Chapter Fifteen

I can never betray you. You can never part from me. In love forever, this life and next. You are the very heart of me.

DOMINIC TO SOLANGE Cesaro saw Dominic and Solange coming and rode out to greet them on a dark horse. In full gaucho gear, he was an impressive sight. The horse all but pranced under him. He flashed a wary smile in greeting. "All is well?" he called.

Dominic shook his head. "We may have discovered a plot against Zacarias, Cesaro. We are not certain, but would like to discuss matters with you. You know more about this ranch and the people on it than anyone else, I would imagine."

Cesaro slipped easily from the horse's back, retaining the reins. "Of course. You have only to tell me what you need."

"The undead are gathering near this place and your people are all in danger. The undead will be seeking blood each night. Because there are many, they will take many lives. They can take any form, man or creature, including bats. How prepared are you should they come?"

"Each house is protected, but we must guard the cattle," Cesaro replied.

They got into the house the other night, Solange pointed out to Dominic, not wanting to disprove Cesaro's statement and hurt his pride. As a woman, he wouldn't like the protest coming from her.

"Forgive me," Dominic bowed slightly, "but how did the vampire get into the main house the other evening? He attacked young Marguarita. Did you make inquiries?"

Cesaro frowned, swept off his hat and scratched his head. "I can't think how such a thing happened. She would never invite anyone inside the house, and she would know she was safe inside. Don Zacarias has given precise instructions and we all follow them exactly. Each family residing here knows it is life-or-death. No one would open the door for the undead. For anyone."

Zacarias would have protected all of them from compulsion as well, Solange reasoned. All the brothers protect their families that way. Someone opened the door and let the vampire inside. Someone here is working for the vampires.

Dominic turned Solange's statement over and over in his mind. It still didn't feel right to him. He was missing something. "I would like to check on Marguarita, and discuss this further with you, Cesaro. Perhaps you could introduce me to those working here."

Cesaro's eyebrow shot up. He was responsible for the men and women working for the De La Cruz brothers. "Do you believe we have a traitor?"

Dominic chose his words carefully. Most of those working on the De La Cruz ranches were related in some way. "I just want to make certain that everyone is safe."

Cesaro turned his head and whistled. At once a younger teen bounded up and took the horse's reins, his eyes curious, but he didn't ask questions. When Cesaro waved him away, he looked disappointed but he took the horse back toward the corrals.

Dominic glanced down at Solange's upturned face and the question in her eyes. She'd been in his mind when he'd touched the boy. He could see Zacarias's barrier firmly in place. If a mage had managed somehow to take over one of the workers, he would have had to go through that barrier.

Marguarita? Could she have been possessed and opened the door for him?

Dominic shook his head. The undead tried to get into her head and was unsuccessful. He questioned her, and even though I felt the strength of the compulsion in his voice, she refused to give him information.

They followed Cesaro to the house. Dominic glided rather than walked, although he appeared to be walking with his easy, fluid, graceful stride and paying attention to Cesaro as he identified workers they passed. He didn't want to take a chance of making it appear as if he was examining the mind of every person within range. Everyone appeared protected.

The house rippled when they walked in. Dominic stopped abruptly. "Has Zacarias been here?"

"He would not leave with the undead walking the night. The cattle are restless and last night we lost several to the bloodsuckers. They dropped down from the sky. Two of my men barely escaped with their lives. Zacarias returned right after that and strengthened the protection in each house. He told us the cattle were not worth dying for and he wanted his men inside at night."

"And yet, it is night and you are watching the cattle."

Cesaro frowned. "We cannot just let them be slaughtered. This is what we do. Who we are. We are taking precautions. If there is a disturbance, we all go inside immediately. We have shelters set up for our protection."

Dominic exchanged a long look with Solange. These men were feudal in their own way. They had a job they took great pride in, and they weren't about to abandon their cattle to the vampires rampaging near their homes.

"Marguarita took a turn for the worse," Cesaro said. "She ran a high temperature and could barely breathe. Don Zacarias must have sensed she was dying and came to try to heal her again. He spent much time with her and then left. He is not resting here. He said it would be too dangerous for all of us."

"Perhaps he is right," Dominic acknowledged. There had been a touch of guilt in Cesaro's voice, as if he was ashamed that Zacarias would think they could not protect him while he slept. "He is feared by the undead and they do not know I am here. They believe he is the only one between them and what they want. They will try any means to kill him." He looked Cesaro in the eye. "Do you understand what I am telling you? He does this because you are his family. He will go to any lengths to protect you, even from himself."

Cesaro heaved a sigh. "I understand. It is our duty to serve and protect him as well. This does not feel right to me."

"He is lucky to have you," Dominic said with another small bow.

Ask him if anyone visits regularly that maybe doesn't work for Zacarias but borrows his vehicles once in a while, Solange prompted.

Dominic pushed a smile into her mind. Of course she would hit on the right question. He loved her all the more that she understood the way these men thought and acted, and it didn't bother her. They would feel much less inhibited discussing the workings of the ranch with a male than with her. He was Carpathian, like the family they worked for, and they knew he was Zacarias's friend. She was a shifter--a cat they equated with being an enemy. Cesaro was respectful but uneasy in her presence.

I do not care what others think of me, Solange said. Only you.

He could feel the truth of her words and it warmed him. She belonged to him--she wanted to be his alone. You know I value you above all else. Her opinion, her skills, most of all the love that was beginning to show in her cat's eyes.

His heart tripped a little over that shy, very new look. Sometimes when she looked at him, her expression sent his body into a violent, almost brutal state of arousal. She was so new to the idea of actually sharing her life with someone, and yet she was trying very hard to find a way around absolute terror to come to him whole. He loved the experience of watching her struggle to accept not just him, but her growing love for him. It was an unexpected journey he'd never thought he'd take, and he found himself loving her all the more for it.

"Cesaro." Dominic halted just outside of Marguarita's room. "Do you have a neighbor who is allowed to use the De La Cruz vehicles? Perhaps someone who was here the day of the attack, and two nights ago?"

Cesaro froze with his hand on Marguarita's door. He turned slowly, a wash of color in his face. His eyes went diamond hard. "There is such a man, he has been trying to court Marguarita. The De La Cruz family has been good to him. He bought the ranch that borders ours about a year ago. He had little left after the purchase and we have helped him several times."

"You say he is courting Marguarita." " Trying. We all found it amusing. Marguarita, as you have seen, is quite beautiful, but she is young and a little wild. Not with men, do not get me wrong. She is a good girl. But she likes her independence. She cooked and cleaned for her father and has the pick of the horses. She loves horses and is a good rider. This man, he can't tame her. Her father and I had many nights of amusement over this courtship. Marguarita has not even appeared to notice what he's doing with his flowers and candy. She smiles at him, as she does with all the workers, and thanks him on behalf of her father and all who would get joy from his offerings. She acts as though he brings things because he is allowed to borrow equipment."

"Has he shown anger over her rejection of him?"

"No one can be angry with Marguarita. She is a joy."

Dominic indicated to open the door. The moment he stepped through, he knew death had been very close. Had Zacarias not risen, this young, once vibrant woman would have died. She looked so pale she was nearly translucent. Dominic approached the bed. He glanced at Solange. She nodded, understanding. He would leave his body and go into Marguarita's to examine her, ensure she survived and check, this time, for splinters of possession. Solange would have to watch his back for him.

"It would be best," she said softly, "if you could leave us alone for a moment, Cesaro. And then we would very much like the name of this man who has visited and used one of your trucks."

Cesaro nodded and left the room. Dominic knew he stood beside the door with a hand on his weapon. Whether to protect them or Marguarita, it mattered little. The man had a duty as he saw it, and was prepared to defend the De La Cruz property and everyone in it.

"Very loyal people," Solange said.

Loyalty, Dominic knew, was a quality Solange very much admired. He glanced at her face. Cesaro was a handsome man.

Solange laughed. "You're such a male."

He wrapped his arm around her waist and drew her tight against him. " Very male," he confirmed. "And I keep what is mine."

She rolled her eyes at him. "Evidently you're feeling a little insecure this evening. Have I done something to make you think I'm looking at another man?"

"You were not looking at me."

Her soft laughter was like an aphrodisiac to him, sexy and teasing and all woman. "I'm always looking at you, Dominic." Her voice changed, dropped the teasing note, and was pure, raw honesty. "You fill my vision so much there's no room for me to see another man--ever. I only see you, Dominic."

His hand curled around the nape of her neck and he bent his head to taste her again. She was like the finest mixture of honey and spice and he could never get enough of her. "I could kiss you forever," he whispered against her lips. He tasted both warrior and woman, and it was a potent mixture.

"I had no idea kissing could be so addictive," she said. For a brief moment her body melted into his, soft and pliant and accepting. She glanced down at the pale woman. "Do you think the neighbor deliberately marked her for death at the hands of a vampire because she wouldn't cooperate with him?"

He saw the shift in her mind, the depravities of the jaguar-men, and knew her thoughts sickened her. His hand moved to her ponytail, playing gently with the thick strands. "There are good men and bad men in every race and species, Solange. Living here, doing the work you do, has made you see all men in a bad light. Cesaro would never strike his woman. Once you are able to scan minds you will be able to see for yourself that many good men exist in the world."

She shivered slightly and he knew his reference to her being fully Carpathian disturbed her a little. She had brought the subject up once in a roundabout way, but he knew she wasn't allowing herself to go there yet, and he respected her need to come to terms, very slowly, with what their life would be like together.

Dominic turned back to Marguarita and shed his physical body to become wholly spirit. He had no doubts that Solange would guard his body from harm while he worked at healing the young woman whose throat was so mangled. Zacarias had given her blood, more than he probably could have spared. The interesting thing was, he found traces of Solange's pure royal blood. The Carpathian blood was usually predominant, and here it was, but her strain was very distinct and it had somehow attached to the Carpathian blood, fully compatible, but not taken over. Her blood was very unique and had definite healing properties.

There was no way to repair the vocal cords fully. The undead had used razor-sharp talons, shredding through the cords. Both Dominic and Zacarias had concentrated on the muscles in her throat used for breathing and swallowing. She would live, be as beautiful as ever, but she probably would never speak again, or if she did, in no more than a husky whisper. But she would live. They had done their best for her.

He examined her mind, her memories, but there were no dark slivers of possession. She had not opened the door to the vampire. She'd heard her father's dying warning and she'd obeyed him, backing into her room and waiting for the workers to come. She had been crying for her father, knowing he was dead, but she had not gone to the door. And that meant someone else had been in the house without her knowledge. That someone had been familiar enough to enter without detection, and the safeguards didn't affect him. He was not considered an intruder.

Dominic pulled back to reenter his body, swaying a little with no idea of time passage. Solange paced like a restless cat from window to window. She glanced over her shoulder at him. "You okay? You look pale. Do you need blood?"

"Not yours. You are killing the parasites and we need them. I will ask Cesaro which man is strongest here."

"He will insist you take his blood."

Dominic smiled at her. "I know."

She covered Marguarita gently and brushed tendrils of hair from her pale face. "She'll be traumatized by this. And if a friend betrayed her, it will be all the worse. Maybe we should ask MaryAnn to come visit." She looked up at him and there was trust in her eyes. "Perhaps you could suggest to Cesaro they send for her."

Knowing her need to help women abused by men, he nodded. "I think that would be a good idea."

Dominic led her to the door. They still needed to add to the protection of these people, as well as track down the neighbor. And the undead were out in force. Likely encounters meant he had to be at his strongest.

Cesaro whipped his head around as they came through the door.

"She is sleeping as peacefully as possible," Dominic said. "I believe she has survived the crisis and is on the road to recovery. Do you know all the De La Cruz brothers?"

Cesaro nodded. "They come here from time to time. The brothers share the ranches."

"Manolito's wife, MaryAnn, would be a very good choice to help Marguarita through this. Perhaps if you sent for her, she would come."

"It would give us another man to defend the ranch," Cesaro acknowledged, knowing Manolito would come with his lifemate. "Thank you." He bowed slightly toward Solange, as if knowing just whose idea it had been. "I will do so immediately."

"Tell us about your neighbor."

"His name is Santiago Vazquez. He's about thirty and has only three men working for him. I rarely see anyone around his house. The ranch is very run-down. He needs money to build it up, and there is little money to be made on a ranch just starting up." "Do you have a very healthy, strong man working for you who might be willing to donate blood tonight? I have much to do and cannot go hunting."

"I am in good health," Cesaro said. "Please, it is an honor. You are doing so much to help us, and I am no longer afraid of the giving."

"I accept with gratitude," Dominic said, and stepped up to the man immediately, again not wanting to give him time to become afraid.

Solange looked down at her hands and he touched her mind even as his body felt the rush of energy the hot blood provided. She was upset that he wasn't taking her blood, and it fed her silly anxiety of inadequacies. He reached out and brushed the pad of his thumb down her cheek. Her gaze jumped to his. He slid his mind intimately against hers.

Your blood is superior to his, kessake . And I would much rather take from my woman, but I have yet to walk into the camp of the enemy.

I know. It's just that I haven't met any of your needs. Not one. And you are always doing for me. I want to be the one who gives you whatever you need. Another woman . . .

Would never please me the way you do.

He felt the brief flicker of a smile, although she didn't change expression. He politely closed the two puncture wounds and bowed slightly before beginning the intricate web of safeguards to add to Zacarias's work. The ranch would be doubly protected against the undead.

"Do not let strangers approach you. Often the undead appear beautiful. If they are very powerful, they can control how they look and talk, and will often take on the form of someone you know. They cannot pick anything from your mind, but they will study those who live here and try to appear as one of them. Their eyes can give them away, and often, when they walk upon the grass, it shrivels or withers. Nature will recoil from them. The animals will be uneasy when they are near and no dog can stand them."

Cesaro nodded his understanding. Feeling he could do no more to protect them, Dominic indicated to Solange it was safe to leave the house. They went out into the night, inhaling deeply to get the stench of fear, sickness and near death from their lungs.

They walked until they were out of sight and back under cover of the trees. Dominic took Solange into his arms and rose into the sky. She lifted her face so the wind blew over her. She was completely relaxed in his arms, trusting him to keep her safe no matter how fast or high they flew.

I love this, she confided. There is something very freeing in flying, like running along the branches in jaguar mode. She laughed softly and nuzzled his neck. You've given me some of the best experiences of my life.

I want to give you many more, Solange.

He loved the happiness in her voice. Whether she knew it or not, her trust in him was growing every moment they spent together. She had fully aligned herself with him. The woman and the warrior were merging. Her confidence in her appeal for him was also gaining strength. He bent his head and bit down gently on her neck, right over her tempting pulse. He was definitely going to the meeting the next rising so he could finally rid his blood permanently of the parasites and have no worries joining with her--if he could hold out.

He circled above the small ranch that lay sprawled across the rolling hills just meeting the southern tip of the De La Cruz property. Where the fields had been clean and well tended, the fences sturdy and the cattle in good shape at the De La Cruz ranch, it was the opposite here. The water hole was filthy and the cattle stood in thick mud, heads down in misery. The forest had begun to encroach, heavy vines taking down the fences in several spots. There hadn't been any attempt to repair the fences recently, although Dominic spotted several places where the grazing land had been cleared some time earlier.

He bought land that had been worked, he pointed out.

But he hasn't improved it at all.

Dominic dropped to earth inside the tree line. "Shift, Solange. I will go in first."

"I've got a stash of weapons close by. I'll cover you with a gun. He's human, not jaguar, and I've just got this strange feeling. I think I'm going to need my intellect to be sharper than my claws this time."

His dark gaze drifted over her. She wasn't really asking him, just stating her opinion. It didn't occur to her he might decide to overrule her. He loved that confidence in her when she read a dangerous scenario.

"Hurry, Solange. We are losing too much of the night."

She nodded and dashed away. It took a good five minutes, but she returned with a small case covered in dirt. "I think I'll do best in the trees just above his house. Try to keep him centered in the windows or better yet, keep him outside. I should be able to cover you if he's got company. Are you picking up more than one person?"

"Not in the house. He is alone at the moment, but there is someone in the smaller building behind the main house, and a third man seems to be in the barn."

"I should be able to cover all three locations. My jaguar is uneasy, Dominic. There is something very disturbing to her in this place. Be careful." He knew it would embarrass her, but he leaned down, framed her face with his hands and kissed her thoroughly. "Remember what I said about scaring me."

She rubbed her cheek against his like the cat she was. "No worries. Take me up to that tree branch. It will be faster than if I climb."

He glanced up. The branch was a good fifty feet aboveground. Most people would be terrified of the height, let alone at night with little moon. The rain had begun to fall again, just a drizzle, but it would be enough to make the branch slippery. Without a word he wrapped his arm around her waist and took her up to her perch.

It was more difficult leaving her than he'd thought it would be. He did trust her judgment and if her cat was uneasy, something was off at the ranch. He was expecting to find a man who had been possessed, but he knew Solange expected something else as well, and for the first time he had no real clue to what they faced--or why. There was something in Solange's blood that made it special, and he was beginning to think they were the ones being hunted now--and for her blood. But who was after her? The vampires? Brodrick? Someone else?

He let his breath out in a long, slow hiss of frustration.

Does it really matter? Her voice was soft in his head, almost tender, brushing along nerve endings that felt almost raw. It is my way of life and I chose it long ago, just as you chose your life. They are not expecting two of us. They believe they are facing a female jaguar only, and they will make a mistake--if they haven't already.

He thought of those silver eyes. Possessing another's body, taking over without consent and forcing the body to do one's bidding was such a foul, vile crime. Even with all he'd seen in his long centuries, he couldn't imagine why anyone would be willing to cross that line of humanity other than Xavier, the head mage who had started the war with the Carpathian people so many centuries earlier.

Solange's response was reassuring. She was matter-of-fact about facing death and her calm acceptance of their way of life allowed his mind to settle to the task at hand. She was not a woman who would panic, or worse, throw herself into unnecessary danger to prove some point. She was experienced and read situations correctly, had endless patience and knew when to retreat without her ego being involved. She was a good partner to have. When there was need, she would be at his back--or his side--without hesitation. There was something appealing about having a partner he could count on.

She knew his protective instincts would come into play and she accepted that as she did everything else about their life together. Somehow, his Solange had become his world and she'd enhanced everything in it, including going into battle.

Whoever was in the barn is now in the house with Santiago Vazquez. I got a good look at him, and didn't recognize him. I know most of the humans working at the laboratory as well as most of the jaguar-men. This man isn't from around here.

He gained the porch without alerting anyone to his presence. Someone moved around inside and he could hear a voice coming from the back of the house. The man he assumed was Vazquez answered in a louder, much angrier voice.

"She's alive. I was just there and she's still alive."

Dominic stood on the porch, listening. They had to be talking about Marguarita.

"You promised he would kill her if I did what you said. I've done everything. The slutty little cock-tease is still alive and there's no fun to be had in this hellhole."

The man with the lower voice murmured very softly, but his tone carried command. "She is of no importance to us now."

"She was important to me. She was my in with the De La Cruz family. I tried to get her alone to compromise her, but she wouldn't even go riding with me."

The man with the low voice sighed. "Her family would have killed you had you done such a stupid thing, and then everything we worked for would be gone. She's nothing, Santiago. There are many women, and we can ensnare any of them once we are in possession of the book and the blood of the royal jaguar. Focus on what's important here. If we get those two things, we have it all. Power. Women. Wealth beyond dreams. And the vampires, Carpathians and the jaguar-men will bow before us. We can rule where we want to rule."

Did you hear them, Solange? Dominic had repeated the conversation in his mind so she could follow along.

"Damn Brodrick. He's so fucking evil his blood is tainted now. He's ruined everything with his sickness," Santiago complained. "His mind is rotted as is everything in his body."

"We will find her," the second voice soothed.

They are mage then, she said. And they have an agenda of their own. What is so darn special about my blood? And why wouldn't Brodrick's blood do? They obviously have to have some kind of connection to him, and they must know he has the same bloodline.

Somehow his depraved lifestyle of murder and rape has ruined the purity of his blood, Dominic answered. He had no idea how, but there could be no other explanation.

The two men inside the house were obviously in on their plot together. One wanted the life of a wealthy rancher and the other wanted power. Santiago was more likely the weaker link, and the one whose body was possessed by the other, although Dominic was certain they were related. The two smelled like siblings.

I will go around to the shed to see who is out there. They would not have anyone here that was not part of their plan.

I can't cover you from this angle, Solange objected. I can see both men in the house through the large windows, but from here I can't see inside the shed.

I will be in another form. He found himself smiling as he moved around the verandah toward the back of the house, a very faint stream of vapor.

As he approached the shed, he slowed into a fine stream, nearly floating around the small wooden building. He could feel the force of energy pulsing from inside. The warped walls could barely contain the pulsing power trapped inside. Do you feel this?

He felt Solange's sharp intake of breath. Get out of there, Dominic. Don't get too close.

Where there had been no breeze, the rain forest floor so still beneath the canopy, without warning, the wind whipped into a frenzy, rushing at the line of trees surrounding the ranch on three sides and right toward Solange. A roar burst from the shed. Inside something blazed white-orange, shining through the cracks of old warped wood.

Something large hit the door of the shed hard enough to shake the entire building. The door splintered halfway up, bulging out.

Get out of there, Solange, Dominic commanded.

Do I have stupid written on my forehead? Half laughter, half exasperation and a dash of very healthy fear edged her voice. She knew whatever was in that shed had scented blood-- her blood--and it was coming for her.

Dominic countered the direction of the wind, pushing it away from Solange so the creature--whatever it was--couldn't find her by scent. The shed shook a second time as the large animal hit the door. This time the wood gave in the middle, breaking and pushing jagged shards outward.

Two men burst from the back of the house, running across the uneven, muddy ground toward the shed. The two looked exactly alike--and neither had silver eyes. Both stopped abruptly about halfway to the shed, spinning around, going back-to-back, hands raised. One spotted the tendrils of fog and immediately hissed something to his twin.

"Alistair!" Santiago yelled as the huge creature in the shed slammed into the door a third time, blasting through it. An enormous black cat leapt out, rushing straight for the forest.

Dominic recognized Santiago's voice, knew he was in trouble and began to streak across the yard. Shoot the cat, Solange.

The back door of the shed burst open and a third man rushed out, his hands up as well. Santiago whirled around, shoulder to shoulder with his brother, and simultaneously both men slammed their hands straight at the mist. Behind them, the silver-eyed Alistair added his powerful energy to the other two. For a moment they looked as if they'd merged into one being.

Light burst from their fingertips, exploding outward directly into the vapor streaking away from them. The sound of a gunshot reverberated through the forest. A hole blossomed in the center of Santiago's forehead. The second man hit the ground, rolling toward cover. The force of the blast struck Dominic and blew him out of the sky.

A second shot sounded and the man on the ground screamed. Dominic hit a tree hard and barely managed to land in a crouch on his feet. His entire body burned and he took a moment to assess the damage. Solange sprayed the ground in front of him, driving back any attack from the mage brothers.

The cat was out of his sight, but running flat out for Solange. Dominic had to make the choice between destroying the mages and protecting Solange. There really was no choice. He went after the enormous cat. Built like a saber-toothed tiger with enormous muscles, the black cat could become an insubstantial shadow and could only be killed when it was in substance form.

As he raced after the cat, Dominic took command of the skies. Thunder rolled, dark ominous clouds boiled out of nowhere. Rain poured down. Lightning forked across the sky, building electricity and energy into a frightening mass. Lightning bolts slammed the earth over and over, striking all around the yard between the house and shed. One hit the shed and it burst into blackened splinters of wood, spilling the contents into the open.

Inside were small cubs in various stages of misery, some half formed, some screaming in pain as their twisted bodies were half solid and half shadow. Their pitiful mewling and growls could be heard over the thunder shaking the ground. The uninjured mage raced toward one of the escaping cats, calling out a command. About half-grown, with part of its body transparent and eyes glowing a hot red, the cat whirled around, hissing and spitting, fighting the compulsion to return to the mage.

Lightning slammed to earth again, and large, white-hot explosions burst around the mutilated cats, incinerating them so fast they couldn't feel the blast of heat. Only the half- grown one remained, cowering, trying to slink away from the mage.

Don't kill it! Solange sounded shattered. He could hear her weeping deep in her mind. Her female jaguar was outraged and struggling to surface. We can save that one, Dominic. Please. Please don't kill it.

Dominic kept the bolts of lightning up, driving the mage away from the cat even as he tuned his mind to the cat's. He wasn't at all certain it was a good idea to try to save a mutated cub programmed to go after Solange's blood, but he couldn't resist the plea in her voice or the tears in her mind.

Run! he commanded the cub. Try for the river and I will help you if possible.

The cat, with the added help of Dominic, broke free of the mage's restraining spell, spun around and ran into the forest.

Solange fired off several rounds as the large black cat tore up the tree trunk, shredding bark as it scrambled to get to her. The thing was heavy, and she climbed higher, into the thinner branches, but they were covered with leaves and Dominic lost sight of her. He could see the cat though, a huge animal, the muscles straining as he clawed his way slowly up the tree, his eyes fixed on Solange. If Dominic blasted the animal, it would take out the tree--and Solange--unless his timing was perfect.

The cat shimmered, nearly translucent, and made one huge jump onto the heavier lower branches. His growls rumbled hideous and loud, so that the forest creatures went silent, cowering in dens. Even the ever-present very vocal cicadas went silent. The forest seemed to hold its breath as the cat dragged its body up to the next level.

Are you ready? Dominic asked, his heart in his throat.

Was it possible for her to shed her clothes and shift in time if the tree went? He knew she was fast, but . . . He pushed the thought away. He needed a clear strike zone. Solange was waiting, intent on getting a clear shot through the dense foliage. She didn't have room to maneuver and her perch was precarious. Not only was the limb flimsy, but the weight of the cat sent the tops of the trees swaying.

Dominic moved swiftly, trying to cover the distance to catch her if needed, but all of his senses were focused on the cat. The large animal continued to stare straight up at Solange, growling and slobbering.

Can you reach its mind? Solange still sounded calm--much calmer than he felt with the huge animal ripping through the trees to get at his lifemate.

The other cat had been protected by the mage with a strong barrier. Dominic pushed hard into this cat's mind. The creature existed for one purpose only--to bring its master Solange's blood. The mutated animal's senses were all programmed for one scent, for one person. There would be no stopping it from dragging her from the trees and hauling her to the mage.

He took a breath and narrowed his vision, centering on the space just below Solange. It was the only true open space.

Be ready, beloved. The cat leapt at her. Dominic blasted it, catching it in the air, but the lightning bolt crashed through the huge body, slamming into the tree. The cat disintegrated into ash and the tree toppled with a terrible splintering crash.

Solange timed her jump using Dominic's mind. She vaulted from the tree as the bolt passed through the cat, leaping out and away from the falling tree. Still clutching the rifle in her hands, she made no attempt to shift, simply trusting him to catch her. He managed to get his arms around her as she fell about two-thirds of the way. At no time did he feel panic in her.

But he felt panic-stricken, his heart thundering in his chest as he held her tight enough that she could barely breathe. She didn't try to squirm away, simply allowing him his moment of relief.

He swooped over the ranch. Santiago's dead body was still lying on the ground. A blood trail led to where a vehicle had been parked. The silver-eyed mage and his sibling were long gone. Dominic changed direction, heading to the river. The smaller cub paced up and down the bank, yowling in distress. He snagged the creature and shoved it into Solange's waiting arms.

She caught it below its front legs, holding it out away from her, face out, rocking gently. The cat's head drooped to one side and it fell instantly to sleep.

Great. Now we have a friendly little kitten. What are we going to do with that? Dominic asked in disgust.

Solange's soft laughter warmed him as nothing else could. He had the feeling that in their lifetime together, rescuing animals children and possibly adults was going to become commonplace.


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