change them down to the bone. They will become something more—something feared by both of their kinds....
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Vasilisa Sidkorolyavolkva stood for a long moment staring up at the sliver of silver moon in the dark bluish sky. She loved this time of night, when millions of stars were scattered like a blanket across the sky, and it was clear and perfect. She inhaled to take in all the scents around her, a habit ingrained for self-preservation, taught from the time she was a toddler.
The pavilion was empty, a mixture of black and white squares where others often came to dance and party late into the night, but that hadn't happened for a long while. She knew her family wanted her to settle for a husband, and during every ball, they pushed eligible bachelors at her. She detested the disappointment in her brothers' eyes, especially her eldest. She knew if she didn't cooperate soon, he would demand she comply with his choice-and she knew she wouldn't.
Andros, ruler of her family, was running out of patience with her. He thought she would do as he said, mostly because he was used to everyone doing as he said. Her other brothers-the twins, Garald and Grigor-knew her so much better. They knew her stubborn streak, and they watched her carefully after each ball. The more Andros pushed her, the more they kept their eyes on her.
She had to smile to herself. She had her ways of sneaking out of their palatial home, and her brothers had never caught her. Not once. Not in all the years she'd been doing it.
They lived in a small community in a very remote area in the Eastern Siberia boreal forest. The community had existed for hundreds of years. More. They had kept to themselves for generations, although now, the younger ones had left the villages to seek employment and service in more modern settings. They blended in seamlessly.
The villages dated back so many centuries that they still considered themselves ruled by a monarchy rather than acknowledging the government, although every man and woman served in the military for the experience of it. Vasilisa came from that monarchy, and her brother Andros was the current ruler.
Vasilisa had been extremely uneasy lately. Restless and moody. Edgy. She always maintained her serene composure. She was too skilled in battle technique to give anything away. That cool exterior didn't mean she wasn't burning hot with passion deep down. She needed an outlet. She knew she desperately needed out from under her brothers' watchful eyes. They'd felt it, too-that unrest in their land-which was why they were even more vigilant watching over her.
She was particularly terrified of what that edgy, moody, wanting-to-snap-at-everyone-just-for-looking-at-her-wrong feeling actually meant. She had no power over the things that were changing. Things that could directly affect her. She needed a friend to talk things over with. Someone she trusted who would never betray her confidence. That fire inside her was growing, right along with the terrible dread she tried not to examine too closely.
She moved with quick, silent strides down the wide steps onto the snow-covered path that led to a trail into the forest of larch trees. The path was well used by members of her family to travel to the small inn where locals gathered in the evening to drink and gossip. A roaring fire in the great stone fireplace kept everyone warm in spite of the bitter cold. The more bodies packed inside, the warmer the interior.
The inn was owned and operated by Kendal and Odessa Balakin. The older couple had been around for as long as Vasilisa could remember. They were unfailingly friendly and welcoming to everyone in spite of the fact that the villagers could be a superstitious lot and were often suspicious of strangers.
She glanced at the moon again as she wound in and out among the thick trees. A few brave mice scampered across the vegetation lying on the snow, hurrying to grab the seeds and burrow deep under the branches that had fallen on top of the snowpack so they wouldn't be spotted by the owls on the lookout for food. Snowy owls, great gray owls and pygmy owls occupied the larch forest and hunted relentlessly.
A snow-white mountain hare suddenly emerged from behind a tree trunk and stopped moving abruptly, rising up on its hind legs. She froze as well. The two simply stared at each other. Her heart began to accelerate, the blood circulating with a hot rush through her body. The little rabbit thumped its back foot on the thick bank of snow, a warning to the rest of its extended family that they weren't alone in their pursuit of food.
"Be at peace, little sister. I'm not hunting," she spoke softly to the animal.
The rabbit cocked its black-tipped ears at her, turning them this way and that as if it could understand everything she said. She spoke in her native language, and who knew? Maybe the rabbit was that intelligent. It had survived long enough to grow to adulthood. Many didn't. She ignored it and continued along the narrow trail winding through the larch forest to the inn. It was a good distance from her home, but she welcomed the walk. Sometimes she felt as if she were a prisoner in her own home. She had needed to get out, and the night air was the perfect antidote.
She wore a long coat of white fur that fell to her ankles and a matching white fur hat that covered her ears to keep the cold from sneaking into her bones through her scalp. Her gloves were white as well. If she needed to disappear into the snow, she blended easily, even with her choice of lipstick and her blazing blue eyes. Her coat, although slim and looking as if it hugged her figure, hid a multitude of weapons. She wasn't a woman who trusted. She had been raised to defend herself. Her lessons had taken place early, and she had been expected to take them very seriously. It had been drilled into her by her mother that there was no room for mistakes-everything was about life or death.
Strangely, her brothers were never invited to those daily training sessions, and she was cautioned never to discuss anything her mother taught her with them or her father. As she grew up, she realized why-her mother had passed a legacy to her, one that had been handed down from mother to daughter. She felt the weight of that legacy every waking moment. Lately, she knew the weight had increased, pressing down on her, because something had changed.
There had been a dangerous shift, a seismic tremor that had opened a fissure deep within the earth somewhere. She was certain of it. She felt the dread of it, the constant danger surrounding her beloved people. Little things were suddenly going wrong. Small animals had been found savagely eviscerated miles from the village, and that had been enough to alarm some of the hunters, who had gone out to track the culprit. There were tracks, of course, very small ones they weren't familiar with, as if an unknown animal had come up from below and then burrowed back into the ground after killing several rabbits and squirrels.
Vasilisa had been unsettled ever since. Nightmares affected her ability to sleep. She rarely slept at night, preferring to rest during the day, but even with the blackout curtains at her windows and her music on, nothing seemed to help. She had an ominous feeling that continued to get worse as the days went by.
The inn was completely lit up, as it often was, with a cheery, bright radiance that threw a glow across the snow through the uncovered glass of the big windows in the lobby of the bar. Travelers seeking a room could check in, but mostly, the inn was full of locals who came for their vodka, tea, kvass and warm black bread.
She pushed the door open, and the swinging wolf-head bells on a rope announced her arrival. She stomped on the outside snow mat, trying to remove the worst of the mess on her boots while she caught her breath. It was difficult to adjust to the heat after the brisk cold of the night.
She had been inside the Wolf's Retreat hundreds of times, yet this time it felt different. This time it was different. Her breath caught in her throat, and she glanced toward the stairs leading to the rooms Kendal and Odessa rented out. Her hand crept protectively to her throat. Already she could feel the invasion. A scent reached her first. Something wild. Completely feral. Not wolf. She was used to wolf. Something even wilder. Further back than wolf. They had tigers in Siberia. No, she shook her head. Not tigers. Something even more dangerous.
She tried not to inhale, but she couldn't help herself. It wouldn't have mattered. She was being surrounded. Enfolded. More scents invaded, but this time through her pores. Branding her. Cedar. Birch. Spring water. If she crossed the threshold, she felt as if her world would instantly be changed, and there would be no going back.
She wanted to turn and run into the night, but she knew if she did, whatever had settled around her, slowly invading through her pores, going deep-bone deep-she would take with her. She forced herself forward and held on to her smile because she was no coward, and she had been waiting all her life for this night. It was just that dreaming of it and the reality of it were two very different things.
"Vasilisa." Odessa broke into a huge smile. "I should have known you would be in tonight. It's that kind of night. Full of surprises."
Vasilisa ignored the men who were seated around the curved bar and had turned to face her as she walked all the way into the room, pulling off the white gloves covering her hands. She pushed the gloves into the deep pockets of her coat. "Surprises? You've had surprises tonight, Odessa? I didn't think there were many surprises in our village anymore."
Odessa put tea service on a tray. "Ordinarily, I would agree with you. Skyler and Dimitri have been coming around. You know Dimitri. He's been around for years. He avoids people, much preferring wolves. Now he's got himself a wife. She's young, too. I think Skyler's too young for him, but who am I to say? She does all those wolf experiments with him, or whatever it is he does."
"He set up a wolf sanctuary to make certain the wolves have a safe place to go as the forest shrinks in other places," Vasilisa explained patiently, as she'd done so many times before.
Dimitri Tirunul was a prime example of how mistrustful the locals were. Dimitri had been coming there for years. He'd helped them countless times, but he was still regarded as an outsider, and he wasn't trusted in the least. He had a residence there. Vasilisa had met him often in the forest. He had skills that rivaled her brothers', and that was saying something, because few could match her brothers' skills. Of course she knew Dimitri was married.
"That's the surprising news? That Dimitri has a young wife?"
"No." Odessa laughed merrily as she added to the tray. "We had strangers come to the inn. That's the surprise. Four men. They looked very dangerous." She lowered her voice, although the room was packed and the strangers were either out of the inn or upstairs. The noise level was loud. "They came asking for Dimitri."
A chill went down Vasilisa's spine. Dimitri may not have been born in their village, but as far as she was concerned, he was one of them. He protected the wolves, the same as they did. "What did you tell them?"
"I certainly didn't know where Dimitri would be. He goes wherever he wants." Odessa gestured toward the forest. "It's a big place out there, and he runs with the wolves. Let them try to find him."
Vasilisa tried not to openly wince. Even that last little bit might have been too much to say. She had to warn Dimitri. Often Dimitri and Skyler would stay out in the woods for weeks on end, and no one would see him or his new wife.
There had been a terrible incident that had nearly taken Dimitri's life. Rumors swirled about it, and she knew the truth was far worse than the locals even realized. He had been a very handsome man. He had scars now, although they were faded to thin white lines dissecting his face, neck, arms and hands. She hadn't asked him about the scars or the rumors. She hadn't wanted to bring up anything unpleasant, but her family had been briefed on the entire disturbing and horrifying event. It had made all of their people look bad.
Dimitri had always stayed away from others, but since that incident, even after marrying, he avoided everyone even more. She couldn't blame him. She was well aware that the two people he had saved from certain death had betrayed him and then had him tortured and hung up in front of others to die a slow, painful death. Young Skyler had saved his life.
Vasilisa didn't understand people. Maybe she never would. She didn't think she wanted to go out into the busy world where so many of the younger crowd wanted to go. She wouldn't fit in. Even at twenty-eight she retained the old-fashioned values and ethics her mother had instilled in her.
"I think I'm a dinosaur, Odessa. I don't fit in anywhere."
"You fit in just fine right here, Vasilisa," Odessa assured her. She leaned over the counter, looked both ways again and nearly whispered, "There's more. I was hoping you would come in. It made me happy that your friend was here to see you. You always seem to show up when we need you the most."
Vasilisa frowned. She could tell that Odessa wasn't being dramatic. She was concerned. "What is it?"
"Government men. They're pretending not to be, but they are. I can smell them a mile away. I've seen too many of their kind. They're here to cause trouble for us."
Vasilisa's stomach instantly knotted. That was the worst possible news. The one thing the villagers tried to do was stay under the radar. Most of the time, the government ignored their existence. They were up too high in the wilderness. They lived off land no one else really wanted. They kept to themselves and didn't cause trouble.
"Did they ask for Dimitri, too?" She hoped not, but it wouldn't surprise her. Dimitri was a man who went his own way. He had to work with the government to get permits for the protection of his wolves and the lands he wanted to safeguard.