But then beyond hope, you came into my dream . . . Your melody haunting, your gentle voice healing. The soul of a poet, great heart of a warrior. You gave all for your people. Let me give you feeling!
SOLANGE TO DOMINIC
What had she done? Solange stood in the rain, hands covering her face, throat aching, her heart thundering in her chest. She'd told him every secret thing about her. She'd thought herself safe, that he wasn't real. She had exposed her every weakness. Had the dreams been some kind of trick? She groaned and stroked a hand over her throat to try to ease the terrible pain. Her vocal cords felt shredded--just like her heart.
A Carpathian warrior. She had made him up. Built his image detail by detail--hadn't she? She had known back then, when she first began to daydream, that she had given up all hope and was coming to the end of her days. Her warrior had been the only thing keeping her going through all the battles and all the horrific slaughters she had encountered. Brodrick the Terrible had been determined that he would purge every diluted strain of jaguar he could find. Only those who could shift were spared--male and female.
There was no way to stop the evil inside of her father. The sickness had begun hundreds of years earlier, treating the women like slaves, like breeders, the men following the suit of the royal family. They had been self-indulgent, depraved, craving the power and building upon it, encouraging the worst traits of their species rather than attempting to become something different. Brodrick enjoyed killing. He surrounded himself with men just like him.
The familiar rain felt like a seductive stranger, teasing her senses, running between the valley of her breasts and down her belly to the junction between her legs. Strangely aroused by the sensation, Solange lifted her face to the rain, capturing a few drops in her mouth, allowing it to run down her throat to ease the ache. There was no easing the ache between her legs.
Colors as bright as the sun swirled in front of her eyes, nearly blinding her. Every emotion was magnified a thousand times. Humiliation. Embarrassment. Sorrow. Rage. A terrible sexual hunger, raw and volatile, a craving she'd never experienced. The rain dripped from the tips of her breasts, now tight, blossoming into twin hard peaks. She looked down at her body, and tears burned behind her eyes.
This need, this craving, was stronger than any heat she'd ever experienced. It took her breath and stole her sanity. The passion didn't just involve her body--every single part of her, heart and soul, seemed to have an overwhelming desire to be with him. Lifemates. She had seen the devotion her cousin Juliette's lifemate had to her. He paid attention to the smallest thing, seemed completely focused on her every moment--and that kind of concentration would make Solange crazy. She'd been alone too long. She went weeks without seeing or talking to another person. How could she possibly be in a relationship? She didn't know how. She didn't know the first thing about sharing her life or--or anything. Panicked, she could barely breathe, her lungs burning for air. She could never go to him. Never. There was hardly a place on her body that wasn't scarred. She had no smooth skin to offer, no soft side to the hard-edged woman who had become nothing more than a fighting machine. The dream woman had been an illusion. MaryAnn, Manolito's lifemate, was as close to a friend as she had, and even MaryAnn had chided her for her wild hair and lack of femininity. She had pretended it didn't matter that she wasn't womanly, and it hadn't then. But now--now that he was in her life, now that he had come, this man among men, this warrior who stood head and shoulders above the rest . . .
She moaned and pressed her fists into her eyes. She wasn't a woman to cry. Or to crave a man. Or to need him. Yet somehow, over the course of the last few months, that had all changed. She had changed--driven to the brink of destruction by the endless horror of her chosen life. There had been no respite--but him. The Carpathian. Her Carpathian.
She inhaled sharply and silently admitted that she needed the Carpathian, even if it was just to share his last days. He would never flinch from what he perceived as his duty to his people any more than she would. This was a terrible mess and it came at the worst possible time. She had finally found Brodrick. She knew where he was, but she also knew he would never stay there long. And he usually traveled with his most violent soldiers.
Around her the air stilled. All noise ceased in the forest. Her jaguar froze, shoved close to her skin as if to protect her. The hair on her arms stood up and a frisson of fear slid down her spine. Insects poured over the ground, ants and beetles swarming, covering everything in their path. She saw them flowing like a black river over the fallen trunks, moving toward her. Overhead, the sky filled with bats, moving fast through the canopy, an ominous black cloud, dark portents of things to come.
The vampires had risen. She shifted quickly, letting the change take her. The undead would rise hungry and looking for prey. In her human form she would easily attract them. Her jaguar form could get into the canopy and wait until they passed.
Bats. Her dream lover's voice hissed the warning in her mind. The undead are rising.
She was already back in the trees, the jaguar climbing into the crook of a branch, high up beneath an umbrella of thick leaves. She stayed very still.
They will be hungry. Shift and hide, get to safety. It is unsafe to communicate this way. Any surge in power will alert them.
Her tail twitched in annoyance. Did he think she wasn't aware of what to do? She wasn't stupid. Manolito and Riordan had taught her, Juliette and Jasmine how to kill a vampire should the need arise. Lately, in the last several weeks, their training had saved her life numerous times. She was a warrior first. Always. She didn't take the chance of responding because she knew her Carpathian was right, and the undead might feel the surge in power it took to communicate telepathically. It probably could be done without them knowing, but she wasn't experienced enough and Solange never took unnecessary chances.
She kept her head on her paws and pushed everything from her mind as the bats wheeled and dipped in the air, some consuming flying insects while others settled on the fruit in the trees. She could see others crawling along the ground in search of warm prey. She remained very still, even keeping the tip of her tail still until, slowly, the bats moved on to new territory. Only then did she rise and stretch with a cat's languid manner.
She had a job. She'd set a trap and she knew Brodrick and his men would fall into it. They would never be expecting her to return. By now they would know she was wounded. They would think themselves safe from her. And Brodrick had formed an uneasy alliance with the vampires. The undead could control the minds of the jaguars with diluted blood and even pure blood, but certainly not a royal. As long as Brodrick got what he wanted from the vampires, he would continue to have a relationship with them. It was a pact made in hell as far as she was concerned. Brodrick was set on a path of destroying any jaguar unable to shift. The vampires had vowed to help him reach his goal so he was fine with helping them.
The huge laboratory built by the human society--a group of people dedicated to hunting and killing vampires--was used supposedly just for research, but she'd been inside and knew the building was used for much more nefarious purposes. Enemies were held and tortured there. Jaguar-women were often taken there to be used by Brodrick and his men. But the real purpose for the building was much more bizarre. She'd seen the banks of computers. Vampires didn't have the ability to sit for hours at a computer compiling data, but both humans and jaguar-men could do so, and the vampires needed them to carry out the task of building a database of psychic women around the world for them.
Brodrick's men seemed to handle most of the details, and she was certain they were compiling a hit list of people--particularly women--who carried the jaguar blood. She hadn't been able to confirm that, but she often lay in the branches of the trees for hours watching over the facility--a terrible risk certainly, yet one she hoped would yield even a single piece of important information.
Certain now that the vampires had moved on through in search of blood, Solange began to make her way back toward the bluff overlooking the river where the woman, Annabelle, had thrown herself onto the rocks below rather than be recaptured by the men who hunted her. She tried to push the face of the desperate woman from her mind. Solange had shifted and called to her, exposed herself in order to stop her, but Annabelle had been so desperate, she refused to take a risk when the men began firing guns at Solange.
The jaguar shook its head. The dead often rose up to taunt her. Sometimes she thought she might drown in their screams, in the terrible cruelty done to them. Solange knew human trafficking had become a major problem in other places, but here, in her world, it had been going on for centuries, thanks to the leaders of her people. Women were objects, nothing more. Vessels and possessions. The men had such entitlement, believing themselves above all laws, even the laws of common decency. The women were put there simply to serve their brutish sexual needs and give them children.
Solange padded softly along the labyrinth of interlocking branches forming the arboreal highway. The animals and birds, still cowed by the passing of evil, simply shivered as she moved past them toward her destination. She went fast--she'd covered many miles throughout the day to get to the site of her childhood home, and now had a long way to go in return. It was faster using the canopy to travel, but several times she was forced to go to the forest floor.
The wound on her hip broke open, seeping more blood. She couldn't afford the scent in the air. With a sniff of impatience, she made her way to one of her many stashes throughout the forest. Deep inside a cage of roots she had hidden a small waterproof box. A set of clothing, weapons, ammunition, dried food, clean water and a medical kit waited for her. She had to shift and sew up the wound.
It was always important in the rain forest to cleanse and close a wound, applying an antibiotic cream--and this was no exception. Infections were rampant, easy to get and easy to die from. As a rule she was meticulous with wounds, and the fact that she'd traveled all the way to the place of her family's slaughter without caring for the lacerations told her a lot about her mental state. She needed to find a way out or she was going to die soon. She had nothing left to give--and that shamed her.
She shifted back into her jaguar form. It was easier to handle the deep emotion threatening her sanity when buffered by her animal, especially at the realization that there would be no end to Brodrick's depravities. There were so few women in the rain forest, or even living on the edge of it, that Brodrick had resorted to using the vampire database to find jaguar-women in other countries. He had them kidnapped and brought to him. That was how Annabelle had been taken. Her husband was human, from what Solange had understood, but that hadn't stopped the men Brodrick had hired from kidnapping her.
The human society was in close league with Brodrick, although she'd noticed that all the men guarding the laboratory were afraid of him. As they should be. Brodrick was as cruel and depraved as any vampire, and just as cunning. He knew the rain forest--it was his home turf. Her reputation had grown over the years, and by now, he would know there was a pureblood female shifter wreaking havoc with his plans. He despised disobedience, and his punishments were swift and brutal. He demanded complete submission, especially from a female. He would want her alive--her one advantage. The males she encountered would be handicapped by trying to bring her to Brodrick still breathing.
She hurried now, loping occasionally. They would burn the body of the jaguar male she'd killed tonight to keep their presence hidden. They would want Annabelle's body to burn as well. Hopefully Brodrick would be there to direct the operation personally, but if not, and she managed to send him another body or two, he would stay to hunt her. He would never be able to take a slap in the face like that from a female. He would move heaven and earth to find her. She would let him and she would kill him. She expected to die, but she wasn't going alone. She would rid the remaining jaguar-women of his evil presence even if it meant paying with her death.
She could hear the roar of the river and she went to her belly, listening, sniffing the air, looking for signs in the animals as well. She scented the presence of at least two males, jaguar-men, but not in their animal forms. Their senses would be a little duller, their hearing less acute. She worked her way south of them until she came to another of her small stashes, again sheltered from the elements by the roots of a tree. This box was longer and held her weapons, carefully cleaned, with a wealth of ammunition. She shifted and dressed quickly, strapped on a knife, a crossbow, extra arrows and her rifle. She wasn't the best with a handgun, although she wasn't bad, but at a distance she was a damned good shot with both a rifle and crossbow.
She made her way through the forest, keeping to the animal trails. She had the advantage of being small and compact, allowing her into spaces the larger jaguar males might not go to pick up her scent. She crawled on her hands and knees some of the time and other times she slid on her belly to get to the site she'd chosen for her attack.
She took a good careful look around, scent-testing the air, before she went up the tree. It was much more difficult to go half human, half cat, but she'd used the technique often over the years so she could climb to the canopy fast and yet bring the weapons and clothing she might need.
She settled into the crook of the tree, listening to the sounds coming from the river's edge. A lot of swearing. Muttering. She narrowed her vision, peering through the leaves to survey the rocks. From that angle, she couldn't see a body. They had to have moved it, or perhaps the body had come off the rocks into the water and had been swept downstream. Evidently that was the conclusion the two men had come to.
"You should have hauled her up onto the bank, Kevin," one complained.
She recognized the speaker. She'd wounded him. She'd hoped she'd done a better job, but he was walking on his own now.
"I was too busy hauling your ass back to the lab to stop the bleeding. You would have died out here if I hadn't, Brad," Kevin snapped.
The jaguar-men were famous for their ugly tempers. Neither wanted to follow the river for miles in the hopes of finding the body, but they had no choice. It was a law they all lived by, to destroy all evidence of their species. The two men stood looking down over the bank, and then spat, almost simultaneously, their disgust evident. Solange bit her lip hard, furious that they would show such disrespect to the woman they had so brutally used--the woman they'd driven to suicide. She put the rifle to her shoulder, took a breath, finger on the trigger, and put Kevin squarely in her sights. There was always that moment when she wondered if she could do this--if she would hesitate and alert them to her presence, allowing them to kill her first. She'd never be taken alive. She'd rescued too many women and seen close-up what they did to their victims, and would never allow herself to fall into their hands. Jasmine, her cousin, had been taken by these same men. Solange detested them. They deserved to die. Every one of them had committed murder, killing men, women and children. Yet . . . She felt that horrible moment stretch out in front of her. Could she do this again? How much of herself would she lose regardless of whether it was justice? The cost of taking lives had gone so high she was no longer certain that she was willing to pay.
She squeezed the trigger. Kevin jerked, and the sound of the shot reverberated through the forest as the body slowly crumpled, a hole blossoming in the back of his head. Brad twisted around, leaping into the air as he tried to locate the source of the sound even as she squeezed off the second shot. The bullet caught him in his shoulder, spinning him as he began his fall from the cliff's edge to the raging river below. He shifted in midair, frantically trying to tear at his clothes as he plummeted into the roaring water.
Bile churned in her stomach, rising to her throat as she wiped sweat from her face. The second man would probably live, but he would be out of commission for a while. She'd have to hunt him later. And she could never stake out another body again; they'd be waiting for her. Already she was automatically putting weapons in the proper place for a descent, trembling the entire time but moving out of pure experience and reflex. She had to move fast and get out of the area. Brodrick traveled with a group of fighters and she wasn't in any shape to fend them off. Sound traveled at night and they would have heard the gunshots.
A bird shrieked. She leapt from the branch, hand outstretched, catching at the thick, woody liana vines hanging from all the trees and swinging hard, using her forward momentum to drive her across to the next vine. Her arms were nearly yanked out of their sockets as she hurled her body across open space toward the next tree. She managed to pull herself onto a branch, shifting her weight to give herself the best leap toward the vines hanging between the next two trees.
She glanced over her shoulder as she jumped, and saw the huge black jaguar running along the branches of the tree she'd vacated. Her heart slammed hard in her chest, her breath exploding out of her lungs. Brodrick the Terrible. For a moment she was a terrified child again. The eight-year-old girl with her family dead around her and the man, larger than life, staring at her with flat, dead eyes, driving the point of his knife into her skin to try to provoke her cat into revealing itself.
Don't panic, she chided herself, forcing her brain to work as she moved between the trees. She changed her course subtly, always one step ahead of that fierce, angry cat. He was too heavy to use the vines, forced to run along the branches. Her advantage was the air, and she went for the trees without interlocking branches, forcing him to slow in his chase, making him go to the forest floor to follow her progress. Below her, he raged, running, snarling, his roar filling the night. After that first initial shock, Solange held her terror in check. She knew this part of the rain forest, probably better than Brodrick did. He had no idea she was his daughter, the one he thought he'd murdered and thrown away as garbage years earlier. She had a few advantages if she kept her head. She caught the vine that would take her into the tree nearest the fast-flowing river. Swollen from the endless rain, the water flooded the banks on either side and churned and rolled over the rocks, creating a series of rapids. She moved through the trees overlooking the river.
Brodrick roared again and leapt at the thick liana just as she grasped it, her momentum swinging the wooden rope toward her destination. She felt the jerk and her heart jumped in her throat. Her body slammed into the branch hard, hands reaching desperately for a purchase. She missed with her left hand but her right caught the gnarled branch firmly. She managed to grip with her left and kept moving, using her weight as a pendulum to swing herself onto the branch.
She ran along the branches, fitting an arrow into her crossbow. Brodrick scrambled up the trunk and landed behind her, hard enough to shake the tree. She faced him, standing her ground, looking into those evil yellow eyes. He stared at her, motionless, in a crouch, prepared for a rush. She felt the pull of his mesmerizing power, those eyes burning over her, marking her as prey.
She held the crossbow at her hip, loosely aimed, and stared into his eyes. She let him see her loathing. She despised him. There would be no respect. No give to this monster. And no fear. She would never show him fear again. His lip curled at her insubordination. Grown jaguar-men, experienced fighters, bowed before him, but here she was, a lowly woman, meeting his stare, not looking away--daring to challenge his authority.
Solange made certain that he could see her contempt. Her defiance. Her complete revulsion of everything he was. Taunting him. She knew him. She'd studied him. He demanded complete reverence, and he got it through intimidation and cruelty. All must bow before him, especially women. He hated the women who carried life in their bodies but refused to follow his will. They were put on earth to serve their men, to be used in whatever way the men saw fit, and yet they'd fled the rain forest and his authority to find human males. It was a slap in his face and he despised them. Every chance he got he punished them in demeaning and brutal ways. She knew her defiance would enrage him--and she wanted him enraged.
They stared at one another for a long time, neither blinking. She saw the power gathering in his muscles, the fierce directness in his stare.
"It's been a long time--Father." She spat the word.
The jaguar stilled, muscles going rigid. She'd thrown him off his attack. She kept his gaze, playing the life-and-death game with him. "You wanted royal blood. Am I the only one you didn't manage to destroy?"
She saw the hesitation--the puzzlement. He wanted a female shifter of pure blood, but where had she come from? And royal blood? In all the hundreds of female children he'd destroyed, he wouldn't remember one. He would want her alive. He knew she was a shifter and that she was fast at it. There were so few women left who could shift.
She waited patiently, breathing. In. Out. Waiting for him to hear what she said. Not pure. Royal. She saw the moment he understood . Father. Royal. Yeah, he put it together. He shook his head, clearly shocked, his eyes never leaving her face.
She flashed her teeth. "Aren't you going to say welcome home-- Daddy?"
It was a taunt. A dare. A female challenging him.
He snarled and began to shift--as she knew he would. She had only seconds. He was fast--faster than she'd imagined he could be. She brought up the crossbow and shot an arrow straight into his shifting throat. Turning, she leapt into the next tree, moving fast, knowing if she hadn't killed him, he would come after her.
She heard the roar, caught the spatter of blood on the leaves around her and kept going. The jaguar was enraged, and a wounded cat was doubly dangerous. Something big crashed onto the tree behind her and the entire tree shook, nearly dislodging her. She threw herself precariously onto the next branch, scrambling to get across the shaking limb. Tree frogs jumped out of her way. A lizard burst out from under leaves and ran. She caught the movement out of the corner of her eye but didn't slow, leaping to the next tree, landing in a crouch to whirl around and let fly a second arrow.
The black jaguar looked hideous, all teeth, blood running down its neck to the broad chest. There in the darkness his eyes glowed red, fixed on her, angry and determined, his ears going flat when he saw the loaded crossbow. The arrow took him high in the shoulder and he roared his anger, the sound reverberating through the forest.
Birds shrieked, rising from the canopy in spite of the darkness, taking to the skies to avoid the vengeance of an enraged jaguar. Solange knew better than most just what force a large cat could hit with, and as Brodrick sprang at her, she dove to the next tree. Her hands missed the branch and her heart somersaulted. Her outstretched arms slammed into a thin branch. The crack was audible, but she grabbed out of sheer desperation. Her fingers wrapped around the limb and the jaguar landed hard on her back, claws ripping flesh.
Hot breath poured over her neck as the jaguar tried to bite down on her shoulder. The limb broke and they fell together. Solange tried to turn enough to jam the crossbow against the cat's heaving sides, but it was impossible. His spine was too flexible and he turned with her, preventing her from dislodging him. Her body hit a branch and broke it in half, sending the heavy jaguar careening against the trunk and finally off of her. Solange looked down at the churning water and then up at the jaguar gathering itself for another spring. Head down, she somersaulted off the branch and into the raging water. The bellow of the jaguar followed her down. She tried to enter the water straight, feet first. The cold was shocking to her body as the dark waters closed over her head and threw her tumbling downstream. She rolled over and over, lungs burning. She lost the rifle and crossbow immediately, the weapons ripped from her hands as the vicious current took her.
Exhausted, her body numb, Solange fought her way to the surface to grab a lungful of air before the current rolled her under again. She tucked her legs into her chest and tried to ride it out, no longer fighting the pull, just allowing the strength of the river to carry her far from her enemy. She had to grab air when she could, and twice she slammed into rocks. Their surface was too slippery for her to hold on to, so she went spinning down river again.
In the inky darkness she caught sight of a tawny jaguar lying on the bank, stretched out, and she swept by so fast she couldn't tell if he was dead or alive. She tried to stay quiet, to suppress her gasps for air, the sobs trying to escape her burning lungs. She was so exhausted it was becoming difficult to move her arms or try to keep her body straight, feet pointed ahead of her. She couldn't see rocks until she was on them, and had no chance to pull herself out of the water.
For just one moment it crossed her mind to let the water take her. She was tired of fighting and her body was battered and bruised. She could barely move her arms, let alone find the strength to pull herself out of the water. And she was bleeding from several punctures and bite wounds. She couldn't swim, she couldn't see, and her clothes were weighing her down. She could just let go . . . but there was the problem of her Carpathian.
The water shot her around a bend and something large loomed in front of her. Her heart leapt. A fallen tree lay partially across the river, branches sweeping out. If she didn't kill herself by knocking her head on the trunk, she might have a chance. She gathered herself as she neared the outer branches. She hit harder than she expected, the solid wood driving her knees into her chest, robbing her of the small amount of air in her lungs. As the river sucked her under, she threw her hands out and managed to hook her arm around a branch. Sending up a silent prayer that the branch was strong enough to hold against the pull of the water, she gathered her strength for the next step.
Before she could drag herself onto the branches, she heard a chilling noise. She barely caught the sound above the roar of the river and her own heartbeat thundering in her head, but there was a distinctive voice, a mixture of growling and human vocals. For one terrible moment she nearly lost her grip on the branch, shocked that she wasn't alone and that the voice was distinctly jaguar. Shivering continually, she held herself still, trying not to allow her ragged breath to escape. "She can't be alive," the voice snarled as it came closer. "He's out of his mind."
She tried to pull herself into the tangle of branches. She didn't want to let go. She knew she'd drown. As she inched her way inside the labyrinth of branches, her shin hit a thick limb beneath the water line and she quickly wrapped her legs around it. She had to let go of the death grip she had on the higher branch. It was terrifying to even consider such a folly, and it took several seconds to force herself to allow her fingers to slide along the branch until her body was no longer stretched out in plain sight. She closed her eyes and let go, using every bit of strength she possessed to hang on with her legs.
The current dragged at her, a powerful force intent on ripping her free to send her careening down the river. But she fought back, slowly pressing her upper body back toward her legs. Her fingertips brushed leaves and small twigs. She strained harder and managed to curl her fingers around the underwater branch. Fighting not to breathe loudly, she tried to stay calm. She was in a precarious position, her strength gone. The tree shook and she knew something heavy had leapt onto it. Her heartbeat thundered louder than the roaring of the river.
"He's got two arrows in him," a second voice said. "If we go back without her, he's liable to kill us both."
"Maybe we should take off for a while, search downriver and not make it back for a few days. He's going to get those lazy guards to search the banks and he'll take out his frustration on them."
"She killed Kevin."
Solange closed her eyes and tried not to shake. He was right above her. He was in human form, but he smelled like wet cat. She wondered if she smelled the same way. Probably more like drowned rat.
"She's killed a lot of us, Brett," the second voice continued from the bank. "And if we don't get to her, she'll kill a few more."
"Yeah," Brett answered with a little sigh. "I got that."
"Brad's a mess. He can barely drag himself to the back to the lab. He said Brodrick used them as bait. He guessed the woman might try for them when they went back to burn the bodies, but Brodrick didn't warn either of them that she might ambush them."
"Brodrick's insane," Brett said under his breath.
"What?" the other voice hissed out in a soft stream of fear.
"He's never going to rest until he finds her--or her body, Steve," Brett said. "He'll be obsessed." Steve came closer, stepping onto the massive downed tree. Solange felt the vibration under the water. She shivered continually now. If they didn't leave soon, she was going to lose her ability to hold on to branches. She couldn't feel her fingers anymore, but the knife was a reassuring weight at her side, not that she could ever get to it.
"This used to be fun. We could have all the women we wanted, any way we wanted them," Steve said. "It will be hard to find somewhere else to do whatever we want, take whoever we want. But maybe we should leave, Brett. Get out of here. We could go to Costa Rica, somewhere else."
Brett walked toward Steve, picking his way over the tree trunk. Solange held her breath. He was right above her. She could smell him. The dark fur that was just under his skin, the depravity and violence in him.
"I wouldn't mind leaving, but if we do, I'd like to find that sweet little virgin we had. We could take her with us for the long nights." He laughed softly. "She was a little fighter."
"All teeth and claws," Steve added. "Yeah, she stuck in my head, too, but there's no way I'm going anywhere near her. Brodrick said she's under the protection of the De La Cruz brothers. We'd never get near her." There was speculation in his voice.
"Probably suicide," Brett agreed. "I fed off of her fear. That was such a turn-on. I'm getting hard just thinking about it."
"You're hard all the time," Steve snickered.
Solange knew exactly who they were talking about. Her cousin Jasmine had been taken prisoner by the jaguar-men. Solange and Juliette had managed to get her back with the help of Riordan. The rescue had nearly cost Juliette her life. Riordan had converted Juliette to Carpathian to save her. But they had been too late to keep Jasmine out of the hands of the jaguar-men and she carried a child.
Solange clenched her teeth together to try to keep them from chattering. Rage replaced her weariness. She wanted to rise up out of the water and shove her knife into Brett's throat. She remembered Jasmine's face, bruised and battered, her eyes wide with shock. She would never be that same carefree girl. There were shadows now where she'd been bright. Hate lived and breathed in Solange, and she despised being weak and helpless, cowering in a swollen river, clinging like a child to the tree branches. But she was wounded and exhausted. It was impossible to fight either of the men right then, let alone both together.
Steve jumped from the tree back to the bank. "I say we get out before Brodrick kills us all. I can't take the idiot humans he works with."
"They've found women for us," Brett said. He followed Steve, landing on the bank in a crouch, staring out over the river. "We should find a little island no one knows about and start a collection. We could train them to do whatever we wanted."
Steve licked his lips. "Sex slaves. Brodrick had a room full of them until he got so brutal he killed them one by one. Damn maniac. I spent a lot of time with his little slaves."
"He didn't mind?"
Steve shook his head. "He didn't give a damn about them. He liked to watch, especially if I hurt them. He gets off on hurting them."
Brett smiled. "I like it, too."
Steve laughed. "You're so messed up."
"I don't hear you complaining when we're sharing a little hot bitch."
"Hell, I don't care if you like to mark them up. All I care about is fucking them." He cupped his groin obscenely. "They were put here for one thing."
"That's where Brodrick went wrong. He wants cubs. Forget that," Brett snarled. "Use 'em and abuse 'em. Half the fun is finding them, stalking them and taking them away from their safe little lives. I love watching a woman dancing in a bar, knowing I can take her any time I want right out from under the nose of anyone she loves. I can kill her boyfriend or lover or husband and take her right there next to the body." He flashed another grin. "It's even better when I force the man to watch. I like to make the bitch beg me to take her in every way possible right in front of him, show her how utterly worthless he is and show him what a whore she is."
"You're so screwed up." Steve snorted with laughter.
"Let's get the hell out of here," Brett said. "Far away from this place. But I'm telling you, Steve, I want that little one. I want her in our collection."
Jasmine. Solange felt the tears burning behind her eyes and clamped down hard on her emotions. She couldn't afford emotions. She would somehow find the strength to hunt these two. Anyone threatening her cousin was going to die. It was just a matter of time. But she was so tired. She ruthlessly pushed weariness away.
She had weak moments--that was allowed. Pity wasn't. She'd chosen this life. She had trained for it. She knew there was no going back once she'd set her foot on the path. There was too much evil and it couldn't be ignored. The law of civilization hadn't come to the rain forest yet, and until it did, there were only a handful standing between the predators and their prey.
The voices faded into the night. She waited as long as she dared and then began to try to make her way to shore. Again she feared releasing her grip, but she was in a better position in the mass of branches beneath the water to climb, if she could make her leaden body move.
She loosened her hand first, flexing her fingers beneath the water before she reached for one of the branches just above the surface. She grasped the branch tightly and let go with her other hand. Very slowly she counted to three, marshaling every bit of strength she had left. She let go with her legs and kicked strongly to propel herself upward. She dragged her head and chest completely out of the water to lie across the bed of branches.
She had no idea how long she lay there, but other than the constant roar of the river, it was quiet in the forest. By the time she was able to find the strength to lift her head again and crawl the rest of the way onto the maze of branches to the solid trunk, the insects were once again humming, frogs were croaking and the rain had let up to a fine silvery mist.
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