Part VII

LaCroix greeted Natalie with a gentle kiss on the cheek when she arrived at the Raven shortly after sun down. "I trust you are ready for a memorable evening, my dear," he said, inspecting her light jacket in a manner which confused her.

Nat looked quizzically at him. "All our outings together are memorable, Lucien," was her reply. "What's wrong with my coat?" His interest in it was beginning to scare her.

"Is it warm enough, I wonder?" he commented almost distractedly.

"It usually is... why?"

LaCroix's reply was an enigmatic, secretive up-turning of the lips which Natalie found all together sexy.

But he hadn't really answered her question, so she tried another approach. "Where are we off to tonight?" she asked.

"Some place special," was his response.

He took her into his arms, holding her securely by the waist. Before Natalie knew it, LaCroix had taken to the air in flight. This time, however, they were not in a hurried rush and LaCroix flew at an ease which allowed him to point out the city below them. Soon, they passed out of the city and Natalie found herself looking down upon a more rural setting.

They landed in a clearing surrounded by trees. It reminded Natalie of all the fairy tales she'd ever heard or read, and she wondered briefly if it held magical properties.

"Where are we?" she asked as she looked about her in amazement.

"In the woodlands by the banks of Lake Ontario," replied LaCroix. "I come here sometimes... to be alone."

"It's beautiful..." Nat sighed.

LaCroix nodded, moving closer to her. "Natalie..." he breathed when she looked into his eyes. Their lips met briefly before they began their evening walk.

They walked for nearly a half an hour before stopping, all the while, LaCroix pointing out the various plants and animals that inhabited the region. At one point along the trail they followed, he stopped and picked out a rare, night-blooming flower and gave it to her, almost shyly. Eventually, they made their way to a small stream, where they stopped.

"This stream runs into a small river that empties into the lake," he said as Natalie watched the moonlight reflecting on the flowing water.

"It's so lovely," she said quietly, not wanting to disturb the tranquility of the night.

"*You* are lovely," LaCroix replied. Her eyes shifted to meet his, and a lightning bolt of desire leaped from his gaze to her. They came into each other's arms simultaneously, lips meeting in mutual passion.

Natalie felt as if she were floating as he held her. The intensity of the kiss wiped away all other things except LaCroix and her nearness to him. It left her trembling and weak, so that when it ended, she sagged against him.

"Dance with me, Natalie," he said suddenly, surprising her because there was no music. She told him so. He chuckled softly at her innocence. Pressing her body lightly against his own, he whispered to her, "Listen silently to you heart... when you hear its beat and *only* its beat... then listen to the night around you." Natalie fell silent, listening as she was told. After a while, he said softly, "Hear the night... the wind will sing to us... the birds will join its song with their own... the flowing stream will play the melody... and your heart will drum out the rhythm of life... of love. Do you hear it, Natalie?"

Natalie nodded as they began swaying together in a dance she was certain she didn't know the steps to. She was in dreamland, a fairy tale come true. She was the princess and he her handsome prince. She closed her eyes, savoring the feel of being in his arms. She was certain she could no longer feel the ground beneanth her feet.

It was only then that her eyes opened and she saw that she *was* indeed floating. In the midst of their passion, LaCroix had levitated them both a foot off the ground. Startled, she jerked in his arms, which tightened to hold her firmly against him.

"Carefully, ma cherie," he whispered in her ear. "Do not let go." She looked back up and him and saw the desire in his eyes just before he kissed her again.

Again, it was an overwhelming kiss, and she returned it with her own fire. Their lips and bodies moved to the beat of their own desires. Her hunger for him was nearly uncontrollable as she let herself be carried away by love. Then, quite unexpectedly, she felt his fangs scrape along her lips and she pulled away, dropping to the ground with a thud.

Her heart thundering in her ears, Natalie dropped her eyes to the ground, trying to make sense of what she felt.

LaCroix spoke. "Natalie... look at me!" His voice was rough and ragged as he gave the command. She looked up to see his eyes, no longer blue but a golden yellow. "This is what I am, Natalie. If you are to love me, you must accept what I am!"

She slowly began to realize that his voice was not harsh, so much as it was racked with emotion. "Can you love me this way?" she heard him ask.

Could she? Her mind whirled with conflicts-- fear, yearning... confusion. In the back of her mind, she remembered the first time-- as Natasha. She felt again the sweet, sharp pain of his fangs piercing her skin and entering her. She thrilled in the memory of her blood flowing into him, her life force becoming his. She wanted that intimacy again, and at the same time, she was frightened by the intensity of her emotions.

She raised her eyes to find him no longer hovering above the ground, but standing a few feet away, watching her. He didn't speak, but eyed her closely... and he didn't ask her again.

After another moment of silence, she went to him. Wrapping her arms around him, she said, "I want to love you that way, but I am afraid of what I feel. Show me how..." With this, her lips found his one last time.

Nick sat atop the roof of a house facing Natalie's. He hadn't the courage to go down there and speak to her, so he sat there thinking up the right thing to say. Then he saw her walking along the side walk, and he wondered why she would be out so late if she had to work the next morning. Still... that didn't really matter. What mattered to him was telling her how truly sorry he was for the way he had treated her.

He stood-- ready to swoop down and join her on the sidewalk-- when he noticed for the first time that she was not alone. He watched as the man walked her to her door. Horror filled him as she slipped into the arms of the tall, dark figure, and he saw them kiss. Nick was struck dumb by the sorrow and pain the kiss caused him. It was several minutes before he realized what he had just witnessed, and by then, Natalie and LaCroix were safely inside her home.

For Nick, however, the pain of seeing her kiss another was so great, that it wasn't until he reached the loft that he fully realized that it *had* been LaCroix. He, then, was filled with such a blinding rage and a desire for revenge that it consumed him...

(Continued in "Blame")