Chapter Eight


Can you find beauty in this rough-hewn woman? Can you come to love a shapeshifter like me?

SOLANGE TO DOMINIC

The female jaguar smelled blood. The scent was in her nostrils and she quickened her pace, working her way along the branches, careful not to slip. She ignored the animals scrambling to get out of her way. She had no time to hunt them, all she cared about was getting to her mother. She had finally picked up the trail after four long years. Aunt Audrey was with her, and Juliette followed, keeping her eye on Jasmine, still so young.

Solange had argued with her aunt for hours, but after all, she was only twelve, and Audrey the adult. She knew they shouldn't have brought Jasmine on the rescue mission, but they had nowhere safe to leave her. Audrey was right about that, but the cub's presence doubled the danger to them all.

Already, Solange's jaguar was a fierce fighter and she had learned to handle weapons, particularly guns. She practiced night and day. She went through hundreds of rounds of ammunition, which was difficult to get. She threw knives when she wasn't shooting guns. And she practiced in the forest, stealth and tracking, sometimes coming so close to a male jaguar, she could have reached out and touched him, but he never knew she was there. Audrey often punished her for that, but Solange didn't care. It was all for this reason. This moment. Getting her mother back.

Solange leapt from one branch to the next, and finally to the forest floor. The scent of the male jaguar was strong throughout the entire area. Her heart beat so fast. Her mother. Solange loved her fiercely and she had sworn, standing over her stepfather and brothers, that she would get her back. She'd snuck out so many times, disappearing into the interior of the rain forest for days, tracking the jaguar-men. They moved constantly, and she knew that once she'd picked up her mother's scent, if she missed this opportunity, they would never recover her.

Audrey had been torn between protecting the children and getting her sister back. In the end, Juliette and Solange had persuaded her, or perhaps it had been the knowledge that Solange would have gone by herself. Her childhood had ended there in the clearing with the bodies of her loved ones surrounding her. She never went to sleep without hearing the cries of the dead and dying, or the sound of her mother's anguish as the jaguar-men tore her daughter out of her arms and dragged her into the house to torture her.

She knew where the trail led now. The men moved prisoners often, but they used existing structures when they were on the move. Nearby was an old hut built into the trees, off the forest floor. It was rarely used, but the jaguars would know about it and they were most likely using it. Her jaguar was small still, moving through the forest along the game trails, slipping beneath large umbrella leaves as she unerringly moved close to the two trees supporting the structure.

Somewhere behind her was her aunt Audrey, ready to protect them if Solange were right and her mother was held captive in that house. Her heart beat loud, too loud, as she left the safety of the foliage and took to the trees once more. She spotted a sentry in the branches high above the wooden shelter. A jaguar lay in the shadows of the canopy, sleepy, nearly dozing, only the tip of his tail occasionally twitching.

Solange kept a wary eye on him as she crawled along the twisted limb. She was shaking with fear and anticipation. She had dreamt of this moment, prayed for it, spent the last four years preparing for it. Now that the moment was at hand, she could barely control herself. She needed every ounce of stealth she'd worked on to maintain the slow, inch- by-inch freeze-frame of her kind to keep from drawing the eye of the sentry. The closer she got to that tiny house, the more the scent of her mother filled her lungs. She dragged herself across the two feet of sparse cover to gain the porch. She was now out of the sentry's sight. She pulled herself up and peered into the dirty window. A woman half sat, half sprawled on the floor, a collar around her neck, her hands tied behind her. Her face was swollen, one eye closed. A cut on her lip oozed blood and there were bruises on her face and neck and down her arms.

Solange didn't recognize her for a moment. She was thin, like a skeleton, her once glorious hair hanging in matted dreads. She raised her head slowly and opened her one good eye. They stared at one another, Solange afraid her heart would shatter. The fire was long gone from her mother, leaving a broken shell of a woman.

Solange looked around the room. Her mother was alone. It was now or never. She slipped inside and rushed across the space. She used her teeth on the ropes binding her mother. Sabine Sangria shook her head, tears leaking from her eyes.

"You shouldn't have come, baby," she whispered.

Solange thrust her head against her mother, the only way she could convey her deep love. They had to hurry. There was no time to throw herself into her mother's arms. They had to go before the others returned. She watched her mother struggle to her feet and limp slowly across the floor to the door. They both peered out. Solange started to push her way out of the room, but her mother dropped a restraining hand on her shoulder. Solange paused and looked up.

" Never let them take you alive, Solange. Do you understand me? They are worse than monsters, and you can't let them get their hands on you."

Solange nodded. She'd seen them. She had seen too many women after the jaguar-men had gotten their hands on them to not realize the brutality of these men.

"Audrey? The girls?" There was anxiety in Sabine's voice.

Solange indicated with her head they were waiting outside. Sabine nodded and Solange slipped out the door, her heart nearly bursting with joy. She couldn't wait to put her arms around her mother and just hold her close. Four years of working toward this one moment and she was so close. She forced herself to go slow across that open space.

She turned back to watch as her mother shifted. She could hardly bear to take her eyes off her mother. It was shocking to see the effort it took to shift, the gasping pain for both the human and animal. Did her mother have internal damage? Broken bones? Only that kind of pain could affect the cat. Solange tried to keep an eye on her mother as they carefully crossed that nearly open space on the branch together and made their way stealthily through the canopy toward freedom.

As they put a good mile between them and the jaguar sentry, Solange allowed joy to burst through her. They'd done it. They had finally brought her mother home. She wanted to weep with happiness. The little cub suddenly squawked and shifted into human form, and Jasmine nearly fell from the canopy. She didn't make a sound, a child already well versed in the need for absolute silence. She had never been able to hold the jaguar form for long. Her father had been human. Had she been in the village the day Brodrick had come, she would have been killed with the others.

They waited while she awkwardly crawled onto her sister's back and, because she was in human form and it was too dangerous to continue moving through the canopy, they made their way to the forest floor. Audrey had the weapons stashed in a bag slung around her neck, but still, they moved fast. Every step lightened Solange's heart more. Her mother. She'd dreamt of it at night, waking more than once calling for her mother. She could barely believe they'd actually managed to find her.

A sudden silence in the canopy froze her. A sentry monkey called a warning. A bird shrieked. Her heart nearly stopped. She reacted immediately, still the child but already the one most skilled. She shifted immediately and snatched the bag of weapons from around Audrey's neck and signaled Juliette to run with Jasmine. Juliette would take to the water to keep from leaving tracks. Audrey and Solange would delay those following to give Juliette the best chance with little Jasmine to escape.

She sank onto the ground and quickly reached into the bag to pull out a gun. Her mother's hand on her wrist stilled her. She, too, had shifted to human form. Very gently she tugged at the weapon in Solange's hand. Solange shook her head stubbornly, holding on.

"Give it to me, baby," Sabine said.

Solange looked at her mother, taking in the bruises and scars, the misshapen rib cage, the signs of the brutality she had endured these last four years. "Go with your aunt now."

"No. You go with her. I'm a good shot."

"You can't get all of them. Do as I tell you." Sabine hugged her hard for the briefest of seconds. " Never let them take you alive, Solange," she whispered. "I love you, baby. Go with your aunt now." She shoved Solange at her sister. "Thank you, all of you."

Knowledge burst through Solange. Her mother was going to fight the attackers off to allow the rest of them to get away. And she would die here. She shook her head, opened her mouth to scream a protest, but Audrey, with surprising strength, clapped her palm over Solange's mouth, wrapped an arm around her waist and turned and ran with her.

Solange screamed and screamed. No sound came from her throat. She heard the shots of the rifle and then the horrible sound of jaguars fighting. She screamed again, called to her mother. Again there was no sound, nothing. She couldn't cry. She couldn't look at anyone. The pain had gone so deep there was no adequate way to express it. Solange found herself rocking back and forth, holding the comforter to her, the memories refusing to recede as they always did when she recalled them. Mama, she whispered softly, I wish I had gone with you.

Coldhearted Solange had been born that day. Her mother's daughter was dead. She had never been able to hold her mother close again, not even her body. They had burned it and left no trace for Solange to even mark. She realized something inside her had died that day, something she could never get back. She trained daily after that to become what she was now--a killer. She had fueled her rage to keep herself going every single day.

But Solange was no more. They had killed her that hot afternoon, just as surely as they killed her mother. She was alone. No one could possibly understand the change that had taken place in her that day. She had made a vow, sworn over the blood of her mother and then again, when she'd made her pilgrimage back to her village, sworn over the rest of her family--she would not turn her back on the other women who needed her. She would remain alone.

F?l ku kuuluaak s?vam bels-- beloved. The voice moved in her head. Soft. Tender even. You are not alone anymore. I see you. I hear your screams and I share your anguish.

Solange heard the ring of truth in Dominic's voice. He had shared her memories. As violent and vivid as they were, every detail etched forever into her mind, she had disturbed his sleep, pressing those memories into him without her knowledge. His own beloved sister and her lifemate had been ripped from him. He had spent several lifetimes trying to find her, only to discover she had long ago been tortured and killed. Yes, he did know the anguish and sorrow inside of her, the slow death of everything good.

She pushed the comforter against her mouth, still rocking slowly. If she looked there in the darkness, she would see him with her cat's eyes, but she didn't want to look at death, see him lying so still without a heartbeat, without breath, not when the death of her mother was so close. She couldn't bear to see him that way. Not now. Not with the past so near and her life closing in around her.

Not death, avio p?l?fertiil --lifemate. The earth holds me in her arms and heals me. She gives me sustenance in her way. This is life, just a different version than you know.

"I have to go outside and just breathe." She couldn't sleep. She needed to lose herself in her cat, to prowl the rain forest and look for-- him.

I do not think so, little cat. If you must shift, of course you should do so, particularly if it eases your mind, but you cannot go out hunting him in your present state of mind. You would be killed. You are seeking death.

"That might be true," she said, willing only to admit the possibility that he might be right about her seeking death. "But sadly for you, you're lying there dead or not dead, and can do nothing to stop me."

Amusement filled her mind. I am an ancient Carpathian, minan , and far more powerful than you can conceive. I am your lifemate and it is my duty to see to your health. Do not think because I am gentle with you, that I do not have the ability to take care of your needs.

Had anyone else said those words to her, Solange would have scoffed at them, but Dominic was Carpathian, and she had seen and felt his power. And he had some sort of power over her. One she didn't quite understand.

You may of course try, Solange, but your doing so would be going against my wishes and you would disappoint me. Again there was no judgment in his voice, no anger. He simply waited for her to make her decision.

Her heart clenched hard in her chest. The pain was so real she pressed the comforter clutched tightly in her fists to her aching heart and then dropped her face into the soothing material. She wasn't weeping. She was in human form.

His arm moved. She felt it. He touched her hair and she sensed the tremendous effort he made. I have never had the pleasure of lying beside a jaguar.

That was all. A simple sentence, but Solange closed her eyes, grateful for something-- anything--she could do to push the memories further away. She took a breath and forced herself to look at him.

He was so beautiful. Every muscle carefully crafted, and the thickness of his arms and chest made her feel small in comparison--almost feminine. She leaned over him, her breasts brushing his chest, nearly crawling on him in order to study his face. His eyes were closed, but she sensed that he saw her. Maybe he was only in her mind, but it didn't feel that way. It felt to her as if his power filled the chamber and surrounded her with warmth, with acceptance.

He didn't think less of her because she wept. Or raged. Or killed. He accepted everything about her. She doubted he would think less of her if she tried to leave, and there was no doubt in her mind that neither she nor her jaguar would find a way out of the chamber. She wasn't going to waste her strength trying. You don't want to disappoint him, her warrior self taunted.

She straddled him and bent down, her hands framing his face. He was so incredible, this one man she'd thought never to find. She didn't know one such as he could exist. She was in his mind, knew him to be a man who would protect a woman, would fight to the death for her. She brushed her fingers lightly over his tough features. He was no boy. A strong face, for a strong man. He had chosen duty to his people, the one thing she understood. He thought to die. "There are so many terrible men in the world, Dominic, men who do horrible things to those weaker just because they can. I don't understand anymore. Why are you chosen for such a terrible mission, and not one of them?"

I chose, f?l ku kuuluaak s?vam bels --beloved. I did not know you were in this world. I was going to the next in hopes of finding you.

Of course he was aware of her hands on him. She sighed and rolled off of him, afraid she was too needy for his touch, for his wisdom. For his company. "Would you have chosen not to go on this mission then? Had you known about me, would you have allowed another to take your place?"

An image of Zacarias came into her mind. He offered. He wanted me to go to a healer and try to remove the blood. He said he would go in my place.

Her heart contracted as he replayed the exchange in his head. "Because I am his family? I despised him. He is so . . . overbearing." She was ashamed. "I had no idea he would do such a thing for a woman he has never met."

He loves his brothers. His memory of that love and of his honor have kept him going all these long endless years, Solange. He believes he cannot live with a woman who would resent his dominance. He has little left but service to those he loves.

She pressed the heels of her hands to her eyes hard. "Why didn't you say yes?" Her heart pounded, waiting for the answer.

I have the best chance to fight the pull of the bloodlust call. I am Dragonseeker. I will not, for my own pleasure, turn this job over to someone else. I set my foot on this path and I must follow it.

She let her breath out. Of course he would do the right thing. He had honor. "When Juliette found Riordan in their laboratory, Jasmine was taken. They managed to get their hands on my mother, my aunt and little Jasmine, although I had taken an oath to protect them--especially her. There was a jaguar who could partially shift. I'd never seen anything like that. None of us could do that, not my mother, and not Aunt Audrey. I knew how strong they were when I saw that."

She was silent and he simply waited for her to continue. The silence stretched a long time, but he never stirred, not even in her mind. She could feel his presence there, but he didn't push her. If she wanted to share, he would listen, but he wouldn't force her confidence.

Solange sighed. She'd never needed anyone, and to tell him her secrets was frightening and yet liberating. She respected his abilities as a warrior. She wanted to succeed in killing Brodrick. She didn't want to die in vain and leave her birth father behind to continue his despicable purging of any jaguar strain that wasn't pure. "I began to practice. Running and shifting. Leaping from trees and shifting. Most of all partially shifting, and I've gotten very good at it. Purebloods can do things other jaguars can't do. My blood is pure, Dominic, but it's also royal. As far as I know there are only two people left on earth with my blood type."

She reached back and touched the bite marks nearly gone from her shoulder, thanks to Dominic's ministrations. "I'm far faster than he knows. Maybe as fast as or faster than he is."

So your plan is to confront him.

She listened for the censure in his voice, but as always he sounded strictly neutral. "It's the last thing he'll expect. And he knows I'm his daughter now, that I carry the royal blood. As vile as it sounds, he will believe I'm his chance for an heir. He isn't the kind of man to allow a little thing like incest to stop him."

You believe he will hesitate to kill you, that he will seek to incapacitate you in some manner.

"Which will be another advantage."

He put his teeth into you, his claws.

"But his bite was to my shoulder, not my neck."

Her hand crept up to stroke the scars there, where, so long ago, Brodrick's claws had bitten into her neck in an effort to kill her. Had she moved just enough that he'd gone much shallower than intended? She had no idea what had saved her. She remembered his face, twisted with disgust, blood spattered across him, and those evil eyes staring down at her. He'd jerked her up by her hair and swept his claw across her neck and then, as he had the girls before her, thrown her outside the cabin into the clearing with the other bodies he considered rubbish.

So he will try to keep you alive. And if you do not succeed in killing him and he captures you, he will force you to bear his child, just as the mage forced my sister to bear his.

Her heart ached for him. She hadn't considered how similar the scenario was to his past. His tone of voice gave nothing away, but still, there was censure there in his words. She wished she could give him reassurance, but she wouldn't lie to him. "I will find a way to commit suicide before that happens."

You know that is unacceptable.

She snorted and slowly stretched, the languorous stretch of a lazy cat. "You should know. Your plan is equally stupid." You are very brave when I cannot move.

She found herself smiling. This was what she was most familiar with. In the dark, she could pretend he was a dream man rather than a real flesh and blood one. She had no inhibitions with this man. They could play their verbal chess match long into the night and she was absolutely safe. She shifted into her jaguar form and the cat curled around him, guarding him, daring anyone or anything to try to harm him.

Absolutely, she agreed, safe in the large cat's form. But it doesn't make anything I say less reasonable. You plan to go into the camp of the enemy, hear their plans, relay them to Zacarias and go out fighting. Isn't that the same thing?

He was silent for a moment, and deep inside the jaguar's body, Solange smirked. She felt just fine now. He had kept her off balance with his absolute masculinity and his blatant sexuality, but now she was back on her game. Equals.

It is not the same thing. I did not know you were in this world when I ingested the vampire blood. You, however, know I exist.

That brought her up short. Are you planning to die because of the vampire blood? Is that why you aren't going to try to leave the camp without them suspecting you of spying? She hadn't considered that. She should have. Of course he would think the blood would eventually turn him into the very thing he was fighting against.

No healer will be able to remove all the parasites from my body. There was a young woman who lived with them for years, but they were not mutated into this form as they are now. They are strong and multiply fast.

She couldn't hear regret in his voice, and that was one of the things she admired most about him. He didn't waste time on regret. He'd stepped onto a path and intended to see it through in spite of the circumstances that had changed everything.

She took a breath and revealed the truth, safe inside the body of her cat. Her most terrible and wonderful secret. The secret she knew would bring every vampire down upon her, as well as every member of the Carpathian race.

My blood kills the parasites.

She gave him the truth as a gift. Only Dominic would realize the enormity of the cost that admission was to her. She had never trusted anyone, not even Juliette, with that accidental knowledge she'd discovered. Her blood resisted the vampire's lure, their hypnotic suggestions. She knew there was something about it that drew mages as well. It wasn't about being a pureblood jaguar; it was her royal lineage, the lineage her father had managed to destroy. She knew if anyone found out about her, they would lock her in a laboratory and she'd never get out. Brodrick hadn't yet realized the significance of what the mages, vampires and even the humans were looking for. He was very single-minded in his quest to destroy all those of his species who couldn't shift, who he deemed impure.

How could you know this?

Even within the jaguar's body her heart pounded in alarm. There was no difference in his voice, but something . . .

I gather information all the time. I sit in the trees outside the laboratory and I listen to the guards, to the jaguar-men, the mages, even to the vampires. They are never aware of my presence. I noticed they rarely were aware of Brodrick until he showed himself, yet the vampires and most mages always seemed to know when the other jaguar-men were close. So something had to be different about Brodrick and me.

Dominic stirred in her mind, flooding her with warmth as he often did in their exchanges when she found it difficult to tell him something. A small nudge of encouragement. But this--this was monumental and she knew it.

A few weeks ago, I broke into their laboratory. I heard Annabelle had been taken and they often bring prisoners there now. They have tight security and few prisoners ever manage to escape. I needed to know the layout of the building. And I wanted to take a look at the computers.

She'd had to go alone. Juliette was helping her less and less, and only if Riordan was with them. Too many women were slipping through the cracks. She couldn't blame Riordan. He and his brothers had so much territory to protect that he couldn't be in all places at one time, any more than she could be.

She had gone without telling Juliette or Jasmine. More and more she went off for long periods, avoiding the De La Cruz ranches and their many homes scattered throughout the countries bordering the rain forest. She'd had to learn to rely solely on herself. She had become very good at secreting herself right under the noses of the humans and even jaguar-men. The mages and vampires had terrified her until she realized they couldn't sense her presence.

I managed to get into the laboratory through a window they had barred, but the bars weren't welded very well. I was able to pry them loose and then make it look as if they were intact. I checked their security cameras and found the rooms where they held prisoners. The computers were difficult--I don't really know a lot about them--but I found a spot in the room where I could hide. I stayed for hours.

Dominic remained silent, but inside he could feel the beast rising, a Carpathian male viewing his mate in extreme danger. She didn't tell him how she had made herself as small as possible and stayed absolutely still, her muscles cramping until she was afraid she wouldn't be able to walk again, but he caught the images and the very real fear of getting caught pouring off her. Shifting, she had no clothes, a lone woman naked in the very heart of the enemy camp.

Her courage terrified him and yet his pride and respect for her grew even more. She had nerves of steel, yet when she came to him, she was open and vulnerable. He hadn't expected to love her. Respect, admire, protect and care for, yes; even lust after. But to see that image of her, nearly bent in half, huddled, yet forcing herself to gather needed information to help the women of her species, brought an overwhelming emotion that burst through him like a volcano. He couldn't hold her while she told him, but he could surround her with warmth and he did, enveloping her in his love.

I heard the techs talking back and forth. At first I didn't really understand, but eventually I realized they were researching genetics, searching for psychic women. Jaguars have psychic abilities, so I knew that was how they were finding the ones in other countries and targeting them for kidnapping. Some went on a hit list and others were put on a list to bring back to the laboratory.

That made sense. Dominic had to get his hands on those lists. He would be walking into the laboratory and extracting the lists before destroying those computers.

A mage came in while I was there and he wanted them to pull up the jaguar lineages. He said his master needed a particular bloodline. He wasn't making sense. When they asked him what he was looking for, he muttered something about a sacred book and blood. I got chills down my spine, something that happens when I've stumbled across something important.

Of course. Jaguars were psychic. She had radar. Dominic knew about the book, stolen from Xavier, the mage who had first started the war with the Carpathian people. He had been the one to kidnap, use and eventually kill Dominic's sister. The book was now safely in the hands of the prince. Dominic had heard the book couldn't be opened, but needed to be destroyed. No one knew how. This news was unexpected, and like Solange, he felt instantly that it was important.

How close did the mage get to you? He shouldn't ask. He was already shaking inside. He wanted to be the man to protect her from everything, any harm, any pain, especially the torment of her past, but he could only lie helplessly as if dead while she told him what she had done. He couldn't even hold her close to him, shelter her in his arms.

Dominic couldn't imagine what it was like for her, knowing one of power had walked into the room and she'd had no weapons, no defense, if they found her. They would chain her up in one of their cells and the jaguar-men would have her whenever they wanted.

You must have been terrified of being caught. And if she hadn't been, he was terrified for her. Fear has an odor. I told myself I am invisible. In the rain forest, I often tell myself that when a jaguar male gets too close. Sometimes I believe that I am. The mage was so close to me that I could have reached out and touched him. Controlling my breathing was actually the most difficult task. He was angry that he couldn't find what he was looking for. He wanted someone from Brodrick's line, but Brodrick's blood was tainted somehow for their purpose. His depravities, the mage said. But they found no one else.

Because you're dead. Dominic realized it was the truth. Brodrick had killed his useless female child. Sabine and Audrey had carried the same royal blood, the last of their lineage. Both had mated with humans and their children had diluted that pure strain.

Your mother had never become pregnant again, in all the years of captivity. Surely Brodrick tried with her.

Aunt Audrey, too. He captured her a couple of years later. They held her about two years before we found her and she was pregnant. She and the baby both died in childbirth. I think, for a jaguar, the stress of captivity was too much for them. He beat them regularly, and viciously. I think he hates women.

Dominic turned the information over and over in his mind. So Brodrick has believed you to be dead all these years, so you were never entered into their database. The mages, the vampires, even the jaguars never knew your true identity.

He knows now. I've set things in motion. Brodrick will come after me now.

His instinctive reaction was one of violent protest, but he remained quiet, willing her to talk about the properties of her blood.

I got to thinking about how the vampires and the mages couldn't sense me. What was different about me and Brodrick? I'm a woman, he's a man; we're both jaguar, but different sexes. But then it occurred to me that everything with both the vampires and the mages comes down to blood--at least, she qualified, the mages who follow Xavier.

He is dead. The news reached me a week ago.

Xavier? So that's what shook everyone up. I knew something big had happened. There was a frenzy of activity around here.

How did you find out about the parasites? he prompted, almost afraid to ask. Because she'd done something very, very dangerous.

He had known she was an amazing woman from the first time he'd begun to talk to her in his dreams, but then, like now, when she was in jaguar form, he didn't actually hear her voice. He should have known she was his lifemate because he had begun to feel emotion, a slow emerging rather than the usual burst. He hadn't recognized what was happening because it was so out of the realm of possibility. He had thought the woman he'd conjured up to talk to had been a fearless warrior because only another warrior could understand him. Now he knew she was real. She did feel fear--she simply dealt with it because she had no other choice if she wanted to succeed. Just like she was dealing with her fear of giving herself wholly to him. He knew she was probably more terrified of him than she was a vampire.

I fought a couple of vampires with Riordan when they came up on us unexpectedly. He said they were lesser, or newer vampires and were not yet in full control of their powers. He had been working with all of us on how to kill one, so while he was occupied . . .

He told you to stay back. No De La Cruz would ever want a female member of his family in danger. Even the youngest would be influenced by their brother, the most dominant male Dominic had ever known.

Solange gave the mental equivalent of a shrug. He may have said something like that. Who listens when they are throwing out orders all the time? He is not my lifemate.

No, Dominic was her lifemate, and he had to bind her to him in such a way that she would choose to follow his dictates. It had to be her choice. Solange would fight a cage. She needed the freedom of being who she truly was, and they had to find a balance between his instincts and hers. It took a moment for him to realize he was thinking in terms of remaining alive.

He went very still. He believed her; her blood was valuable to his entire species and she could stop the spreading infestation of the parasites already running rampant in his body. He had a chance to live--with her. For one moment, despite the time of day, his heart fluttered, the sound loud in the chamber. He felt her startle. The cat stirred and lifted its head, looking around warily.

What is it?

He heard the courage in her voice. The determination to protect him. She would risk her life for him. But when she fully realized that neither of them was going to die, she would fear his hold on her. It was a tenuous thread that could be broken so easily. She didn't give herself easily, and it was one of the things he most admired about her.

All is well. No vampire would be out this time of day, and I do not feel a jaguar near. Tell me about the parasites. Show me. He needed to see the battle, see how she had handled her first solo fight with a vampire.

He felt her hesitation and knew she was afraid of his disapproval. He felt some satisfaction in that. Clearly, Solange didn't care what anyone else thought--except him.

I am not critiquing you, kessake . It is essential for me to understand how you think in battle. Honesty was crucial in his every encounter with his lifemate. If they were to have a future, she needed to know him just as well as he knew her, and for the first time, he believed they might really have a future.

Two vampires attacked Riordan. He's fast. Really fast. I watched how they tried to ensnare him with a hypnotic pattern, Juliette had to look away, but it didn't seem to affect Riordan, or me for that matter. He whirled around and went after the largest and most aggressive. The vampire maneuvered Riordan so that his back was to the second vampire.

He could see the entire battle in her mind. She had an eye for details. He could see the river shining through the trees, even hear the flow of it. There was no rain, but fog hung heavy through the trees. Riordan fought fiercely, circling around the larger vampire, flowing like the De La Cruz brothers seemed to do when in battle. His long hair cascaded down past his shoulders and his eyes were fierce pinpoints of steel.

He saw the second vampire step into position and knew immediately that the two undead had fought battles together before. He recognized the maneuver as one the Malinovs favored. Riordan recognized it as well. He'd fought side by side with the Malinovs for centuries. These two lesser vampires were students of one of the brothers.

Solange burst from the trees, running straight at the vampire, intercepting him before he could slam his fist into Riordan's back. Riordan had already vanished, moving in the fog, reappearing behind the larger vampire. Solange obviously used the speed and muscle of her jaguar, hitting the vampire with the force of the large cat. He saw the vampire grunt and howl, and then his talons ripped at her shoulder and neck.

She leapt away, her arm covered up to her shoulder with black acidic blood, her own body bleeding red blood. In her claw, she held the wizened, blackened heart.

"Riordan!" she called his name and tossed the dead organ toward him.

Lightning lit up the sky and a bolt hit the heart directly, and then jumped to the vampire already crumbling into the ground. Solange didn't have the luxury of removing the vampire blood by bathing in the white-hot energy; it would have killed her.

She raced to the river and plunged her arm into the water, rinsing. He saw the parasites exiting the wounds the vampire had torn in her skin. They should have burrowed into the lacerations, but instead they appeared to be fleeing with all possible haste. They dropped to the ground, her blood dripping over the top of them. Dominic could clearly see the tiny worms writhing, and then slowly they began to disappear, those ruby-red drops consuming them.

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