"I wouldn't call it punishment. The monastery was clean and warm. We never went hungry. By the time I was twelve, my father and brothers were all dead."
"Oh, jeez. I'm sorry." Shanna grabbed a pillow from the head of the bed and dragged it into her lap. "My family is still alive, thank goodness, but I know what it's like to lose them."
"Father Constantine was the healer in the monastery, and he became my mentor. I learned all I could from him.He said I had a gift for healing." Roman frowned. "A gift from God."
"So you became a doctor, of sorts."
"Yes. There was never any question in my mind what I wanted to do. I took my vows at the age of eighteen and became a monk. I swore to ease the suffering of mankind." Roman's mouth twisted. "And I swore to reject Satan and all his evil guises."
Shanna hugged the pillow to her chest. "What happened then?"
"Father Constantine and I traveled from one village to another, doing all we could to heal the sick and ease suffering. There weren't many educated physicians at the time, especially for the poor, so we were very much in demand. We worked long, hard hours. Eventually Father Constantine grew too old and frail for it. He stayed at the monastery, and I was allowed to go forth on my own. A mistake, perhaps." Roman smiled wryly. "I wasn't nearly as smart as I thought I was. And without Father Constantine to guide me and give wise counsel.."
Roman closed his eyes, briefly recalling the wrinkled, weathered face of his adopted father. Sometimes, when he was alone and in the dark, he could almost hear the old man's soft voice. Father Constantine had always given him hope and encouragement, even when he had been a young and frightened child. And Roman had loved him for that.
A picture flashed in his mind. The monastery in ruins. The dead bodies of all the monks strewn about in the rubble. Father Constantine ripped apart. Roman covered his face to try to block out the memory. But how could he? He had brought their death and destruction upon them. God could never forgive him.
"Are you all right?" Shanna asked softly.
Roman dragged his hands down his face and took a shaky breath. "Where was I?"
"You were a traveling doctor."
Shanna's expression of sympathy made it hard to stay in control, so he shifted his gaze to the ceiling. "I traveled far into areas that are now Hungary and Transylvania. In time, I ceased to bother with priestly trappings. My tonsure grew out. My hair grew long. But I kept my vows of poverty and celibacy, so I was convinced that I was good and righteous. God was on my side. News of my healing capabilities preceded me, and I was welcomed into each village as an honored guest. A hero, even."
He shook his head. "No, it was not. I had sworn to reject evil, but I slowly succumbed to a deadly sin. I became proud."
She snorted. "What's wrong with taking pride in your work? You were saving lives, weren't you?"
"No. God was saving them through me. I forgot to see the distinction. Then it was too late, and I was cursed for all eternity."
She gave him a doubtful look as she hugged the pillow.
"I was thirty years old when I heard rumors of a village in Hungary. The people there were dying one by one, and no one knew why. I'd had some success with the plague by enforcing strict quarantines and rules of sanitation. I.. I thought I could help this village."
"So you went."
"Yes. In my pride, I thought I would be their savior. But when I arrived, I discovered the village wasn't plagued by a disease, but by hideous, murderous creatures."
"Vampires?" she whispered.
"They had taken over a castle and were feeding off the local people. I should have requested help from the Church, but in my vanity, I thought I could defeat them by myself. After all, I was a man of God." He rubbed his brow, trying to erase the shame and horror of his downfall. "I was wrong. On both counts."
She winced. "They attacked you?"
"Yes, but they didn't leave me to die like the others. They transformed me into one of their kind."
Roman scoffed. "Why not? I was their pet project. Turning a man of God into a demon from hell? It was a perverse game for them."
Shanna shuddered. "I'm so sorry."
Roman lifted his hands. "It's done. A pathetic story, really. A priest so immersed in his own pride that God saw fit to abandon him."
She stood, her eyes filled with pain. "You think God abandoned you?"
"Of course. You said it yourself. I'm a blood-sucking demon from hell."
She made a face. "I tend to be a bit dramatic at times. But now I know the truth. You were trying to help people when the bad guys attacked you. You didn't ask for it any more than I asked the Russian mafia to attack me and Karen." Her eyes shimmered with moisture as she slowly approached him. "Karen didn't ask to die. I didn't ask to lose my family or spend my life being hunted. And you didn't ask to become a vampire."
"I got what I deserved. And I became one of the bad guys, as you put it. You can't make me good, Shanna. I've done terrible things."
"I.. I'm sure you had your reasons."
He shifted forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "Are you trying to exonerate me?"
"Yes." She stopped beside his chair. "The way I see it, you're still the same man. You invented synthetic blood to keep vampires from feeding off people, right?"
"Don't you see?" She knelt beside him so she could see his face. "You're still trying to save lives."
"It hardly makes up for the lives I have destroyed."
She looked at him sadly with tears in her eyes. "I believe there is good in you. Even if you can't believe it."
He swallowed hard and blinked to keep his own eyes from filling from tears. No wonder he needed Shanna. No wonder he cared for her so deeply. After five hundred years of despair, she'd touched his heart and planted a kernel of hope that had never existed before.
He stood and pulled her into his arms. He held her tightly and never wanted to let her go. God's blood, he would do anything to be the man she believed him to be. He would do anything to be worthy of her love.
Ivan smiled at Angus MacKay. The huge Scotsman was pacing back and forth in front of him, glowering at him as if a few ferocious looks could actually scare him. The Highlanders had surrounded them as soon as Ivan and his entourage had entered the ballroom. Ivan, Alek, Katya, and Galina were escorted to a far corner and told to sit. With a nod, Ivan had let his followers know that they would comply. He made himself comfortable in the corner, flanked by his companions. The Scotsmen spread before them, each one fingering the leather hilt of his silver-plated dagger and looking eager to use it.
The threat was clear. A stab through the heart and Ivan's long existence would be over. The threat didn't scare him, though. Ivan knew he and his companions could simply teleport from the building whenever they liked. But for now, he was having too much fun playing with his alleged captors.
Angus MacKay marched back and forth in front of his men. "Tell me, Petrovsky, why are ye here tonight?"
"I was invited." He slipped his hand beneath his cummerbund.
In unison, the Highlanders took a threatening step forward.
Ivan smiled. "I'm just taking out my invitation."
Angus crossed his arms. "Proceed."
"Your boys are a bit high-strung," Ivan observed dryly. "No doubt it has something to do with wearing skirts."
A low growl emanated from the Highlanders. "Let me skewer the bastard," one of them muttered.
Angus held up a hand. "All in good time. For now, we havena finished our wee chat."
Ivan removed the paper from his cummerbund and unfolded it. The cellophane tape connecting the two halves gleamed in the overhead lighting. "This is our invitation. As you can see, we were undecided for a while, but finally my ladies here convinced me that it would be a.. blast."
"Exactly." Katya twisted to the side in her chair and crossed her legs so everyone could see her bare leg and hip. "I just wanted a bit of fun."
MacKay lifted a brow. "And what is yer idea of fun? Were ye planning to kill someone tonight?"
"Are you always this rude to your invited guests?" Ivan dropped the invitation on the floor and glanced at his watch. They'd been here fifteen minutes. By now, Vladimir should be locating the storage compartments of synthetic blood. The True Ones were about to strike a major victory.